Tales and Fantasies
Robert Louis Stevenson
Part 1 out of 4
Tales and Fantasies by Robert Louis Stevenson
Scanned and proofed by David Price
Tales and Fantasies
The Misadventures of John Nicholson
The Story of a Lie
THE MISADVENTURES OF JOHN NICHOLSON
CHAPTER I - IN WHICH JOHN SOWS THE WIND
JOHN VAREY NICHOLSON was stupid; yet, stupider men than he
are now sprawling in Parliament, and lauding themselves as
the authors of their own distinction. He was of a fat habit,
even from boyhood, and inclined to a cheerful and cursory
reading of the face of life; and possibly this attitude of
mind was the original cause of his misfortunes. Beyond this
hint philosophy is silent on his career, and superstition
steps in with the more ready explanation that he was detested
of the gods.
His father - that iron gentleman - had long ago enthroned
himself on the heights of the Disruption Principles. What
these are (and in spite of their grim name they are quite
innocent) no array of terms would render thinkable to the
merely English intelligence; but to the Scot they often prove
unctuously nourishing, and Mr. Nicholson found in them the
milk of lions. About the period when the churches convene at
Edinburgh in their annual assemblies, he was to be seen
descending the Mound in the company of divers red-headed
clergymen: these voluble, he only contributing oracular nods,
brief negatives, and the austere spectacle of his stretched
upper lip. The names of Candlish and Begg were frequent in
these interviews, and occasionally the talk ran on the
Residuary Establishment and the doings of one Lee. A
stranger to the tight little theological kingdom of Scotland
might have listened and gathered literally nothing. And Mr.
Nicholson (who was not a dull man) knew this, and raged at
it. He knew there was a vast world outside, to whom
Disruption Principles were as the chatter of tree-top apes;
the paper brought him chill whiffs from it; he had met
Englishmen who had asked lightly if he did not belong to the
Church of Scotland, and then had failed to be much interested
by his elucidation of that nice point; it was an evil, wild,
rebellious world, lying sunk in DOZENEDNESS, for nothing
short of a Scots word will paint this Scotsman's feelings.
And when he entered into his own house in Randolph Crescent
(south side), and shut the door behind him, his heart swelled
with security. Here, at least, was a citadel impregnable by
right-hand defections or left-hand extremes. Here was a
family where prayers came at the same hour, where the Sabbath
literature was unimpeachably selected, where the guest who
should have leaned to any false opinion was instantly set
down, and over which there reigned all week, and grew denser
on Sundays, a silence that was agreeable to his ear, and a
gloom that he found comfortable.
Mrs. Nicholson had died about thirty, and left him with three
children: a daughter two years, and a son about eight years
younger than John; and John himself, the unlucky bearer of a
name infamous in English history. The daughter, Maria, was a
good girl - dutiful, pious, dull, but so easily startled that
to speak to her was quite a perilous enterprise. 'I don't
think I care to talk about that, if you please,' she would
say, and strike the boldest speechless by her unmistakable
pain; this upon all topics - dress, pleasure, morality,
politics, in which the formula was changed to 'my papa thinks
otherwise,' and even religion, unless it was approached with
a particular whining tone of voice. Alexander, the younger
brother, was sickly, clever, fond of books and drawing, and
full of satirical remarks. In the midst of these, imagine
that natural, clumsy, unintelligent, and mirthful animal,
John; mighty well-behaved in comparison with other lads,
although not up to the mark of the house in Randolph
Crescent; full of a sort of blundering affection, full of
caresses, which were never very warmly received; full of
sudden and loud laughter which rang out in that still house
like curses. Mr. Nicholson himself had a great fund of
humour, of the Scots order - intellectual, turning on the
observation of men; his own character, for instance - if he
could have seen it in another - would have been a rare feast
to him; but his son's empty guffaws over a broken plate, and
empty, almost light-hearted remarks, struck him with pain as
the indices of a weak mind.
Outside the family John had early attached himself (much as a
dog may follow a marquis) to the steps of Alan Houston, a lad
about a year older than himself, idle, a trifle wild, the
heir to a good estate which was still in the hands of a
rigorous trustee, and so royally content with himself that he
took John's devotion as a thing of course. The intimacy was
gall to Mr. Nicholson; it took his son from the house, and he
was a jealous parent; it kept him from the office, and he was
a martinet; lastly, Mr. Nicholson was ambitious for his
family (in which, and the Disruption Principles, he entirely
lived), and he hated to see a son of his play second fiddle
to an idler. After some hesitation, he ordered that the
friendship should cease - an unfair command, though seemingly
inspired by the spirit of prophecy; and John, saying nothing,
continued to disobey the order under the rose.
John was nearly nineteen when he was one day dismissed rather
earlier than usual from his father's office, where he was
studying the practice of the law. It was Saturday; and
except that he had a matter of four hundred pounds in his
pocket which it was his duty to hand over to the British
Linen Company's Bank, he had the whole afternoon at his
disposal. He went by Princes Street enjoying the mild
sunshine, and the little thrill of easterly wind that tossed
the flags along that terrace of palaces, and tumbled the
green trees in the garden. The band was playing down in the
valley under the castle; and when it came to the turn of the
pipers, he heard their wild sounds with a stirring of the
blood. Something distantly martial woke in him; and he
thought of Miss Mackenzie, whom he was to meet that day at
Now, it is undeniable that he should have gone directly to
the bank, but right in the way stood the billiard-room of the
hotel where Alan was almost certain to be found; and the
temptation proved too strong. He entered the billiard-room,
and was instantly greeted by his friend, cue in hand.
'Nicholson,' said he, 'I want you to lend me a pound or two
'You've come to the right shop, haven't you?' returned John.
'I have twopence.'
'Nonsense,' said Alan. 'You can get some. Go and borrow at
your tailor's; they all do it. Or I'll tell you what: pop
'Oh, yes, I dare say,' said John. 'And how about my father?'
'How is he to know? He doesn't wind it up for you at night,
does he?' inquired Alan, at which John guffawed. 'No,
seriously; I am in a fix,' continued the tempter. 'I have
lost some money to a man here. I'll give it you to-night,
and you can get the heir-loom out again on Monday. Come;
it's a small service, after all. I would do a good deal more
Whereupon John went forth, and pawned his gold watch under
the assumed name of John Froggs, 85 Pleasance. But the
nervousness that assailed him at the door of that inglorious
haunt - a pawnshop - and the effort necessary to invent the
pseudonym (which, somehow, seemed to him a necessary part of
the procedure), had taken more time than he imagined: and
when he returned to the billiard-room with the spoils, the
bank had already closed its doors.
This was a shrewd knock. 'A piece of business had been
neglected.' He heard these words in his father's trenchant
voice, and trembled, and then dodged the thought. After all,
who was to know? He must carry four hundred pounds about
with him till Monday, when the neglect could be
surreptitiously repaired; and meanwhile, he was free to pass
the afternoon on the encircling divan of the billiard-room,
smoking his pipe, sipping a pint of ale, and enjoying to the
masthead the modest pleasures of admiration.
None can admire like a young man. Of all youth's passions
and pleasures, this is the most common and least alloyed; and
every flash of Alan's black eyes; every aspect of his curly
head; every graceful reach, every easy, stand-off attitude of
waiting; ay, and down to his shirt-sleeves and wrist-links,
were seen by John through a luxurious glory. He valued
himself by the possession of that royal friend, hugged
himself upon the thought, and swam in warm azure; his own
defects, like vanquished difficulties, becoming things on
which to plume himself. Only when he thought of Miss
Mackenzie there fell upon his mind a shadow of regret; that
young lady was worthy of better things than plain John
Nicholson, still known among schoolmates by the derisive name
of 'Fatty'; and he felt, if he could chalk a cue, or stand at
ease, with such a careless grace as Alan, he could approach
the object of his sentiments with a less crushing sense of
Before they parted, Alan made a proposal that was startling
in the extreme. He would be at Colette's that night about
twelve, he said. Why should not John come there and get the
money? To go to Colette's was to see life, indeed; it was
wrong; it was against the laws; it partook, in a very dingy
manner, of adventure. Were it known, it was the sort of
exploit that disconsidered a young man for good with the more
serious classes, but gave him a standing with the riotous.
And yet Colette's was not a hell; it could not come, without
vaulting hyperbole, under the rubric of a gilded saloon; and,
if it was a sin to go there, the sin was merely local and
municipal. Colette (whose name I do not know how to spell,
for I was never in epistolary communication with that
hospitable outlaw) was simply an unlicensed publican, who
gave suppers after eleven at night, the Edinburgh hour of
closing. If you belonged to a club, you could get a much
better supper at the same hour, and lose not a jot in public
esteem. But if you lacked that qualification, and were an
hungered, or inclined toward conviviality at unlawful hours,
Colette's was your only port. You were very ill-supplied.
The company was not recruited from the Senate or the Church,
though the Bar was very well represented on the only occasion
on which I flew in the face of my country's laws, and, taking
my reputation in my hand, penetrated into that grim supper-
house. And Colette's frequenters, thrillingly conscious of
wrong-doing and 'that two-handed engine (the policeman) at
the door,' were perhaps inclined to somewhat feverish excess.
But the place was in no sense a very bad one; and it is
somewhat strange to me, at this distance of time, how it had
acquired its dangerous repute.
In precisely the same spirit as a man may debate a project to
ascend the Matterhorn or to cross Africa, John considered
Alan's proposal, and, greatly daring, accepted it. As he
walked home, the thoughts of this excursion out of the safe
places of life into the wild and arduous, stirred and
struggled in his imagination with the image of Miss Mackenzie
- incongruous and yet kindred thoughts, for did not each
imply unusual tightening of the pegs of resolution? did not
each woo him forth and warn him back again into himself?
Between these two considerations, at least, he was more than
usually moved; and when he got to Randolph Crescent, he quite
forgot the four hundred pounds in the inner pocket of his
greatcoat, hung up the coat, with its rich freight, upon his
particular pin of the hatstand; and in the very action sealed
CHAPTER II - IN WHICH JOHN REAPS THE WHIRLWIND
ABOUT half-past ten it was John's brave good fortune to offer
his arm to Miss Mackenzie, and escort her home. The night
was chill and starry; all the way eastward the trees of the
different gardens rustled and looked black. Up the stone
gully of Leith Walk, when they came to cross it, the breeze
made a rush and set the flames of the street-lamps quavering;
and when at last they had mounted to the Royal Terrace, where
Captain Mackenzie lived, a great salt freshness came in their
faces from the sea. These phases of the walk remained
written on John's memory, each emphasised by the touch of
that light hand on his arm; and behind all these aspects of
the nocturnal city he saw, in his mind's-eye, a picture of
the lighted drawing-room at home where he had sat talking
with Flora; and his father, from the other end, had looked on
with a kind and ironical smile. John had read the
significance of that smile, which might have escaped a
stranger. Mr. Nicholson had remarked his son's entanglement
with satisfaction, tinged by humour; and his smile, if it
still was a thought contemptuous, had implied consent.
At the captain's door the girl held out her hand, with a
certain emphasis; and John took it and kept it a little
longer, and said, 'Good-night, Flora, dear,' and was
instantly thrown into much fear by his presumption. But she
only laughed, ran up the steps, and rang the bell; and while
she was waiting for the door to open, kept close in the
porch, and talked to him from that point as out of a
fortification. She had a knitted shawl over her head; her
blue Highland eyes took the light from the neighbouring
street-lamp and sparkled; and when the door opened and closed
upon her, John felt cruelly alone.
He proceeded slowly back along the terrace in a tender glow;
and when he came to Greenside Church, he halted in a doubtful
mind. Over the crown of the Calton Hill, to his left, lay
the way to Colette's, where Alan would soon be looking for
his arrival, and where he would now have no more consented to
go than he would have wilfully wallowed in a bog; the touch
of the girl's hand on his sleeve, and the kindly light in his
father's eyes, both loudly forbidding. But right before him
was the way home, which pointed only to bed, a place of
little ease for one whose fancy was strung to the lyrical
pitch, and whose not very ardent heart was just then
tumultuously moved. The hilltop, the cool air of the night,
the company of the great monuments, the sight of the city
under his feet, with its hills and valleys and crossing files
of lamps, drew him by all he had of the poetic, and he turned
that way; and by that quite innocent deflection, ripened the
crop of his venial errors for the sickle of destiny.
On a seat on the hill above Greenside he sat for perhaps half
an hour, looking down upon the lamps of Edinburgh, and up at
the lamps of heaven. Wonderful were the resolves he formed;
beautiful and kindly were the vistas of future life that sped
before him. He uttered to himself the name of Flora in so
many touching and dramatic keys, that he became at length
fairly melted with tenderness, and could have sung aloud. At
that juncture a certain creasing in his greatcoat caught his
ear. He put his hand into his pocket, pulled forth the
envelope that held the money, and sat stupefied. The Calton
Hill, about this period, had an ill name of nights; and to be
sitting there with four hundred pounds that did not belong to
him was hardly wise. He looked up. There was a man in a
very bad hat a little on one side of him, apparently looking
at the scenery; from a little on the other a second night-
walker was drawing very quietly near. Up jumped John. The
envelope fell from his hands; he stooped to get it, and at
the same moment both men ran in and closed with him.
A little after, he got to his feet very sore and shaken, the
poorer by a purse which contained exactly one penny postage-
stamp, by a cambric handkerchief, and by the all-important
Here was a young man on whom, at the highest point of lovely
exaltation, there had fallen a blow too sharp to be supported
alone; and not many hundred yards away his greatest friend
was sitting at supper - ay, and even expecting him. Was it
not in the nature of man that he should run there? He went
in quest of sympathy - in quest of that droll article that we
all suppose ourselves to want when in a strait, and have
agreed to call advice; and he went, besides, with vague but
rather splendid expectations of relief. Alan was rich, or
would be so when he came of age. By a stroke of the pen he
might remedy this misfortune, and avert that dreaded
interview with Mr. Nicholson, from which John now shrunk in
imagination as the hand draws back from fire.
Close under the Calton Hill there runs a certain narrow
avenue, part street, part by-road. The head of it faces the
doors of the prison; its tail descends into the sunless slums
of the Low Calton. On one hand it is overhung by the crags
of the hill, on the other by an old graveyard. Between these
two the roadway runs in a trench, sparsely lighted at night,
sparsely frequented by day, and bordered, when it was cleared
the place of tombs, by dingy and ambiguous houses. One of
these was the house of Colette; and at his door our ill-
starred John was presently beating for admittance. In an
evil hour he satisfied the jealous inquiries of the
contraband hotel-keeper; in an evil hour he penetrated into
the somewhat unsavoury interior. Alan, to be sure, was
there, seated in a room lighted by noisy gas-jets, beside a
dirty table-cloth, engaged on a coarse meal, and in the
company of several tipsy members of the junior bar. But Alan
was not sober; he had lost a thousand pounds upon a horse-
race, had received the news at dinner-time, and was now, in
default of any possible means of extrication, drowning the
memory of his predicament. He to help John! The thing was
impossible; he couldn't help himself.
'If you have a beast of a father,' said he, 'I can tell you I
have a brute of a trustee.'
'I'm not going to hear my father called a beast,' said John
with a beating heart, feeling that he risked the last sound
rivet of the chain that bound him to life.
But Alan was quite good-natured.
'All right, old fellow,' said he. 'Mos' respec'able man your
father.' And he introduced his friend to his companions as
'old Nicholson the what-d'ye-call-um's son.'
John sat in dumb agony. Colette's foul walls and maculate
table-linen, and even down to Colette's villainous casters,
seemed like objects in a nightmare. And just then there came
a knock and a scurrying; the police, so lamentably absent
from the Calton Hill, appeared upon the scene; and the party,
taken FLAGRANTE DELICTO, with their glasses at their elbow,
were seized, marched up to the police office, and all duly
summoned to appear as witnesses in the consequent case
against that arch-shebeener, Colette.
It was a sorrowful and a mightily sobered company that came
forth again. The vague terror of public opinion weighed
generally on them all; but there were private and particular
horrors on the minds of individuals. Alan stood in dread of
his trustee, already sorely tried. One of the group was the
son of a country minister, another of a judge; John, the
unhappiest of all, had David Nicholson to father, the idea of
facing whom on such a scandalous subject was physically
sickening. They stood awhile consulting under the buttresses
of Saint Giles; thence they adjourned to the lodgings of one
of the number in North Castle Street, where (for that matter)
they might have had quite as good a supper, and far better
drink, than in the dangerous paradise from which they had
been routed. There, over an almost tearful glass, they
debated their position. Each explained he had the world to
lose if the affair went on, and he appeared as a witness. It
was remarkable what bright prospects were just then in the
very act of opening before each of that little company of
youths, and what pious consideration for the feelings of
their families began now to well from them. Each, moreover,
was in an odd state of destitution. Not one could bear his
share of the fine; not one but evinced a wonderful twinkle of
hope that each of the others (in succession) was the very man
who could step in to make good the deficit. One took a high
hand; he could not pay his share; if it went to a trial, he
should bolt; he had always felt the English Bar to be his
true sphere. Another branched out into touching details
about his family, and was not listened to. John, in the
midst of this disorderly competition of poverty and meanness,
sat stunned, contemplating the mountain bulk of his
At last, upon a pledge that each should apply to his family
with a common frankness, this convention of unhappy young
asses broke up, went down the common stair, and in the grey
of the spring morning, with the streets lying dead empty all
about them, the lamps burning on into the daylight in
diminished lustre, and the birds beginning to sound
premonitory notes from the groves of the town gardens, went
each his own way with bowed head and echoing footfall.
The rooks were awake in Randolph Crescent; but the windows
looked down, discreetly blinded, on the return of the
prodigal. John's pass-key was a recent privilege; this was
the first time it had been used; and, oh! with what a
sickening sense of his unworthiness he now inserted it into
the well-oiled lock and entered that citadel of the
proprieties! All slept; the gas in the hall had been left
faintly burning to light his return; a dreadful stillness
reigned, broken by the deep ticking of the eight-day clock.
He put the gas out, and sat on a chair in the hall, waiting
and counting the minutes, longing for any human countenance.
But when at last he heard the alarm spring its rattle in the
lower story, and the servants begin to be about, he instantly
lost heart, and fled to his own room, where he threw himself
upon the bed.
CHAPTER III - IN WHICH JOHN ENJOYS THE HARVEST HOME
SHORTLY after breakfast, at which he assisted with a highly
tragical countenance, John sought his father where he sat,
presumably in religious meditation, on the Sabbath mornings.
The old gentleman looked up with that sour, inquisitive
expression that came so near to smiling and was so different
'This is a time when I do not like to be disturbed,' he said.
'I know that,' returned John; 'but I have - I want - I've
made a dreadful mess of it,' he broke out, and turned to the
Mr. Nicholson sat silent for an appreciable time, while his
unhappy son surveyed the poles in the back green, and a
certain yellow cat that was perched upon the wall. Despair
sat upon John as he gazed; and he raged to think of the
dreadful series of his misdeeds, and the essential innocence
that lay behind them.
'Well,' said the father, with an obvious effort, but in very
quiet tones, 'what is it?'
'Maclean gave me four hundred pounds to put in the bank,
sir,' began John; 'and I'm sorry to say that I've been robbed
'Robbed of it?' cried Mr. Nicholson, with a strong rising
inflection. 'Robbed? Be careful what you say, John!'
'I can't say anything else, sir; I was just robbed of it,'
said John, in desperation, sullenly.
'And where and when did this extraordinary event take place?'
inquired the father.
'On the Calton Hill about twelve last night.'
'The Calton Hill?' repeated Mr. Nicholson. 'And what were
you doing there at such a time of the night?'
'Nothing, sir,' says John.
Mr. Nicholson drew in his breath.
'And how came the money in your hands at twelve last night?'
he asked, sharply.
'I neglected that piece of business,' said John, anticipating
comment; and then in his own dialect: 'I clean forgot all
'Well,' said his father, 'it's a most extraordinary story.
Have you communicated with the police?'
'I have,' answered poor John, the blood leaping to his face.
'They think they know the men that did it. I dare say the
money will be recovered, if that was all,' said he, with a
desperate indifference, which his father set down to levity;
but which sprung from the consciousness of worse behind.
'Your mother's watch, too?' asked Mr. Nicholson.
'Oh, the watch is all right!' cried John. 'At least, I mean
I was coming to the watch - the fact is, I am ashamed to say,
I - I had pawned the watch before. Here is the ticket; they
didn't find that; the watch can be redeemed; they don't sell
pledges.' The lad panted out these phrases, one after
another, like minute guns; but at the last word, which rang
in that stately chamber like an oath, his heart failed him
utterly; and the dreaded silence settled on father and son.
It was broken by Mr. Nicholson picking up the pawn-ticket:
'John Froggs, 85 Pleasance,' he read; and then turning upon
John, with a brief flash of passion and disgust, 'Who is John
Froggs?' he cried.
'Nobody,' said John. 'It was just a name.'
'An ALIAS,' his father commented.
'Oh! I think scarcely quite that,' said the culprit; 'it's a
form, they all do it, the man seemed to understand, we had a
great deal of fun over the name - '
He paused at that, for he saw his father wince at the picture
like a man physically struck; and again there was silence.
'I do not think,' said Mr. Nicholson, at last, 'that I am an
ungenerous father. I have never grudged you money within
reason, for any avowable purpose; you had just to come to me
and speak. And now I find that you have forgotten all
decency and all natural feeling, and actually pawned - pawned
- your mother's watch. You must have had some temptation; I
will do you the justice to suppose it was a strong one. What
did you want with this money?'
'I would rather not tell you, sir,' said John. 'It will only
make you angry.'
'I will not be fenced with,' cried his father. 'There must
be an end of disingenuous answers. What did you want with
'To lend it to Houston, sir,' says John.
'I thought I had forbidden you to speak to that young man?'
asked the father.
'Yes, sir,' said John; 'but I only met him.'
'Where?' came the deadly question.
And 'In a billiard-room' was the damning answer. Thus, had
John's single departure from the truth brought instant
punishment. For no other purpose but to see Alan would he
have entered a billiard-room; but he had desired to palliate
the fact of his disobedience, and now it appeared that he
frequented these disreputable haunts upon his own account.
Once more Mr. Nicholson digested the vile tidings in silence,
and when John stole a glance at his father's countenance, he
was abashed to see the marks of suffering.
'Well,' said the old gentleman, at last, 'I cannot pretend
not to be simply bowed down. I rose this morning what the
world calls a happy man - happy, at least, in a son of whom I
thought I could be reasonably proud - '
But it was beyond human nature to endure this longer, and
John interrupted almost with a scream. 'Oh, wheest!' he
cried, 'that's not all, that's not the worst of it - it's
nothing! How could I tell you were proud of me? Oh! I
wish, I wish that I had known; but you always said I was such
a disgrace! And the dreadful thing is this: we were all
taken up last night, and we have to pay Colette's fine among
the six, or we'll be had up for evidence - shebeening it is.
They made me swear to tell you; but for my part,' he cried,
bursting into tears, 'I just wish that I was dead!' And he
fell on his knees before a chair and hid his face.
Whether his father spoke, or whether he remained long in the
room or at once departed, are points lost to history. A
horrid turmoil of mind and body; bursting sobs; broken,
vanishing thoughts, now of indignation, now of remorse;
broken elementary whiffs of consciousness, of the smell of
the horse-hair on the chair bottom, of the jangling of church
bells that now began to make day horrible throughout the
confines of the city, of the hard floor that bruised his
knees, of the taste of tears that found their way into his
mouth: for a period of time, the duration of which I cannot
guess, while I refuse to dwell longer on its agony, these
were the whole of God's world for John Nicholson.
When at last, as by the touching of a spring, he returned
again to clearness of consciousness and even a measure of
composure, the bells had but just done ringing, and the
Sabbath silence was still marred by the patter of belated
feet. By the clock above the fire, as well as by these more
speaking signs, the service had not long begun; and the
unhappy sinner, if his father had really gone to church,
might count on near two hours of only comparative
unhappiness. With his father, the superlative degree
returned infallibly. He knew it by every shrinking fibre in
his body, he knew it by the sudden dizzy whirling of his
brain, at the mere thought of that calamity. An hour and a
half, perhaps an hour and three-quarters, if the doctor was
long-winded, and then would begin again that active agony
from which, even in the dull ache of the present, he shrunk
as from the bite of fire. He saw, in a vision, the family
pew, the somnolent cushions, the Bibles, the psalm-books,
Maria with her smelling-salts, his father sitting spectacled
and critical; and at once he was struck with indignation, not
unjustly. It was inhuman to go off to church, and leave a
sinner in suspense, unpunished, unforgiven. And at the very
touch of criticism, the paternal sanctity was lessened; yet
the paternal terror only grew; and the two strands of feeling
pushed him in the same direction.
And suddenly there came upon him a mad fear lest his father
should have locked him in. The notion had no ground in
sense; it was probably no more than a reminiscence of similar
calamities in childhood, for his father's room had always
been the chamber of inquisition and the scene of punishment;
but it stuck so rigorously in his mind that he must instantly
approach the door and prove its untruth. As he went, he
struck upon a drawer left open in the business table. It was
the money-drawer, a measure of his father's disarray: the
money-drawer - perhaps a pointing providence! Who is to
decide, when even divines differ between a providence and a
temptation? or who, sitting calmly under his own vine, is to
pass a judgment on the doings of a poor, hunted dog,
slavishly afraid, slavishly rebellious, like John Nicholson
on that particular Sunday? His hand was in the drawer,
almost before his mind had conceived the hope; and rising to
his new situation, he wrote, sitting in his father's chair
and using his father's blotting-pad, his pitiful apology and
'MY DEAR FATHER, - I have taken the money, but I will pay it
back as soon as I am able. You will never hear of me again.
I did not mean any harm by anything, so I hope you will try
and forgive me. I wish you would say good-bye to Alexander
and Maria, but not if you don't want to. I could not wait to
see you, really. Please try to forgive me. Your
The coins abstracted and the missive written, he could not be
gone too soon from the scene of these transgressions; and
remembering how his father had once returned from church, on
some slight illness, in the middle of the second psalm, he
durst not even make a packet of a change of clothes. Attired
as he was, he slipped from the paternal doors, and found
himself in the cool spring air, the thin spring sunshine, and
the great Sabbath quiet of the city, which was now only
pointed by the cawing of the rooks. There was not a soul in
Randolph Crescent, nor a soul in Queensferry Street; in this
outdoor privacy and the sense of escape, John took heart
again; and with a pathetic sense of leave-taking, he even
ventured up the lane and stood awhile, a strange peri at the
gates of a quaint paradise, by the west end of St. George's
Church. They were singing within; and by a strange chance,
the tune was 'St. George's, Edinburgh,' which bears the name,
and was first sung in the choir of that church. 'Who is this
King of Glory?' went the voices from within; and, to John,
this was like the end of all Christian observances, for he
was now to be a wild man like Ishmael, and his life was to be
cast in homeless places and with godless people.
It was thus, with no rising sense of the adventurous, but in
mere desolation and despair, that he turned his back on his
native city, and set out on foot for California, with a more
immediate eye to Glasgow.
CHAPTER IV - THE SECOND SOWING
IT is no part of mine to narrate the adventures of John
Nicholson, which were many, but simply his more momentous
misadventures, which were more than he desired, and, by human
standards, more than he deserved; how he reached California,
how he was rooked, and robbed, and beaten, and starved; how
he was at last taken up by charitable folk, restored to some
degree of self-complacency, and installed as a clerk in a
bank in San Francisco, it would take too long to tell; nor in
these episodes were there any marks of the peculiar
Nicholsonic destiny, for they were just such matters as
befell some thousands of other young adventurers in the same
days and places. But once posted in the bank, he fell for a
time into a high degree of good fortune, which, as it was
only a longer way about to fresh disaster, it behooves me to
It was his luck to meet a young man in what is technically
called a 'dive,' and thanks to his monthly wages, to
extricate this new acquaintance from a position of present
disgrace and possible danger in the future. This young man
was the nephew of one of the Nob Hill magnates, who run the
San Francisco Stock Exchange, much as more humble
adventurers, in the corner of some public park at home, may
be seen to perform the simple artifice of pea and thimble:
for their own profit, that is to say, and the discouragement
of public gambling. It was thus in his power - and, as he
was of grateful temper, it was among the things that he
desired - to put John in the way of growing rich; and thus,
without thought or industry, or so much as even understanding
the game at which he played, but by simply buying and selling
what he was told to buy and sell, that plaything of fortune
was presently at the head of between eleven and twelve
thousand pounds, or, as he reckoned it, of upward of sixty
How he had come to deserve this wealth, any more than how he
had formerly earned disgrace at home, was a problem beyond
the reach of his philosophy. It was true that he had been
industrious at the bank, but no more so than the cashier, who
had seven small children and was visibly sinking in decline.
Nor was the step which had determined his advance - a visit
to a dive with a month's wages in his pocket - an act of such
transcendent virtue, or even wisdom, as to seem to merit the
favour of the gods. From some sense of this, and of the
dizzy see-saw - heaven-high, hell-deep - on which men sit
clutching; or perhaps fearing that the sources of his fortune
might be insidiously traced to some root in the field of
petty cash; he stuck to his work, said not a word of his new
circumstances, and kept his account with a bank in a
different quarter of the town. The concealment, innocent as
it seems, was the first step in the second tragicomedy of
Meanwhile, he had never written home. Whether from
diffidence or shame, or a touch of anger, or mere
procrastination, or because (as we have seen) he had no skill
in literary arts, or because (as I am sometimes tempted to
suppose) there is a law in human nature that prevents young
men - not otherwise beasts - from the performance of this
simple act of piety - months and years had gone by, and John
had never written. The habit of not writing, indeed, was
already fixed before he had begun to come into his fortune;
and it was only the difficulty of breaking this long silence
that withheld him from an instant restitution of the money he
had stolen or (as he preferred to call it) borrowed. In vain
he sat before paper, attending on inspiration; that heavenly
nymph, beyond suggesting the words 'my dear father,' remained
obstinately silent; and presently John would crumple up the
sheet and decide, as soon as he had 'a good chance,' to carry
the money home in person. And this delay, which is
indefensible, was his second step into the snares of fortune.
Ten years had passed, and John was drawing near to thirty.
He had kept the promise of his boyhood, and was now of a
lusty frame, verging toward corpulence; good features, good
eyes, a genial manner, a ready laugh, a long pair of sandy
whiskers, a dash of an American accent, a close familiarity
with the great American joke, and a certain likeness to a R-
y-l P-rs-n-ge, who shall remain nameless for me, made up the
man's externals as he could be viewed in society. Inwardly,
in spite of his gross body and highly masculine whiskers, he
was more like a maiden lady than a man of twenty-nine.
It chanced one day, as he was strolling down Market Street on
the eve of his fortnight's holiday, that his eye was caught
by certain railway bills, and in very idleness of mind he
calculated that he might be home for Christmas if he started
on the morrow. The fancy thrilled him with desire, and in
one moment he decided he would go.
There was much to be done: his portmanteau to be packed, a
credit to be got from the bank where he was a wealthy
customer, and certain offices to be transacted for that other
bank in which he was an humble clerk; and it chanced, in
conformity with human nature, that out of all this business
it was the last that came to be neglected. Night found him,
not only equipped with money of his own, but once more (as on
that former occasion) saddled with a considerable sum of
Now it chanced there lived in the same boarding-house a
fellow-clerk of his, an honest fellow, with what is called a
weakness for drink - though it might, in this case, have been
called a strength, for the victim had been drunk for weeks
together without the briefest intermission. To this
unfortunate John intrusted a letter with an inclosure of
bonds, addressed to the bank manager. Even as he did so he
thought he perceived a certain haziness of eye and speech in
his trustee; but he was too hopeful to be stayed, silenced
the voice of warning in his bosom, and with one and the same
gesture committed the money to the clerk, and himself into
the hands of destiny.
I dwell, even at the risk of tedium, on John's minutest
errors, his case being so perplexing to the moralist; but we
have done with them now, the roll is closed, the reader has
the worst of our poor hero, and I leave him to judge for
himself whether he or John has been the less deserving.
Henceforth we have to follow the spectacle of a man who was a
mere whip-top for calamity; on whose unmerited misadventures
not even the humourist can look without pity, and not even
the philosopher without alarm.
That same night the clerk entered upon a bout of drunkenness
so consistent as to surprise even his intimate acquaintance.
He was speedily ejected from the boarding-house; deposited
his portmanteau with a perfect stranger, who did not even
catch his name; wandered he knew not where, and was at last
hove-to, all standing, in a hospital at Sacramento. There,
under the impenetrable ALIAS of the number of his bed, the
crapulous being lay for some more days unconscious of all
things, and of one thing in particular: that the police were
after him. Two months had come and gone before the
convalescent in the Sacramento hospital was identified with
Kirkman, the absconding San Francisco clerk; even then, there
must elapse nearly a fortnight more till the perfect stranger
could be hunted up, the portmanteau recovered, and John's
letter carried at length to its destination, the seal still
unbroken, the inclosure still intact.
Meanwhile, John had gone upon his holidays without a word,
which was irregular; and there had disappeared with him a
certain sum of money, which was out of all bounds of
palliation. But he was known to be careless, and believed to
be honest; the manager besides had a regard for him; and
little was said, although something was no doubt thought,
until the fortnight was finally at an end, and the time had
come for John to reappear. Then, indeed, the affair began to
look black; and when inquiries were made, and the penniless
clerk was found to have amassed thousands of dollars, and
kept them secretly in a rival establishment, the stoutest of
his friends abandoned him, the books were overhauled for
traces of ancient and artful fraud, and though none were
found, there still prevailed a general impression of loss.
The telegraph was set in motion; and the correspondent of the
bank in Edinburgh, for which place it was understood that
John had armed himself with extensive credits, was warned to
communicate with the police.
Now this correspondent was a friend of Mr. Nicholson's; he
was well acquainted with the tale of John's calamitous
disappearance from Edinburgh; and putting one thing with
another, hasted with the first word of this scandal, not to
the police, but to his friend. The old gentleman had long
regarded his son as one dead; John's place had been taken,
the memory of his faults had already fallen to be one of
those old aches, which awaken again indeed upon occasion, but
which we can always vanquish by an effort of the will; and to
have the long lost resuscitated in a fresh disgrace was
'Macewen,' said the old man, 'this must be hushed up, if
possible. If I give you a cheek for this sum, about which
they are certain, could you take it on yourself to let the
'I will,' said Macewen. 'I will take the risk of it.'
'You understand,' resumed Mr. Nicholson, speaking precisely,
but with ashen lips, 'I do this for my family, not for that
unhappy young man. If it should turn out that these
suspicions are correct, and he has embezzled large sums, he
must lie on his bed as he has made it.' And then looking up
at Macewen with a nod, and one of his strange smiles: 'Good-
bye,' said he, and Macewen, perceiving the case to be too
grave for consolation, took himself off, and blessed God on
his way home that he was childless.
CHAPTER V - THE PRODIGAL'S RETURN
BY a little after noon on the eve of Christmas, John had left
his portmanteau in the cloak-room, and stepped forth into
Princes Street with a wonderful expansion of the soul, such
as men enjoy on the completion of long-nourished schemes. He
was at home again, incognito and rich; presently he could
enter his father's house by means of the pass-key, which he
had piously preserved through all his wanderings; he would
throw down the borrowed money; there would be a
reconciliation, the details of which he frequently arranged;
and he saw himself, during the next month, made welcome in
many stately houses at many frigid dinner-parties, taking his
share in the conversation with the freedom of the man and the
traveller, and laying down the law upon finance with the
authority of the successful investor. But this programme was
not to be begun before evening - not till just before dinner,
indeed, at which meal the reassembled family were to sit
roseate, and the best wine, the modern fatted calf, should
flow for the prodigal's return.
Meanwhile he walked familiar streets, merry reminiscences
crowding round him, sad ones also, both with the same
surprising pathos. The keen frosty air; the low, rosy,
wintry sun; the castle, hailing him like an old acquaintance;
the names of friends on door-plates; the sight of friends
whom he seemed to recognise, and whom he eagerly avoided, in
the streets; the pleasant chant of the north-country accent;
the dome of St. George's reminding him of his last
penitential moments in the lane, and of that King of Glory
whose name had echoed ever since in the saddest corner of his
memory; and the gutters where he had learned to slide, and
the shop where he had bought his skates, and the stones on
which he had trod, and the railings in which he had rattled
his clachan as he went to school; and all those thousand and
one nameless particulars, which the eye sees without noting,
which the memory keeps indeed yet without knowing, and which,
taken one with another, build up for us the aspect of the
place that we call home: all these besieged him, as he went,
with both delight and sadness.
His first visit was for Houston, who had a house on Regent
Terrace, kept for him in old days by an aunt. The door was
opened (to his surprise) upon the chain, and a voice asked
him from within what he wanted.
'I want Mr. Houston - Mr. Alan Houston,' said he.
'And who are ye?' said the voice.
'This is most extraordinary,' thought John; and then aloud he
told his name.
'No' young Mr. John?' cried the voice, with a sudden increase
of Scotch accent, testifying to a friendlier feeling.
'The very same,' said John.
And the old butler removed his defences, remarking only 'I
thocht ye were that man.' But his master was not there; he
was staying, it appeared, at the house in Murrayfield; and
though the butler would have been glad enough to have taken
his place and given all the news of the family, John, struck
with a little chill, was eager to be gone. Only, the door
was scarce closed again, before he regretted that he had not
asked about 'that man.'
He was to pay no more visits till he had seen his father and
made all well at home; Alan had been the only possible
exception, and John had not time to go as far as Murrayfield.
But here he was on Regent Terrace; there was nothing to
prevent him going round the end of the hill, and looking from
without on the Mackenzies' house. As he went, he reflected
that Flora must now be a woman of near his own age, and it
was within the bounds of possibility that she was married;
but this dishonourable doubt he dammed down.
There was the house, sure enough; but the door was of another
colour, and what was this - two door-plates? He drew nearer;
the top one bore, with dignified simplicity, the words, 'Mr.
Proudfoot'; the lower one was more explicit, and informed the
passer-by that here was likewise the abode of 'Mr. J. A.
Dunlop Proudfoot, Advocate.' The Proudfoots must be rich,
for no advocate could look to have much business in so remote
a quarter; and John hated them for their wealth and for their
name, and for the sake of the house they desecrated with
their presence. He remembered a Proudfoot he had seen at
school, not known: a little, whey-faced urchin, the
despicable member of some lower class. Could it be this
abortion that had climbed to be an advocate, and now lived in
the birthplace of Flora and the home of John's tenderest
memories? The chill that had first seized upon him when he
heard of Houston's absence deepened and struck inward. For a
moment, as he stood under the doors of that estranged house,
and looked east and west along the solitary pavement of the
Royal Terrace, where not a cat was stirring, the sense of
solitude and desolation took him by the throat, and he wished
himself in San Francisco.
And then the figure he made, with his decent portliness, his
whiskers, the money in his purse, the excellent cigar that he
now lighted, recurred to his mind in consolatory comparison
with that of a certain maddened lad who, on a certain spring
Sunday ten years before, and in the hour of church-time
silence, had stolen from that city by the Glasgow road. In
the face of these changes, it were impious to doubt fortune's
kindness. All would be well yet; the Mackenzies would be
found, Flora, younger and lovelier and kinder than before;
Alan would be found, and would have so nicely discriminated
his behaviour as to have grown, on the one hand, into a
valued friend of Mr. Nicholson's, and to have remained, upon
the other, of that exact shade of joviality which John
desired in his companions. And so, once more, John fell to
work discounting the delightful future: his first appearance
in the family pew; his first visit to his uncle Greig, who
thought himself so great a financier, and on whose purblind
Edinburgh eyes John was to let in the dazzling daylight of
the West; and the details in general of that unrivalled
transformation scene, in which he was to display to all
Edinburgh a portly and successful gentleman in the shoes of
the derided fugitive.
The time began to draw near when his father would have
returned from the office, and it would be the prodigal's cue
to enter. He strolled westward by Albany Street, facing the
sunset embers, pleased, he knew not why, to move in that cold
air and indigo twilight, starred with street-lamps. But
there was one more disenchantment waiting him by the way.
At the corner of Pitt Street he paused to light a fresh
cigar; the vesta threw, as he did so, a strong light upon his
features, and a man of about his own age stopped at sight of
'I think your name must be Nicholson,' said the stranger.
It was too late to avoid recognition; and besides, as John
was now actually on the way home, it hardly mattered, and he
gave way to the impulse of his nature.
'Great Scott!' he cried, 'Beatson!' and shook hands with
warmth. It scarce seemed he was repaid in kind.
'So you're home again?' said Beatson. 'Where have you been
all this long time?'
'In the States,' said John - 'California. I've made my pile
though; and it suddenly struck me it would be a noble scheme
to come home for Christmas.'
'I see,' said Beatson. 'Well, I hope we'll see something of
you now you're here.'
'Oh, I guess so,' said John, a little frozen.
'Well, ta-ta,' concluded Beatson, and he shook hands again
This was a cruel first experience. It was idle to blink
facts: here was John home again, and Beatson - Old Beatson -
did not care a rush. He recalled Old Beatson in the past -
that merry and affectionate lad - and their joint adventures
and mishaps, the window they had broken with a catapult in
India Place, the escalade of the castle rock, and many
another inestimable bond of friendship; and his hurt surprise
grew deeper. Well, after all, it was only on a man's own
family that he could count; blood was thicker than water, he
remembered; and the net result of this encounter was to bring
him to the doorstep of his father's house, with tenderer and
The night had come; the fanlight over the door shone bright;
the two windows of the dining-room where the cloth was being
laid, and the three windows of the drawing-room where Maria
would be waiting dinner, glowed softlier through yellow
blinds. It was like a vision of the past. All this time of
his absence life had gone forward with an equal foot, and the
fires and the gas had been lighted, and the meals spread, at
the accustomed hours. At the accustomed hour, too, the bell
had sounded thrice to call the family to worship. And at the
thought, a pang of regret for his demerit seized him; he
remembered the things that were good and that he had
neglected, and the things that were evil and that he had
loved; and it was with a prayer upon his lips that he mounted
the steps and thrust the key into the key-hole.
He stepped into the lighted hall, shut the door softly behind
him, and stood there fixed in wonder. No surprise of
strangeness could equal the surprise of that complete
familiarity. There was the bust of Chalmers near the stair-
railings, there was the clothes-brush in the accustomed
place; and there, on the hat-stand, hung hats and coats that
must surely be the same as he remembered. Ten years dropped
from his life, as a pin may slip between the fingers; and the
ocean and the mountains, and the mines, and crowded marts and
mingled races of San Francisco, and his own fortune and his
own disgrace, became, for that one moment, the figures of a
dream that was over.
He took off his hat, and moved mechanically toward the stand;
and there he found a small change that was a great one to
him. The pin that had been his from boyhood, where he had
flung his balmoral when he loitered home from the Academy,
and his first hat when he came briskly back from college or
the office - his pin was occupied. 'They might have at least
respected my pin!' he thought, and he was moved as by a
slight, and began at once to recollect that he was here an
interloper, in a strange house, which he had entered almost
by a burglary, and where at any moment he might be
He moved at once, his hat still in his hand, to the door of
his father's room, opened it, and entered. Mr. Nicholson sat
in the same place and posture as on that last Sunday morning;
only he was older, and greyer, and sterner; and as he now
glanced up and caught the eye of his son, a strange commotion
and a dark flush sprung into his face.
'Father,' said John, steadily, and even cheerfully, for this
was a moment against which he was long ago prepared, 'father,
here I am, and here is the money that I took from you. I
have come back to ask your forgiveness, and to stay Christmas
with you and the children.'
'Keep your money,' said the father, 'and go!'
'Father!' cried John; 'for God's sake don't receive me this
way. I've come for - '
'Understand me,' interrupted Mr. Nicholson; 'you are no son
of mine; and in the sight of God, I wash my hands of you.
One last thing I will tell you; one warning I will give you;
all is discovered, and you are being hunted for your crimes;
if you are still at large it is thanks to me; but I have done
all that I mean to do; and from this time forth I would not
raise one finger - not one finger - to save you from the
gallows! And now,' with a low voice of absolute authority,
and a single weighty gesture of the finger, 'and now - go!'
CHAPTER VI - THE HOUSE AT MURRAYFIELD
How John passed the evening, in what windy confusion of mind,
in what squalls of anger and lulls of sick collapse, in what
pacing of streets and plunging into public-houses, it would
profit little to relate. His misery, if it were not
progressive, yet tended in no way to diminish; for in
proportion as grief and indignation abated, fear began to
take their place. At first, his father's menacing words lay
by in some safe drawer of memory, biding their hour. At
first, John was all thwarted affection and blighted hope;
next bludgeoned vanity raised its head again, with twenty
mortal gashes: and the father was disowned even as he had
disowned the son. What was this regular course of life, that
John should have admired it? what were these clock-work
virtues, from which love was absent? Kindness was the test,
kindness the aim and soul; and judged by such a standard, the
discarded prodigal - now rapidly drowning his sorrows and his
reason in successive drams - was a creature of a lovelier
morality than his self-righteous father. Yes, he was the
better man; he felt it, glowed with the consciousness, and
entering a public-house at the corner of Howard Place
(whither he had somehow wandered) he pledged his own virtues
in a glass - perhaps the fourth since his dismissal. Of that
he knew nothing, keeping no account of what he did or where
he went; and in the general crashing hurry of his nerves,
unconscious of the approach of intoxication. Indeed, it is a
question whether he were really growing intoxicated, or
whether at first the spirits did not even sober him. For it
was even as he drained this last glass that his father's
ambiguous and menacing words - popping from their hiding-
place in memory - startled him like a hand laid upon his
shoulder. 'Crimes, hunted, the gallows.' They were ugly
words; in the ears of an innocent man, perhaps all the
uglier; for if some judicial error were in act against him,
who should set a limit to its grossness or to how far it
might be pushed? Not John, indeed; he was no believer in the
powers of innocence, his cursed experience pointing in quite
other ways; and his fears, once wakened, grew with every hour
and hunted him about the city streets.
It was, perhaps, nearly nine at night; he had eaten nothing
since lunch, he had drunk a good deal, and he was exhausted
by emotion, when the thought of Houston came into his head.
He turned, not merely to the man as a friend, but to his
house as a place of refuge. The danger that threatened him
was still so vague that he knew neither what to fear nor
where he might expect it; but this much at least seemed
undeniable, that a private house was safer than a public inn.
Moved by these counsels, he turned at once to the Caledonian
Station, passed (not without alarm) into the bright lights of
the approach, redeemed his portmanteau from the cloak-room,
and was soon whirling in a cab along the Glasgow Road. The
change of movement and position, the sight of the lamps
twinkling to the rear, and the smell of damp and mould and
rotten straw which clung about the vehicle, wrought in him
strange alternations of lucidity and mortal giddiness.
'I have been drinking,' he discovered; 'I must go straight to
bed, and sleep.' And he thanked Heaven for the drowsiness
that came upon his mind in waves.
From one of these spells he was wakened by the stoppage of
the cab; and, getting down, found himself in quite a country
road, the last lamp of the suburb shining some way below, and
the high walls of a garden rising before him in the dark.
The Lodge (as the place was named), stood, indeed, very
solitary. To the south it adjoined another house, but
standing in so large a garden as to be well out of cry; on
all other sides, open fields stretched upward to the woods of
Corstorphine Hill, or backward to the dells of Ravelston, or
downward toward the valley of the Leith. The effect of
seclusion was aided by the great height of the garden walls,
which were, indeed, conventual, and, as John had tested in
former days, defied the climbing schoolboy. The lamp of the
cab threw a gleam upon the door and the not brilliant handle
of the bell.
'Shall I ring for ye?' said the cabman, who had descended
from his perch, and was slapping his chest, for the night was
'I wish you would,' said John, putting his hand to his brow
in one of his accesses of giddiness.
The man pulled at the handle, and the clanking of the bell
replied from further in the garden; twice and thrice he did
it, with sufficient intervals; in the great frosty silence of
the night the sounds fell sharp and small.
'Does he expect ye?' asked the driver, with that manner of
familiar interest that well became his port-wine face; and
when John had told him no, 'Well, then,' said the cabman, 'if
ye'll tak' my advice of it, we'll just gang back. And that's
disinterested, mind ye, for my stables are in the Glesgie
'The servants must hear,' said John.
'Hout!' said the driver. 'He keeps no servants here, man.
They're a' in the town house; I drive him often; it's just a
kind of a hermitage, this.'
'Give me the bell,' said John; and he plucked at it like a
The clamour had not yet subsided before they heard steps upon
the gravel, and a voice of singular nervous irritability
cried to them through the door, 'Who are you, and what do you
'Alan,' said John, 'it's me - it's Fatty - John, you know.
I'm just come home, and I've come to stay with you.'
There was no reply for a moment, and then the door was
'Get the portmanteau down,' said John to the driver.
'Do nothing of the kind,' said Alan; and then to John, 'Come
in here a moment. I want to speak to you.'
John entered the garden, and the door was closed behind him.
A candle stood on the gravel walk, winking a little in the
draughts; it threw inconstant sparkles on the clumped holly,
struck the light and darkness to and fro like a veil on
Alan's features, and sent his shadow hovering behind him.
All beyond was inscrutable; and John's dizzy brain rocked
with the shadow. Yet even so, it struck him that Alan was
pale, and his voice, when he spoke, unnatural.
'What brings you here to-night?' he began. 'I don't want,
God knows, to seem unfriendly; but I cannot take you in,
Nicholson; I cannot do it.'
'Alan,' said John, 'you've just got to! You don't know the
mess I'm in; the governor's turned me out, and I daren't show
my face in an inn, because they're down on me for murder or
'For what?' cried Alan, starting.
'Murder, I believe,' says John.
'Murder!' repeated Alan, and passed his hand over his eyes.
'What was that you were saying?' he asked again.
'That they were down on me,' said John. 'I'm accused of
murder, by what I can make out; and I've really had a
dreadful day of it, Alan, and I can't sleep on the roadside
on a night like this - at least, not with a portmanteau,' he
'Hush!' said Alan, with his head on one side; and then, 'Did
you hear nothing?' he asked.
'No,' said John, thrilling, he knew not why, with
communicated terror. 'No, I heard nothing; why?' And then,
as there was no answer, he reverted to his pleading: 'But I
say, Alan, you've just got to take me in. I'll go right away
to bed if you have anything to do. I seem to have been
drinking; I was that knocked over. I wouldn't turn you away,
Alan, if you were down on your luck.'
'No?' returned Alan. 'Neither will you, then. Come and
let's get your portmanteau.'
The cabman was paid, and drove off down the long, lamp-
lighted hill, and the two friends stood on the side-walk
beside the portmanteau till the last rumble of the wheels had
died in silence. It seemed to John as though Alan attached
importance to this departure of the cab; and John, who was in
no state to criticise, shared profoundly in the feeling.
When the stillness was once more perfect, Alan shouldered the
portmanteau, carried it in, and shut and locked the garden
door; and then, once more, abstraction seemed to fall upon
him, and he stood with his hand on the key, until the cold
began to nibble at John's fingers.
'Why are we standing here?' asked John.
'Eh?' said Alan, blankly.
'Why, man, you don't seem yourself,' said the other.
'No, I'm not myself,' said Alan; and he sat down on the
portmanteau and put his face in his hands.
John stood beside him swaying a little, and looking about him
at the swaying shadows, the flitting sparkles, and the steady
stars overhead, until the windless cold began to touch him
through his clothes on the bare skin. Even in his bemused
intelligence, wonder began to awake.
'I say, let's come on to the house,' he said at last.
'Yes, let's come on to the house,' repeated Alan.
And he rose at once, reshouldered the portmanteau, and taking
the candle in his other hand, moved forward to the Lodge.
This was a long, low building, smothered in creepers; and
now, except for some chinks of light between the dining-room
shutters, it was plunged in darkness and silence.
In the hall Alan lighted another candle, gave it to John, and
opened the door of a bedroom.
'Here,' said he; 'go to bed. Don't mind me, John. You'll be
sorry for me when you know.'
'Wait a bit,' returned John; 'I've got so cold with all that
standing about. Let's go into the dining-room a minute.
Just one glass to warm me, Alan.'
On the table in the hall stood a glass, and a bottle with a
whisky label on a tray. It was plain the bottle had been
just opened, for the cork and corkscrew lay beside it.
'Take that,' said Alan, passing John the whisky, and then
with a certain roughness pushed his friend into the bedroom,
and closed the door behind him.
John stood amazed; then he shook the bottle, and, to his
further wonder, found it partly empty. Three or four glasses
were gone. Alan must have uncorked a bottle of whisky and
drank three or four glasses one after the other, without
sitting down, for there was no chair, and that in his own
cold lobby on this freezing night! It fully explained his
eccentricities, John reflected sagely, as he mixed himself a
grog. Poor Alan! He was drunk; and what a dreadful thing
was drink, and what a slave to it poor Alan was, to drink in
this unsociable, uncomfortable fashion! The man who would
drink alone, except for health's sake - as John was now doing
- was a man utterly lost. He took the grog out, and felt
hazier, but warmer. It was hard work opening the portmanteau
and finding his night things; and before he was undressed,
the cold had struck home to him once more. 'Well,' said he;
'just a drop more. There's no sense in getting ill with all
this other trouble.' And presently dreamless slumber buried
When John awoke it was day. The low winter sun was already
in the heavens, but his watch had stopped, and it was
impossible to tell the hour exactly. Ten, he guessed it, and
made haste to dress, dismal reflections crowding on his mind.
But it was less from terror than from regret that he now
suffered; and with his regret there were mingled cutting
pangs of penitence. There had fallen upon him a blow, cruel,
indeed, but yet only the punishment of old misdoing; and he
had rebelled and plunged into fresh sin. The rod had been
used to chasten, and he had bit the chastening fingers. His
father was right; John had justified him; John was no guest
for decent people's houses, and no fit associate for decent
people's children. And had a broader hint been needed, there
was the case of his old friend. John was no drunkard, though
he could at times exceed; and the picture of Houston drinking
neat spirits at his hall-table struck him with something like
disgust. He hung back from meeting his old friend. He could
have wished he had not come to him; and yet, even now, where
else was he to turn?
These musings occupied him while he dressed, and accompanied
him into the lobby of the house. The door stood open on the
garden; doubtless, Alan had stepped forth; and John did as he
supposed his friend had done. The ground was hard as iron,
the frost still rigorous; as he brushed among the hollies,
icicles jingled and glittered in their fall; and wherever he
went, a volley of eager sparrows followed him. Here were
Christmas weather and Christmas morning duly met, to the
delight of children. This was the day of reunited families,
the day to which he had so long looked forward, thinking to
awake in his own bed in Randolph Crescent, reconciled with
all men and repeating the footprints of his youth; and here
he was alone, pacing the alleys of a wintry garden and filled
with penitential thoughts.
And that reminded him: why was he alone? and where was Alan?
The thought of the festal morning and the due salutations
reawakened his desire for his friend, and he began to call
for him by name. As the sound of his voice died away, he was
aware of the greatness of the silence that environed him.
But for the twittering of the sparrows and the crunching of
his own feet upon the frozen snow, the whole windless world
of air hung over him entranced, and the stillness weighed
upon his mind with a horror of solitude.
Still calling at intervals, but now with a moderated voice,
he made the hasty circuit of the garden, and finding neither
man nor trace of man in all its evergreen coverts, turned at
last to the house. About the house the silence seemed to
deepen strangely. The door, indeed, stood open as before;
but the windows were still shuttered, the chimneys breathed
no stain into the bright air, there sounded abroad none of
that low stir (perhaps audible rather to the ear of the
spirit than to the ear of the flesh) by which a house
announces and betrays its human lodgers. And yet Alan must
be there - Alan locked in drunken slumbers, forgetful of the
return of day, of the holy season, and of the friend whom he
had so coldly received and was now so churlishly neglecting.
John's disgust redoubled at the thought, but hunger was
beginning to grow stronger than repulsion, and as a step to
breakfast, if nothing else, he must find and arouse this
He made the circuit of the bedroom quarters. All, until he
came to Alan's chamber, were locked from without, and bore
the marks of a prolonged disuse. But Alan's was a room in
commission, filled with clothes, knickknacks, letters, books,
and the conveniences of a solitary man. The fire had been
lighted; but it had long ago burned out, and the ashes were
stone cold. The bed had been made, but it had not been slept
Worse and worse, then; Alan must have fallen where he sat,
and now sprawled brutishly, no doubt, upon the dining-room
The dining-room was a very long apartment, and was reached
through a passage; so that John, upon his entrance, brought
but little light with him, and must move toward the windows
with spread arms, groping and knocking on the furniture.
Suddenly he tripped and fell his length over a prostrate
body. It was what he had looked for, yet it shocked him; and
he marvelled that so rough an impact should not have kicked a
groan out of the drunkard. Men had killed themselves ere now
in such excesses, a dreary and degraded end that made John
shudder. What if Alan were dead? There would be a
By this, John had his hand upon the shutters, and flinging
them back, beheld once again the blessed face of the day.
Even by that light the room had a discomfortable air. The
chairs were scattered, and one had been overthrown; the
table-cloth, laid as if for dinner, was twitched upon one
side, and some of the dishes had fallen to the floor. Behind
the table lay the drunkard, still unaroused, only one foot
visible to John.
But now that light was in the room, the worst seemed over; it
was a disgusting business, but not more than disgusting; and
it was with no great apprehension that John proceeded to make
the circuit of the table: his last comparatively tranquil
moment for that day. No sooner had he turned the corner, no
sooner had his eyes alighted on the body, than he gave a
smothered, breathless cry, and fled out of the room and out
of the house.
It was not Alan who lay there, but a man well up in years, of
stern countenance and iron-grey locks; and it was no
drunkard, for the body lay in a black pool of blood, and the
open eyes stared upon the ceiling.
To and fro walked John before the door. The extreme
sharpness of the air acted on his nerves like an astringent,
and braced them swiftly. Presently, he not relaxing in his
disordered walk, the images began to come clearer and stay
longer in his fancy; and next the power of thought came back
to him, and the horror and danger of his situation rooted him
to the ground.
He grasped his forehead, and staring on one spot of gravel,
pieced together what he knew and what he suspected. Alan had
murdered some one: possibly 'that man' against whom the
butler chained the door in Regent Terrace; possibly another;
some one at least: a human soul, whom it was death to slay
and whose blood lay spilled upon the floor. This was the
reason of the whisky drinking in the passage, of his
unwillingness to welcome John, of his strange behaviour and
bewildered words; this was why he had started at and harped
upon the name of murder; this was why he had stood and
hearkened, or sat and covered his eyes, in the black night.
And now he was gone, now he had basely fled; and to all his
perplexities and dangers John stood heir.
'Let me think - let me think,' he said, aloud, impatiently,
even pleadingly, as if to some merciless interrupter. In the
turmoil of his wits, a thousand hints and hopes and threats
and terrors dinning continuously in his ears, he was like one
plunged in the hubbub of a crowd. How was he to remember -
he, who had not a thought to spare - that he was himself the
author, as well as the theatre, of so much confusion? But in
hours of trial the junto of man's nature is dissolved, and
It was plain he must stay no longer where he was, for here
was a new Judicial Error in the very making. It was not so
plain where he must go, for the old Judicial Error, vague as
a cloud, appeared to fill the habitable world; whatever it
might be, it watched for him, full-grown, in Edinburgh; it
must have had its birth in San Francisco; it stood guard, no
doubt, like a dragon, at the bank where he should cash his
credit; and though there were doubtless many other places,
who should say in which of them it was not ambushed? No, he
could not tell where he was to go; he must not lose time on
these insolubilities. Let him go back to the beginning. It
was plain he must stay no longer where he was. It was plain,
too, that he must not flee as he was, for he could not carry
his portmanteau, and to flee and leave it was to plunge
deeper in the mire. He must go, leave the house unguarded,
find a cab, and return - return after an absence? Had he
courage for that?
And just then he spied a stain about a hand's-breadth on his
trouser-leg, and reached his finger down to touch it. The
finger was stained red: it was blood; he stared upon it with
disgust, and awe, and terror, and in the sharpness of the new
sensation, fell instantly to act.
He cleansed his finger in the snow, returned into the house,
drew near with hushed footsteps to the dining-room door, and
shut and locked it. Then he breathed a little freer, for
here at least was an oaken barrier between himself and what
he feared. Next, he hastened to his room, tore off the
spotted trousers which seemed in his eyes a link to bind him
to the gallows, flung them in a corner, donned another pair,
breathlessly crammed his night things into his portmanteau,
locked it, swung it with an effort from the ground, and with
a rush of relief, came forth again under the open heavens.
The portmanteau, being of occidental build, was no feather-
weight; it had distressed the powerful Alan; and as for John,
he was crushed under its bulk, and the sweat broke upon him
thickly. Twice he must set it down to rest before he reached
the gate; and when he had come so far, he must do as Alan
did, and take his seat upon one corner. Here then, he sat a
while and panted; but now his thoughts were sensibly
lightened; now, with the trunk standing just inside the door,
some part of his dissociation from the house of crime had
been effected, and the cabman need not pass the garden wall.
It was wonderful how that relieved him; for the house, in his
eyes, was a place to strike the most cursory beholder with
suspicion, as though the very windows had cried murder.
But there was to be no remission of the strokes of fate. As
he thus sat, taking breath in the shadow of the wall and
hopped about by sparrows, it chanced that his eye roved to
the fastening of the door; and what he saw plucked him to his
feet. The thing locked with a spring; once the door was
closed, the bolt shut of itself; and without a key, there was
no means of entering from without.
He saw himself obliged to one of two distasteful and perilous
alternatives; either to shut the door altogether and set his
portmanteau out upon the wayside, a wonder to all beholders;
or to leave the door ajar, so that any thievish tramp or
holiday schoolboy might stray in and stumble on the grisly
secret. To the last, as the least desperate, his mind
inclined; but he must first insure himself that he was
unobserved. He peered out, and down the long road; it lay
dead empty. He went to the corner of the by-road that comes
by way of Dean; there also not a passenger was stirring.
Plainly it was, now or never, the high tide of his affairs;
and he drew the door as close as he durst, slipped a pebble
in the chink, and made off downhill to find a cab.
Half-way down a gate opened, and a troop of Christmas
children sallied forth in the most cheerful humour, followed
more soberly by a smiling mother.
'And this is Christmas-day!' thought John; and could have
laughed aloud in tragic bitterness of heart.
CHAPTER VII - A TRAGI-COMEDY IN A CAB
In front of Donaldson's Hospital, John counted it good
fortune to perceive a cab a great way of, and by much
shouting and waving of his arm, to catch the notice of the
driver. He counted it good fortune, for the time was long to
him till he should have done for ever with the Lodge; and the
further he must go to find a cab, the greater the chance that
the inevitable discovery had taken place, and that he should
return to find the garden full of angry neighbours. Yet when
the vehicle drew up he was sensibly chagrined to recognise
the port-wine cabman of the night before. 'Here,' he could
not but reflect, 'here is another link in the Judicial
The driver, on the other hand, was pleased to drop again upon
so liberal a fare; and as he was a man - the reader must
already have perceived - of easy, not to say familiar,
manners, he dropped at once into a vein of friendly talk,
commenting on the weather, on the sacred season, which struck
him chiefly in the light of a day of liberal gratuities, on
the chance which had reunited him to a pleasing customer, and
on the fact that John had been (as he was pleased to call it)
visibly 'on the randan' the night before.
'And ye look dreidful bad the-day, sir, I must say that,' he
continued. 'There's nothing like a dram for ye - if ye'll
take my advice of it; and bein' as it's Christmas, I'm no'
saying,' he added, with a fatherly smile, 'but what I would
join ye mysel'.'
John had listened with a sick heart.
'I'll give you a dram when we've got through,' said he,
affecting a sprightliness which sat on him most unhandsomely,
'and not a drop till then. Business first, and pleasure
With this promise the jarvey was prevailed upon to clamber to
his place and drive, with hideous deliberation, to the door
of the Lodge. There were no signs as yet of any public
emotion; only, two men stood not far off in talk, and their
presence, seen from afar, set John's pulses buzzing. He
might have spared himself his fright, for the pair were lost
in some dispute of a theological complexion, and with
lengthened upper lip and enumerating fingers, pursued the
matter of their difference, and paid no heed to John.
But the cabman proved a thorn in the flesh.
Nothing would keep him on his perch; he must clamber down,
comment upon the pebble in the door (which he regarded as an
ingenious but unsafe device), help John with the portmanteau,
and enliven matters with a flow of speech, and especially of
questions, which I thus condense:-
'He'll no' be here himsel', will he? No? Well, he's an
eccentric man - a fair oddity - if ye ken the expression.
Great trouble with his tenants, they tell me. I've driven
the fam'ly for years. I drove a cab at his father's waddin'.
What'll your name be? - I should ken your face. Baigrey, ye
say? There were Baigreys about Gilmerton; ye'll be one of
that lot? Then this'll be a friend's portmantie, like? Why?
Because the name upon it's Nucholson! Oh, if ye're in a
hurry, that's another job. Waverley Brig? Are ye for away?'
So the friendly toper prated and questioned and kept John's
heart in a flutter. But to this also, as to other evils
under the sun, there came a period; and the victim of
circumstances began at last to rumble toward the railway
terminus at Waverley Bridge. During the transit, he sat with
raised glasses in the frosty chill and mouldy fetor of his
chariot, and glanced out sidelong on the holiday face of
things, the shuttered shops, and the crowds along the
pavement, much as the rider in the Tyburn cart may have
observed the concourse gathering to his execution.
At the station his spirits rose again; another stage of his
escape was fortunately ended - he began to spy blue water.
He called a railway porter, and bade him carry the
portmanteau to the cloak-room: not that he had any notion of
delay; flight, instant flight was his design, no matter
whither; but he had determined to dismiss the cabman ere he
named, or even chose, his destination, thus possibly balking
the Judicial Error of another link. This was his cunning
aim, and now with one foot on the roadway, and one still on
the coach-step, he made haste to put the thing in practice,
and plunged his hand into his trousers pocket.
There was nothing there!
Oh yes; this time he was to blame. He should have
remembered, and when he deserted his blood-stained
pantaloons, he should not have deserted along with them his
purse. Make the most of his error, and then compare it with
the punishment! Conceive his new position, for I lack words
to picture it; conceive him condemned to return to that
house, from the very thought of which his soul revolted, and
once more to expose himself to capture on the very scene of
the misdeed: conceive him linked to the mouldy cab and the
familiar cabman. John cursed the cabman silently, and then
it occurred to him that he must stop the incarceration of his
portmanteau; that, at least, he must keep close at hand, and
he turned to recall the porter. But his reflections, brief
as they had appeared, must have occupied him longer than he
supposed, and there was the man already returning with the
Well, that was settled; he had lost his portmanteau also; for
the sixpence with which he had paid the Murrayfield Toll was
one that had strayed alone into his waistcoat pocket, and
unless he once more successfully achieved the adventure of
the house of crime, his portmanteau lay in the cloakroom in
eternal pawn, for lack of a penny fee. And then he
remembered the porter, who stood suggestively attentive,
words of gratitude hanging on his lips.
John hunted right and left; he found a coin - prayed God that
it was a sovereign - drew it out, beheld a halfpenny, and
offered it to the porter.
The man's jaw dropped.
'It's only a halfpenny!' he said, startled out of railway
'I know that,' said John, piteously.
And here the porter recovered the dignity of man.
'Thank you, sir,' said he, and would have returned the base
gratuity. But John, too, would none of it; and as they
struggled, who must join in but the cabman?
'Hoots, Mr. Baigrey,' said he, 'you surely forget what day it
'I tell you I have no change!' cried John.
'Well,' said the driver, 'and what then? I would rather give
a man a shillin' on a day like this than put him off with a
derision like a bawbee. I'm surprised at the like of you,
'My name is not Baigrey!' broke out John, in mere childish
temper and distress.
'Ye told me it was yoursel',' said the cabman.
'I know I did; and what the devil right had you to ask?'
cried the unhappy one.
'Oh, very well,' said the driver. 'I know my place, if you
know yours - if you know yours!' he repeated, as one who
should imply grave doubt; and muttered inarticulate thunders,
in which the grand old name of gentleman was taken seemingly
Oh to have been able to discharge this monster, whom John now
perceived, with tardy clear-sightedness, to have begun
betimes the festivities of Christmas! But far from any such
ray of consolation visiting the lost, he stood bare of help
and helpers, his portmanteau sequestered in one place, his
money deserted in another and guarded by a corpse; himself,
so sedulous of privacy, the cynosure of all men's eyes about
the station; and, as if these were not enough mischances, he
was now fallen in ill-blood with the beast to whom his
poverty had linked him! In ill-blood, as he reflected
dismally, with the witness who perhaps might hang or save
him! There was no time to be lost; he durst not linger any
longer in that public spot; and whether he had recourse to
dignity or conciliation, the remedy must be applied at once.
Some happily surviving element of manhood moved him to the
'Let us have no more of this,' said he, his foot once more
upon the step. 'Go back to where we came from.'
He had avoided the name of any destination, for there was now
quite a little band of railway folk about the cab, and he
still kept an eye upon the court of justice, and laboured to
avoid concentric evidence. But here again the fatal jarvey
'Back to the Ludge?' cried he, in shrill tones of protest.
'Drive on at once!' roared John, and slammed the door behind
him, so that the crazy chariot rocked and jingled.
Forth trundled the cab into the Christmas streets, the fare
within plunged in the blackness of a despair that neighboured
on unconsciousness, the driver on the box digesting his
rebuke and his customer's duplicity. I would not be thought
to put the pair in competition; John's case was out of all
parallel. But the cabman, too, is worth the sympathy of the
judicious; for he was a fellow of genuine kindliness and a
high sense of personal dignity incensed by drink; and his
advances had been cruelly and publicly rebuffed. As he
drove, therefore, he counted his wrongs, and thirsted for
sympathy and drink. Now, it chanced he had a friend, a
publican in Queensferry Street, from whom, in view of the
sacredness of the occasion, he thought he might extract a
dram. Queensferry Street lies something off the direct road
to Murrayfield. But then there is the hilly cross-road that
passes by the valley of the Leith and the Dean Cemetery; and
Queensferry Street is on the way to that. What was to hinder
the cabman, since his horse was dumb, from choosing the
cross-road, and calling on his friend in passing? So it was
decided; and the charioteer, already somewhat mollified,
turned aside his horse to the right.
John, meanwhile, sat collapsed, his chin sunk upon his chest,
his mind in abeyance. The smell of the cab was still faintly
present to his senses, and a certain leaden chill about his
feet, all else had disappeared in one vast oppression of
calamity and physical faintness. It was drawing on to noon -
two-and-twenty hours since he had broken bread; in the
interval, he had suffered tortures of sorrow and alarm, and
been partly tipsy; and though it was impossible to say he
slept, yet when the cab stopped and the cabman thrust his
head into the window, his attention had to be recalled from
depths of vacancy.
'If you'll no' STAND me a dram,' said the driver, with a
well-merited severity of tone and manner, 'I dare say ye'll
have no objection to my taking one mysel'?'
'Yes - no - do what you like,' returned John; and then, as he
watched his tormentor mount the stairs and enter the whisky-
shop, there floated into his mind a sense as of something
long ago familiar. At that he started fully awake, and
stared at the shop-fronts. Yes, he knew them; but when? and
how? Long since, he thought; and then, casting his eye
through the front glass, which had been recently occluded by
the figure of the jarvey, he beheld the tree-tops of the
rookery in Randolph Crescent. He was close to home - home,
where he had thought, at that hour, to be sitting in the
well-remembered drawing-room in friendly converse; and,
instead - !
It was his first impulse to drop into the bottom of the cab;
his next, to cover his face with his hands. So he sat, while
the cabman toasted the publican, and the publican toasted the
cabman, and both reviewed the affairs of the nation; so he
still sat, when his master condescended to return, and drive
off at last down-hill, along the curve of Lynedoch Place; but
even so sitting, as he passed the end of his father's street,
he took one glance from between shielding fingers, and beheld
a doctor's carriage at the door.
'Well, just so,' thought he; 'I'll have killed my father!
And this is Christmas-day!'
If Mr. Nicholson died, it was down this same road he must
journey to the grave; and down this road, on the same errand,
his wife had preceded him years before; and many other
leading citizens, with the proper trappings and attendance of
the end. And now, in that frosty, ill-smelling, straw-
carpeted, and ragged-cushioned cab, with his breath
congealing on the glasses, where else was John himself
The thought stirred his imagination, which began to
manufacture many thousand pictures, bright and fleeting, like
the shapes in a kaleidoscope; and now he saw himself, ruddy
and comfortered, sliding in the gutter; and, again, a little
woe-begone, bored urchin tricked forth in crape and weepers,
descending this same hill at the foot's pace of mourning
coaches, his mother's body just preceding him; and yet again,
his fancy, running far in front, showed him his destination -
now standing solitary in the low sunshine, with the sparrows
hopping on the threshold and the dead man within staring at
the roof - and now, with a sudden change, thronged about with
white-faced, hand-uplifting neighbours, and doctor bursting
through their midst and fixing his stethoscope as he went,
the policeman shaking a sagacious head beside the body. It
was to this he feared that he was driving; in the midst of
this he saw himself arrive, heard himself stammer faint
explanations, and felt the hand of the constable upon his
shoulder. Heavens! how he wished he had played the manlier
part; how he despised himself that he had fled that fatal
neighbourhood when all was quiet, and should now be tamely
travelling back when it was thronging with avengers!
Any strong degree of passion lends, even to the dullest, the
forces of the imagination. And so now as he dwelt on what
was probably awaiting him at the end of this distressful
drive - John, who saw things little, remembered them less,
and could not have described them at all, beheld in his
mind's-eye the garden of the Lodge, detailed as in a map; he
went to and fro in it, feeding his terrors; he saw the
hollies, the snowy borders, the paths where he had sought
Alan, the high, conventual walls, the shut door - what! was
the door shut? Ay, truly, he had shut it - shut in his
money, his escape, his future life - shut it with these
hands, and none could now open it! He heard the snap of the
spring-lock like something bursting in his brain, and sat
And then he woke again, terror jarring through his vitals.
This was no time to be idle; he must be up and doing, he must
think. Once at the end of this ridiculous cruise, once at
the Lodge door, there would be nothing for it but to turn the
cab and trundle back again. Why, then, go so far? why add
another feature of suspicion to a case already so suggestive?
why not turn at once? It was easy to say, turn; but whither?
He had nowhere now to go to; he could never - he saw it in
letters of blood - he could never pay that cab; he was
saddled with that cab for ever. Oh that cab! his soul
yearned and burned, and his bowels sounded to be rid of it.
He forgot all other cares. He must first quit himself of
this ill-smelling vehicle and of the human beast that guided
it - first do that; do that, at least; do that at once.
And just then the cab suddenly stopped, and there was his
persecutor rapping on the front glass. John let it down, and
beheld the port-wine countenance inflamed with intellectual
'I ken wha ye are!' cried the husky voice. 'I mind ye now.
Ye're a Nucholson. I drove ye to Hermiston to a Christmas
party, and ye came back on the box, and I let ye drive.'
It is a fact. John knew the man; they had been even friends.
His enemy, he now remembered, was a fellow of great good
nature - endless good nature - with a boy; why not with a
man? Why not appeal to his better side? He grasped at the
'Great Scott! and so you did,' he cried, as if in a transport
of delight, his voice sounding false in his own ears. 'Well,
if that's so, I've something to say to you. I'll just get
out, I guess. Where are we, any way?'
The driver had fluttered his ticket in the eyes of the
branch-toll keeper, and they were now brought to on the
highest and most solitary part of the by-road. On the left,
a row of fieldside trees beshaded it; on the right, it was
bordered by naked fallows, undulating down-hill to the
Queensferry Road; in front, Corstorphine Hill raised its
snow-bedabbled, darkling woods against the sky. John looked
all about him, drinking the clear air like wine; then his
eyes returned to the cabman's face as he sat, not
ungleefully, awaiting John's communication, with the air of
one looking to be tipped.
The features of that face were hard to read, drink had so
swollen them, drink had so painted them, in tints that varied
from brick-red to mulberry. The small grey eyes blinked, the
lips moved, with greed; greed was the ruling passion; and
though there was some good nature, some genuine kindliness, a
true human touch, in the old toper, his greed was now so set
afire by hope, that all other traits of character lay
dormant. He sat there a monument of gluttonous desire.
John's heart slowly fell. He had opened his lips, but he
stood there and uttered nought. He sounded the well of his
courage, and it was dry. He groped in his treasury of words,
and it was vacant. A devil of dumbness had him by the
throat; the devil of terror babbled in his ears; and
suddenly, without a word uttered, with no conscious purpose
formed in his will, John whipped about, tumbled over the
roadside wall, and began running for his life across the
He had not gone far, he was not past the midst of the first
afield, when his whole brain thundered within him, 'Fool!
You have your watch!' The shock stopped him, and he faced
once more toward the cab. The driver was leaning over the
wall, brandishing his whip, his face empurpled, roaring like
a bull. And John saw (or thought) that he had lost the
chance. No watch would pacify the man's resentment now; he
would cry for vengeance also. John would be had under the
eye of the police; his tale would be unfolded, his secret
plumbed, his destiny would close on him at last, and for
He uttered a deep sigh; and just as the cabman, taking heart
of grace, was beginning at last to scale the wall, his
defaulting customer fell again to running, and disappeared
into the further fields.
CHAPTER VIII - SINGULAR INSTANCE OF THE UTILITY OF PASS-KEYS
WHERE he ran at first, John never very clearly knew; nor yet
how long a time elapsed ere he found himself in the by-road
near the lodge of Ravelston, propped against the wall, his
lungs heaving like bellows, his legs leaden-heavy, his mind
possessed by one sole desire - to lie down and be unseen. He
remembered the thick coverts round the quarry-hole pond, an
untrodden corner of the world where he might surely find
concealment till the night should fall. Thither he passed
down the lane; and when he came there, behold! he had
forgotten the frost, and the pond was alive with young people
skating, and the pond-side coverts were thick with lookers-
on. He looked on a while himself. There was one tall,
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