"All this apart," said he. "It now remains that I should learn what I am to do with you."
"I had thought it was rather I that should learn the same from your lordship," said I.
"Ay, true," says the Advocate. "But, you see, you come to me well recommended. There is a good honest Whig name to this letter," says he, picking it up a moment from the table. "And--extra-judicially, Mr. Balfour--there is always the possibility of some arrangement. I tell you, and I tell you beforehand that you may be the more upon your guard, your fate lies with me singly. In such a matter (be it said with reverence) I am more powerful than the king's Majesty; and should you please me--and of course satisfy my conscience--in what remains to be held of our interview, I tell you it may remain between ourselves."
"Meaning how?" I asked.
"Why, I mean it thus, Mr. Balfour," said he, "that if you give satisfaction, no soul need know so much as that you visited my house; and you may observe that I do not even call my clerk."
I saw what way he was driving. "I suppose it is needless anyone should be informed upon my visit," said I, "though the precise nature of my gains by that I cannot see. I am not at all ashamed of coming here."
"And have no cause to be," says he, encouragingly. "Nor yet (if you are careful) to fear the consequences."
"My lord," said I, "speaking under your correction, I am not very easy to be frightened."
"And I am sure I do not seek to frighten you," says he. "But to the interrogation; and let me warn you to volunteer nothing beyond the questions I shall ask you. It may consist very immediately with your safety. I have a great discretion, it is true, but there are bounds to it."
"I shall try to follow your lordship's advice," said I.
He spread a sheet of paper on the table and wrote a heading. "It appears you were present, by the way, in the wood of Lettermore at the moment of the fatal shot," he began. "Was this by accident?"
"By accident," said I.
"How came you in speech with Colin Campbell?" he asked.
"I was inquiring my way of him to Aucharn," I replied.
I observed he did not write this answer down.
"H'm, true," said he, "I had forgotten that. And do you know, Mr. Balfour, I would dwell, if I were you, as little as might be on your relations with these Stewarts? It might be found to complicate our business. I am not yet inclined to regard these matters as essential."
"I had thought, my lord, that all points of fact were equally material in such a case," said I.
"You forget we are now trying these Stewarts," he replied, with great significance. "If we should ever come to be trying you, it will be very different; and I shall press these very questions that I am now willing to glide upon. But to resume: I have it here in Mr. Mungo Campbell's precognition that you ran immediately up the brae. How came that?"
"Not immediately, my lord, and the cause was my seeing of the murderer."
"You saw him, then?"
"As plain as I see your lordship, though not so near hand."
"You know him?"
"I should know him again."
"In your pursuit you were not so fortunate, then, as to overtake him?"
"I was not."
"Was he alone?"
"He was alone."
"There was no one else in that neighbourhood?"
"Alan Breck Stewart was not far off, in a piece of a wood."
The Advocate laid his pen down. "I think we are playing at cross purposes," said he, "which you will find to prove a very ill amusement for yourself."
"I content myself with following your lordship's advice, and answering what I am asked," said I.
"Be so wise as to bethink yourself in time," said he. "I use you with the most anxious tenderness, which you scarce seem to appreciate, and which (unless you be more careful) may prove to be in vain."
"I do appreciate your tenderness, but conceive it to be mistaken," I replied, with something of a falter, for I saw we were come to grips at last. "I am here to lay before you certain information, by which I shall convince you Alan had no hand whatever in the killing of Glenure."
The Advocate appeared for a moment at a stick, sitting with pursed lips, and blinking his eyes upon me like an angry cat. "Mr. Balfour," he said at last, "I tell you pointedly you go an ill way for your own interests."
"My lord," I said, "I am as free of the charge of considering my own interests in this matter as your lordship. As God judges me, I have but the one design, and that is to see justice executed and the innocent go clear. If in pursuit of that I come to fall under your lordship's displeasure, I must bear it as I may."
At this he rose from his chair, lit a second candle, and for a while gazed upon me steadily. I was surprised to see a great change of gravity fallen upon his face, and I could have almost thought he was a little pale.
"You are either very simple, or extremely the reverse, and I see that I must deal with you more confidentially," says he. "This is a political case--ah, yes, Mr. Balfour! whether we like it or no, the case is political--and I tremble when I think what issues may depend from it. To a political case, I need scarce tell a young man of your education, we approach with very different thoughts from one which is criminal only. Salus populi suprema lex is a maxim susceptible of great abuse, but it has that force which we find elsewhere only in the laws of nature: I mean it has the force of necessity. I will open this out to you, if you will allow me, at more length. You would have me believe--"
"Under your pardon, my lord, I would have you to believe nothing but that which I can prove," said I.
"Tut! tut! young gentleman," says he, "be not so pragmatical, and suffer a man who might be your father (if it was nothing more) to employ his own imperfect language, and express his own poor thoughts, even when they have the misfortune not to coincide with Mr. Balfour's. You would have me to believe Breck innocent. I would think this of little account, the more so as we cannot catch our man. But the matter of Breck's innocence shoots beyond itself. Once admitted, it would destroy the whole presumptions of our case against another and a very different criminal; a man grown old in treason, already twice in arms against his king and already twice forgiven; a fomenter of discontent, and (whoever may have fired the shot) the unmistakable original of the deed in question. I need not tell you that I mean James Stewart."
"And I can just say plainly that the innocence of Alan and of James is what I am here to declare in private to your lordship, and what I am prepared to establish at the trial by my testimony," said I.
"To which I can only answer by an equal plainness, Mr. Balfour," said he, "that (in that case) your testimony will not be called by me, and I desire you to withhold it altogether."
"You are at the head of Justice in this country," I cried, "and you propose to me a crime!"
"I am a man nursing with both hands the interests of this country," he replied, "and I press on you a political necessity. Patriotism is not always moral in the formal sense. You might be glad of it, I think: it is your own protection; the facts are heavy against you; and if I am still trying to except you from a very dangerous place, it is in part of course because I am not insensible to your honesty in coming here; in part because of Pilrig's letter; but in part, and in chief part, because I regard in this matter my political duty first and my judicial duty only second. For the same reason--I repeat it to you in the same frank words--I do not want your testimony."
"I desire not to be thought to make a repartee, when I express only the plain sense of our position," said I. "But if your lordship has no need of my testimony, I believe the other side would be extremely blythe to get it."
Prestongrange arose and began to pace to and fro in the room. "You are not so young," he said, "but what you must remember very clearly the year '45 and the shock that went about the country. I read in Pilrig's letter that you are sound in Kirk and State.