I RUN A GREAT DANGER IN THE HOUSE OF
For a day that was begun so ill, the day passed fairly well. We
had the porridge cold again at noon, and hot porridge at night;
porridge and small beer was my uncle's diet. He spoke but
little, and that in the same way as before, shooting a question
at me after a long silence; and when I sought to lead him to talk
about my future, slipped out of it again. In a room next door to
the kitchen, where he suffered me to go, I found a great number
of books, both Latin and English, in which I took great pleasure
all the afternoon. Indeed, the time passed so lightly in this
good company, that I began to be almost reconciled to my
residence at Shaws; and nothing but the sight of my uncle, and
his eyes playing hide and seek with mine, revived the force of my
One thing I discovered, which put me in some doubt. This was an
entry on the fly-leaf of a chap-book (one of Patrick Walker's)
plainly written by my father's hand and thus conceived: "To my
brother Ebenezer on his fifth birthday" Now, what puzzled me was
this: That, as my father was of course the younger brother, he
must either have made some strange error, or he must have
written, before he was yet five, an excellent, clear manly hand
I tried to get this out of my head; but though I took down many
interesting authors, old and new, history, poetry, and
story-book, this notion of my father's hand of writing stuck to
me; and when at length I went back into the kitchen, and sat down
once more to porridge and small beer, the first thing I said to
Uncle Ebenezer was to ask him if my father had not been very
quick at his book.
"Alexander? No him!" was the reply. "I was far quicker mysel';
was a clever chappie when I was young. Why, I could read as soon
as he could."
This puzzled me yet more; and a thought coming into my head, I
asked if he and my father had been twins.
He jumped upon his stool, and the horn spoon fell out of his hand
upon the floor. "What gars ye ask that?" he said, and he caught
me by the breast of the jacket, and looked this time straight
into my eyes: his own were little and light, and bright like a
bird's, blinking and winking strangely.
"What do you mean?" I asked, very calmly, for I was far stronger
than he, and not easily frightened. "Take your hand from my
jacket. This is no way to behave."
My uncle seemed to make a great effort upon himself. "Dod man,
David," he said, "ye should-nae speak to me about your father.
That's where the mistake is." He sat awhile and shook, blinking
in his plate: "He was all the brother that ever I had," he added,
but with no heart in his voice; and then he caught up his spoon
and fell to supper again, but still shaking.
Now this last passage, this laying of hands upon my person and
sudden profession of love for my dead father, went so clean
beyond my comprehension that it put me into both fear and hope.
On the one hand, I began to think my uncle was perhaps insane and
might be dangerous; on the other, there came up into my mind
(quite unbidden by me and even discouraged) a story like some
ballad I had heard folk singing, of a poor lad that was a
rightful heir and a wicked kinsman that tried to keep him from
his own. For why should my uncle play a part with a relative
that came, almost a beggar, to his door, unless in his heart he
had some cause to fear him?
With this notion, all unacknowledged, but nevertheless getting
firmly settled in my head, I now began to imitate his covert
looks; so that we sat at table like a cat and a mouse, each
stealthily observing the other. Not another word had he to say
to me, black or white, but was busy turning something secretly
over in his mind; and the longer we sat and the more I looked at
him, the more certain I became that the something was unfriendly
When he had cleared the platter, he got out a single pipeful of
tobacco, just as in the morning, turned round a stool into the
chimney corner, and sat awhile smoking, with his back to me.
"Davie," he said, at length, "I've been thinking;" then
paused, and said it again. "There's a wee bit siller that I half
promised ye before ye were born," he continued; "promised it to
your father. O, naething legal, ye understand; just gentlemen
daffing at their wine. Well, I keepit that bit money separate --
it was a great expense, but a promise is a promise -- and it has
grown by now to be a matter of just precisely -- just exactly" --
and here he paused and stumbled -- "of just exactly forty
pounds!" This last he rapped out with a sidelong glance over his
shoulder; and the next moment added, almost with a scream,
The pound Scots being the same thing as an English shilling, the
difference made by this second thought was considerable; I could
see, besides, that the whole story was a lie, invented with some
end which it puzzled me to guess; and I made no attempt to
conceal the tone of raillery in which I answered --
"O, think again, sir! Pounds sterling, I believe!"
"That's what I said," returned my uncle: "pounds sterling!
you'll step out-by to the door a minute, just to see what kind of
a night it is, I'll get it out to ye and call ye in again."
I did his will, smiling to myself in my contempt that he should
think I was so easily to be deceived. It was a dark night, with
a few stars low down; and as I stood just outside the door, I
heard a hollow moaning of wind far off among the hills. I said
to myself there was something thundery and changeful in the
weather, and little knew of what a vast importance that should
prove to me before the evening passed.
When I was called in again, my uncle counted out into my hand
seven and thirty golden guinea pieces; the rest was in his hand,
in small gold and silver; but his heart failed him there, and he
crammed the change into his pocket.
"There," said he, "that'll show you! I'm a queer man, and
wi' strangers; but my word is my bond, and there's the proof of
Now, my uncle seemed so miserly that I was struck dumb by this
sudden generosity, and could find no words in which to thank him.
"No a word!" said he. "Nae thanks; I want nae thanks. I do
duty. I'm no saying that everybody would have, done it; but for
my part (though I'm a careful body, too) it's a pleasure to me to
do the right by my brother's son; and it's a pleasure to me to
think that now we'll agree as such near friends should."
I spoke him in return as handsomely as I was able; but all the
while I was wondering what would come next, and why he had parted
with his precious guineas; for as to the reason he had given, a
baby would have refused it.
Presently he looked towards me sideways.
"And see here," says he, "tit for tat."
I told him I was ready to prove my gratitude in any reasonable
degree, and then waited, looking for some monstrous demand. And
yet, when at last he plucked up courage to speak, it was only to
tell me (very properly, as I thought) that he was growing old and
a little broken, and that he would expect me to help him with the
house and the bit garden.
I answered, and expressed my readiness to serve.
"Well," he said, "let's begin." He pulled out of his
rusty key. "There," says he, "there's the key of the stair-tower
at the far end of the house. Ye can only win into it from the
outside, for that part of the house is no finished. Gang ye in
there, and up the stairs, and bring me down the chest that's at
the top. There's papers in't," he added.
"Can I have a light, sir?" said I.
"Na," said he, very cunningly. "Nae lights in my house."
"Very well, sir," said I. "Are the stairs good?"
"They're grand," said he; and then, as I was going, "Keep
wall," he added; "there's nae bannisters. But the stairs are
Out I went into the night. The wind was still moaning in the
distance, though never a breath of it came near the house of
Shaws. It had fallen blacker than ever; and I was glad to feel
along the wall, till I came the length of the stairtower door at
the far end of the unfinished wing. I had got the key into the
keyhole and had just turned it, when all upon a sudden, without
sound of wind or thunder, the whole sky lighted up with wild fire
and went black again. I had to put my hand over my eyes to get
back to the colour of the darkness; and indeed I was already half
blinded when I stepped into the tower.
It was so dark inside, it seemed a body could scarce breathe; but
I pushed out with foot and hand, and presently struck the wall
with the one, and the lowermost round of the stair with the
other. The wall, by the touch, was of fine hewn stone; the steps
too, though somewhat steep and narrow, were of polished
masonwork, and regular and solid underfoot. Minding my uncle's
word about the bannisters, I kept close to the tower side, and
felt my way in the pitch darkness with a beating heart.
The house of Shaws stood some five full storeys high, not
counting lofts. Well, as I advanced, it seemed to me the stair
grew airier and a thought more lightsome; and I was wondering
what might be the cause of this change, when a second blink of
the summer lightning came and went. If I did not cry out, it was
because fear had me by the throat; and if I did not fall, it was
more by Heaven's mercy than my own strength. It was not only
that the flash shone in on every side through breaches in the
wall, so that I seemed to be clambering aloft upon an open
scaffold, but the same passing brightness showed me the steps
were of unequal length, and that one of my feet rested that
moment within two inches of the well.
This was the grand stair! I thought; and with the thought, a gust
of a kind of angry courage came into my heart. My uncle had sent
me here, certainly to run great risks, perhaps to die. I swore I
would settle that "perhaps," if I should break my neck for it;
got me down upon my hands and knees; and as slowly as a snail,
feeling before me every inch, and testing the solidity of every
stone, I continued to ascend the stair. The darkness, by
contrast with the flash, appeared to have redoubled; nor was that
all, for my ears were now troubled and my mind confounded by a
great stir of bats in the top part of the tower, and the foul
beasts, flying downwards, sometimes beat about my face and body.
The tower, I should have said, was square; and in every corner
the step was made of a great stone of a different shape to join
the flights. Well, I had come close to one of these turns, when,
feeling forward as usual, my hand slipped upon an edge and found
nothing but emptiness beyond it. The stair had been carried no
higher; to set a stranger mounting it in the darkness was to send
him straight to his death; and (although, thanks to the lightning
and my own precautions, I was safe enough) the mere thought of
the peril in which I might have stood, and the dreadful height I
might have fallen from, brought out the sweat upon my body and
relaxed my joints.
But I knew what I wanted now, and turned and groped my way down
again, with a wonderful anger in my heart. About half-way down,
the wind sprang up in a clap and shook the tower, and died again;
the rain followed; and before I had reached the ground level it
fell in buckets. I put out my head into the storm, and looked
along towards the kitchen. The door, which I had shut behind me
when I left, now stood open, and shed a little glimmer of light;
and I thought I could see a figure standing in the rain, quite
still, like a man hearkening. And then there came a blinding
flash, which showed me my uncle plainly, just where I had fancied
him to stand; and hard upon the heels of it, a great tow-row of
Now, whether my uncle thought the crash to be the sound of my
fall, or whether he heard in it God's voice denouncing murder, I
will leave you to guess. Certain it is, at least, that he was
seized on by a kind of panic fear, and that he ran into the house
and left the door open behind him. I followed as softly as I
could, and, coming unheard into the kitchen, stood and watched
He had found time to open the corner cupboard and bring out a
great case bottle of aqua vitae, and now sat with his back
towards me at the table. Ever and again he would be seized with
a fit of deadly shuddering and groan aloud, and carrying the
bottle to his lips, drink down the raw spirits by the mouthful.
I stepped forward, came close behind him where he sat, and
suddenly clapping my two hands down upon his shoulders -- "Ah!"
My uncle gave a kind of broken cry like a sheep's bleat, flung up
his arms, and tumbled to the floor like a dead man. I was
somewhat shocked at this; but I had myself to look to first of
all, and did not hesitate to let him lie as he had fallen. The
keys were hanging in the cupboard; and it was my design to
furnish myself with arms before my uncle should come again to his
senses and the power of devising evil. In the cupboard were a
few bottles, some apparently of medicine; a great many bills and
other papers, which I should willingly enough have rummaged, had
I had the time; and a few necessaries that were nothing to my
purpose. Thence I turned to the chests. The first was full of
meal; the second of moneybags and papers tied into sheaves; in
the third, with many other things (and these for the most part
clothes) I found a rusty, ugly-looking Highland dirk without the
scabbard. This, then, I concealed inside my waistcoat, and
turned to my uncle.
He lay as he had fallen, all huddled, with one knee up and one
arm sprawling abroad; his face had a strange colour of blue, and
he seemed to have ceased breathing. Fear came on me that he was
dead; then I got water and dashed it in his face; and with that
he seemed to come a little to himself, working his mouth and
fluttering his eyelids. At last he looked up and saw me, and
there came into his eyes a terror that was not of this world.
"Come, come," said I; "sit up."
"Are ye alive?" he sobbed. "O man, are ye alive?"
"That am I," said I. "Small thanks to you!"
He had begun to seek for his breath with deep sighs. "The blue
phial," said he -- "in the aumry -- the blue phial." His
came slower still.
I ran to the cupboard, and, sure enough, found there a blue phial
of medicine, with the dose written on it on a paper, and this I
administered to him with what speed I might.
"It's the trouble," said he, reviving a little; "I have a
trouble, Davie. It's the heart."
I set him on a chair and looked at him. It is true I felt some
pity for a man that looked so sick, but I was full besides of
righteous anger; and I numbered over before him the points on
which I wanted explanation: why he lied to me at every word; why
he feared that I should leave him; why he disliked it to be
hinted that he and my father were twins -- "Is that because it is
true?" I asked; why he had given me money to which I was
convinced I had no claim; and, last of all, why he had tried to
kill me. He heard me all through in silence; and then, in a
broken voice, begged me to let him go to bed.
"I'll tell ye the morn," he said; "as sure as death I will."
And so weak was he that I could do nothing but consent. I locked
him into his room, however, and pocketed the, key, and then
returning to the kitchen, made up such a blaze as had not shone
there for many a long year, and wrapping myself in my plaid, lay
down upon the chests and fell asleep.
Top of Page
Room | KIDNAPPED