The Duncans’ house stood on the square, as behooved the residence of the procurator fiscal. This was a matter of convenience as well as status; the square could be used for those judicial matters which, by reason of public interest or legal necessity, overflowed the narrow confines of Arthur Duncan’s study. And it was, as Dougal explained, convenient to the pillory, a homely wooden contraption that stood on a small stone plinth in the center of the square, adjacent to the wooden stake used—with thrifty economy of purpose—as whipping post, maypole, flagstaff and horse tether, depending upon requirements.
The noise outside was now much louder, and altogether more disorderly than seemed appropriate to people coming soberly home from church to their dinners. Geilie put aside the jars with an exclamation of impatience and threw open the window to see what caused the uproar.
Joining her at the window, I could see a crowd of folk dressed in church-going garb of gown, kirtle, coat, and bonnet, led by the stocky figure of Father Bain, the priest who served both village and castle. He had in his custody a youth, perhaps twelve years old, whose ragged trews and smelly shirt proclaimed him a tanner’s lad. The priest had the boy gripped by the nape of the neck, a hold made somewhat difficult to maintain by the fact that the lad was slightly taller than his minatory captor. The crowd followed the pair at a small distance, rumbling with disapproving comment like a passing thunder cloud in the wake of a lightning bolt.
As we watched from the upper window, Father Bain and the boy disappeared beneath us, into the house. The crowd remained outside, muttering and jostling. A few of the bolder souls chinned themselves on the window ledges, attempting to peer within.
Geilie shut the window with a slam, making a break in the anticipatory rumble below.
“Stealing, most like,” she said laconically, returning to the herb table. “Usually is, wi’ the tanners’ lads.”
“What will happen to him?” I asked curiously. She shrugged, crumbling dried rosemary between her fingers into the mortar.
“Depends on whether Arthur’s dyspeptic this morning, I should reckon. If he’s made a good breakfast, the lad might get off with a whipping. But happen he’s costive or flatulent”—she made a moue of distaste—“the boy’ll lose an ear or a hand, most like.”
I was horrified, but hesitant to interfere directly in the matter. I was an outlander, and an Englishwoman to boot, and while I thought I would be treated with some respect as an inhabitant of the castle, I had seen many of the villagers surreptitiously make the sign against evil as I passed. My intercession might easily make things worse for the boy.
“Can’t you do anything?” I asked Geilie. “Speak to your husband, I mean; ask him to be, er, lenient?”
Geilie looked up from her work, surprised. Clearly the thought of interfering in her husband’s affairs had never crossed her mind.
“Why should you care what happens to him?” she asked, but curiously, not with any hostile meaning.
“Of course I care!” I said. “He’s only a lad; whatever he did, he doesn’t deserve to be mutilated for life!”
She raised pale brows; plainly this argument was unconvincing. Still, she shrugged and handed me the mortar and pestle.
“Anything to oblige a friend,” she said, rolling her eyes. She scanned her shelves and selected a bottle of greenish stuff, labeled, in fine cursive script, EXTRACT OF PEPPERMINT.
“I’ll go and dose Arthur, and whilst I’m about it, I’ll see if aught can be done for the lad. It may be too late, mind,” she warned. “And if that poxy priest’s got a hand in, he’ll want the stiffest sentence he can get. Still, I’ll try. You keep after the pounding; rosemary takes forever.”
I took up the pestle as she left, and pounded and ground automatically, paying little heed to the results. The shut window blocked the sound both of the rain and the crowd below; the two blended in a soft, pattering susurrus of menace. Like any schoolchild, I had read Dickens. And earlier authors, as well, with their descriptions of the pitiless justice of these times, meted out to all illdoers, regardless of age or circumstance. But to read, from a cozy distance of one or two hundred years, accounts of child hangings and judicial mutilation, was a far different thing than to sit quietly pounding herbs a few feet above such an occurrence.
Could I bring myself to interfere directly, if the sentence went against the boy? I moved to the window, carrying the mortar with me, and peered out. The crowd had increased, as merchants and housewives, attracted by the gathering, wandered down the High Street to investigate. Newcomers leaned close as the standees excitedly relayed the details, then merged into the body of the crowd, more faces turned expectantly to the door of the house.
Looking down on the assembly, standing patiently in the drizzle awaiting a verdict, I suddenly had a vivid understanding of something. Like so many, I had heard, appalled, the reports that trickled out of postwar Germany; the stories of deportations and mass murder, of concentration camps and burnings. And like so many others had done, and would do, for years to come, I had asked myself, “How could the people have let it happen? They must have known, must have seen the trucks, the coming and going, the fences and smoke. How could they stand by and do nothing?” Well, now I knew.
The stakes were not even life or death in this case. And Colum’s patronage would likely prevent any physical attack on me. But my hands grew clammy around the porcelain bowl as I thought of myself stepping out, alone and powerless, to confront that mob of solid and virtuous citizens, avid for the excitement of punishment and blood to alleviate the tedium of existence.
People are gregarious by necessity. Since the days of the first cave dwellers, humans—hairless, weak, and helpless save for cunning—have survived by joining together in groups; knowing, as so many other edible creatures have found, that there is protection in numbers. And that knowledge, bred in the bone, is what lies behind mob rule. Because to step outside the group, let alone to stand against it, was for uncounted thousands of years death to the creature who dared it. To stand against a crowd would take something more than ordinary courage; something that went beyond human instinct. And I feared I did not have it, and fearing, was ashamed.
It seemed forever before the door opened and Geilie stepped in, looking cool and unperturbed as usual, a small stick of charcoal in her hand.
“We’ll need to filter it after it’s boiled,” she remarked, as though going on with our previous conversation. “I think we’ll run it through charcoal in muslin; that’s best.”
“Geilie,” I said impatiently. “Don’t try me. What about the tanner’s boy?”
“Oh, that.” She lifted a shoulder dismissively, but a mischievous smile lurked about the corners of her lips. She dropped the facade then, and laughed.
“You should have seen me,” she said, giggling. “I was awfully good, an’ I say it myself. All wifely solicitude and womanly kindness, with a small dab o’ maternal pity mixed in. ‘Oh, Arthur,’ ” she dramatized, “ ‘had our own union been blessed’—not much chance, if I’ve aught to say about it,” she said, dropping the soulful mask for a moment with a tilt of her head toward the herb shelves—“ ‘why, how would ye feel, my darling, should your own son be taken so? Nae doubt it was but hunger made the lad take to thievery. Oh, Arthur, can ye no find it in your heart to be merciful—and you the soul of justice?’ ” She dropped onto a stool, laughing and pounding her fist lightly against her leg. “What a pity there’s no place for acting here!”
The sound of the crowd outside had changed, and I moved to the window to see what was happening, ignoring Geilie’s self-congratulations.
The throng parted, and the tanner’s lad came out, walking slowly between priest and judge. Arthur Duncan was swollen with benevolence, bowing and nodding to the more eminent members of the assembly. Father Bain, on the other hand, resembled a sullen potato more than anything else, brown face lumpy with resentment.
The little procession proceeded to the center of the square, where the village locksman, one John MacRae, stepped out of the crowd to meet them. This personage was dressed as befitted his office in the sober elegance of dark breeches and coat and grey velvet hat (removed for the nonce and tenderly sheltered from the rain beneath the tail of his coat). He was not, as I had at first assumed, the village jailer, though in a pinch he did perform such office. His duties were primarily those of constable, customs inspector, and when needed, executioner; his title came from the wooden “lock” or scoop that hung from his belt, with which he was entitled to take a percentage of each bag of grain sold in the Thursday market: the remuneration of his office.
I had found all this out from the locksman himself. He had been to the Castle only a few days before to see whether I could treat a persistent felon on his thumb. I had lanced it with a sterile needle and dressed it with poplar-bud salve, finding MacRae a shy and soft-spoken man with a pleasant smile.
There was no trace of a smile now, though; MacRae’s face was suitably stern. Reasonable, I thought; no one wants to see a grinning executioner.
The miscreant was brought to stand on the plinth in the center of the square. The lad looked pale and frightened, but did not move as Arthur Duncan, procurator fiscal for the parish of Cranesmuir, drew his plumpness up into an approximation of dignity and prepared to pronounce sentence.
“The ninny had already confessed by the time I came in,” said a voice by my ear. Geilie peered interestedly over my shoulder. “I couldna get him freed entirely. I got him off as light as could be, though; only an hour in the pillory and one ear nailed.”
“One ear nailed! Nailed to what?”
“Why, the pillory, o’ course.” She shot me a curious look, but turned back to the window to watch the execution of this light sentence obtained by her merciful intercession.
The crush of bodies around the pillory was so great that little of the miscreant could be seen, but the crowd drew back a bit to allow the locksman free movement for the ear-nailing. The lad, white-faced and small in the jaws of the pillory, had both eyes tight shut and kept them that way, shuddering with fear. He uttered a high, thin scream when the nail was driven in, audible through the closed windows, and I shuddered a bit myself.
We returned to our work, as did most of the spectators in the square, but I could not help rising to glance out from time to time. A few idlers passing by paused to jeer at the victim and throw balls of mud, and now and then a more sober citizen was to be seen, seizing a moment from the round of daily duties to attend to the moral improvement of the delinquent by means of a few well-chosen words of reproval and advice.
It was still an hour to the late spring sunset, and we were drinking tea below in the parlor, when a pounding at the door announced the arrival of a visitor. The day was so dark from the rain that one could hardly tell the level of the sun. The Duncans’ house, however, boasted a clock, a magnificent contrivance of walnut panels, brass pendulums, and a face decorated with quiring cherubim, and this instrument pointed to half-past six.
The scullery maid opened the door to the parlor and unceremoniously announced, “In here.” Jamie MacTavish ducked automatically as he came through the door, bright hair darkened by the rain to the color of ancient bronze. He wore an elderly and disreputable coat against the wet, and carried a riding cloak of heavy green velvet folded under one arm.
He nodded in acknowledgment as I rose and introduced him to Geilie.
“Mistress Duncan, Mrs. Beauchamp.” He waved a hand toward the window. “I see ye’ve had a wee bit doing this afternoon.”
“Is he still there?” I asked, peering out. The boy was only a dark shape, seen through the distortion of the wavering drawing-room panes. “He must be soaked through.”
“He is.” Jamie spread the cloak and held it for me. “So you’d be as well, Colum thought. I’d business in the village, so he sent along the cloak with me for ye. You’re to ride back wi’ me.”
“That was kind of him.” I spoke absently, for my mind was still on the tanner’s lad.
“How long must he stay there?” I asked Geilie. “The lad in the pillory,” I added impatiently, seeing her blank look.
“Oh, him,” she said, frowning slightly at the introduction of such an unimportant topic. “An hour, I told you. The locksman should ha’ freed him from the pillory by now.”
“He has,” Jamie assured her. “I saw him as I was crossing the green. It’s only the lad’s not got up courage to tear the griss from his lug yet.”
My mouth dropped open. “You mean the nail won’t be taken out of his ear? He’s to tear himself loose?”
“Oh, aye.” Jamie was cheerfully offhand. “He’s still a bit nervous, but I imagine he’ll set his mind to it soon. It’s wet out, and growing dark as well. We must leave ourselves, or we’ll get naught but scraps to our dinner.” He bowed to Geilie and turned to go.
“Wait a bit,” she said to me. “Since you’ve a big, strong lad like yon to see ye home, I’ve a chest of dried marsh cabbage and other simples as I’ve promised to Mrs. FitzGibbons up at the Castle. Perhaps Mr. MacTavish would be so kind?”
Jamie assenting, she had a manservant fetch down the chest from her workroom, handing over the enormous wrought-iron key for the purpose. While the servant was gone, she busied herself for a moment at a small writing desk in the corner. By the time the chest, a sizable wooden box with brass bands, was brought in, she had finished her note. She hastily sanded it, folded and sealed it with a blob of wax from the candle, and pressed it into my hand.
“There,” she said. “That’s the bill for it. Will ye give it to Dougal for me? It’s him that handles the payments and such. Dinna give it to anyone else, or I’ll not be paid for weeks.”
“Yes, of course.”
She embraced me warmly, and with admonitions about avoiding the chill, saw us to the door.
I stood sheltering beneath the eave of the house, as Jamie tied the box to his horse’s saddle. The rain was coming down harder now, and the eaves ran with a ragged sheet of water.
I eyed the broad back and muscular forearms as he lifted the heavy box with little apparent effort. Then I glanced at the plinth, where the tanner’s boy, in spite of encouragement from the regathered crowd, was still firmly pinioned. Granted this was not a lovely young girl with moonbeam hair, but Jamie’s earlier actions in Colum’s hall of justice made me think that he might not be unsympathetic to the youngster’s plight.
“Er, Mr. MacTavish?” I began, hesitantly. There was no response. The comely face did not change expression; the wide mouth stayed relaxed, the blue eyes focused on the strap he was fastening.
“Ah, Jamie?” I tried again, a little louder, and he looked up at once. So it really wasn’t MacTavish. I wondered what it was.
“Aye?” he said.
“You’re, er, quite sizable, aren’t you?” I said. A half-smile curved his lips and he nodded, clearly wondering what I was up to.
“Big enough for most things,” he answered.
I was encouraged, and moved casually closer, so as not to be overheard by any stragglers from the square.
“And tolerably strong in the fingers?” I asked.
He flexed one hand and the smile widened. “Aye, that’s so. Happen you’ve a few chestnuts you want cracked?” He looked down at me with a shrewd and merry glint.
I glanced briefly past him to the knot of onlookers in the square.
“More like one to be pulled from the fire, I think.” I looked up to meet that questioning blue gaze. “Could you do it?”
He stood looking down at me for a moment, still smiling, then shrugged. “Aye, if the shank’s long enough to grip. Can ye draw the crowd away, though? Interference wouldna be looked on kindly, and me a stranger.”
I had not anticipated the possibility that my request might put him in any danger, and I hesitated, but he seemed game to try, danger notwithstanding.
“Well, if we both went over for a closer look, and then I were to faint at the sight, do you think—?”
“You being so unused to blood and all?” One brow lifted sardonically and he grinned. “Aye, that’ll do. If ye can make shift to fall off the plinth, still better.”
I had in fact felt a bit squeamish about looking, but it was not so daunting a sight as I had feared. The ear was pinned firmly through the upper flange, close to the edge, and a full two inches of the nail’s square, headless shank was free above the pinioned appendage. There was almost no blood, and it was clear from the boy’s face that while he was both frightened and uncomfortable, he was in no great pain. I began to think that Geilie perhaps had been right in considering this a fairly lenient sentence, given the overall state of current Scottish jurisprudence, though this didn’t alter by one whit my opinion as to the barbarity of it.
Jamie edged casually through the fringe of lookers-on. He shook his head reprovingly at the boy.
“Na then, lad,” he said, clicking his tongue. “Got yourself in a rare swivet, have ye no?” He rested one large, firm hand on the wooden edge of the pillory, under pretext of looking more closely at the ear. “Och, laddie,” he said, disparaging, “yon’s no job to be making heavy weather of. A wee snatch o’ the head and it’s over. Here, shall I help ye?” He reached out as though to grasp the lad by the hair and wrench his head free. The boy yelped in fear.
Recognizing my cue, I stepped back, taking care to tread heavily on the toes of the woman behind me, who yipped in anguish as my boot heel crushed her metatarsals.
“I beg your pardon,” I gasped. “I’m…so dizzy! Please…” I turned away from the pillory and took two or three steps, staggering artfully and clutching at the sleeves of those nearby. The edge of the plinth was only six inches away; I took a firm hold on a slightly built girl I had marked out for the purpose and pitched headfirst over the edge, taking her with me.
We rolled on the wet grass in a tangle of skirts and squeals. Letting go of her blouse at last, I relaxed into a dramatically spread-eagled heap, rain pattering down on my upturned face.
I was in truth a trifle winded by the impact—the girl had fallen on top of me—and I fought for breath, listening to the babble of concerned voices gathered around me. Speculations, suggestions, and shocked interjections rained on me, thicker than the drops of water from the sky, but it was a pair of familiar arms that raised me to a sitting position, and a pair of gravely concerned blue eyes that I saw when I opened my own. A faint flicker of the eyelids told me that the mission had been accomplished, and in fact, I could see the tanner’s lad, napkin clutched to his ear, making off at speed in the direction of his loft, unnoticed by the crowd that had turned to attend to this new sensation.