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?"
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."
"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.
"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.