The Master of Stair/Book 2/Chapter 4


It was toward the end of June; the commissioners had produced their report on the Glencoe affair, yielding to the public demand to behold their conclusions before the pleasure of the absent King was taken.

The Estates of Scotland were considering the verdict of Tweeddale's commission; the verdict pronouncing in measured language that a bloody murder had been committed three years ago upon the Macdonalds of Glencoe, and that the entire cause of this slaughter rested with the letters of the Master of Stair. Public excitement flamed high; the greatest gentleman in Scotland had been declared a murderer and as the details of his crime were discussed, there were many who hoped for the pleasure of seeing the unpopular minister hanged in the Grassmarket. The Parliament, clamored in strong debates, roused after the sluggish years, voted to a man that the King's warrant did not authorize the slaughter of the Macdonalds.

Then Lord Stair's enemies, in the ascendant, triumphant carried against a feeble opposition that the Glencoe affair was murder.

The feeling of the Estates passed almost beyond control; the Jacobites and the Presbyterians caused Lord Stair's letters to be read aloud in the Parliament house; the statements of the witnesses: Ian Macdonald, Sandy, his brother, some of the surviving clansmen, Glenlyon, Keppoch and Glengarry, were discussed; the story of the entry of the Glen by treachery; the fortnight's feasting and card playing, the Campbells' rising one snowy night to slay their hosts in their beds and drive out the women and children to perish on the mountains, all the details of cowardice and cruelty that gave the story its horror were detailed, canvassed and made much of.

Captain Hamilton was cited in vain at the city cross; at the first hint of the scandal, he had fled Edinburgh. Tales that in contraband, Jacobite pamphlets had circled for three years, were now on the lips of grave men; it was related how, with a generous hospitality, the Macdonalds had received the Campbells who had sworn that they came in friendliness, how they had been made welcome with simple pleasure; pathetic pictures were drawn of a pastoral people, virtuous and ingenuous, living in a state of idyllic innocence. Makian was described, venerable, beloved, trampling the snows to take the oath and returning to his clan at peace with himself and beaming with righteousness.

The trust of these simple folk was dwelt upon; how they had taken the bare word of their ancient enemies and harbored them in perfect faith.

How should they, in their simplicity, have suspected treachery behind the smile of the redcoats?

Dramatic touches, too, were not lacking to this plausible tale; it was related how Sandy Macdonald, awaking one night, had overheard a couple of the soldiers in talk.

"I do not like the work," one said.

"Give me an open fight—"

Then Sandy Macdonald had gone to Glenlyon and asked, in his innocence, if anything was intended?

Glenlyon had slapped him on the back, laughing. "Why, if there had been anything—don't you think I should have given you a hint?"

And Sandy Macdonald, being one of the idyllic people, had no choice but to take a Campbell's word against the evidence of his own senses. And to add to it, the public passion was further inflamed by pictures of Makian and his wife shot dead as they hurried with wine to serve their guests, of babies lying quartered in the snow and women's fingers chopped off for the sake of their rings, of butchered children and of the blood-stained Campbells driving the flocks and herds of the slaughtered people into Fort William. There was silence as to where these captured cattle had originally come from.

The commissioners had been sworn to secrecy and the inquiry had been conducted behind closed doors; of the actual depositions of the witnesses few knew the truth, but their tales carefully invented, artfully spread, were in every man's mouth and the machinations of Lord Stair's enemies had converted the necessary execution of a gang of lawless thieves into one of the most reviled crimes in the annals of Scotland. England and France took up the cry; Justice, they said, had suddenly cried aloud, and no one remarked how curiously silent Justice had been over some of the Macdonald's actions.

And the odium, the hatred, the scorn, the fury, were all directed against one man,—Lord Stair.

He, they said, was the sole author of these abominations; he had suppressed the Macdonalds' oath, he had, under false pretenses, obtained the warrant from the King, he had written letters breathing blood and fire; he had exclaimed when he heard that it had been done:

"I only regret that any of the wretches have escaped."

They had always hated him; these men, and it chimed well with their mood to assume the part of avenging justice and take a pitying interest in these wronged people.

Their enemy had put himself in the wrong before the world; they would see it to that he paid the price.

An address was sent to the King in which justice was demanded and judgment on the Lord Stair as the author of the "massacre" of Glencoe.

A haughty spectator of his own ruin, the Earl of Stair watched these events in silence.

To have shown himself in the Parliament would have been to court instant arrest; he was asked for no defense or vindication and his pride would not permit him to offer one.

The King was in the Netherlands and no further action would be taken until his pleasure was known; but all Scotland had decided that his judgment must affect the estate and probably the life of the disgraced minister.

For his own sake William could not show clemency; mercy to Lord Stair would be complicity in his crime; the King dare not, if he would, blacken himself to save his servant.

On this blue June afternoon, Lord Stair paced his garden; a festival of flowers lying lavishing abroad to the kisses of the sun.

The narrow box-edged paths radiated round a central fountain full of gold carp; a stone figure of Hylas rose from the water-lilies and poured water from a Grecian urn, splashing into the basin.

Trees of box and yew cut into the shapes of peacocks and Chinese pagodas framed the dark background to innumerable roses, hollyhocks and bushes of sweet-brier. Leading to a back entrance to the house was a wide flight of steps ending in a terrace, the balustrade being white with jasmine.

Steadily up and down the smooth paths walked Lord Stair, his shadow now before, now behind him.

On the edge of the fountain sat Lady Stair, feeding the carp with cake.

Her wide straw hat tied with black velvet under her round chin threw half her face into transparent shadow; her stiff blue lutestring dress embroidered with silver stars, spread over the dark green grass and glimmered in the sunlight.

Faint clouds floated across the pearly sky and lay reflected among the water-lilies; the gold fish darted through the leaves like jewels and from the urn held by Hylas, sparkled the clear stream of water.

It was perfectly still, far-removed from the noises of the city; now and then a little breeze rose stirring the perfume from the roses and gently bending the hollyhocks.

Lord Stair stopped at last in his pacing to and fro, stopped so close to his wife that his shadow fell over her and the fountain brim.

She looked up, then down again at the water. "I think my ruin is assured," said Lord Stair in a hard voice.

"You have no trust in the King?" she asked quietly.

He answered in a proud bitterness:

"The King! He has not shown himself strong enough to withstand a faction—he, the same as the others, will cast the odium on me."

Lady Stair again looked up.

"What do you mean by ruin?" she asked steadily.

"That, madam, is within the King's pleasure. To save himself he will show me the greater severity. You understand? I am to be the victim flung to the rage of a party—the clamor of a faction." He paused a second, gazing over her head, then he struck his hand down on his sword-hilt.

"It is hardly credible!" he said.

"If what they say is true, it is well-deserved," said Lady Stair evenly. "To your face, my lord, I say it; it is well-deserved."

He glanced at her curiously.

"Ah—you think so?" he said in a contained voice.

"You would give me no denial," she answered. "I think what I must think—I conclude what your silence causes me to conclude."

"It is a matter of no moment," said Lord Stair. "Perhaps—" and he smiled unpleasantly, "it is as well that my downfall will at least give no one pain."

"Perhaps it is as well," she assented coldly. Her ringed hand stirred through the fountain and the water-lilies trembled at her touch; a low passing cloud cast a shadow over the grass. Lord Stair stood silent with a hard and angry face; his wife spoke again.

"Yet I ask you, my lord, what you mean by ruin?"

"Are there, madam, so many forms of it?"

She lifted her wet hand and drew it along the stone brim of the fountain. "I suppose," she said, "that His Majesty must dismiss you from office—I suppose. That is the least he can do—am I right?"


"I suppose—he might touch your estate—your life—am I right?"


"The first, the least he could do would be generous—you think he will not choose it?—again—am I right?"


A spot of bright color burnt in either cheek as she looked up at him; in the shade of her hat her eyes shone brightly.

"He will do the utmost?"

Lord Stair smiled.

"Be content, madam," he said bitterly. "I think he will do the utmost."

She caught her breath.

"And—you wait?"

"What else—yes, I wait."

Lady Stair rose; as she lifted her head their eyes met.

"So," she said very quietly. "You have given me that also—you have made me the wife of a disgraced, ruined man, you have dragged me into a hideous downfall of honor and estate. We of my father's house have kept clear of these things—I think I am the first to be linked to a dishonored name."

He stood silent, looking at her with an inscrutable expression.

"Reproaches from me will not sting you," continued Lady Stair. "Dear Heaven, what are we to one another? I would have been spared this, yet it is a fitting end—"

Her wild eyes lifted and fell; she moved a step away across the grass.

Lord Stair spoke, slowly:

"You are free to do as you will—free as the servants I can no longer pay. Do what is in your mind to do. No doubt they will not blame you—"

"Well?" she said.

He lifted his head suddenly.

"I shall not ask you to share exile, a prison or death with me. I cannot hold you. I know it—only—"

"Well?" she murmured again faintly.

"You said—just now—" he spoke with difficulty, a painful distinctness, "you—had kept clear of these things—you will remember it?"

"I do not understand," she answered.

"I think you do. You are my wife. You will soon be free of me, I think. Until you are, I ask your loyalty. That is all."

"Are you afraid of me?" she said.

"Of nothing." he answered. "Least of all of meeting circumstance. Whatever occurs I can deal with it."

There was a curious expression on Lady Stair's face.

"You are very confident," she said, "yet you stood high and you fell."

He smiled at her.

"Madam—it is a thing that may be done magnificently."

She stood silent a while with averted eyes, then she stooped, picked up her scarf from the grass and turned slowly toward the house.

Lord Stair watched the blue figure with the long shadow crossing the grass; watched her as she mounted the steps, traversed the terrace and disappeared into the house.

The beautiful garden was strangely desolate; he moved away from the fountain and his face was ghastly in the sunlight.

The hours were intolerably leaden; he reflected that he was a free man only till his enemies had the authority for his arrest; restlessness and the desire to use his liberty while he might made him leave the garden and call for his horse.

As he passed out again he saw through an open door Lady Stair sitting idly with her hands in her lap; he did not speak to her nor turn his head: but descended to the court and rode away through Edinburgh to the open country, and there at a full gallop took the summer wind across his face.