Balfour, "I have subscribed myself with the usual compliments. You observe I have said 'some of your friends;' I hope you can justify my plural?"
"Perfectly, sir; my purpose is known and approved by more than one," said I. "And your letter, which I take a pleasure to thank you for, is all I could have hoped."
"It was all I could squeeze out," said he; "and from what I know of the matter you design to meddle in, I can only pray God that it may prove sufficient."
* * * * *
LORD ADVOCATE PRESTONGRANGE
My kinsman kept me to a meal, "for the honour of the roof," he said; and I believe I made the better speed on my return. I had no thought but to be done with the next stage, and have myself fully committed; to a person circumstanced as I was, the appearance of closing a door on hesitation and temptation was itself extremely tempting; and I was the more disappointed, when I came to Prestongrange's house, to be informed he was abroad. I believe it was true at the moment, and for some hours after; and then I have no doubt the Advocate came home again, and enjoyed himself in a neighbouring chamber among friends, while perhaps the very fact of my arrival was forgotten. I would have gone away a dozen times, only for this strong drawing to have done with my declaration out of hand and be able to lay me down to sleep with a free conscience. At first I read, for the little cabinet where I was left contained a variety of books. But I fear I read with little profit; and the weather falling cloudy, the dusk coming up earlier than usual, and my cabinet being lighted with but a loophole of a window, I was at last obliged to desist from this diversion (such as it was), and pass the rest of my time of waiting in a very burthensome vacuity. The sound of people talking in a naer chamber, the pleasant note of a harpsichord, and once the voice of a lady singing, bore me a kind of company.
I do not know the hour, but the darkness was long come, when the door of the cabinet opened, and I was aware, by the light behind him, of a tall figure of a man upon the threshold. I rose at once.
"Is anybody there?" he asked. "Who is that?"
"I am bearer of a letter from the laird of Pilrig to the Lord Advocate," said I.
"Have you been here long?" he asked.
"I would not like to hazard an estimate of how many hours," said I.
"It is the first I hear of it," he replied, with a chuckle. "The lads must have forgotten you. But you are in the bit at last, for I am Prestongrange."
So saying, he passed before me into the next room, whither (upon his sign) I followed him, and where he lit a candle and took his place before a business-table. It was a long room, of a good proportion, wholly lined with books. That small spark of light in a corner struck out the man's handsome person and strong face. He was flushed, his eye watered and sparkled, and before he sat down I observed him to sway back and forth. No doubt he had been supping liberally; but his mind and tongue were under full control.
"Well, sir, sit ye down," said he, "and let us see Pilrig's letter."
He glanced it through in the beginning carelessly, looking up and bowing when he came to my name; but at the last words I thought I observed his attention to redouble, and I made sure he read them twice. All this while you are to suppose my heart was beating, for I had now crossed my Rubicon and was come fairly on the field of battle.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Balfour," he said, when he had done. "Let me offer you a glass of claret."
"Under your favour, my lord, I think it would scarce be fair on me," said I. "I have come here, as the letter will have mentioned, on a business of some gravity to myself; and as I am little used with wine, I might be the sooner affected."
"You shall be the judge," said he. "But if you will permit, I believe I will even have the bottle in myself."
He touched a bell, and the footman came, as at a signal, bringing wine and glasses.
"You are sure you will not join me?" asked the Advocate. "Well, here is to our better acquaintance! In what way can I serve you?"
"I should perhaps begin by telling you, my lord, that I am here at your own pressing invitation," said I.
"You have the advantage of me somewhere," said he, "for I profess I think I never heard of you before this evening."
"Right, my lord; the name is indeed new to you," said I. "And yet you have been for some time extremely wishful to make my acquaintance, and have declared the same in public."
"I wish you would afford me a clue," says he. "I am no Daniel."
"It will perhaps serve for such," said I, "that if I was in a jesting humour--which is far from the case--I believe I might lay a claim on your lordship for two hundred pounds."
"In what sense?" he inquired.
"In the sense of rewards offered for my person," said I.
He thrust away his glass once and for all, and sat straight up in the chair where he had been previously lolling. "What am I to understand?" said he.
"A tall strong lad of about eighteen," I quoted, "speaks like a Lowlander, and has no beard."
"I recognise those words," said he, "which, if you have come here with any ill-judged intention of amusing yourself, are like to prove extremely prejudicial to your safety."
"My purpose in this," I replied, "is just entirely as serious as life and death, and you have understood me perfectly. I am the boy who was speaking with Glenure when he was shot."
"I can only suppose (seeing you here) that you claim to be innocent," said he.
"The inference is clear," I said. "I am a very loyal subject to King George, but if I had anything to reproach myself with, I would have had more discretion than to walk into your den."
"I am glad of that," said he. "This horrid crime, Mr. Balfour, is of a dye which cannot permit any clemency. Blood has been barbarously shed. It has been shed in direct opposition to his Majesty and our whole frame of laws, by those who are their known and public oppugnants. I take a very high sense of this. I will not deny that I consider the crime as directly personal to his Majesty."
"And unfortunately, my lord," I added a little drily, "directly personal to another great personage who may be nameless."
"If you mean anything by those words, I must tell you I consider them unfit for a good subject; and were they spoke publicly I should make it my business to take note of them," said he. "You do not appear to me to recognise the gravity of your situation, or you would be more careful not to pejorate the same by words which glance upon the purity of justice. Justice, in this country, and in my poor hands, is no respecter of persons."
"You give me too great a share in my own speech, my lord," said I. "I did but repeat the common talk of the country, which I have heard everywhere, and from men of all opinions as I came along."
"When you are come to more discretion you will understand such talk is not to be listened to, how much less repeated," says the Advocate. "But I acquit you of an ill intention. That nobleman, whom we all honour and who has indeed been wounded in a near place by the late barbarity, sits too high to be reached by these aspersions. The Duke of Argyle--you see that I deal plainly with you--takes it to heart as I do, and as we are both bound to do by our judicial functions and the service of his Majesty; and I could wish that all hands, in this ill age, were equally clean of family rancour. But from the accident that this is a Campbell who has fallen martyr to his duty--as who else but the Campbells have ever put themselves foremost on that path? I may say it, who am no Campbell--and that the chief of that great house happens (for all our advantages) to be the present head of the College of Justice, small minds and disaffected tongues are set agog in every changehouse in the country; and I find a young gentleman like Mr. Balfour so ill-advised as to make himself their echo." So much he spoke with a very oratorical delivery, as if in court, and then declined again upon the manner of a gentleman.