THE STORY OF THE LAND FACTOR.
"THERE maun hae been something that weighed on his
mind," remarked one of the women, "though your faither had nae power to
let it frae him. I mind that, when I was a lassie, there happened
something o' the same kind. My faither had been a tacksman on the
estate o' Blackhall; an' as the land was sour an' wat, an' the seasons for
a while backward, he aye contrived—for he was a hard-working carefu'
man—to keep us a' in meat and claith, and to meet wi' the factor.
But, waes me! he was sune ta'eu frae us. In the middle o' the
seed-time there cam' a bad fever intil the country; an' the very first
that died o't was my puir faither. My mither did her best to keep
the farm, an' haud us a' thegither. She got a carefu', decent lad to
manage for her, an' her ain e'e was on everything; an' had it no been for
the cruel, cruel factor, she micht hae dune gey weel. But never had
the puir tenant a waur friend than Ranald Keilly. He was a toun
writer, an' had made a sort o' living, afore he got the factorship, just
as toun writers do in ordinar'. He used to be gettin' the haud o'
auld wives' posies when they died; an' there were aye some litigeous,
troublesome folk in the place, too, that kept him doing a little in the
way o' troublin' their neebors; an' sometimes, when some daft, gowked man,
o' mair means than sense, couldna mismanage his ain affairs eneugh, he got
Keilly to mismanage them for him. An' sae he had picked up a bare
livin' in this way; but the factorship made him just a gentleman.
But, oh, an ill use did he mak' o' the power that it gied him owre puir,
honest folk! Ye maim ken that, gin they were puir, he liked them a'
the waur for being honest; but, I dare say, that was natural eneugh for
the like o' him. He contrived to be baith writer an' factor, ye see;
an' it wad just seem that his chief aim in a'e the capacity was to find
employment for himsel' in the ither. If a puir tenant was but a day
behind-hand wi' his rent, he had creatures o' his ain that used to gang
half-an'-half wi' him in their fees; an' them he wad send aff to poind
him; an' then, if the expenses o' the poinding werena forthcoming, as weel
as what was owing to the master, he wad hae a roup o' the stocking twa or
three days after, an' anither account, as a man o' business, for that.
An' when things were going dog cheap,—as he took care that they should
sometimes gang,—he used to buy them in for himsel,' an' part wi' them
again for maybe twice the money. The laird was a quiet, silly,
good-natured man; an', though he was tauld weel o' the factor at times,
ay, an' believed it too, he just used to say: 'Oh, puir Keilly, what wad
he do gin I were to part wi' him? He wad just starve.' An' oh,
sirs, his pity for him was bitter cruelty to mony, mony a puir tenant, an'
to my mither amang the lave.
"The year after my faither's death was cauld an' wat, an' oor
stuff remained sae lang green that we just thocht we wouldna get it cut
ava. An' when we did get it cut, the stacks, for the first whilie,
were aye heatin' wi' us; an' when Marti'mas came, the grain was still saft,
an' milky, an' no fit for the market. The term cam' round, an' there
was little to gie the factor in the shape o' money, though there was baith
corn and cattle; an' a' that we wanted was just a little time. Ah,
but we had fa'en into the hands o' ane that never kent pity. My
mither hadna the money gin, as it were, the day, an' on the morn the
messengers came to poind. The roup was no a week after; an' oh, it
was a grievous sicht to see how the crop an' the cattle went for just
naething. The farmers were a' puirly aff with the late ha'rst, au'
had nae money to spare; an' sae the factor knocked in ilka thing to himsel',
wi' hardly a bid against him. He was a rough-faced little man, wi' a
red, hooked nose, a gude deal gi'en to whiskey, au' very wild an'
desperate when he had ta'en a glass or twa aboon ordinar'; an' on the day
o' the roup he raged like a perfect madman. My mither spoke to him
again an' again, wi' the tear in her e'e, an' implored him, for the sake
o' the orphan an' the widow, no to hurry hersel' an' her bairns; but he
just cursed an' swore a' the mair, an' knocked down the stacks an' the kye
a' the faster; an' whan she spoke to him o' the Ane aboon a', he said that
Providence gied lang credit an' reckoned on a lang day, an' that he wald
tak' him intil his ain hands. Weel, the roup cam' to an end, an' the
sum o' the whole didna come to meikle mair nor the rent an' clear the
factor's lang account for expenses; an' at nicht my mither was a ruined
woman. The factor staid up late an' lang, drinkin' wi' some
creatures o' his ain; an' the last words he said on going to his bed was,
that he hadna made a better day's wark for a twelvemonth. But, Gude
tak' us a' in keeping! in the morning he was a corp, —a cauld lifeless
corp, wi' a face as black as my bonnet.
"Weel, he was buried, an' there was a grand character o' him
putten in the newspapers, an' we a' thocht we were to hear nae mair about
him. My mither got a wee bittie o' a house on the farm o' a neebor,
and there we lived dowie enough; but she was aye an eident, workin' woman
an' she now span late an' early for some o' her auld friends, the farmers'
wives; an' her sair-won penny, wi' what we got frae kindly folk wha minded
us in better times, kept us a' alive. Meanwhile, strange stories o'
the dead factor began to gang aboot the kintra. First, his servants,
it was said, were hearing arc, curious noises in his counting office.
The door was baith locked an' sealed, waiting till his friends would cast
up, for there were some doots aboot them; but, locked an' sealed as it
was, they could hear it opening an' shutting every nicht, an' hear a
rustlin' among the papers, as gin there had been half a dozen writers
scribblin' amang them at ance. An' then, Gude preserve us a'! they
could hear Keilly himsel', as if he were dictating to his clerk.
An', last o' a', they could see him in the gloamin', nicht an mornin',
ganging aboot his house wringing his hands, an' aye, aye muttering to
himsel' aboot roups and poindings. The servant girls left the place
to himsel'; an' the twa lads that wrought his farm' an' slept in a
hayloft, were sae disturbed nicht after nicht, that they had just to leave
it to himsel' too.
"My mither was a'e nicht wi' some a' her spinnin' at a
neeborin' farmer's,—a worthy, God-fearing man, an' an elder o' the kirk.
It was in the simmer time, an' the nicht was bricht an' bonny; but, in her
backcoming, she had to pass the empty house o' the dead factor, an' the
elder said that he would take a step hame wi' her, for fear she michtna be
that easy in her mind. An' the honest man did sae. Naething
happened them in the passin', except that a dun cow, ance a great favorite
o' my mither's, cam' lowing up to them, puir beast, as gin she would hae
better liked to be gaun hame wi' my mother than stay where she was.
But the elder didna get aff sae easy in the backcoming. He was
passin' beside a thick hedge, whan what does he see, but a man inside the
hedge, takin' step for step wi' him, as he gaed! The man wore
a dun coat, an had a hunting-whip under his arm, an' walked, as the elder
thocht, very like what the dead factor used to do when he had gotten a
glass or twa aboon ordinar. Weel, they cam' to a slap in the hedge,
an' out cam' the man at the slap; an' Gude tak' us a' in keeping! it was
sure enough the dead factor himsel'. There were his hook nose, an'
his rough, red face,—though it was maybe bluer noo than red,—an' there
were the boots an' the dun coat he had worn at my mither's roup, an' the
very whip he had lashed a puir gangrel woman wi' no a week before his
death. He was mutterin' something to himsel'; but the elder could
only hear a wordie noo an' then. 'Poind an' roup,' he would say,— 'poind
an' roup'; an' then there would come out a blatter o' curses.—'Hell, hell!
an' damn, damn! The elder was a wee fear-stricken at first,—as wha
wadna?—but then the ill words an' the way they were said made him
angry,—for he could never bear ill words without checking them,—an' sae he
turned round wi' a stern brow, an' asked the appearance what it wanted,
an' why it should hae come to disturb the peace o' the kintra, and to
disturb him? It stood still at that, an' said, wi' an awsome grane,
that it couldna be quiet in the grave till there was some justice done to
Widow Stuart. It then tauld him that there were forty gowd guineas
in a secret drawer in his desk, that hadna been found, an' tauld him where
to get them, an' that he wad need gang wi' the laird an' the minister to
the drawer, an' gie them a' to the widow. It couldna hae rest till
then, it said, nor wad the kintra hae rest either. It willed that
the lave o' the gear should be gien to the poor o' the parish; for nane o'
the twa folk that laid claim to it had the shadow o' a right. An' wi'
that the appearance left him. It just went back through the slap in
the hedge; an' as it stepped owre the ditch, vanished in a puff o' smoke.
"Weel,—but to cut short a lang story,—the laird and the
minister were at first gay slow o' belief; no that they misdoubted the
elder, but they thocht that he must hae been deceived by a sort o' wakin'
dream. But they soon changed their minds, for, sure enough, they
found the forty guineas in a secret drawer. An' the news they got
frae the south about Keilly was just as the appearance had said; no ane
mair nor anither had a richt to his gear, for he had been a foundlin', an'
had nae friends. An' sae my mither got the guineas, an' the parish
got the rest, an' there was nae mair heard o' the apparition. We
didna get back oor auld farm; but the laird gae us a bittie that served
oor turn as weel; an' or my mither was ca'ed awa frae us, we were a'
settled in the warld, an' doin' for oorsels."
THE STORY OF THE MEALMONGER.
IT is wonderful," remarked the decent-looking,
elderly man who had contributed the story of Donald Gair,—"it is
wonderful how long a recollection of that kind may live in the memory
without one's knowing it is there. There is no possibility of one
taking an inventory of one's recollections. They live unnoted and
asleep, till roused by some likeness of themselves, and then up they
start, and answer to it, as 'face answereth to face in a glass.'
There comes a story into my mind, much like the last, that has lain there
all unknown to me for the last thirty years, nor have I heard any one
mention it since; and yet when I was a boy no story could be better known.
You have all heard of the dear years that followed the harvest of '40, and
how fearfully they bore on the poor. The scarcity, doubtless, came
mainly from the hand of Providence, and yet man had his share in it too.
There were forestallers of the market, who gathered their miserable gains
by heightening the already enormous price of victuals, thus adding
starvation to hunger; and among the best known and most execrated of these
was one M'Kechan, a residenter in the neighbouring parish. He was a
hard-hearted foul-spoken man; and often what he said exasperated
the people as much against him as what he did. When, on one
occasion, he bought up all the victuals in a market, there was a wringing
of hands among the women, and they cursed him to his face; but when he
added insult to injury, and told them, in his pride, that he had not left
them an ounce to foul their teeth, they would that instant have taken his
life, had not his horse carried him through. He was a mean, too, as
well as a hard-hearted man, and used small measures and light weights. But
he made money, and deemed himself in a fair way of gaining a character on
the strength of that alone, when he was seized by a fever, and died after
a few days' illness. Solomon tells us, that when the wicked perish
there is shouting; there was little grief in the sheriffdom when M'Kechan
died; but his relatives buried him decently; and, in the course of the
next fortnight, the meal fell twopence the peck. You know the
burying-ground of St. Bennet's: the chapel has long since been ruinous,
and a row of wasted elms, with white skeleton-looking tops, run around the
enclosure and look over the fields that surround it on every side.
It lies out of the way of any thoroughfare, and months may sometimes pass,
when burials are unfrequent, in which no one goes near it. It was in
St. Bennet's that M'Kechan was buried; and the people about the farm-house
that lies nearest it were surprised, for the first month after his death,
to see the figure of a man, evening and morning, just a few minutes before
the sun had risen and a few after it had set, walking round the yard under
the elms three times, and always disappearing when it had taken the last
turn beside an old tomb near the gate. It was of course always clear
daylight when they saw the figure; and the month passed ere they could
bring themselves to suppose that it was other than a thing of flesh and
blood, like themselves. The strange regularity of its visits,
however, at length bred suspicion; and the farmer himself, a plain, decent
man, of more true courage than men of twice the pretence, determined one
evening on watching it. He took his place outside the wall a little
before sunset; and no sooner had the red light died away on the elm-tops,
than up started the figure from among the ruins on the opposite side of
the burying-ground, and came onward in its round, muttering incessantly as
it came, 'Oh, for mercy sake, for mercy sake, a handful of meal! I
am starving, I am starving: a handful of meal!' And then, changing
its tone into one still more doleful, 'Oh,' it exclaimed, 'alas for the
little lippie and the little peck! alas for the little lippie and the
little peck!' As it passed, the farmer started up from his seat; and
there, sure enough, was M'Kechan, the corn-factor, in his ordinary dress,
and, except that he was thinner and paler than usual, like a man suffering
from hunger, presenting nearly his ordinary appearance. The figure
passed with a slow, gliding sort of motion; and, turning the further
corner of the burying-ground, came onward in its second round; but the
farmer, though he had felt rat rather curious than afraid as it went by,
found his heart fail him as it approached the second time, and, without
waiting its coming up, set off homeward through the corn. The
apparition continued to take its rounds evening, and morning for about two
months after, and then disappeared for ever. Mealmongers had to
forget the story, and to grow a little less afraid, ere they could cheat
with their accustomed coolness. Believe me, such beliefs, whatever
may be thought of them in the present day, have not been without their use
in the past."
As the old man concluded his story, one of the women rose to
a table in the little room and replenished our glasses. We all drank
"It is within an hour of midnight," said one of the men,
looking at his watch. "We had better recruit the fire, and draw in
our chairs. The air aye feels chill at a lykewake or a burial.
At this time to-morrow we will be lifting the corpse."
There was no reply. We all drew in our chairs nearer
the fire, and for several minutes there was a pause in the conversation;
but there were more stories to be told, and before the morning many a
spirit was evoked from the grave, the vast deep, and the Highland stream.
T'is the Mind that makes the Body quick;
And as the Sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So Honour peereth in the meanest habit.
I HAD occasion, about three years ago, to visit the
ancient burgh of Fortrose. It was early in winter; the days were
brief, though pleasant, and the nights long and dark; and, as there is
much in Fortrose which the curious traveller deems interesting, I had
lingered amid its burying-grounds and its broken and mouldering tenements
till the twilight had fairly set in. I had explored the dilapidated
ruins of the Chanonry of Ross; seen the tomb of old Abbot Boniface and the
bell blessed by the Pope; run over the complicated tracery of the Runic
obelisk, which had been dug up, about sixteen years before, from under the
foundations of the old parish church; and visited the low, long house,
with its upper windows buried in the thatch, in which the far-famed Sir
James Mackintosh had received the first rudiments of his education.
And in all this I had been accompanied by a benevolent old man of the
place, a mighty chronicler of the past, who, when a boy, had sat on the
same form with Sir James, and who on this occasion had seemed quite as
delighted in meeting with a patient and interested listener as I had been
in finding so intelligent and enthusiastic a storyist. There was
little wonder, then, that twilight should have overtaken me in such a
place, and in such company.
There are two roads which run between Cromarty and Fortrose,—the
one the king's highway, the other a narrow footpath that goes winding for
several miles under the immense wall of cliffs which overhangs the
northern shores of the Moray Frith, and then ascends to the top by narrow
and doubtful traverses along the face of an immense precipice termed the
Scarf's Crag. The latter route is by far the more direct and more
pleasant of the two to the day traveller; but the man should think twice
who proposes taking it by night. The Scarf's Crag has been a scene
of frightful accidents for the last two centuries. It is not yet
more than twelve years since a young and very active man was precipitated
from one of its higher ledges to the very beach, a sheer descent of nearly
two hundred feet; and a multitude of little cairns which mottle the sandy
platform below bear witness to the not unfrequent occurrence of such
casualties in the remote past. With the knowledge of all this,
however, I had determined on taking the more perilous road. It is
fully two miles shorter than the other; and, besides, in a life of
undisturbed security a slight admixture of that feeling which the sense of
danger awakens is a luxury which I have always deemed worth one's while
running some little risk to procure. The night fell thick and dark
while I was yet hurrying along the footway which leads under the cliffs;
and, on reaching the Scarf's Crag, I could no longer distinguish the path,
nor even catch the huge outline of the precipice between me and the sky.
I knew that the moon rose a little after nine, but it was still early in
the evening; and, deeming it too long to wait its rising, I set myself to
grope for the path, when, on turning an abrupt angle, I was dazzled by a
sudden blaze of light from an opening in the rock. A large fire of
furze and brushwood blazed merrily from the interior of a low-browed but
spacious cave, bronzing with dusky yellow the huge volume of smoke which
went rolling outwards along the roof, and falling red and strong on the
face and hands of a thick-set, determined-looking man, well-nigh in his
sixtieth year, who was seated before it on a block of stone. I knew
him at once, as an intelligent, and, in the main, rather respectable
gipsy, whom I had once met with about ten years before, and who had seen
some service as a soldier, it was said, in the first British expedition to
Egypt. The sight of his fire determined me at once. I resolved
on passing the evening with him till the rising of the moon; and, after a
brief explanation, and a blunt, though by no means unkind invitation to a
place beside his fire, I took my seat, fronting him, on a block of granite
which had been rolled from the neighbouring beach. In less than half
an hour we were on as easy terms as if we had been comrades for years;
and, after beating over fifty different topics, he told me the story of
his life, and found an attentive and interested auditor.
Who of all my readers is unacquainted with Goldsmith's
admirable stories of the sailor with the wooden leg and the poor
half-starved merry-andrew? Independently of the exquisite humour of
the writer, they are suited to interest us from the sort of cross vistas
which they open into scenes of life where every thought and aim and
incident has at once all the freshness of novelty and all the truth of
nature to recommend it. And I felt nearly the same kind of interest
in listening to the narrative of the gipsy. It was much longer than
either of Goldsmith's stories, and perhaps less characteristic; but it
presented a rather curious picture of a superior nature rising to its
proper level through circumstances the most adverse; and, in the main,
pleased me so well, that I think I cannot do better than present it to the
"I was born, master," said the gipsy, "in this very cave,
some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My
mother, however, belonged to the Debatable-land; my father was an
Englishman; and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey,
another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth
in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in
some families. It can't be much less than fifty years since my
mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and
staid away about a week. We thought we had lost her altogether; but
back she came at last; and when she did come, she brought with her a small
sprig of a lad of about three summers or thereby. Father grumbled a
little. We had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare
enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother showed him a pouch
of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling. And so we called
the little fellow Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves; and he
grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e'er the sun looked upon. I
was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot ahead
of me; and when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always
came off second best. I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit.
He would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in
his life; but then for gin-setting, and deerstalking, and black fishing,
not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler
in the Solway, who more active than Bill? He was barely nineteen,
poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him. I
remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran
lugger was in the Frith, d'ye see, a little below Caerlaverock; and father
and Bill, and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the
kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy
night: we could hardly see fifty yards around us; and on our last
trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should
come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from
Kirkcudbright! They hailed us to strike, in the devil's name.
He swore he wouldn't. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled
through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they
came; but no sooner were they within half-oar's length, than, taking up a
keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it
spin through their bottom as if the planks were of window glass, and down
went their cutter in half a jiffy. They had wet powder that night,
and fired no more bullets. Well, when they were gathering themselves
up as they best could,—and, goodness be praised! there were no drownings
amongst them,—we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and
then fled up the country. He knew there would be news of our night's
work; and so there was; for before next evening there were advertisements
on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of
"Bill was a bit of a scholar,—so am I, for that matter,—and
the papers stared him on every side.'
"'Jack,' he said to me,—'Jack Whyte, this will never do: the
law's too strong for us now; and if I don't make away with myself, they'll
either have me tucked up or sent over the seas to slave for life.
I'll tell you what I'll do. I stand six feet in my stocking-soles,
and good men were never more wanted than at present. I'll cross the
country this very night, and away to Edinburgh, where there are troops
raising for foreign service. Better a musket than the gallows!'
"'Well, Bill,' I said, 'I don't care though I go with you.
I'm a good enough man for my inches, though I ain't so tall as you, and
I'm woundily tired of spoon-making.'
"And so off we set across the country that very minute,
travelling by night only, and passing our days in any hiding hole we could
find, till we reached Edinburgh, and there we took the bounty. Bill
made as pretty a soldier as one could have seen in a regiment; and, men
being scarce, I wasn't rejected neither; and after just three weeks'
drilling,—and plaguey weeks they were,—we were shipped off, fully-
finished, for the south. Bonaparte had gone to Egypt, and we were
sent after him to ferret him out; though we weren't told so at the time.
And it was our good luck, master, to be put aboard of the same transport.
"Nothing like seeing the world for making a man smart.
We had all sorts of people in our regiment, from the broken-down gentleman
to the broken-down lamplighter; and Bill was catching from the best of
them all he could. He knew he wasn't a gipsy, and had always an eye
to getting on in the world; and as the voyage was a woundy long one, and
we had the regimental schoolmaster aboard, Bill was a smarter fellow at
the end of it than he had been at the beginning. Well, we reached
Aboukir Bay at last. You have never been in Egypt, master; but just
look across the Moray Frith here, on a sunshiny day, and you will see a
picture of it, if you but strike off the blue Highand hills, that rise
behind, from the long range of low sandy hillocks that stretches away
along the coast between Findhorn and Nairn. I don't think it was
worth all the trouble it cost us; but the king surely knew best.
Bill and I were in the first detachment, and we had to clear the way for
the rest. The French were drawn up on the shore, as thick as flies
on a dead snake, and the bullets rattled round us like a shower of May
hail. It was a glorious sight, master, for a bold heart. The
entire line of sandy coast seemed one unbroken streak of fire and smoke;
and we could see the old tower of Aboukir rising like a fiery dragon at
the one end, and the straggling village of Rosetta, half-cloud half-flame,
stretching away on the other. There was a line of launches and
gunboats behind us, that kept up an incessant fire on the enemy, and shot
and shell went booming over our heads. We rowed shorewards, under a
canopy of smoke and flame: the water was broken by ten thousand oars; and
never, master, have you heard such cheering; it drowned the roar of the
very cannon. Bill and I pulled at the same oar; but he bade me
cheer, and leave the pulling to him.
"'Cheer, Jack,' he said, 'cheer! I am strong enough to
pull ten oars, and your cheering does my heart good.'
"I could see, in the smoke and the confusion, that there was
a boat stove by a shell just besides us, and the man immediately behind me
was shot through the head. But we just cheered and pulled all the
harder; and the moment our keel touched the shore we leaped out into the
water, middle deep, and, after one well-directed volley, charged up the
beach with our bayonets fixed. I missed footing in the hurry, just
as we closed, and a big-whiskered fellow in blue would have pinned me to
the sand had not Bill struck him through the wind-pipe, and down he fell
above me; but when I strove to rise from under him, he grappled with me in
his death agony, and the blood and breath came rushing through his wound
in my face. Ere I had thrown him off my comrades had broken the
enemy and were charging up the side of a sand-hill, where there were two
field-pieces stationed that had sadly annoyed us in the landing.
There came a shower of grape-shot whistling round me, that carried away my
canteen and turned me half round; and when I looked up, I saw, through the
smoke, that half my comrades were swept away by the discharge, and that
the survivors were fighting desperately over the two guns, hand-to-hand
with the enemy. Ere I got up to them, however,—and, trust me,
master, I didn't linger,—the guns were our own. Bill stood beside
one of them, all grim and bloody, with his bayonet dripping like an
eaves-spout in a shower. He had struck down five of the French,
besides the one he had levelled over me; and now, all of his own
accord,—for our sergeant had been killed,—he had shotted the two pieces
and turned them on the enemy. They all scampered down the hill,
master, onthe first discharge,—all save one brave, obstinate fellow, who
stood firing upon us, not fifty yards away, half under cover of a
sand-bank. I saw him load thrice ere I could hit him, and one of his
balls whisked through my hat; but I catched him at last, and down he fell.
My bullet went right through his forehead. We had no more fighting
that day. The French fell back on Alexandria, and our troops
advanced about three miles into the country, over a dreary waste of sand,
and then lay for the night on their arms.
"In the morning, when we were engaged in cooking our
breakfasts, master, making what fires we could with the withered leaves of
the date-tree, our colonel and two officers came up to us. The
colonel was an Englishman, as brave a gentleman as ever lived, aye and as
kind an officer too. He was a fine-looking old man, as tall as Bill,
and as well built too; but his health was much broken. It was said
he had entered the army out of break-heart on losing his wife. Well,
he came up to us, I say, and shook Bill by the hand as cordially as if he
had been a colonel like himself. He was a brave, good soldier, he
said, and, to show him how much he valued good men, he had come to make
him a sergeant, in room of the one he had lost. He had heard he was
a scholar, he said, and he trusted his conduct would not disgrace the
halberd. Bill, you may be sure, thanked the colonel, and thanked
him, master, very like a gentleman; and that very day he swaggered scarlet
and a sword, as pretty a sergeant as the army could boast of; aye, and for
that matter, though his experience was little, as fit for his place.
"For the first fortnight we didn't eat the king's biscuit for
nothing. We had terrible hard fighting on the 13th; and, had not our
ammunition failed us, we would have beaten the enemy all to rags; but for
the last two hours we hadn't a shot, and stood just like so many targets
set up to be fired at. I was never more fixed in my life than when I
saw my comrades falling around me, and all for nothing. Not only
could I see them falling, but, in the absence of every other noise,—for we
had ceased to cheer, and stood as silent and as hard as foxes,—I could
hear the, dull, hollow sound of the shot as it pierced them through.
Sometimes the bullets struck the sand, and then rose and went rolling over
the level, raising clouds of dust at every skip. At times we could
see them coming through the air like little clouds, and singing all the
way as they came. But it was the frightful smoking shot that annoyed
us most—these horrid shells. Sometimes they broke over our heads in
the air as if a cannon charged with grape had been fired at us from out
the clouds. At times they sank into the sand at our feet, and then
burst up like so many Vesuviuses, giving at once death and burial to
hundreds. But we stood our ground, and the day passed. I
remember we got, towards evening, into a snug hollow between two
sand-hills, where the shot skimmed over us, not two feet above our heads;
but two feet is just as good as twenty, master; and I began to think, for
the first time, that I hadn't got a smoke all day. I snapped my
musket and lighted my pipe; and Bill, whom I hadn't seen since the day
after the landing, came up to share with me.
"'Bad day's work, Jack,' he said; 'but we have at least
taught the enemy what British soldiers can endure, and ere long we shall
teach them something more. But here comes a shell! Nay, do not
move,' he said; 'it will fall just ten yards short.' And down it
came, roaring like a tempest, sure enough, about ten yards away, and sank
into the sand. 'There now, fairly lodged,' said Bill; 'lie down,
lads, lie down.' We threw ourselves flat on our faces; the earth
heaved under us like a wave of the sea; and in a moment Bill and I were
covered with half a ton of sand. But the pieces whizzed over us;
and, save that the man who was across me had an ammunition-bag carried
away, not one of us more than heard them. On getting ourselves
disinterred, and our pipes re-lighted, Bill, with a twitch on the
elbow—so— said he wished to speak with me a little apart; and we went out
together into a hollow in front.
"'You will think it strange, Jack,' he said, 'that all this
day, when the enemy's bullets were hopping around us like hail, there was
but just one idea that filled my mind, and I could find room for no other.
Ever since I saw Colonel Westhope, it has been forced upon me, through a
newly awakened, dream-like recollection, that he is the gentleman with
whom I lived ere I was taken away by your people; for taken away I must
have been. Your mother used to tell me that my father was a
Cumberland gipsy, who met with some bad accident from the law; but I am
now convinced she must have deceived me, and that my father was no such
sort of man. You will think it strange, but when putting on my coat
this morning, my eye caught the silver bar on the sleeve, and there leaped
into my mind a vivid recollection of having worn a scarlet dress
before,—scarlet bound with silver,—and that it was in the house of a
gentleman and lady whom I had just learned to call papa and mamma.
And every time I see the colonel, as I say, I am reminded of the
gentleman. Now, for heaven's sake, Jack, tell me all you know about
me. You are a few years my senior, and must remember better than I
can myself under what circumstances I joined your tribe.'
"'Why, Bill,' I said, 'I know little of the matter, and
'twere no great wonder though these bullets should confuse me somewhat in
recalling what I do know. Most certainly we never thought you a
gipsy like ourselves; but then I am sure mother never stole you; she had
family enough of her own; and, besides, she brought with her for your
board, she said, a purse with more gold in it than I have seen at one time
before or since. I remember it kept us all comfortably in the
creature for a whole twelvemonth; and it wasn't a trifle, Bill, that
could do that. You were at first like to die among us. You
hadn't been accustomed to sleeping out, or to food such as ours.
And, dear me! how the rags you were dressed in used to annoy you; but you
soon got over all, Bill, and became the hardiest little fellow among us.
I once heard my mother say that you were a love-begot, and that
your father, who was an English gentleman, had to part from both you and
your mother on taking a wife. And no more can I tell you, Bill, for
the life of me.'
"We slept that night on the sand, master, and found in the
morning that the enemy had fallen back some miles nearer Alexandria.
Next evening there was a party of us despatched on some secret service
across the desert. Bill was with us; but the officer under whose
special charge we were placed was a Captain Turpic, a nephew of Colonel
Westhope, and his heir. But he heired few of his good qualities.
He was the son of a pettifogging lawyer, and was as heartily hated by the
soldiers as the colonel was beloved. Towards sunset the party
reached a hollow valley in the waste; and there rested, preparatory, as we
all intended, for passing the night. Some of us were engaged in
erecting temporary huts of branches, some in providing the necessary
materials; and we had just formed a snug little camp, and were preparing
to light our fires for supper, when we heard a shot not two furlongs away.
Bill, who was by far the most active among us, sprang up one of the
tallest date trees to reconnoitre. But he soon came down again.
"'We have lost our pains this time,' he said; 'there is a
party of French, of fully five times our number, not half a mile away.'
The captain, on the news, wasn't slow, as you may think, in ordering us
off; and, hastily gathering up our blankets and the contents of our
knapsacks, we struck across the sand just as the sun was setting.
There is scarce any twilight in Egypt, master; it is pitch dark twenty
Minutes after sunset. The first part of the evening, too, is
infinitely disagreeable. The days are burning hot, and not a cloud
can be seen in the sky; but no sooner has the sun gone down than there
comes on a thick white fog that covers the whole country, so that one
can't see fifty yards around; and so icy cold is it, that it strikes a
chill to the very heart. It is with these fogs that the dews
descend; and deadly things they are. Well, the mist and the darkness
came upon us at once; we lost all reckoning, and, after floundering on for
an hour or so among the sandhills, our captain called a halt, and bade us
burrow as we best might among the hollows. Hungry as we were we were
fain to leave our supper to begin the morning with, and huddled all
together into what seemed a deep, dry ditch. We were at first
surprised, master, to find an immense heap of stone under us,—we couldn't
have lain harder had we lain on a Scotch cairn,—and that, d'ye sea, is
unusual in Egypt, where all the sand has been blown by the hot winds from
the desert, hundreds of miles away, and where, in the course of a few
days' journey, one mayn't see a pebble larger than a pigeon's egg.
There were hard, round, bullet-like masses under us, and others of a more
oblong shape, like pieces of wood that had been cut for fuel; and, tired
as we were, their sharp, points, protruding through the sand, kept most of
us from sleep. But that was little, master, to what we felt
afterwards. As we began to take heat together, there broke out among
us a most disagreeable stench,—bad at first, but unlike anything I had
felt before, but at last altogether overpowering. Some of us became
dead sick, and some, to show how much bolder they were than the rest,
began to sing. One half the party stole away, one by one, and lay
down outside. For my own part, master, I thought it was the plague
that was breaking out upon us from below, and lay still in despair of
escaping it. I was wretchedly tired too; and, despite of my fears
and the stench, I fell asleep, and slept till daylight. But never
before, master, did I see such a sight as when I awoke. We had been
sleeping on the carcasses of ten thousand Turks, whom Bonaparte had
massacred about a twelvemonth before. There were eyeless skulls,
grinning at us by hundreds from the side of the ditch, and black, withered
hands and feet sticking out, with the white bones glittering between the
shrunken sinews. The very sand, for roods around, had a brown
ferruginous tinge, and seemed baked into a half-solid mass resembling
clay. It was no place to loiter in, and you may trust me, master, we
breakfasted elsewhere. Bill kept close to our captain all that
morning. He didn't much like him, even so early in their
acquaintance as this,—no one did, in fact,—but he was anxious to learn
from him all he could regarding the colonel. He told him, too,
something about his own early recollections; but he would better have kept
them to himself. From that hour, master, Captain Turpic never gave
him a pleasant look, and sought every means to ruin him.
"We joined the army again on the evening of the 20th March.
You know, master, what awaited us next morning. I had been marching,
on the day of our arrival, for twelve hours under a very hot sun, and was
fatigued enough to sleep soundly. But the dead might have awakened
next morning. The enemy broke in upon us about three o'clock.
It was pitch dark. I had been dreaming, at the moment, that I was
busily engaged in the landing, fighting in the front rank beside Bill; and
I awoke to hear the enemy outside the tent struggling in fierce conflict
with such of my comrades as, half-naked and half-armed, had been roused by
the first alarm, and had rushed out to oppose them. You will not
think that I was long in joining them, master, when I tell you that Bill
himself was hardly two steps ahead of me. Colonel Westhope was
everywhere at once that morning, bringing his men, in the darkness and the
confusion, into something like order,—threatening, encouraging,
applauding, issuing orders, all in a breath. Just as we got out, the
French broke through beside our tent, and we saw him struck down in the
throng. Bill gave a tremendous cry of 'Our colonel! our colonel!'
and struck his pike up to the cross into the breast of the fellow who had
given the blow. And hardly had that one fallen than he sent it
crashing through the face of the next foremost, till it lay buried in the
brain. The enemy gave back for a moment; and as he was striking down
a third the colonel got up, badly wounded in the shoulder; but he kept the
field all day. He knew Bill the moment he rose, and leant on him
till he had somewhat recovered. 'I shall not forget, Bill,' he said,
'that you have saved your colonel's life.' We had a fierce struggle,
master, ere we beat out the French; but, broken and half-naked as we were,
we did beat them out, and the battle became general.
"At first the flare of the artillery, as the batteries blazed
out in the darkness, dazzled and blinded me; but I loaded and fired
incessantly; and the thicker the bullets went whistling past me, the
faster I loaded and fired. A spent shot, that had struck through a
sand-bank, came rolling on like a bowl, and, leaping up from a hillock in
front, struck me on the breast. It was such a blow, master, as a man
might have given with his fist; but it knocked me down, and ere I got up,
the company was a few paces in advance. The bonnet of the soldier
who had taken my place came rolling to my feet ere I could join them.
But alas! it was full of blood and brains; and I found that the spent shot
had come just in time to save my life. Meanwhile, the battle raged
with redoubled fury on the left, and we in the centre had a short respite.
And some of us needed it. For my own part, I had fired about a
hundred rounds; and my right shoulder was as blue as your waistcoat.
"You will wonder, master, how I should notice such a thing in
the heat of an engagement; but I remember nothing better than that there
was a flock of little birds shrieking and fluttering over our heads for
the greater rift of the morning. The poor little things seemed as if
robbed of their very instinct by the incessant discharges on every side of
them; and, instead of pursuing a direct course, which would soon have
carried them clear of us, they kept fluttering in helpless terror in one
little spot. About mid-day, an aide-de-camp went riding by us to the
"'How goes it? how goes it?' asked one of our officers.
"'It is just who will,' replied the aide-de-camp, and passed
by like lightning. Another followed hard after.
"'How goes it now?' inquired the officer.
"'Never better, boy!' said the second rider. 'The
forty-second have cut Bonaparte's invincibles to pieces, and all the rest
of the enemy are falling back!'
"We came more into action a little after. The enemy
opened a heavy fire upon us, and seemed advancing to the charge. I
had felt so fatigued, master, during the previous pause, that I could
scarcely raise my hand to my head; but, now that we were to be engaged
again, all my fatigue left me, andd I found myself grown fresh as ever.
There were two field pieces to our left that had done noble execution
during the day; and Captain Turpic's company, including Bill and me, were
ordered to stand by them in the expected charge. They were wrought
mostly by seamen from the vessels,—brave, tight fellows who, like Nelson,
never saw fear; but they had been so busy that they had shot away most of
their ammunition; and, as we came up to them, they were about despatching
a party to the rear 'or more.
"'Right,' said Captain Turpic; 'I don't care though I lend
you a hand, and go with you.'
"'On your peril, sir!' said Bill Whyte. 'What! leave
your company in the moment of the expected charge! I shall assuredly
report you for cowardice and desertion of quarters if you do.'
"'And I shall have you broke for mutiny,' said the captain.
'How can these follows know how to choose their ammunition without some
one to direct them?'
"And so off he went to the rear with the sailors; but, though
they returned, poor fellows, in ten minutes or so, we saw no more of the
captain till evening. On came the French in their last charge.
Ere they could close with us the sailors had fired their field-pieces
thrice, and we could see wide avenues opened among them with each
discharge. But on they came. Our bayonets crossed and clashed
with theirs for one half-minute, and in the next they were hurled headlong
down the declivity, and we were fighting among them pell-mell. There
are few troops superior to the French, master, in a first attack; but they
want the bottom of the British; and, now that we had broken them in the
moment of their onset, they had no chance with us, and we pitched our
bayonets into them as if they had been so many sheaves in harvest.
They lay in some places three and four tiers deep; for our blood was up,
master; just as they advanced on us we had heard of the death of our
general and they neither asked for quarter nor got it. Ah, the good
and gallant Sir Ralph! We all felt as if we had lost a father; but
he died as the brave best love to die. The field was all our own;
and not a Frenchman remained who was not dead or dying. That action,
master, fairly broke the neck of their power in Egypt.
Our colonel was severely wounded, as I have told you, early
in the morning; but, though often enough urged to retire, he had held out
all day, and had issued his orders with all the coolness and decision for
which he was so remarkable; but now that the excitement of the fight was
over his strength failed him at once, and he had to be carried to his
tent. He called for Bill to assist in bearing him off. I
believe it was merely that he might have the opportunity of speaking to
him. He told him that, whether he died or lived, he would take care
that he should be provided for. He gave Captain Turpic charge, too,
that he should keep a warm side to Bill. I overheard our major say
to the captain, as we left the tent, 'Good heavens! did you ever see two
men liker one another than the colonel and our new sergeant?' But
the captain carelessly remarked that the resemblance didn't strike him.
"We met outside with a comrade. He had had a cousin in
the forty-second, he said, who had been killed that morning, and he was
anxious to see the body decently buried, and wished us to go along with
him. And so we both went. It is nothing, master, to see men
struck down in warm blood, and when one's own blood is up; but oh, 'tis a
grievous thing, after one has cooled down to one's ordinary mood, to go
out among the dead and the dying! We passed through what had been
the thick of the battle. The slain lay in hundreds and
thousands,—like the ware and tangle on the shore below us,—horribly
broken, some of them, by the shot; and blood and brains lay spattered on
the sand. But it was a worse sight to see, when some poor wretch,
who had no chance of living an hour longer, opened his eyes as we passed
and cried out for water. We soon emptied our canteens, and then had
to pass on. In no place did the dead lie thicker than where the
forty-second had engaged the invincibles; and never were there finer
fellows. They lay piled in heaps,—the best men of Scotland over the
best men of France,—and their wounds and their number and the postures in
which they lay showed how tremendous the struggle had been. I saw
one gigantic corpse with the head and neck cloven through the steel cap to
the very brisket. It was that of a Frenchman; but the hand that had
drawn the blow lay cold and stiff not a yard away, with the broadsword
still firm in its grasp. A little further on we found the body we
sought. It was that of a fair young man. The features were as
composed as if he were asleep; there was even a smile on the lips; but a
cruel cannon-shot had torn the very heart out of the breast. Evening
was falling. There was a little dog whining and whimpering over the
body, aware, it would seem, that some great ill had befallen its master,
but yet tugging from time to time at his clothes, that he might rise and
"'Ochon, ochon! poor Evan M'Donald!' exclaimed our comrade;
'what would Christy Ross or your good old mother say to see you lying
"Bill burst out a-crying as if he had been a child; and I
couldn't keep dry-eyed neither, master. But grief and pity are
weaknesses of the bravest natures. We scooped out a hole in the sand
with our bayonets and our hands, and burying the body, came away.
"The battle of the 21st broke—as I have said—the strength of
the French in Egypt; for though they didn't surrender to us until about
five months after, they kept snug behind their walls, and we saw little
more of them. Our colonel had gone aboard of the frigate desperately
ill of his wounds; so ill that it was several times reported he was dead;
and most of our men were suffering sadly from sore eyes ashore. But
such of us as escaped had little to do, and we contrived to while away the
time agreeably enough. Strange country, Egypt, master. You
know our people have come from there; but, trust me, I could find none of
my cousins among either the Turks or the Arabs. The Arabs, master,
are quite the gipsies of Egypt; and Bill and I—but he paid dearly for them
afterwards, poor fellow—used frequently to visit such of their straggling
tribes as came to the neighbourhood of our camp. You and the like of
you, master, are curious to see our people, and how we get on; and
no wonder; and we were just as curious to see the Arabs. Towards
evening they used to come in from the shore or the desert in parties of
ten or twelve. And wild-looking fellows they were; tall, but not
very tall, thin and skinny and dark, and an amazing proportion of them
blind of an eye,—an effect, I suppose, of the disease from which our
comrades were suffering so much. In a party of ten or twelve—and
their parties rarely exceeded a dozen—we found that every one of them had
some special office to perform. One carried a fishing-net, like a
herring have; one, perhaps, a basket of fish, newly caught; one a sheaf of
wheat; one a large copper basin, or rather platter; one a bundle of the
dead boughs and leaves of the date-tree; one the implements for lighting a
fire; and so on. The first thing they always did, after squatting
down in a circle, was to strike a light; the next to dig a round pot-like
hole in the sand, in which they kindle their fire. When the sand had
become sufficiently hot, they throw out the embers, and placing the fish,
just as they had caught them, in the bottom of the hole, heaped the hot
sand over them, and the fire over that. The sheaf of wheat was next
untied, and each taking a handful, held it over the flame till it was
sufficiently scorched, and then rubbed out the grain between their hands
into the copper plate. The fire was then drawn off a second time,
and the fish dug out; and, after rubbing off the sand and taking out the
bowels, they sat down to supper. And such, master, was the ordinary
economy of the poorer tribes, that seemed drawn to the camp merely by
curiosity. Some of the others brought fruit and vegetables to our
market, and were much encouraged by our officers. But a set of
greater rascals never breathed. At first several of our men got
flogged through them. They had a trick of raising a hideous outcry
in the market-place for every trifle, certain, d'ye see, of attracting the
notice of some of our officers, who were all sure to take part with them.
The market, master, had to be encouraged at all events; and it was some
time ere the tricks of the rascals were understood in the proper quarter.
But, to make short, Bill and I went out one morning to our walk. We
had just heard—and heavy news it was to the whole regiment—that our
colonel was despaired of, and had no chance of seeing out the day.
Bill was in miserably low spirits. Captain Turpic had insulted him
most grossly that morning. So long as the colonel had been expected
to recover, he had shown him some degree of civility; but he now took
every opportunity of picking a quarrel with him. There was no
comparison in battle, master, between Bill and the captain, for the
captain, I suspect, was little better than a coward; but then there was
just as little on parade the other way; for Bill, you know, couldn't know
a great deal, and the captain was a perfect martinet. He had called
him vagrant and be beggar, master, for emitting some little piece of duty.
Now he couldn't help having been with us, you know; and as for beggary, he
had never begged in his life. Well, we had walked out towards the
market, as I say.
"'It's all nonsense, Jack,' s says he, 'to be so dull on the
matter; I'll e'en treat you to some fruit. I have a Sicilian dollar
here. See that lazy fellow with the spade lying in front, and the
burning mountain smoking behind him. We must see if he can't dig out
for us a few prans' worth of dates.'
"Well, master, up he went to a tall, thin, rascally-looking
Arab, with one eye, and bought as much fruit from him as might come to one
tenth of the dollar which he gave him, and then held out his hand for the
change. But there was no change forthcoming. Bill wasn't a man
to be done out of his cash in that silly way, and so he stormed at the
rascal; but he, in turn, stormed as furiously, in his own lingo, at him,
till at last Bill's blood got up, and, seizing him by the breast, he
twisted him over his knee as one might a boy of ten years or so. The
fellow raised a hideous outcry, as if Bill were robbing and murdering him.
Two offcers, who chanced to be in the market at the time, came running up
at the noise. One of them was the scoundrel Turpic; and Bill was
laid hold of, and sent off under guard to the camp. Poor fellow, he
got scant justice there. Turpic had procured a man-of-war's-man, who
swore, as well be might, indeed, that Bill was the smuggler who had
swamped the Kirkcudbright custom-house boat. There was another
brought forward who swore that both of us were gipsies, and told a blasted
rigmarole story, without one word of truth in it, about the stealing of a
silver spoon. The Arab had his story, too, in his own lingo; and
they received every word; for my evidence went for nothing. I was of
a race who never spoke the truth, they said, as if I weren't as good as a
Mohammedan Arab. To crown all, in came Turpic's story about what he
called Bill's mutinous spirit in the action of the 21st. You may
guess the rest, master. The poor fellow was broke that morning, and
told that, were it not in consideration of his bravery, he would have got
a flogging into the bargain.
"I spent the evening of that day with Bill outside the camp,
and we ate the dates together that in the morning had cost him so dear.
The report had gone abroad,—luckily a false one,—that our colonel was
dead; and that put an end to all hope with the poor fellow of having his
case righted. We spoke together for I am sure two hours; spoke of
Bill's early recollections, and of the hardship of his fate all along.
And it was now worse with him, he said, than it had ever been before.
He spoke of the strange, unaccountable hostility of Turpic; and I saw his
brow grow dark, and the veins of his neck swell almost to bursting.
He trusted they might yet meet, he said, where there would be none to note
who was the officer and who the private soldier. I did my best,
master, to console the poor fellow, and we parted. The first thing I
saw, as I opened the tent-door next morning, was Captain Turpic, brought
into the camp by the soldier whose cousin Bill and I had assisted to bury.
The captain was leaning on his shoulder, somewhat less than half alive, as
it seemed, with four of his front teeth struck out, and a stream of blood
all along his vest and small clothes. He had been met with by Bill,
who had attacked him, he said, and, after breaking his sword, would have
killed him, had not the soldier come up and interfered. But that,
master, was the captain's story. The soldier told me afterwards that
he saw the captain draw his sword ere Bill lifted hand at all; and that,
when the poor fellow did strike, he gave him only one knock-down blow on
the mouth, that laid him insensible at his feet, and that, when down
though he might have killed him twenty times over, he didn't so much as
crook a finger on him. Nay, more, Bill offered to deliver himself up
to the soldier, had not the latter assured him that he would to a
certainty be shot, and advised him to make off. There was a party
despatched in quest of him, master, the moment Turpic had told his story;
but he was lucky enough, poor fellow, to elude them; and they returned in
the evening just as they had gone out. And I saw no more of Bill in
"AFTER all our fears and regrets, master, our
colonel recovered, and one morning about four months after the action,
came ashore to see us. We were sadly pestered with flies, master.
They buzzed all night by millions round our noses, and many a plan did we
think of to get rid of them; but after destroying hosts on hosts, they
still seemed as thick as before. I had fallen on a new scheme this
morning. I placed some sugar on a board, and surrounded it with
gunpowder; and when the flies had settled by thousands on the sugar, I
fired the gunpowder by means of a train, and the whole fell dead on the
floor of the tent. I had just got a capital shot, when up came the
colonel and sat down beside me.
"'I wish to know,' he said, all you can tell me about Bill
Whyte. You were his chief friend and companion, I have heard, and
are acquainted with his early history. Can you tell me aught of his
"Nothing of that, Colonel,' I said; 'and yet I have known
Bill almost ever since he knew himself.'
"And so, master, I told him all that I knew: how Bill had
been first taken to us by my mother; of the purse of gold she had brought
with her, which had kept us all so merry; and of the noble spirit he had
shown among us when he grew up. I told him, too, of some of Bill's
early recollections; of the scarlet dress trimmed with silver, which had
been brought to his mind by the Sergeant's coat the first day he wore it;
of the gentleman and lady, too, whom he remembered to have lived with; and
of the supposed resemblance he had found between the former and the
colonel. The colonel, as I went on, was strangely agitated, master.
He held an open letter in his hand, and seemed every now and then to be
comparing particulars; and when I mentioned Bill's supposed recognition of
him, he actually started from off his seat.
"'Good heavens!' he exclaimed, 'why was I not brought
acquainted with this before?'
"I explained the why, master, and told him all about Captain
Turpic; and he left me with, you may be sure, no very favourable opinion
of the captain. But I must now tell you, master, a part of my story,
which I had but from hearsay.
"The colonel had been getting over the worse effects of his
wound, when he received a letter from a friend in England informing him
that his brother-in-law, the father of Captain Turpic, had died suddenly,
and that his sister, who to all appearance was fast following, had been
making strange discoveries regarding an only son of the colonel's, who was
supposed to have been drowned about seventeen years before. The
colonel had lost both his lady and child by a frightful accident.
His estate lay near Olney, on the banks of the Ouse; and the lady one day,
during the absence of the colonel, who was in London, was taking an airing
in the carriage with her son, a boy of three years or so, when the horses
took fright, and, throwing the coachman, who was killed on the spot,
rushed into the river. The Ouse is a deep, sluggish stream, dark and
muddy in some of the more dangerous pools, and mantled over with weeds.
It was into one of these the carriage was overturned. Assistance
came late, and the unfortunate lady was brought out a corpse; but the body
of the child was nowhere to be found. It now came out, however, from
the letter, that the child had been picked up unhurt by the colonel's
brother-in-law, who, after concealing it for nearly a week during the very
frenzy of the colonel's distress, had then given it to a gipsy. The
rascal's only motive—he was a lawyer, master—was, that his own son, the
captain, who was then a boy of twelve years or so, and not wholly ignorant
of the circumstance, might succeed to the colonel's estate. The
writer of the letter added that, on coming to the knowledge of this
singular confession, he had made instant search after the gipsy to whom
the child had been given, and had been fortunate enough to find her, after
tracing her over half the kingdom, in a cave near Fortrose, in the north
of Scotland. She had confessed all; stating, however, that the lad,
who had borne among the tribe the name of Bill Whyte, and had turned out a
fine fellow, had been outlawed for some smuggling feat, about eighteen
months before, and had enlisted with a young man, her son, into a regiment
bound for Egypt. You see, master, there couldn't be a shadow of
doubt that my comrade Bill Whyte was just Henry Westhope, the colonel's
son and heir. But the grand matter was where to find him.
Search as we might, all search was in vain. We could trace him no
further than outside the camp to where he had met with Captain Turpic.
I should tell you, by the way, that the captain was now sent to Coventry
by every one, and that not an officer in the regiment would return his
"Well, master, the months passed, and at length the French
surrendered; and, having no more to do in Egypt, we all re-embarked, and
sailed for England. The short peace had been ratified before our
arrival; and I, who had become heartily tired of the life of a soldier now
that I had no one to associate with, was fortunate enough to obtain my
discharge. The colonel retired from the service at the same time.
He was as kind to me as if he had been ray father, and offered to make me
his forester if I would but come and live beside him. But I was too
fond of a wandering life for that. He was corresponding, he told me,
with every British consul within fifteen hundred miles of the Nile; but he
had heard nothing of Bill, master. Well, after seeing the colonel's
estate, I parted from him, and came north to find out my people, which I
soon did; and, for a year or so, I lived with them just as I have been
doing since. I was led in the course of my wanderings to Leith, and
was standing one morning on the pier among a crowd of people, who had
gathered round to see a fine vessel from the Levant that was coming in at
the time, when my eye caught among the sailors a man exceedingly like
Bill. He was as tall, and even more robust, and he wrought with all
Bill's activity; but for some time I could not catch a glimpse of his
face. At length, however, he turned round, and there, sure enough,
was Bill himself. I was afraid to hail him, master, not knowing who
among the crowd might also know him, and know him also as a deserter or an
outlaw; but you may be sure I wasn't long in leaping aboard and making up
to him. And we were soon as happy, master, in one of the cellars of
the Coal Hill, as we had been all our lives before.
"Bill told me his history since our parting. He had
left the captain lying at his feet, and struck across the sand in the
direction of the Nile, one of the mouths of which he reached next day.
He there found some Greek sailors, who were employed in watering; and,
assisting them in their work, he was brought aboard their vessel, and
engaged as a seaman by the master, who had lost some of his crew by the
plague. As you may think, master, he soon became a prime sailor, and
continued with the Greeks, trading among the islands of the Archipelago
for about eighteen months, when, growing tired of the service, and meeting
with an English vessel, he had taken a passage home. I told him how
much ado we had all had about him after he had left us, and how we were to
call him Bill Whyte no longer. And so, in short, master, we set out
together for Colonel Westhope's.
"In our journey we met with some of our people on a wild moor
of Cumberland, and were invited to pass the night with them.
They were of the Curlit family; but you will hardly know them by that.
Two of them had been with us when Bill swamped the custom-house boat.
They were fierce, desperate fellows, and not much to be trusted by their
friends even; and I was afraid that they might have somehow come to guess
that Bill had brought some clinkers home with him. And so, master, I
would fain have dissuaded him from making any stay with them in the
night-time; for I did not know, you see, in what case we might find our
weasands in the morning. But Bill had no fears of any kind, and
was, beside, desirous to spend one last night with the gipsies; and so he
staid. The party had taken up their quarters in a waste house on the
moor, with no other human dwelling within four miles of it. There
was a low, stunted wood on the one side, master, and a rough, sweeping
stream on the other. The night, too, was wild and boisterous; and,
what between suspicion and discomfort, I felt well-nigh as drearily as I
did when lying among the dead men in Egypt. We were nobly treated,
however, and the whiskey flowed like water. But we drank no more
than was good for us. Indeed, Bill was never a great drinker; and I
kept on my guard, and refused the liquor on the plea of a bad head.
I should have told you that there were but three of the Curlits—all of
them raw-boned fellows, however, and all of them of such stamp that the
three have since been hung. I saw they were sounding Bill; but he
seemed aware of them.
"'Aye, aye,' says he, 'I have made something by my voyaging,
lads, though, mayhap, not a great deal. What think you of that there
now, for instance?'— drawing, as he spoke, a silver-mounted pistol out of
each pocket. 'These are pretty pops, and as good as they are pretty.
The worst of them sends a bullet through an inch-board at twenty yards.'
"'Are they loaded, Bill?' asked Tom Curlit.
"'To be sure,' said Bill, returning them again each to its
own pouch. 'What is the use of an empty pistol?'
"'Ah,' replied Tom, 'I smell a rat, Bill. You have
given over making war on the king's account, and have taken the road to
make war on your own. Bold enough, to be sure.'
"From the moment they saw the pistols, the brothers seemed to
have changed their plan regarding us; for some plan I am certain they had.
They would now fain have taken us into partnership with them; but their
trade was a woundy bad one, master, with a world more of risk than profit.
"'Why, lads,' said Tom Curlit to Bill and me, 'hadn't you
better stay with us altogether? The road won't do in these days at
all. No, no; the law is a vast deal overstrong for that, and you
will be tucked up like dogs for your very first affair. But if you
stay with us, you will get on in a much quieter way on this wild moor
here. Plenty of game, Bill; and sometimes, when the nights are long,
we contrive to take a purse with as little trouble as may be. We had
an old peddler only three weeks ago that brought us sixty good pounds.
By the way, brothers, we must throw a few more sods over him, for I nosed
him this morning as I went by. And, lads, we have something in hand
just now, that, with, to be sure, a little more risk, will pay better
still. Two hundred yellow boys in hand, and five hundred more when
our work is done. Better that, Bill, than standing to be shot at for
a shilling per day.'
"'Two hundred in hand and five hundred more when you have
done your work!' exclaimed Bill. 'Why, that is sure enough princely
pay, unless the work be very bad indeed. But come, tell us what you
propose. You can't expect us to make it a leap-in-the-dark matter.'
"'The work is certainly a little dangerous,' said Tom, and we
of ourselves are rather few; but if you both join with us there would be a
vast deal less of danger indeed. The matter is just this. A
young fellow, like ourselves, has a rich old uncle, who has made his will
in his favour; but then he threatens to make another will that won't be so
favourable to him by half; and you see the drawing across of a
knife—so—would keep the first one in force. And that is all we have
to do before pocketing the blunt. But then the old fellow is as
brave as a lion, and there are two servants with him, worn-out soldiers
like himself, that would, I am sure, be rough customers. With your
help, however, we shall get on primely. The old boy's house stands
much alone, and we shall be five to three.'
"'Well, well,' said Bill; 'we shall give your proposal a
night's thought, and tell you what we think of it in the morning.
But remember, no tricks, Tom! If we engage in the work, we must go
share and share alike in the booty.'
"'To be sure,' said Tom; and so the conversation closed.
"About eight o'clock or so, master, I stepped out to the
door. The night was dark and boisterous as ever, and there had come
on a heavy rain. But I could see that, dark and boisterous as it
was, some one was approaching the house with a dark lantern. I lost
no time in telling the Curlits so.
"'It must be the captain,' said they, 'though it seems
strange that he should come here to-night. You must away, Jack and
Bill, to the loft, for it mayn't do for the captain to find you here; but
you can lend us a hand afterwards, should need require it.'
"There was no time for asking explanations, master, and so up
we climbed to the loft, and had got snugly concealed among some old hay,
when in came the captain. But what captain, think you? Why,
just our old acquaintance Captain Turpic!
"'Lads,' he said to the Curlits, 'make yourselves ready; get
your pistols. Our old scheme is blown for the colonel has left his
house at Olney on a journey to Scotland; but he passes here to-night, and
you must find means to stop now or never!'
"'What force and what arms has he with him, captain?' asked
"'The coachman, his body servant, and himself,' said the
captain; 'but only the servant and himself are armed. The stream
outside is high to-night; you must take them just as they are crossing it,
and thinking of only the water; and whatever else you may mind, make sure
of the colonel.'
"'Sure as I live,' said Bill to me, in a low whisper, "tis a
plan to murder Colonel Westhope! And, good heavens!' he continued,
pointing through an opening in the gable, 'yonder is his carriage not a
mile away. You may see the lantern, like two fiery eyes, coming
sweeping along the moor. We have no time to lose. Let us slide
down through the opening and meet with it.'
"As soon done as said, master. We slid down along the
turf gable; crossed the stream, which had risen high on its banks, by a
plank bridge for foot-passengers; and then dashed along the broken road in
the direction of the carriage. We came up to it as it was slowly
crossing an open drain.
"'Colonel Westhope!' I cried, 'Colonel Westhope!—stop!—stop!—turn
back! You are waylaid by a party of ruffians, who will murder you if
you go on.
The door opened, and the colonel stepped out, with his sword
under his left arm, and a cocked pistol in his hand.
"'Is not that Jack Whyte?' he asked.
"'The same, noble colonel,' I said; 'and here is Henry, your
"It was no place or time, master, for long explanations;
there was one hearty congratulation, and one hurried embrace; and the
colonel, after learning from Bill the number of the assailants and the
plan of the attack, ordered the carriage to drive on slowly before, and
followed, with us and his servant, on foot, behind.
"'The rascals,' he said, 'will be so dazzled with the flare
of the lanterns in front, that we will escape notice till they have fired,
and then we shall have them for the picking down.'
"And so it was, master. Just as the carriage was
entering the stream, the coachman was pulled down by Tom Curlit; at the
same instant, three bullets went whizzing through the glasses, and two
fellows came leaping out from behind some furze to the carriage door.
A third, whom I knew to be the captain, lagged behind. I marked him,
however; and when the colonel and Bill were disposing of the other
two,—and they took them so sadly by surprise, master, that they had but
little difficulty in throwing them down and binding them,—I was lucky
enough to send a piece of lead through the captain. He ran about
twenty yards, and then dropped down stone dead. Tom escaped us; but
he cut a throat some months after, and suffered for it at Carlisle.
And his two brothers, after making a clean breast, and confessing all,
were transported for life. But they found means to return in a few
years after, and were both hung on the gallows on which Tom had suffered
"I have not a great deal more to tell you, master. The
colonel has been dead for the last twelve years, and his son has succeeded
him in his estate. There is not a completer gentleman in England
than Henry Westhope, master, nor a finer fellow. I call on him every
time I go round, and never miss a hearty welcome; though, by the by, I am
quite as sure of a hearty scold. He still keeps a snug little house
empty for me, and offers to settle on me fifty pounds a year, whenever I
choose to give up my wandering life and go and live with him. But
what's bred in the bone won't come out of the flesh, master, and I have
not yet closed with his offer. And really, to tell you my mind, I
don't think it quite respectable. Here I am, at present, a free,
independent tinker,—no man more respectable than a tinker, master, all
allow that,—whereas, if I go and live with Bill, on an unwrought-for fifty
pounds a year, I will be hardly better than a more master-tailor or
shoemaker. No, no, that would never do! Nothing like
respectability, master, let a man fare as hard as he may."
I thanked the gipsy for his story, and told him I thought it
almost worth while putting into print. He thanked me, in turn, for
liking it so well, and assured me I was quite at liberty to put it in
print as soon as I chose. And so I took him at his word.
"But yonder," said he, "is the moon rising, red and huge,
over the three tops of Belrinnes, and throwing, as it brightens, its long
strip of fire across the frith. Take care of your footing just as
you reach the top of the crag; there is an awkward gap there, on the rock
edge, that reminds me of an Indian trap; but as for the rest of the path,
you will find it quite as safe as by day. Good-bye." I left
him, and made the best of my way home, where, while the facts were fresh
in my mind, I committed to paper the gipsy's story.