The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 8


The Countess Peggy sat in the drawing-room of her lord's handsome house in Edinburgh and measured out tea with a heavy rat-tailed spoon.

It was a fine chamber with smooth polished cream-colored walls and long French windows, hung with flowered curtains of a dull pink; the furniture, black and a little heavy, caught in its clear-cut Jacobean facets the light from the dozen candles in a silver stand that burnt over the tea-table. The Countess wore a purple gown with paniers and a fine lace kerchief fastened with diamonds on her bosom; a screen of drawn red silk stood between her and the fire and cast a glow over her face and neck, lay reflected, too, in the hollow of the shining white and pink cups.

There was a fragrant smell of tea and the gentle hiss of boiling water from the silver kettle; it was a comfortable room, a comfortable hour; the Countess's green eyes were soft with content like a soothed petted cat's before a fire.

Her one companion lay back lazily on a low settee and gazed, rather vacantly, into the fire; he was a slight man with a fretful weak face, pale eyes too full, and a thin irresolute mouth.

He was handsomely dressed, and for all his unprepossessing appearance, carried an air of high lineage, wealth, position and power.

The Countess finished mixing the tea, then glanced at the man opposite; there was impatience and a slow amused scorn in her eyes; she spoke and it was in the tone of one who speaks down to his hearer.

"Cousin," she said, "I am glad to be out of the Hielands—Kilchurn is ower damp and cold this weather."

She handed him his tea and he put out a feeble white hand to take it.

"Ye should pull it down," he said half-peevishly. "I canna ken how ye can live there—I'd as soon step in my grave as live in Inverary in the winter."

His accent was very slight; he had the speech of a man who had lived abroad and learned many tongues.

The Countess Peggy smiled.

"Ye are the first Argyll, cousin," she said, "who has disliked Inverary Castle, and as for pulling down Kilchurn, we're no' intending it. Jock is ower busy building up what the Macdonalds destroy."

Argyll drew closer to the fire, balancing his tea-cup with the anxiety of a man to whom a slop in the saucer would be a disaster.

"I'm weary of the name of. Macdonald, cousin," he said. "I marvel Breadalbane hath let them gain such an upper hand; they should be hanged and done with."

"My lord—that consummation approaches," she answered, hardening, through her smile, at his implied slight to her husband. "’Tis no' the lack o' power but policy has held Jock's hand."

The Earl of Argyll lifted his eyes fretfully.

"Policy! Always this talk of policy! If it had na been for my father's 'policy' in joining Monmouth in '85, he would na have lost his head or the Campbells the Hielands..."

She interrupted.

"But the triumph o' your return, cousin, made full amends for your father's downfall."

He shrugged his shoulders, sipping his tea; he had the manner of a man with a grievance.

"Certainly I return to the Hielands, but what do I find?" he complained. "The Macdonalds overrunning everything, Campbells hanged at sight, my houses gone to ruin—long arrears of rent due and the Stewarts o' Appin, the Camerons, the Macnaughtens, and these cursed Macdonalds refusing to pay a farthing."

The Countess Peggy gave him a bright glance. "We have our chance noo," she said. "Our chance, Cousin Archibald, for our revenge." She offered him as she spoke a little glass dish of macaroons, and he carefully selected one not too sugared before he answered.

"We?" he questioned. "You and Breadalbane have little to complain of—I dinna call to mind any misfortune in your branch."

There was a note of bitterness in his voice; he could not forget that while he had been living in a Dutch garret his cousin Breadalbane had managed to keep even with every government and come out at the end with unimpaired estates and a title as good as his own.

The Countess understood this and smiled.

"Dinna forget that we are Campbells, too," she said. "And we hae had many wrongs frae the Hielands." She tilted the tea-urn with half-shut eyes—"Particularly the Macdonalds," she added.

Argyll looked at her a second.

"Does Breadalbane think they willna' come in?" he asked.

"Cousin, he is sure of it—vera few will."

"Ah!" Argyll gave a luxurious little sigh of satisfaction. "I thought so—I had orders to quarter my regiment at Dunblane—and quietly."

"Orders frae the Master of Stair?"


"He is at Kensington noo?" asked the Countess.

"Yes—he and Carstairs rule Scotland between them—the King gives no ear to any other."

"And he, the Master—is ane with Jock!" she said eagerly. "And there are only twa weeks more—cousin—I think the thing is done."

Some animation came into Argyll's languid eyes.

"Almost, I think so," he said. "Breadalbane goes to London soon?"

"He comes up frae Kilchurn to-morrow," she answered, "and will be ready to accompany ye to Court." Their eyes met.

"He will see the King?" asked Argyll.

"And the Master of Stair," she answered. "And 'twill be done. We shall come back to the Hielands in the new year. The plans are laid."

A little half-foolish smile crept round Argyll's weak mouth. "’Twill gratify me vastly to see those Hielanders swept out," he said.

"’Twill be a blow to the hopes of King James ye ken," remarked the Countess.

Argyll looked up quickly: "Ye think so?" he asked. He always showed a great respect for his cousin's opinion, consulted her and deferred to her in a way her husband never did, and she despised him in proportion. "Ye think there is no hope for King James?" he asked again, half-anxiously.

She looked full at him and laughed. "Cousin, cousin," she cried. "Dinna gang ower far with the Jacks because I dinna imagine that there is much hope for King James."

He stared at her, went red and white, and his tea-cup danced in his hand.

"Madam!" he gasped.

Her look of amusement deepened.

"I ken vera weel," she said, "that ye are tampering with King James's agents—weel, cousin, we all do the same. A wise man will be keeping square with both sides."

Argyll, looking agitated and foolish, began to protest.

"Cousin, I assure ye that I have na engaged in any treasonable plots—"

She cut him short.

"Ye need no' be so cautious with me, Cousin Archibald."

He looked at her, half-reassured, but the memory of his grandfather's and his father's fate was strong within him. He spoke peevishly.

"Dinna talk so freely o' these dangerous subjects—I hav'na' a wish to be traveling to Holland again."

"Leave plotting alone then," she answered with flashing eyes; her lord, she thought, not this poltroon, should have been MacCallum More.

"I hav'na' been plotting," retorted the Earl angrily. "I was approached by an agent of James—Jerome Caryl—he had some great names—some great names—he spoke..." His voice sank "Of a rising in the spring—the French have offered troops and Berwick is coming over."

"And you?"

"Weel, I hedged—I spoke him fair, but I said nothing dangerous—mark ye, nothing dangerous."

His eyes wandered round the room furtively; he was eager to change the subject, a little afraid of this sharp wife of his cousin's.

"We're safe with either government," she said calmly. "I've heard of this rising—Jock will of course wait. There is nae hurry."

"No," assented Argyll, eager to reassure himself of the safety of his position. "And I dinna doubt that everybody has a finger in the plot. They say ye can count on one hand the men at Kensington who hav'na' regular letters from St. Germains."

"And who are those few, cousin?"

"Weel—they say Carstairs, Shrewsbury and the Master of Stair—but I'm thinking that's merely because they are more cunning than most."

The Countess laughed. At the same moment there was a tap on the door and as she looked up a servant entered.

"Captain Campbell of Glenlyon to see your ladyship."

"He is frae Kilchurn?" she asked.

"Yes, my lady."

"Bid him come in," she said, and as the door closed again she looked at her cousin.

"What has happened that Jock sends to me?"

Argyll trifled with his teaspoon in silence and looked at her with a lazy half-sneer, for she had risen with a changed face, and that any one should be troubled lest anything should happen to Breadalbane was to his cousin a most amusing thing.

Captain Campbell of Glenlyon entered and stood a moment abashed by the light, glowing room, the elegant lady all purple and gold; his master usually employed him on rougher work than carrying messages to his wife.

"My lord is weel?" asked the Countess swiftly.

"Vera weel, my lady," answered Glenlyon awkwardly.

The sneer on Argyll's face deepened.

"Will ye be closing the door after ye?" he asked sourly. "I'm in a fearful draught."

With nervous salutations, Glenlyon obeyed; he was a red-haired, florid man, obviously ill at ease in the presence of Argyll and the Countess. There was a little pause: the Earl, fretful at having his tea disturbed, pointedly ignored Glenlyon, who, after delivering his letter, stood uncomfortably by the door.

Erect and slender in the center of the room stood the Countess, the soft light glittering on the stiff folds of her silk gown. She broke the seal of the letter and with eager eyes glanced over it, her fair face anxious and absorbed. She had her back to Argyll, and he marked with a slow cold admiration the curve of her neck rising from the webs and blossoms of her d'Alençon lace kerchief and the long, fine, gleaming gold curls that fell over her shoulders; drooping against the soft turn of her cheek hung the brilliant in her ear: it winked with a thousand colors in the candle-light and trembled a little with the quick moving of her breath.

There was a silence in the cream-colored room. Glenlyon began to note the things about him with furtive red eyes, and cautiously shifted his feet from the edge of the pink carpet onto the polished boards.

Suddenly, the Countess looked up and turned to Argyll.

"Cousin," she cried, "the clans are coming in!"

The paper shook in her hand and her eyes flashed under lifted brows.

"Lochiel's tacksmen are taking the oaths by the hundreds, the Macphersons and the Frasers, the Munros and the Macleods are come in—" Her voice was sharp and angry. "’Tis most sudden—most unexpected!" she cried.

Argyll sat up in his chair, roused from his sneer. "And the Macdonalds o' Glencoe?" he asked.

"They hav'na' come in yet," she answered. "Nor yet Clanronald or Keppoch—but it looks ill that these should submit—Jock seems disturbed."

Argyll put down his tea-cup and rose. "They have been warned," he said.

Their eyes met.

"By whom?" asked the Countess.

Argyll shrugged his shoulders. "By some agent of King James."

"But how could any know?"

"’Tis their business," answered Argyll, "to discover these matters—of a certainty these men have been warned."

The Countess turned to Glenlyon.

"Captain Campbell, know ye more than is writ here?"

"No, my lady, my lord will be with ye to-morrow, and I've no' any knowledge. My lord didna' gie me aught but the message."

"Ye may gang, sir," she answered. "Thank ye for your service."

Glenlyon bowed himself from the room, and the Countess turned again to her letter.

"This will be a blow to the Master of Stair," said Argyll.

"But it is no' all the clans hae come in," she answered quickly.

Argyll smiled.

"But the Master of Stair was reckoning on all, cousin." He drew a letter from his pocket and unfolded it. "See, the last he wrote me."

He pointed to a sentence and read it aloud.

"'As I wrote to you formerly, if the rest are willing to concur, to pull down Glencoe's nest this winter, as the crows do—thus destroying him and his clan, 'twill be as fully acceptable as if he had come in. This answers all ends and satisfies those who complain of the King's too great gentleness.' Ye see," commented Argyll, "he is very bitter—he would like to sweep the Hielands wi' fire and sword. He wrote to me that if none came in—he hoped six thousand might be slain."

"But they hae come in!" cried the Countess impatiently. "Still—if the Macdonalds dinna—if we can be freed o' that nest o' murdering thieves, 'twill be somewhat—Keppoch too, and the ither chiefs may stand out."

Argyll put his letter back in his pocket.

"They must not take the oaths," he said peevishly. "If they do it must be suppressed—surely with the aid o' the Master o' Stair we can do that?"

"I dinna believe they will take them," answered the Countess. "They hate us too much and they think themselves ower safe in Glencoe."

"’Tis a fearfu' place to enter," said her cousin.

"But no' impossible ye ken—ye see—they could send the soldiers from Fort William—and I one side and Breadalbane the other—they would be in a trap."

He looked thoughtfully into the fire and fondled the arm of his chair, with restless thin fingers.

"There is ane person we have no' considered," he remarked, "the King."

"William o' Orange?" she questioned.

"Yes—ye ken he is no' a puppet King and has a fearfu' habit o' looking into his affairs himself—I'm no sure of his gude-will to our scheme."

She lifted her delicate shoulders scornfully.

"The Master o' Stair will manage him—he is deep in his confidence."

"Weel." Argyll looked at her doubtfully, "I have written to the Master o' Stair that I dinna do anything without the King's name as authority. I will na put my neck in jeopardy."

"The, King's name!" She lifted her head with a superb contempt. "Who is king in the Hielands? Ye are MacCallum More—will ye defer to a foreigner who canna speak your tongue—who hasna' seen your country? By Heaven, I think the Campbells can rule in the Hielands without a Dutchman's warrant!"

"Breadalbane is no' o' that mind," sneered Argyll. "He took the oaths fast enow."

"But he dinna consult William o' Orange every time he wishes to hang a Macdonald," retorted the Countess.

But Argyll was obstinate.

"I willna' put my neck in jeopardy," he repeated. "Show me the King's name and I'm content—but I'll no' move without it."

The Countess Peggy's thin lips compressed scornfully. "Vera weel," she said: "The Master o' Stair will get the King's authority, cousin."

"You're ower fond o' quoting the Master o' Stair," said Argyll sourly; the news of the clans coming in had frightened his irresolute mind; he was ready to wash his hands of the whole affair.

"The Master o' Stair!" repeated the Countess. "Cousin, he is the most powerfu' man in the Lowlands, ye ken, and great in London—he is o' our views—cousin, I do weel to quote the Master o' Stair!"