Robert Louis Stevenson

THRAWN JANET

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 admonition, 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 high road and the water of Dule, with a gable to each; its back was towards 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 storeys 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 looks 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—fou o beuk-lairnin an grand at the exposition, but, as was naitral in sae young a man, wi nae leevin experience in religion. The younger sort was greatly taen wi his gifts an his gab; but auld, concerned, saerious men an weemen was moved even to prayer for the young man, that they teuk to be a sel-deceiver, an the pairish that was like to be sae ill-supplied. It was afore the days o the moderates—weary fa' them; but ill things is like guid--they baith come bit bi bit, a pickle at a time; an there was folk even then that said the Lord haed left the college professors to their ain devices, an the lads that went to study wi them wad hae duin mair an better sittin in a peatbog, like their forbears o the persecution, wi a Bible under their oxter an a speerit o prayer in their hert. There was nae douts, onywey, but that Mr. Soulis haed been ower lang at the college. He was carefu an troubled for mony things besides the ae thing needfu. He haed a feck o beuks wi him—mair than haed ever been seen afore in a' that presbytery; an a sair wark the cairier haed wi them, for they were a' like to have smuired in the Deil's Hag between this an Kilmackerlie. They were beuks o divinity, to be shuir, or sae they ca'd them; but the saerious was o opeenion there was little service for sae mony, when the hail o God's Wird wad gang in the neuk o a plaid. Then he wad sit hauf the day an hauf the nicht forby, that was scant daecent—writin, nae less; an first they were feared he wad read his sermons; an syne it pruived he was writin a beuk himsel, which was shuirly no fittin for ane o his years an sma' experience.

Onywey it behoved him to get an auld, daecent wife to keep the manse for him an see to his bit denners; an he was recommended to an auld limmer—Janet M'Clour, they ca'd her—an sae far left to himsel as to be ower persuaded. There was mony advised him to the contrar, for Janet was mair than suspeckit bi the best folk in Ba'weary. Lang or that, she haed haed a wean to a dragoon; she haedna come forrit for mibbie thretty year; an bairns haed seen her mumblin to hersel up on Key's Loan in the gloamin, whilk was an unco time an place for a Godfearin wumman. Howsoever, it was the laird himsel that haed first tauld the minister o Janet; an in thae days he wad hae gane a far gate to plaesur the laird. When folk tauld him that Janet was sib to the deil, it was a' superstition bi his wey o it; an when they cast up the Bible to him an the witch o Endor, he wad threep it doun their thrapples that thir days was a' gane by, an the deil was mercifully restrained.

Weel, when it got aboot the clachan that Janet M'Clour was to be servant at the manse, the folk was fair mad wi her an him thegither; an some o the guidwifes haed nae better to dae than get roond her door-cheeks an chairge her wi a' that was kent again' her, frae the sodger's bairn to John Tamson's twa kye. She was nae great speaker; folk uisually let her gang her ain gate, an she let them gang theirs, wi naither Fair-guid-een nor Fair-guid-day; but when she buckled to, she haed a tongue to deave the miller. Up she got, an there wasna an auld story in Ba'weary but she gart somebody lowp for it that day; they couldna say ae thing but she could say twa to it; till, at the hinder end, the guidwifes up an claucht haud o her, an clawed the coats aff her back, an pou'd her doun the clachan to the watter o Duil, to see if she were a witch or no, soom or droun. The carline skirled till ye could hear her at the Hangin Shaw, an she focht like ten; there was mony a guidwife bure the mark o her neist day an mony a lang day efter; an juist in the hettest o the collieshangie, wha suld come, up (for his sins) but the new minister!

"Women," said he (an he haed 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 pairt, tauld him a' that was kent, an mibbie mair.

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

"As the Lord sees me," says she, "as the Lord made me, no a wird o't. Forby the bairn," says she, " I've been a daecent wumman a' my days."

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

Weel, it wad appear that when he askit that, she gae a girn that fairly frichit them that saw her, an they could hear her teeth play dirl thegither in her chafts; but there was naething for it but the ae wey or the ither; an Janet lifted up her hand an renoonced the deil afore them a'.

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

An he gied Janet his airm, tho she haed little on her but a sark, an teuk her up the clachan to her ain door like a leddy o the land; an her skriechin an lauchin 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, an even the menfolk stuid an keekit frae their doors. For there was Janet comin doun the clachan—her or her likeness, nane could tell—wi her neck thrawn, an her heid on ae side, like a body that haes been hangit, an a girn on her face like an unstreakit corp. By an by they got uised wi it, an even speered at her to ken what was wrang; but frae that day forth she couldna speak like a Christian wumman, but slavered an played click wi her teeth like a pair o shears; an frae that day forth the name o God cam never on her lips. Whiles she wad try to say it, but it michtna be. Them that kenned best said least; but they never gied that Thing the name o Janet M'Clour; for the auld Janet, bi their wey o't, was in muckle hell that day. But the minister was naither to haud nor to bind; he preached aboot naething but the folk's cruelty that haed gien her a stroke o the palsy; he skelpit the bairns that meddled her; an he haed her up to the manse that same nicht, an dwalled there a' his lane wi her under the Hangin Shaw.

Weel, time gaed by: an the idler sort commenced to think mair lichtly o that black business. The minister was weel thocht o; he was aye late at the writin, folk wad see his caunle doon by the Duil watter efter twal at e'en; an he seemed pleased wi himsel an upsitten as at first, tho a' body could see that he was dwinin. As for Janet, she cam an she gaed; if she didna 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.

Aboot the end o July there cam a spell o weather, the like o't never was in that country-side; it was lown an het an hertless; the herds couldna win up the Black Hill, the bairns was ower weariet to play; an yet it was gousty too, wi claps o het wund that rummled in the glens, an bits o shouers that slockened naething. We aye thocht it but to thunner on the morn; but the morn cam an the morn's mornin, an it was aye the same uncanny weather, sair on folks an bestial. O a' that was the waur, nane suffered like Mr. Soulis; he could naither sleep nor eat, he tauld his elders; an when he wasna writin at his weary beuk, he wad be stravaguin ower a' the country-side like a man possessed, when a'body else was blithe to keep caller ben the hoose.

Abuin Hangin Shaw, in the bield o the Black Hill, there's a bit enclosed grund wi an iron yett; an it seems, in the auld days, that was the kirkyaird o Ba'weary, an consecrated bi the Papists afore the blessed licht shone upon the kingdom. It was a great howf, o Mr. Soulis's onywey; there he wad sit an consider his sermons; an indeed it's a bieldy bit. Weel, as he cam ower the waist end o the Black Hill, ae day, he saw first twa, an syne fower, an syne seeven corbie craws fleein roond an roond abuin the auld kirkyaird. They flew laich an heavy, an squawked to ither as they gaed; an it was clear to Mr. Soulis that something haed pitten them frae their ordinar. He wasna easy fleyed, an gaed straucht up to the wa's; an what suld he finnd there but a man, or the appearance o a man, sittin in the inside upon a grave. He was o a great stature, an black as hell, an his een was singular to see. Mr. Soulis haed heard tell o black men, mony's the time; but there was something unco aboot this black man that daunted him. Het as he was, he teuk a kind o cauld grue in the marrae 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 wird; he got upon his feet, an begoud on to hirsle to the wa' on the far side; but he aye leukit at the minister; an the minister stuid an leukit back; till a' in a meenit the black man was ower the waa an rinnin for the bield o the trees. Mr. Soulis, he hardly kenned why, ran efter him; but he was fair forjeskit wi his walk an the het, unhalesome weather; an rin as he likit, he got nae mair than a glisk o the black man amang the birks, till he won doun to the fit o the hillside, an there he saw him ance mair, gaun, hap-step-an-lowp, ower Duil watter to the manse.

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

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

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

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

"Weel," says he, "Janet, if there was nae black man, I have spoken wi the Accuiser o the Brethren."

An he sat doun like ane wi a fever, an his teeth chittered in his heid.

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

Syne Mr. Soulis gaed into his study amang a' his beuks. It's a lang, laich, mirk chaumer, perishin cauld in winter, an no very dry even in the tap o the simmer, for the manse stands near the burn. Sae doun he sat, an thocht o a' that haed 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; an that black man aye ran in his heid like the owercome o a sang. Aye the mair he thocht, the mair he thocht o the black man. He tried the prayer, an the wirds wadna come to him; an he tried, they say, to write at his beuk, but he couldna mak nae mair o that. There was whiles he thocht the black man was at his oxter, an the swat stuid upon him cauld as well-watter; an there was ither whiles, when he cam to himsel like a christened bairn an minded naething.

The upshot was that he gaed to the windae an stuid glowerin at Duil watter. The trees is unco thick, an the watter lies deep an black under the manse; an there was Janet washin the claes wi her coats kilted. She haed her back to the minister, an he, for his pairt, hardly kenned what he was leukin at. Syne she turned roond, an shawed her face; Mr. Soulis haed 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 claycauld flesh. He drew back a pickle an he scanned her nairraely. She was tramp-trampin in the claes cruinin to hersel; an eh! Guid guide us, but it was a fearsome face. Whiles she sang louder, but there was nae man born o wumman that could tell the wirds o her sang; an whiles she leukit side-lang doun, but there was naething there for her to leuk at. There gaed a scunner throu the flesh upon his banes; an that was Heeven's advertisement. But Mr. Soulis juist blamed himsel, he said, to think sae ill o a puir, auld afflicted wife that haedna a freend forby himsel; an he put up a bit prayer for him an her, an drank a little caller watter—for his hert rose again' the meat—an gaed up to his naked bed in the gloamin.

That was a nicht that haes never been forgotten in Ba'weary, the nicht o the seeventeenth o August, seeventeen hunner an twal. It haed been het afore, as I hae said, but that nicht it was hetter than ever. The sun gaed doun amang unco-leukin clouds; it fell as murk as the pit; no a star, no a braith o wund; ye couldna see your haun afore your face, an even the auld folk cuist the covers frae their beds an lay pechin for their braith. Wi a' that he haed upon his mind, it was gey an unlikely Mr. Soulis wad get muckle sleep. He lay an he tummled; the guid, caller bed that he got into brunt his very banes; whiles he slept, an whiles he waukened; whiles he heard the time o nicht, an 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 juidged, to be seek; an seek he was—little he jaloused the seekness.

At the hinder end, he got a clearness in his mind, sat up in his sark on the bed-side, an fell thinkin ance mair o the black man an Janet. He couldna weel tell how—mibbie it was the cauld to his feet—but it cam in upon him wi a spate that there was some connection between thir twa, an that aither or baith o them was bogles. An juist at that moment, in Janet's room, that was neist to his, there cam a stramp o feet as if men were warslin, an then a lood bang; an then a wund gaed reeshlin roond the fower quarters o the hoose; an then a' was ance mair as seelent as the grave.

Mr. Soulis was feared for naither man nor deil. He got his tinder-box, an lit a caunle, an 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, an plenished wi grand, auld solid gear, for he haed naething else. There was a fower-posted bed wi auld tapestry; an a braw cabinet o aik, that was fou o the minister's divinity beuks, an put there to be oot o the gate; an a wheen duds o Janet's lyin here an there aboot the fluir. But nae Janet could Mr. Soulis see; nor ony sign o a contention. In he gaed (an there's few that wad hae follaed him) an leukit a' roond, an listened. But there was naething to be heard, naither inside the manse nor in a Ba'weary pairish, an naething to be seen but the muckle shaidaes turnin roond the caunle. An then, a' at aince, the minister's hert played dunt an stuid stock-still; an a cauld wund blew amang the hairs o his heid. Whattan 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 wis steekit, the tongue projected frae her mooth, an her heels wis twa feet clear abuin the fluir.

"God forgie us a'!" thocht Mr. Soulis, "puir Janet's deid."

He cam a step nearer to the corp; an then his hert fair whammled in his inside. For bi what cantrip it wad ill beseem a man to juidge, she was hangin frae a single nail an bi a single wursted threid for darnin hose.

It's a awfu thing to be your lane at nicht wi siccan prodigies a' darkness; but Mr. Soulis was strang in the Lord. He turned an gaed his weys oot o that room, an lockit the door ahint him; an step bi step, doun the stairs, as heavy as leed; an set doun the caunle on the table at the stair-fit. He couldna pray, he couldna think, he was dreepin wi caul' swat, an naething could he hear but the dunt-dunt-duntin o his ain hert. He micht mibbie hae stuid there an oor, or mibbie twa, he minded sae little; when a' o a sudden he heard a laich, uncanny steer upstairs; a fit gaed to an fro in the chaumer whaur the corp was hangin; syne the door was opened, tho he minded weel that he haed lockit it; an syne there was a step upon the landin, an it seemed to him as if the corp was leukin ower the rail an doun upon him whaur he stuid.

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

Bi this time the fit was comin throu the passage for the door; he could hear a hand skirt alang the waa, as if the fearsome thing was feelin for its wey. The sauchs tossed an maned thegither, a lang sich cam ower the hills, the flame o the caunle was blawn aboot; an there stuid the corp o Thrawn Janet, wi her grogram goun an her black mutch, wi the heid aye upon the shouther an the girn still upon the face o't—leevin,' ye wad hae said—deid, as Mr. Soulis weel kenned—upon the threshold o the manse.

It's a strange thing that the saul o man should be that thirled into his perishable body; but the minister saw that, an his hert didna brak.

She didna stand there lang; she began to move again an cam slowly towards Mr. Soulis whaur he stuid under the sauchs. A' the life o his body, a' the strength o his speerit, was glowerin frae his een. It seemed she was gaun to speak, but wanted wirds, an made a sign wi the left hand. There cam a clap o wund, like a cat's fuff; oot gaed the caunle, the sauchs skrieched like folk; an Mr. Soulis kenned, that, live or dee, 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 oot o the heevens struck the Horror whaur it stuid; the auld, deid desecrated corp a' the witch-wife, sae lang keepit frae the grave an hirsled roond bi deils, lowed up like a brunstane spunk an fell in ashes to the grund; the thunder follaed, peal on dirlin peal, the rairin rain upon the back o that; an Mr. Soulis lowped throu the gairden hedge, an 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; afore eicht, he gaed by the change-hoose at Knockdow; an no lang efter, Sandy M'Lellan saw him gaun linkin doun the braes frae Kilmackerlie. There's little dout but it was him that dwalled sae lang in Janet's body; but he was awa at last; an sinsyne the deil haes never fashed us in Ba'weary.

But it was a sair dispensation for the minister; lang, lang he lay ravin in his bed; an frae that oor to this, he was the man ye ken the day.