PROLOGUE

MR. DUTHIE walked up the hill with the gurgle of the burn he had just
crossed purring in his ears. The road was narrow and muddy, and the
house of Ardguys, for which he was making, stood a little way in front
of him, looking across the dip threaded by the water. The tall white
walls, discoloured by damp and crowned by their steep roof, glimmered
through the ash-trees on the bank at his right hand. There was
something distasteful to the reverend man’s decent mind in this homely
approach to the mansion inhabited by the lady he was on his way to
visit, and he found the remoteness of this byway among the grazing
lands of Angus oppressive.

The Kilpie burn, travelling to the river Isla, farther west, had
pushed its way through the undulations of pasture that gave this
particular tract, lying north of the Sidlaws, a definite character;
and the formation of the land seemed to suggest that some vast
ground-swell had taken place in the earth, to be arrested, suddenly,
in its heaving, for all time. Thus it was that a stranger, wandering
about, might come unwarily upon little outlying farms and cottages
hidden in the trough of these terrestrial waves, and find himself,
when he least awaited it, with his feet on a level with some humble
roof, snug in a fold of the braes. It was in one of the largest of
these miniature valleys that the house of Ardguys stood, with the
Kilpie burn running at the bottom of its sloping garden.

Mr. Duthie was not a stranger, but he did not admire the unexpected;
he disliked the approach to Ardguys, for his sense of suitability was
great; indeed, it was its greatness which was driving him on his
present errand. He had no gifts except the quality of decency, which
is a gift like any other; and he was apt, in the company of Madam
Flemington, to whose presence he was now hastening, to be made aware
of the great inconvenience of his shortcomings, and the still greater
inconvenience of his advantage. He crossed the piece of uneven turf
dividing the house from the road, and ascended the short flight of
stone steps, a spare, black figure in a three-cornered hat, to knock
with no uncertain hand upon the door. His one great quality was
staying him up.

Like the rest of his compeers in the first half of the seventeen
hundreds, Mr. Duthie wore garments of rusty blue or grey during the
week, but for this occasion he had plunged his ungainly arms and legs
into the black which he generally kept for the Sabbath-day, though the
change gave him little distinction. He was a homely and very
uncultured person; and while the approaching middle of the century was
bringing a marked improvement to country ministers as a class,
mentally and socially, he had stood still.

He was ushered into a small panelled room in which he waited alone for
a few minutes, his hat on his knee. Then there was a movement outside,
and a lady came in, whose appearance let loose upon him all those
devils of apprehension which had hovered about him as he made his way
from his manse to the chair on which he sat. He rose, stricken yet
resolute, with the cold forlorn courage which is the bravest thing in
the world.

As Madam Flemington entered, she took possession of the room to the
exclusion of everything else, and the minister felt as if he had no
right to exist. Her eyes, meeting his, reflected the idea.

Christian Flemington carried with her that atmosphere which enwraps a
woman who has been much courted by men, and, though she was just over
forty-two, and a grandmother, the most inexperienced observer might
know how strongly the fires of life were burning in her still. An
experienced one would be led to think of all kinds of disturbing
subjects by her mere presence; intrigue, love, power–a thousand
abstract yet stirring things, far, far remote from the weather-beaten
house which was the incongruous shell of this compelling personality.
Dignity was hers in an almost appalling degree, but it was a quality
unlike the vulgar conception of it; a dignity which could be all
things besides distant; unscrupulous in its uses, at times rather
brutal, outspoken, even jovial; born of absolute fearlessness, and
conveying the certainty that its possessor would speak and act as she
chose, because she regarded encroachment as impossible and had the
power of cutting the bridge between herself and humanity at will. That
power was hers to use and to abuse, and she was accustomed to do both.
In speech she could have a plain coarseness which has nothing to do
with vulgarity, and is, indeed, scarcely compatible with it; a
coarseness which is disappearing from the world in company with many
better and worse things.

She moved slowly, for she was a large woman and had never been an
active one; but the bold and steady brilliance of her eyes, which the
years had not faded, suggested swift and sudden action in a way that
was disconcerting. She had the short, straight nose common to feline
types, and time, which had spared her eyes, was duplicating her chin.
Her eyebrows, even and black, accentuated the heavy silver of her
abundant unpowdered hair, which had turned colour early, and an
immense ruby hung from each of her tiny ears in a setting of small
diamonds. Mr. Duthie, who noticed none of these things particularly,
was, nevertheless, crushed by their general combination.

It was nine years before this story opens that Christian Flemington
had left France to take up her abode on the small estate of Ardguys,
which had been left to her by a distant relation. Whilst still almost
a child, she had married a man much older than herself, and her whole
wedded life had been spent at the Court of James II. of England at St.
Germain, whither her husband, a Scottish gentleman of good birth in
the exiled King’s suite, had followed his master, remaining after his
death in attendance upon his widow, Mary Beatrice of Modena.

Flemington did not long survive the King. He left his wife with one
son, who, on reaching manhood, estranged himself from his mother by an
undesirable marriage; indeed, it was immediately after this latter
event that Christian quitted her post at Court, retiring to Rouen,
where she lived until the possession of Ardguys, which she inherited a
few months later, gave her a home of her own.

Different stories were afloat concerning her departure. Many people
said that she had gambled away the greater part of her small fortune
and was forced to retrench in some quiet place; others, that she had
quarrelled with, and been dismissed by, Mary Beatrice. Others, again,
declared that she had been paid too much attention by the young
Chevalier de St. George and had found it discreet to take herself out
of his way; but the believers in this last theory were laughed to
scorn; not because the world saw anything strange in the Chevalier’s
alleged infatuation, but because it was quite sure that Christian
Flemington would have acted very differently in the circumstances. But
no one could be certain of the truth: the one certain thing was that
she was gone and that since her retreat to Rouen she had openly
professed Whig sympathies. She had been settled at Ardguys, where she
kept her political leanings strictly to herself, for some little time,
when news came that smallpox had carried off her son and his
undesirable wife, and, as a consequence, their little boy was sent
home to the care of his Whig grandmother, much against the will of
those Jacobites at the Court of St. Germain who were still interested
in the family. But as nobody’s objection was strong enough to affect
his pocket, the child departed.

‘Madam’ Flemington, as she was called by her few neighbours, was in
correspondence with none of her old friends, and none of these had the
least idea what she felt about her loss or about the prospect of the
child’s arrival. She was his natural guardian, and, though so many
shook their heads at the notion of his being brought up by a rank
Whig, no one was prepared to relieve her of her responsibility. Only
Mary Beatrice, mindful of the elder Flemington’s faithful services to
James, granted a small pension for the boy’s upbringing from her
meagre private purse; but as this was refused by Christian, the matter
ended. And now, in the year of grace 1727, young Archie Flemington was
a boy of eight, and the living cause of the Rev. William Duthie’s
present predicament.

Madam Flemington and the minister sat opposite to each other, silent.
He was evidently trying to make a beginning of his business, but his
companion was not in a mood to help him. He was a person who wearied
her, and she hated red hair; besides which, she was an Episcopalian
and out of sympathy with himself and his community. She found him
common and limited, and at the present moment, intrusive.

“It’s sma’ pleasure I have in coming to Ardguys the day,” he began,
and then stopped, because her eyes paralyzed his tongue.

“You are no flatterer,” said she.

But the contempt in her voice braced him.

“Indeed, that I am not, madam,” he replied; “neither shall it be said
of me that I gang back from my duty. Nane shall assail nor make a mock
of the Kirk while I am its minister.”

“Who has made a mock of the Kirk, my good man?”

“Airchie.”

The vision of her eight-year-old grandson going forth, like a young
David, to war against the Presbyterian stronghold, brought back Madam
Flemington’s good-humour.

“Ye may smile, madam,” said Duthie, plunged deeper into the vernacular
by agitation, “ay, ye may lauch. But it ill beseems the grey hair on
yer pow.”

Irony always pleased her and she laughed outright, showing her strong
white teeth. It was not only Archie and the Kirk that amused her, but
the whimsical turn of her own fate which had made her hear such an
argument from a man. It was not thus that men had approached her in
the old days.

“You are no flatterer, Mr. Duthie, as I said before.”

He looked at her with uncomprehending eyes.

A shout, as of a boy playing outside, came through the window, and a
bunch of cattle upon the slope cantered by with their tails in the
air. Evidently somebody was chasing them.

“Let me hear about Archie,” said the lady, recalled to the main point
by the sight.

“Madam, I would wish that ye could step west to the manse wi’ me and
see the evil abomination at my gate. It would gar ye blush.”

“I am obliged to you, sir. I had not thought to be put to that
necessity by one of your cloth.”

“Madam—-”

“Go on, Mr. Duthie. I can blush without going to the manse for it.”

“An evil image has been set up upon my gate,” he continued, raising
his voice as though to cry down her levity, “an idolatrous picture. I
think shame that the weans ganging by to the schule should see it. But
I rejoice that there’s mony o’ them doesna’ ken wha it is.”

“Fie, Mr. Duthie! Is it Venus?”

“It has idolatrous garments,” continued he, with the loud monotony of
one shouting against a tempest, “and a muckle crown on its head—-”

“Then it is not Venus,” observed she. “Venus goes stripped.”

“It is the Pope of Rome,” went on Mr. Duthie; “I kent him when I saw
the gaudy claes o’ him and the heathen vanities on his pow. I kent it
was himsel’! And it was written at the foot o’ him, forbye that. Ay,
madam, there was writing too. There was a muckle bag out frae his mou’
wi’ wicked words on it! ‘Come awa’ to Babylon wi’ me, Mr. Duthie.’ I
gar’d the beadle run for water and a clout, for I could not thole that
sic’ a thing should be seen.”

“And you left the Pope?” said Madam Flemington.

“I did,” replied the minister. “I would wish to let ye see to whatlike
misuse Airchie has put his talents.”

“And how do you know it was Archie’s work?”

“There’s naebody hereabouts but Airchie could have made sic’ a thing.
The beadle tell’t me that he saw him sitting ahint the whins wi’ his
box of paint as he gae’d down the manse road, and syne when he came
back the image was there.”

As he finished his sentence the door opened and a small figure was
arrested on the threshold by the sight of him. The little boy paused,
disconcerted and staring, and a faint colour rose in his olive face.
Then his glum look changed to a smile in which roguery, misgiving, and
an intense malicious joy were blended. He looked from one to the
other.

“Archie, come in and make your reverence to Mr. Duthie,” said Madam
Flemington, who had all at once relapsed into punctiliousness.

Archie obeyed. His skin and his dark eyes hinted at his mother’s
French blood, but his bow made it a certainty.

The minister offered no acknowledgment.

If Archie had any doubt about the reason of Mr. Duthie’s visit, it did
not last long. The minister was not a very stern man in daily life,
but now the Pope and Madam Flemington between them had goaded him off
his normal peaceable path, and his expression bade the little boy
prepare for the inevitable. Archie reflected that his grandmother was
a disciplinarian, and his mind went to a cupboard in the attics where
she kept a cane. But the strain of childish philosophy which ran
through his volatile nature was of a practical kind, and it reminded
him that he must pay for his pleasures, and that sometimes they were
worth the expense. Even in the grip of Nemesis he was not altogether
sorry that he had drawn that picture.

Madam Flemington said nothing, and Mr. Duthie beckoned to him to come
nearer.

“Child,” said he, “you have put an affront upon the whole o’ the folk
of this parish. You have raised up an image to be a scandal to the
passers-by. You have set up a notorious thing in our midst, and you
have caused words to issue from its mouth that the very kirk-officer,
when he dichted it out wi’ his clout, thought shame to look upon. I
have jaloused it right to complain to your grandmother and to warn
her, that she may check you before you bring disgrace and dismay upon
her and upon her house.”

Archie’s eyes had grown rounder as he listened, for the pomp of the
high-sounding words impressed him with a sense of importance, and he
was rather astonished to find that any deed of his own could produce
such an effect. He contemplated the minister with a curious detachment
that belonged to himself. Then he turned to look at his grandmother,
and, though her face betrayed no encouragement, the subtle smile he
had worn when he stood at the door appeared for a moment upon his
lips.

Mr. Duthie saw it. Madam Flemington had not urged one word in defence
of the culprit, but, rightly or wrongly, he scented lack of sympathy
with his errand. He turned upon her.

“I charge you–nay, I demand it of you,” he exclaimed–“that you root
out the evil in yon bairn’s nature! Tak’ awa’ from him the foolish toy
that he has put to sic’ a vile use. I will require of you—-”

“Sir,” said Madam Flemington, rising, “I have need of nobody to teach
me how to correct my grandson. I am obliged to you for your visit, but
I will not detain you longer.”

And almost before he realized what had happened, Mr. Duthie found
himself once more upon the stone steps of Ardguys.

Archie and his grandmother were left together in the panelled room.
Perhaps the boy’s hopes were raised by the abrupt departure of his
accuser. He glanced tentatively at her.

“You will not take away my box?” he inquired.

“No.”

“Mr. Duthie has a face like this,” he said airily, drawing his small
features into a really brilliant imitation of the minister.

The answer was hardly what he expected.

“Go up to the cupboard and fetch me the cane,” said Madam Flemington.

It was a short time later when Archie, rather sore, but still
comforted by his philosophy, sat among the boughs of a tree farther up
the hill. It was a favourite spot of his, for he could look down
through the light foliage over the roof of Ardguys and the Kilpie burn
to the rough road ascending beyond them. The figure of the retreating
Mr. Duthie had almost reached the top and was about to be lost in the
whin-patch across the strath. The little boy’s eyes followed him
between the yellowing leaves of the tree which autumn was turning into
the clear-tinted ghost of itself. He had not escaped justice, and the
marks of tears were on his face; but they were not rancorous tears,
whose traces live in the heart long after the outward sign of their
fall has gone. They were tears forced from him by passing stress, and
their sources were shallow. Madam Flemington could deal out punishment
thoroughly, but she was not one of those who burn its raw wounds with
sour words, and her grandson had not that woeful sense of estrangement
which is the lot of many children when disciplined by those they love.
Archie adored his grandmother, and the gap of years between them was
bridged for him by his instinctive and deep admiration. She was no
companion to him, but she was a deity, and he had never dreamed of
investing her with those dull attributes which the young will tack on
to those who are much their seniors, whether they possess them or not.
Mr. Duthie, who had just reached middle life, seemed a much older
person to Archie.

He felt in his pocket for the dilapidated box which held his chief
treasures–those dirty lumps of paint with which he could do such
surprising things. No, there was not very much black left, and he must
contrive to get some more, for the adornment of the other manse
gatepost was in his mind. He would need a great deal of black, because
this time his subject would be the devil; and there should be the
same–or very nearly the same–invitation to the minister.