Read CHAPTER VI of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on


There has been some delay in bringing Hugh Pitcairn into my story, and, as I read that which I have written, I seem to have set him down in a scant and dry manner little calculated to do justice to his many virtues. These virtues, however, were of the kind which made him a fine citizen rather than a jolly companion over a bowl of brose. He was a tall man, heavily built, with a large face, thick bristly hair, and blue eyes set extraordinarily far apart. The bridge of his nose being noticeably low, this peculiarity gave the upper part of his face the appearance of being very sparsely settled. It was Robert Burns, I remember, who made this descriptive observe concerning him. A lowland body, but kin to the Pitcairns of the north, he had come to the High School dependent for his education upon the generosity of a rich uncle, and from the time he entered was easily first in all of his classes. Of an unbending rectitude, unmerciful in his judgments, analytical, penetrating, and accumulative, he was at an early age destined for two things success and unpopularity. He left the High School with us, to enter upon the study of the law with Maxwell, of Dalgleish, and rising rapidly in his profession was at the age of thirty-three recognized as the soundest, most learned, and bitterest tongued lawyer in Auld Reekie.

Justice to his mind was a simple thing; a man had either broken the law or he had not; if he had, he should be punished. “Extenuating circumstances” was a phrase used only by the sentimental and the guilty. I recall, as I write, his telling me with some pride and an amused smile of a certain occasion, when he had wrung a verdict from a jury against their sympathies, that the spectators had hissed him on his way out of court.

“He’s not a man at all. He’s only a Head,” Sandy Carmichael said of him once, and I find enough truth in the statement to make it worth setting down.

His conceit of himself was high, as is the case with many self-made men, but he had a fine code of conduct for the direction of his private affairs, was aggressively honest and fearless, and an earnest believer in God, himself, and the Scots law.

Like other great men he had his failings, however, and he set up to be a judge of music and poetry, for which he had as vile an ear as could be conceived; and to hear him read from Ramsay or Fergusson was an infliction not unnecessarily to be borne. One night, I remember, in ’86, Burns and I stopped at Pitcairn’s on our way home from Creech’s and got him to read Leith Races and Caller Oysters, and Rab afterward went out and rolled over and over in a snow-drift, roaring with laughter, till some of the town-guard, who chanced to be going by, were for arresting him on the charge of drunkenness.

It may be easily judged from this description that my friend Sandy and he were at opposite poles from each other, as I have said, and as time passed this dislike increased until it became the chiefest vexation of my life. If I mentioned Hugh’s name to Sandy, he would maintain a disdainful silence or turn the talk with abruptness; while if Sandy’s name was spoken before Pitcairn, the great lawyer would raise his eyebrows, shrug his shoulders, or make some biting criticism which rendered me resentful and highly uncomfortable as well.

As soon as I was firmly fixed in my old home again, Pitcairn began to drop in on me, as his practise had been before my marriage, and his attitude to Nancy was a thing humorous to see. Hers to him was not without its droll side as well, for when he was present, especially if he talked of his cases, the child would sit on a stool, with some live thing held in her lap, literally devouring him with her eyes as he narrated the story of some criminal whom he had hanged or transported. I have seen her imitate his gesture as he talked, and sigh with relief when the jury handed in its verdict and the culprit’s doom was finally settled. It was not long, however, before she evinced a strong dislike to being left alone with him, and if I had occasion to leave the room where the three of us were together she would invariably follow me.

In an unfortunate moment, driving by the old court in a pony chaise, I stopped, knowing that Pitcairn had a case on, and took Nancy in “to see him at his work.” Every little while after that I would find her disappeared from the house, and on going to the court would see her midget pony fastened outside, and the little chestnut head and big gray eyes looking over the back of the high bench in front; for the officers, who knew she was my daughter, soon grew to understand her ways and let her in without parley. I can solemnly affirm that I thought this a most unwise way for a child to spend her time, but there was something about Nancy herself which prevented my giving orders. I can not say that she ever disobeyed me, and yet, I knew then, as I know now, that had I tried to stop her she would have evaded me, and as it turned out in the end, it was all for the best.

I who was with her day by day could feel her growing dislike of Hugh Pitcairn, and once she came to me after a visit to the court, her cheeks flaming, her eyes dilated, and her body literally shaking with emotion.

“He cursed at Pitcairn as they dragged him out,” she said, and then bringing her little fists down on my knee, she cried with apparent irrelevancy:

“It’s not the way, Jock! It’s not the way!”

Less than a fortnight after I was sitting over some accounts in the east room, when Hugh Pitcairn entered unannounced.

“Well, Jock Stair,” he said, “that daughter of yours lost me as pretty a case to-day as I ever had.”

“Indeed, Hugh,” I returned, “I’m in no way answerable for that.”

“I don’t know about that!” he broke in. “This case was one of a young woman who had taken a purse. She established the fact that she was a widow with two small children, one of whom was dying and needed medicine. I thought at first that she borrowed one of the children, they frequently do, but it was established hers. I drew attention to the anarchy which would inevitably follow if each individual were allowed to help himself to his neighbor’s belongings, and the jury was with me. As I was concluding, that child of yours slipped from her place, climbed the steps on the side, and heeding judges and jury less than Daft Jamie, went straight toward the prisoner, pulled herself up on a chair beside the woman, and putting her arms around the culprit’s neck, as though to defend her against the devil himself, turned her eyes in my direction and fairly glowered at me.

“The spectators cheered, and a woman in the front cried, ’God bless the baby,’ while the judge Carew it was, a sentimentalist and a menace to the bar dried the tears from his eyes openly, and the jury decided against me without leaving the box,” he thundered, as though I were in some way responsible.

I groaned. Taking this for sympathy, he went on:

“I’m glad ye feel about it as I do.”

“To be frank with you, Pitcairn,” I answered, “I don’t; and it’s not for your lost case I groan, but for what is likely to come to me because of it.”

Nor was I mistaken. Just at the gloaming time, while there was still a little of the yellow hanging in the west, I saw the figure of a woman with a baby in her arms outlined clear against the sky on the top of the hill, and by her side trotted the little creature who had all my heart, leading her home.

“There,” said I to Pitcairn, pointing to them, “that’s what your inadequacy at the law has cost me. There are three more people whom Nancy has fetched home for me to support.”

“I wonder at ye sometimes, Jock Stair,” he cried at this, “I wonder at ye! for in many ways ye seem an intelligent man that ye can let a small girl-child have her way with you as ye do.”

The outer door closed as he spoke, and I heard the patter of little feet.

“She’s not being raised right. She’ll be a creature of no breeding. Ye should take her

At this the door opened and Nancy came in. At the sight of Pitcairn she stopped on her way toward me, and her black brows came together in an ecstasy of rage. Putting her little body directly in front of him she looked him full in the eye.

“Devil!” she said, and walked out of the room, leaving us standing staring at each other, speechless, and I noted with glee that, on one occasion at least, I saw Hugh Pitcairn abashed.

This occurrence in the court did not pass in the town unnoticed, for Bishop Ames, of St. Margaret’s, on the following Sunday preached from the text: “And a little child shall lead them,” telling the story from the pulpit; while the Sentinel of the next week spoke of Nancy with flattery and tenderness. The publicity given to the affair alarmed me in no small degree, and I reasoned with myself that a child who had such fearlessness and such disrespect for established ways was a problem which somebody wiser than myself should have the handling of.

There were three other occurrences which fell about this time which brought this thought still more vividly to my mind, the first of these bringing the knowledge that she had no religion. Entering the hall one morning I met the little creature coming from the stairway, dragging an enormous book behind her as though it were a go-cart. She had put a stout string through the middle of the volume, and with this passed round her waist was making her way with it toward the library.

“Jock,” she said, backing at sight of me and sitting down upon the great volume as though it were a footstool, “did you ever read a book called Old Testament?”

“Not so much as I should,” I answered, realizing with a strange jolt of mind that it was the Bible she was dragging after her.

“I got it in the attic,” she said, as she climbed upon my knee, “and I thought at first it was a joke-book. And after I thought it was a fairy-book; but as I go on, there seems more to it.”

And the second of these episodes was as disconcerting:

The dwarfed boy was Nancy’s peculiar care among the Burnside people, and the question as to why he was made “crookit,” as she called it, was one which I had never been able to answer to her satisfaction.

Coming in one day with a little bunch of violets for me, she stopped before leaving the room, and said, as though telling me a funny secret:

“Jamie Henderlin took Nancy’s money.”

“What?” I cried.

“Yes,” she said, “took it out of the little bag when he thought I was not looking.”

“What did you do?” I inquired.

“I?” she turned away shyly, “I made out that I didn’t see him.”

“But, Nancy,” I said, “that was not really kind. As he grows older he will steal.”

“Take,” she interrupted firmly.

“He will take from other people.”

“He is a dwarf, Jock,” she said, with a sweet irrelevance, which had its logic, however, in her kind heart.

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“He wanted it more than I did,” she went on; “I don’t need it

“That doesn’t excuse him, either.”

“Perhaps,” she said, “if you and I, mine Jock, were made as he is we might do something worse than he has done. People laugh at him! He mayn’t be right. I’m not saying that he is right; but I am saying that I am not going to hurt his feelings. The Lord has done that enough already.”

And the third one, never told by Mrs. Opie, and a fortunate thing it was for us, had to do with her skill in the use of a pen. She was still a very little child, lying on a rug by the fire, reading out of the Bible, as I sat at the desk looking over some accounts which would not come right. There was the matter of a draft for five pounds, with my own name to it, which I had certainly no remembrance of ever having signed.

“What’s the matter, Jock?” said Nancy, seeing my knit brow.

“They won’t come right, Little Flower,” I answered.

She came over to me and looked at the accounts.

“Nancy made one just like Jock’s,” she said.

“What?” I cried, with consternation.

“Nancy made one just like Jock’s,” she repeated. “A poor lady who was very sick,” she explained, “was by here one day you had gone. I made one for her.”

“Nancy,” I said, taking her on my knee, “do you know that it is a crime to sign another person’s name without his leave?”

“How crime?”

“Well, it’s the thing people get locked in jails for

She laughed out loud and lay back on my arm at this.

“It’s all mine, isn’t it?” she asked.

I had told this so often that I couldn’t gainsay it.

Wrong to write Sandy’s name, not wrong to write Jock’s,” she crooned in a sort of song; and this was as far as I got with her concerning it.

I told Sandy these three tales, and he roared with glee.

“Her morals are all tail first,” he said, “though very sound! But she’ll have us in the poor farm and herself in jail if she keeps this up.”