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Before they parted, Alan made a proposal that
was startling in the extreme. He would be at
Colette's that night about twelve, he said. Why
should not John come there and get the money?
To go to Colette's was to see life, indeed; it was
wrong; it was against the laws; it partook, in a
very dingy manner, of adventure. Were it known,
it was the sort of exploit that disconsidered a young
man for good with the more serious classes, but
gave him a standing with the riotous. And yet
Colette's was not a hell; it could not come, with-
out vaulting hyperbole, under the rubric of a gilded
saloon ; and, if it was a sin to go there, the sin
was merely local and municipal. Colette (whose
name I do not know how to spell, for I was never
in epistolary cortimunication with that hospitable
outlaw) was simply an unlicensed publican, who
gave suppers after eleven at night, the Edinburgh
hour of closing. If you belonged to a club, you
could get a much better supper at the same hour,
and lose not a jot in public esteem. But if you
lacked that qualification, and were an hungered,
or inclined toward conviviality at unlawful hours,
Colette's was your only port. You were very ill-
supplied. The company was not recruited from
the Senate or the Church, though the Bar was



very well represented on the only occasion on
which I flew in the face of my country's laws,
and, taking my reputation in my hand, penetrated
into that grim supper-house. And Colette's fre-
quenters, thrillingly conscious of wrong-doing and
"that two-handed engine (the policeman) at the
door," were perhaps inclined to somewhat feverish
excess. But the place was in no sense a very bad
one; and it is somewhat strange to me, at this
distance of time, how it had acquired its dangerous

In precisely the same spirit as a man may debate
a project to ascend the Matterhorn or to cross
Africa, John considered Alan's proposal, and,
greatly daring, accepted it. As he walked home,
the thoughts of this excursion out of the safe
places of life into the wild and arduous, stirred
and struggled in his imagination with the image
of Miss Mackenzie — incongruous and yet kin-
dred thoughts, for did not each imply unusual
tightening of the pegs of resolution ? did not each
woo him forth and warn him back again into

Between there two considerations, at least, he
was more than usually moved; and when he got
to Randolph Crescent, he quite forgot the four
hundred pounds in the inner pocket of his great-
coat, hung up the coat, with its rich freight, upon
his particular pin of the hat-stand ; and in the
very action sealed his doom.

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A BOUT half-past ten it was John's brave
L\ good-fortune to offer his arm to Miss
JL JL Mackenzie, and escort her home. The
night was chill and starry; all thfc way eastward
the trees of the different gardens rustled and looked
black. Up the stone gully of Leith Walk, when
they came to cross it, the breeze made a rush and
set the flames of the street-lamps quavering; and
when at last they had mounted to the Royal Ter-
race, where Captain Mackenzie lived, a great salt
freshness came in their faces from the sea. These
phases of the walk remained written on John's
memory, each emphasised by the touch of that
light hand on his arm ; and behind all these aspects
of the nocturnal city he saw, in his mind's eye, a
picture of the lighted drawing-room at home where
he had sat talking with Flora ; and his father, from
the other end, had looked on with a kind and iron-
ical smile. John had read the significance of that
smile, which might have escaped a stranger. Mr.
Nicholson had remarked his son's entanglement
with satisfaction, tinged by humour; and his
smile, if it still was a thought contemptuous, had
implied consent.

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At the captain's door the girl held out her hand,
with a certain emphasis ; and John took it and kept
it a little longer, and said, " Good-night, Flora,
dear," and was instantly thrown into much fear by
his presumption^ ' But she only % laughed, ran up
the steps, and rang the bell; and while she was
waiting for the door to open, kept close in the porch,
and talked to him from that point as out of a forti-
fication. She had a knitted shawl over her head ;
her blue Highland eyes took the light from the
neighbouring street-lamp and sparkled ; and when
the door opened and closed upon her, John felt
cruelly alone.

He proceeded slowly back along the terrace in
a tender glow; and when he came to Greenside
Church, he halted in a doubtful mind. Over the
crown of the Calton Hill, to his left, lay the way
to Colette's, where Alan would soon be looking
for his arrival, and where he would now have no
more consented to go than he would have wilfully
wallowed in a bog; the touch of the girl's hand
on his sleeve, and the kindly light in his father's
eyes, both loudly forbidding. But right before
him was the way home, which pointed only to bed,
a place of little ease for one whose fancy was strung
to the lyrical pitch, and whose not very ardent
heart was just then tumultously moved. The
hilltop, the cool air of the night, the company of
the great monuments, the sight of the city under
his feet, with its hills and valleys and crossing
files of lamps, drew him by all he had of the poetic,
and he turned that way ; and by that quite innocent

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deflection, ripened the crop of his venial errors for
the sickle of destiny.

On a seat on the hill above Greenside he sat for
perhaps half an hour, looking down upon the lamps
of Edinburgh, and up at the lamps of heaven,
Wonderful were the resolves he formed; beauti-
ful and kindly were the vistas of future life that
sped before him. He uttered to himself the name
of Flora in so many touching and dramatic keys,
that he became at length fairly melted with tender-
ness, and could have sung aloud. At that juncture
a certain creasing in his great-coat caught his ear.
He put his hand into his pocket, pulled forth the
envelope that held the money, and sat stupefied.
The Calton Hill, about this period, had an ill name
of nights; and to be sitting there with four hun-
dred pounds that did not belong to him was hardly
wise. He looked up. There was a man in a very
bad hat a little on one side of him, apparently look-
ing at the scenery ; from a little on the other a
second night-walker was drawing very quietly near.
Up jumped John. The envelope fell from his
hands ; he stooped to get it, and at the same mo-
ment both men ran in and closed with him.

A little after, he got to his feet very sore and
shaken, the poorer by a purse which contained
exactly one penny postage-stamp, by a cambric
handkerchief, and by the all-important envelope.

Here was a young man on whom, at the highest
point of loverly exaltation, there had fallen a blow
too sharp to be supported alone; and not many
hundred yards away his greatest friend was sitting

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at supper — ay, and even expectiig him. Was it
not in the nature of man that he Should run there?
He went in quest of sympathy -*- in quest of that
droll article that we all suppose ourselves to want
when in a strait, and have agreed to call advice;
and he went, besides, with vague but rather splen-
did expectations of relief. Alan was rich, or would
be so when he came of age. By a stroke of the pen
he might remedy this misfortune, and avert that
dreaded interview with Mr. Nicholson, from which
John now shrunk in imagination as the hand draws
back from fire.

Close under the Calton Hill there runs a certain
narrow avenue, part street, part by-road. The head
of it faces the doors of the prison; its tail de-
scends into the sunless slums of the Low Calton.
On one hand it is overhung by the crags of the hill,
on the other by an old graveyard. Between these
two the road-way runs in a trench, sparsely lighted
at night, sparsely frequented by day, and bordered,
when it has cleared the place of tombs, by dingy
and ambiguous houses. One of these was the house
of Colette ; and at his door our ill-starred John was
presently beating for admittance. In an evil hour
he satisfied the jealous inquiries of the contraband
hotel-keeper ; in an evil hour he penetrated into the
somewhat unsavoury interior. Alan, to be sure,
was there, seated in a room lighted by noisy gas-
jets, beside a dirty table-cloth, engaged on a coarse
meal, and in the company of several tipsy members
of the junior Bar. But Alan was not sober; he
had lost a thousand pounds upon a horse-race,

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had received the news at dinner-time, and was
now, in default of any possible means of extrica-
tion, drowning the memory of his predicament.
He to help John ! The thing was impossible ; he
could n't help himself.

" If you have a beast of a father," said he, " I
can tell you I have a brute of a trustee."

" I 'm not going to hear my father called a
beast," said John, with a beating heart, feeling that
he risked the last sound rivet of the chain that
bound him to life.

But Alan was quite good-natured.

" All right, old fellow," said he. " Mos' respec-
'able man your father." And he introduced his
friend to his companions as "old Nicholson the
what-d'ye-call-um's son."

John* sat in dumb agony. Colette's foul walls
and maculate table-linen, and even down to Co-
lette's villainous casters, seemed like objects in a
nightmare. And just then there came a knock and
a scurrying ; the police, so lamentably absent from
the Calton Hill, appeared upon the scene; and the
party, taken flagrante delicto, with their glasses at
their elbow, were seized, marched up to the police
office, and all duly summoned to appear as wit-
nesses in the consequent case against that arch-
she-beener, Colette.

It was a sorrowful and a mightily sobered com-
pany that came forth again. The vague terror of
public opinion weighed generally on them all;
but there were private and particular horrors on
the minds of individuals. Alan stood in dread of

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his trustee, already sorely tried. One of the group
was the son of a country minister, another of a
judge; John, the unhappiest of all, had David
Nicholson to father, the idea of facing whom on
such a scandalous subject was physically sickening.
They stood awhile consulting under the buttresses
of St. Giles; thence they adjourned to the lodg-
ings of one of the number in North Castle Street,
where (for that matter) they might have had
quite as good a supper, and far better drink, than
in the dangerous paradise from which they had
been routed. There, over an almost tearful glass,
they debated their position. Each explained he
had the world to lose if the affair went on, and he
appeared as a witness. It was remarkable what
bright prospects were just then in the very act of
opening before each of that little company of
youths, and what pious consideration for the feel-
ings of their families began now to well from them.
Each, moreover, was in an odd state of destitution.
Not one could bear his share of the fine; not one
but evinced a wonderful twinkle of hope that
each of the others (in succession) was tne very
man. who could step in to make good the deficit.
One took a high hand ; he could not pay his share ;
if it went to a trial, he should bolt ; he had always
felt the English Bar to be his true sphere. Another
branched out into touching details about his family,
and was not listened to. John, in the midst of
this disorderly competition of poverty and mean-
ness, sat stunned, contemplating the mountain
bulk of his misfortunes.

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At last, upon a pledge that each should apply to
his family with a common frankness, this conven-
tion of unhappy young asses broke up, went down
the common stair, and in the grey of the spring
morning, with the streets lying dead empty all about
them, the lamps burning on into the daylight in
diminished lustre, and the birds beginning to
sound premonitory notes from the groves of the
town gardens, went each his own way with bowed
head and echoing footfall.

The rooks were awake in Randolph Crescent;
but the windows looked down, discreetly blinded,
on the return of the prodigal. John's pass-key
was a recent privilege; this was the first time it
had been used; and, oh! with what a sickening
sense of his unworthiness he now inserted it into
the well-oiled lock and entered that citadel of the
proprieties ! All slept ; the gas in the hall had been
left faintly burning to light his return; a dread-
ful stillness reigned, broken by the deep ticking of
the eight-day clock. He put the gas out, and sat
on a chair in the hall, waiting and counting the
minutes, longing for any human countenance.
But when at last he heard the alarm spring its
rattle in the lower story, and the servants begin to
be about, he instantly lost heart, and fled to his
own room, where he threw himself upon the bed.

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SHORTLY after breakfast, at which he as-
sisted with a highly tragical countenance,
John sought his father where he sat, presum-
ably in religious meditation, on the Sabbath morn-
ings. The old gentleman looked up with that sour,
inquisitive expression that came so near to smil-
ing and was so different in effect.

" This is a time when I do not like to be dis-
turbed/' he said.

" I know that/' returned John; "but I have— -
I want — I Ve made a dreadful mess of it," he
broke out, and turned to the window.

Mr. Nicholson sat silent for an appreciable time,
while his t unhappy son surveyed the poles in the
back green, and a certain yellow cat that was
perched upon the wall. Despair sat upon John as
he gazed; and he raged to think of the dreadful
series of his misdeeds, and the essential innocence
that lay behind them.

" Well," said the father, with an obvious effort,
but in very quiet tones, " what is it ? "

" Maclean gave me four hundred pounds to put

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in the bank, sir," began John ; " and I 'm sorry to
say that I 've been robbed of it ! "

"Robbed of it?" cried Mr. Nicholson, with a
strong rising inflection. " Robbed ? Be careful
what you say, John ! "

"I can't say anything else, sir; I was just
robbed of it," said John, in desperation, sullenly.

"And where and when did this extraordinary
event take place?" inquired the father.

" On the Calton Hill about twelve last night."

"The Calton Hill?" repeated Mr. Nicholson.
" And what were you doing there at such a time
of the night?"

" Nothing, sir," says John.

Mr. Nicholson drew in his breath.

"And how came the money in your hands at
twelve last night ? " he asked, sharply.

" I neglected that piece of business," said John,
anticipating comment; and then in his own dia-
lect : " I clean forgot all about it."

" Well," said his father, " it 's a most extraor-
dinary story. Have you communicated with the
police ? "

" I have," answered poor John, the blood leap-
ing to his face. " They think they know the men
that did it. I dare say the money will be recov-
ered, if that was all," said he, with a desperate
indifference, which his father set down to levity;
but which sprung from the consciousness of worse

"Your mother's watch, too?" asked Mr.

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" Oh, the watch is all right! " cried John. " At
least, I mean I was coming to the watch — the
fact is, I am ashamed to say, I — I had pawned
the watch before. Here is the ticket ; they did n't
find that; the watch can be redeemed; they don't
sell pledges." The lad panted out these phrases,
one after another, like minute guns; but at the
last word, which rang in that stately chamber like
an oath, his heart failed him utterly; and the
dreaded silence settled on father and son.

It was broken by Mr. Nicholson picking up the
pawn-ticket: "John Froggs, 85 Pleasance," he
read; and then turning upon John, with a brief
flash of passion and disgust, " Who is John
Froggs ? " he cried.

" Nobody/' said John. " It was just a name."

"An alias' 9 his father commented.

" Oh ! I think scarcely quite that," said the
culprit ; " it 's a form, they all do it, the man
seemed to understand, we had a great deal of fun
over the name "

He paused at that, for he saw his father wince
at the picture like a man physically struck; and
again there was silence.

" I do not think," said Mr. Nicholson, at last,
"that I am an ungenerous father. I have never
grudged you money within reason, for any avow-
able purpose; you had just to come to me and
speak. And now I find that you have forgotten
all decency and all natural feeling, and actually
pawned — pawned — your mother's watch. You
must have had some temptation; I will do you

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the justice to suppose it was a strong one. What
did you want with this money ? "

" I would rather not tell you, sir/' said John.
" It will only make you angry."

" I will not be fenced with," cried his father.
" There must be an end of disingenuous answers.
What did you want with this money ? "

" To lend it to Houston, sir," says John.

" I thought I had forbidden you to speak to
that young man ? " asked the father.

" Yes, sir," said John ; " but I only met him."

" Where ? " came the deadly question.

And " In a billiard-room " was the damning
answer. Thus, had John's single departure from
the truth brought instant punishment. For no
other purpose but to see Alan would he have
entered a billiard-room; but he had desired to
palliate the fact of his disobedience, and now it
appeared that he frequented these disreputable
haunts upon his own account.

Once more Mr. Nicholson digested the vile
tidings in silence; and when John stole a glance
at his father's countenance, he was abashed to see
the marks of suffering.

"Well," said the old gentleman, at last, "I
cannot pretend not to be simply bowed down. I
rose this morning what the world calls a happy
man — happy, at least, in a son of whom I thought
I could be reasonably proud "

But it was beyond human nature to endure this
longer, and John interrupted almost with a scream.
"Oh, wheest!" he cried, "that's not all, that's

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not the worst of it — it 's nothing ! How could
I tell you were proud of me? Oh! I wish, I
wish that I had known; but you always said I
was such a disgrace! And the dreadful thing is
this: we were all taken up last night, and we
have to pay Colette's fine among the six, or we '11
be had up for evidence — shebeening it is. They
made me swear to tell you; but for my part," he
cried, bursting into tears, " I just wish that I was
dead ! " And he fell on his knees before a chair
and hid his face.

Whether his father spoke, or whether he re-
mained long in the room or at once departed,
are points lost to history. A horrid turmoil of
mind and body ; bursting sobs ; broken, vanishing
thoughts, now of indignation, now of remorse;
broken elementary whiffs of consciousness, of the
smell of the horse-hair on the chair bottom, of the
jangling of church bells that now began to make
day horrible throughout the confines of the city,
of the hard floor that bruised his knees, of the
taste of tears that found their way into his mouth :
for a period of time, the duration of which I
cannot guess, while I refuse to dwell longer on
its agony, these were the whole of God's world
for John Nicholson.

When at last, as by the touching of a spring, he
returned again to clearness of consciousness and
even a measure of composure, the bells had but
just done ringing, and the Sabbath silence was
still marred by the patter of belated feet. By the
clock above the fire, as well as by these more

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speaking signs, the service had not long begun ; and
the unhappy sinner, if his father had really gone
to church, might count on near two hours of only
comparative unhappiness. With his father, the
superlative degree returned infallibly. He knew
it by every shrinking fibre in his body, he knew
it by the sudden dizzy whirling of his brain, at
the mere thought of that calamity. An hour and
a half, perhaps an hour and three quarters, if the
doctor was long-winded, and then would begin
again that active agony from which, even in the
dull ache of the present, he shrunk as from the
bite of fire. He saw, in a vision, the family pew,
the somnolent cushions, the Bibles, the psalm-
books, Maria with her smelling-salts, his father
sitting spectacled and critical ; and at once he was
struck with indignation, not unjustly. It was in-
human to go off to church, and leave a sinner
in suspense, unpunished, unforgiven. And at the
very touch of criticism, the paternal sanctity was
lessened; yet the paternal terror only grew; and
the two strands of feeling pushed him in the same

And suddenly there came upon him a mad fear
lest his father should have locked him in. The
notion had no ground in sense; it was probably
no more than a reminiscence of similar calamities
in childhood, for his father's room had always been
the chamber of inquisition and the scene of punish-
ment; but it stuck so rigorously in his mind that
he must instantly approach the door and prove its
untruth. As he went, he struck upon a drawer

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left open in the business table. It was the money-
drawer, a measure of his father's disarray: the
money-drawer — perhaps a pointing providence!
Who is to decide, when even divines differ between
a providence and a temptation? or who, sitting
calmly under his own vine, is to pass a judgment
on the doings of a poor, hunted dog, slavishly
afraid, slavishly rebellious, like John Nicholson on
that particular Sunday? His hand was in the
drawer, almost before his mind had conceived the
hope; and rising to his new situation, he wrote,
sitting in his father's chair and using his father's
blotting-pad, his pitiful apology and farewell:

" My dear Father, — I have taken the money, but I will
pay it back as soon as I am able. You will never hear of me
again. I did not mean any harm by anything, so I hope you
will try and forgive me. I wish you would say good-bye to
Alexander and Maria, but not if you don't want to. I could
not wait to see you, really. Please try to forgive me. Your
affectionate son,

"John Nicholson."

The coins abstracted and the missive written, he
could not be gone too soon from the scene of these
transgressions; and remembering how his father
had once returned from church, on some slight
illness, in the middle of the second psalm, he durst
not even make a packet of a change of clothes.
Attired as he was, he slipped from the paternal
doors, and found himself in the cool spring air,
the thin spring sunshine, and the great Sabbath
quiet of the city, which was now only pointed by
the cawing of the rooks. There was not a soul in

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Randolph Crescent, nor a soul in Queensferry
Street; in this out-door privacy and the sense of
escape, John took heart again ; and with a pathetic
sense of leave-taking, he even ventured up the lane
and stood awhile, a strange peri at the gates of a
quaint paradise, by the west end of St. George's
Church. They were singing within; and by a
strange chance, the tune was " St. George's, Edin-
burgh," which bears the name, and was first sung
in the choir of that church. " Who is this King
of Glory?" went the voices from within; and,
to John, this was like the end of all Christian
observances, for he was now to be a wild man like
Ishmael, and his life was to be cast in homeless
places and with godless people.

It was thus, with no rising sense of the adven-
turous, but in mere desolation and despair, that he
turned his back on his native city, and set out on
foot for California, with a more immediate eye to

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IT is no part of mine to narrate the adventures
of John Nicholson, which were many, but
simply his more momentous misadventures,
which were more than he desired, and, by human
standards, more than he deserved ; how he reached
California, how he was rooked, and robbed, and
beaten, and starved; how he was at last taken up
by charitable folk, restored to some degree of self-

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Online LibraryRobert Louis StevensonThe Biographical Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson: Weir of ... → online text (page 13 of 24)