In The Blackfriars Wynd
''Twill be a black day for auld Scotland when she ceases to believe in
the muckle Deil,' commented 'the Meenister' of the Tron Kirk, when I
had explained to him my troubles and sought his 'ghostly counsel and
advice,' as the English service has it, 'to the quieting of my
conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.' My father had
been English, but my mother was Scotch, and she had sent me to my uncle,
Deacon Abercrombie, to be entered as apprentice to his craft of the
goldsmiths. He was a widower, lived alone, and was reputed to be
eccentric, but as far as worldly gear was concerned the Deacon was a
highly responsible citizen; as burgess, guild brother, and deacon of his
craft he could hold his head as high on the causeway as any other, be he
who he might, in the city.
Not even the 'stairhead critics,' who, as Auld Reekie's poet writes,
'wi' glowering eye
Their neighbours' sma'est faults descry,'
could point at any speck in his general repute.
The Reverend Andrew Geddes was somewhat stricken in years; his beard was
white as snow, his thrapple loose below his chin, and the flesh had
ebbed from his bones, but his mind was as alert as ever, and his
goodness stood manifest in his face.
We were sitting in his lodging, situate in a high 'timberland' in the
Canongate, just without the Nether Bow, on the same side as the Tron
Kirk, and from his little tourelle we could survey as from an eyrie
the coming and going of the citizens upon the street.
'Ay,' said he again, 'it will be a gey evil day for Scotland when she
ceases to believe i' the muckle black Deil. Whatten temptations he can
offer is oft forgot. Ye'll hae heard tell o' Major Weir--the whilom
"Bowhead Saint," as they callit him--ye'll hae heard tell o' him,
laddie? I mind my father talkin' o' his ain greetin' sair for bein' ower
young to gang to his hangin'.'
Had I no? Ay, and of his staff that went before him like a link boy, and
of the coach with six black horses that carried him and his sister
backwards and forwards from hell!
'Eh, laddie, what a sermon I could preach to ye on this tremendous
problem!' he said regretfully, bethinking him of my youthful years.
'Aweel,' he added discreetly, 'I dinna ken your uncle--the responsible
Deacon--save by sight and repute, as ane that disna spend, an' isna
verra sociable; yet he attends the Great Kirk, "comes forrit," does he
not, to the Holy Table?' I nodded assent.
'Is as reputable a citizen as any that treads on the High Street, and
yet for a' that he may hae a canker o' the soul. Aiblins Davie Hume has
sappit his belief, and the muckle Deil, kennin' that, is thrawin' a flee
ower him as for a saumon the noo.'
As I sat there shivering all down my spine, my companion looked upon me
very kindly from his thoughtful, gentle eyes of blue that faded to grey
at the marge, and said, 'Stop up your ears, laddie, like the adder, to
any temptin' o' your uncle. Keep watch and ward, and, if need arise, run
for me instantly, for, though I'm auld the noo, I'm aye ready for a
warsil wi' auld Hornie.'
Heartened by the minister's sympathy and courage I returned to my
uncle's lodging in Blackfriars Wynd, and continued to devote myself to
his craft in the back of his booth in the High Street, which appealed to
me greatly for ingenuity and skill.
In accord with my mother's advice I had endeavoured to cherish an
affection for my uncle, yet withal there was something about the man
that misliked me much, and, to speak straight to the point, that
actually 'fley'd' me, for he would gloat o' night over his glass of
toddy on any scandal afloat concerning the 'unco guid,' and would speak
with tongue i' the cheek of virtue in general, as if indeed hypocrisy
were the true king of this world. I thought at first his purpose was to
tease me and draw me out, but I soon came to believe it was all a part
of the horrid nature of the man himself.
Further again than this, he seemed to exercise a dreadful and secret
power over 'Brownie'--his pathetic little serving boy, orphan and mute.
I had realised that 'Brownie' lived in terror of his employer, though I
never saw him the victim of any physical ill-treatment; one night indeed
he came shivering and terrified into my bedroom, and by signs gave me to
understand that my uncle was hunting for him, and it was not till I had
bolted my door that he grew somewhat calmer.
He would not leave me, but insisted on lying down at the foot of my bed
throughout the night.
I thought possibly the poor lad might labour under some hallucination,
but I felt fear myself, for I distinctly heard some one attempt to open
my door very stealthily a short time after 'Brownie' had taken refuge in
No, it was not surprising, I reflected, that 'Brownie' should be
'feared' of my uncle when I was myself in the like case, for there was
'no milk of human kindness' in him. His eyes were shielded by a chevaux
de frise of bristles, and when one caught a glint from them 'twas as if
one had encountered the malevolent gleam of a ferret intent upon his own
He was short of stature, possessed abnormally long arms, had a heavy
moustache, and very hairy, flexible fingers, with which he performed
wondrous feats of craftsmanship, but to my fearful imagination he seemed
to resemble at times a tarantula spider of alarming proportions.
There had been of late an epidemic of crime in the city, which had
seriously perturbed the good burgesses; various shops had been broken
into, and cash and valuables had been 'lifted,' but as no arrests had
been effected a general feeling of insecurity was rife in Auld Reekie;
all which was a constant theme of merriment on my uncle's sardonic
What had led me to approach 'the Meenister' and confide my apprehension
to him, as I have shown above, was the mute, appealing look in poor
'Brownie's' eyes. But as 'Brownie' looked much brighter and happier
during the next few weeks I regained my own equanimity, and grew
somewhat shamed of my first nervous fears. This being so I thought it
only right that I should visit 'Meenister Geddes' once more and report
to him my belief in the groundless nature of my vague imaginations. I
had found him at home, and stayed 'cracking' on with him till past ten
of the clock.
Then as I returned somewhat in haste and doubtful how to effect my entry
into my uncle's lodging undiscovered, or how, if discovered, to explain
my absence, I brushed against a wayfarer at the corner of the
''Tis a footpad,' I thought, for he was velvet-footed, and I heard no
tread on the pavement. I glanced narrowly at the swift-passing stranger,
and beneath the smouldering 'bowet' I had borrowed from the 'Meenister'
I recognised with a start the slight, shrunken figure of 'Brownie' with
his white, pathetic face. It was the swiftest of visions, yet I had seen
enough to give me a 'gliff,' for the eyes were not those of 'Brownie,'
but of my uncle.
This chance encounter reawoke all my previous apprehensions. The very
fact that I had only an eerie suspicion on which to build increased my
mental discomfort. There was something behind to which my watch and ward
had afforded me no clue.
Nothing more transpired for another few weeks when one night as I lay
awake meditating I heard a footstep on the stair without. It was late,
for my uncle had been out, and I had sat up reading, and had forgotten
how time was passing. As I continued to listen I heard a strange moaning
proceeding, I felt sure, from 'Brownie's' attic, which was situate a
foot or two above my chamber on the top turn of the newel stairway. I
had recognised, I thought, the tread on the stairs, for my uncle's
footstep was peculiar, since he had a slight limp; it was this that had
aroused my attention and reawakened my apprehension.
The moaning had been that of a dumb animal, and I had heard it once or
twice before when poor 'Brownie' had been in pain.
Stealing out of my room a-tiptoe I very gently laid my hand on the
'sneck' of 'Brownie's' den and tried to lift it without noise.
But, though it lifted, the door was 'steekit' from within.
There was no sound to be heard therein; I stood there with pricked ear,
but could learn nothing by listening. Perhaps I might be able to discern
somewhat through the aperture above the pin of the 'sneck.' 'Brownie's'
den had, as I knew, a window in its tourelle, and as the night was
moonlit though stormy, I might in a flitting moonbeam perhaps espy
Stooping, I placed my eye to the tiny slit, and waited impatiently for a
gleam of white light that might penetrate from the westward airt which
A quarter of an hour, perhaps, elapsed; I could see nothing, and my
patience was almost exhausted, when on a sudden the beam of moonlight so
earnestly expected filtered fitfully into the den, and there, though
faintly, was revealed to me the form of my uncle lying motionless upon
the truckle bed--apparently in deep slumber.
Where then was 'Brownie?' I searched the small den for him, but nowhere
could I discover him. The window was open. Just as I made this discovery
the moonlight faded away and left me in darkness, filled with a horrid
suspicion. I waited on in hope of the moonlight returning, but rain set
in, and I returned to my own chamber much perplexed as to what to do.
Leaving the door ajar I determined to sit up and listen for any further
sound, or the creak of a footstep on the stair, but though I listened
till grey dawn came I heard no sound at all.
Then once again I stole a-tiptoe to 'Brownie's' door, and peeped through
the aperture. Once again I was astounded, for I could now discern that
'Brownie's' figure lay upon the truckle bed instead of that of my uncle,
which I had seen before.
Could I have been mistaken previously? No, I was certain my eyesight had
not deceived me. How could it have? What I had descried had quite belied
my expectation, and had been totally unforeseen.
I returned to my bed determined to investigate the open window at the
I slept ill, and when I rose I found the door of 'Brownie's' den open.
Entering in, I saw that 'Brownie' had got up and the window was closed.
Investigating further, I opened it cautiously and looked forth to see if
there were any exit either to the ground or on to the roof.
Evidently there could be none to the ground, for the room was situate at
the height of the tall 'land.' Nor was there any opening on to the roof,
so far as I could discover, for the little tourelle overhung the wall,
and no foothold was possible.
Yet there was one way out. The 'land' stood in the narrowest part of
the wynd; right opposite, and not more than five feet away rose the
opposite wall, finishing off into a gable end with corbie-steps
affording easy access to the further roof.
Could 'Brownie' have leaped across? It was not impossible, as the space
was so narrow, and though the window was small there was room to pass
through. Then as I thus measured the spaces I caught sight of a plank
below the window resting on the floor. 'Twas perhaps a foot and a half
broad, in length about six feet--sufficient to act as a bridge across
the wynd. I had discovered enough to excite my most vivid apprehensions
as to its use, but nothing else in the little den gave any clue to the
Descending the stairs I found my uncle already engaged upon breakfast.
He seemed in high good-humour, and roasted me heartily upon my
unpunctuality. 'Brownie' came in at that moment carrying some scones,
and I noted out of the tail of my eye that he looked extremely haggard
Assuming a woebegone air I told my uncle that 'Auld Reekie' suited me
poorly, and that the climate was too 'snell' for my southern
'Hae ye heard the sad bruit?' he asked suddenly, 'the causeway's fair
ringin' wi't. Puir Tom Macalister, the rich shipper o' Leith, has been
found wi' his throat cut lyin' ahint the dyke by the Leith walk. There's
an unco scandal afoot anent it--some says a merry-begot o' his ain has
done it oot o' revenge for bein' kep' short o' siller by his father.' He
paused a moment, then added significantly, 'Ay, ay, Macalister was aye
verra generous to the Foundlings' Hospital. Wha kens?' He heaved a sigh,
but his eye twinkled satirically, 'The hairt o' man is deceitfu' an'
daisperitly wicked,' and he lifted the whites of his eyes heavenward
like a hound mourning.
'Was the poor man robbed?' I inquired shortly.
'Ay, was he,' returned my uncle; 'he was seemingly stuffed wi'
bank-notes for payin' his men the day. He was gangin' hame after
supper--gey fou, maist like. Eh, laddie!' he continued, 'sic an end to
ane wha was regairded as belongin' to the Saints! Wae's me for the
godly,' and again he lifted his eyes upward as a hound crying u-lu-lu
for his lost master. Then he gave me a sharp look, somewhat askance, as
he asked me swiftly, 'Whatten a discourse, think ye, will ye get frae
your meenister o' the Tron Kirk the morn?'
I blenched, I felt, at this sudden thrust. Had his familiar informed him
of my interview?
'It will be a sair blow to him,' I said, with apparent unconcern, 'but
it cannot affect him directly.'
'No affect him?' returned my uncle, seemingly shocked at my
indifference, 'not when he was aye hand an' glove wi' him?'
'He was no his bairn,' I retorted, hastily finishing off my "parritch"
with a gulp. 'I'm late, as ye said,' I added, rising, 'I must be off to
my work at the booth.'
'Ay, ay,' returned my uncle, 'wark's aye best in an evil day.'
As soon as my work was finished for the day I hastened to call upon 'the
Meenister,' and, finding him at home, at once informed him of my
discovery of the night, and of my uncle's satirical mention of poor Mr.
'Laddie,' he exclaimed earnestly as I concluded 'ye hae dune well to
come to me. Puir Tom Macalister was just as decent, straight-leevin' a
Christian man as could be found i' braid Scotland. There's somethin' gey
wrang wi' your uncle, I'm fearin' sadly. I'll no let any one blacken the
memory o' Thomas Macalister. Noo, laddie, keep ye a quiet watch--sayin'
naethin'; but aye wait on wi' eye an' ear for onything further
suspeecious at hame, an' if ye hear puir "Brownie" skreighin' come your
ways straucht here for me--an' we'll see if we canna tackle the
evil--an' with the help o' Heaven, scotch it.' His eye lit, his mouth
tightened; he clenched his fist, ready for immediate 'warsil wi' auld
I promised faithfully, and withdrew with a heart somewhat relieved,
though not relishing the thought of being alone with my uncle in the
lonely house wherein either suspected the other.
My uncle that evening scarcely alluded to the murder again save to ask
if I had had any news, and to mention that the funeral was to be the
next day. Then he laughed uncannily, leering upon me over his
'I'm tell't that he's left a muckle legacy to the Foundlings. What think
ye o' that, laddie?'
'He might have done worse,' I replied, almost angrily, though inwardly I
shivered. 'He might have left it to the cadies of the toon for drink.'
A fortnight perhaps passed without event; the City Guards were said to
have found a clue, and the Town Council had offered a large reward for
any information that might lead to the apprehension of the murderer, but
nothing definite had been discovered.
Gossip was rife, and in the taverns 'twas bruited that my uncle's
conjecture had come nighest to the bull's-eye. For my own part I had
quietly made what arrangements I thought feasible in case of any further
suspicious act of my uncle. I kept watch and ward with eye and ear, as
Minister Geddes had directed, but not till another fortnight had elapsed
did I hear his footstep on the stair, by 'Brownie's' den. Then one night
as I lay half-dozing I was certain I did hear the lame footfall.
Instantly I was broad awake, and waited in alarmed expectancy. Ha! there
it was again--the low skreigh o' pain I had heard before. I was
'gliffed' indeed, horribly afeared, yet I must act, so a-tiptoe I stole
out, and like a cat stealthily approached 'Brownie's' door. The hour was
somewhat after eleven, for I had heard the Tron Kirk chap recently; the
moon in her last quarter had risen, and I could dimly descry the
interior of the den.
I shrank back after peering through the small aperture, for there was my
uncle stretched out on 'Brownie's' truckle bed. The window was opened,
and I could see that the board or plank I had previously measured lay on
Of 'Brownie' I could not see a sign.
I turned away on the instant. Now was the time to go fetch 'the
Noiselessly I descended the stairs, let myself out by a low side window
in the cellar, and made straight for the lodging of 'the Meenister.' I
dared not rouse the porter of the Nether Bow Port, but climbed the wall
beyond even as Bothwell had done after the explosion at Kirk o' Field,
and made my way down the Canongate. Minister Geddes was within, and
fortunately had not yet gone to bed. He was ready in a moment to come
with me. With a Bible under his oxter, and a 'bowet' new lit in his
right hand, he accompanied me swiftly up the street. His courage was
wonderful; he seemed like 'Greatheart'--valiant to meet Apollyon in
battle. I caught hold of the end of his plaid, and followed him non
passibus aequis like the parvus Iulus, for he hastened onward with his
loins girded up. I do not know that more than twenty minutes had elapsed
when we arrived at the cellar window and I had helped him through.
Together we noiselessly mounted the stairs; then when we arrived at
'Brownie's' den he reached me the 'bowet' to hold while he peered
through the aperture.
Then he turned to me and said in a whisper:
'Laddie, we mun just break doon the door. If it is as I'm thinkin' he
winna hear us. His evil spirit is awa i' puir 'Brownie's' body, bent on
Deevil's wark. Here's for it!' and as he spake he thrust swiftly with
his foot and broke down the wooden bolt that fastened the door.
In we went--I holding the little 'bowet' on high to give us light. 'Ay,'
whispered my companion in my ear, 'I'm richt. He's in a swoond; he disna
see or hear us.' I gazed in horror on my uncle's face. His eyes were not
closed, but were as unseeing as a blind man's. There was, I thought, a
hateful look as of triumphant evil on his lips, but his breath came
regularly as of one in deep sleep.
'Noo, laddie,' said the good minister, 'we mun act. "Brownie" will be
returnin' before daybreak, an' we hae to keep the twa o' them apairt.
His evil spirit is awa wi' the puir laddie, and we mun prevent body
an' spirit comin' thegither again. It is like to be a fearfu' warsil,
but wi' the help o' the Bible an' our God we'll triumph.' I could see
his eye glow and his brow light with inspiration, and I drew in courage
as I looked upon him in his intrepidity.
'Gang ye oot ower by the bit plankin', laddie,' he commanded me,
pointing to the window. 'Gang, an' wait for "Brownie," then when he
comes back grup him fast and pray tae Heaven. I'll shut tae the windie
and grup the figure here on the bed.'
I could not disobey, but I trembled horribly as I crawled slowly forth
upon the plank. The minister had sat himself down by the bedside, and
was reading aloud by the light of the 'bowet' from out of Genesis of
Jacob's wrestling all night long with the angel of God. I could hear his
voice as I slithered slowly across my plank of dread.
'And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until
the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not
against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh ... '
The faith of the old man alone in the den with the fearsome figure on
the bed heartened me greatly. I reached the end of the plank, grasped
firmly the coping of the corbie-step, pulled myself up and felt for firm
footing in the lead gutter of the roof below.
There for a few minutes I lay still, my heart palpitating, and reflected
on what was next to be attempted.
All was still about me. Save for a belated roysterer singing on his way
homeward, and one or two nightbirds on the street below whose footfalls
sounded fitfully, no whisper broke on the eerie night.
I looked around and about in the moonlight, and noted a passage behind
me between the roofs of the 'lands.' Here surely would be the way by
which 'Brownie' would return from his nocturnal excursion. I sat
crouched beside the gable end and waited fearfully for any sound of his
returning. The Minister's 'bowet' had now gone out; the window was
closed. I felt tremors assail me in my loneliness. Then I caught sight
of Orion above the further roofs--advancing with glittering sword--as a
champion to challenge of combat--and at once a great composure stole
within my heart, for I too was engaged in a great combat against evil.
The good Minister had assuredly probed the problem to the quick; even as
Elijah had breathed life into the body of the son of the Shulamite widow
so had my uncle like a fiend from the pit breathed an evil spirit into
poor 'Brownie's' body, and through him executed horrid deeds.
Our great task was to prevent body and spirit from coming together
again. 'Twas certain that the Minister trusted to be able to prevent
this re-union by prayer and exorcism, and I was his assistant therein.
I trembled at the struggle so imminent upon me, and prayed God for
assistance in my hour of need.
Crouching quietly there, I noticed that the wind had now arisen from
the west and was driving heavy spume of cloud across the moon so that
she was overwhelmed and sank from sight. Soon again, however, she
emerged from her labours, and, clothed in white, paced serene as a
Madonna faring to her churching.
Just then I heard a furtive sound behind me, and gazing swiftly backward
I caught sight of a slight form in grey creeping prone upon the gutter.
The moment of trial had come. Drawing in my breath I crouched lower
still and moved not till the grey form rose up as if to lay hold of the
coping-stone. Then swiftly I turned and seized him by the waist, pulling
him down backward.
Like a ferret--sudden as a flash--he bit my hand, and we were down in
the gutter together.
'Brownie' was of frail build, but he now seemed to be possessed of a
demoniac's strength, and my arms failed to hold him. I felt his hands
upon my neck and grew dizzy.
I prayed then as I had never prayed before, and on the sudden a thought
lit in my brain. I remembered one of 'Brownie's' infirmities--his
breathing through his mouth. I had strength to pluck at my bonnet,
thrust it into his mouth, and leaned my chin upon the cloth with all my
I was still uppermost, and though he twined and twisted like a serpent,
I held on while my head seemed almost bursting. The thought of Jacob
wrestling through the night sustained me, and now at last 'Brownie's'
clutch upon my throat relaxed.
I shook my head free. I breathed again in the cold air--I felt all the
energy ebb from the body beneath me. I had conquered at last. 'Brownie'
lay quietly in the gutter, breathing gently as a babe.
I rose to my feet and peered across the chasm. There in the chamber
opposite was the Minister wrestling on his knees with the figure on the
bed. Just at that moment a cock crew from far below in the purple depth
of the city. The silence seemed to shiver about me.
Thank God! Daybreak at last after the horror of darkness.
As I watched I saw the struggling figure fall suddenly backward on the
bed. The Minister rose from his knees and came towards the window.
He opened it, and I saw his face shining in the moonlight--like a
saint's--haggard yet triumphant.
'Gie thanks to God, laddie,' he cried to me, as he bent his head
reverently, 'we hae striven like Jacob an' hae prevailed. There's a
deid man lies upon the bedstraw.'
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