The Horror On The Stair by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

Particulars concerning the end of Mistress Catherine Johnstone, late of Givens, in Ayrshire; from a private relation made by the young woman Kirstie Maclachlan to the Reverend James Souttar, A.M., Minister of the Parish of Wyliebank, and by him put into writing.

I had been placed in my parish of Wyliebank about a twelvemonth before making acquaintance with Mr. Johnstone, the minister at Givens, twelve miles away. This would be in the year 1721, and from that until the date of his death (which happened in the autumn of 1725) I saw him in all not above a dozen times. To me he appeared a douce, quiet man, commonplace in the pulpit and not over-learned, strict in his own behaviour, methodical in his duties, averse from gossip of all kinds, having himself a great capacity for silence, whereby he seemed perhaps wiser than he was, but not (I think) more charitable. He had greatly advanced his fortunes by marriage.

This marriage made him remarkable, who else had passed as quite ordinary; but not for the money it brought him. Of his wife I knew no more than my neighbours. She was a daughter of Sir John Telfair, of Balgarnock, a gentleman of note in Renfrewshire; and the story ran concerning her that, at the age of sixteen, having a spite against one of the maidservants, she had pretended to be bewitched and persecuted by the devil, and upheld the imposture so cleverly, with rigors, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and spitting forth of straws, chips and cinders, pins and bent nails, that the Presbytery ordained a public fast against witchcraft, and by warrant of Privy Council a Commission visited Balgarnock to take evidence of her condition. In the presence of these Commissioners, of whom the Lord Blantyre was president, the young lady flatly accused one Janet Burns, her mother’s still-room maid, of tormenting her with aid of the black art, and for witness showed her back and shoulders covered with wales, some blue and others freshly bleeding; and further, in the midst of their interrogatories cast herself into a trance, muttering and offering faint combat to divers unseen spirits, and all in so lifelike a manner that, notwithstanding they could discover no evident proof of guilt, these wise gentry were overawed and did commit the woman Janet Burns to take her trial for witchcraft at Paisley. There, poor soul, as she was escorted to the prison, the town rabble met her with sticks and stones and closed the case; for on her way a cobble cast by some unknown hand struck her upon the temple, and falling into the arms of the guard, she never spoke after, but breathed her last breath as they forced her through the mob to the prison gates.

This was the tale told to me; and long before I heard it the reprobation of the vulgar had swung back from Janet Burns and settled upon her accuser. Certain it was that swiftly upon the woman’s murder–as I may well call it–Miss Catherine made a recovery, nor was thereafter troubled with fits, swoons or ailments calling for public notice. Indeed, she was shunned by all, and lived (as well as I could discover) in complete seclusion for twenty years, until the minister of Givens sought her out with an offer of marriage.

By this time she was near forty; a thin, hard-featured spinster, dwelling alone with her mother the Lady Balgarnock. Her two younger sisters had married early–the one to Captain Luce, of Dunragit in Wigtownshire, the other to a Mr. Forbes, of whom I know nothing save that his house was in Edinburgh: and as they had no great love for Miss Catherine, so they neither sought her company nor were invited to Balgarnock. Her father, Sir John, had deceased a few months before Mr. Johnstone presented himself.

He made a short courtship of it. The common tongues accused him (as was to be expected) of coming after her money; whereas she and her old mother lived a cat-and-dog life together, and she besides was of an age when women will often marry the first man that offers. But I now believe, and (unless I mistake) the history will show, that the excuse vulgarly made for her did not touch the real ground of her decision. At any rate, she married him and lived from 1718 to 1725 in the manse at Givens, where I made her acquaintance.

I had been warned what to expect. The parishioners of Givens seldom had sight of her, and set it down to pride and contempt of her husband’s origin. (He had been a weaver’s son from Falkirk, who either had won his way to the Marischal College of Aberdeen by strength of will and in defiance of natural dullness, or else had started with wits but blunted them in carving his way thither.) She rarely set foot beyond the manse garden, the most of her time being spent in a roomy garret under the slates, where she spun a fine yarn and worked it into thread of the kind which is yet known as “Balgarnock thread,” and was invented by her or by her mother–for accounts differ as to this. I have beside me an advertisement clipped from one of the newspapers of twenty years ago, which says: “The Lady Balgarnock and her eldest daughter having attained to great perfection in making whitening and twisting of SEWING THREED which is as cheap and white, and known by experience to be much stronger than the Dutch, to prevent people’s being imposed upon by other Threed which may be sold under the name of Balgarnock Threed, the Papers in which the Lady Balgarnock at Balgarnock, or Mrs. Johnstone her eldest daughter, at Givens, do put up their Threed shall, for direction, have thereupon their Coat of Arms, ‘Azure, a ram’s head caboshed or.’ Those who want the said Threed, which is to be sold from fivepence to six shillings per ounce, may write to the Lady Balgarnock at Balgarnock, or Mrs. Johnstone at Givens, to the care of the Postmaster at Glasgow; and may call for the same in Edinburgh at John Seton, Merchant, his shop in the Parliament Close, where they will be served either in Wholesale or Retail, and will be served in the same manner at Glasgow, by William Selkirk, Merchant, in Trongate.”

In this art, then, the woman spent most of her days, preparing the thread with her own hands and bleaching her materials on a large slate raised upon brackets in the window of her garret. And, if one may confess for all, glad enough were Mr. Johnstone’s guests when this wife of his rose from the table and departed upstairs. For a colder, more taciturn and discomfortable hostess could not be conceived. She would scarcely exchange a word through the meal–no, not with her husband, though he watched and seemed to forestall her wants with a tender officiousness. To see her seated there in black (which was her only wear), with her back to the window, her eyes on the board, and, as it seemed, the shadow of a long-past guilt brooding about her continually, gave me a feeling as of cold water dripping down the spine. And even the husband, though he pretended to observe nothing, must have known my relief when she withdrew and left us with the decanters.

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Now I had tholed this penance, maybe, a dozen times, and could never win a speech from Mrs. Johnstone, nor a look, to show that she regarded me while present or remembered me after I had gone. So you may think I was surprised one day when the minister came riding over with word that his wife wanted a young girl for companion and to help her with the spinning, and had thought of me as likely to show judgment in recommending one. The girl must be sixteen, or thereabout, of decent behaviour and tractable, no gadder or lover of finery, healthy, able to read, an early riser, and, if possible, devout. For her parentage I need not trouble myself, if I knew of a girl suitable in these other respects.

It happened that I had of late been contriving some odd work about the manse for the girl Kirstie Maclachlan, not that the work needed doing, but to help her old mother; for we had no assessment for the poor, and the Session was often at its wits’ end to provide relief, wherein as a man without family cares I could better assist than some of my neighbours. The girl’s mother was a poor feckless creature who had left Wyliebank in her youth to take service in Glasgow, and there, beguiled at first by some villain, had gone from bad to worse through misguidance rather than wantonness, and at last crept home to her native parish to starve, if by starving she could save her child–then but an infant–from the city and its paths of destruction. This, in part by her own courage, and in part by the help of the charitable, she had managed to do, and lived to see Kirstie grow to be a decent, religiously minded young woman. Nor did the lass want for good looks in a sober way, nor for wit when it came to reading books; but in speech she was shy beyond reason, and would turn red and stammer if a stranger but addressed her. I think she could never forget that her birth had been on the wrong side of the blanket, and, supposing folks to be pitying her for it, sought to avoid them and their kindness.

It was Kirstie, then, whom I ventured to commend to Mr. Johnstone for his lady’s requirements; and after some talk between us the good man sent for her and was satisfied with her looks and the few answers which, in her stammering way, she managed to return to his questions. When he set off homeward it was on the understanding that she should follow him to Givens on foot, which she did the next day with her stock of spare clothes in a kerchief. Nor, although I twice visited Givens during her service there, did I ever see her at the manse, but twice only before she returned to us with the tale I am to set down–the first time at the burying of her mother here in Wyliebank, and the second at Givens, when I was called thither to inter her master who died very suddenly by the bursting of a blood-vessel in the brain. After that she went to live with the widow in lodgings in Edinburgh; and from her, some fifteen months later, I received the news, in a letter most neatly indited, that Mrs. Johnstone had perished by her own hand, and a request to impart it to all in this parish whom it might concern. The main facts she told me then in writing, but the circumstances (being ever a sensible girl) she kept to transmit to me by word of mouth, rightly judging that the public enquiry had no business with them.

It seems, then, that Kirstie’s first introduction to Mrs. Johnstone was none too cheerful; indeed, it came near to scaring her out of her senses. She arrived duly at Givens shortly before five of the afternoon (a warm day in June) and went straight to the manse, where the door was opened to her by Mr. Johnstone, who had seen her from the parlour window. He led the way back to the parlour, and, after a question or two upon her journey, took her up the main stairs to the landing. Here he halted and directed her up a narrow flight to her garret, which lay off to the right, at the very top.

The door stood ajar, and facing it was another door, wide open, through which a ray of the evening sun slanted across the stairhead. Kirstie, with her bundle in one hand and the other upon the hasp, turned to look down upon the minister, to make sure she was entering the right chamber. He stood at the foot of the stairs, and his eyes were following her (as she thought) with a very curious expression; but before he could nod she happened to throw a glance into the room opposite, and very nearly dropped her bundle.

Yet there was nothing to be scared at; merely the figure of an elderly woman in black bent over her spinning-wheel there in the dim light. It was Mrs. Johnstone, of course, seated at her work; but it came upon the girl with suddenness, like an apparition, and the fright, instead of passing, began to take hold of her as the uncanny woman neither spoke nor looked up. The room about her was bare, save for some hanks of yarn littered about the boards and a great pile of it drying on a tray by the window. The one ray of sunlight seemed to pass over this without searching the corners under the sloping roof, and fell at Kirstie’s feet.

She has told me that she must have stood there for minutes with her heart working like a pump. When she looked down the stair again the minister was gone. She pulled her wits together, stepped quickly into her own room, and, having closed the door behind her, sat down on the bed to recover.

Being a lass of spirit, she quickly reasoned herself out of this foolishness, rose, washed, changed her stockings, put off her shawl for cap and apron, and–albeit in trepidation–presented herself once more at the door of Mrs. Johnstone’s garret.

“Please you, mistress,” she managed to say, “I am Kirstie Maclachlan, the new maid from Wyliebank.”

Mrs. Johnstone looked up and fixed her with a pair of eyes that (she declared) searched her through and through; but all she said was, “The minister tells me you can read.”

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“Yes, mistress.”

“What books have you brought?”

Kirstie, to be sure, had two books in her bundle–a Bible and John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, the both of them gifts from me. Mrs. Johnstone commanded her to fetch the second and start reading at once; “for,” she explained, not unkindly, “it will suit you best, belike, to begin with something familiar; and if I find you read well and pleasantly, we will get a book from the manse library.”

So the girl found a stool in the corner, and, seating herself near the window, began to read by the waning light. She had, indeed, an agreeable voice, and I had taken pains to teach her. She read on and on, gathering courage, yet uncertain if Mrs. Johnstone approved; who said no word, but continued her spinning until darkness settled down on the garret and blurred the print on the page.

At last she looked up, and, much to Kirstie’s surprise, with a sigh. “That will do, girl, you read very nicely. Run down and find your supper, and after that the sooner you get to bed the better. We rise early in this house. To-morrow I will put you in the way of your duties.”

Downstairs Kirstie met the minister who had been taking a late stroll in the garden and now entered by the back-door. He halted under the lamp in the passage. “Well,” he asked, “what did she say?”

“She bade me get my supper and be early in the morning,” Kirstie answered simply.

For some reason this seemed to relieve him. He hung up his hat and stood pulling at his fingers until the joints cracked, which was a trick with him. “She needs to be soothed,” he said. “If you read much with her, you must come to me to choose the books; yet she must think she has chosen them herself. We must manage that somehow. The great thing is to keep her mind soothed.”

Kirstie did not understand. A few minutes later as she went up the stairs to her room the door opposite still remained open. All was dark within, but whether or not Mrs. Johnstone sat there in the darkness she could not tell.

The next morning she entered on her duties, which were light enough. Indeed, she soon suspected that her mistress had sought a companion rather than a servant, and at first had much to-do to find employment. Soon, however, Mrs. Johnstone took her into confidence, and began to impart the mysteries of whitening and twisting the famous Balgarnock thread; and so by degrees, without much talk on either side, there grew a strange affection betwixt them. Sure, Kirstie must have been the first of her sex to whom the strange woman showed any softness; and on her part the girl asserts that she was attracted from the first by a sort of pity, without well knowing for what her pity was demanded. The minister went no farther with his confidences: he could see that Kirstie suited, and seemed resolved to let well alone. The wife never spoke of herself; and albeit, if Kirstie’s reading happened to touch on the sources of Christian consolation, she showed some eagerness in discussing them, it was done without any personal or particular reference. Yet, even in those days, Kirstie grew to feel that terror was in some way the secret of her mistress’s strangeness; that for the present the poor woman knew herself safe and protected from it, but also that there was ever a danger of that barrier falling–whatever it might be–and leaving her exposed to some enemy, from the thought of whom her soul shrank.

I do not know how Kirstie became convinced that, whoever or whatever the enemy might be, Mr. Johnstone was the phylactery. She herself could give no grounds for her conviction beyond his wife’s anxiety for his health and well-being. I myself never observed it in a woman, and if I had, should have set it down to ordinary wifely concern. But Kirstie assures me, first, that it was not ordinary, and, secondly, that it was not at all wifely–that Mrs. Johnstone’s care of her husband had less of the ministering unselfishness of a woman in love than of the eager concern of a gambler with his stake. The girl (I need not say) did not put it thus, yet this in effect was her report. And she added that this anxiety was fitful to a degree: at times the minister could hardly take a walk without being fussed over and forced to change his socks on his return; at others, and for days together, his wife would resign the care of him to Providence, or at any rate to Fate, and trouble herself not at all about his goings-out or his comings-in, nor whether he wore a great-coat or not, nor if he returned wet to the skin and neglected to change his wear.

Well, the girl was right, as was proved on the afternoon when Mr. Johnstone, taking his customary walk upon the Kilmarnock road, fell and burst a blood-vessel, and was borne home to the manse on a gate. The two women were seated in the garret as usual when the crowd entered the garden; and with the first sound of the bearers’ feet upon the path, which was of smooth pebbles compacted in lime, Mrs. Johnstone rose up, with a face of a sudden so grey and terrible that Kirstie dropped the book from her knee.

“It has come!” said the poor lady under her breath, and put out a hand as if feeling for some stick of furniture to lean against. “It has come!” she repeated aloud, but still hoarsely; and with that she turned to the lass with a most piteous look, and “Oh, Kirstie, girl,” she cried, “you won’t leave me? I have been kind to you–say you won’t leave me!”

Before Kirstie well understood, her mistress’s arms were about her and the gaunt woman clinging to her body and trembling like a child. “You will save me, Kirstie? You will live here and not forsake me? There is nobody now but you!” she kept crying over and over.

The girl held her firmly with a grasp above the elbows to steady her and allay the trembling, and, albeit dazed herself, uttered what soothing words came first to her tongue. “Why, mistress, who thinks of leaving you? Not I, to be sure. But let me get you to bed, and in an hour you will be better of this fancy, for fancy it must be.”

“He is dead, I tell you,” Mrs. Johnstone insisted, “and they are bringing him home. Hark to the door–that was never your master’s knock–and the voices!”

She was still clinging about Kirstie when the cook came panting up the stairs and into the room with a white face; for it was true, and the minister had breathed his last between the garden gate and his house door.

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As I have said, I rode over from Wyliebank four days later to read the burial service. The widow was not to be seen, and of Kirstie, who ever hid herself from the sight of strangers, I caught but a glimpse. She did not follow the coffin, but remained upstairs (as I suppose) comforting her mistress. The other poor distracted servants, between tears and ignorance, made but a sorry business of entertaining the company, so that but half a dozen at most cared to return to the house, of whom I was not one.

The manse had to be vacated, and within a week or two I heard that Mrs. Johnstone had sold a great part of her furniture, dismissed all her household but Kirstie, and retired to a small cottage a little further up the street and scarcely a stone’s-throw from the manse.

“She made,” says Kirstie, “little show of mourning for her husband, nor for months afterwards did she return to the terror she had shown that day in the garret, yet I am sure that from the hour of his death she never knew peace of mind. She had fitted up a room in the cottage with her wheel and bleaching boards, and we spent all our time in reading or thread-making. At night my cot would be strewn in her bedroom, and we slept with a candle burning on the table between us; but once or twice I woke to see her laid on her side, or resting on her elbow, with her face towards me and her eyes fixed upon mine across the light. This used to frighten me, and she must have seen it, for always she would stammer that I need not be alarmed, and beg me to go to sleep again like a good child. I soon came to see that, whatever her own terror might be, she had the utmost dread of my catching it, and that her hope lay in keeping me cheerful. Since I had nothing on my mind at that time, and knew of no cause for fear, I used to sleep soundly enough; but I begin to think that my mistress slept scarcely at all. I cannot remember once waking without finding her awake and her eyes watching me as I say.

“She herself would not set foot outside the cottage for weeks together, and if by chance we did take a walk it would be towards sunset, when the fields were empty and the folk mostly gathered on the green at the far end of the village. There was a footpath led across these fields at the back of the cottage, and here at such an hour she would sometimes consent to take the air, leaning on my arm; but if any wayfarer happened to come along the path I used to draw her aside into the field, where we made believe to be gathering of wild flowers. She had a dislike of meeting strangers and a horror of being followed; the sound of footsteps on the path behind us would drive her near crazy.”

I think ’twas this frequent pretence of theirs to be searching for wild flowers which brought the suspicion of witchcraft upon them among the population of Givens. The story of the woman’s youth was remembered against her, if obscurely. Folks knew that she had once been afflicted or possessed by an evil spirit, and from this ’twas a short step to accuse her of gathering herbs at nightfall for the instruction of Kirstie in the black art. In the end the rumour drove them from Givens, and in this manner.

Though the widow so seldom showed herself abroad, in her care for Kirstie’s cheerfulness she persuaded the girl to take a short walk every morning through the village. In truth Kirstie hated it. More and more as her mistress clung to her she grew to cling to her mistress; it seemed as if they two were in partnership against the world, and the part of protector which she played so watchfully and courageously for her years took its revenge upon her. For what makes a child so engaging as his trust in the fellow-creatures he meets and his willingness to expect the best of them? To Kirstie, yet but a little way past childhood, all men and women were possible enemies, to be suspected and shunned. She took her walk dutifully because Mrs. Johnstone commanded it, and because shops must be visited and groceries purchased; but it was penance to her, and she would walk a mile about to avoid a knot of gossips or to wile the time away until a shop emptied.

But one day in the long main street she was fairly caught by a mob of boys hunting and hooting after a negro man. They paid no heed to Kirstie, who shrank into a doorway as he passed down the causeway–a seaman, belike, trudging to Irvine or Saltcoats. He seemed by his gait to be more than half drunk, and by the way he shook his stick back at the boys and cursed them; but they would not be shaken off, and in the end he took refuge in the “Leaping Fish,” where his tormentors gathered about the doorway and continued their booing until the landlord came forth and dispersed them.

By this time Kirstie had bolted from the doorway and run home. She said nothing of her adventure to Mrs. Johnstone; but in the dusk of the evening a riot began in the street a little way below the cottage. The black seaman had been drinking all day, and on leaving the “Leaping Fish,” had fallen into a savage quarrel with a drover. Two or three decent fellows stopped the fight and pulled him off; but they had done better by following up their kindness and seeing him out of the village, for he was now planted with his back to a railing, brandishing his stick and furiously challenging the whole mob. So far as concerned him the mischief ended by his overbalancing to aim a vicious blow at an urchin, and crashing down upon the kerb, where he lay and groaned, while the blood flowed from an ugly cut across the eyebrow.

For a while the crowd stood about him in some dismay. A few were for carrying him back to the public-house; but at some evil prompting a voice cried out, “Take him to the widow Johnstone’s! A witch should know how to deal with her sib, the black man.” I believe so godless a jest would never have been played, had not the cottage stood handy and (as one may say) closer than their better thoughts. But certain it is that they hoisted the poor creature and bore him into Mrs. Johnstone’s garden, and began to fling handfuls of gravel at the upper windows, where a light was burning.

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At the noise of it against the pane Mrs. Johnstone, who was bending over the bedroom fire and heating milk for her supper, let the pan fall from her hand. For the moment Kirstie thought she would swoon. But helping her to a seat in the armchair, the brave lass bade her be comforted–it could be naught but some roystering drunkard–and herself went downstairs and unbarred the door. At the sight of her–so frail a girl–quietly confronting them with a demand to know their business, the crowd fell back a step or two, and in that space of time by God’s providence arrived Peter Lawler, the constable, a very religious man, who gave the ringleaders some advice and warning they were not likely to forget. Being by this made heartily ashamed of themselves, they obeyed his order to pick up the man from the doorstep, where he lay at Kirstie’s feet, and carry him back to the “Leaping Fish;” and so slunk out of the garden.

When all were gone Kirstie closed and bolted the door and returned upstairs to her mistress, whom she found sitting in her chair and listening intently.

“Who was it?” she demanded.

“Oh, nothing to trouble us, ma’am; but just a poor wandering blackamoor I met in the street to-day. The people, it seems, were bringing him here by mistake.”

“A blackamoor!” cried Mrs. Johnstone, gasping. “A blackamoor!”

Now Kirstie was for running downstairs again to fetch some milk in place of what was spilt, but at the sound of the woman’s voice she faced about.

“Pick together the silver, Kirstie, and fetch me my bonnet!” At first Mrs. Johnstone began to totter about the room without aim, but presently fell to choosing this and that of her small possessions and tossing them into the seat of the armchair in a nervous hurry which seemed to gather with her strength. “Quick, lass! Did he see you? . . . ah, but that would not tell him. What like was he?” She pulled herself together and her voice quavered across the room. “Lass, lass, you will not forsake me? Do not speir now, but do all that I say. You promised–you did promise!” All this while she was working in a fever of haste, pulling even the quilt from the bed and anon tossing it aside as too burdensome. She was past all control. “Do not speir of me,” she kept repeating.

“What, ma’am? Are we leaving?” Kirstie stammered once; but the strong will of the woman–mad though she might be–was upon her, and by-and-by the girl began packing in no less haste than her mistress. “But will you not tell me, ma’am?” she entreated between her labours.

“Not here! not here!” Mrs. Johnstone insisted. “Help me to get away from here!”

It was two in the morning when the women unlatched the door of the cottage and crept forth across the threshold–and across the stain of blood which lay thereon, only they could not see it. They took the footpath, each with a heavy bundle beneath her arm, and turning their backs on Givens walked resolutely forward for three miles to the cross-roads where the Glasgow coach would be due to pass in the dawn. Upon the green there beside the sign-post Kirstie believes that she slept while Mrs. Johnstone kept guard over the bundles; but she remembers little until she found herself, as if by magic, on the coach-top and dozing on a seat behind the driver.

From Glasgow, after a day’s halt, they took another coach to Edinburgh, and there found lodgings in a pair of attics high aloft in one of the great houses, or lands, which lie off Parliament Square to the north. The building–a warren you might call it–had six stories fronting the square, the uppermost far overhanging, and Kirstie affirms that her window, pierced in the very eaves, stood higher than the roof of St. Giles’ Church.

Hither in due course a carrier’s cart conveyed Mrs. Johnstone’s sticks of furniture, and here for fifteen months the two women lay as close as two needles in a bottle of hay. The house stood upon a ridge, and at the back of it a dozen double flights of stairs dived into courts and cellars far below the level of the front. It was by these–a journey in themselves– that Kirstie sometimes made exit and entrance when she had business at the shops, and she has counted up to me a list, which seemed without end, of the offices, workshops, and tenements she passed on her way, beginning with a wine store in the basement, mounting to perruquiers’ and law-stationers’ shops, and so up past bookbinders’, felt-maker’s, painters’, die-sinkers’, milliners’ workrooms, to landings on which, as the roof was neared, the tenants herded closer and yet closer in meaner and yet meaner poverty.

The most of Kirstie’s business was with Mr. John Seton, the agent, to whom she carried the thread spun by her mistress in the attic, and from whom she received the moneys and accounts of profits. Once or twice, at their first coming, Mrs. Johnstone had descended for a walk in the streets; but by this time the unhappy lady had it fixed in her mind that she was being watched and followed, and shook with apprehension at every corner. So pitiable indeed were the glances she flung behind her, and so frantic the precautions she used to shake off her supposed pursuers and return by circuitous ways, that Kirstie pressed her to no more such expeditions.

To the girl, still ignorant of the cause of this terror, her mistress was evidently mad. But mad or no, she grew daily weaker in health and her handiwork began to worsen in quality, until Kirstie was forced to use deceit and sell only her own thread to Mr. Seton, though she pretended to dispose of Mrs. Johnstone’s, and accounted for the falling off in profit by a feigned tale of brisker competition among their Dutch rivals–an imposture in which the agent helped her, telling the same story in writing; for Mrs. Johnstone, whose eye for a bargain continued as sharp as ever, had actually begun to suspect the lass of robbing her.

About this time as Kirstie passed down the stairs she took notice that a new tradesman had set up business on the landing below. At first she wondered that a barber–for this was his trade–should task his customers to climb so many flights from the street; but it seemed that the fellow knew what he was about, for after the first week she never descended without meeting a customer or two mounting to his door or being followed down by one with his wig powdered and chin freshly scraped. The barber himself she never saw, though once, when the door stood ajar, she caught a glimpse of his white jacket and apron.

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She believed that he entered into occupation at Michaelmas; at any rate, he had been plying his trade for close on two months, when on November 17th, 1739, and at a quarter to three in the afternoon, Kirstie went down to the Parliament Close to carry a packet of thread to Mr. Seton. The packet was smaller than usual, for Mrs. Johnstone had not been able to finish her weekly quantity; but this did not matter, since for a month past she had made none that was saleworthy.

Now this Mr. Seton was a pleasant man, in age almost threescore, and full of interest in Mrs. Johnstone, having done business for her and her mother, the Lady Balgarnock, pretty well all his life. And so it often happened that, while weighing the thread and making out his receipt for it, he would invite Kirstie to his office, in the rear of the shop, and discuss her mistress’s health or some late news of the city, or advise her upon any small difficulty touching which she made bold to consult him–as, for instance, this pious deception in the matter of the thread.

But to-day in the midst of their discourse Kirstie felt a sudden uneasiness. Explain it she could not. Yet there came to her a sense, almost amounting to certainty, that Mrs. Johnstone was in trouble and had instant need of her. She had left her but a few minutes, and in ordinary health; there was no reason to be given for this apprehension. Nevertheless, as I say, she felt it as urgent as though her mistress’s own voice were calling. Mr. Seton observed her change of colour, and broke off his chat to ask what was amiss. She knew that if she stayed to explain he would laugh at her for a silly fancy; and if it were more than a fancy, why then to explain would be a loss of precious time. Pleading, therefore, some forgotten duty, she left the good man hurriedly, and hastening out through the shop ran across Parliament Close and up the great staircase as fast as her legs could take her.

By the time she reached the fourth flight of stairs she began to feel ashamed of the impulse which brought her, and to argue with herself against it; but at the same time her ears were open and listening for any unusual sound in the rooms above. There was no such sound until she had mounted half-way up the sixth flight, when she heard a light footstep cross the landing, and, looking up, saw the barber’s door very gently closing and shutting out a glimpse of his white jacket.

For the moment she thought little of this. The latch had scarcely clicked before she reached the landing outside, from which the last flight ran straight up to her mistress’s door. It stood open, though she had closed it less than a quarter of an hour before. This was the first time she had found it open on her return.

She caught at the stair-rail. Through the door and over the line of the topmost stair she could just see the upper panes of the window at the back of Mrs. Johnstone’s room. A heavy beam crossed the ceiling in front of the window, and from it, from a hook she had used that morning for twisting her yarn, depended a black bundle.

The bundle–it was big and shapeless–swayed ever so slightly between her and the yellow light sifted through the window. She tottered up, her knees shaking, and flung herself into the room with a scream.

While she fumbled, still screaming, at the bundle hanging from the beam, a step came swiftly up the stair, and the barber stood in the doorway. She recognised him by his white suit, and on the instant saw his face for the first time. He was a negro.

He laid a finger on his lips. Somehow the light showed them to her blood-red, although the rest of his features, barring the whites of his eyes, were all but indiscernible in the dusk. And somehow Kirstie felt a silence imposed on her by this gesture. He stepped across the boards swiftly and silently as a cat, found a stool, and set it under the beam. In the act of mounting it he signalled to Kirstie to run downstairs for help.

Silent as he, Kirstie slipped out at the door: on the threshold she glanced over her shoulder and saw him upon the stool fumbling with one hand at the yarn-rope, and with the other searching his apron pocket for a knife or razor. She ran down the garret stairs, down the next flight. . . .

Here, on the landing, she paused. She had not screamed since the black man first appeared in the doorway. She was not screaming now; she felt that she could not even raise the faintest cry. But a suspicion fastened like a hand on the back of her neck and held her.

She hesitated for a short while, and began to climb the stairs again. From the landing she looked up into the room. The black man was still on the stool, his hand still on the rope. He had not cut the bundle down– was no longer even searching for a knife.

She had been deceived. The man, whoever he was, had dismissed her when every moment was precious, and was himself not even trying to help. Nay, it might be . . .

She fought down the horror of it and rushed up the stair to fight the thing, man or devil, and save her mistress. On her way she fumbled for the scissors in her pocket. As she broke into the garret the barber, leaving the bundle to swing from its rope, stepped off the stool and, darting to a corner of the room, seemed to stand at bay there. Kirstie sprang toward the stool and hacked at the rope. As the body dropped she faced around on the man’s corner, meaning to kill or be killed.

But there was no man in the corner. Her eyes searched into its dusk, and met only the shadow of the sloping attic. He had gone without a sound. There had been no sound in the room but the thud of Mrs. Johnstone’s body, and this thud seemed to Kirstie to be taken up and echoed by the blow of her own forehead upon the boards as she fell across the feet of her mistress.

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