The Weir of Hermiston, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter 4

Opinions of the Bench

LATE the same night, after a disordered walk, Archie was admitted into Lord Glenalmond’s dining-room, where he sat with a book upon his knee, beside three frugal coals of fire. In his robes upon the bench, Glenalmond had a certain air of burliness: plucked of these, it was a may-pole of a man that rose unsteadily from his chair to give his visitor welcome. Archie had suffered much in the last days, he had suffered again that evening; his face was white and drawn, his eyes wild and dark. But Lord Glenalmond greeted him without the least mark of surprise or curiosity.

“Come in, come in,” said he. “Come in and take a seat. Carstairs” (to his servant), “make up the fire, and then you can bring a bit of supper,” and again to Archie, with a very trivial accent: “I was half expecting you,” he added.

“No supper,” said Archie. “It is impossible that I should eat.”

“Not impossible,” said the tall old man, laying his hand upon his shoulder, “and, if you will believe me, necessary.”

“You know what brings me?” said Archie, as soon as the servant had left the room.

“I have a guess, I have a guess,” replied Glenalmond. “We will talk of it presently — when Carstairs has come and gone, and you have had a piece of my good Cheddar cheese and a pull at the porter tankard: not before.”

“It is impossible I should eat” repeated Archie.

“Tut, tut!” said Lord Glenalmond. “You have eaten nothing to-day, and I venture to add, nothing yesterday. There is no case that may not be made worse; this may be a very disagreeable business, but if you were to fall sick and die, it would be still more so, and for all concerned — for all concerned.”

“I see you must know all,” said Archie. “Where did you hear it?”

“In the mart of scandal, in the Parliament House,” said Glenalmond. “It runs riot below among the bar and the public, but it sifts up to us upon the bench, and rumour has some of her voices even in the divisions.”

Carstairs returned at this moment, and rapidly laid out a little supper; during which Lord Glenalmond spoke at large and a little vaguely on indifferent subjects, so that it might be rather said of him that he made a cheerful noise, than that he contributed to human conversation; and Archie sat upon the other side, not heeding him, brooding over his wrongs and errors.

But so soon as the servant was gone, he broke forth again at once. “Who told my father? Who dared to tell him? Could it have been you?”

“No, it was not me,” said the Judge; “although — to be quite frank with you, and after I had seen and warned you — it might have been me — I believe it was Glenkindie.”

“That shrimp!” cried Archie.

“As you say, that shrimp,” returned my lord; “although really it is scarce a fitting mode of expression for one of the senators of the College of Justice. We were hearing the parties in a long, crucial case, before the fifteen; Creech was moving at some length for an infeftment; when I saw Glenkindie lean forward to Hermiston with his hand over his mouth and make him a secret communication. No one could have guessed its nature from your father: from Glenkindie, yes, his malice sparked out of him a little grossly. But your father, no. A man of granite. The next moment he pounced upon Creech. ‘Mr. Creech,’ says he, ‘I’ll take a look of that sasine,’ and for thirty minutes after,” said Glenalmond, with a smile, “Messrs. Creech and Co. were fighting a pretty up-hill battle, which resulted, I need hardly add, in their total rout. The case was dismissed. No, I doubt if ever I heard Hermiston better inspired. He was literally rejoicing IN APICIBUS JURIS.”

Archie was able to endure no longer. He thrust his plate away and interrupted the deliberate and insignificant stream of talk. “Here,” he said, “I have made a fool of myself, if I have not made something worse. Do you judge between us — judge between a father and a son. I can speak to you; it is not like . . . I will tell you what I feel and what I mean to do; and you shall be the judge,” he repeated.

“I decline jurisdiction,” said Glenalmond, with extreme seriousness. “But, my dear boy, if it will do you any good to talk, and if it will interest you at all to hear what I may choose to say when I have heard you, I am quite at your command. Let an old man say it, for once, and not need to blush: I love you like a son.”

There came a sudden sharp sound in Archie’s throat. “Ay,” he cried, “and there it is! Love! Like a son! And how do you think I love my father?”

“Quietly, quietly,” says my lord.

“I will be very quiet,” replied Archie. “And I will be baldly frank. I do not love my father; I wonder sometimes if I do not hate him. There’s my shame; perhaps my sin; at least, and in the sight of God, not my fault. How was I to love him? He has never spoken to me, never smiled upon me; I do not think he ever touched me. You know the way he talks? You do not talk so, yet you can sit and hear him without shuddering, and I cannot. My soul is sick when he begins with it; I could smite him in the mouth. And all that’s nothing. I was at the trial of this Jopp. You were not there, but you must have heard him often; the man’s notorious for it, for being — look at my position! he’s my father and this is how I have to speak of him — notorious for being a brute and cruel and a coward. Lord Glenalmond, I give you my word, when I came out of that Court, I longed to die — the shame of it was beyond my strength: but I— I—” he rose from his seat and began to pace the room in a disorder. “Well, who am I? A boy, who have never been tried, have never done anything except this twopenny impotent folly with my father. But I tell you, my lord, and I know myself, I am at least that kind of a man — or that kind of a boy, if you prefer it — that I could die in torments rather than that any one should suffer as that scoundrel suffered. Well, and what have I done? I see it now. I have made a fool of myself, as I said in the beginning; and I have gone back, and asked my father’s pardon, and placed myself wholly in his hands — and he has sent me to Hermiston,” with a wretched smile, “for life, I suppose — and what can I say? he strikes me as having done quite right, and let me off better than I had deserved.”

“My poor, dear boy!” observed Glenalmond. “My poor dear and, if you will allow me to say so, very foolish boy! You are only discovering where you are; to one of your temperament, or of mine, a painful discovery. The world was not made for us; it was made for ten hundred millions of men, all different from each other and from us; there’s no royal road there, we just have to sclamber and tumble. Don’t think that I am at all disposed to be surprised; don’t suppose that I ever think of blaming you; indeed I rather admire! But there fall to be offered one or two observations on the case which occur to me and which (if you will listen to them dispassionately) may be the means of inducing you to view the matter more calmly. First of all, I cannot acquit you of a good deal of what is called intolerance. You seem to have been very much offended because your father talks a little sculduddery after dinner, which it is perfectly licit for him to do, and which (although I am not very fond of it myself) appears to be entirely an affair of taste. Your father, I scarcely like to remind you, since it is so trite a commonplace, is older than yourself. At least, he is MAJOR and SUI JURIS, and may please himself in the matter of his conversation. And, do you know, I wonder if he might not have as good an answer against you and me? We say we sometimes find him COARSE, but I suspect he might retort that he finds us always dull. Perhaps a relevant exception.”

He beamed on Archie, but no smile could be elicited.

“And now,” proceeded the Judge, “for ‘Archibald on Capital Punishment.’ This is a very plausible academic opinion; of course I do not and I cannot hold it; but that’s not to say that many able and excellent persons have not done so in the past. Possibly, in the past also, I may have a little dipped myself in the same heresy. My third client, or possibly my fourth, was the means of a return in my opinions. I never saw the man I more believed in; I would have put my hand in the fire, I would have gone to the cross for him; and when it came to trial he was gradually pictured before me, by undeniable probation, in the light of so gross, so cold-blooded, and so black-hearted a villain, that I had a mind to have cast my brief upon the table. I was then boiling against the man with even a more tropical temperature than I had been boiling for him. But I said to myself: ‘No, you have taken up his case; and because you have changed your mind it must not be suffered to let drop. All that rich tide of eloquence that you prepared last night with so much enthusiasm is out of place, and yet you must not desert him, you must say something.’ So I said something, and I got him off. It made my reputation. But an experience of that kind is formative. A man must not bring his passions to the bar — or to the bench,” he added.

The story had slightly rekindled Archie’s interest. “I could never deny,” he began — “I mean I can conceive that some men would be better dead. But who are we to know all the springs of God’s unfortunate creatures? Who are we to trust ourselves where it seems that God Himself must think twice before He treads, and to do it with delight? Yes, with delight. TIGRIS UT ASPERA.”

“Perhaps not a pleasant spectacle,” said Glenalmond. “And yet, do you know, I think somehow a great one.”

“I’ve had a long talk with him to-night,” said Archie.

“I was supposing so,” said Glenalmond.

“And he struck me — I cannot deny that he struck me as something very big,” pursued the son. “Yes, he is big. He never spoke about himself; only about me. I suppose I admired him. The dreadful part — ”

“Suppose we did not talk about that,” interrupted Glenalmond. “You know it very well, it cannot in any way help that you should brood upon it, and I sometimes wonder whether you and I— who are a pair of sentimentalists — are quite good judges of plain men.”

“How do you mean?” asked Archie.

“FAIR judges, mean,” replied Glenalmond. “Can we be just to them? Do we not ask too much? There was a word of yours just now that impressed me a little when you asked me who we were to know all the springs of God’s unfortunate creatures. You applied that, as I understood, to capital cases only. But does it — I ask myself — does it not apply all through? Is it any less difficult to judge of a good man or of a half- good man, than of the worst criminal at the bar? And may not each have relevant excuses?”

“Ah, but we do not talk of punishing the good,” cried Archie.

“No, we do not talk of it,” said Glenalmond. “But I think we do it. Your father, for instance.”

“You think I have punished him?” cried Archie.

Lord Glenalmond bowed his head.

“I think I have,” said Archie. “And the worst is, I think he feels it! How much, who can tell, with such a being? But I think he does.”

“And I am sure of it,” said Glenalmond.

“Has he spoken to you, then?” cried Archie.

“O no,” replied the judge.

“I tell you honestly,” said Archie, “I want to make it up to him. I will go, I have already pledged myself to go to Hermiston. That was to him. And now I pledge myself to you, in the sight of God, that I will close my mouth on capital punishment and all other subjects where our views may clash, for — how long shall I say? when shall I have sense enough? — ten years. Is that well?”

“It is well,” said my lord.

“As far as it goes,” said Archie. “It is enough as regards myself, it is to lay down enough of my conceit. But as regards him, whom I have publicly insulted? What am I to do to him? How do you pay attentions to a — an Alp like that?”

“Only in one way,” replied Glenalmond. “Only by obedience, punctual, prompt, and scrupulous.”

“And I promise that he shall have it,” answered Archie. “I offer you my hand in pledge of it.”

“And I take your hand as a solemnity,” replied the judge. “God bless you, my dear, and enable you to keep your promise. God guide you in the true way, and spare your days, and preserve to you your honest heart.” At that, he kissed the young man upon the forehead in a gracious, distant, antiquated way; and instantly launched, with a marked change of voice, into another subject. “And now, let us replenish the tankard; and I believe if you will try my Cheddar again, you would find you had a better appetite. The Court has spoken, and the case is dismissed.”

“No, there is one thing I must say,” cried Archie. “I must say it in justice to himself. I know — I believe faithfully, slavishly, after our talk — he will never ask me anything unjust. I am proud to feel it, that we have that much in common, I am proud to say it to you.”

The Judge, with shining eyes, raised his tankard. “And I think perhaps that we might permit ourselves a toast,” said he. “I should like to propose the health of a man very different from me and very much my superior — a man from whom I have often differed, who has often (in the trivial expression) rubbed me the wrong way, but whom I have never ceased to respect and, I may add, to be not a little afraid of. Shall I give you his name?”

“The Lord Justice-Clerk, Lord Hermiston,” said Archie, almost with gaiety; and the pair drank the toast deeply.

It was not precisely easy to re-establish, after these emotional passages, the natural flow of conversation. But the Judge eked out what was wanting with kind looks, produced his snuff-box (which was very rarely seen) to fill in a pause, and at last, despairing of any further social success, was upon the point of getting down a book to read a favourite passage, when there came a rather startling summons at the front door, and Carstairs ushered in my Lord Glenkindie, hot from a midnight supper. I am not aware that Glenkindie was ever a beautiful object, being short, and gross-bodied, and with an expression of sensuality comparable to a bear’s. At that moment, coming in hissing from many potations, with a flushed countenance and blurred eyes, he was strikingly contrasted with the tall, pale, kingly figure of Glenalmond. A rush of confused thought came over Archie — of shame that this was one of his father’s elect friends; of pride, that at the least of it Hermiston could carry his liquor; and last of all, of rage, that he should have here under his eyes the man that had betrayed him. And then that too passed away; and he sat quiet, biding his opportunity.

The tipsy senator plunged at once into an explanation with Glenalmond. There was a point reserved yesterday, he had been able to make neither head nor tail of it, and seeing lights in the house, he had just dropped in for a glass of porter — and at this point he became aware of the third person. Archie saw the cod’s mouth and the blunt lips of Glenkindie gape at him for a moment, and the recognition twinkle in his eyes.

“Who’s this?” said he. “What? is this possibly you, Don Quickshot? And how are ye? And how’s your father? And what’s all this we hear of you? It seems you’re a most extraordinary leveller, by all tales. No king, no parliaments, and your gorge rises at the macers, worthy men! Hoot, toot! Dear, dear me! Your father’s son too! Most rideeculous!”

Archie was on his feet, flushing a little at the reappearance of his unhappy figure of speech, but perfectly self-possessed. “My lord — and you, Lord Glenalmond, my dear friend,” he began, “this is a happy chance for me, that I can make my confession and offer my apologies to two of you at once.”

“Ah, but I don’t know about that. Confession? It’ll be judeecial, my young friend,” cried the jocular Glenkindie. “And I’m afraid to listen to ye. Think if ye were to make me a coanvert!”

“If you would allow me, my lord,” returned Archie, “what I have to say is very serious to me; and be pleased to be humorous after I am gone!”

“Remember, I’ll hear nothing against the macers!” put in the incorrigible Glenkindie.

But Archie continued as though he had not spoken. “I have played, both yesterday and to-day, a part for which I can only offer the excuse of youth. I was so unwise as to go to an execution; it seems I made a scene at the gallows; not content with which, I spoke the same night in a college society against capital punishment. This is the extent of what I have done, and in case you hear more alleged against me, I protest my innocence. I have expressed my regret already to my father, who is so good as to pass my conduct over — in a degree, and upon the condition that I am to leave my law studies.” . . .

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30