SOCIETY

LORD BALNILLO looked out of his sedan chair as it emerged from the
darkness of a close on the northern slope of the Old Town of
Edinburgh. Far down in front of him, where the long alley stopped, a
light or two was seen reflected in the black water of the Nor’ Loch
that lay between the ancient city and the ground on which the new one
was so soon to rise. The shuffling footfalls of his chairmen, echoing
off the sides of the covered entry, were drowned in the noise that was
going on a little way farther forward, where the close widened out
into a square courtyard. One side of this place was taken up by the
house of Lady Anne Maxwell, for which the judge was bound.

It had been raining, and Edinburgh was most noisomely dirty under
foot, so Balnillo’s regard for his silk-clad legs and the buckled
shoes on his slim feet, had made him decide to be carried to his
kinswoman’s party. He wore his favourite mouse colour, but the
waistcoat under his velvet coat was of primrose satin, and the lace
under his chin had cost him more than he liked to remember.

The courtyard sent up a glow of light into the atmosphere of the damp
evening, for the high houses towering round it rose black into the
sky, limiting the shine and concentrating it into one patch. From
above, it must have looked like a dimly illuminated well. It was full
of sedan chairs, footmen, lantern-carriers and caddies, and the
chattering, pushing, jesting, and oaths were keeping the inhabitants
of the neighbouring ‘lands’–such of them as were awake, for Edinburgh
kept early hours in those days–from going to sleep.

The sedan chairs were set down at the door, for they could seldom be
carried into the low and narrow entrances of even the best town
houses, and here, at Lady Anne’s, the staircase wound up inside a
circular tower projecting from the wall.

The caddies, or street-messengers of Edinburgh, that strange
brotherhood of useful, omniscient rascals, without whose services
nothing could prosper, ran in and out among the crowd in search of odd
jobs. Their eyes were everywhere, their ears heard everything, their
tongues carried news of every event. The caddies knew all that
happened in society, on the bench, in shops, in wynds, in churches,
and no traveller could be an hour in the town before they had made his
name and business common property. In an hour and a half his character
would have gone the same way. Their home by day was at the Market
Cross in the High Street, where they stood in gossiping groups until a
call let one of them loose upon somebody else’s business. It was the
perpetual pursuit of other people’s business that had made them what
they were.

A knot of caddies pressed round the door of Lady Anne Maxwell’s house
as Lord Balnillo, sitting erect in order not to crease his clothes and
looking rather like an image carried in a procession, was kept at a
standstill whilst another guest was set down. Through the open window
of his chair there pressed a couple of inquisitive faces.

“Hey, lads!” cried a caddie, “it’s Davie Balnillo back again!”

“Losh, it’s himsel’! Aweel, ma lord, we’re fine an’ pleased to see ye!
Grange is awa’ in ben the hoose. I’se warrant he doesna’ ken wha’s
ahint him!”

Balnillo nodded affably. The instant recognition pleased the old man,
for he had only reached Edinburgh in time to dress for his cousin’s
party; also, Lord Grange was a friend of his, and he was glad to hear
that he was in front. As he looked complacently upon the crowd, his
chairmen suddenly stepped forward, almost throwing him out of his
seat.

A cry rose round him.

“Canny! Canny! ye Hieland deevils! Ye’ll hae the pouthered wiggie o’
him swiggit aff his heed! Haud on, Davie; we’ll no let ye cowp!”

Balnillo was rather annoyed, for he had been knocked smartly against
the window-frame, and a little cloud of powder had been shaken on his
velvet sleeve; but he knew that the one thing a man might not lose
before the caddies was his temper, if he did not want his rage, his
gestures, and all the humiliating details of his discomfiture to be
the town talk next day. He looked as bland as he could while he
resettled himself.

“It’ll no be waur nor ridin’ the circuit, ma lord?” inquired a voice.

A laugh went round the group, and the chair moved on and was set down
at its destination. Though the caddies’ knowledge of the judge went as
far down as his foibles, the one thing that they did not happen to
know was the motive that had brought him to Edinburgh.

The doings in the harbour had disturbed Balnillo mightily; for, though
the success of Ferrier and James in taking the _Venture_ rejoiced him,
he was dismayed by what he had heard about Archie Flemington. His
brother had told him everything. When Captain Hall and his men had
been conveyed as prisoners to the town, and the ship had been taken
possession of by Prince Charles’ agent in Montrose, Logie had gone
hastily to Balnillo to give the news to David, and to prepare for his
own departure to join the Stuart army. There was no longer any need
for secrecy on his part, and it had always been his intention to
declare himself openly as soon as he had done his work in Montrose.
The place was well protected, and, besides the town guns that he and
Ferrier had taken from Hall, there were the two armed vessels–both
now belonging to the Prince–lying in the harbour.

The arrival of the frigate with her supplies had turned Montrose from
a rebelliously-inclined town into a declared Jacobite stronghold. The
streets and taverns were full of Lord John Drummond’s troops, the
citizens had given vent to their feelings upon the town bells,
bonfires blazed in the streets, and Prince Charlie’s name was on every
lip; girls wore white roses on their breasts, and dreamed at night of
the fascinating young spark who had come to set Scotland alight. The
intense Jacobitism of Angus seemed to have culminated in the quiet
seaport.

In all this outburst of loyalty and excitement the cautious Balnillo
did not know what to do. The risk of announcing his leanings publicly
was a greater one than he cared to take, for his stake in the country
and the land was considerable, and he was neither sanguine enough to
feel certain of the ultimate triumph of the Stuarts like the Montrose
people, nor generous enough to disregard all results like James. As he
told himself, after much deliberation, he was “best away.”

He had heard from James of Archie’s sudden appearance upon the island,
armed with a Government weapon and in company with the attacking force
from the ship, and had listened to James’s grim denunciation of him as
a spy, his passionate regrets that he had not blown his brains out
there and then. James’s bitterness had been so great that David told
himself he could scarcely recognize his quiet brother.

There was abundant reason for it, but Logie had seemed to be beside
himself. He had scarcely eaten or slept during the short time that he
had been with him, and his face had kept the judge’s tongue still.
After his account of what had happened, Balnillo had not returned to
the subject again.

Step by step the judge had gone over all the circumstances of
Flemington’s sudden emergence from the Den on that windy night, and
had seen how he had himself been cozened and flattered into the
business of the portrait which stood unfinished, in solitary and very
marked dignity, in the room with the north light. He was a man who
suspected some of his own weaknesses, though his knowledge did not
prevent him from giving way to them when he thought he could do so
safely, and he remembered the adroit bits of flattery that his guest
had strewn in his path, and how obligingly he had picked them up. He
was shrewd enough to see all that. He thought of the sudden departure
when Madam Flemington’s mysterious illness had spirited Archie out of
the house at a moment’s notice, and he saw how he had contrived to
imbue both himself and James with the idea that he shared their
political interests, without saying one definite word; he thought of
his sigh and the change in his voice as he spoke of his father’s death
“in exile with his master.”

These things stood up in a row before Balnillo, and ranged themselves
into a sinister whole. The plain truth of it was that he had
entertained a devil unawares.

There had been a great search for Flemington when the skirmish on
Inchbrayock was over. It was only ceasing when the French frigate swam
into the river-mouth like a huge water-bird, and James, plunged in the
struggle, was unable to spare a thought to the antagonist he had flung
from him at the first sound of the attack.

But when the firing had stopped, and the appearance of the foreign
ship made the issue of the conflict certain, he returned to the spot
where he had left Archie, and found him gone. He examined the sand for
some trace of the vanished man’s feet, but the tide was now high in
the river, and his footprints had been swallowed by the incoming rush.
The stepping-stones were completely covered, and he knew that
these–great fragments of rock as they were–would now be lying under
enough water to drown a man who should miss his footing while the tide
surged through this narrow stretch of the Esk’s bed. He guessed that
the spy had escaped by them, though a short time later the attempt
would have been impossible. He made a hasty search of the island, and,
finding no sign of Flemington, he returned with his men and the
prisoners they had taken, leaving the dead to be carried over later to
the town for burial. The boats were on the Montrose side of
Inchbrayock, and, their progress being hampered by the wounded, some
time was lost before he could spare a handful of followers to begin
the search for Flemington. He picked up a few volunteers upon the
quays, and despatched them immediately to cross the strait and to
search the southern shores of both the river and the Basin; but they
had barely started when Flemington and the beggar were nearing the
little farm on Rossie moor. Archie had spent so little time on the
open road, thanks to his companion’s advice, that none of those whom
the pursuers met and questioned had seen him. Before dusk came on,
their zeal had flagged; and though one, quicker-witted than his
comrades, had suggested the moor as a likely goal for their quarry, he
had been overborne by their determination that the fugitive, a man who
had been described to them as coming from the other side of the
county, would make in that direction.

When James had gone to join the Stuart army on its march to England,
his brother, waiting until the Prince had left Holyrood, set forth for
Edinburgh. It would have been difficult for him to remain at home
within sound of the noisy rejoicings of Montrose without either
joining in the general exultation or holding himself conspicuously
aloof. Prudence and convenience pointed to the taking of a little
holiday, and his own inclination did not gainsay them.

He had not been in Edinburgh since his retirement, and the notion of
going there, once formed, grew more and more to his taste. A hundred
things in his old haunts drew him: gossip, the liberal tables of his
former colleagues, the latest modes in coats and cravats, the musical
assemblies at which he had himself performed upon the flute, the
scandals and anecdotes of the Parliament House and the society of
elegant women. He loved all these, though his trees and parks had
taken their places of late. He loved James too, and the year they had
spent together had been agreeable to him; but politics and family
affection–the latter of the general rather than the individual
kind–strong as their bonds were, could not bring the brothers into
true touch with each other. James was preoccupied, silent, restless,
and David had sometimes felt him to be inhuman in his lack of interest
in small things, and in his carelessness of all but the great events
of life. And now, as Balnillo stepped forth at Lady Anne Maxwell’s
door, he was hugging himself at the prospect of his return to the
trimmings and embroideries of existence. He walked up the circular
staircase, and emerged into the candle-light of the long, low room in
which his cousin’s guests were assembled.

Lady Anne was a youngish widow, with a good fortune and a devouring
passion for cards. She had all the means of indulging her taste, for
not only did she know every living being who went to the making of
Edinburgh society, but, unlike most of her neighbours, she owned the
whole of the house in which she lived, and, consequently, had space
wherein to entertain them. While nearly all the Edinburgh world dwelt
in its flat, and while many greater ladies than herself were contented
to receive their guests in their bedchambers, and to dance and drink
tea in rooms not much bigger than the boudoirs of their descendants,
Lady Anne could have received Prince Charles Edward himself in
suitable circumstances had she been so minded. But she was very far
from having any such aspiration, and had not set foot in Holyrood
while the Prince was there, for she was a staunch Whig. As she greeted
her cousin Balnillo, she was wondering how far certain rumours that
she had heard about him were true, and whether he also had been privy
to the taking of the sloop-of-war in Montrose harbour, for it was just
a week since the news of Logie’s exploit had reached Edinburgh. One of
David’s many reasons for coming to her party was his desire to make
his reappearance in the polite world in a markedly Whig house.

He stood talking to Lord Grange in the oak-panelled room half full of
people; through an open door another smaller apartment could be seen
crowded with tables and card-players. Lady Anne, all of whose guests
were arrived, had vanished into it, and the two judges stood side by
side. Lord Grange, who valued his reputation for sanctity above
rubies, did not play cards–at least, not openly–and Balnillo,
discovering new faces, as those must who have been over a year absent
from any community, was glad to have him at his elbow to answer
questions. Silks rustled, fans clicked, and the medley of noises in
the court below came up, though the windows were shut.

The candles, dim enough to our modern standards of lighting, shone
against the darkness of polished wood, and laughter and talk were
escaping, like running water out of a thicket, from a knot of people
gathered round a small, plump, aquiline-nosed woman. The group was at
the end of the room, and now and again an individual would detach
himself from it, to return, drawn by some jest that reached him ere he
had crossed the floor.

“Mrs. Cockburn’s wit has not rusted this twelvemonth,” observed Lord
Grange.

“I marvel she has any left after nine years of housekeeping with her
straitlaced father-in-law,” replied Balnillo in a preoccupied voice.

His eyes were elsewhere.

“Ah!” said Grange, pulling a righteous face.

The group round Mrs. Cockburn opened, and she caught sight of him for
the first time. She bowed and smiled civilly, showing her rather
prominent teeth, then, noticing Balnillo, she came over to the two
men. Her friends stepped apart to let her pass, watching her go with
that touch of proprietary pride which a small intimate society feels
in its more original members. It was evident that her least acts were
deemed worthy of observation.

As she greeted David, he turned round with a low bow.

“My lord, I thought you were buried!” she exclaimed.

“Dead and buried,” droned Grange, for the sake of saying something.

“Not dead,” exclaimed she, “else I had been in mourning!”

Balnillo bowed again, bringing his attention back with a jerk from the
direction in which it had been fixed.

“Come, my lord, what have you been doing all this long time?”

“I have been endeavouring to improve my estate, ma’am.”

“And meanwhile you have left us to deteriorate. For shame, sir!”

“Edinburgh morals are safe in Lord Grange’s hands,” rejoined Balnillo,
with a sudden flash of slyness.

Mrs. Cockburn smiled behind her fan. There were odd stories afloat
about Grange. She looked appreciatively at Balnillo. He had not
changed, in spite of his country life; he was as dapper, as
ineffective, and as unexpected as ever. She preferred him infinitely
to Grange.

“Fie, Davie!” broke in the latter, with a leer; “you are an ungallant
dog! Here is Mrs. Cockburn wasting her words on you, and you do
nothing but ogle the lady yonder by the window.”

Three pairs of eyes–the bright ones of Mrs. Cockburn, the rather
furtive ones of Balnillo, and the sanctimonious orbs of Lord
Grange–turned in one direction.

“Mrs. Cockburn is all knowledge, as she is all goodness,” observed the
last named, pompously. “Pray, ma’am, tell us who is that lady?”

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