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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter I. - Antecedents

"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 in."

"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 John.

"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 what?"

"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 forget it."

"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 enlisted.

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.

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