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


We were back at Stair for nearly a fortnight, with Nancy quite herself again, before she took me into her confidence regarding the Burns experience. Leaning against the wall by the stair-foot with her hands behind her, a way she’d had ever since she was a wee bit, the talk began, with no leading up to it on either side.

“Jock,” she said, suddenly, and a quaint look came over her face, “I’ve never told you what made me ill at Mauchline.”

“I’ve been waiting,” I answered.

“It was a bad time for me,” she continued.

“I know that, Lady-bird,” said I.

“Part of me died,” she said, and on this a thought flashed by me which, I have often held, that in some way her language expressed more than she knew.

“I’ve been filled up with conceit of myself,” she went on, “and I got punished for it.”

“There was never a woman living with less!” I cried, so sodden in my affection for her that I could not stand to hear her blamed, even by herself.

“Maybe I didn’t show it,” she said with a smile, “but I’ve always held, ‘in to mysel’,’ that the gifted folk were God’s aristocrats, and the day I told Danvers Carmichael and you my esteem of lords and titles and forbears I said just what I thought, though both of you laughed at me, for I reasoned that any one whom the Almighty took such special pains with must have the grand character as well. And so I made of all the people who write and paint and sing a great assembly, like Arthur’s knights, who were over the earth righting wrongs and helping the weak. Then came the Burns book; and there are no words to tell the glory of it to me. All the great thoughts I had dreamed were written there, and before the power of this man, who took the commonest things of life and wrote them out in letters of gold, I felt as one might before the gods. It was of Burns I thought in my waking hours, and ’twas of him I dreamed by night; and I thanked God to be born in his country and his time, so that I might see one, from the people, who had, in its highest essence, the thing we call genius.

“But always, always,” she interrupted, smiling, “with the conceit of myself which I mentioned before. Because God had given me a little gift, I believed that I was in some degree a chosen creature, a bit like the Burns man himself.

“The first time I talked with him at the inn I felt his power, his charm; but there was something in his ways to which I had never been accustomed in men a certain freedom, which I put by, however, as one of the peculiarities of his gift.

“Well,” she said, coming over and burying her face in my breast, “it took me but two weeks to discover that the thing we call genius has no more to do with a person’s character than the chair he sits in; that a man can write like a god and live like the beasts in the fields. Can speak of Christian charity like the disciples of old, and hold the next person who offends him up to the ridicule of the whole parish! That he can write lines surpassing aye!” she cried, “surpassing Polonius’s advice to his son, and leave them uncopied on an ale-house table to go off with the first loose woman who comes by, and be carried home, too drunk to walk, the next morning, roaring out hymns about eternal salvation.

“And after I met the Armour girl, and found the harm that Burns had brought to her, my idol fell from its clay feet, and I was alone in a strange country, with my gods gone, and my beliefs in shreds around me.

“But I have made my readjustments. I am humbled. I see how little value verse-making holds to the real task of living, and I am a better woman for what I have been through. I have learned almost losing my mind over the lesson,” she interjected, with her own bright smile “the value of the solid virtues of life; and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is harder to be a gentleman than a genius. God makes one, but a man has the handling of the other upon himself. Danvers Carmichael,” she continued, looking up at me, “is a gentleman. His word is his bond. He considers others, respects woman and honors her; controls his nature, and has a code of conduct which he would rather die than break. Ah!” she said, “I have had a bitter time; but it’s taught me to appreciate that in the real things of life the things for which we are here, love, home, and the rearing of children genius has about as much part as the royal Bengal tiger. It’s beautiful to look at, but dangerous to trifle with, and,” here she smiled at her own earnestness for a second as she started up the stairs “and here endeth the first lesson, my Lord of Stair!”

I was in no way sorry as to her conclusions about the value of verse-making, for I had seen that her continual mental excitement was sapping her vitality; and I closed my eyes to sleep that night with a feeling of gratitude to my Heavenly Father that the Burns business was by with forever.

Toward noon of the next day I discovered my mistake. Smoking by the fire in the chimney corner of the hall, I heard a clattering of horses’ hoofs on the gravel outside, and from the window saw Danvers Carmichael throw the reins to his groom, run up the steps of the main entrance, and ask for Miss Stair in a voice strangely unlike his usual one. I knew that Nancy was sitting with some lace-work in her own writing-room, and hoped much from their meeting, and that her recent experience, which made her set a new value on Danvers, would bring about a more complete understanding between them.

“Ah, Dandy!” said Nancy, her voice having a ring of pleasure in it. “When did you return from Glasgow?”

“Late yesterday,” he answered. “I dined at the club in town and rode home about ten. I’m thinking of leaving Arran for a time,” he said, coldly.

“Why didn’t you stop?” she asked, with some surprise.

“I was in no mood for visiting last night.”

“You were ill, or worried?” Nancy inquired anxiously.

“Worried, ill,” he answered. “Ill, and ashamed, and miserable, in a way, please God, most men may never know.”

“What is it, Dandy?” and I saw that at his vehemence she put her work on the table and moved toward him.

“Oh!” he cried out, “it’s you! It’s you! In the month before I went away I had to endure God only knows what bitterness because of you! And on my return last night I hear at the club that ye’ve been off in Ayrshire visiting Robert Burns! Did ye have a pleasant time?” he asked, glowering down at her from his great height, handsome and angrier than I had ever seen him before.

The tone rather than the words struck fire immediately, and Nancy’s eyes took a peculiar significance, boding little good to the one with whom she was having dealings.

“Very pleasant,” she answered, in a voice of ice, picking up her work and reseating herself.

“Before I went away,” Danvers continued, “there was little in the way of humiliation which I had not endured at your hands! I’ve seen ye play fast and loose with half the men in Edinbro’ aye, in the whole of Scotland, it seems to me! I have heard your name coupled more often than I can tell with that of the greatest scoundrel in Scotland, and have held silence concerning it; and when things came to that pass that none could endure it and I struck him; how was the affair settled. By your sending for him! for him!” he fairly screamed, “while I, your betrothed husband almost, was left in ignorance that ye knew of the matter at all.

“And at the time of the meeting in the Holm, what does the damned scoundrel do but come forth with his friends and apologize for his conduct with seeming generosity, naming the whole business the result of a crusty temper of his own, apologizing handsomely, and in a devilish open way, ending by saying:

“’One who is dear to me has shown me my faults, and I am doing her bidding, as well as fulfilling my own sense of justice, in asking your pardon!’ And at the mention of you he took off his hat and spoke as one who performs an obligation to another who has a right to demand it.

“You can perhaps see the light in which I was placed! Even my own friends went over to the duke’s side, and I was forced to shake his damned hand and join him at the Red Cock for breakfast or show a surly front by my refusal. I was made a laughing stock for the whole party. Put in the wrong in every way; and even Billy Deuceace, a man of penetration, was so deceived by this, that afterward he bade me, with a laugh, ’fight about women who were in love with me and not with other men.’”

During this rehearsal of his wrongs Nancy sat quietly embroidering, not looking at the speaker nor seeming to note the voice at all.

“I said nothing of the affair to you,” he continued; “I thought to let the thing go by, and went off to Glasgow, hoping to forget it before we met again. And what do I come back to? To learn that half the town has it that you’ve visited an inn in another county and spent your days, aye, and I suppose they say your nights, too, with Rab Burns, whom decent folk will not let their daughters know. At tales like this the affair takes on another complexion. I do not want a wife for myself, nor a mother for my children, whose name has been bandied about like that!”

He was so beside himself with rage and jealousy and the further present annoyance of Nancy’s inattention, that he raised his voice at the end to a tone of harshness, such as none had ever used to Nancy Stair, and which she was the last woman to stand patient under. She did the thing by instinct which would enrage him most, putting a thread to her needle, squinting up one eye as she did so, in a composed and usual manner, and letting a silence fall before she said, in a level and unemotional voice:

“Sit down, Dandy, and stop shouting. There’s no use getting the town-guard out because you chance not to want me any longer for a wife. You don’t have to have me, you know!”

He seemed somewhat dashed by this, and there was a pause, during which he took a paper from his pocket and cast it on the table before her.

“No,” he says, “and that’s very true; but for your own sake as the Lord of Stair’s daughter, I’d write no more verses like these. God!” he cried, “to think of that white-faced American having a thing like that from you!”

“What’s the matter with the writing?” she said, looking down at it as though its literary merit were the thing he questioned. “Mr. Hastings,” she explained, “had an old song called the Trail of the Gipsies, and he rather flouted me because I set such store by it, but had it lined and sent me with some flowers. On the minute of their coming, and with the thought of how little the Anglo-Saxon comprehends any race save his own, I wrote these lines. I see no harm in them!”

As Nancy read the poem over she looked up with the same curious look.

You of the Pilgrim fathers,
With your face so proud and pale,
And the birth born pain of a fettered brain,
What can ye know of the trail?

By the lawless folk who bore me,
By their passion and pain, and loss,
By their swords which strove and their Lights o’ Love,
I’ve a right to the gipsy cross.

Poems by Nancy Stair. Edinburgh Edition, 1796.

“What’s the matter with it?” she asked again.

“The matter with it?” he repeated after her. “It’s a thing no lady should ever have thought, and no woman should ever have written.”

“Ye think so?” she said, and there was an amused tolerance in her voice as of discussing a mature subject with a child, adding in a tone as remote as if speaking of the Tenant Act, “Your opinions are always interesting, Dand.”

“Interesting to you they may or may not be, but it’s just come to this: A young woman who continues the relations you do with the greatest scoundrel on earth; who writes verses immoral in tone to one man and visits another for weeks in an ale-house but,” and here he broke off suddenly, “you may know no better with your rearing.”

“Miss Erskine will perhaps have been telling you what it is customary for young ladies to do,” Nancy suggested, in a dangerous, level voice.

“I do not need telling. It’s a thing about which right-thinking people will agree without words,” he answered; and it was here that Nancy spoke in her own voice, though heated by anger, and with the words coming faster than ordinary.

“And that’s maybe true,” she said; “but there are other things to be considered. It has always been in my mind that most marriages are very badly made up,” she said. “That in this greatest of all affairs between a man and a woman people lose their wits and trust to a blind kind of attraction for each other. I have thought to use my head a bit more in the matter. The very fact that you are misunderstanding me now as you do goes far to prove how foolish a marriage between us would have been.”

“Heavens!” he cried, “you talk of marriage as though it were a contract between two shop-keepers to be argle-bargled over. It’s an affair of the heart, not of the head. Ye’ve never loved me,” he said bitterly, “or ye’d know that.”

“That may be true,” Nancy answered, mutinously. “I have tried to be fair to you, however, and not to let you have a wife who didn’t know her own mind. I am, as you reminded me, different from other women in many ways. I like many

“I’ve noted that,” he interrupted with scant courtesy.

“And I’m afraid I shall continue to like them for one thing or another till the end; and you’re of a jealous turn, Danvers,” she said, coldly.

“I have been,” he said. “Where you were concerned I haven’t a generous thought. I take shares in my wife with no man. I have been jealous of the sound of your voice, the glance of your eye. What I have had to endure because of this ye must surely have seen! When a woman loves a man she has no thought for another

“It’s may be so,” Nancy broke in, “but it’s as entirely beyond me as flying. If I loved you with all there is of me, and another came by with a bit of a rhyme, or a new tale, or a plan quite of his own thinking, the chances are many that you’d be clear out of my mind while he stayed.”

“’Tis fortunate, as you say,” he interrupted, “that we discover this before ’tis too late. I think it’s a peculiarity that will go far to making the husband you take for yourself a very unhappy man.”

“He will perhaps understand me better than you do,” Nancy answered gently.

“Oh,” he cried at this, “can’t you see that a woman surrenders herself when she loves? She gives as gladly as a man takes, and is happy to have him for her lord and master. Not that he wishes to rule her, for ’twould be the thought of his life that her every desire should be filled, but she must be willing to yield.”

“Ye’d have made a grand Turk,” Nancy broke in, and there was a glint of humor in her tone as she spoke the words.

“I think,” Danvers answered, “you’ll find me asking only what most men expect to get.”

“If that be true, the chances are heavy that I shall live and die unwed,” she said with a laugh.

“Oh, no!” he cried, in a cutting voice. “I dare say your mind’s made up as to what you intend to do! Perhaps when you’re the Duchess of Borthwicke his grace will enjoy your visiting other men and writing lines like these,” and he dashed his fist on the paper again.

Nancy had by this time come to the far end of her patience, and she was on her feet in a minute.

“Listen to me,” she said. “I went to Ayrshire at the written asking of Janet McGillavorich to come to her own home. The morning I started for Mauchline the rear of her house fell into the cellar, making it extremely dangerous to remain in any part of the dwelling. I went to the inn only because she was there, and she stayed with me until my father came and took me away. I saw Robert Burns alone but once, entirely by accident, in the broad light of day.

“As for the rhyme,” and she looked down at the paper for a moment, regarding it as a thing of no importance whatever, “it was not I who spoke in the lines, but a gipsy girl of my imaginings. Ye’ve had little personal experience with the thing called gift

He must have thought there was some flouting of him in this, for he broke in heatedly:

“And I thank God for it,” he cried, “for it seems to be a thing which makes people betray trusts, lose all thought for others, raise hopes which they never intend to fulfil, unbridle their passions, forget their sex, and ride away to the deil at their own gate.”

None could have foreseen the effect this speech had upon Nancy; the thought it contained falling so parallel to her own talk of the night before; but it’s one matter to say a thing of one’s self and an entirely different affair to have it said concerning one, and in a minute her anger fairly matched his own.

“Ye’ve insulted me, Danvers,” she said, “many times in this talk, both in word and look; insulted me in my father’s house, where you’ve been welcome, boy and man, ever since ye were born; insulted me, too, in a way I’m not like to forget.”

She stood very tall and straight, her cheeks aflame, the lace on her bosom trembling with the quickness of her breathing, and her work dropped on the table before her as she slipped from her finger the ruby ring and pushed it toward him.

“Go away or stay at Arran, as you please! Ride or tie as best suits your mind, for in the way of love everything is gone between us for all time. And where ye go,” she went on, “ye who pride yereself so on your birth and breeding, just recall the fact that of all the men of gift whom I have known, and they have been many, not one has ever forgotten himself before me as you have done to-day, nor insulted the daughter of a friend in her own house!”

He made no move to take the ring, and it lay twinkling on the table between them as Nancy turned to leave the room.

“Good-by,” he said, turning white, and then (and I thought a heart of stone might be touched by the compliment under such circumstances) “Oh,” he cried, as though the words were forced from him, “you are so beautiful!”

“The country’s full of pretty women, any one of whom will be likely to marry you, when you order her to!” Nancy returned with an exasperating smile.

“I’ll try it and see. I think I will not go away from Arran. I may do something that will surprise you,” he added.

“There’s nothing ye could do that would surprise me, unless it were something sensible, and ye’re not like to do that,” she retorted, and without another word she left him standing alone, and he flung himself out of the house, disappearing across the lawn, in the direction of Arran, with a white face and a brooding devil in his eyes that showed his mind obstinate and unrelenting, and in a mood to do any foolish thing that came by.