Stevenson was engaged upon this novel at the time of his death. It was conceived some time in 1892. The motive is ancienta father condemning his son to death. The character of the Brutus was suggested by that of a famous “hanging judge,” Robert Macqueen, Lord Braxfield. Stevenson at first intended to call the novel The Justice-Clerk. In a letter of December, 1892, he writes: “I expect The Justice-Clerk to be my masterpiece. My Braxfield is already a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and, so far as he has gone, far my best character.”
THERE is a cairn in a desolate hollow of the moor, which marks the grave of a Cameronian weaver shot down by the hand of Claverhouse. Here Mrs. Weir, wife of the Lord justice-Clerk, was wont to bring their only child, Archie, and tell him the story of the brave weaver who died for his faith. It was not in pride of her ancestors that she did this, but rather in penance for their misdeeds. Persecutor was a word that knocked upon the woman’s heart; it was her highest thought of wickedness, and the mark of it was on her house. The “riding Rutherfords of Hermiston” had trampled down God’s elect. Nor could she blind herself to this, that, had he lived in those old days, her husband, Adam Weir, would have been numbered alongside of Bloody MacKenzie, the wicked judge, in the band of God’s enemies. And the boy had heard the dread term applied to his father. One day a mob had gathered about their traveling carriage and hooted them all, crying: “Down with the persecutor! down with Hanging Hermiston!” As soon as he was alone with his mother, Archie, amazed, demanded an explanation.
“Keep me, my precious!” she exclaimed. “This is poleetical. Ye must never ask me anything poleetical, Erchie. Your faither is a great man, and it’s no for me or you to be judging him.”
But the boy could not help judging his father by the standards set him by his mother, and the difficulty of refraining from doing so grew more instant with every year. The man was of few words, yet these were worldly and coarse, and even sinful. His mother had taught him that tenderness was the first duty; my lord was invariably harsh. Archie tallied every mark of identification of reprobates, God’s enemies, goats, etc., and privately drew the inevitable inference that the Lord Justice-Clerk was the chief of sinners.
Fortunate it was that the poor woman died long before Archie made this inference in public.
My Lord Justice-Clerk was known to many; the man Adam Weir perhaps to none. He had no personal ambition. The thought of gaining admiration, except as a lawyer, was a stranger to his mind, and he reckoned unpopularity as a judge to be a tribute to his professional ability. He went on through life with a serene indifference to the hatred he evoked that was al-most august.
There was no “fuller man” on the Bench; his memory was marvelous, his industry tireless. He had little to say to Archie. Perhaps at table he would put a poser to the boy in law Latin, and, upon his failure to solve it, would make the discouraging remark, “Well, ye have a long jaunt before ye yet,” and then retire to his study to work upon cases till the hours were small, thus giving impressive effect to his observation.
Yet the boy preferred the dinner-table under such dispiriting conditions to the festive board into which the Justice-Clerk occasionally converted it. For Lord Hermiston was a mighty toper. He could sit at wine till the day dawned, and pass directly to the bench with a clear head. After the third bottle his language became coarse and foul.
Now the boy had inherited from jean Rutherford a shivering delicacy, unequally yoked with potential violence. Among his playmates he repaid a coarse expression with a blow; at his father’s table (when the time came for him to join these revels) he turned pale and sickened in silence.
Of all his father’s guests, Archie tolerated but one, Lord Glenalmond, whose delicacy of person, thoughts, and language spoke to the boy’s heart in its own tongue. Glenalmond saw the antipathy of the son for the father, and tried to remove it by praising the justice-Clerk.
“There is no man I more respect. He is two things of pricea great lawyer and an upright man. He has all the Roman virtues. Cato and Brutus were such. A son might well be proud of such an ancestry.”
“And I would sooner he were a plaided herd,” cried Archie with sudden bitterness. Unwisely, because it choked off further confidences, Glenalmond tartly rebuked the lad for his smart remark, saying that it was not wise, and in time he would discover that it was not true, and then regret it with unavailing remorse.
Among his fellows Archie had no confidant nor friend. He grew up handsome, with speaking countenance and graceful ways, but with a shyness that held others aloof. In college he took prizes and shone in the debating society. Strangely enough, he was thought to resemble his father in dispositionto be a “chip off the old block.” “You know Archie Weir?” said one to Frank Innes; and Innes replied, with his usual flippancy and more than his usual insight: “I know Weir, but I never met Archie.”
No one had met Archie.
It was therefore an astounding revelation of his character when, at the close of a public execution of a wretch to whom his father had not extended his prerogative of mercy, but whom he had berated instead with gloating insults, Archie stood up and shouted :
“I denounce this God-defying murder.”
Frank Innes dragged him from the spot. The two handsome lads were friends only in the sense of being drawn together by a certain mutual attraction of good looks, and a desire on Frank’s part to pose before his fellows as a self-sacrificing patron. When Archie made some resistance to being hustled away, Frank said:
“This has been the most insane affair; you know it has. You know very well I’m playing the good Samaritan. All I wish is to keep you quiet.”
“If it’s quietness you wish, leave me alone, and I promise you to walk in the country and enjoy the beauties of nature.”
“You won’t forget the Spec. this evening?” asked limes anxiously.
“No; I’ll be there.”
And the one young man carried his tortured spirit by one country road or another all day in an endless pilgrimage of misery, while the other hastened smilingly to spread the news of Weir’s access of insanity, and to drum up a full attendance at the Speculative debating society where further eccentric developments might be looked for.
Archie was chairman of the evening, and at the close of the meeting it was his office to propose the subject for the succeeding debate. Resigning the chair to Innes, he offered the question: “Whether capital punishment be consistent with God’s will or man’s policy?”
The anticipation of Innes was fulfilled. At these daring words of “Hanging Hermiston’s” only son, there was a stir in the audience. Archie’s proposal was not seconded, and a movement to adjourn was hurriedly made and unanimously carried. A crowd gathered about Innes, who was the hero of the evening because of the success of his prophecy. But one of all his companions, and he was emboldened by curiosity rather than moved by friendship, approached Archie and took him confidentially by the arm to leave the hall.
“Weir, man,” said he, “that was an extraordinary raid of yours!”
“I don’t think it a raid,” said Archie grimly. “More like a war. I saw that poor brute hanged this morning, and my gorge rises at it yet.”
“Hut-tut!” returned his companion, and, dropping his arm as if it were something hot, he sought the less tense society of Innes’s friends.
After his bold, and, as it appeared to him at the time, righteous protest against a blasphemous barbarity, came a reaction, and Archie’s heart sickened with doubt. Had he done loyally to strike his father?and not once only, but twice, before a cloud of witnesses. Thereto succeeded a great fear. Between the two antipathetic natures of father and son depended an unpardonable affront. In what manner would Lord Hermiston resent it?
A timid hope sprang up in Archie’s heart as he recalled the awful countenance of my lord. Perhaps no one would be bold enough to carry tales.
This hope was removed, and another substituted for it, by the family physician, who, meeting him in the street, said:
“My dear Mr. Archie, you had better come and see me. You are looking exceeding ill. Good folk are scarce, you know.”
“No ope would miss me,” said Archie dejectedly.
“Yes your father. In fact, he suggested my speaking to you.”
His father, the adamantine Adam, knew, and yet felt kindly toward him! With the generosity of youth, Archie instantly created a new image of Lord Hermiston, that of a man all iron without and all sensibility within. He hastened home, impatient to throw himself on the mercy of this imaginary character. But he was to meet a rude awakening. Lord Hermiston stood before the fire as Archie entered. Turning suddenly be-fore the young man could utter a word, he disclosed the terrors of the Hanging Face.
“What’s this I hear of you?”
No answer was possible to Archie.
“I’ll tell ye, then. Ye’ve been skirling Against the faither that begot ye, and one of his Majesty’s judges in this land; and that in public, while an order of the court was. being executit. And ye have also aired your opeenions in a Coallege Debatin’ Societyye damned eediot.”
“I had meant to tell you,” stammered Archie.
“And your gorge rises at the man wha haangit Duncan Jopp, does it?”
“I did not say that, father. Not at you, but at capital punishment.’
“But caapital punishment is the law, and ye would be a lawyer. Ye are not fit for it, ye splairger. Son of mine or no, you have flung fylement in public on one of the dignitaries of the bar, and for the sake of decency I would make it my business to see that ye were never admitted there. Then what am I to do. with ye? Ye’re no. fitted for the pulpit. Him that the law of man whammies is no likely to do muckle better by the law of God. What would ye make of hell? Wouldna your gorge rise at that? Ye hae never learnt a trade. What will ye do?for I’ll not support ye in idleset.”
“Let me go to the Peninsula,” said Archie humbly. “That’s all I’m fit forto fight.”
“No!” thundered Hermiston. “I would send no man to be a servant to the KingGod bless him!that has proved such a shauchling son to his own faither. And what would Lord Well’n’ton say of a sodger whose gorge rises at caapital punishment?”
Archie, realizing the illogicality of his position, stood abashed. “Father, I have affronted you,” he said. “I ask your pardon, and place myself in your hands to do with me as you will.”
“Weel, there’s just one thing it’s possible that ye might be with decency, an’ that’s a laird. Yell be out of hairm’s way, at the least o’t. But ye must work. Every man must work, or be wheeped orhaangit. So off ye go to Hermiston the morrow!”
Hermiston Place is an isolated farmstead in one of the least populous parishes of Scotland. All around is the great field of the hills, where the plover and curlew cry, and the wind blows, as in a ship’s rigging, hard and cold and pure. But the house was wind and weather proof, and warm and pleasant within with live fires of peat. Archie, tired with riding the hills to oversee the shepherds, preferred to spend his evenings by his own fireside rather than join the drinking-bouts of the harum-scarum, clodpole young lairds of the parish. He attended a few of these meetings as a duty, did his manfullest with the liquor, and got home again, being able to put up his horse to the admiration of Kirstie, the housekeeper, and the lass that helped her. He also went to the New Year’s ball at Huntsfield, where, unsuspected by himself, he excited a romantic interest among the young ladies, all worshipers of Byron, who had heard of him as the Handsome Recluse of Hermiston. But he thought he was under the ban of his kind, and finally withdrew from all social intercourse.
Kirstie, the housekeeper, who had been his mother’s faithful follower, supplied all the human association he seemed to require. She worshiped him as she had worshiped his mother before him. By the lines of a rich and vigorous maternity she was supremely fitted for motherhood; but for some reason she had passed the mating-time of life unchosen. The tender ambitions that were her inheritance being thus thwarted had changed into a barren zeal of industry and unreasoning fury of temper. She was at outs with her few neighbors and her many relatives.
To Kirstie, thus situate, and in the Indian summer of her heart, the gods sent Archie. He was a superior being, with no suggestion of the child she had once cradled and “paiddelt.” One cold, straight glance of his black eyes abashed her tantrums in the beginning. Thenceforth she gave him the loyalty of a clanswomanalmost the idolatry due to a god. It was a rich physical pleasure to do him menial service, and was amply repaid by a clap on the shoulder from him once or twice in a fortnight. All day long, when he was absent on the hills, she treasured the petty happenings about the house, and recalled old legends and quaint reminiscences of his childhood days to tell him on his return. Then she held him, an amused and interested auditor, till late at night, miming her storiesher voice sinking to a whisper over the supernatural, and taking on the quality of the various speakers in reported conversations. At last, springing up in affected surprise and pointing to the clock, she would say:
“Whatten a time o’ night is this! God forgi’e me for a daft wife!” and retire, happy that she had managed to do so without being dismissed.
The father of Kirstie, Gilbert Elliott of Cauldstaneslap, a farmstead in Hermiston parish, was twice marriedonce to a dark woman of the old Ellwald stock, by whom he had Gilbert, and, secondly, to the mother of Kirstie, a woman of Norse blood, from whom the daughter inherited a fair complexion and rich, golden hair.
Black-avised Gilbert, twenty years older than his sister, succeeded, on their father’s death, to the homestead. He married a woman of his mother’s stock, the Ellwalds, and begot four sons between 1773 and 1784, and a daughter, like a postscript, in 1797. All had raven hair and dark skin, and the boys were known as the Four Black Elliotts. Their names were Robert, Gilbert, Clement, and Andrewin Border diminutive, Hob, Gib, Clem, and Dand.
In 1804, at the age of sixty, the father met with a heroic end. Returning late from the market with a good bit of money, he was set upon at the ford of Broken Dykes in Hermiston Water by armed ruffians. Although three parts drunk, as was his wonted condition coming from market, and caught at night and in rushing water up to the saddle-girth, he wrought with his staff like a smith at his stithy, and tore his way homeward through the midst of his foes, wounded to death, but holding fast to his golden guineas. The horse fell dead at the gate of Cauldstaneslap; the laird won to the house and fell on the threshold. His eldest son, Hob, opened the door. Into his hand the old man thrust his purse, and then, gasping through his bleeding lips, ” Bracken Dykes,” he gave up his valorous ghost.
The four sons at once took horse for the ford, and took dire vengeance on a wounded man they found there, riding over him till he was a shapeless human remnant. Dandle dismounted, and, with the lantern, followed like a sleuth-hound the trail of blood left by the fleeing ruffians. Before the brothers could capture these, however, a posse of neighbors joined in the pursuit and so the murderers when taken escaped the immediate tribal vengeance, to perish later at the hands of the law. They were four in number. Later the body of a sixth assailant of old Elliott was found in the river below the ford.
“Sax o’ them!” exclaimed Hob, when this discovery was told him. ” God’s death, but the faither was a man! And him drunk!”
Three of the brothers lived at CauldstaneslapHob a farmer, Gib a weaver, and Dand a shepherd. Clem was a wealthy merchant in Glasgow. Hob and Clem were married, and Kirstie, the sister, divided her time between the two families.
It was at church that Archie first saw Kirstie of Cauldstaneslap. She had just returned from Glasgow, and was arrayed in new city finery. According to the fashion in which our grand-mothers armed themselves for the capture of our grandfathers, the gown was drawn up so as to mold the contour of the breasts, and in the nook between a cairngorm brooch maintained it.
Here, too, surely in an enviable position, trembled a nosegay of primroses. Her childish face was animated by the red blood working vividly under her tawny skin, and its dark, wild beauty was enhanced by a disorder of black ringlets with glinting threads of bronze. Among the weathered and blowsy faces of her kin, she glowed like an open flower.
Archie gazed at her with the open admiration one gives to a beautiful child, and his look encountered one of equal admiration from her. She blushed and, dropping her eyes, busied her-self with the psalm-book. Thereupon Archie awoke to a sense of his ill behavior and thereafter devoted his attention to the sermon. At its close Archie and Kirstie each stole a look at the other. The glances met; a charge as of electricity passed through Kirstie, and behold! the leaf of her psalm-book was torn across.
After church she was presented to the young laird. She made her Glasgow curtsey to him, and then set off before the rest, that she might be alone with her new and cherished sensations, walking by a bypath to Cauldstaneslap. She had not gone far when Archie overtook her. He asked her to call at Hermiston upon her aunt, not concealing that it was admiration of her beauty and not formal courtesy that prompted the invitation. After he parted from her, she hurried homeward in an intoxication of bliss, and, still carrying her psalm-book, ran to her chamber. There, fixing her eyes upon the torn page of the book, as a crystal-gazer peers into his globe, she gave herself up to a dream of herself as the wife of the handsome young laird of Hermiston. Arising at length from her reverie, she changed her fine frock for a common gown, though wearing still her silk stockings and silk kerchief, and set off for the Weaver’s Stone, whence she could have a distant view of the place of which she might shortly be the mistress.
On Sabbath evenings Archie was wont to visit the memorial of the Cameronian martyr, made sacred to him by its associations with his mother. This day, however, his thoughts were occupied with Kirstie of Cauldstaneslap. Having her bright image in his mind, it was with something of a shock that he saw its embodiment before him. As yet unobserved by her, he beheld the little womanly figure in gray dress and pink kerchief sitting pensive amid desolate and mournful surroundings, and a great warm wave of tenderness gushed through him. This was followed by a certain chill. It came upon him that he now dealt in serious matters of life and death. This was a grown woman he was approaching, endowed with her mysterious potencies, the treasury of the continued race, and he was neither better nor worse than the average of his sex and age.
Hearing his footstep, she turned, and, seeing who it was that had invaded her solitude, smiled with a confiding appeal that stood between them like a guardian sword.
Two days after this meeting of our Faust and Margaret, Mephistopheles entered upon the scene in the person of Frank Innes.
Desirous of finding a secure retreat from pressing creditors, Frank had bethought himself of Hermiston, to visit which Archie had given him an invitation that, while not pressing, was sufficient for his purpose. So he descended unannounced upon Hermiston with rod and line, as if on a short fishing excursion.
Archie, pleading his farm duties, left his visitor to his own devices, and spent his days among the hills. For a time Innes stayed about the house endeavoring to secure Kirstie’s favor, impress upon her his self-sacrificing devotion to a friend in disgrace, and discover how Archie took his punishment.
But the loyal housekeeper was only angered by his ingratiating advances. She escaped his inquisition by fleeing to the kitchen and giving vent to her feelings before the little maid servant.
“Here, ettercap! Yell have to wait on yon Innes! I canna baud mysel’ in. `Puir Erchie!’ I’d `puir Erchie’ him, if I had my way! And `Hermiston with the de’il’s ain temper!’ God! let him take Hermiston’s scones out of his mouth first.”
So Innes was driven to seek company among the roistering young lairds of the parish. By them his theory of his disinterested devotion to an unappreciative friend was readily received, and the name of The Recluse became general for Archie. Some say that Innes invented it; Innes, at least, spread it abroad, also the details of Archie’s disgrace. And by thus milling air out of his mouth, he had presently built up a presentation of young Hermiston that was known and talked of in all corners of the county.
There was a spice of genuine malice in this tale-bearing, for Innes was piqued at Archie’s avoidance of his company. And this malice bred also suspicion. Was Archie keeping tryst in the hills with some woman? It would be a good joke and a fair revenge to discover. And by setting his energies to the task he did find out the secret. He had Archie in his power! Poor cork upon a torrent, he tasted that night the sweets of omnipotence, and brooded like a deity over that intrigue which was to shatter him ere the summer waned.
Kirstie of Hermiston, too, discovered Archie’s love-affairnot by spying and eavesdropping, but by sympathetic divination of what was passing in her darling’s mind. Now that Innes’s presence had made confidences at supper impossible, she came to Archie’s bedroom. Her emotion had touched her with a wand of transformation, and she seemed young with the youth of goddesses.
“Mr. Erchie, what’s this that’s come to ye?”
“I am not aware of anything that has come.”
“Oh, my dear, that’ll no dae! It’s ill to blind the eyes of love. Ye mauna think that I havena been young mysel’, wi’ a braw lover. Puir Tam, he deed, and I wasna at the buryin’. And we, too, trysted at the Weaver’s Stone; my lad had a tongue to wile the birds frae the lift and the bees frae the foxglove bells. I could scarce take care o’ mysel’. And can yon puir lassie?”
The pure color had risen in Kirstie’s face, and she stretched out her hand appealingly to Archie. Abashed by her beauty and her loyalty, he took her hand and kissed it.
“I swear by my honor I have done her no wrong and that none shall be done her. I have been foolish, Kirstie, but not base.”
“There’s my bairn,” said Kirstie, rising. “I’ll can trust ye noo; I’ll can gang to my bed wi’ an easy hairt. May the blessing of God rest upon ye, dear.”
” God bless ye, my old friend.”
It was late in the afternoon of the next day when Archie arrived at the tryst by the Weaver’s Stone. His sweetheart had been waiting him long. She stood up expectant; she was all languor; her arms ached for him; her face had become white. But he paused a few steps away, not less white than herself.
“No, Christina, not to-day. I must talk to you seriously. Sit down.”
She sat down upon the stone, partly with the instinct of obedience, partly as if she had been thrust there. She was speechless with humiliation and resentment.
“Kirstie, there’s been too much of this. No good ever comes of these secret meetings, and I ought to have seen it. People have begun to talk. We must not wreck our lives at the outset. My father must not hear of our meetings. We must wait until I gain his consent. You are worth waiting for, Kirstiefor a whole generation.”
“Who was it spoke to you?” asked Christina resentfully. “Your aunt for one.”
“Auntie Kirstie, indeed! A bitter, thrawn auld maid that’s aye fomenting trouble! And who else? Was it Mr. Frank?” “Yes,” Archie confessed reluctantly.
“So all Hermiston has been passing their opinions on me. Was this at prayers like? Did you ca’ the grieve into the consultation? Little wonder if a’body’s talking when ye make a’body yer confidants! I think I’ll better be going. I’ll be wishing you good evening, Mr. Weir.” She made him a stately curtsey and turned toward home.
“Kirstie!” cried Archie. “Oh, Kirstie woman!”
She turned upon him with blazing eyes. “Don’t `Kirstie’ me. What have ye to do wi’ me? Gang to your ain freends and cleave them!”
“`Kirstie,’ indeed! My name is Miss Christina Elliott. If I canna get love I’ll have respect, Mr. Weir. I’m come of decent people. What have I done that ye should lightly hold me? Oh, what have I done? And I thocht I was sae happy!”
She sank upon the ground sobbing. Archie ran to her and took her in his arms. She nestled to his breast and clasped him in hands strong as vises. He felt her whole body shaken by convulsive throbbings. Then he realized what an explosive engine it was, whose works he did not understand and yet had been tampering with.
This is as far as Stevenson had written when death overtook him. His stepdaughter, Mrs. Strong, who was his amanuensis, presents the following as the argument of the rest of the story:
Archie persists in his good resolution of avoiding further con-duct compromising to young Kirstie’s good name. Taking ad-vantage of the situation thus created, and of the girl’s unhappiness and wounded vanity, Prank Innes pursues his purpose of seduction; and Kirstie, though still caring for Archie in her heart, allows herself to become Frank’s victim. Old Kirstie is the first to perceive something amiss with her, and, believing Archie to be the culprit, accuses him, thus making him aware for the first time that mischief has happened. He does not at once deny the charge, but seeks out and questions young Kirstie, who confesses the truth to him; and he, still loving her, promises to protect and defend her in her trouble. He then has an interview with Prank Innes on the moor, which ends in a quarrel, and in Archie’s killing Frank beside the Weaver’s Stone. Mean-while the Four Black Brothers, having become aware of their sister’s betrayal, are bent on vengeance against Archie as her supposed seducer. They are about to close in upon him with this purpose, when he is arrested by the officers of the law for the murder of Frank. He is tried before his own father, the Justice-Clerk, found guilty, and condemned to death. Meanwhile, the elder Kirstie, having discovered from the girl how matters really stand, informs her nephews of the truth; and they, in a great revulsion of feeling in Archie’s favor, determine on an action after the ancient manner of their house. They gather a following, and, after a great fight, break the prison where Archie lies confined and rescue him. He and young Kirstie thereafter escape to America. But the ordeal of taking part in the trial of his own son has been too much for the Lord Justice-Clerk, who dies of the shock.