"He has had Alan summoned once; that was on the twenty-fifth, the day that we first met. Once, and done with it. And where? Where, but at the cross of Inverary, the head burgh of the Campbells. A word in your ear, Mr. Balfour--they're not seeking Alan."
"What do you mean?" I cried. "Not seeking him?"
"By the best that I can make of it," said he. "Not wanting to find him, in my poor thought. They think perhaps he might set up a fair defence, upon the back of which James, the man they're really after, might climb out. This is not a case, ye see, it's a conspiracy."
"Yet I can tell you Prestongrange asked after Alan keenly," said I; "though, when I come to think of it, he was something of the easiest put by."
"See that!" says he. "But there! I may be right or wrong, that's guesswork at the best, and let me get to my facts again. It comes to my ears that James and the witnesses--the witnesses, Mr. Balfour!--lay in close dungeons, and shackled forbye, in the military prison at Fort William; none allowed in to them, nor they to write. The witnesses, Mr. Balfour; heard ye ever the match of that? I assure ye, no old, crooked Stewart of the gang ever outfaced the law more impudently. It's clean in the two eyes of the Act of Parliament of 1700, anent wrongous imprisonment. No sooner did I get the news than I petitioned the Lord Justice Clerk. I have his word to-day. There's law for ye! here's justice!"
He put a paper in my hand, that same mealy-mouthed, false-faced paper that was printed since in the pamphlet "by a bystander," for behoof (as the title says) of James's "poor widow and five children."
"See," said Stewart, "he couldn't dare to refuse me access to my client, so he recommends the commanding officer to let me in. Recommends!--the Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland recommends. Is not the purpose of such language plain? They hope the officer may be so dull, or so very much the reverse, as to refuse the recommendation. I would have to make the journey back again betwixt here and Fort William. There would follow a fresh delay till I got fresh authority, and they had disavowed the officer--military man, notoriously ignorant of the law, and that--I ken the cant of it. Then the journey a third time; and there we should be on the immediate heels of the trial before I had received my first instruction. Am I not right to call this a conspiracy?"
"It will bear that colour," said I.
"And I'll go on to prove it you outright," said he. "They have the right to hold James in prison, yet they cannot deny me to visit him. They have no right to hold the witnesses; but am I to get a sight of them, that should be as free as the Lord Justice Clerk himself? See--read: For the rest, refuses to give any orders to keepers of prisons who are not accused as having done anything contrary to the duties of their office. Anything contrary! Sirs! And the Act of seventeen hunner! Mr. Balfour, this makes my heart to burst. The heather is on fire inside my wame."
"And the plain English of that phrase," said I, "is that the witnesses are still to lie in prison and you are not to see them?"
"And I am not to see them until Inverary, when the court is set!" cries he, "and then to hear Prestongrange upon the anxious responsibilities of his office and the great facilities afforded the defence! But I'll begowk them there, Mr. David. I have a plan to waylay the witnesses upon the road, and see if I cannae get a little harle of justice out of the military man notoriously ignorant of the law that shall command the party."
It was actually so--it was actually on the wayside near Tynedrum, and by the connivance of a soldier officer, that Mr. Stewart first saw the witnesses upon the case.
"There is nothing that would surprise me in this business," I remarked.
"I'll surprise you ere I'm done!" cries he. "Do ye see this?"--producing a print still wet from the press. "This is the libel: see, there's Prestongrange's name to the list of witnesses, and I find no word of any Balfour. But here is not the question. Who do ye think paid for the printing of this paper?"
"I suppose it would likely be King George," said I.
"But it happens it was me!" he cried. "Not but it was printed by and for themselves, for the Grants and the Erskines, and yon thief of the black midnight, Symon Fraser. But could I win to get a copy? No! I was to go blindfold to my defence; I was to hear the charges for the first time in court alongst the jury."
"Is not this against the law?" I asked.
"I cannot say so much," he replied. "It was a favour so natural and so constantly rendered (till this nonesuch business) that the law has never looked to it. And now admire the hand of Providence! A stranger is in Fleming's printing house, spies a proof on the floor, picks it up, and carries it to me. Of all things, it was just this libel. Whereupon I had it set again--printed at the expense of the defence: sumptibus moesti rei; heard ever man the like of it?--and here it is for anybody, the muckle secret out--all may see it now. But how do you think I would enjoy this, that has the life of my kinsman on my conscience?"
"Troth, I think you would enjoy it ill," said I.
"And now you see how it is," he concluded, "and why, when you tell me your evidence is to be let in, I laugh aloud in your face."
It was now my turn. I laid before him in brief Mr. Symon's threats and offers, and the whole incident of the bravo, with the subsequent scene at Prestongrange's. Of my first talk, according to promise, I said nothing, nor indeed was it necessary. All the time I was talking Stewart nodded his head like a mechanical figure; and no sooner had my voice ceased, than he opened his mouth and gave me his opinion in two words, dwelling strong on both of them.
"Disappear yourself," said he.
"I do not take you," said I.
"Then I'll carry you there," said he. "By my view of it you're to disappear whatever. O, that's outside debate. The Advocate, who is not without some spunks of a remainder decency, has wrung your life-safe out of Symon and the Duke. He has refused to put you on your trial, and refused to have you killed; and there is the clue to their ill words together, for Symon and the Duke can keep faith with neither friend nor enemy. Ye're not to be tried then, and ye're not to be murdered; but I'm in bitter error if ye're not to be kidnapped and carried away like the Lady Grange. Bet me what you please--there was their expedient!"
"You make me think," said I, and told him of the whistle and the red-headed retainer, Neil.
"Wherever James More is there's one big rogue, never be deceived on that," said he. "His father was none so ill a man, though a kenning on the wrong side of the law, and no friend to my family, that I should waste my breath to be defending him! But as for James he's a brock and a blagyard. I like the appearing of this red-headed Neil as little as yourself. It looks uncanny: fiegh! it smells bad. It was old Lovat that managed the Lady Grange affair, if young Lovat is to handle yours, it'll be all in the family. What's James More in prison for? The same offence: abduction. His men have had practice in the business. He'll be to lend them to be Symon's instruments; and the next thing we'll be hearing, James will have made his peace, or else he'll have escaped; and you'll be in Benbecula or Applecross."
"Ye make a strong case," I admitted.
"And what I want," he resumed, "is that you should disappear yourself ere they can get their hands upon ye. Lie quiet until just before the trial, and spring upon them at the last of it when they'll be looking for you least. This is always supposing, Mr. Balfour, that your evidence is worth so very great a measure of both risk and fash."
"I will tell you one thing," said I. "I saw the murderer and it was not Alan."
"Then, by God, my cousin's saved!" cried Stewart. "You have his life upon your tongue; and there's neither time, risk, nor money to be spared to bring you to the trial." He emptied his pockets on the floor. "Here is all that I have by me," he went on.