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Wilson's Border Tales
The Skean Dhu


"Bless me, Angus! do you wear a weapon of that kind about you?—I never knew it before," said John Sommerville to his friend Angus M’Intyre, as he sat looking at him one morning performing his toilet; an operation which discovered the latter thrusting a skean dhu—which all our readers know is a short knife, with a black horn handle, once a favourite weapon of the Highlanders—beneath the breast of his coat, into a sheath which seemed to have been placed there for the especial purpose."

"Did you not know that before, John?" said Angus, with a faint smile, but at the same time evidently desiring that there should be no more remarks made on the subject for he hastily buttoned up his coat, after having placed the weapon in its sheath, as if to cut the conversation short by putting its subject out of sight.

"No, indeed, I did not," said Sommerville. "I never saw it before, and never heard you carried such a thing about you. It’s a dangerous weapon, Angus; and you are a more dangerous man than I thought you," he added, smiling.

"Tuts—nonsense, man," said M’Intyre, impatiently. "It’ll never harm you, at any rate, John."

"No, no; I dare say not," replied his friend, good humouredly; but it may hurt others, though. Let me see it Mac." Angus reluctantly complied with his request, and put the tiny, but formidable weapon into his hands.

"It has my initials, I declare, on the handle!" exclaimed Sommerville, as he looked at the letters J. S. which were engraved on the butt-end of the knife.

"Yes," replied his friend—"it belonged to my maternal grandfather, John Stewart of Ardnahulish."

Sommerville returned the weapon without further remark; and here the conversation dropped. We will avail ourselves of the opportunity to say who the parties were whom we have thus somewhat abruptly introduced to the reader.

Angus M’Intyre was a native of the island of Sky, in the West Highlands of Scotland, and was, at the period of our story, (now a pretty old one, as it happened in the year 17—,) an officer of excise in Glasgow. At this period the Highland character had not lost all its original ferocity, and consequently the circumstance of an officer of excise, who was a Highlander, wearing a dirk, even in the discharge of the peaceable duties, though they were not always so either, that fell to his lot in a large town, was not by any means considered so very extraordinary a thing as it would be now. M’Intyre, as we have said, was a native of the West Highlands of Scotland, and an admirable specimen of the hardy and intrepid race from which he sprung. He was a very handsome man, and of the most daring courage, as had been often proven in the perilous adventures in which his profession occasionally engaged him. He was, however, of a remarkably quiet disposition, though fiery and irascible when provoked; but so much did the former prevail in his nature, that no one who did not know him intimately would have guessed how fiery a spirit lay couched underneath this thin covering of placidity, nor deemed, unless they saw that spirit roused, how formidable a man in his anger its possessor was. Yet, withal, was he a man of a kind and generous heart. The habit of carrying the deadly weapon to which we have alluded, Angus had acquired, when a youth, in the Highlands, where it was then common to be so armed: and this habit had adhered to him, notwithstanding the entire change of life to which his new occupation, as an excise officer, had introduced him. Angus, in short, although they had made him a clergyman, would, it was believed by those who knew him, have carried his skean dhu with him to the pulpit. He made no boast, however, of being possessed of this weapon. On the contrary, as we have already in part shewn, he very much disliked any allusion to it: for it was known, by a few of his most intimate friends, that he did carry such a thing about with him, and by these such allusions were sometimes made; but the former, although they had often seen his naturally fiery temper put to very severe test, never knew an instance of his having taken advantage of his concealed arms, even to the extent of a threat, excepting in the single instance of which we are about to speak; but that alone is sufficient to shew, in a very striking light, we think, the miserable effects of introducing or maintaining barbarous habits, more especially that of wearing secret weapons, into civilised and social life.

Of Sommerville, we have not much to say in the way of description. He was in the same service with M’Intyre—that is, the excise; and was about the same age—thirty-two or thirty-three. They were intimate friends, and as frequently together as the nature of their duties would permit; and were both unmarried. On the same day on which the conversation with which we opened our story took place, it happened that Angus and Sommerville were invited together to a tavern dinner, in the Saltmarket, with some mutual friends. About an hour previous to that appointed for the festive meeting, Sommerville called on M’Intyre, at his lodgings, with the view of waiting for him, that they might go together to the house where they were to dine. A few minutes before they left M’Intyre’s lodgings for this purpose, Sommerville said, playfully—"By the by, Mac, I hope you do not intend taking that infernal weapon with you to-night?"

"Tuts, man," replied M’Intyre, somewhat testily, "never mind it. What need ye always harp on that string? Did you never know of a gentleman wearing a dirk before? It’s no such extraordinary or terrible thing, surely."

"Terrible enough in reckless hands," said Sommerville.

M’Intyre looked more and more displeased, as his friend continued to cling to the subject; but his only reply was—

"Nonsense, John. Come, let us be going—it’s near the hour."

"Well, I tell you what it is, Angus," remarked his friend, banteringly, and still pertinaciously dwelling on the skean dhu—"I won’t sit beside you to-night——I’ll take care of that. No, nor within arm’s length of you either."

"Sit where you please," replied M’Intyre, angrily; and he flung out of the apartment, followed by Sommerville.

On their reaching the tavern, the company were already assembled, and were waiting their presence before sitting down to table. As soon as they entered, however, places were taken; and it happened, by chance, that the only vacant chair left for Sommervile, was one next his friend M’Intyre. On observing this, the former jokingly declined it, saying—

"No, no, Mac—I won’t sit near you, as I said before. Ye’re no canny—I have discovered that." And he winked significantly; and, following up the jesting resolution which he had just expressed, he eventually took his place at a different part of the table. M’Intyre said nothing in reply to his friend’s remarks; but there was a frown upon his brow that shewed pretty plainly, though none present observed it, that he was very far from being pleased with them. In truth, he was highly irritated at what appeared to him the silly, provoking pertinacity of his friend, in dwelling on a subject which, he thought, the latter might have discovered before, by his manner, was disagreeable to him. Nay, to make matters worse, he had no doubt that he had discovered it; and that this, instead of being considered by him as a reason for refraining, was deemed directly the reverse—an excellent source of small annoyance. What followed on this fatal night will, we think, be most graphically related in the words of a person, another intimate friend of M’Intyre’s, who was present:—

"At the close of the entertainment," said the person alluded to, "which was protracted to a pretty late hour, some high words suddenly arose between M’Intyre and Sommerville; the former being evidently predisposed, from some cause or other, to quarrel with the latter; but so few were they, that I paid but little attention to them, and had no difficulty in reconciling the parties, as I imagined; but in this, at least in so far as regarded M’Intyre, I was mistaken. No more words, however, of an angry nature passed between them. At length the party broke up—M’Intyre, Sommerville, and myself remaining a short time behind, when we also left. Sommerville went first, M’Intyre followed, and I went last. In this order we were passing through the entrance, which was quite dark, to gain the street, when I was suddenly horror-struck by hearing Sommerville utter a loud shriek, and, in a moment after, saying in a hoarse, unearthly tone, as he staggered against the wall ‘I am a murdered man!—M’Intyre has stabbed me!’

Guessing precisely what had taken place, I rushed to the mouth of the entrance, and saw M’Intyre crossing the street with as calm and deliberate a step as if nothing had happened; and, immediately after, he turned a corner and disappeared. I now returned to Sommerville, whom I found still leaning against the wall, with his hand upon his wound. In an instant after, he fell, groaned heavily, and, when I stooped down to assist him, I found he was gone. Several persons had, by this time, assembled round us; and, by the assistance of two or three of these, we had the body of the unfortunate man conveyed to his lodgings. Next morning, having occasion to be abroad very early, and to pass the residence of the Procurator-Fiscal, I saw three men, whom I knew to be criminal officers, just entering the house. In an instant it crossed my mind that this untimeous visit of these gentlemen to the functionary above-named, was, in some way or other, connected with the melancholy event of the preceding night, and that my unfortunate friend, M’Intyre, was about to be apprehended. Fully impressed with this idea, I instantly hastened to his lodgings, taking such short cuts and by-ways as I knew would give me several minutes’ start of his pursuers, if the men I saw really were to become such—and the sequel will shew they did. On entering M’Intyre’s room, which I did in considerable agitation, I found him, to my great amazement, sound asleep!

‘M’Intyre,’ said I, shaking him violently by the shoulder, ‘I fear there is a warrant out against you, or at least that there will be one out immediately; so, for God’s sake, rise, and let us see whether we cannot find a hiding-place for you.’ I then hastily mentioned to him the grounds of my suspicions of such being the case. While I was speaking, the unhappy man looked at me with an expression of extreme surprise, and as if he did not at all comprehend what I meant. In truth, neither he did: for he had at the moment no recollection whatever of the dreadful deed he had perpetrated—a circumstance which left no doubt of his having been greatly under the influence of liquor when it was done, although I did not at the time think so. By degrees, however, the horrible truth flashed upon him; and the painful realities of the preceding night stood before him. His, however, was a stout heart. His firm nerves shook not under the pressure of the dreadful circumstances in which he was placed. He made no remarks to my communication, but immediately rose and put on his clothes; and this he did with a coolness and deliberation that both amazed and irritated me; for I was afraid that the officers of justice would be in upon us every moment. Having at length dressed, we both sallied out, although I did not at all know which direction I should recommend my unfortunate friend to take; neither had he himself any idea whither he should go. We, however, proceeded down the street in which he lived; and, just as we were about turning the corner, at the foot, happening to look round, we saw the officers in the act of entering the street at the opposite end. At this alarming sight, we of course quickened our pace, although we calculated that some time would be gained by the search to which we did not doubt the officers would subject the house in which M’Intyre lived. I could not but admire the coolness and presence of mind which my unfortunate friend exhibited under these trying circumstances, although I certainly could have wished the exhibition made in a better cause, and on a more memorable occasion. In his manner there was not the least flurry nor agitation. He remained perfectly calm and collected, although an ignominious death was now staring him in the face. After we had proceeded a little way, M’Intyre suddenly stopped, and, addressing me, remarked that my accompanying him could serve no good end, but rather increase the difficulty of his escape, and that, therefore, I had better leave him. To the propriety of this remark I could not but subscribe; and I therefore, though reluctantly— for, notwithstanding the rash and indefensible act he had committed, I could not forget the character which my unfortunate friend had formerly borne, which was that of an honest, honourable, and warm-hearted man—agreed to leave him. Before we parted, he told me that he now recollected that, previously to his returning to his lodging, after he had stabbed Sommerville, he had gone down to the Clyde, and tossed the fatal weapon with which he had done the deed, as far as he could throw it into the river but whether this was merely a precautionary measure, to break at least one link in the chain of evidence, or result of a feeling of horror at what he had done, he did not explain; but my impression was that it was the latter. Having agreed in the propriety of my friend’s remark as to the additional danger to which my accompanying him further would expose him, we parted—I to return to my lodgings, and he to seek shelter where he might, for he had not, at the moment, the smallest idea whither he should direct his steps.

For about ten days after this, I heard nothing of my unhappy friend; but, at the end of that period, I learned that he had been apprehended, and was then in Glasgow jail. This intelligence was subsequently confirmed by a note from himself, which I received, intimating his apprehension, and requesting me to call upon him. With this request I complied, and found my unfortunate friend in the dreadful circumstances of an imprisoned criminal. He was, however, still calm and collected; and appeared perfectly resigned to the fate which, he had not the smallest doubt, awaited him—viz., that he should die upon the scaffold; and, indeed, no reasonable man could have expected any other issue, nor could it be denied that he deserved it. Our interview was short, as it was necessarily carried on in the presence of a turnkey, and, therefore, confined to merely general topics. The unhappy man himself, besides, shewed no disposition to prolong it; and, observing this, I withdrew, after obtaining his promise to apply to me for anything he might want, and for any service it might be in my power to render him.

About three weeks after this, while I was at breakfast, one morning, my landlady came into my room, to inform me that there was a young woman at the door, who wished to speak with me. I desired her to be shewn in. She entered; and a more interesting looking girl I have rarely seen. She appeared to be about one-and-twenty years of age, and was extremely graceful, both in person and manner. The latter, indeed, bespoke a much more elevated condition than her dress—which was that of a domestic servant—seemed to indicate. Her style of language, too, discovered the same contradiction to appearance.

Courtseying as she entered, and blushing as she spoke—

‘You are, sir, I believe,’ said she, ‘a friend of poor M’Intyre’s, just now in Glasgow jail, for, for’—And here her emotion prevented her further utterance.

‘I was,’ replied I, interposing to save her feelings, which I saw were painfully excited, ‘and I still am his friend. Would to God, I had some way of showing him, in his misfortune, how sincerely I am so!"

This I said with a degree of earnestness and favour that seemed to make a strong impression on my fair but mysterious visitor. She became pale and agitated, and I thought I could even discover a tear glittering in her eye. When this momentary emotion had passed away—

‘Then,’ she said, ‘I need not hesitate to trust you with a secret.’ And she glanced towards the door, to see that it was shut. ‘This night,’ she resumed, ‘M’Intyre will escape from prison.’

‘Escape!—how ?—by what means?’ I exclaimed, in amazement.

‘By mine,’ she replied, calmly.

‘By yours!’ I said, with increased astonishment.

‘Yes, sir, by mine. This night at twelve o’clock he will be without the prison walls, and at liberty, and you must then do him the last service he is ever likely to require at your hands. You will have a chaise waiting at the hour I have mentioned, at the first mile-stone on the Greenock road. Will you do this, and save the life of your unfortunate friend?’

Although a good deal confused by the suddenness and singularity of the whole affair, I, without a moment’s hesitation or reflection, replied that I would; and, having made this promise, I asked my visitor if she would further confide in me, by telling me all the particulars connected with the proposed escape of my friend.

‘Not now—not now,’ she said, gathering a tartan plaid, which she wore round her, as if to depart; ‘but you will probably learn all afterwards. In the meantime, farewell! and, as you would have a friend do to you in similar circumstances, so do you to your friend. Be faithful to your promise.’ And, ere I could make any farther remark, or put any other question, she hurried out of the apartment, hastily opened the street door, rushed out, and disappeared."

Interrupting this personal narrative for a time, we will shift the scene, on the eventful night in question—eventful, at least, to the unfortunate subject of our story—to the house of the jailor, in whose custody he was: and here we shall find, in the capacity of a domestic servant, a young woman, bearing a very striking resemblance to her who visited M’Intyre’s friend, as above described. Indeed, there can be no doubt that they are the same. It was the jailor’s custom, at this time, to make the rounds of the prison precisely at nine o’clock every night, to see that all was secure; and when this survey was completed, to carry all the keys with him to his own house, which was included in the general building, and had interior comunication with that portion of it where prisoners were confined. On bringing up the keys, as usual, on the night of which we are speaking, the jailor gave them in charge to his wife, as he was invited out to join a party of friends on some occasion of merry-making—a circumstance which had been previously known to his family, and, amongst the rest, to the servant girl a short while since alluded to. Having received the keys from her husband, the jailor’s wife carried them to her own bedroom, for greater safety, and there deposited them in a drawer. In less than two hours after, this drawer was secretly visited by the young woman just spoken of, and a particular key carefully selected, detached from the rest, and transferred, from the drawer in which it had lain, into her pocket; when she withdrew with her prize. Shortly after this, the jailor returned, and retired to bed. When the whole was still, the purloiner of the key might have been seen stealing, with cautious steps, down the staircase that led into the principal passage of the prison, where were stationed two turnkeys—one at the outer door, and one at the inner. Advancing to the former— "James," said the girl, "Mr Simpson" (the name of the jailor) "desires to see you up stairs immediately. Go to the little parlour, and wait for him there, and he’ll come to you directly."

"Lassie," said the man, "I canna leave the door richtly; but if he wants me, I suppose I maun gang."

"I’ll keep the key till you return," said the former, "and tell Andrew" (meaning the inner turnkey) "to look after the door till you return, James."

"Ay, do, like a dear," replied the unsuspecting turnkey, handing her the key, and hastening away to attend the call of his superior.

On his departure, the girl went, as she had promised, to the other turnkey; but it was to deliver a very different message from that she had undertaken. To him, in truth, she made precisely the same communication as she had done to his neighbour, with a difference of destination—him she directed to wait his master in the kitchen. This guardian trusting in the vigilance of him of the outer door, of whose absence he was unaware, made no difficulty whatever of obeying, but instantly ascended to the jailor’s kitchen, where he patiently awaited the appearance of his superior. Having thus disposed of the two turnkeys, the girl now, with beating heart, flew to the door of the apartment in which M’Intyre was confined, applied the key to the lock, turned its huge bolt, and the way was clear.

"Angus M’Intyre," she said, on flinging up the door, "come forth, come forth, and fly instantly for your life. There is none to oppose you."

"In the name of God, who are you?" said M’Intyre instinctively obeying the call to liberty and freedom. "I should know that voice," he added, endeavouring to obtain a glimpse of the face of his deliverer, but in vain, as she was carefully hooded, and the place profoundly dark.

"Hush, hush!—not a word!" said the latter. "What does it signify to you who I am? Off, off instantly!—you have not a moment to loose. This way, this way." And she hurried the astonished prisoner, though now no longer so, through the deserted passage of the jail, till they reached the outer door, to which she applied the key with which its simple guardian had entrusted her, and, in the next instant, M’Intyre and his deliverer were in the street. On gaining it—

"Now, fly, Angus," said the latter, thrusting, at the same time, a purse of money into his hand. "At the first milestone on the Greenock road, you will find a chaise waiting you. In that, you will proceed to Greenock, where you will find a ship to sail to-morrow for New York. Embark on board of her; and you will then, I trust, escape the vengeance of man—it must be your own business, Angus, to deprecate that of your God." And, without waiting for any reply, or permitting herself to be known to her companion, she hastened away in the opposite direction to that she had pointed out to M’Intyre, and disappeared. The latter, bewildered with the suddenness and strangeness of the proceeding which had thus so mysteriously led to his liberation, stood for a second confused, irresolute, and undetermined. His first idea was to pursue his deliverer and to insist on ascertaining who she was; but even the moment he took to deliberate, had put this out of his power, for the night was dark, and she was already out of sight; and where there were so many ready places of concealment, the pursuit was a hopeless one. M’Intyre perceived this; and aware, at the same time, how necessary it was that he should instantly quit the vicinity of the jail, he hastened to the place where he had been told a chaise would be waiting him. The chaise was there; M’Intyre flung himself into it, reached Greenock in about four hours afterwards, and, before another sun had sunk in the west, he was sailing down the Firth of Clyde on his way to the opposite shores of the Atlantic.

"Three years after the occurrence of the events just related," continued the narrator whom we have already quoted, "during which time I had heard nothing more of M’Intyre than that he had effected his escape, nor anything whatever of his deliverer, I was removed, by order of the Board of Excise, to the island of Sky, where I was settled, perhaps about a year, when, one day as I was crossing the country from Portree to Meystead—a place celebrated in the wanderings of Prince Charles—I met a party of ladies, one of whom seemed to take but little share in the obstreperous mirth of her companions; and it was owing to this circumstance, perhaps, that I found her engrossing a greater share of my attention than the others; for, in that hospitable country, we were friends the moment we met, although we had never seen each other before; and the party, having some provisions with them, I was requested to favour them with my company to a dejeune, which, they informed me, they had been on the eve of making before I joined them. Readily accepting their kind invitation, I accompanied my new friends in search of a suitable spot for the proposed entertainment. This was soon found, and we all sat down on the grass to partake of the good things provided for the occasion. During the repast, I could not keep my eyes off the lady whose melancholy had first attracted my attention; for I felt an impression that I had seen the face somewhere before; but when, where, or under what circumstances, I could not at all recollect. She seemed also to recognise me; for there was a marked confusion and agitation, both in her countenance and manner, from the moment I joined the party to which she belonged. Guessing, from these expressions, that it would not be agreeable to her that I should make any attempt at renewing our acquaintance, of whatever nature that might have been, in the presence of her friends, I forbore; but determined, if an opportunity was afforded me, of doing so before we parted, as I felt all that curiosity and uneasiness which such a vague and imperfect recognition of a person’s identity is so apt to create. The opportunity I desired, the lady, of her own accord, subsequently afforded me.

When our repast was concluded, she said, addressing me—‘We are going, sir, to see the falls of Lubdearg, about a mile from this. It is a very magnificent one; and, if you have never seen it before, and are in no great hurry to prosecute your journey, you will, perhaps, accompany us. My friends here, I am sure, will be glad of such an addition to their party.’

The falls she alluded to I had never seen; and for this reason, but still more for that before hinted at, I gladly accepted the proposal of becoming one of the party to Lubdearg. While we were proceeding thither, my inviter contrived to drop a little way behind her friends; perceiving, and conjecturing that she did so for the especial purpose of affording me an opportunity of speaking with her, I availed myself of it, with a degree of caution that prevented all appearance of connivance, and joined her. Being considerably apart from the others, she said, smiling—

‘You have recognised me, I rather think, sir; but do you recollect where and under what circumstances it was that you saw me?’

‘I do not, indeed; I have not the most distant idea,’ I said; ‘but I certainly do recollect having seen you before.’

‘And I, too, recollect well of having seen you. It is impossible I should ever forget either you or the occasion that introduced me to you. Do you,’ she added, ‘recollect a young woman calling on you one morning at your lodgings, to request of you to have a chaise in readiness on the Greenock road, and betrayed great emotion—‘the escape, Angus M’Intyre.’

I need hardly say that, short as this sentence was, I knew, ere it was half concluded, that it was the deliverer of my unhappy friend who stood before me.

‘I do, I do, perfectly,’ I replied—‘you are the very person. This is, indeed, strange—most singular—our meeting here again, and in this way. But who, in heaven’s name, are you?’ I added: ‘that I have never yet known.’

The lady smiled sadly. ‘Did you ever hear your unfortunate friend speak of one Miss Eliza Stewart?’ she said.

‘Often, often,’ I replied; ‘to that lady I always understood he was to have been married, had not that deplorable occurrence taken place, which so miserably changed his destiny, and marred all his prospects in life.’

‘It was so, said my fair companion, with increased emotion. ‘I am that person.’

‘Impossible!’

‘It is true; I am Eliza Stewart.’

‘Then here is more perplexity and mystery,’ said I. ‘How, in all the world, came you to appear to me in the dress and character of a servant girl—you, who are a lady both by birth and education?’ (this I knew from M’Intyre;) ‘and, how did you effect the escape of our unfortunate friend?’

The lady again smiled with a melancholy air. ‘I will inform you of all,’ she said, ‘in a very few words. At the time of Angus’ misfortune, I lived, as you may probably know, with my father at—, in Sky here. On hearing of what had taken place, and of Angus’s apprehension, I hastened to Glasgow, on pretence of visiting a friend, and got into the house of the jailor in the character of a domestic servant. I will not say by whose means I effected this, as it might still bring ruin on their heads." And here my fair informant gave me the details which are already before the reader. ‘On effecting his escape,’ she went on, ‘I immediately resumed my own dress, and returned to my father’s house, where it was next to impossible to detect, in his daughter, the servant girl of the Glasgow jailor. Our remote situation, besides, further secured me from the chance of discovery; and I have not yet been discovered, nor do I suppose I ever will now.’

‘And why," said I, laughingly, ‘did you not share the fortunes of the man in whom you thus took so deep an interest?’

‘No, no,’ said the heroic girl, with an expression of deep feeling; ‘I loved M’Intyre, I confess it, with the most sincere and devoted affection—what I did for him proves it; but I could not think of uniting myself to a man whose hand was red with the blood of a fellow-creature; for it cannot be denied that our unfortunate friend, notwithstanding all his good qualities, was—there is no disguising it—a’—Here her emotion prevented her finishing the sentence—nor did she afterwards finish it; but I had no doubt the word she would have supplied was ‘murderer.’

‘Now, sir, you know all,’ she continued, on recovering from perturbation; ‘but you will make no allusion, I beg of you, to anything I have told you, to my friends here, amongst whom are my father, mother, and a sister, who know nothing whatever of the part I acted in effecting M’Intyre’s escape.’

With this request I promised compliance. We reached the falls of Lubdearg. I parted with Eliza Stewart; and we never met again, as, in a few days afterwards, I left the island; and, with this event, terminated all connecting circumstances on my part with ‘The Skean Dhu.’"


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