Read Chapter VIII of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on


We came back to Scotland in July, 1786, and one day, late in the month, Nancy came in to tell me that she intended having a birthday party that same evening.

“Whose?” said I.

“Mine,” she answered.

“It’s all very well, but your birthday is not in July

“I never fancied March to be born in,” she replied imperturbably, “and I’ve changed it.”

“And who are you going to bid to the feast of your adopted birthday?”

“You,” she said, “and Sandy, and Jamie Henderlin, for he’s back from Germany, and I want to hear him play."

It is altogether hopeless to set in cold words the charm of her as she stood before me that morning in her white frock, her hair in a bunch of curls on top of her head and some posies in her hand. I have seen many pretty women in my time, some few handsome ones, but Nancy Stair is the only one I ever saw who deserved to be described as beautiful. The fashion-prints of the day were full of her, and I have one account before me, printed at the very time of which I write, 1786:

“Miss Stair,” it reads, “is just back from London, where for two years she has studied her voice with Trebillini.

“Her beauty is bewildering; her gowns the acme of elegance and feminine grace; her wit, her eyes, her lips, the toast of the town. Her songs, a second printing of which is being clamored for, are being read over the Three Kingdoms, with a letter from his Royal Majesty, George III, on the fly-leaf commending them. When it is known that she is to attend service at St. Giles the clubs are emptied and half the beaux of the town may be found on their knees where they can have a view of her. The greatest statesmen and lawyers of the day are her intimate friends, and the crowds follow her in admiration when she drives through the streets.”

A good picture, but scant, for there is not a word in it of her heart, the kindest and bravest that ever beat in woman’s breast, nor her great love and tenderness to all created things.

On the afternoon of this dinner I fixed my mind definitely upon a matter upon which I had been pondering for some time. Coming in from the bank about five, I called Nancy to me, and handed her the box I carried.

“Is it a present for me?” she asked, her face aglow.

“A present for you, Little Flower, from the proudest father in the world.”

As I spoke she opened the casket and her eyes fell on the gems of which I have already written the ornaments of the ladies of Stair for hundreds of years gone by but for none, save one, so fair as she. I would have sold Stair itself, if need be, to give her such joy. The emerald necklace, which had been a year in the making, a brooch of the same stones, with diamonds glittering in flower clusters, I found, were the ones she liked the best, and she brought a mirror to sit beside me as she tried them all, one by one, upon her hair, her neck, and arms, demanding that Dame Dickenson and Huey be brought to look at her.

And a curious thing fell, that, as she was engaged with the jewels, a note was brought from Mr. Pitcairn, which she read without interest, saying after;

“Does he think I care anything about ‘Lorimer vs. The Crown’ with a necklace like this?” and I fell to wondering, with some dismay, what Hugh would think concerning her masculine mind if he had heard the speech.

We were awaiting a summons to the meal that evening when Nancy entered; a new Nancy, and one so wondrous to behold that Sandy and I started at the sight of her. She wore a gown of yellow crepe embroidered in gold, low and sleeveless, with a fold in the back, after the fashion of the ladies of Watteau, and a long train falling far behind. Her hair was gathered high and dressed with jewels which sparkled as well upon her throat and hands. The thing that marked her most, an alluring touchableness, was doubly present as she came toward us, laughing, with a profound courtesy.

“My Lord Stair and Mr. Carmichael, you who have had the raising of me, how do you like the work of your hands?”

“Ye can not throw us off our guard by braw clothes, Lady,” Sandy responded, with a laugh, “for we know you only too well, and to our distress of mind and pocket. Ye’re a spoiled bit, in spite of the severe discipline your father and I have reared ye by. Here’s a thing I got from a peddler-body for ye,” he ended.

She opened the morocco case which he handed her, to find a necklet of pearls with diamonds clasping them, and the tears came into her eyes as she kissed him for the gift.

“I can not thank ye enough! never, in all my life for all ye’ve done for me, Sandy. I love you,” she says, “and well you know it; and with that we’ll go to dinner. I go with Jamie,” she added, slipping her arm through his, “for ye must learn that genius ever goes before wealth and titles,” and with a laugh she and Jamie Henderlin went out before us.

After dinner we sat outside for a while, Sandy and I smoking, as Nancy and Jamie talked of the outer world and the celebrities of London and Paris. The lamps from the little settlement on the burn twinkled through the trees, while farther off the lights from the town of Edinburgh shone soft and silvery beneath the glimmering moon. We could hear the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the cows in the long lane down by the Holm and the bells of the old Tron deaving our ears by striking the hour of eight.

There is little use, with Jamie playing to the greatest people of the world at the moment of my writing, for me to tell the surprise and delight we had in his music; or the new joy that Sandy felt in Nancy’s singing, it being the first time he had heard her voice for over two years.

“Do you want to hear some of my own verses?” she asked him at length. “Mr. Thomson has been kind enough to set some of them to music.” And then she sang, for the first time to my hearing, those two songs of hers which were afterward whistled, sung, hummed, or shouted by every one in Scotland, from the judge on the bench to the caddie on the streets:

Soutar Sandy,
Wed wi’ Mandy
On a Monday morning,

and the set of three double verses, since published in the Glasgow Sentinel, “The Maid wi’ the Wistfu’ Eye," which, as I hope for Heaven, Rab Burns told me one night at Creech’s he envied her for having written.

Suddenly, as she was looking over the music, she began to hum, and Dame Dickenson and I exchanged a look of strange remembrance, as, with no accompaniment whatever, and as though the thought had just seized her, she poured forth her soul and her voice together in that old gipsy tune Marian’s song, as I have always called it:

“Love that is life
Love that is death,
Love that is mine

changed at the last into:

“Love that is wrong,
Love that is strong,
Love that is death

and as we listened, taken out of ourselves by her beauty and the tragedy of her voice, a figure came from the gloom into the light of the doorway, and a gay voice cried:

“Shall I be arrested for trespass, Lord Stair?” and to our amazement Danvers Carmichael stood before us.

I had never seen the lad since the day it was determined to make an Oxford man of him, instead of following out his father’s wishes and fetching him home to our own University, and the surprise I felt at sight of him, a grown man and a monstrous fine one, gave me something of a jolt in my mind at the rapid passing of the years.

He was tall and handsome, with bright, brave ways, a distinguished carriage, and a delightful speaking voice. His face was clean shaven, showing a chin heavy but with fine lines, and lips which curved back complacently over teeth of singular whiteness. His mouth denoted pride as well as obstinacy, which, taken with the brooding look in the eye, gave me the impression of a nature both jealous and passionate. One of his greatest charms, and I felt it on the instant of our meeting, was a gay but unassertive manner, possible only to those who have had a secured position from birth. I noted as well a fine sense in his relation to others, and believe that if he had come a-begging we would have known him to be gently born. He wore high boots, a broad hat, and a handsome riding suit of light cloth, with a cloak hanging from one shoulder. He carried himself with jauntiness and surety; gave one’s hand a hearty grip, and, to sum it all up, was one of the finest men I have ever seen, and a son of whom even Sandy Carmichael had a right to be proud, in spite of the fact that he was a man of fashion and something of a dandy. He had as well a certain romantic appearance and a glance which made young girls drop their eyes before him and set old ladies to talking of their first loves.

“When Dand Carmichael goes up High Street I never saw a woman looking down it,” Bob Blake said of him once, which sums it all up very well.

Upon being asked by his father as to the suddenness of his appearance among us, he said with a laugh:

“I came with some men to Leith, and the Leith fly set me down at the door of The Star and Garter by the Tron church about an hour ago. I asked mine host of the inn if I could get a horse from him to ride to Arran House; upon which he told me that there would be no use in my going to Arran as Mr. Carmichael was from home, being bid to dinner at Lord Stair’s; that it was the eighteenth birthday of Mistress Nancy Stair, and that Jamie Henderlin had come from Germany with his violin the week before and was to play at Stair House after the dinner; that the Lord Stair, who was a fond father, had but this afternoon given the family jewels to Mistress Nancy, and that one ruby alone would buy the inn; that Mr. Carmichael had brought a present for her of a pearl necklace with diamonds in it of great value; that Mistress Nancy Stair, who was the handsomest girl in three kingdoms, had a yellow gown, a great deal of which lay on the floor, the stuff of which he understood had come from France; that Dame Dickenson had made a birthday cake, and there was a salmon for the dinner with egg sauce, and that eggs were uncommon high and the tax on whisky a thing not to be borne. There were some other trifling details he mentioned,” he said with a wave of his hand and a laugh, “which have unfortunately escaped my memory.”

There was much real humor in his relation of the inn gossip, and the brightness of his presence caused a gayer air to our small festivity. Our talk brought Nancy to the door, where she stood in a shaft of light looking down at us.

“What are you laughing about?” she cried.

At the sound of her voice Danvers sprang to his feet and went toward her with outstretched hand, but at the sight of her beauty or her jewels, I know not which, he changed his mind and made a sweeping bow instead.

“And this,” he said, “is the Miss Nancy of whom I have heard so much

“Sandy’s apt to mention me,” she answered demurely.

“He never did you justice,” he responded, with a smile toward his father. “In all but this he’s the best parent in the world, but he’s fallen short in the matter of letting me know about you.”

“If ye’d stayed in ye’re own country ye’d have known,” retorted Sandy, from behind his pipe.

“I have been away too long,” Dand answered him, but the look was at Nancy.

“Do you stay now?” she asked.

“I had intended to go back at the end of the week, but I have changed my mind. With my father’s leave, I’ll spend the summer

“It does not take you long to change your mind,” Nancy returned with a smile.

“No,” he said, and here he leaned forward, took her hand and kissed it. “No! It took me just one second.”

I knew that she was not to be moved by any admiration which happened to come by. She paid a gracious attention to Danvers Carmichael, it is true, insisting, though he stoutly affirmed to the contrary, that she knew him to be hungry, that one could not dine at The Star and Garter, ordering a small table with some cold fowl and a bottle of wine for him, all as though it were the thing nearest her heart. I, who knew her, understood that if it had been a tramp body from the lowlands who had come upon us she would have given the same thought to him and forgotten him by morning; but to a man, London bred and unaware as yet with whom his dealings lay, her solicitude for him might readily be interpreted as having something more purely personal in its nature.

And this day was to be marked by another event than the home-coming of Danvers; an event which, if it had occurred six weeks later, might have changed the destiny of many lives, and given England another Premier than William Pitt. Before we parted for the night, Danvers took from his pocket a book, which he handed to Nancy with a bow.

“It’s not family jewels; nor yet a trifling necklace of pearls; nor can I honestly affirm it was intended as a gift, but if you will accept it from me as a birthday token it will make me very glad,” and he handed the volume to her.

“Poetry,” she said with a pleased smile, “and in the Scot. Robert Burns! Is he a new man?”

“He’s a plowman in Ayr, somewhere, and I have it that his verses are something fine. I’ve not read them myself, and the thought comes to me a little late that they may not be the fittest reading for a young lady, but your father will judge of it for you.”

Sandy and I laughed aloud at this.

“The reason these ill-natured gentlemen laughed at you as they did was because of the lax way they have brought me up,” Nancy explained. “They’ve let me ‘gang my ain gate’ since I was five. I’ve had no right raising,” she said, and the very sweetness of her as she said it would have made any man keen for the rearing which produced her. “So, considering my superior knowledge of evil, I’ll look the book over myself and see if it is the kind of reading I should like to put in the hands of Sandy and Jock.”

Danvers Carmichael’s eyes glowed with humor as he joined in the laugh with us.

“Under your careful bringing up they should be fine fellows, these fathers of ours,” he laughed.

“I’ve done the best I could by them,” Nancy answered demurely; “but on the whole, Mr. Carmichael, I think I have succeeded better with Jamie Henderlin.”

When Nancy withdrew, Danvers went with her to the foot of the stairs, holding her in talk for a few minutes, with looks of passionate approval in his eyes.

Before we went to our rooms, for I insisted that they should remain all night at Stair, the talk turned upon marriage in some way, and Sandy rallied his son upon his bachelorhood.

“Twenty-four years old,” he said, “and a bachelor still! Why, I was a father at that time. Never mind,” he continued, “never mind, my lad. Your time is coming!”

“In truth, I think it has come,” Danvers returned, simply, and the glance that went with the words was not toward his father, but toward me.

I was lying in my bed with eyes staring wide at the ceiling, recalling Nancy’s real birthday more than eighteen years gone by; thinking of Marian; wondering if she knew the beauty of the child we had; demanding from the Great Father of all that she should know should remember Nancy and me; that she, the mother and wife, might, in some way unknown to us, still be a part of our earthly living; recalling Danvers with approval, dreaming perhaps that Nancy and he, at no far date, might marry and so cement a friendship between two middle-aged gentlemen who had foregathered with each other many years before, when I heard a light tap at my door.

“Who is it?” I cried.

“It’s Nancy,” answered the voice. “May I come in?”

She pushed the door ajar and entered in a long white dressing-gown, carrying in one hand a branch of candles and in the other a book, with her finger marking the place.

It is exceedingly hard for me to describe the beauty of her, the uplifted look on her face and the shine of her eye, for this beauty seemed kindled by a fire from within, and she had with it an excitement as of one who had heard pleasant news or to whom great treasures have just been given.

“Jock,” she asked, “have you been sleeping?”

“No,” said I.

“Oh, listen then,” she cried, “for indeed it was not possible that I should sleep without telling you what’s come to me. It’s this Burns man,” she went on; “no one, not even Shakespeare, has spoken so. It’s as though he taught a new religion. It’s kindness all through, and charity and love; with rhymes upon rhymes, as if it were child’s play for him to make verses. It’s raised me out of myself. It’s what I’ve always known was true. It’s the liberty, equality, and fraternity of France. It’s the ‘all men were born free and equal’ of the colonies. It’s all, and more, that I’ve tried to work out on the burn-side. It’s like a great voice calling. Oh,” she cried, “Ramsay’s nothing to him, and Fergusson but a gusty child.”

“Nancy, darling,” I said, “have ye risen in the middle of the night to tear down the idols of your childhood? Let me see the book,” I cried, for a bit of rhyme was a choicer draught to me than a glass of an old vintage.

“Let me read ye this,” she said I can remember now the slant white light of a late moon coming in through the casement, the honeysuckle’s breath, and her face, half in light, half in shadow, as she read the Epistle to Davie. As I listened I sat upright, more engrossed, wider eyed; and when she came to those two stanzas, the greatest of their kind ever penned, I was off my feet with her, and on my oath we sat till the purpling flush came in the east, in an ecstasy of appreciation of him “who walked in glory and in joy behind his plow upon the mountain-side”:

“What tho’, like commoners of air,
We wander out, we know not where,
But either house or hall without
Yet nature’s charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, an’ foaming floods
Are free alike to all
In days when daisies deck the ground,
And blackbirds whistle clear,
With honest joy our hearts will bound,
To see the coming year:
On braes when we please then, heights.
We’ll sit an’ sowth a tune; whistle softly
Syne rhyme till’t, we’ll
time till’t, afterwards. to it.
An’ sing’t when we hae done.”

“Oh, Jock,” she says, “I’ve done it often; haven’t you?”

“It’s no in titles nor in rank;
It’s no in wealth like Lon’non bank.
To purchase peace and rest;
It’s no in makin’ muckle mair
It’s no in books, it’s no in lear learning
To make us truly blest:
If happiness hae not her seat
An’ centre in the breast,
We may be wise, or rich, or great,
But never can be blest;
Nae treasures nor pleasures
Could make us happy lang;
The heart ay’s the part ay
That makes us right or wrang.”
BURNS, 1785.

“It’s just grand,” I said, “Nancy; and there’re no two ways of it.”

“There’s about all there is of life in this little book, and it’s made my rhyming-ware cheap. Do you think,” she says, coming over to kiss me before I sent her off to bed, “do you think I can ever meet wi’ Mr. Burns?”

“If you want it, you shall,” I said; “unless the man himself objects. We’ll have him up to Stair; and now forget him and get some rest, Little Flower.”

She went away and left me, and I turned to sleep with that great couplet going over and over in my head like the clatter of horses’ hoofs:

“The heart ay’s the part ay
That makes us right or wrong.”