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The Starling, A Scotch Story
Chapter XV. - Jock Hall's Journey

JOHN SPENCE, who, as we have seen, was connected with the early history of Adam Mercer, had now reached an extreme old age, somewhere between eighty and ninety years. As he himself for a considerable time had stuck to the ambiguous epoch of "aboon fourscore," it was concluded by his friends that his ninth decade had nearly ended. He was hale and hearty, however,—"in possession of all his faculties," as we say—with no complaint but "the rheumatics," which had soldered his joints so as to keep him generally a prisoner in the large chair "ayont the fire," or compel him to use crutches, when he "hirpled" across the floor. He was able, however, in genial weather, to occupy the bench at his cottage door, there to fondle the young dogs, and to cultivate the acquaintance of the old ones. He had long ago given up all active work, and was a pensioner on his Lordship; but he still tenaciously clung to the title of "Senior Keeper." The vermin even which he had killed, and nailed, as a warning to evil-doers, over the gable-ends and walls of out-houses, had, with the exception of a few fragments of bleached fossils, long since passed away, giving place to later remains.

John was a great favourite with his master; and his advice was asked in all matters connected with the game on the estate of Castle Bennock. His aneLdotes and reminiscences of old sporting days which he had spent with three generations of the family, and with generations of their friends and relations, were inexhaustible. And when the great annual festival of "the 12th" came round, and the Castle was crowded and the very dogs seemed to snuff the game in the air and became excited, then John's cottage, with its kennels and all its belongings, was a constant scene of attraction to the sportsmen; and there he held a sort of court, with the dignity and gravity of an old Nimrod.

The cottage was beautifully situated in a retired nook at the entrance of a glen, beside a fresh mountain stream, and surrounded by a scattered wood of wild birches, mountain ash, and alder. The first ridge of Benturk rose beyond the tree tops, with an almost perpendicular ascent of loose stones, ribbed by wintry floods, and dotted by tufts of heather and dots of emerald-green pasture, up to the range of rocks which ramparted the higher peaks, around which in every direction descended and swept far away the endless moorland of hill and glen.

John had long been a widower, and now resided with his eldest son Hugh, whose hair was already mingled with white, like brown heather sprinkled with snow.

Although the distance which separated John Spence from Adam Mercer was only about thirty miles, there had been little intercourse between the cousins. A ridge of hills and a wild district intervened, without any direct communication. The mail-coach which passed through Drumsylie did not come within miles of Castle Bennock. Letters, except on business, were rare between the districts, and were very expensive at that time to all but M.P.'s, who could frank them for themselves or their friends. And so it was that while John and Adam occasionally heard of each other, and exchanged messages by mutual friend, or even met after intervals of years, they nevertheless lived as in different kingdoms.

It was late on the Tuesday after his flight that Jock Hall, for reasons known only to himself, entered the cottage of John Spence and walked up to the blazing fire, beside which the old keeper was seated alone.

"Wat day, Mr. SpenceI" said Jock, as his clothes began to smoke almost as violently as the fire which shone on his wet and tattered garments.

John Spence was evidently astonished by the sudden appearance and blunt familiarity of a total stranger, whose miserable and woe-begone condition was by no means prepossessing. Keeping his eye fixed on him, John slowly drew a crutch between his knees, as if anxious to be assured of present help.

"Wha the mis-chief are ye?" asked Spence in an angry voice.

"A freen', Mr. Spence—a freen'!" replied Jock, quietly. But let me heat mysel' awee—. for I hae travelled far through moss and mire, and sleepit last nicht in a roofless biggin, an' a' to see you—and syne I'll gie ye my cracks."

Spence, more puzzled than ever, only gave a growl, and said, slowly and firmly, "A freen' in need is nae doot a freen' indeed, and I suppose ye'll be the freen' in need, and ye tak' me for the freen' indeed, but maybe ye're mista'en!"

Hall remaining longer silent than was agreeable, Spence at last said impatiently, "Nane o' yer nonsense wi' me! I'll ca' in the keepers. Ye're ane o' thae beggin' ne'er-do-wecl tramps that we hae ower mony o'. Gang to the door and cry lood for Hugh. He's up in the plantin'; the guidwife and bairns are doon at the Castle. Be quick, or be all aboot yer business."

Jock very coolly replied, "My business is wi' you, an' I'm glad I hae gotten ye by yersel' an' nacbody near. I'll no ca' Hugh, an' I ken ye canna do't. Sae I'll jist wait till he comes, and tell ye my business in the meantime. Wi' your leave, Mr. Spence, I'll tak' a seat;" on which lie drew a chair to the side of the fire opposite old John, who partly from fear and partly from a sense of his own weakness, and also from curiosity, said nothing, but watched Hall with a look of childish astonishment, his under lip hanging helplessly down, and his hand firmly grasping the crutch. His only remark was—"My certy, ye're a cool ane! I hae seen the day—" but what he had seen vanished in another growl, ended by a groan.

"Tak' a snuff, Mr. Spence," said Hall, as he rose and offered his tin box to the keeper. "Snuff is meat and music; it's better than a bite o' bread when hungry, and maist as gude as a dram when cauld, and at a' times it is pleasant tae sowl and body. Dinna spare'tI"

There was not, as usual, much to spare of the luxury, but Spence refused it on the ground that he had never snuffed, and "didna like to get a habit o't."

"I think," said Jock, "ye might trust yersel at fourscore for no doing that"

The keeper made no reply, but kept his small grey eyes under his bushy eyebrows fixed on his strange visitor.

When Jock had resumed his seat, he said, "Ye'll ken wed, I'se warrant, Mr. Spence, a' the best shootin' grun' aboot Benturk? Ye'll nae doot ken the best bits for film' yer bag when the win' is east or vast, north or south ? And ye'll ken the Lang Slap? and the Craigdarroch brae? and the short cut by the peat moss, past the Big Stane, and doon by the whins to the Cairntupple muir? And ye'll ken."

Old Spence could stand this no longer, and he interrupted Jock by exclaiming, "Confoond yer gab and yer impudence! dauring to sit afore mc there as if ye were maister and I servant! What do ye mean?"

"I was but axin' a ceevil question, Mr. Spence; and I suppose ye'll no' deny that ye ken thae places?"

"An' what if I do? what if I do?" retorted the keeper.

"Jist this," said Jock, without a movement in the muscles of his countenance, "that I ken them tae for mony a year; and sae baith o' us hae common freens amang the hills."

"What do ye ken aboot them?" asked Spence, not more pacified, nor less puzzled.

"Because," said Jock, "I hae shot ower them a' as a poacher—my name is Jock Hall, parish o' Drumsylie—and I hae had the best o' sport on them."

This was too much for the Senior Keeper. With an exclamation that need not be recorded, Spence made an attempt to rise with the help of his crutches, but was gently laid back in his chair by Jock, who said-

"Muckle ye'll mak' o't! as te auld wife said to the guse waumlin' in the glaur. Sit doonsit doon, Mr. Spence I'll be as guid to you as Hugh; an' I'll ca' in Hugh ony time ye like: sac be easy. For I wish, atween oorsels, to tell ye aboot an auld poacher and an auld acquaintance o' yours and mine, Sergeant Adam Mercer; for it's aboot him I've come." This announcement induced John to resume his seat without further trouble, on which Jock said, "Noo, I'll Ca' Hugh to ye, gin ye bid me, as ye seem feared fr me;" and he motioned as if to go to the door.

"I'm no feared for you nor for mortal man!" replied Spence, asserting his dignity in spite of his fears; "but, my fac! ye might be feared, pittin' yer fit into a trap like this ! and if Hugh grips ye!-" He left the rest to be inferred.

"Pfuff!" said Jock. As to that, gudeman, I hae been in every jail roon' aboot! A jail wad be comfort tae me compared wi' the hole I sleepit in the nicht I left Drumsylie, and the road I hae travelled sinsyne! But wul. ye no' hear me about Adam Mercer?"

Spence could not comprehend the character he had to deal with, but beginning to think him probably "a natural," he told him to "say awa', as the titlin' remarked tae the gowk."

Jock now gathered all his wits about him, so as to be able to give a long and tolerably lucid history of the events which were then agitating the little world of Drumsylie, and of which the Sergeant was the centre. He particularly described the part that Mr. Smellic had taken in the affair, and, perhaps, from more than one grudge he bore to the said gentleman, he made him the chief if not the only real enemy of the Sergeant.

The only point which Jock failed to make intelligible to the keeper was his account of the starling. It may have been the confusion of ideas incident to old age when dealing with subjects which do not link themselves to the past; but so it was that there got jumbled up in the keeper's mind such a number of things connected with a bird which was the bairn of the Sergeant's bairn, and whistled songs, and told Jock he was a man, and disturbed the peace of the parish, and broke the Sabbath, and deposed the Sergeant, that he could not solve the mystery for himself, nor could Jock make it clear. He therefore accepted Spence's confusion as the natural result of a true estimate of the facts of the case, which few but the Kirk Session could understand, and accordingly he declared that "the bird was a kin' o' witch, a maist extraordinar' cratur, that seemed to ken a' things, and unless he was mista'en wad pit a' things richt gin the hinner en'." The keeper declared "his detestation o' a' speakin' birds;" and his opinion that "birds were made for shootin', or for ha'ein' their necks thrawn for eatin'—unless when layin' or hatchin'."
But what practical object, it may be asked, had Hall in view in this volunteer mission of his? It was, as he told the keeper, to get him to ask his Lordship, as being the greatest man in the district, to interfere in the matter, and by all possible means to get Smellie, if not Mr. Porteous, muzzled. "Ye're Adam's coosin, I hear," said Jock, "and the head man wi' his Lordship, and ye hae but tae speak the word and deliver the Sergeant an' his bird frae the grips o' these deevils."

Jock had, however, touched a far sorer point than he was aware of when he described Smellie as the propagator of the early history of the Sergeant as a poacher. This, along with all that, had been narrated, so roused the indignation of Spence, who had the warmest regard for the Sergeant, apart from his being his cousin and from the fact of his having connived in some degree at his poaching, that, forgetting for a moment the polluted presence of a confessed poacher like Hall, he told him to call Hugh; adding, however, "What will he do if he kens what ye are, my man? It's easy to get oot o' the teeth o' an auld doug like me, vha's a guid' bit aboon fourscore. But Hugh!—faix he wad pit baith o' us ower his head! What wad he say if he kent a poacher was sitting at his fireside?"

"I didna say, Mr. Spence, that I am a poacher, but that I was ane; nor did I say that I wad ever be ane again; nor could Hugh or ony ane else pruve mair than has been pruved a'ready against me, and paid for by sowl and body to jails and judges: sae let that flee stick to the wa'!" answered Jock; and having done so, he went to the door, and, with stentorian lungs, called the younger keeper so as to wake up all the dogs with howl and bark as if they had been aware of the poaching habits of the shouter.

As Hugh came to the door, at which Jock calmly stood, he said to him in a careless tone, like one who had known him all his life: "Yer faither wants ye;" and, entering the kitchen, he resumed his former seat, folding his arms and looking at the fire.

"\Vha the sorrow hae ye gotten here, faither, cheek by jowl wi' ye?" asked the tall and powerful keeper, scanning Jock with a most critical eye.

"A freen' o' my cousin's, Adam Mercer," replied old Spence. "But speer ye nae questions, Hugh, and ye'll get nae lees. He has come on busines. that I'll tell ye aboot. But tak' him ben in the meantime, and gie him some bread and cheese, wi' a drap milk, till his supper's ready. He'll stay here till morning. Mak' a bed ready for him in the laft."

Hugh, in the absence of his wife, obeyed his father's orders, though not without a rather strong feeling of lessened dignity as a keeper in being thus made the servant of a tagged- looking tramp. While Jock partook of his meal in private, and afterwards went out to smoke his pipe and look about him, old Spence entered into earnest conference with his son Hugh. After giving his rather confused and muddled, yet sufficiently correct, edition of Mercer's story, he concentrated his whole attention and that of his son on the fact that Peter Smellie was the enemy of Adam Mercer, and had been so for some time; that he had joined the minister to persecute him; and, among other things, had also revealed the story of Adam's poaching more than thirty years before, to raise prejudice against his character and that of Spence as a keeper.

"Wha's Smellie? I dinna mind him," asked Hugh.

"Nae loss, Hugh!—nae loss at a'. I never spak' o't to onybody afore, and ye'lI no clipe aboot it, for every dog should hae his chance; and if a man should miss wi' ac barrel, he may nevertheless hit vi' the tither; and I dinna want to lash the man inair than is necessar'. But this same Smellie had a shop here at the clachan aboon twenty years sync, and I got him custom frae the Castle; an' didiia the rogue-Is the door steekit?" asked the old man in a whisper. Hugh nodded. "An' didna the rogue," continued old John, "forge my name tae a bill for 5/-? That did lie; and I could liac hanged him ! But I never telt on him till this hour, but made him pay the half o't, and I paid the ither half rnysel'; and Adam see'd me sac distressed for the money that he gied me 5/-. in a present tae help. Naebody kent o't excel)' mysel' and Adam, wha was IeevIn' here at the time, and saw it was a forgery; and I axed him never to say a word aboot it, and I'll wager he never did, for a clean-speerited man and honourable is Adam Mercer! Wed, Sinellie by my advice left the kintra-side for Drunisylie, and noo he's turning against Adam! Isna that awfu'? Is't no deevilish? Him like a doug pointing at Adam. As weel a moose point at a gied!"

"That's a particular bonnie job indeed," said Hugh. "I wad like to pepper the sneaky cud vi' snipe-dust for't. But what can be dune noo?"

"Dune! Mair than Smellie wad like, and enouch to mak' him lowse his grip o' Adam ! said the old man. "I hac a letter till him bamboozlin' my head, and I'll maybe grip it in the mornin' and pit it on paper afore breakfast-time! Be ye ready to write it doon as I tell ye, and it'll start Smellie ower his wabs and braid claith, or I'm mista'en

Hugh was ordered to meet his father in the morning, to indite the intended epistle.

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