Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of
Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful
to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative
or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the
Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye
was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private
admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye
pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many
young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the
Holy Communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on
1st Peter, v. and 8th, "The devil as a roaring lion," on the Sunday
after every seventeenth of August, and he was accustomed to surpass
himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and
the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened
into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all
that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself,
where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the
Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish
hill-tops rising toward the sky, had begun, at a very early period of
Mr. Soulis's ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued
themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan
alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by
that uncanny neighbourhood. There was one spot, to be more particular,
which was regarded with especial awe. The manse stood between the
highroad and the water of Dule with a gable to each; its back was toward
the kirktown of Balweary, nearly half a mile away; in front of it, a
bare garden, hedged with thorn, occupied the land between the river and
the road. The house was two stories high, with two large rooms on each.
It opened not directly on the garden, but on a causewayed path, or
passage, giving on the road on the one hand, and closed on the other by
the tall willows and elders that bordered on the stream. And it was this
strip of causeway that enjoyed among the young parishioners of Balweary
so infamous a reputation. The minister walked there often after dark,
sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers; and
when he was from home, and the manse door was locked, the more daring
schoolboys ventured, with beating hearts, to "follow my leader" across
that legendary spot.

This atmosphere of terror, surrounding, as it did, a man of God of
spotless character and orthodoxy, was a common cause of wonder and
subject of inquiry among the few strangers who were led by chance or
business into that unknown, outlying country. But many even of the
people of the parish were ignorant of the strange events which had
marked the first year of Mr. Soulis's ministrations; and among those who
were better informed, some were naturally reticent, and others shy of
that particular topic. Now and again, only, one of the older folk would
warm into courage over his third tumbler, and recount the cause of the
minister's strange and solitary life.

       *       *       *       *       *

Fifty years syne, when Mr. Soulis cam' first into Ba'weary, he was still
a young man--a callant, the folk said--fu' o' book learnin' and grand at
the exposition, but, as was natural in sae young a man, wi' nae leevin'
experience in religion. The younger sort were greatly taken wi' his
gifts and his gab; but auld, concerned, serious men and women were moved
even to prayer for the young man, whom they took to be a self-deceiver,
and the parish that was like to be sae ill-supplied. It was before the
days o' the moderates--weary fa' them; but ill things are like
guid--they baith come bit by bit, a pickle at a time; and there were
folk even then that said the Lord had left the college professors to
their ain devices an' the lads that went to study wi' them wad hae done
mair and better sittin' in a peat-bog, like their forbears of the
persecution, wi' a Bible under their oxter and a speerit o' prayer in
their heart. There was nae doubt, onyway, but that Mr. Soulis had been
ower lang at the college. He was careful and troubled for mony things
besides the ae thing needful. He had a feck o' books wi' him--mair than
had ever been seen before in a' that presbytery; and a sair wark the
carrier had wi' them, for they were a' like to have smoored in the
Deil's Hag between this and Kilmackerlie. They were books o' divinity,
to be sure, or so they ca'd them; but the serious were o' opinion there
was little service for sae mony, when the hail o' God's Word would gang
in the neuk of a plaid. Then he wad sit half the day and half the nicht
forbye, which was scant decent--writin' nae less; and first, they were
feared he wad read his sermons; and syne it proved he was writin' a book
himsel', which was surely no fittin' for ane of his years and sma'

Onyway it behoved him to get an auld, decent wife to keep the manse for
him an' see to his bit denners; and he was recommended to an auld
limmer--Janet M'Clour, they ca'ed her--and sae far left to himsel' as to
be ower persuaded. There was mony advised him to the contrar, for Janet
was mair than suspeckit by the best folk in Ba'weary. Lang or that, she
had had a wean to a dragoon; she hadnae come forrit[2] for maybe thretty
year; and bairns had seen her mumblin' to hersel' up on Key's Loan in
the gloamin', whilk was an unco time an' place for a God-fearin' woman.
Howsoever, it was the laird himsel' that had first tauld the minister o'
Janet; and in thae days he wad have gane a far gate to pleesure the
laird. When folk tauld him that Janet was sib to the deil, it was a'
superstition by his way of it; an' when they cast up the Bible to him
an' the witch of Endor, he wad threep it doun their thrapples that thir
days were a' gane by, and the deil was mercifully restrained.

[2] To come forrit--to offer oneself as a communicant.

Weel, when it got about the clachan that Janet M'Clour was to be servant
at the manse, the folk were fair mad wi' her an' him thegether; and some
o' the guidwives had nae better to dae than get round her door cheeks
and chairge her wi' a' that was ken't again her, frae the sodger's bairn
to John Tamson's twa kye. She was nae great speaker; folk usually let
her gang her ain gate, an' she let them gang theirs, wi' neither
Fair-gui-deen nor Fair-guid-day; but when she buckled to, she had a
tongue to deave the miller. Up she got, an' there wasnae an auld story
in Ba'weary but she gart somebody lowp for it that day; they couldnae
say ae thing but she could say twa to it; till, at the hinder end, the
guidwives up and claught hand of her, and clawed the coats aff her back,
and pu'd her doun the clachan to the water o' Dule, to see if she were a
witch or no, soum or droun. The carline skirled till ye could hear her
at the Hangin' Shaw, and she focht like ten; there was mony a guidwife
bure the mark of her neist day an' mony a lang day after; and just in
the hettest o' the collieshangie, wha suld come up (for his sins) but
the new minister.

"Women," said he (and he had a grand voice), "I charge you in the Lord's
name to let her go."

Janet ran to him--she was fair wud wi' terror--an' clang to him, an'
prayed him, for Christ's sake, save her frae the cummers; an' they, for
their part, tauld him a' that was ken't, and maybe mair.

"Woman," says he to Janet, "is this true?"

"As the Lord sees me," says she, "as the Lord made me, no a word o't.
Forbye the bairn," says she, "I've been a decent woman a' my days."

"Will you," says Mr. Soulis, "in the name of God, and before me, His
unworthy minister, renounce the devil and his works?"

Weel, it wad appear that when he askit that, she gave a girn that fairly
frichtit them that saw her, an' they could hear her teeth play dirl
thegether in her chafts; but there was naething for it but the ae way or
the ither; an' Janet lifted up her hand and renounced the deil before
them a'.

"And now," says Mr. Soulis to the guidwives, "home with ye, one and all,
and pray to God for His forgiveness."

And he gied Janet his arm, though she had little on her but a sark, and
took her up the clachan to her ain door like a leddy of the land; an'
her scrieghin, and laughin' as was a scandal to be heard.

There were mony grave folk lang ower their prayers that nicht; but when
the morn cam' there was sic a fear fell upon a' Ba'weary that the bairns
hid theirsels, and even the men folk stood and keekit frae their doors.
For there was Janet comin' doun the clachan--her or her likeness, nane
could tell--wi' her neck thrawn, and her held on ae side, like a body
that has been hangit, and a grin on her face like an unstreakit corp. By
an' by they got used wi' it, and even speered at her to ken what was
wrang; but frae that day forth she couldnae speak like a Christian
woman, but slavered and played click wi' her teeth like a pair o'
shears; and frae that day forth the name o' God cam' never on her lips.
Whiles she wad try to say it, but it michtnae be. Them that kenned best
said least; but they never gied that Thing the name o' Janet M'Clour;
for the auld Janet, by their way o't, was in muckle hell that day. But
the minister was neither to haud nor to bind; he preached about naething
but the folk's cruelty that had gi'en her a stroke of the palsy; he
skelpt the bairns that meddled her; and he had her up to the manse that
same nicht, and dwalled there a' his lane wi' her under the Hangin'

Weel, time gaed by: and the idler sort commenced to think mair lichtly
o' that black business. The minister was weel thocht o'; he was aye late
at the writing, folk wad see his can'le doon by the Dule water after
twal' at e'en; and he seemed pleased wi' himsel' and upsitten as at
first, though a' body could see that he was dwining. As for Janet she
cam' an' she gaed; if she didnae speak muckle afore, it was reason she
should speak less then; she meddled naebody; but she was an eldritch
thing to see, an' nane wad hae mistrysted wi' her for Ba'weary glebe.

About the end o' July there cam' a spell o' weather, the like o't never
was in that countryside; it was lown an' het an' heartless; the herds
couldnae win up the Black Hill, the bairns were ower weariet to play;
an' yet it was gousty too, wi' claps o' het wund that rummled in the
glens, and bits o' shouers that slockened naething. We aye thocht it but
to thun'er on the morn; but the morn cam', an' the morn's morning, and
it was aye the same uncanny weather, sair on folks and bestial. Of a'
that were the waur, nane suffered like Mr. Soulis; he could neither
sleep nor eat, he tauld his elders; an' when he wasnae writin' at his
weary book, he wad be stravaguin' ower a' the countryside like a man
possessed, when a' body else was blythe to keep caller ben the house.

Abune Hangin' Shaw, in the bield o' the Black Hill, there's a bit
enclosed grund wi' an iron yett; and it seems, in the auld days, that
was the kirkyaird o' Ba'weary, and consecrated by the Papists before the
blessed licht shone upon the kingdom. It was a great howff, o' Mr.
Soulis's onyway; there he would sit an' consider his sermons; and inded
it's a bieldy bit. Weel, as he cam' ower the wast end o' the Black Hill,
ae day, he saw first twa, an' syne fower, an' syne seeven corbie craws
fleein' round an' round abune the auld kirkyaird. They flew laigh and
heavy, an' squawked to ither as they gaed; and it was clear to Mr.
Soulis that something had put them frae their ordinar. He wasnae easy
fleyed, an' gaed straucht up to the wa's; and what suld he find there
but a man, or the appearance of a man, sittin' in the inside upon a
grave. He was of a great stature, an' black as hell, and his e'en were
singular to see.[3] Mr. Soulis had heard tell o' black men mony's the
time; but there was something unco about this black man that daunted
him. Het as he was, he took a kind o' cauld grue in the marrow o' his
banes; but up he spak for a' that; an' says he: "My friend, are you a
stranger in this place?" The black man answered never a word; he got
upon his feet, an' begude to hirsle to the wa' on the far side; but he
aye lookit at the minister; an' the minister stood an' lookit back; till
a' in a meenute the black man was ower the wa' an' runnin' for the bield
o' the trees. Mr. Soulis, he hardly kenned why, ran after him; but he
was sair forjaskit wi' his walk an' the het, unhalsome weather; and rin
as he likit, he got nae mair than a glisk o' the black man amang the
birks, till he won doun to the foot o' the hillside, an' there he saw
him ance mair, gaun, hap, step, an' lowp, ower Dule water to the manse.

[3] It was a common belief in Scotland that the devil appeared as a
black man. This appears in several witch trials and I think in Law's
_Memorials_, that delightful storehouse of the quaint and grisly.

Mr. Soulis wasnae weel pleased that this fearsome gangrel suld mak' sae
free wi' Ba'weary manse; an' he ran the harder, an' wet shoon, ower the
burn, an' up the walk; but the deil a black man was there to see. He
stepped out upon the road, but there was naebody there; he gaed a' ower
the gairden, but na, nae black man. At the binder end, and a bit feared
as was but natural, he lifted the hasp and into the manse; and there was
Janet M'Clour before his een, wi' her thrawn craig, and nane sae pleased
to see him. And he aye minded sinsyne, when first he set his een upon
her, he had the same cauld and deidly grue.

"Janet," says he, "have you seen a black man?"

"A black man!" quo' she. "Save us a'! Ye're no wise, minister. There's
nae black man in a' Ba'weary."

But she didnae speak plain, ye maun understand; but yam-yammered, like a
powny wi' the bit in its moo.

"Weel," says he, "Janet, if there was nae black man, I have spoken with
the Accuser of the Brethren."

And he sat doun like ane wi' a fever, an' his teeth chittered in his

"Hoots," says she, "think shame to yoursel', minister"; and gied him a
drap brandy that she keept aye by her.

Syne Mr. Soulis gaed into his study amang a' his books. It's a lang,
laigh, mirk chalmer, perishin' cauld in winter, an' no very dry even in
the top o' the simmer, for the manse stands near the burn. Sae doun he
sat, and thocht of a' that had come an' gane since he was in Ba'weary,
an' his hame, an' the days when he was a bairn an' ran daffin' on the
braes; and that black man aye ran in his held like the owercome of a
sang. Aye the mair he thocht, the mair he thocht o' the black man. He
tried the prayer, an' the words wouldnae come to him; an' he tried, they
say, to write at his book, but he couldnae mak' nae mair o' that. There
was whiles he thocht the black man was at his oxter, an' the swat stood
upon him cauld as well-water; and there was other whiles, when he cam'
to himsel' like a christened bairn and minded naething.

The upshot was that he gaed to the window an' stood glowrin' at Dule
water. The trees are unco thick, an' the water lies deep an' black under
the manse; and there was Janet washin' the cla'es wi' her coats kilted.
She had her back to the minister, an' he, for his pairt, hardly kenned
what he was lookin' at. Syne she turned round, an' shawed her face: Mr.
Soulis had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an' it was borne
in upon him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an' this was
a bogle in her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned
her narrowly. She was tramp-trampin' in the cla'es, croonin' to hersel';
and eh! Gude guide us, but it was a fearsome face. Whiles she sang
louder, but there was nae man born o' woman that could tell the words o'
her sang; an' whiles she lookit side-lang doun, but there was naething
there for her to look at. There gaed a scunner through the flesh upon
his banes; and that was Heeven's advertisement. But Mr. Soulis just
blamed himsel', he said, to think sae ill of a puir, auld afflicted wife
that hadnae a freend forbye himsel'; an' he put up a bit prayer for him
an' her, an' drank a little caller water--for his heart rose again the
meat--an' gaed up to his naked bed in the gloaming.

That was a nicht that has never been forgotten in Ba'weary, the nicht o'
the seeventeenth of August, seventeen hun'er' an' twal'. It had been het
afore, as I hae said, but that nicht it was better than ever. The sun
gaed doun amang unco-lookin' clouds; it fell as mirk as the pit; no a
star, no a breath o' wund; ye couldnae see your han' afore your face,
and even the auld folk cuist the covers frae their beds and lay pechin'
for their breath. Wi' a' that he had upon his mind, it was gey and
unlikely Mr. Soulis wad get muckle sleep. He lay an' he tummled; the
gude, caller bed that he got into brunt his very banes; whiles he slept,
and whiles he waukened; whiles he heard the time o' nicht, and whiles a
tyke yowlin' up the muir, as if somebody was deid; whiles he thocht he
heard bogles claverin' in his lug, an' whiles he saw spunkies in the
room. He behoved, he judged, to be sick; an' sick he was--little he
jaloosed the sickness.

At the hinder end, he got a clearness in his mind, sat up in his sark on
the bed-side, and fell thinkin' ance mair o' the black man an' Janet. He
couldnae weel tell how--maybe it was the cauld to his feet--but it cam'
in up upon him wi' a spate that there was some connection between thir
twa, an' that either or baith o' them were bogles. And just at that
moment, in Janet's room, which was neist to his, there cam' a stramp o'
feet as if men were wars'lin', an' then a loud bang; an' then a wund
gaed reishling round the fower quarters of the house; an' then a' was
ance mair as seelent as the grave.

Mr. Soulis was feared for neither man nor deevil. He got his tinder-box,
an' lit a can'le. He made three steps o't ower to Janet's door. It was
on the hasp, an' he pushed it open, an' keeked bauldly in. It was a big
room, as big as the minister's ain, a' plenished wi' grand, auld, solid
gear, for he had nathing else. There was a fower-posted bed wi' auld
tapestry; and a braw cabinet of aik, that was fu' o' the minister's
divinity books, an' put there to be out o' the gate; an' a wheen duds o'
Janet's lying here and there about the floor. But nae Janet could Mr.
Soulis see; nor ony sign of a contention. In he gaed (an' there's few
that wad ha'e followed him) an' lookit a' round, an' listened. But there
was naethin' to be heard, neither inside the manse nor in a' Ba'weary
parish, an' naethin' to be seen but the muckle shadows turnin' round the
can'le. An' then, a' at ance, the minister's heart played dunt an' stood
stock-still; an' a cauld wund blew amang the hairs o' his heid. Whaten a
weary sicht was that for the puir man's een! For there was Janet
hangin' frae a nail beside the auld aik cabinet: her heid aye lay on her
shouther, her een were steeked, the tongue projeckit frae her mouth, and
her heels were twa feet clear abune the floor.

"God forgive us all!" thocht Mr. Soulis, "poor Janet's dead."

He cam' a step nearer to the corp; an' then his heart fair whammled in
his inside. For by what cantrip it wad ill-beseem a man to judge, she
was hingin' frae a single nail an' by a single wursted thread for
darnin' hose.

It's a awfu' thing to be your lane at nicht wi' siccan prodigies o'
darkness; but Mr. Soulis was strong in the Lord. He turned an' gaed his
ways oot o' that room, and lockit the door ahint him; and step by step,
doon the stairs, as heavy as leed; and set doon the can'le on the table
at the stairfoot. He couldnae pray, he couldnae think, he was dreepin'
wi' caul' swat, an' naething could he hear but the dunt-dunt-duntin' o'
his ain heart. He micht maybe have stood there an hour, or maybe twa, he
minded sae little; when a' o' a sudden, he heard a laigh, uncanny steer
up-stairs; a foot gaed to an' fro in the chalmer whaur the corp was
hingin'; syne the door was opened, though he minded weel that he had
lockit it; an' syne there was a step upon the landin', an' it seemed to
him as if the corp was lookin' ower the rail and doun upon him whaur he

He took up the can'le again (for he couldnae want the licht), and as
saftly as ever he could, gaed straucht out o' the manse an' to the far
end o' the causeway. It was aye pit-mirk; the flame o' th can'le, when
he set it on the grund, brunt steedy an clear as in a room; naething
moved, but the Dule water seepin' and sabbin' doon the glen, an' yon
unhaly footstep that cam' ploddin' doun the stairs inside the manse. He
kenned the foot ower weel, for it was Janet's; and at ilka step that
cam' a wee thing nearer, the cauld got deeper in his vitals. He
commended his soul to Him that made an' keepit him; "and O Lord," said
he, "give me strength this night to war against the powers of evil."

By this time the foot was comin' through the passage for the door; he
could hear a hand skirt alang the wa', as if the fearsome thing was
feelin' for its way. The saughs tossed an' maned thegether, a long sigh
cam' ower the hills, the flame o' the can'le was blawn aboot; an' there
stood the corp of Thrawn Janet, wi' her grogram goun an' her black
mutch, wi' the heid upon the shouther, an' the grin still upon the face
o't--leevin', ye wad he said--deid, as Mr. Soulis weel kenned--upon the
threshold o' the manse.

It's a strange thing that the saul of man should be that thirled into
his perishable body; but the minister saw that, an' his heart didnae

She didnae stand there lang; she began to move again an' cam' slowly
towards Mr. Soulis whaur he stood under the saughs. A' the life o' his
body, a' the strength o' his speerit, were glowerin' frae his een. It
seemed she was gaun to speak, but wanted words, an' made a sign wi' the
left hand. There cam' a clap o' wund, like a cat's fuff; oot gaed the
can'le, the saughs skrieghed like folk; an' Mr. Soulis keened that, live
or die, this was the end o't.

"Witch, beldame, devil!" he cried, "I charge you, by the power of God,
begone--if you be dead, to the grave--if you be damned, to hell."

An' at that moment the Lord's ain hand out o' the Heevens struck the
Horror whaur it stood; the auld, deid, desecrated corp o' the
witch-wife, sae lang keepit frae the grave and hirsled round by deils,
lowed up like a brunstane spunk and fell in ashes to the grund; the
thunder followed, peal on dirling peal, the rairing rain upon the back
o' that; and Mr. Soulis lowped through the garden hedge, and ran, wi'
skelloch upon skelloch, for the clachan.

That same mornin', John Christie saw the Black Man pass the Muckle Cairn
as it was chappin' six; before eicht, he gaed by the change-house at
Knockdow; an' no lang after, Sandy M'Lellan saw him gaun linkin' doun
the braes frae Kilmackerlie. There's little doubt but it was him that
dwalled se lang in Janet's body; but he was awa' at last; and sinsyne
the deil has never fashed us in Ba'weary.

But it was a sair dispensation for the minister; lang, lang he lay
ravin' in his bed; and frae that hour to this, he was the man ye ken the

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