A COACH-AND-FIVE

ARCHIE sat in his bedroom at a table. The window was open, for it was
a soft October afternoon, and he looked out meditatively at the
prospect before him.

The wind that had howled in the night had spent itself towards
morning, and by midday the tormented sky had cleared and the curtain
of cloud rolled away, leaving a mellow sun smiling over the Basin of
Montrose. He had never been within some miles of Balnillo, and the
aspect of this piece of the country being new to him, his painter’s
eye rested appreciatively on what he saw.

Two avenues of ancient trees ran southward, one on either side of the
house, and a succession of grass fields sloped away before him between
these bands of timber to the tidal estuary, where the water lay blue
and quiet with the ribbon of the South Esk winding into it from the
west. Beyond it the low hills with their gentle rise touched the
horizon; nearer at hand the beeches and gean-trees, so dear to Lord
Balnillo’s heart, were red and gold. Here and there, where the gale
had thinned the leaves, the bareness of stem and bough let in glimpses
of the distant purple which was the veil of the farther atmosphere. To
the east, shut out from his sight by all this wood, was the town of
Montrose, set, with its pointed steeple, like the blue silhouette of
some Dutch town, between the Basin and the North Sea.

A pen was in Flemington’s hand, and the very long letter he had just
written was before him.

“BALNILLO HOUSE.

“MADAM, MY DEAR GRANDMOTHER,

“I beg you to look upon the address at the head of this letter, and to
judge whether fortune has favoured your devoted grandson.

“I am _on the very spot_, and, what is more, seem like to remain there
indefinitely. Could anything in this untoward world have fallen out
better? Montrose is a bare three miles from where I sit, and I can
betake myself there on business when necessary, while I live as
secluded as I please, cheek by jowl with the very persons whose
acquaintance I had laid so many plots to compass. My dear grandmother,
could you but have seen me last night, when I lay down after my
labours, tricked out in my worshipful host’s nightshirt! Though the
honest man is something of a fop in his attire, his arms are not so
long as mine, and the fine ruffles on the sleeves did little more than
adorn my elbows, which made me feel like a lady till I looked at my
skirts. Then I felt more like a highlandman. But I am telling you only
effects when you are wanting causes.

“I changed horses at Brechin, having got so far in safety just after
dark, and went on towards Montrose, with the wind rising and never a
star to look comfort at me through the coach window. Though I knew we
must be on the right road, I asked my way at every hovel we passed,
and was much interested when I was told that I was at the edge of my
Lord Balnillo’s estate, and not far from his house.

“The road soon afterwards took a plunge into the very vilest place I
ever saw–a steep way scarcely fit for a cattle-road, between a mass
of trees. I put out my head and heard the rushing of water. Oh, what a
fine thing memory is! I remembered having heard of the Den of Balnillo
and being told that it was near Balnillo house, and I judged we must
be there. Another minute and we were clattering among stones; the
water was up to the axle and we rocked like a ship. One wheel was
higher than the other, and we leaned over so that I could scarcely
sit. Then I was inspired. I threw myself with all my weight against
the side, and dragged so much of my cargo of canvases as I could lay
hold of with me. There was a great splash and over we went. It was
mighty hard work getting out, for the devil caused the door to stick
fast, and I had to crawl through the window at that side of the coach
which was turned to the sky, like a roof. I hope I may never be
colder. We turned to and got the horses out and on to dry ground, and
the postilion, a very frog for slime and mud, began to shout, which
soon produced a couple of men with a lantern. I shouted too, and did
my poor best in the way of oaths to give the affair all the colour of
reality I could, and I believe I was successful. The noise brought
more people about us, and with them my lord’s brother, Captain Logie,
hurrying to the rescue with a fellow who had run to the house with
news of our trouble. The result was that we ended our night, the coach
with a cracked axle and a hole in the panel, the postilion in the
servants’ hall with half a bottle of good Scots whisky inside him, the
horses–one with a broken knee–in the stable, and myself, as I tell
you, in his lordship’s nightshirt.

“I promise you that I thought myself happy when I got inside the
mansion–a solemn block, with a grand manner of its own and Corinthian
pillars in the dining-room. His lordship was on the hearthrug, as
solemn as his house, but with a pinched, precise look which it has not
got. He was no easy nut to crack, and it took me a little time to
establish myself with him, but the good James, his brother, left us a
little while alone, and I made all the way I could in his favour. I
may have trouble with the old man, and, at any rate, must be always at
my best with him, for he seems to me to be silly, virtuous and cunning
all at once. He is vain, too, and suspicious, and has seen so many
wicked people in his judicial career that I must not let him confound
me with them. I could see that he had difficulty in making my
occupation and appearance match to his satisfaction. He wears a
mouse-coloured velvet coat, and is very nice in the details of his
dress. I should like you to see him–not because he would amuse you,
but because it would entertain me so completely to see you together.

“James, his brother, is cut to a very different pattern. He is many
years younger than his lordship–not a dozen years older than myself,
I imagine–and he has spent much of his life with Lord Orkney’s
regiment in Holland. There is something mighty attractive in his face,
though I cannot make out what it is. It is strange that, though he
seems to be a much simpler person than the old man, I feel less able
to describe him. I have had much talk with him this morning, and I
don’t know when I have liked anyone better.

“And now comes the triumph of well-doing–the climax to which all this
faithful record leads. I am to paint his lordship’s portrait (in his
Judge’s robes), and am installed here definitely for that purpose! I
shall be grateful if you will send me my chestnut-brown suit and a
couple of fine shirts, also the silk stockings which are in the top
shelf of my cupboard, and all you can lay hands on in the matter of
cravats. My valise was soaked through and through, and, though the
clothes I am wearing were dried in the night, I am rather short of
good coats, for I expected to end in an inn at Montrose rather than in
a gentleman’s house. Though I am within reach of Ardguys, and might
ride to fetch them in person, I do not want to be absent
unnecessarily. Any _important_ letters that I may send you will go by
a hand I know of. I shall go shortly to Montrose by way of procuring
myself some small necessity, and shall search for that hand. Its owner
should not be difficult to recognize, by all accounts. And now, my
dear grandmother, I shall write myself

“Your dutiful and devoted grandson,

“ARCHIBALD FLEMINGTON.”

Archie sealed his letter, and then rose and leaned far out of the
window. The sun still bathed the land, but it was getting low; the
tree-tops were thrusting their heads into a light which had already
left the grass-parks slanting away from the house. The latter part of
his morning had been taken up by his host’s slow inspection of his
canvases, and he longed for a sight of his surroundings. He knew that
the brothers had gone out together, and he took his hat and stood
irresolute, with his letter in his hand, before a humble-looking
little locked case, which he had himself rescued the night before from
among his submerged belongings in the coach, hesitating whether he
should commit the paper to it or keep it upon his own person. It
seemed to be a matter for some consideration. Finally, he put it into
his pocket and went out.

He set forth down one of the avenues, walking on a gorgeous carpet of
fallen leaves, and came out on a road running east and west, evidently
another connecting Brechin with Montrose. He smiled as he considered
it, realizing that, had he taken it last night, he would have escaped
the Den of Balnillo and many more desirable things at the same time.

As he stood looking up and down, he heard a liquid rush, and saw to
his right a mill-dam glimmering through the trees, evidently the goal
of the waters which had soused him so lately. He strolled towards it,
attracted by the forest of stems and golden foliage reflected in the
pool, and by the slide down which the stream poured into a field, to
wind, like a little serpent, through the grass. Just where it
disappeared stood a stone mill-house abutting on the highway, from
which came the clacking of a wheel. The miller was at his door. Archie
could see that he was watching something with interest, for the man
stood out, a distinct white figure, on the steps running up from the
road to the gaping doorway in the mill-wall.

Flemington was one of those blessed people for whom common sights do
not glide by, a mere meaningless procession of alien things.
Humanity’s smallest actions had an interest for him, for he had that
love of seeing effect follow cause, which is at once priceless and
childish–priceless because anything that lifts from us the irritating
burden of ourselves for so much as a moment is priceless; and childish
because it is a survival of the years when all the universe was new.
Priceless yet again, because it will often lead us down unexpected
side-tracks of knowledge in a world in which knowledge is power.

He sat down on the low wall bounding the mill-field, for he was
determined to know what the miller was staring at. Whatever it was, it
was on the farther side of a cottage built just across the road from
the mill.

He was suddenly conscious that a bare-footed little girl with
tow-coloured hair had appeared from nowhere, and was standing beside
him. She also was staring at the house by the mill, but with
occasional furtive glances at himself. All at once the heavy drone of
a bagpipe came towards them, then the shrill notes of the chanter
began to meander up and down on the blare of sonorous sound like a
light pattern running over a dark background. The little girl removed
her eyes from the stranger and cut a caper with her bare feet, as
though she would like to dance.

It was evident that the sounds had affected Flemington, too, but not
in the same way. He made a sharp exclamation under his breath, and
turned to the child.

“Who is that playing?” he cried, putting out his hand.

She jumped back and stood staring.

“Who is that playing?” he repeated.

She was still dumb, scrubbing one foot against her bare ankle after
the manner of the shoeless when embarrassed.

Archie was exasperated. He rose, without further noticing the child,
and hurried towards the mill. When he had reached the place where the
stream dived through a stone arch under the road he found she was
following him. He heard the pad, pad, of her naked soles in the mud.

All at once she was moved to answer his question.

“Yon’s Skirlin’ Wattie!” she yelled after him.

But he strode on, taking no notice; fortune was playing into his hand
so wonderfully that he was ceasing to be surprised.

In the little yard of the cottage he found a small crowd of children,
two women, and the miller’s man, collected round the strangest
assortment of living creatures he had ever seen. The name ‘Skirlin’
Wattie’ had conveyed something to him, and he was prepared for the
extraordinary, but his breath was almost taken away by the oddness of
what he saw.

In the middle of the group was a stout wooden box, which, mounted on
very low wheels, was transformed into the likeness of a rough go-cart,
and to this were yoked five dogs of differing breeds and sizes. A
half-bred mastiff in the wheel of the team was taking advantage of the
halt and lay dozing, his jowl on his paws, undisturbed by the blast of
sound which poured over his head, whilst his companion, a large,
smooth-haired yellow cur, stood alert with an almost proprietary
interest in what was going on awake in his amber eyes. The couple of
collies in front of them sniffed furtively at the bystanders, and the
wire-haired terrier, which, as leader, was harnessed singly in advance
of the lot, was sharing a bannock with a newly-breeched man-child, the
sinister nature of whose squint almost made the dog’s confidence seem
misplaced.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had
deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been
amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the
shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and
back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his
pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and
doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the
top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and
at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above
the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of
eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as
the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

“Man, ye’re the most mountaineous player in Scotland!” said the
miller’s man, who was a coiner of words.

“Aye, dod, am I!” replied the piper.

“Hae?” continued the miller’s man, holding out an apple.

The beggar took it with that silent wag of the back of the head which
seems peculiar to the east coast of Scotland, and dropped it into the
cart.

Archie handed him a sixpence.

“Ye’ll hae to gie us mair noo!” cried the squinting child, whose eyes
had seen straight enough, and who seemed to have a keen sense of
values.

“Aye, a sang this time,” added its mother.

“Ye’ll get a pucklie meal an’ a bawbee gin’ ye sing ‘The Tod,'”*
[*Fox.] chimed in an old woman, who had suddenly put her head out of
the upper story of the cottage.

The beggar laid down his pipes and spat on earth. Then he opened his
mouth and gave forth a voice whose volume, flexibility, and extreme
sweetness seemed incredible, considering the being from whom it
emanated.

“There’s a tod aye blinkin’ when the nicht comes doon,
Blinkin’ wi’ his lang een, and keekin’ round an’ roun’,
Creepin’ by the farm-yaird when gloamin’ is to fa’,
And syne there’ll be a chicken or a deuk awa’.
Aye, when the guidwife rises there’s a deuk awa’!

“There’s a lass sits greetin’ ben the hoose at hame,
For when the guidwife’s cankered she gie’s her aye the blame,
And sair the lassie’s sabbin’, and fast the tears fa’,
For the guidwife’s tynt a bonnie hen, and it’s awa’.
Aye, she’s no sae easy dealt wi’ when her gear’s awa’!

“There’s a lad aye roamin’ when the day gets late,
A lang-leggit deevil wi’ his hand upon the gate,
And aye the guidwife cries to him to gar the toddie fa’,
For she canna thole to let her chicks an’ deuks awa’.
Aye, the muckle bubbly-jock himsel’ is ca’ed awa’!

“The laddie saw the tod gae by, an’ killed him wi’ a stane,
And the bonnie lass wha grat sae sair she sits nae mair her lane,
But the guidwife’s no contented yet–her like ye never saw,
Cries she, ‘This time it is the lass, an’ she’s awa’!’
Aye, yon laddie’s waur nor ony tod, for Jean’s awa’!”

Archie beat the top rail of the paling with so much enthusiasm that
the yellow cur began to bark. The beggar quieted him with a storm of
abuse.

The beldame disappeared from the window, and her steps could be heard
descending the wooden stair of the cottage. She approached the cart
with a handful of meal on a platter which Skirling Wattie tilted into
an old leather bag that hung on his carriage.

“Whaur’s the bawbee?” cried the squinting child.

A shout of laughter went up, led by Archie.

“He kens there’s nae muckle weicht o’ meal, and wha’ should ken it
better?” said the beggar, balancing the bag on his palm and winking at
the miller’s man.

The latter, who happened to be the child’s unacknowledged parent,
disappeared behind the house.

“One more song, and I will supply the bawbee,” said Archie, throwing
another coin into the cart.

Skirling Wattie sent a considering glance at his patron; though he
might not understand refinement, he could recognize it; and much of
his local success had come from his nice appraisement of audiences.

“I’ll gie ye Logie Kirk,” said he.

“O Logie Kirk, among the braes
I’m thinkin’ o’ the merry days
Afore I trod the weary ways
That led me far frae Logie.

“Fine do I mind when I was young,
Abune thy graves the mavis sung,
And ilka birdie had a tongue
To ca’ me back to Logie.

“O Logie Kirk, tho’ aye the same,
The burn sings ae remembered name,
There’s ne’er a voice to cry ‘Come hame
To bonnie Bess at Logie!’

“Far, far awa’ the years decline
That took the lassie wha was mine
And laid her sleepin’ lang, lang syne
Among the braes at Logie.”

His voice, and the wonderful pathos of his phrasing, fascinated
Archie, but as the last cadences fell from his mouth, the beggar
snatched up the long switch with which he drove his team and began to
roar.

“A’m awa’!” he shouted, making every wall and corner echo. “Open the
gate an’ let me through, ye misbegotten bairns o’ Auld Nick! Stand
back, ye clortie-faced weans, an’ let me out! Round about an’ up the
road! Just round about an’ up the road, a’ tell ye!”

The last sentences were addressed to the dogs who were now all on
their legs and mindful of the stick whirling in the air above them.

Archie could see that he was not included in the beggar’s general
address, but, being nearest to the gate, he swung it open and the
whole equipage dashed through, the dogs guided with amazing dexterity
between the posts by their master’s switch. The rapid circle they
described on the road as they were turned up the hill towards Brechin
seemed likely to upset the cart, but the beggar leaned outwards so
adroitly that none of the four wheels left the ground. As they went up
the incline he took up his pipes, and leaving the team to its own
guidance, tuned up and disappeared round the next bend in a blast of
sound.

Flemington would have given a great deal to run after him, and could
easily have overtaken the cart, for its pace was not very formidable.
But the whole community, including the tow-headed little girl, was
watching Skirling Wattie out of sight and speculating, he knew, upon
his own identity. So he walked leisurely on till the road turned at
the top of the hill, and he was rewarded at the other side of its bend
by the sight of the beggar halting his team by a pond at which the
dogs were drinking. He threw a look around and behind him; then, as no
human creature was to be seen, he gave a loud whistle, holding up his
arm, and began to run.

Skirling Wattie awaited him at the pond-side, and as Archie
approached, he could almost feel his bold eyes searching him from top
to toe. He stopped by the cart.

“My name is Flemington,” said he.

“A’ve heard worse,” replied the other calmly.

“And I have a description of you in my pocket,” continued Archie.
“Perhaps you would like to see it.”

The beggar looked up at him from under his bushy eyebrows, with a
smile of the most robust and genial effrontery that he had ever seen
on a human face.

“A’d need to,” said he.

Archie took a folded paper from his pocket.

“You see that signature,” he said, putting his forefinger on it.

The other reached up to take the paper.

“No, no,” said Flemington, “this never goes out of my hand.”

“That’s you!” exclaimed the beggar, with some admiration. “Put it
back. A’ ken it.”

He unhooked his leather bag, which hung inside the cart on its front
board. This Archie perceived to be made, apparently for additional
strength, of two thicknesses of wood. Skirling Wattie slid the inner
plank upwards, and the young man saw a couple of sealed letters hidden
behind it, one of which was addressed to himself.

“Tak’ yon,” said the beggar, as the sound of a horse’s tread was heard
not far off, “tak’ it quick an’ syne awa’ ye gang! Mind ye, a gang
ilka twa days frae Montrose to Brechin, an a’m aye skirlin’ as a
gang.”

“And do you take this one and have it sent on from Brechin,” said
Archie hurriedly, handing him the letter he had written to Madam
Flemington.

The other wagged the back of his head, and laid a finger against the
rim of his bonnet.

Archie struck into the fields by the pond, and had time to drop down
behind a whin-bush before an inoffensive-looking farmer went by on his
way between the two towns.

The beggar continued his progress, singing to himself, and Flemington,
who did not care to face the mill and the curious eyes of the
tow-headed little girl again, took a line across country back to
Balnillo.

He hated the tow-headed little girl.

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