“TOUJOURS DE L’AUDACE”

“DOAG,” said the beggar, addressing the yellow cur, “you an’ me’ll
need to be speerin’ aboot this. Whiles, it’s no sae easy tellin’
havers frae truth.”

Though Skirling Wattie was on good terms with the whole of his team,
the member of it whom he singled out for complete confidence, whom he
regarded as an employer might regard the foreman of a working gang,
was the yellow cur. The abuse he poured over the heads of his servants
was meant more as incentive than as rebuke, and he fed them well,
sharing his substance honestly with them, and looking to them for
arduous service in return. They were a faithful, intelligent lot,
good-tempered, but for one of the collies, and the accepted
predominance of the yellow cur was merely one more illustration of the
triumph of personality. His golden eyes, clear, like unclouded amber,
contrasted with the thick and vulgar yellow of his close coat, and the
contrast was like that between spirit and flesh. He was a strong,
untiring creature, with blunt jaws and legs that seemed to be made of
steel, and it was characteristic of him that he seldom laid down but
at night, and would stand turned in his traces as though waiting for
orders, looking towards his master as the latter sang or piped, whilst
his comrades, extended in the dust, took advantage of the halt.

The party was drawn up under the lee of a low wall by the grassy side
of the Brechin road, and its grotesqueness seemed greater than ever
because of its entirely unsuitable background.

The wall encircled the site of an ancient building called Magdalen
Chapel, which had long been ruined, and now only survived in one
detached fragment and in the half-obliterated traces of its
foundations. Round it the tangled grass rose, and a forest of withered
hemlock that had nearly choked out the nettles, stood up, traced like
lacework against the line of hills beyond the Basin. In summer its
powdery white threw an evanescent grace over the spot. The place was a
haunt of Skirling Wattie’s, for it was a convenient half-way house
between Montrose and Brechin, and the trees about it gave a comforting
shelter from both sun and rain.

The tailboard of the cart was turned to the wall so that the piper
could lean his broad back against it, and there being not a dozen
inches between the bottom of his cart and the ground, he was hidden
from anyone who might chance to be in the chapel precincts. The
projecting stone which made a stile for those who entered the
enclosure was just level with his shoulder, and he had laid his pipes
on it while he sat with folded arms and considered the situation. He
had just been begging at a farm, and he had heard a rumour there that
Archie Flemington was gone from Balnillo, and had been seen in
Brechin, riding westwards, on the preceding morning. The beggar had
got a letter for him behind his sliding boards which had to be
delivered without delay.

“Doag,” said he again, “we’ll awa’ to auld Davie’s.”

Skirling Wattie distrusted rumour, for the inexactitudes of human
observation and human tongues are better known to a man who lives by
his wits than to anybody else. He was not going to accept this news
without sifting it. To Balnillo he would go to find out whether the
report was true. The only drawback was that “auld Davie,” as he called
the judge, abhorred and disapproved of beggars, and he did not know
how he might stay in the place long enough to find out what he wanted.
He was a privileged person at most houses, from the sea on the east to
Forfar on the west, but Lord Balnillo would none of him. Nevertheless,
he turned the wheels of his chariot in his direction.

He wondered, as he went along, why he had not seen Archie by the way;
but Archie had not left Balnillo by the Brechin road, being anxious to
avoid him. What was the use of receiving instructions that he could
not bring himself to carry out? The last person he wished to meet was
the beggar.

Wattie turned into the Balnillo gates and went up the avenue towards
the stable. His pipes were silent, and the fallen leaves muffled the
sound of his wheels. He knew about the mishap that had brought
Flemington as a guest to the judge, and about the portrait he was
painting, for tidings of all the happenings in the house reached the
mill sooner or later. That source of gossip was invaluable to him.
But, though the miller had confirmed the report that Flemington had
gone, he had been unable to tell him his exact destination.

He drove into the stable yard and found it empty but for a man who was
chopping wood. The latter paused between his strokes as he saw who had
arrived.

“A’m seekin’ his lordship,” began Wattie, by way of discovering how
the land lay.

“Then ye’ll no find him,” replied the woodman, who was none other than
the elder, Andrew Robieson, and who, like his master, disapproved
consistently of the beggar. He was a sly old man, and he did not think
it necessary to tell the intruder that the judge, though not in the
house, was within hearing of the pipes. It was his boast that he “left
a’ to Providence,” but he was not above an occasional shaping of
events to suit himself.

The beggar rolled up to the back-door at the brisk pace he reserved
for public occasions. A shriek of delight came from the kitchen window
as the blast of his pipes buzzed and droned across the yard. The tune
of the ‘East Nauk of Fife’ filled the place. A couple of maidservants
came out and stood giggling as Wattie acknowledged their presence by a
wag of the head that spoke gallantry, patronage, ribaldry–anything
that a privileged old rogue can convey to young womanhood blooming
near the soil. A groom came out of the stable and joined the group.

The feet of the girls were tapping the ground. The beggar’s expression
grew more genially provocative, and his eyeballs rolled more
recklessly as he blew and blew; his time was perfect. The groom, who
was dancing, began to compose steps on his own account. Suddenly there
was a whirl of petticoats, and he had seized one of the girls round
the middle.

They spun and counter-spun; now loosing each other for the more
serious business of each one’s individual steps, now enlacing again,
seeming flung together by some resistless elemental wind. The man’s
gaze, while he danced alone, was fixed on his own feet as though he
were chiding them, admiring them, directing them through niceties
which only himself could appreciate. His partner’s hair came down and
fell in a loop of dull copper-colour over her back. She was a
finely-made girl, and each curve of her body seemed to be surging
against the agitated sheath of her clothes. The odd-woman-out circled
round the pair like a fragment thrown off by the spin of some
travelling meteor. The passion for dancing that is even now part of
the life of Angus had caught all three, let loose upon them by the
piper’s handling of sound and rhythm.

In the full tide of their intoxication, a door in the high wall of the
yard opened and Lord Balnillo came through it. The fragment broke from
its erratic orbit and fled into the house with a scream; the meteor, a
whirling twin-star, rushed on, unseeing. The piper, who saw well
enough, played strong and loud; not the king himself could have
stopped him in the middle of a strathspey. The yellow dog, on his feet
among his reposing companions, showed a narrow white line between his
lips, and the hackles rose upon his plebeian neck.

“Silence!” cried Lord Balnillo. But the rest of his words were drowned
by the yell of the pipes.

As the dancers drew asunder again, they saw him and stopped. His wrath
was centred on the beggar, and man and maid slunk away unrebuked.

Wattie finished his tune conscientiously. To Balnillo, impotent in the
hurricane of braying reeds, each note that kept him dumb was a new
insult, and he could see the knowledge of that fact in the piper’s
face. As the music ceased, the beggar swept off his bonnet, displaying
his disreputable bald head, and bowed like the sovereign of some
jovial and misgoverned kingdom. The yellow dog’s attitude forbade
Balnillo’s nearer approach.

“Go!” shouted the judge, pointing a shaking forefinger into space.
“Out with you instantly! Is my house to be turned into a house of call
for every thief and vagabond in Scotland? Have I not forbidden you my
gates? Begone from here immediately, or I will send for my men to
cudgel you out!”

But he leaped back, for he had taken a step forward in his excitement,
and the yellow cur’s teeth were bare.

“A’m seekin’ the painter-laddie,” said the beggar, giving the dog a
good-humoured cuff.

“Away with you!” cried the other, unheeding. “You are a plague to the
neighbourhood. I will have you put in Montrose jail! To-morrow, I
promise you, you will find yourself where you cannot make gentlemen’s
houses into pandemoniums with your noise.”

“A’d like Brechin better,” rejoined the beggar; “it’s couthier in
there.”

Balnillo was a humane man, and he prided himself, as all the world
knew, on some improvements he had suggested in the Montrose prison. He
was speechless.

“Ay,” continued Wattie, “a’m thinkin’ you’ve sent mony a better man
than mysel’ to the tolbooth. But, dod! a’m no mindin’ that. A’m asking
ye, _whaur’s the painter-lad?_”

One of Balnillo’s fatal qualities was his power of turning in
mid-career of wrath or eloquence to daily with side-issues.

He swallowed the fury rising to his lips.

“What! Mr. Flemington?” he stammered. “What do you want of Mr.
Flemington?”

“Is yon what they ca’ him? Well, a’m no seekin’ onything o’ him. It’s
him that’s seekin’ me.”

Astonishment put everything else out of Balnillo’s mind. He glared at
the intruder, his lips pursed, his fingers working.

“He tell’t me to come in-by to the muckle hoose and speer for him,”
said the other. “There was a sang he was needin’. He was seekin’ to
lairn it, for he liket it fine, an’ he tell’t me to come awa’ to the
hoose and lairn him. Dod! maybe he’s forgotten. Callants like him’s
whiles sweer to mind what they say, but auld stocks like you an’ me’s
got mair sense.”

“I do not believe a word of it,” protested Balnillo.

“Hoots! ye’ll hae to try, or the puir lad ‘ll no get his sang,”
exclaimed Skirling Wattie, smiling broadly. “Just you cry on him to
come down the stair, an’ we’ll awa’ ahint the back o’ yon wa’, an’
a’ll lairn him the music! It’s this way.”

He unscrewed the chanter and blew a few piercing notes. The sound flew
into the judge’s face like the impact of a shower of pebbles. He
clapped his hands to his ears.

“I tell you Mr. Flemington is not here!” he bawled, raising his voice
above the din. “He is gone. He is at Ardguys by this time.”

“Man, is yon true? Ye’re no leein’?” exclaimed Wattie, dropping his
weapon.

“Is yon the way to speak to his lordship?” said the deep voice of
Andrew Robieson, who had come up silently, his arms full of wood,
behind the beggar’s cart.

“Turn this vagabond away!” exclaimed Balnillo, almost beside himself.
“Send for the men; bring a horsewhip from the stable! Impudent rogue!
Go, Robieson–quick, man!”

But Wattie’s switch was in his hand, and the dogs were already
turning; before the elder had time to reach the stables, he had passed
out under the clock and was disappearing between the trees of the
avenue. He had learned what he wished to know, and the farther side of
Brechin would be the best place for him for the next few days. He
reflected that fortune had favoured him in keeping Captain Logie out
of the way. There would have been no parleying with Captain Logie.