Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Second sight


Strong of limb, and fleet of foot, with crisp, auburn curls, with cheeks like hard red apples, and eyes glowing like stars, Angus McLean was surely not likely to be the victim of nervous disease. His family said he had the gift of second sight. But we have been accustomed to consider these “children of the mist,” even when they happen to belong to the stronger sex, to be weak, even as hysterical women. Their bodies we suppose to be emaciated, their nerves without tone, and if they see into the next world, we judge it is because the vail of flesh is fretted so thin by disease, that it becomes as it were transparent. But Angus McLean was no hysterical, nervous, or nerveless being, bearing about the misery of unmanliness and seeing ghosts in every graveyard. He was a man of few words, and never told aught that he had seen that common eyes could never see, unless it were to do some good, or avert some evil. And he would have been a brave friend or foe who dared ask Angus aught respecting ghostology. What Angus chose to reveal, was told simply, truthfully, and with no seeming sense of the marvellous. I remember a night in Edinburgh when I was young and inexperienced, with hot blood in my heart and my head, that a singular adventure befel me. I had been sent by my father to the Horns public-house to meet a drover, who was to pay him some money. I had received the money, and should have gone directly home, for the sum was very considerable, and I was not one to venture on my own strength. Then this house, to which I was sent, had fallen under suspicion as a place where our national morality was not respected as it should be. But I troubled myself little about rumours. I was young and full of enthusiasm, and pleased to be trusted by my father with so important a matter. My father was so much an invalid, that he used to call me his hands and feet. We had been in pecuniary difficulties which it had taken all our fortitude to bear, but this money was to set us free, and make my father as much at ease as a man with moderate wants and enough to supply them, can be. I went then with an excellent heart to receive this money, which was duly paid me. I put it safely in my pocket, and was about to return at once to my home, when a tall, pale man, who sat apart in the coffee-room, interested me, and I lingered for one moment, thinking what might the book be that he was reading. As I looked at him he raised his eyes to mine with a glance of quick intelligence and closed his book, keeping his place with his thumb between the leaves. Then he addressed me as if by the feeling of a common sympathy, and said: “Young gentleman, do you happen to be familiar with ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night?

Now Burns was my idol, and that home scene, with its piety, purity, and poetry, was sacred to me. I expressed my feeling with the enthusiasm of youth, and the stranger seemed delighted with my sentiments, but he sighed heavily.

“Far from home,” said he, “this exquisite word painting brings all I love dearest before me so clearly, that I am saddened in spite of myself.”

I pitied the stranger.

The stranger’s heart, O wound it not,
A yearning anguish is its lot.

These words thrilled through my heart, and I kept beside the gentleman when I ought to have been on my way home. At length I spoke of going.

“My young friend,” said the lover of Burns, “you will not go till you have drunk to the memory of Scotia’s bard.”

He spoke gravely and tenderly, and I joined him over a bowl of punch made of the “Dew off Ben Nevis,” meaning to leave my fascinating friend after a single glass. But I was fated not to do this. I listened to his musical voice, as he quoted liberally from Burns, and lauded him as liberally. I had never a strong head, and the national beverage and the national poetry, I suspect, were too much for me pretty soon. I remember that the gentleman remarked that “the higher sentiments should not be exposed before the vulgar,” and in illustration of the remark he proposed that we should go into his own private room, which adjoined the coffee-room, but was fitted up much more elegantly. Then he opened a backgammon board and said with indifference:

“Do you ever play?”

At home I had never been allowed to play at backgammon, and probably for this reason I was very fond of the game. I said I liked no game better; and we began to play. I was very much excited by the punch, and by all the circumstances of the evening, and after a time I found we were betting largely. This seemed only natural, and I went on staking my father’s money and winning the stranger’s. I remember having a confused notion that if I took the gentleman’s money when I had won it, the play would be gaming, and no longer the innocent game I had consented to play. Therefore, though winning largely the stranger’s money, I refused to take it. He urged the gold upon me, telling me that he should take my money without scruple, if he won it. A pile of gold lay at my elbow that I had won and refused to take, when he began to win from me.

“Win your own money in welcome,” said I; “I will stake it all, and twenty guineas beside, on this throw.”

As I said these words, a heavy hand was laid upon my shoulder, but I was too much under the influence of the punch and the game to notice it.

“Won, by all the Gods,” said the gentleman. “Hand over your twenty guineas.”

“Won—but with loaded dice, and from a boy who stakes his father’s money with a professional gamester who has made him drunk,” said the deep voice of Angus McLean, who had come unannounced and at midnight into this room, which had a semi-public character, and as we afterwards learned was often used for the nefarious work of the professional blackleg. Angus knew the house well, but such had been the accuracy of his information this night, that he would have found me, if he had known nothing before of the house or its character.

As Angus spoke of loaded dice, the gambler cried out “A base falsehood.” At the same time he attempted to sweep them from the table. But Angus was too quick for him. He coolly put them in his pocket, saying, “I will just save this wee bit of evidence, and you, sir, may call me to account whenever you like.”

The discomfited gambler scraped up his gold, and slunk out of the room. Angus drew my arm through his own, and essayed to take me away.

I was weak from the effects of the liquor, and violently affected by the opportune appearance of Angus. The thought that I had been within a hair’s breadth of ruining my poor father came upon me, and sobered me, like a deluge of cold water.

Now Angus McLean always spoke Scotch when excited, though in the main he was only an English-speaking cosmopolitan, having spent several years in London, and having no pride in his Scottish idiom.

“Ye puir callant,” said he to me, as we emerged into the open air. “I did na ken ye at a’. To think of your bein’ clean wud the night, just real daft, and thrawing awa’ your puir auld father’s last bawbee.”

I heard him, and yet I seemed not to hear him. I was in a dream-like state, and suffered myself to be led home and put to bed by Angus, as if I had been a child of two years led by the hand.

When I awoke next morning Angus was beside me. He brought me a bottle of soda-water, which somewhat cured the confusion in my head, besides quenching a burning thirst.

“My poor boy,” said Angus, “do you remember?”

The rush of recollection, though confused, the shame of my conduct, the ruin, the misery that I had so narrowly escaped bringing upon my poor father and our family, overcame me entirely. I nearly fainted. I believe I felt in that moment all the agony that would have been my father’s portion, if Angus had not interposed his strong arm between me and that most accomplished knave and hypocrite, who had me wholly in his power. After a few moments of keen remorse I revived, and replied “I have but a confused recollection.” As I reflected, the incidents of the first part of the evening came out one by one on the background of memory with much clearness. “But how came you to think of coming to the Horns, Angus, and at 12 o’clock at night?” I asked.

“I will tell you,” said he, very seriously, “that you may know how Providence watches over you; but I trust you will not therefore ever tempt Providence again. Last night I retired at ten, and, as is my custom, I was asleep the minute after my head touched the pillow. At eleven, I awoke with a violent palpitation of the heart, and I saw that gaming room at the Horns, and you and that gamester at the table. I saw him ply you with spirits. I saw that you played at dice, and I saw, too, that his were loaded. I watched you both as he allowed you to win, and I thought of your poor father, and the ruin that was being wrought for him. I saw all this in a moment, as one sees a landscape, and takes in its features of houses, hill, and vale, in a single flash of lightning, and I sprang from my bed, dressed me as rapidly as my agitation and trembling would allow, and laid my hand on your shoulder at the Horns as soon as my limbs would bear me there. And if your life had depended on my speed, I would have trusted myself sooner than any horse I ever saw.”

“You saved me from life-long remorse, and my dear father from ruin, my good Angus,” said I. My heart was too full for adequate expression.

“Give God thanks,” said Angus. “It was my gift. It was the second sight, Allan, and all our gifts are from God. Therefore we should use them wisely. Keep my secret, Allan, and I will keep yours, and we will both be thankful all our days, to the good Providence that had us in keeping.”

Though this occurred many years since, I have never before communicated the facts to any person. I would like to have this and other strange experiences of my friend explained. When I have spoken with him on the subject, he has always said, “It is my gift, Allan. It never comes at call, and I am glad it does not, but it always comes for good. I thank God for it, and I am sure you do, Allan, for had you not cause?”