Joseph Knight (extract 2)
Author(s): James Robertson
Copyright holder(s): Fourth Estate Publishers: With thanks to HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. © James Robertson 2003, James Robertson
This document contains strong or offensive language
Three men, all lawyers, were sitting round one end of a long rough-boarded table in a steaming, crowded, low-roofed room poorly illuminated by a scattering of tallow candles. What small, greasy light these gave out was further diminished by a thick pall of tobacco smoke, and any remaining pockets of fresh air had long been saturated with the smell of roasting flesh and fish, the fumes of wine and beer and the clamour of forty competing conversations. The rest of the table at which this trio sat was occupied by a mixed company of bareheaded tradesmen and bewigged merchants, and several women – street sellers of various wares from ribbon and lace to herring – who had joined the men for a drink after their day’s work.
The tallest of the lawyers, the one who, from his sallow complexion and long nose, looked least likely to be disposed to frolic, was nevertheless at that moment declaiming a poem with some vigour, reading from a newspaper clutched in his right hand while cutting rhetorical flourishes through the atmosphere with his left.
‘Ye’ve seen me roond the bickers reel
Wi hert as hale as tempered steel,
And face sae awpen, free and blyth,
Nor thocht that sorrow there could kyth –’
John Maclaurin broke off, half stood, held up his finger as if for silence – a gesture which had not the slightest effect on the drinking party further down the table – and addressed his two companions:
‘And here comes the kick, gentlemen –
But the neist mawment this was lost,
Like gowan in December’s frost.
Noo, is that no sublime? I challenge ye, James, as I challenge mysel, tae write lines like thae. The man is a genius.’
Boswell shook his head, laughing. ‘You’ll not catch me at anything so Scotch, unless it’s satirical. It’s not bad, though, I confess. Genius is too strong, but he’s clever, I’ll give you that.’
‘A genius,’ repeated Maclaurin, who was being as Scotch as he damn well pleased, partly to rile his friend. He laid down the Weekly Magazine. ‘I’d like tae see ye better it. And it is satire, man! An address tae his auld breeks? Whit’s that if it’s no satire? It jist has the warmth o humanity in it as weel, that’s aw, which is why a cauld-hertit fellow like you disna appreciate it.’
‘He may be a genius,’ said the third man, Allan Maconochie, also an advocate, speaking in a slow, heavy drawl, ‘or jist clever, but I hear he’s no very weel. No richt in the heid, even.’
They were in Luckie Middlemist’s oyster cellar, a cave deep in the dark canyon of the Cowgate, and the poet under discussion was a bumptious young clerk from the Commissary Office called Robert Fergusson. It was the weekend before Christmas, the start of the Daft Days, but the daftness had started early. Spread out on the table were mugs of porter, a jug of gin punch with three glasses, and the shells of three dozen oysters. The collective advocatory breath was like a stiff breeze off Newhaven. The punch, coming on top of the porter and several bottles of Malaga earlier in the evening, had brought a sweat out on Boswell’s brow and a manic gleam to his eyes.
‘Insane?’ said Boswell. ‘Oh, I don’t like to hear of mad poets. My brother John – the military one – suffers deliriums. Bad enough in a soldier, but worse – fatal – in a poet.’
‘Why?’ said Maclaurin. Being an occasional poet himself, he felt he should defend his muse. ‘I’d hae thocht it would be bad in either case. Worse in a sodger – he micht run amuck wi his sword, or mairch a haill company aff a cliff.’
‘But a soldier is naturally a man of discipline,’ said Boswell, who had always rather fancied being in uniform. ‘He may be ill, but the madness will not master him so readily as it would a poet, whose mind is already naturally wild and…inclined to flight.’
‘Aye, but the poet’ll hurt nane but himsel if he lowps.’
‘Weel, onywey,’ said Maconochie, ‘I dinna ken Fergusson, but he’s in the Cape Club, and Runciman the painter tellt me frae being the life and soul o their diversions he has suddenly ceased his appearances awthegither, and sunk intae some kind o depression. That paper ye’re reading frae’s a month auld, John. He was haein verses in it gey near every issue until that ane, but he hasna had onything else in it since, forby the tither poem there, his “Last Will” – and that disna augur weel.’
‘That’s a satire tae, is it no?’ said Maclaurin, hunting for it.
‘If it is, there’s nae muckle laughs in it. Runciman says the laddie’s feart he’s been ower dissolute in this life, and will pey for it in the next ane.’
‘Haivers,’ said Maclaurin, whose chief objection to the idea of a future state was that it was generally represented as being very disagreeable for the majority, which made him prefer to remain where he was. But to Boswell the explanation struck home. Momentarily he seemed to sober up, pushing the glass of punch away from him. Seconds later, catching the eye of one of the women at the far end of the table, he seized it again and drained the contents.
‘Steady, James,’ said Maclaurin.
‘I wish I was,’ said Boswell, ‘but this gin has knocked me ajee.’
‘Scotticism!’ Maconochie shouted. ‘For aw ye try, man, ye canna get them oot, and when ye’re fou ye canna keep them in!’
‘It’s being surrounded by men like you that does it,’ Boswell muttered. ‘It’s different in London.’
‘Oh, London!’ Maconochie sneered.
‘Dr Johnson says mine is almost the only Scotsman’s tongue that does not offend him.’
‘That’s because ye’re willin tae pit it where maist Scotsmen wouldna,’ Maconochie said, but fortunately Boswell did not hear, since the words were drowned by a roar from somewhere else in the cellar. Although he and Maconochie had worked on cases together, Boswell blew hot and cold over the man, who was apt to be distinctly unmannered, something James abhorred in others and tried to restrict in himself to private moments and to his journal – as when he threw plates at his wife, for example, or φυκκτ υιτη α στρυμπετ on Castlehill. But Maconochie redeemed himself by asking after Dr Johnson, who had been back in London for a fortnight after the Highland adventure, and of whom Boswell never could tire of talking.
‘He is well, he is well. He wrote me the other day seeking some information on the clans – I daresay he is writing his book even as we speak.’
‘Ye’ll be writin a book yoursel? Aboot your journey?’
‘I kept a journal, as did he, though I think my notes went further than his. But no doubt his observations on the state of society in those parts will make better reading.’
‘Whit I want tae ken,’ said Maconochie, ‘isna aboot the clans or the state o society, it’s aboot the state o Lord Monboddo. Ye took Johnson tae see him at Laurencekirk, I hear? Wasna there a terrible falling-oot atween them?’
Maclaurin gave an exasperated sigh – he had heard all this several times already. Boswell, suddenly friendly again towards Maconochie, reasserted himself over the effects of the gin as he recalled the scene.
‘There was no falling-out – though it’s true there might have been, and I swithered for a while about risking a meeting between them. At Montrose I debated whether we should keep by the coast to Aberdeen, or cut inland by Laurencekirk. I mentioned to Dr Johnson that by the latter we could take a short detour and visit Monboddo at his home – he’d got out of Edinburgh before we did and had been there some days. Dr Johnson said he would make the detour, so I sent my man on ahead with a note. Meanwhile we pressed on to Laurencekirk, and stopped at the inn there for a rest.’
‘Did ye no think tae call on Lord Gardenstone, since ye were in his neighbourhood?’ said Maconochie.
Boswell did not like to be interrupted. ‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘He was not there, even had we wished to visit.’
‘Ye could hae exchanged fraternal greetings wi his pigs,’ said Maclaurin.
‘Do you want to hear about Monboddo or not?’ Boswell cried.
‘Aye, aye,’ said Maconochie. ‘Let the man speak, John. So ye gaed there insteid?’
‘Not instead – I’ve told you, we had no intention of seeing Gardenstone. We left the inn and found my man waiting at the road-end with a message that Monboddo invited us to dinner. This was very welcome, because it had started to rain, and the country there is very exposed. A moorland waste, in fact. Monboddo is no better – cold and broken down and grim –’
‘We ken,’ Maclaurin said.
‘The house, I mean – it’s well-fitted to its surroundings. But his lordship of course revels in it. “Our ancestors lived in such houses,” he told us as soon as we got in, “and they were better men than we.” Dr Johnson answered, “No, my lord, we are as strong as they, and a good deal wiser.” This could have provoked a fight before we had our coats off, but Monboddo did not rise.’
‘He’d no hae come up very high if he had,’ Maclaurin said. Monboddo was scarcely five feet tall, and pinched and skinny to boot.
‘Did he gie ye a dinner o the ancients?’ Maconochie asked. Monboddo’s reconstructions, at his Edinburgh residence, of ‘learned suppers’ in the manner of Roman feasts, were legendary.
‘No,’ said Boswell. ‘He is quite different there. Simple farmer’s fare, and we ate with the family. Big hacks of ham, and boiled eggs. “Show me any of your French cooks who can make a dish like this,” Monboddo said, holding up an egg. Dr Johnson rather enjoyed himself. Afterwards the two sages entered into a debate as to whether a London shopkeeper or a savage had the finest existence.’
‘The sparks would fly then,’ said Maconochie hopefully.
‘No, they were very restrained. I mean, Monboddo of course was for the savage, and Johnson for the shopkeeper, but they did not even raise their voices, let alone come to blows. In fact, Johnson told me later he would happily have argued for the savage, if anyone else had stood up for the shopkeeper. Mr Maconochie, don’t look so surprised. I know Lord Monboddo better than you, and he is always a model of courtesy. He even pressed us to stay the night, but we were expected at Aberdeen, so we declined.’
‘Weel, I must say, I’m fair disappointed,’ said Maconochie. ‘It’s a gey lang road tae gang and no get even a sclaff or a dunt for your trouble.’
At the other end of the table a dispute broke out, which seemed to centre on one of the females, who having dispersed her favours fairly liberally among her male drinking cronies, was now being aggressively wooed by two of them. It took another of the women to calm things down by distracting one of the rivals. The three lawyers watched from their end for a minute or two, as if they had suddenly found themselves in a theatre. Eventually Maclaurin restarted the conversation.
‘Weel, Allan, Johnson and Monboddo wouldna be very weel matched in a fecht. Johnson would only need tae sit on Monboddo and he’d squash the life oot o him. He probably wouldna even notice he’d done it either.’
‘But Monboddo would probably tak the opportunity, afore he expired, tae see if Johnson had a tail,’ said Maconochie. ‘Aye, they’re baith unco chiels. But maybe they hae mair in common than they hae differences.’
‘That may be true,’ Boswell said. ‘Strong opinions respect one another. Physically they could not be more distinct, but intellectually perhaps they’re not so far apart. They have a black servant each, too, which is curious. Johnson has the excellent Frank Barber, and Monboddo has a man called Gory, who led us back to the high road to Aberdeen, and seemed equally splendid. It was odd to hear him speaking like a Mearns loun – he has picked up the accent from living there.’
‘I hae a black servant too,’ Maconochie said.
‘So ye hae, Allan. I’d forgotten,’ Maclaurin said.
‘I did not know that,’ Boswell said. ‘Well, maybe it is not so rare. When Gory turned back –’
‘But it reminds me –‘ Maconochie began.
‘When Gory turned back, Dr Johnson asked him if he was baptised. He is – not only baptised, but confirmed. Johnson gave him a shilling.’
‘For being a guid guide or for being a guid Christian?’ Maclaurin asked.
‘It reminds me,’ Maconochie said again. ‘Ye ken John Swinton? I mean, of course ye ken him, but hae ye seen him of late?’
‘Is he in town?’ Boswell asked.
‘Aye, he’s been here this week past. He was telling me aboot an unusual case that’s coming afore the sheriff court at Perth. A petition’s been presented – Swinton didna hear it himsel, being in Edinburgh – but his substitute did, and John thocht it would be o some interest tae ye, John. And nae dout tae you tae, Jamie.’
Boswell felt the conversation, and maybe the room, slipping away from him. He resented Maconochie’s familiarity, but then that was one of the things about Scotland in general, and Edinburgh in particular, that he found offensive: the uncouth, back-clapping social culture, whereby a man of sensibility such as himself had to put up with the rough intimacy of graceless men like Maconochie, the two Dundases (the Lord President and his much younger half-brother Henry, another advocate and the most ambitious of them all) and anyone else with whom one mixed professionally, which was most of the law. And yet, too, James loved drunken nights like this, and dens like Luckie Middlemist’s, the charged atmosphere which might explode at any moment, the women drinking with the men – and keeping up with them – the sense of liberty from the constraints of being good. There was, of course, more opportunity to be bad in London, which was one reason why he liked to go there whenever he could, but no city relished sin quite like Edinburgh.
Maconochie was still talking, and James pulled himself back from his thoughts, wondering if he would be able to remember them enough to write them down in the morning.
‘It’s a Negro case. A fellow that wants tae be free of his maister, and the maister says he canna be. He brocht him hame frae Jamaica and the slave has got mairrit on a local lass but the maister winna release him. Ach, that’s no the haill o it, it’s mair complicated but I canna mind the details, but the thing is the justices upheld the maister, and noo the slave has petitioned against their judgment and Swinton’s substitute heard it and served a copy o the petition on Mr Wedderburn.’
‘Wedderburn?’ said Boswell.
‘That’s the maister, John Wedderburn. He’s some cousin or ither o Alexander Wedderburn.’
‘Him that ran awa tae England when he couldna thole the cut and jab o the Session?’ Maclaurin asked.
‘Aye. There’s a wheen o Wedderburns aboot Dundee, they’re aw related. This John’s faither was the ane that suffered in London efter Culloden, d’ye mind, and the son gaed oot tae Jamaica and made a fortune, syne cam hame wi his slave, an noo the slave has decided tae seek his ain fortune. Guid luck tae him, I say, and ye ken John Swinton’s fierce against slavery, so he’s sure tae want it afore himsel in Perth. Weel, ye ken –’
‘Haud on, haud on,’ said Maclaurin. ‘This slave must hae haen some assistance, jist tae get the length o the sheriff substitute.’
‘Aye, John Swinton was tellin me, there’s a Perth writer cried Andrew Davidson that’s taen the case on, and he’s no takkin ony siller for it. He’s either brave or stupit – he’ll no get muckle business oot o this Wedderburn and his county freens efter he’s stood up and spak for the slave afore the sheriff.’
Maclaurin looked pensive. ‘I wonder whit the slave’s like. He’ll need tae be a man o some resolve tae hae got as far as he has.’
‘I dinna ken onything aboot him. Swinton tellt me his name but I canna mind it. But ye’re richt, he canna be blate.’
‘This’ll gang further than the sheriff court,’ Maclaurin said. ‘Or it will if neither party gies way. Maybe that’s why Swinton thocht we’d be interested. Are ye, Allan?’
‘If it gangs further, ye mean? Aye, but that’s no in oor hauns. I mean, we maun tak the cases we’re offered.’
‘That’s true, but ye ken fine weel there are ways o makkin a case come tae ye if ye want it. A word tae Swinton, a word tae this Mr Davidson, so he kens tae approach us.’
‘We’ll keep an eye on it, then,’ said Maclaurin. ‘How aboot yoursel, James?’
‘Well, I think you’re maybe both getting ahead of yourselves,’ said Boswell. ‘Ye dinna ken…know…half the facts. These things are always mair complicated.’ The jug was almost empty of punch, and most of it was in James, and he was finding his tongue and his head becoming dissociated, his English, like sheets of paper caught in a gust of wind, fleeing away from him as fast as his clarity of vision.
‘Mair complicated than whit?’ said Maconochie. ‘Whether a man can own anither man? That seems simple enough.’
‘Can and should are two different things, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you,’ Boswell said. ‘And there’s the fact that this Mr Wedderburn has brought the slave here in the first place. He may not have done it out of charity, but the fact is he hasna left him in the cane fields in Jamaica. What else may he not have done for him?’
Maconochie belched. ‘Separated him frae his faimly and freens, perhaps, back there in the cane fields? Wha kens?’
‘Weel,’ said Maclaurin, ‘I dinna like tae concede the point, but James is richt. We are maybe gettin cairried awa. We would hae tae see jist whit the history o the relationship is.’
‘The principle stands, in ony event,’ said Maconochie.
‘But principles are no aye whit the law is concerned wi.’
‘It should be. If it were my case, I would mak the principle the foundation o my pleading.’
‘There’s should again,’ said Boswell. He knew he was going to have to get outside for some fresh air at any moment, but continued gamely. ‘The point is, this Wedderburn’s principles, his haill behaviour, may be entirely honourable. All planters are not scourge-wielding monsters. If they were –’
‘As Dr Johnson alleges,’ said Maclaurin mischievously. (Johnson, notoriously, at an Oxford dinner had once raised a toast to the next slave insurrection in the West Indies.)
‘– if they were, it would make everything very simple. But they’re no. A planter is not some grotesque by Hogarth. He is a man like us, a Christian with a wife and hoose and bairns and books.’
‘That makes it worse,’ said Maconochie.
‘No,’ said Boswell, ‘it makes it personal.’
The argument might have gone on but for a sudden, loud interruption as the street door burst open and a crowd of young men, about a dozen of them, pushed their way inside. They were loud and drunk and moved en masse like some monstrous construction of arms and legs, bulging bellies and flushed, leering faces. Suddenly the company sharing the lawyers’ table seemed remarkably sober and civilised, an impression reinforced by the fact that they swiftly drained their glasses and called the waiter over to settle the bill. As they got ready to leave, the many-limbed monster lurched over, baying in triumph, to secure the table, even though it was far too small to accommodate everybody. There were a few minutes of confusion, with one set of people putting on and the other stripping off cloaks and coats, and all squeezing past each other, treading on toes while trying to maintain a fake fellow-drinker jollity. Boswell, whose last speech seemed to have emptied him of words, sat looking dreamily up at this mêlée with a smile on his lips. Maclaurin leant over towards Maconochie and tapped at his own crotch, then indicated a couple of the newly arrived men, who, in removing their coats, had revealed large coloured kerchiefs tucked into their waists and hanging down in front like gaudy imitations of limp phalluses.
‘Whit d’ye think that signifies?’
‘God kens,’ said Maconochie, ‘but they aw hae them.’
Their stares did not pass unnoticed. The man nearest to them, a giant with a maliciously friendly glint in his eye, shouted down at them: ‘Ye’re lookin at my pintle, man. Ye’re wunnerin whit we are, eh? I’ll tell ye. We are the Knights o the Naipkin. We’ve aw taen a solemn pledge tae – here, Bob, whit is it we said we’re tae dae?’
‘We’re tae get fou,’ Bob shouted, ‘and then we’re tae get tae a hoose o ill repute.’
‘Aye, aye, but whit was thon pledge we aw took? The wordin o it?’
Two or three more of the group started off in a chorus, which was joined by most of the rest as it progressed, culminating in a mighty roar:
‘We pledge oorsels as brithers no tae trust tae Lady Luck,
but spreid oor naipkins in oor laps whene’er we eat and sup,
and aye tae lift oor naipkins up tae glory when we fuck!’
‘We’re a club, ye see,’ said the giant, clutching Maconochie’s shoulder as if he were crushing a nut. ‘We ken there’s aw these gentlemen’s clubs, the this and the that and the God kens whit club, and the fuckin gentlemen winna let us in, so we thocht we’d hae oor ain.’
‘I’m sure the gentlemen will be very happy for ye,’ Maconochie said.
‘I said, ye’re newly formed then?’ Maconochie was vainly trying to part his clothing from the hand gripping it.
‘Aboot three oors syne. That’s how we gae by the mark o the naipkin. It was the only thing we could think o that we aw had.’
‘I didna!’ one of the group objected, thrusting his pelvis at Boswell’s face. A grimy piece of torn-off shirt-sleeve dangled between his legs.
‘Ye’re a disgrace tae the britherhood,’ the giant shouted, releasing Maconochie in order to deliver a punch to his companion’s chest which sent him sprawling across three other ‘Knights of the Naipkin’. Maclaurin nudged Maconochie, and between them they hulstered Boswell from his seat.
‘For God’s sake, let’s get oot o here afore they mak us join or hae the breeks aff us,’ muttered Maclaurin. ‘Aye, weel, gentlemen,’ he called, putting on a tremulous voice, ‘guid nicht, we’ll mak mair space for ye, ye’ll need tae let us auld anes awa tae oor beds.’
‘Here’s Luckie comin ower,’ said Maconochie, as they dragged Boswell away. ‘She’ll sort the wastrels oot.’
The waiter took their money, making a face at the prospect of dealing with his new customers, and the lawyers escaped onto the Cowgate with Mistress Middlemist’s screech ringing in their ears: ‘Noo, sirs, settle doun, settle doun. I’ll hae order in this hoose or naebody in it, and ye’ll be the first oot the door. Ye can pit your neb cloots awa for a stert – I’m no wantin a rammle if a wheen ither daft birkies come in here sportin feathers ahint their lugs or some such nonsense. Noo, whit are ye for?’
‘God, it’s no safe drinking oot these days,’ Maconochie said.
‘That sort o thing should be kept for clubs in private rooms,’ Maclaurin said.
‘Weel, you would ken,’ Maconochie said. ‘You wi your clarty keekin poems.’
Maclaurin grimaced. Back in his mid-twenties, he had composed and anonymously published a satirical mock-epic entitled ‘The Keekeiad’. In it, an over-inquisitive husband, inspecting his wife’s private parts by the light of a candle on their wedding night, accidentally set her pubic hair on fire and left her totally bushless. The remedy he proposed was that she borrow from her friends whatever pubes they could spare, and make a wig to cover her baldness. Having elaborately celebrated the glories of feminine thatch, the poem signed off with a plea for the author to be crowned with a wreath of ‘bushy trophies’ which he could sport while treading the slopes of Parnassus.
Maclaurin now felt a certain shame over this production, and wished not so many of his acquaintances knew that he was the author. ‘The Keekeiad’ was not a poem he had contemplated taking along to the Boswells’ dinner party to be critiqued by Dr Johnson. Thinking of that, he recalled that other embarrassment of his past, his legal work for the slave-owning Fife doctor. ‘That poem was jist a bit o daft fun,’ he said to Maconochie. ‘But thae chiels in there could dae ye serious mischief if their humour turned soor.’
Outside, the fresh air hit them all, with different effects. Maconochie realised how drunk he was and grew eager to get home, Maclaurin started frantically to close up against draughts, and Boswell, from being virtually unable to speak let alone stand a few minutes before, revived like a man come back from drowning.
‘Oh, I feel better for this,’ he said. ‘Oh, far better.’ He stumbled, stopped himself. ‘Though, perhaps, still… a wee bit under the weather…’
‘I’m awa,’ said Maconochie. ‘I’ll be seik if I dinna get hame.’
He took off without another word, going at that rate which even the very drunk can achieve when instinct says that one’s own bed is the only place to be, and leaving the relatively sober Maclaurin in charge of Boswell.
‘Dinna abandon me, John. Dinna leave me like that… Maconochie traitor. I could not bear to be left alone.’
‘Weel, at least can we move in the right direction?’ Maclaurin said, trying to turn them to the right, towards the Grassmarket. But Boswell seemed to prefer, for the time being, to amble around in a circle.
‘Let’s walk up and down here for a while, John, just for a while. Or I swear I’ll collapse and die in the gutter. It’s cold enough.’
In fact it was not especially cold, only a sharp contrast to the blazing heat of the cellar. Nevertheless Maclaurin had pulled his coat as tight as he could, turned the collar up, wrapped his muffler twice round his neck and thrust his hands deep into his pockets.
‘Ye dinna ken whit ye ask o me, James,’ he said. ‘Staunin aboot in the nicht in December, it’s plain madness, that’s aw. I’ll stey a minute, but could we no jist walk back tae your hame? Ye’ll feel better up on the High Street.’
‘No, no, I’ll feel worse. Hame is not where I wish to be. I want to wander. Don’t leave me, John.’ He staggered into his friend, gripped the left arm which Maclaurin held rigidly against his side. ‘I’ll tell you what, come with me on an adventure. I’ll find Duncan Cameron the chairman and he can find us two comfortable places to lie for a while.’
Maclaurin tried to shake him off. ‘Cameron will be lang in his bed, if he’s ony sense. And bed is where we should be as weel.’
‘Exactly,’ said Boswell. ‘Well, to hell with Cameron then. I’ll find them myself. I ken where. There’s a fine lass called Mary. She’ll have a friend, I’m sure. A friend for my friend John.’
‘Now, James, that’s enough. I’ll no be pairt o ony sic nonsense. I hae a wife, man!’
‘Good God, I hae a wife!’ Boswell almost sobbed. ‘And what a wife! A more charming, loving, sensible, devoted being I cannot imagine being blessed with. And forgiving. Let us not forget forgiving.’
‘I think ye should. I dinna see Mrs Boswell forgiving the state ye’re in.’
‘Oh, she will, she will. She always does. Forgive and forget. I bless Mrs Boswell for forgiving and forgetting. Otherwise she surely would not thole me.’
‘But does she forget? Maybe she’s storing it all up against ye, for future use.’ Maclaurin, deciding to risk a chill to get his friend home, had unmoored one arm in order to oxter him up the nearest close to the High Street. They were making some progress now, a little staggered and uncertain, rather as they were making conversation.
‘Ah, now that’s where you show how little you know her, John. She does not store it up. She hasn’t the patience. I store it up. In my journal. And she reads it.’
‘Whit? She reads aboot…whit ye get up tae?’
‘I don’t ask her to. Good God! But she will go and find the damn thing and then she reads it. What can I do?’
‘Suppose ye locked it up? Or didna keep it at all?’
‘No, John! It is history! I have to write it. I write it to be read. I just wish she didn’t read it so thoroughly.’
‘Nonsense. Ye must want her tae. It’s your way o confessing tae her.’
‘Do you think so? Aye, maybe it is. God, I am a bad man. Am I, John? Am I a bad man?’
Boswell frowned; this was too mealy-mouthed a word for the time of night. ‘Probably?’
‘Ye are nae dout very wicked. Noo –‘
‘Then I’ll go to hell. If I die tonight – John, d’ye realise if I die tonight – in my unregenerate state, I’ll be damned.’
‘No ye’ll no.’
‘D’ye think – I’ll be damned?’
‘Good God! That is definite. John, d’ye think I will? D’ye believe in a future state, John?’
‘I believe your future state will be tae be very ill in the mornin.’
‘No, no, be serious. Where are we going after this?’
“I’m going hame, efter I’ve directed ye tae yours.”
‘No, I mean, after this. After this life.’
‘My God, ye never lea it alane, dae ye, James? Even at this oor, and in your state, ye’re thinkin aboot it.’
‘Well, it’s very important. It’s the most important thing for a human being. This life is just a moment, a blink of God’s eye. But that – that’s eternity!’
‘As a human being, I think this life is mair important.’
‘Ah, well, we’ll see, we’ll see. I’m going to ask our friend David what he thinks. Not tonight, but some time. I’m going to ask Davie Hume.’
‘We ken whit he thinks.’
‘He’s of the same opinion as you, but he’s cleverer.’
‘I dinna deny it.’
‘But not tonight. It’s too late. He’ll be in his bed. Or his hoosekeeper’s. Oh, John, that reminds me. We were looking for whores. Where are we?’
Astonishingly, they had come up to St Giles’ and were just a couple of hundred yards from the Boswells’ residence. Maclaurin was staying in town, at Brown Square. He disengaged his arm from that of his friend. ‘That’s me, James. Your hoose is up there on the richt, mine is aff here tae the left. And I’m awa tae it.’
‘John, come on. Where’s the fun in going home? Where’s the John Maclaurin that penned the keekin poem? Ah! That surprised you! You thought I was beyond hearing back there. Well, you were wrong. Nothing escapes Bozzy.’
‘I’m awa, James,’ Maclaurin said, stepping off briskly. ‘Dinna let your bed escape ye.’
‘Ach, away you go then. You’ve nae appetite for life, John. I’m going to find a lassie.’
Maclaurin watched Boswell lurch up the street, then set off for Brown Square. There were not many folk about: the Cowgate, as ever, was where Edinburgh smouldered latest into the night. Bozzy would get home safe, probably without satisfying his lust, as most respectable harlots would have long since turned in. Maclaurin knew the pattern well. James would barge into the house, find Margaret stalking the parlour or sitting up anxiously in bed for him, would be both touched, mortified and infuriated by this, would shout at her, fall asleep, wake up with a raging sore head to find her not speaking to him, feel miserable all day, swear never to drink again, and in another day or so meet him, John Maclaurin, and recount the whole episode with equal quantities of guilt and delight. And this was the man who worried about the afterlife? Maclaurin laughed out loud as he headed for his own door. Not for the first time, he wondered how Boswell had time to worry about anything.
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Joseph Knight (extract 2). 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved January 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=589.
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