I TALK WITH ALAN IN THE WOOD OF LETTERMORE
Alan was the first to come round. He rose, went to the border of the wood, peered out a little, and then returned and sat down.
“Well,” said he, “yon was a hot burst, David.”
I said nothing, nor so much as lifted my face. I had seen murder done, and a great, ruddy, jovial gentleman struck out of life in a moment; the pity of that sight was still sore within me, and yet that was but a part of my concern. Here was murder done upon the man Alan hated; here was Alan skulking in the trees and running from the troops; and whether his was the hand that fired or only the head that ordered, signified but little. By my way of it, my only friend in that wild country was blood–guilty in the first degree; I held him in horror; I could not look upon his face; I would have rather lain alone in the rain on my cold isle, than in that warm wood beside a murderer.
“Are ye still wearied?” he asked again.
“No,” said I, still with my face in the bracken; “no, I am not wearied now, and I can speak. You and me must twine,” I said. “I liked you very well, Alan, but your ways are not mine, and they’re not God’s: and the short and the long of it is just that we must twine.”
“I will hardly twine from ye, David, without some kind of reason for the same,” said Alan, mighty gravely. “If ye ken anything against my reputation, it’s the least thing that ye should do, for old acquaintance’ sake, to let me hear the name of it; and if ye have only taken a distaste to my society, it will be proper for me to judge if I’m insulted.”
“Alan,” said I, “what is the sense of this? Ye ken very well yon Campbell–man lies in his blood upon the road.”
He was silent for a little; then says he, “Did ever ye hear tell of the story of the Man and the Good People?” — by which he meant the fairies.
“No,” said I, “nor do I want to hear it.”
“With your permission, Mr. Balfour, I will tell it you, whatever,” says Alan. “The man, ye should ken, was cast upon a rock in the sea, where it appears the Good People were in use to come and rest as they went through to Ireland. The name of this rock is called the Skerryvore, and it’s not far from where we suffered ship–wreck. Well, it seems the man cried so sore, if he could just see his little bairn before he died! that at last the king of the Good People took peety upon him, and sent one flying that brought back the bairn in a poke and laid it down beside the man where he lay sleeping. So when the man woke, there was a poke beside him and something into the inside of it that moved. Well, it seems he was one of these gentry that think aye the worst of things; and for greater security, he stuck his dirk throughout that poke before he opened it, and there was his bairn dead. I am thinking to myself, Mr. Balfour, that you and the man are very much alike.”
“Do you mean you had no hand in it?” cried I, sitting up.
“I will tell you first of all, Mr. Balfour of Shaws, as one friend to another,” said Alan, “that if I were going to kill a gentleman, it would not be in my own country, to bring trouble on my clan; and I would not go wanting sword and gun, and with a long fishing–rod upon my back.”
“Well,” said I, “that’s true!”
“And now,” continued Alan, taking out his dirk and laying his hand upon it in a certain manner, “I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art nor part, act nor thought in it.”
“I thank God for that!” cried I, and offered him my hand.
He did not appear to see it.
“And here is a great deal of work about a Campbell!” said he. “They are not so scarce, that I ken!”
“At least,” said I, “you cannot justly blame me, for you know very well what you told me in the brig. But the temptation and the act are different, I thank God again for that. We may all be tempted; but to take a life in cold blood, Alan!” And I could say no more for the moment. “And do you know who did it?” I added. “Do you know that man in the black coat?”
“I have nae clear mind about his coat,” said Alan cunningly, “but it sticks in my head that it was blue.”
“Blue or black, did ye know him?” said I.
“I couldnae just conscientiously swear to him,” says Alan. “He gaed very close by me, to be sure, but it’s a strange thing that I should just have been tying my brogues.”
“Can you swear that you don’t know him, Alan?” I cried, half angered, half in a mind to laugh at his evasions.
“Not yet,” says he; “but I’ve a grand memory for forgetting, David.”
“And yet there was one thing I saw clearly,” said I; “and that was, that you exposed yourself and me to draw the soldiers.”
“It’s very likely,” said Alan; “and so would any gentleman. You and me were innocent of that transaction.”
“The better reason, since we were falsely suspected, that we should get clear,” I cried. “The innocent should surely come before the guilty.”
“Why, David,” said he, “the innocent have aye a chance to get assoiled in court; but for the lad that shot the bullet, I think the best place for him will be the heather. Them that havenae dipped their hands in any little difficulty, should be very mindful of the case of them that have. And that is the good Christianity. For if it was the other way round about, and the lad whom I couldnae just clearly see had been in our shoes, and we in his (as might very well have been), I think we would be a good deal obliged to him oursel’s if he would draw the soldiers.”
When it came to this, I gave Alan up. But he looked so innocent all the time, and was in such clear good faith in what he said, and so ready to sacrifice himself for what he deemed his duty, that my mouth was closed. Mr. Henderland’s words came back to me: that we ourselves might take a lesson by these wild Highlanders. Well, here I had taken mine. Alan’s morals were all tail–first; but he was ready to give his life for them, such as they were.
“Alan,” said I, “I’ll not say it’s the good Christianity as I understand it, but it’s good enough. And here I offer ye my hand for the second time.”
Whereupon he gave me both of his, saying surely I had cast a spell upon him, for he could forgive me anything. Then he grew very grave, and said we had not much time to throw away, but must both flee that country: he, because he was a deserter, and the whole of Appin would now be searched like a chamber, and every one obliged to give a good account of himself; and I, because I was certainly involved in the murder.
“O!” says I, willing to give him a little lesson, “I have no fear of the justice of my country.”
“As if this was your country!” said he. “Or as if ye would be tried here, in a country of Stewarts!”
“It’s all Scotland,” said I.
“Man, I whiles wonder at ye,” said Alan. “This is a Campbell that’s been killed. Well, it’ll be tried in Inverara, the Campbells’ head place; with fifteen Campbells in the jury–box and the biggest Campbell of all (and that’s the Duke) sitting cocking on the bench. Justice, David? The same justice, by all the world, as Glenure found awhile ago at the roadside.”
This frightened me a little, I confess, and would have frightened me more if I had known how nearly exact were Alan’s predictions; indeed it was but in one point that he exaggerated, there being but eleven Campbells on the jury; though as the other four were equally in the Duke’s dependence, it mattered less than might appear. Still, I cried out that he was unjust to the Duke of Argyle, who (for all he was a Whig) was yet a wise and honest nobleman.
“Hoot!” said Alan, “the man’s a Whig, nae doubt; but I would never deny he was a good chieftain to his clan. And what would the clan think if there was a Campbell shot, and naebody hanged, and their own chief the Justice General? But I have often observed,” says Alan, “that you Low–country bodies have no clear idea of what’s right and wrong.”
At this I did at last laugh out aloud, when to my surprise, Alan joined in, and laughed as merrily as myself.
“Na, na,” said he, “we’re in the Hielands, David; and when I tell ye to run, take my word and run. Nae doubt it’s a hard thing to skulk and starve in the Heather, but it’s harder yet to lie shackled in a red–coat prison.”
I asked him whither we should flee; and as he told me “to the Lowlands,” I was a little better inclined to go with him; for, indeed, I was growing impatient to get back and have the upper–hand of my uncle. Besides, Alan made so sure there would be no question of justice in the matter, that I began to be afraid he might be right. Of all deaths, I would truly like least to die by the gallows; and the picture of that uncanny instrument came into my head with extraordinary clearness (as I had once seen it engraved at the top of a pedlar’s ballad) and took away my appetite for courts of justice.
“I’ll chance it, Alan,” said I. “I’ll go with you.”
“But mind you,” said Alan, “it’s no small thing. Ye maun lie bare and hard, and brook many an empty belly. Your bed shall be the moorcock’s, and your life shall be like the hunted deer’s, and ye shall sleep with your hand upon your weapons. Ay, man, ye shall taigle many a weary foot, or we get clear! I tell ye this at the start, for it’s a life that I ken well. But if ye ask what other chance ye have, I answer: Nane. Either take to the heather with me, or else hang.”
“And that’s a choice very easily made,” said I; and we shook hands upon it.
“And now let’s take another keek at the red–coats,” says Alan, and he led me to the north–eastern fringe of the wood.
Looking out between the trees, we could see a great side of mountain, running down exceeding steep into the waters of the loch. It was a rough part, all hanging stone, and heather, and big scrogs of birchwood; and away at the far end towards Balachulish, little wee red soldiers were dipping up and down over hill and howe, and growing smaller every minute. There was no cheering now, for I think they had other uses for what breath was left them; but they still stuck to the trail, and doubtless thought that we were close in front of them.
Alan watched them, smiling to himself.
“Ay,” said he, “they’ll be gey weary before they’ve got to the end of that employ! And so you and me, David, can sit down and eat a bite, and breathe a bit longer, and take a dram from my bottle. Then we’ll strike for Aucharn, the house of my kinsman, James of the Glens, where I must get my clothes, and my arms, and money to carry us along; and then, David, we’ll cry, ‘Forth, Fortune!’ and take a cast among the heather.”
So we sat again and ate and drank, in a place whence we could see the sun going down into a field of great, wild, and houseless mountains, such as I was now condemned to wander in with my companion. Partly as we so sat, and partly afterwards, on the way to Aucharn, each of us narrated his adventures; and I shall here set down so much of Alan’s as seems either curious or needful.
It appears he ran to the bulwarks as soon as the wave was passed; saw me, and lost me, and saw me again, as I tumbled in the roost; and at last had one glimpse of me clinging on the yard. It was this that put him in some hope I would maybe get to land after all, and made him leave those clues and messages which had brought me (for my sins) to that unlucky country of Appin.
In the meanwhile, those still on the brig had got the skiff launched, and one or two were on board of her already, when there came a second wave greater than the first, and heaved the brig out of her place, and would certainly have sent her to the bottom, had she not struck and caught on some projection of the reef. When she had struck first, it had been bows–on, so that the stern had hitherto been lowest. But now her stern was thrown in the air, and the bows plunged under the sea; and with that, the water began to pour into the fore–scuttle like the pouring of a mill–dam.
It took the colour out of Alan’s face, even to tell what followed. For there were still two men lying impotent in their bunks; and these, seeing the water pour in and thinking the ship had foundered, began to cry out aloud, and that with such harrowing cries that all who were on deck tumbled one after another into the skiff and fell to their oars. They were not two hundred yards away, when there came a third great sea; and at that the brig lifted clean over the reef; her canvas filled for a moment, and she seemed to sail in chase of them, but settling all the while; and presently she drew down and down, as if a hand was drawing her; and the sea closed over the Covenant of Dysart.
Never a word they spoke as they pulled ashore, being stunned with the horror of that screaming; but they had scarce set foot upon the beach when Hoseason woke up, as if out of a muse, and bade them lay hands upon Alan. They hung back indeed, having little taste for the employment; but Hoseason was like a fiend, crying that Alan was alone, that he had a great sum about him, that he had been the means of losing the brig and drowning all their comrades, and that here was both revenge and wealth upon a single cast. It was seven against one; in that part of the shore there was no rock that Alan could set his back to; and the sailors began to spread out and come behind him.
“And then,” said Alan, “the little man with the red head — I havenae mind of the name that he is called.”
“Riach,” said I.
“Ay” said Alan, “Riach! Well, it was him that took up the clubs for me, asked the men if they werenae feared of a judgment, and, says he ‘Dod, I’ll put my back to the Hielandman’s mysel’.’ That’s none such an entirely bad little man, yon little man with the red head,” said Alan. “He has some spunks of decency.”
“Well,” said I, “he was kind to me in his way.”
“And so he was to Alan,” said he; “and by my troth, I found his way a very good one! But ye see, David, the loss of the ship and the cries of these poor lads sat very ill upon the man; and I’m thinking that would be the cause of it.”
“Well, I would think so,” says I; “for he was as keen as any of the rest at the beginning. But how did Hoseason take it?”
“It sticks in my mind that he would take it very ill,” says Alan. “But the little man cried to me to run, and indeed I thought it was a good observe, and ran. The last that I saw they were all in a knot upon the beach, like folk that were not agreeing very well together.”
“What do you mean by that?” said I.
“Well, the fists were going,” said Alan; “and I saw one man go down like a pair of breeks. But I thought it would be better no to wait. Ye see there’s a strip of Campbells in that end of Mull, which is no good company for a gentleman like me. If it hadnae been for that I would have waited and looked for ye mysel’, let alone giving a hand to the little man.” (It was droll how Alan dwelt on Mr. Riach’s stature, for, to say the truth, the one was not much smaller than the other.) “So,” says he, continuing, “I set my best foot forward, and whenever I met in with any one I cried out there was a wreck ashore. Man, they didnae sto p to fash with me! Ye should have seen them linking for the beach! And when they got there they found they had had the pleasure of a run, which is aye good for a Campbell. I’m thinking it was a judgment on the clan that the brig went down in the lump and didnae break. But it was a very unlucky thing for you, that same; for if any wreck had come ashore they would have hunted high and low, and would soon have found ye.”