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Wilson's Border Tales
A Biting Evidence


It has often been remarked that crimes are discovered in strange ways. The instances on record are, indeed, so numerous, that the moralist stands in no need of any assistance from us to enable him to give his lesson to the workers of iniquity. Yet we may aid the good cause to which our efforts have always been directed, by giving an example, perhaps as curious as any that has been recorded, of the singular ways by which the eternal laws of right are often vindicated, though we claim, at the same time, an exemption, in the present instance, from the gravity that is generally reputed to belong to moral teachers.

Those who have lived all their lives in large towns, and who are, consequently, accustomed to rumours of robberies, larcenies, and all sorts of illegal appropriation of property, can form no idea of the dreadful stir which the burglarious entrance of some person or persons unknown, into the premises of William Ritchie, farmer, Searig, created in the adjoining village of Cranstoun. It was tremendous. The honest and simple villagers stood aghast at the appalling relation, and wondered at the enormous wickedness.

The robbery had been committed during the night. It was an outhouse that had been entered, and the articles abstracted were, a quantity of linen, several cheeses, and an entire barrel of excellent salt beef, which the lawful owner thereof, little dreaming of what was to happen, had laid up for winter store; and often had William Ritchie, since he drove the last hoop that secured the head of the said barrel, (for William had coopered it up with his own hands,)—often, we say, had he, since that period, revelled in imagination on the savoury and nutritious feeds of beef and greens which he fondly hoped he had secured. Often had his mental vision dwelt with rapture on the sappy rounds embedded in their vegetable accompaniment smoking deliciously on the board: often had the same peep into futurity presented William Ritchie (for William Ritchie liked a good dinner with great sincerity of affection) with distinct simulations of the carving knife entering the said rounds, and severing therefrom thick, juicy slices of well-proportioned fat and lean. Often—But where is the use of enlarging on all the beatific visions which the lost barrel of beef, before it was lost, summoned up before the mind’s eye of William Ritchie. Let us rather proceed with our story, leaving it to the reader to mark, with the sympathy which the circumstance demands, the ruin, the utter prostration of all William’s hopes, as regarded his salted provender, of which this nefarious robbery was the cause.

It was a good while after the perpetration of the burglary and theft before the slightest clue could be obtained to the discovery of the perpetrator. One or two, indeed, were suspected, but they were so more on the general ground of their being habit and repute loose fish, than from any particular indications of their guilt in the special case of the robbery of William Ritchie’s outhouse.

So long, indeed, was it before any trace of the perpetrator of this offence could be discovered, that people were beginning to abandon all hopes of its ever being made out. It is curious, however, to mark how strangely things sometimes come round.

About two months after the robbery in question, William Ritchie had occasion to call one day on a certain Mr John Johnstone who kept a grocery shop in the village of Cranstoun. It was to order some tea and sugar—Mr Ritchie being a customer of Mr Johnstone’s, and one of the best he had.

"Ony word yet, Mr Ritchie," said the shopkeeper, after the first greetings had passed between himself and the former —"ony word yet o’ your late visitors?"

Mr Ritchie shook his head, and, with a melancholy smile, replied— "No, nae word yet; and, I fancy, there never will be noo."

"No quite sure o’ that," said Mr Johnstone, with a look of peculiar and somewhat mysterious intelligence. "Was the barrel o’ saut beef they took frae ye a gey big ane? As muckle as wad keep a sma’ family chowin’ for sax weeks or sae?"

"I daur say it micht," replied William Ritchie, with, a sigh, "if they warna a’ the greedier on ‘t."

"Just sae," said Mr Johnstone, with the same expression of latent meaning; and, in the next moment—"Will ye step the way a minat, Mr Ritchie. I want to speak to ye." And he led the way to a back apartment, followed by his customer.

On reaching this retreat, Mr Johnstone carefully shut the door, and advancing, almost on tiptoe, to Mr Ritchie, said, in a half whisper:—

"I’ll tell ye, William, what I was wanting to say to ye. If I’m no greatly mistaen," continued Johnstone—and now adding to the force of the mysterious expression of countenance formerly alluded to, by placing his forefinger significantly on the side of his nose—"If I ‘m no greatly mistaen, I hae gotten an inklin’ o’ wha it was that broke into your premises."

"No!" exclaimed William Ritchie, with a look of intense interest. "Wha are they?"

"What wad ye think if it were Raggit Rab?"

"That it wasna the least unlikely," replied William Ritchie. "Twa or three has suspeckit him, and mysel’ amang the lave; but nae mair could be made o ‘t. Hoo come ye to be sae sure he’s the man, John?"

"Isna mustard a fine thing to a bit saut beef?" rejoined John Johnstone, with another of his deep intelligent looks.

"Nae doot o’t," said William Ritchie, surprised at the oddness and apparent irrelevancy of the remark. "But what o’ that?"

"I’ll tell ye what o’ that, William," replied Mr Johnstone. "I’ve noticed that ever since your premises war broken into, Rab has bocht mair mustard frae me than he ever did in the hale course o’ his life before. There’s no a day noo, but ane o’ his weans is here for a pennyworth;" and John Johnstone looked triumphantly at William Ritchie.

The latter said nothing for a few seconds, but at length remarked, that "it was a queer aneuch circumstance, and looked geyin’ suspicious." But added, "that it was a new way a’ makin’ out a charge o’ robbery."

"It may be sae," replied Johnstone; "but I think it pretty conclusive evidence, for a’ that."

"It wad be a funny aneuch circumstance," said William Ritchie, smiling, "to detect a thief through the medium o’ mustard. There wad be novelty in’t, at ony rate."

"Faith, I’m sae convinced o’t, I wad hae ye try’t, William," said Mr Johnstone. "Gie ye lang Jamie the messenger the hint, and let him search Rab’s hoose incontinently, and, I’ll wad a firkin o’ butter to a fardin’ cannle, that ye’ll fin’ something there that Rab Borland’ll no be very weel able to account for."

Notwithstanding the confidence Mr Johnstone evinced in the accuracy of his conjectures regarding the guilt of the personage above-named, William Ritchie could not help thinking, as indeed, he had said, that the mustard formed rather a strange ground of proceeding in a case of criminal dereliction, still, as Robert was a gentleman of very indifferent reputation in that part of the country, and in one or two other places besides, perhaps he thought there could be neither great harm nor risk in adopting the process recomnended by his friend, Johnstone.

Being of this opinion, Mr Ritchie immediately proceeded to seek out the legal functionary before alluded to—namely, James Rathbone, or Lang Jamie, as he was more familiarly called; this sobriquet being highly descriptive of the personal conformation of the worthy in question, whose legs were of prodigious length, but not with body corresponding. Indeed, so marked was the discrepancy here—that is, between the length of Jamie’s legs and his body—that although he stood six feet three on his stocking-soles, he was found too short for admission into a dragoon regiment, to which he, on one occasion, made offer of his services; for, being all legs, he sunk down nearly to his neck on the saddle when mounted on horseback, and thus presented no superstructure worth counting upon. Jamie, in short, so far as appearance went, was merely a pair of animated tongs. But this is something of a digression.

William Ritchie having sought out Lang Jamie, whom he found in the act of writing out some summonses against certain defaulters in Cranstoun, thus cautiously opened the business of his call.

"Ony word yet, Jamie, o’ the depredaturs?" Jamie had been previously employed in the matter to which this question referred.

"No; nae scent o’ them yet," replied Jamie. "But I’m keepin’ a sharp look-oot, and houp to hae some o’ them by the cuff o’ the neck before lang."

"Hae ye nae idea wha they could be, Jamie?" again inquired William Ritchie.

"Maybe I hae, and maybe I haena," replied the former. "It’s no safe speakin’, ye ken, anent thae things. There’s yevidence wanted, Mr Ritchie—strong steeve yevidence; or, at least, weel-grunded suspicion, to allow o’ a man openin’ his mind on thae subjects wi’ perfect safety."

"Dootless, dootless," said William Ritchie; "but if there war now onything like fair and reasonable grounds o’ suspicion against onybody, wad ye act, Jamie, and proceed thereon as the law directs?"

"Undootedly. I wad nab them at ance," replied Jamie.

"Just sae," said William Ritchie. "Weel then, if a certain person bocht an unusual quantity o’ mustard within a certain time, what wad ye infer frae that, Jamie?"

"I wad infer frae that, that he likit it. That’s a’," said Jamie.

"But folk dinna usually eat mustard its lane," rejoined William Ritchie; "they maun has something till ‘t. Noo, what’s the maist likely thing that they wad eat it wi’ in this, or in ony ither similar case?"

"I dinna ken, I’m sure," said Jamie, musingly. "Maybe a bit saut fish, or something o’ that kind."

"What wad ye think o’ a bit saut beef?" inquired Ritchie.

"Very gude," said Jamie. "Just an excellent association. Saut beef and mustard;" and he licked his lips, as he thought of the condiment thus accompanied.

"Weel then," continued William Ritchie, "micht ye no infer, think ye, frae this extraordinary consumption o’ mustard, that the consumer had a comfortable supply o’ saut beef in his larder?"

"The inference, I think, wad be fair aneuch," said Jamie; "at least there wad, certainly, be strong probability o’ the fact."

"I think sae," rejoined William. "Then, keepin’ in mind that I lost a barrel o’ saut beef, what wad ye think if Rob Borland sent every day since syne to Johnny Johnstone’s shop for a pennyworth o’ mustard?"

"I wad think it a gey suspicious lookin’ thing, surely," replied Jamie; "and wad conclude that Borland and your beef, Mr Ritchie, were on rather owre intimate a footin’. It wad, indeed, I confess, be rather a queer sort o’ proof to go upon; but feth, there’s something in ‘t. Can ye instruct as to the mustard?"

"Deed can I," said William Ritchie; and he proeeeded to inform Jamie of what had passed between him and Johnstone on the subject in discussion; adding, that he had come to him by the advice of the latter, and concluding by requesting Jamie to search the premises of Mr Robert Borland.

Jamie, at first, shied a little at taking so very decisive a step on such strange grounds; but, at length, agreed to adventure on the proceeding.

On the afternoon of that very day, Jamie, accompanied by two drunken, pimple-faced concurrents, visited the domicile of Mr Robert Borland, and there found, not William Ritchie’s beef, but the barrel which had contained it; the last piece of the former having made the family dinner on that very day.

The barrel, however, having been identified, and sworn to by its owner, Mr Borland was consigned to the county jail, and subsequently brought to trial before the circuit court for the robbery.

A young lawyer, who was desirous of flashing his legal sword for the first time, undertook Mr Borland’s defence without fee or reward, and laboured hard to show that the circumstance of the pannel at the bar’s buying a quantity of mustard daily, was no proof whatever that he was living on stolen salt beef, or, indeed, on salt beef at all. "It might have been salted fish. He might have bought it to eat with salt fish, gentlemen of the jury," said this unfledged orator, "or with a hundred other articles of food. Why salt beef more than anything else? I say, that to allege that it was salt beef, gentlemen of the jury, is to presume that to be a fact which is a mere hypothesis—a hypothesis founded on an association of ideas—the association of salt beef with mustard, or vice versa. Now, gentlemen of the jury," continued our incipient Cicero, "you will be so good as observe that however natural this association of ideas may be—that is, however natural it may be to suppose that the pannel at the bar bought the condiment in question to eat with salt beef—the inference is by no means either a necessary or an inevitable one. Very far from it. It is indeed monstrous to insist on its being so. Can a man, I would ask—can a man, I say— not purchase a pennyworth of mustard without being suspected of having stolen salt beef to eat with it? Or, take another view of the case—is a man to be suspected of having stolen salt beef, because he buys a pennyworth of mustard? No, gentlemen of the jury, you will never, I am sure, give in to such a monstrous doctrine as this—a doctrine that would destroy at one fell blow the liberty of the subject, and the trade in mustard."

Much more to the same purpose did this promising young lawyer say; but, we regret to add, to no purpose. The jury insisted on sticking by the mustard, as, at least, a presumptive proof of guilt, when corroborated by the circumstances of Mr Borland’s "habit and repute" character, and the empty barrel’s having been found on his premises. The result of this view of the case was a verdict of guilty; and the consequence of that verdict, sentence of transportation for fourteen years.

Such was the doom awarded against the ingenious Mr Borland; and, we daresay, the reader will allow that seldom has crime owed its detection to so curious a circumstance.


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