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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter XVIII. - The Keeper's Letter


OLD John Spence was an early riser. He did not share Charles Lamb's fears of indulging in the ambition of rising with the sun. The latter part of the day was to him a period of repose, a siesta of half-sleepy meditation, which not unfrequently passed into a deep-toned sleep in his arm-chair. In a lucid interval, during the evening of Jock's arrival, he had been considering how he might best help the Sergeant out of his difficulties. He had not for a moment accepted of Jock's policy suggesting his lordship's interference in the great Drumsylie case. With the instinct of an old servant, he felt that such
presumption on his part was out of the question. So he had informed Jock, bidding him not to think of his lordship, who would not and could not do anything in the matter. He assured him at the same time that he would try what could be done by himself to muzzle Smellie. Having accordingly matured his plans, he was ready at daybreak to execute them. He embraced therefore the first opportunity of taking Hugh into a small closet, where the little business which required writing was generally transacted, and where a venerable escritoire stood, in whose drawers and secret recesses were carefully deposited all papers relating to that department of his lordship's estate over which John was chief.

The door having been carefully barred, the old keeper seated in an arm-chair, and his son Hugh at the escritoire, John said, "Get the pen and paper ready."

"A' richt," said Hugh, having mended his pen and tried it on this thumb-nail, looking at it carefully as he held it up in the light.

"Weel, then, begin! Write—'Sir;' no' 'Dear Sir,' but jist 'Sir.' Of coorse ye'll pit the direction 'To Mr. Peter Smellie.' Eh?—halt a wee— should I say Mr. or plain Peter? Jist mak' it plain Peter—say, 'To Peter Smellie.'"

"To Peter Smellie," echoed Hugh.

"John Spence, keeper—or rather John Spence, senior keeper—wishes tae tell ye that ye're a scoondrill."

After writing these words with the exception of the last, Hugh said, "Be canny, faither, or maybe he micht prosecute you."

"Let him try't!" replied John; "but let scoondrill stan'. It's the verra pooder and shot of my letter; wi'oot that, it's a' tow and cotfin."

"I'm no' sure, faither, if I can spell't," said Hugh, who did not like the more than doubtful expression, and put off the writing of it by asking, "Hoo, faither, d'ye spell scoondrill?"

"What ither way but the auld way?"

But I never wrote it afore, for I hue had little to due wi' ony o' the squad."

"Wed, I wad say—s, k, oo, n, d, r, j, 1, 1, or to that effec'. Keep in the drill whatever ye dae, for that's what I mean tae gie him!"

Having written this very decided introduction, Hugh went on with his letter, which when completed ran as follows:-

Spence, Senior Keeper, Castle Bennock, to Peter Smellie, Draper, Drumsylie.

"You are a skoondrill, and you kno it! But nobody else knos it but my son and me and Serjent Mercer. I wuss you to understan' that he knos all about yon black business o' yours, 20 year back. This comes to let you kno that unless you leve him alone, and don't molest him, I will send you to Botany Bay, as you deserve. Medle not with the Sergeant, or it wull be to your cost. Attend to this hint. I wull have you weel watched. You are in Mr. Mercer's power. Bewar!

"Your servt.
"JOHN S PENCE."

"I houp," said John. as he had the letter read over to him, "that will mak' the whitrat leave aff sookin' the Sergeant's throat! If no', I'll worry him like a brock, or hunt him like a fox aff the kintra side. But no' a word o' this, mind ye, tae ony leevin' cratur, mair especial tae yon trampin' duel. Gie Smellie a chance, bad as he is. Sac let the letter be sent aff this verra nicht wI' Sandy the Post. The sooner the better. The nesty taed that he is! Him to be preaching tae a man like Adam oot o' his clay hole!"

The letter was despatched, that night by the post. It was not thought discreet to intrust Jock with the secret, or to let Adam Mercer know in the meantime anything about this counter-mine.

Breakfast being over, Hall proposed to return to Drumsylie. Before doing so he wished some positive assurance of obtaining aid in favour of the Sergeant from Spence. But all he could get out of the keeper was to "keep his mind easy— no' to fear—he wad look efter the Sergeant."

Old Spence would not, however, permit of Jock's immediate departure, but invited him to remain a day or two "and rest himel'." It was benevolently added, that "he could help Johnnie to fish at an odd hour, and to sort the dogs and horses in ordinar' hours." The fact was, old Spence did not wish Hall to return immediately to Drumsylie, until events there had time to be affected by his letter to Smellie. Jock was too glad of the opportunity afforded him of proving that he might be trusted to do whatever work he was fitted for, and that he was not "a lazy tramper" by choice.

As the week was drawing to an end, Jock made up his mind to return to his old haunts, for home he had none. He had also an undefined longing to see the Sergeant, and to know how it fared with him.

But when the day arrived for his departure, Hugh suggested that perhaps Jock would like to see the Castle: It was not, he said, every day he would have such a chance of seeing so grand a place, and maybe he might even see his lordship!—at a distance. Besides, it would not take him far out of his road; and Hugh would accompany him a part of the way home, as he had to visit a distant part of the estate in the discharge of his professional duties.

Jock's curiosity was excited by the thought of seeing the great house not as a beggar or a poacher, but under the genteel protection of a keeper and confidential servant, and when a live lord might be scanned from afar without fear.

When Jock came to bid farewell to old Spence, he approached him, bonnet in hand, with every token of respect. He said little but "Thank ye —thank ye, Mr. Spence, for yer guidness;" and whispering, added, "I'm sorry if I offended ye. But maybe ye could get a job for me if I canna fa' in vi' honest wark at Drumsylie? I'll break my back, or break my heart, tae please you or ony dacent man that 'ill help me to feed my body—it's no mickle buik—and to covert—and little will keep the cauld oot, for my hide is weel tanned wi' win' and weather."

Spence looked with interest at the poor but earnest pleader at his elbow, and nodded encouragingly to him.

"Eh, man!" said Jock, "what a pity ye dinna snuff! I wad lee ye my auld snuff-box gin ye wad tak' it."

Spence smiled and thanked him—ay even shook hands with him!—an honour which went to Jock's heart; and Spence added, "My compliments to my cousin Adam, and tell him to stan' at ease and keep his pooder dry."

Mrs. Spence had prepared a good "rung" of bread and cheese, which she stuffed into Jock's pocket to support him in his journey.

"Awfu' guid o' ye—maist awfu'!" said Jock, as he eyed the honest woman pressing the food into its ragged receptacle.

Jock looked round, and asked for Johnnie.

On being told that he was at the stables, lie went off to find him, and, having succeeded, took him aside and said—"Johnnie, laddie, I hae been treated by yer folk like a lord, tho' efter a' I dinna weel ken hoo a lord is treated; but, howsomdever, wi'oot ony clavers aboot it, here's a present for you o' the best buik o' flees in the haill kintra side. Tak' them, and welcome." And Jock produced his "Book of Sports," which had been his most cheerful companion for many a year, and almost forcing John to take it added, "I hae a obligation to ax: never tell yer folk aboot it till I'm awa', and never tell ony stranger atween this and Drumsylie that ye got it frae Jock Ha'." And before the astonished boy could thank him as the generous giver of so many keys to unlock every pool of its treasures, on every day in the year and at all seasons, Jock ran off to join Hugh.


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