Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales online

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It is strange to me, Jock Calder of West Inch, to feel that though now,
in the very centre of the nineteenth century, I am but five-and-fifty
years of age, and though it is only once in a week perhaps that my wife
can pluck out a little grey bristle from over my ear, yet I have lived
in a time when the thoughts and the ways of men were as different as
though it were another planet from this. For when I walk in my fields I
can see, down Berwick way, the little fluffs of white smoke which tell
me of this strange new hundred-legged beast, with coals for food and a
thousand men in its belly, for ever crawling over the border.
On a shiny day I can see the glint of the brass work as it takes the
curve near Corriemuir; and then, as I look out to sea, there is the same
beast again, or a dozen of them maybe, leaving a trail of black in the
air and of white in the water, and swimming in the face of the wind as
easily as a salmon up the Tweed. Such a sight as that would have struck
my good old father speechless with wrath as well as surprise; for he was
so stricken with the fear of offending the Creator that he was chary of
contradicting Nature, and always held the new thing to be nearly akin to
the blasphemous. As long as God made the horse, and a man down
Birmingham way the engine, my good old dad would have stuck by the
saddle and the spurs.

But he would have been still more surprised had he seen the peace and
kindliness which reigns now in the hearts of men, and the talk in the
papers and at the meetings that there is to be no more war - save, of
course, with blacks and such like. For when he died we had been
fighting with scarce a break, save only during two short years, for very
nearly a quarter of a century. Think of it, you who live so quietly and
peacefully now! Babies who were born in the war grew to be bearded men
with babies of their own, and still the war continued. Those who had
served and fought in their stalwart prime grew stiff and bent, and yet
the ships and the armies were struggling. It was no wonder that folk
came at last to look upon it as the natural state, and thought how queer
it must seem to be at peace. During that long time we fought the Dutch,
we fought the Danes, we fought the Spanish, we fought the Turks, we
fought the Americans, we fought the Monte-Videans, until it seemed that
in this universal struggle no race was too near of kin, or too far away,
to be drawn into the quarrel. But most of all it was the French whom we
fought, and the man whom of all others we loathed and feared and admired
was the great Captain who ruled them.

It was very well to draw pictures of him, and sing songs about him, and
make as though he were an impostor; but I can tell you that the fear of
that man hung like a black shadow over all Europe, and that there was a
time when the glint of a fire at night upon the coast would set every
woman upon her knees and every man gripping for his musket. He had
always won: that was the terror of it. The Fates seemed to be behind
him. And now we knew that he lay upon the northern coast with a hundred
and fifty thousand veterans, and the boats for their passage. But it is
an old story, how a third of the grown folk of our country took up arms,
and how our little one-eyed, one-armed man crushed their fleet.
There was still to be a land of free thinking and free speaking in

There was a great beacon ready on the hill by Tweedmouth, built up of
logs and tar-barrels; and I can well remember how, night after night, I
strained my eyes to see if it were ablaze. I was only eight at the
time, but it is an age when one takes a grief to heart, and I felt as
though the fate of the country hung in some fashion upon me and my
vigilance. And then one night as I looked I suddenly saw a little
flicker on the beacon hill - a single red tongue of flame in the
darkness. I remember how I rubbed my eyes, and pinched myself, and
rapped my knuckles against the stone window-sill, to make sure that I
was indeed awake. And then the flame shot higher, and I saw the red
quivering line upon the water between; and I dashed into the kitchen,
screeching to my father that the French had crossed and the Tweedmouth
light was aflame. He had been talking to Mr. Mitchell, the law student
from Edinburgh; and I can see him now as he knocked his pipe out at the
side of the fire, and looked at me from over the top of his horn

"Are you sure, Jock?" says he.

"Sure as death!" I gasped.

He reached out his hand for the Bible upon the table, and opened it upon
his knee as though he meant to read to us; but he shut it again in
silence, and hurried out. We went too, the law student and I, and
followed him down to the gate which opens out upon the highway. From
there we could see the red light of the big beacon, and the glimmer of a
smaller one to the north of us at Ayton. My mother came down with two
plaids to keep the chill from us, and we all stood there until morning,
speaking little to each other, and that little in a whisper. The road
had more folk on it than ever passed along it at night before; for many
of the yeomen up our way had enrolled themselves in the Berwick
volunteer regiments, and were riding now as fast as hoof could carry
them for the muster. Some had a stirrup cup or two before parting, and
I cannot forget one who tore past on a huge white horse, brandishing a
great rusty sword in the moonlight. They shouted to us as they passed
that the North Berwick Law fire was blazing, and that it was thought
that the alarm had come from Edinburgh Castle. There were a few who
galloped the other way, couriers for Edinburgh, and the laird's son, and
Master Clayton, the deputy sheriff, and such like. And among others
there was one a fine built, heavy man on a roan horse, who pulled up at
our gate and asked some question about the road. He took off his hat to
ease himself, and I saw that he had a kindly long-drawn face, and a
great high brow that shot away up into tufts of sandy hair.

"I doubt it's a false alarm," said he. "Maybe I'd ha' done well to bide
where I was; but now I've come so far, I'll break my fast with the

He clapped spurs to his horse, and away he went down the brae.

"I ken him weel," said our student, nodding after him. "He's a lawyer
in Edinburgh, and a braw hand at the stringin' of verses. Wattie Scott
is his name."

None of us had heard of it then; but it was not long before it was the
best known name in Scotland, and many a time we thought of how he
speered his way of us on the night of the terror.

But early in the morning we had our minds set at ease. It was grey and
cold, and my mother had gone up to the house to make a pot of tea for
us, when there came a gig down the road with Dr. Horscroft of Ayton in
it and his son Jim. The collar of the doctor's brown coat came over his
ears, and he looked in a deadly black humour; for Jim, who was but
fifteen years of age, had trooped off to Berwick at the first alarm with
his father's new fowling piece. All night his dad had chased him, and
now there he was, a prisoner, with the barrel of the stolen gun sticking
out from behind the seat. He looked as sulky as his father, with his
hands thrust into his side-pockets, his brows drawn down, and his lower
lip thrusting out.

"It's all a lie!" shouted the doctor as he passed. "There has been no
landing, and all the fools in Scotland have been gadding about the roads
for nothing."

His son Jim snarled something up at him on this, and his father struck
him a blow with his clenched fist on the side of his head, which sent
the boy's chin forward upon his breast as though he had been stunned.
My father shook his head, for he had a liking for Jim; but we all walked
up to the house again, nodding and blinking, and hardly able to keep our
eyes open now that we knew that all was safe, but with a thrill of joy
at our hearts such as I have only matched once or twice in my

Now all this has little enough to do with what I took my pen up to tell
about; but when a man has a good memory and little skill, he cannot draw
one thought from his mind without a dozen others trailing out behind it.
And yet, now that I come to think of it, this had something to do with
it after all; for Jim Horscroft had so deadly a quarrel with his father,
that he was packed off to the Berwick Academy, and as my father had long
wished me to go there, he took advantage of this chance to send me also.

But before I say a word about this school, I shall go back to where I
should have begun, and give you a hint as to who I am; for it may be
that these words of mine may be read by some folk beyond the border
country who never heard of the Calders of West Inch.

It has a brave sound, West Inch, but it is not a fine estate with a
braw house upon it, but only a great hard-bitten, wind-swept sheep run,
fringing off into links along the sea-shore, where a frugal man might
with hard work just pay his rent and have butter instead of treacle on
Sundays. In the centre there is a grey-stoned slate-roofed house with a
byre behind it, and "1703" scrawled in stonework over the lintel of the
door. There for more than a hundred years our folk have lived, until,
for all their poverty, they came to take a good place among the people;
for in the country parts the old yeoman is often better thought of than
the new laird.

There was one queer thing about the house of West Inch. It has been
reckoned by engineers and other knowing folk that the boundary line
between the two countries ran right through the middle of it, splitting
our second-best bedroom into an English half and a Scotch half. Now the
cot in which I always slept was so placed that my head was to the north
of the line and my feet to the south of it. My friends say that if I
had chanced to lie the other way my hair might not have been so sandy,
nor my mind of so solemn a cast. This I know, that more than once in my
life, when my Scotch head could see no way out of a danger, my good
thick English legs have come to my help, and carried me clear away.
But at school I never heard the end of this, for they would call me
"Half-and-half" and "The Great Britain," and sometimes "Union Jack."
When there was a battle between the Scotch and English boys, one side
would kick my shins and the other cuff my ears, and then they would both
stop and laugh as though it were something funny.

At first I was very miserable at the Berwick Academy. Birtwhistle was
the first master, and Adams the second, and I had no love for either of
them. I was shy and backward by nature, and slow at making a friend
either among masters or boys. It was nine miles as the crow flies, and
eleven and a half by road, from Berwick to West Inch, and my heart grew
heavy at the weary distance that separated me from my mother; for, mark
you, a lad of that age pretends that he has no need of his mother's
caresses, but ah, how sad he is when he is taken at his word! At last I
could stand it no longer, and I determined to run away from the school
and make my way home as fast as I might. At the very last moment,
however, I had the good fortune to win the praise and admiration of
every one, from the headmaster downwards, and to find my school life
made very pleasant and easy to me. And all this came of my falling by
accident out of a second-floor window.

This was how it happened. One evening I had been kicked by Ned Barton,
who was the bully of the school; and this injury coming on the top of
all my other grievances, caused my little cup to overflow. I vowed that
night, as I buried my tear-stained face beneath the blankets, that the
next morning would either find me at West Inch or well on the way to it.
Our dormitory was on the second floor, but I was a famous climber, and
had a fine head for heights. I used to think little, young as I was, of
swinging myself with a rope round my thigh off the West Inch gable, and
that stood three-and-fifty feet above the ground. There was not much
fear then but that I could make my way out of Birtwhistle's dormitory.
I waited a weary while until the coughing and tossing had died away, and
there was no sound of wakefulness from the long line of wooden cots;
then I very softly rose, slipped on my clothes, took my shoes in my
hand, and walked tiptoe to the window. I opened the casement and looked
out. Underneath me lay the garden, and close by my hand was the stout
branch of a pear tree. An active lad could ask no better ladder.
Once in the garden I had but a five-foot wall to get over, and then
there was nothing but distance between me and home. I took a firm grip
of a branch with one hand, placed my knee upon another one, and was
about to swing myself out of the window, when in a moment I was as
silent and as still as though I had been turned to stone.

There was a face looking at me from over the coping of the wall. A
chill of fear struck to my heart at its whiteness and its stillness.
The moon shimmered upon it, and the eyeballs moved slowly from side to
side, though I was hid from them behind the screen of the pear tree.
Then in a jerky fashion this white face ascended, until the neck,
shoulders, waist, and knees of a man became visible. He sat himself
down on the top of the wall, and with a great heave he pulled up after
him a boy about my own size, who caught his breath from time to time as
though to choke down a sob. The man gave him a shake, with a few rough
whispered words, and then the two dropped together down into the garden.
I was still standing balanced with one foot upon the bough and one upon
the casement, not daring to budge for fear of attracting their
attention, for I could hear them moving stealthily about in the long
shadow of the house. Suddenly, from immediately beneath my feet, I
heard a low grating noise and the sharp tinkle of falling glass.

"That's done it," said the man's eager whisper. "There is room for

"But the edge is all jagged!" cried the other in a weak quaver.

The fellow burst out into an oath that made my skin pringle.

"In with you, you cub," he snarled, "or - "

I could not see what he did, but there was a short, quick gasp of pain.

"I'll go! I'll go!" cried the little lad.

But I heard no more, for my head suddenly swam, my heel shot off the
branch, I gave a dreadful yell, and came down, with my ninety-five
pounds of weight, right upon the bent back of the burglar. If you ask
me, I can only say that to this day I am not quite certain whether it
was an accident or whether I designed it. It may be that while I was
thinking of doing it Chance settled the matter for me. The fellow was
stooping with his head forward thrusting the boy through a tiny window,
when I came down upon him just where the neck joins the spine. He gave
a kind of whistling cry, dropped upon his face, and rolled three times
over, drumming on the grass with his heels. His little companion
flashed off in the moonlight, and was over the wall in a trice. As for
me, I sat yelling at the pitch of my lungs and nursing one of my legs,
which felt as if a red-hot ring were welded round it.

It was not long, as may be imagined, before the whole household, from
the headmaster to the stable boy, were out in the garden with lamps and
lanterns. The matter was soon cleared: the man carried off upon a
shutter, and I borne in much state and solemnity to a special bedroom,
where the small bone of my leg was set by Surgeon Purdie, the younger of
the two brothers of that name. As to the robber, it was found that his
legs were palsied, and the doctors were of two minds as to whether he
would recover the use of them or no; but the Law never gave them a
chance of settling the matter, for he was hanged after Carlisle assizes,
some six weeks later. It was proved that he was the most desperate
rogue in the North of England, for he had done three murders at the
least, and there were charges enough against him upon the sheet to have
hanged him ten times over.

Well now, I could not pass over my boyhood without telling you about
this, which was the most important thing that happened to me. But I
will go off upon no more side tracks; for when I think of all that is
coming, I can see very well that I shall have more than enough to do
before I have finished. For when a man has only his own little private
tale to tell, it often takes him all his time; but when he gets mixed up
in such great matters as I shall have to speak about, then it is hard on
him, if he has not been brought up to it, to get it all set down to his
liking. But my memory is as good as ever, thank God, and I shall try to
get it all straight before I finish.

It was this business of the burglar that first made a friendship between
Jim Horscroft, the doctor's son, and me. He was cock boy of the school
from the day he came; for within the hour he had thrown Barton, who had
been cock before him, right through the big blackboard in the
class-room. Jim always ran to muscle and bone, and even then he was
square and tall, short of speech and long in the arm, much given to
lounging with his broad back against walls, and his hands deep in his
breeches pockets. I can even recall that he had a trick of keeping a
straw in the corner of his mouth, just where he used afterwards to hold
his pipe. Jim was always the same for good and for bad since first I
knew him.

Heavens, how we all looked up to him! We were but young savages, and
had a savage's respect for power. There was Tom Carndale of Appleby,
who could write alcaics as well as mere pentameters and hexameters, yet
nobody would give a snap for Tom; and there was Willie Earnshaw, who
had every date, from the killing of Abel, on the tip of his tongue, so
that the masters themselves would turn to him if they were in doubt, yet
he was but a narrow-chested lad, over long for his breadth; and what did
his dates help him when Jack Simons of the lower third chivied him down
the passage with the buckle end of a strap? But you didn't do things
like that with Jim Horscroft. What tales we used to whisper about his
strength! How he put his fist through the oak-panel of the
game-room door; how, when Long Merridew was carrying the ball, he caught
up Merridew, ball and all, and ran swiftly past every opponent to the
goal. It did not seem fit to us that such a one as he should trouble
his head about spondees and dactyls, or care to know who signed the
Magna Charta. When he said in open class that King Alfred was the man,
we little boys all felt that very likely it was so, and that perhaps Jim
knew more about it than the man who wrote the book.

Well, it was this business of the burglar that drew his attention to me;
for he patted me on my head, and said that I was a spunky little devil,
which blew me out with pride for a week on end. For two years we were
close friends, for all the gap that the years had made between us, and
though in passion or in want of thought he did many a thing that galled
me, yet I loved him like a brother, and wept as much as would have
filled an ink bottle when at last he went off to Edinburgh to study his
father's profession. Five years after that did I tide at Birtwhistle's,
and when I left had become cock myself, for I was wiry and as tough as
whalebone, though I never ran to weight and sinew like my great
predecessor. It was in Jubilee Year that I left Birtwhistle's, and then
for three years I stayed at home learning the ways of the cattle; but
still the ships and the armies were wrestling, and still the great
shadow of Bonaparte lay across the country. How could I guess that I
too should have a hand in lifting that shadow for ever from our people?



Some years before, when I was still but a lad, there had come over to us
upon a five weeks' visit the only daughter of my father's brother.
Willie Calder had settled at Eyemouth as a maker of fishing nets, and he
had made more out of twine than ever we were like to do out of the
whin-bushes and sand-links of West Inch. So his daughter, Edie Calder,
came over with a braw red frock and a five shilling bonnet, and a kist
full of things that brought my dear mother's eyes out like a partan's.
It was wonderful to see her so free with money, and she but a slip of a
girl, paying the carrier man all that he asked and a whole twopence
over, to which he had no claim. She made no more of drinking
ginger-beer than we did of water, and she would have her sugar in her
tea and butter with her bread just as if she had been English.

I took no great stock of girls at that time, for it was hard for me to
see what they had been made for. There were none of us at Birtwhistle's
that thought very much of them; but the smallest laddies seemed to have
the most sense, for after they began to grow bigger they were not so
sure about it. We little ones were all of one mind: that a creature
that couldn't fight and was aye carrying tales, and couldn't so much as
shy a stone without flapping its arm like a rag in the wind, was no use
for anything. And then the airs that they would put on, as if they were
mother and father rolled into one; for ever breaking into a game with
"Jimmy, your toe's come through your boot," or "Go home, you dirty boy,
and clean yourself," until the very sight of them was weariness.

So when this one came to the steading at West Inch I was not best
pleased to see her. I was twelve at the time (it was in the holidays)
and she eleven, a thin, tallish girl with black eyes and the queerest
ways. She was for ever staring out in front of her with her lips
parted, as if she saw something wonderful; but when I came behind her
and looked the same way, I could see nothing but the sheep's trough or
the midden, or father's breeches hanging on a clothes-line. And then if
she saw a lump of heather or bracken, or any common stuff of that sort,
she would mope over it, as if it had struck her sick, and cry,
"How sweet! how perfect!" just as though it had been a painted picture.
She didn't like games, but I used to make her play "tig" and such like;
but it was no fun, for I could always catch her in three jumps, and she
could never catch me, though she would come with as much rustle and
flutter as ten boys would make. When I used to tell her that she was
good for nothing, and that her father was a fool to bring her up like
that, she would begin to cry, and say that I was a rude boy, and that
she would go home that very night, and never forgive me as long as she
lived. But in five minutes she had forgot all about it. What was
strange was that she liked me a deal better than I did her, and she
would never leave me alone; but she was always watching me and running
after me, and then saying, "Oh, here you are!" as if it were a surprise.

But soon I found that there was good in her too. She used sometimes to
give me pennies, so that once I had four in my pocket all at the same
time; but the best part of her was the stories that she could tell.
She was sore frightened of frogs, so I would bring one to her, and tell
her that I would put it down her neck unless she told a story.
That always helped her to begin; but when once she was started it was
wonderful how she would carry on. And the things that had happened to
her, they were enough to take your breath away. There was a Barbary
rover that had been at Eyemouth, and he was coming back in five years in
a ship full of gold to make her his wife; and then there was a
wandering knight who had been there also, and he had given her a ring
which he said he would redeem when the time came. She showed me the
ring, which was very like the ones upon my bed curtain; but she said
that this one was virgin gold. I asked her what the knight would do if
he met the Barbary rover, and she told me that he would sweep his head

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Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleThe Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales → online text (page 1 of 11)