"THE man was aince a poacher!" So said,
or rather breathed with his hard wheezing breath, Peter Smellie,
shopkeeper and elder, into the ears of Robert Menzies, a brother elder,
who was possessed of a more humane disposition. They were conversing in
great confidence about the important "case" of Sergeant Adam Mercer. What
that case was, the reader will learn by and by. The only reply of Robert
Menzies was, "Is't possible!" accompanied by a start and a steady gaze at
his well-informed brother. "It's a fac' I tell ye," continued Smellie,
"but ye'll keep it to yersel'—keep it to yersel', for it doesna do to
injure a brither wi'oot cause; yet it's richt ye should ken what a bad
begining our freen' has had. Pit your thumb on't, however, in the
meantime-keep it, as the minister says, in retentis, which I suppose
means, till needed."
Smellie went on his way to attend to
some parochial duty, nodding and smiling, and again admonishing his
brother to "keep it to himsel'." He seemed unwilling to part with the
copyright of such a spicy bit of gossip. Menzies inwardly repeated, "A
poacher! wha would have thocht it? At the same time, I see--" But I will
not record the harmonies, real or imaginary, which Mr. Menzies so clearly
perceived between the early and latter habits of the Sergeant.
And yet the gossiping Smellie, whose
nose had tracked out the history of many people in the parish of Drumsylie,
was in this, as in most cases, accurately informed. The Sergeant of whom
he spoke had been a poacher some thirty years before, in a district
several miles off. The wonder was how Smellie had discovered the fact, or
how, if true, it could affect the present character or position of one of
the best men in the parish. Yet true it was, and it is as well to confess
it, not with the view of excusing it, but only to account for Mercer's
having become a soldier, and to show how one who became "meek as a
sheathed sword" in his later years, had once been possessed of a very keen
and ardent temperament, whose ruling passion was the love of excitement,
in the shape of battle with game and keepers. I accidentally heard the
whole story, which, on account of other circumstances in the Sergeant's
later history, interested me more than I fear it may my readers.
Mercer did not care for money, nor seek
to make a trade of the unlawful pleasure of shooting without a licence.
Nor in the district in which he lived was the offence then looked upon in
a light so very disreputable as it is now; neither was it pursued by the
same disreputable class. The sport itself was what Mercer loved, for its
own sake, and it had become to him quite a passion. For two or three years
he had frequently transgressed, but he was at last caught on the early
dawn of a summer's morning by John Spence, the gamekeeper of Lord Bennock.
John had often received reports from the under- keeper and watchers, of
some unknown and mysterious poacher who had hitherto eluded every attempt
to seize him. Though rather too old for very active service, Spence
resolved to concentrate all his experience—for, like many a thoroughbred
keeper, he had himself been a poacher in his youth—to discover and secure
the transgressor; but how he did so it would take pages to tell. Adam
never suspected John of troubling himself about such details as that of
watching poachers, and John never suspected that Adam was the poacher. The
keeper, we may add, was cousin-german to Mercer's mother. The capture
itself was not difficult; for John, having lain in wait, suddenly
confronted Adam, who, scorning the idea of flying, much more of struggling
with his old cousin, quietly accosted him with, "Wee!, John, ye hae
catched me at last."
"Adam Mercer!" exclaimed the keeper,
with a look of horror. It canna be you It's no' possible!"
It's just me, John, and no mistak',"
said Adam, quietly throwing himself down on the heather, and twisting a
bit about his finger. "For better or waur, I'm in yer power; but had I
been a ne'er-do-weel, like Wily Steel, or Tam McGrath, I'd hae blackened
my face and whamrnel'd ye ower and pit your head in a wallee afore ye
could cheep as loud as a stane-chucker; but when I saw wha ye war, I gied
"I wad raither than a five-pun-note I
had never seen yer face! Keep us! what's to be dune! What wull yer mither
say? and his Lordship? Na, what wull onybody say wi' a spark o' decency
when they hear-"
"Dinna fash yer thoomb, John; tak' me
and send me to the jail."
"The jail! What gude will that do to
you or me, laddie? I'm clean donnered about the business. Let me sit down
aside ye; keep laigh, in case the keepers see ye, and tell me by what
misshanter ye ever took to this wicked business, and under my nose, as if
I couldna fin' ye oot!
"Sport, sport!" was Mercer's reply. "Ye
ken, John, I'm a shoemaker, and it's a dull trade, and squeezing the clams
against the wame is ill for digestion; and when that fails, ane's speerits
fail, and the wand gets black and dowie; and whan things gang wrang wi'
me, I canna flee to drink: but I think o' the moors that I kent sae weel
when my faither was a keeper to Murray o' Cultrain. Ye mind my faither?
was he no' a han' at a gun!"
"He was that—the verra best," said
"Aweel" continued Adam, "when doon in
the mouth, I ponder ower the braw days o' health and life I had when
carrying his bag, and getting a shot noos and thans as a reward; and it's
a truth I tell ye, that the whirr kick-ic-ic o' a covey o' groose aye pits
my bluid in a tingle. It's a sort o' madness that I canna accoont for; but
I think I'm no responsible for't. Paitricks are maist as bad, though
turnips and stubble are no' to be compared wi' the heather, nor walkin'
amang them like the far-aff braes, the win'y taps o' the hills, or the
lown glens. Mony a time I hae promised to drap the gun and stick to the
last; but when I'm no' wee!, and wauken and see the sun glintin', and
think o' the wide bleak muirs, and the fresh caller air o' the hill, wi'
the scent o' the braes an' the bog myrtle, and thae whirrin' craturs—man,
I canna help it! I spring up and grasp the gun, and I'm aff!"
The reformed poacher and keeper
listened with a poorly-concealed smile, and said, "Nae doot, nae doot,
Adam, it's a' natural—I'm no' denyin' that ; it's a glorious business ; in
fac', it's jist pairt of every man that has a steady han' and a guid e'e
and a feeling heart. Ay, ay. But, Adam, were ye no' frichtened?"
"For the keepers!"
"The keepers! Eh, John, that's half the
sport! The thocht o' dodgin' keepers, jinkin' them roon' hills, and doon
glens, and lyin' amang the muir-hags, and nickin' a brace or twa, and then
fleein' like mad doon ae brae and up anither; and keekin' here, and
creepin' there, and cowerin' alang a fail dyke, and scuddin' thro' the
wood—that's mair than half the life o, John! I'm no sure if I could shoot
the birds if they were a' in my ain kail-yard, and my ain property, and if
I paid for them!"
"But war ye no' feared for me that kent
ye?" asked John.
"Na!" replied Adam, "I was mair feared
for yer auld cousin, my mither, gif she kent what I was aboot, for she's
unco' prood o' you. But I didna think ye ever luiked efter poachers yersel'
Noo I hae telt ye a' aboot it."
"I' faith," said John, taking a snuff
and handing the box to Adam, "it's human natur'! But ye ken, human natur's
wicked, desperately wicked! and afore I was a keeper my natur' was fully
as wicked as yours,—fully, Adam, if no waur. But I hae repented—ever sin'
I was made keeper; and I wadna like to hinder your repentance. Na, na. We
maua be ower prood! Sae I'll- - Wait a bit, man, be canny till I see if
ony o' the lads are in sicht;" and John peeped over a knoll, and
cautiously looked around in every direction until satisfied that he was
alone. "—I'll no' mention this job,' he continued, "if ye'll promise me,
Adam, never to try this wark again; for it's no' respectable; and, warst
o' a', it's no' safe, and ye wad get me into a habble as weel as yersel'.
Sac promise me, like a guid cousin, as I may Ca' ye,—and bluid is thicker
than water, ye ken,—and then just creep doon the burn, and alang the
plantin', and ower the Wa', till ye get intil the peat road, and be aff
like stoor afore the win'; but I canna wi' conscience let ye tak' the
birds wi' ye."
Adam thought a little, and said, "Ye're
a gude sowl, John, and I'll no' betray ye." After a while he added,
gravely, "But I mann kill something. It's no' in my heart as wickedness;
but my fingers maun draw a trigger." After a pause, he continued, "Gie's
yer hand, John; ye hae been a frien' to me, and I'll be a man o' honour to
you. I'll never poach mair, but I'll 'list and be a sodger Till I send
hame money,—and Will no' be lang - be kind tae my mither, and I'll never
"A sodger!" exclaimed John.
But Adam, after seizing John by the
hand and saying, "Fareweel for a year and a day," suddenly started off
down the glen, leaving two brace of grouse, with his gun, at John's feet;
as much as to * say, Tell my Lord how you caught the wicked poacher, and
how he fled the country.
Spence told indeed how he had caught a
poacher who had escaped, but never give his name, nor ever hinted that
Adam was the man.
It was thus Adam Mercer poached and
One evening I was at the house of a
magistrate with whom I was acquainted, when a man named Andrew Dick called
to get my friend's signature to his pension paper, in the absence of the
parish minister. Dick had been through the whole Peninsular campaign, and
had retired as a corporal. I am fond of old soldiers, and never fail when
an opportunity offers to have a talk with them about "the wars." On the
evening in question, my friend Findlay, the magistrate, happened to say in
a bluff kindly way, "Don't spend your pension in drink."
Dick replied, saluting him, "It's very
hard, sir, that after fighting the battles of our country, we should be
looked upon as worthless by gentlemen like you."
"No no, Dick, I never said you were
worthless," was the reply.
"Please yer honour," said Dick, "ye did
not say it, but I consider any man who spends his money in drink is
worthless; and, what is mair, a fool; and, worse than all, is no
Christian. He has no recovery in him, no supports to fall back on, but is
in full retreat, as we would say, from common decency."
"But you know," said my friend, looking
kindly on Dick, "the bravest soldiers, and none were braver than those who
served in the Peninsula, often exceeded fearfully—shamefully; and were a
disgrace to humanity."
"Well," replied Dick, "it's no' easy to
make vil good, and I won't try to do so; but yet ye forget our
difficulties and temptations. Consider only, sir, that there we were, not
in bed for months and months; marching at all hours; ill-fed, ill-clothed,
and uncertain of life—which I assure your honour makes men indifferent to
it; and we had often to get our mess as we best could,—sometimes a tough
steak out of a dead horse or mule, for when the beast was skinned it was
difficult to make oot its kind; and after toiling and moiling, up and
down, here and there and everywhere, summer and winter, when at last we
took a town with blood and wounds, and when a cask of wine or spirits fell
in the way of the troops, I don't believe that you, sir, or the justices
of the peace, or, with reverence be it spoken, the ministers themselves,
would have said 'No,' to a drop. You'll excuse me, sir; I'm perhaps too
free with you.',
"I didn't mean to lecture you, or to
blame you, Dick, for I know the army is not the place for Christians."
"Begging your honour's pardon, sir,"
said Dick, "the best Christians I ever knowed were in the army—men who
would do their dooty to their king, their country, and their God."
"You have known such?' I asked,
breaking into the conversation, to turn it aside from what threatened to
be a dispute.
"I have, sir! There's ane Adam Mercer,
in this very parish, an elder of the Church—I'm a Dissenter mysel', on
principle, for I consider—"
"Go on, Dick, about Mercer; never mind
your Church principles."
"Well, sir, as I was saying—though,
mind you, I'm not ashamed of being a Dissenter, and, I houp, a Christian
too—Adam was our sergeant; and a worthier man never shouldered a bayonet.
He was nae great speaker, and was quiet as his gun when piled; but when he
shot, he shot! that did he, short and pithy, a crack, and right into the
argument. He was weel respeckit, for he was just and mercifu'—never
bothered the men, and never picked oot fauts, but covered them; never
preached, but could gie an advice in two or three words that gripped firm
aboot the heart, and took the breath frae ye. He was extraordinar' brave!
If there was any work to do by ordinar', up to leading a forlorn hope,
Adam was sure to be on't; and them that kent him even better than I did
then, said that he never got courage frae brandy, but, as they assured me,
though ye'll maybe no' believe it, his preparation was a prayer! I canna
tell hoo they fan' this oot, for Adam was unco quiet; but they say a
drummer catched him on his knees afore he mounted the ladder wi Cansh at
the siege o' Bauajoz, and that Adam telt him no' to say a word aboot it,
but yet to tak' his advice and aye to seek God's help mair than man's."
This narrative interested me much, so
that I remembered its facts, and connected them with what I afterwards
heard about Adam Mercer many years ago, when on a visit to Drumsylie.