Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147
While taking a break from his studies in Edinburgh, Darsie Latimer is roaming the border country in western Scotland, staying at an inn in Dumfries. There he encounters Willie Steenson and his wife walking in the same general direction, on the road toward Dumfries. Willie’s wife says that Willie is a good teller of tales, so Latimer asks him to tell one as they walk. What follows is Willie’s tale.
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When Steenie Steenson, Willie’s grandfather, went to Redgauntlet Castle to pay his rent, he was taken by Dougal MacCallum to meet Sir Robert Redgauntlet, sitting alone in his oak parlor, except for his pet jackanape, Major Weir, and suffering from a painful attack of gout. Willie explains that Sir Robert was wearing a sword and pistols for protection against Whigs who might want to take vengeance on him for his part in supporting Jacobite uprisings. Steenie handed a bag of silver, his rent money, to Redgauntlet, who instructed MacCallum to give him some brandy while he counted the money and wrote out a receipt.
Just as Steenie and MacCallum left the room, however, Sir Robert yelled out, crying for water for his feet and wine for his throat. When his feet were plunged into a tub of water, the liquid boiled. Sir Robert accused MacCallum of giving him blood to drink instead of wine and threw the cup at him (the next day, the maid washed blood from the carpet). When the jackanape caused a commotion, Steenie ran from the room, forgetting both the silver and his receipt. As he fled, he heard that the laird (lord) was dead and afterward hoped that MacCallum would remember seeing his money bag and Sir Robert’s saying that he intended to write a receipt for him.
Preparation for Sir Robert’s funeral fell to MacCallum, who slept in a room next to the one in which Sir Robert lay in state. MacCallum asked Sir Robert’s servant Hutcheon to share the room, partly because he was still hearing Sir Robert’s paging whistle calling for him during the night. On the night before the funeral, the whistle sounded again, and both old serving men went toward the coffin. Hutcheon saw “the foul fiend in his ain [own] shape” sitting on Sir Robert’s coffin and lost consciousness. When he recovered, he found MacCallum lying dead.
The new estate owner, Sir Robert’s son John, came from Edinburgh and discovered that the rent payment record book had no entry for Steenie for the previous year. He therefore pressed his tenant for payment or for a receipt showing that payment had been made. Steenie protested at length that he had indeed made the payment, but both its recipient and the only other witness were now dead. He offered to produce witnesses from among those from whom he had borrowed the money for his rent, but Sir John insisted the evidence he wanted had to be a receipt from his father. When Steenie suggested someone else in the household may have seen the money, Sir John questioned all the servants but concluded that they had seen nothing.
Sir John pressed Steenie further, telling him that he must either pay or quit his land. Steenie insisted that he was an honest man, but Sir John accused him of trying to cheat him. He asked Steenie where he supposed the money to be, and Steenie, driven to desperation, said, “In hell, if you will have my thoughts of it . . . with your father, his jackanape, and his silver whistle.” Steenie then ran again, as Sir John called for law officers.
Steenie approached his chief creditor, only to be further abused by being called a thief and a beggar. He then began to ride home through Pitmurkie wood, stopping at a hostler-wife’s cottage long enough for a quick brandy. There he proposed two toasts: the first to Sir Robert’s memory that he might not rest quietly until he had set things right with his tenant; the second to “Man’s Enemy,” that he might get back the silver for him or tell him where it was. Soon a strange horseman appeared and said that although he was misunderstood in the world, he was a great one for helping friends. He told Steenie that the dead laird was disturbed by Steenie’s curses and by his family’s wailing and that if Steenie would go to him, the laird would give him his receipt.
Steenie agreed to the stranger’s proposal and followed him deeper into the woods to a great house very much like Redgauntlet Castle. There, the door was opened by Dougal MacCallum, who said that Sir Robert had been crying for him. He warned Steenie not to take anything from anyone there—neither meat, drink, nor silver, but only to take the receipt that was due him. Amid much wine-drinking and revelry among people who had participated in the Jacobite uprisings, Steenie was called by Sir Robert, while someone said that Major Weir would be there in the morning.
Sir Robert, “or his ghaist [ghost], or the deevil in his likeness,” asked Steenie if he had settled the rent matter with Sir John. When Steenie insisted that he needed Sir Robert’s receipt, the laird said he would give it if Steenie played a tune on the pipes. He asked for a tune that Steenie had learned from a warlock, who heard it during a Satan-worshiping meeting. Bagpipes were brought, but because they were made of white-hot steel, Steenie said that he had no breath to play the pipes. He also declined food and drink, saying that he had come only for the receipt. Sir Robert gave a receipt to Steenie and told him to tell Sir John to look for the money in the Cat’s Cradle. He also told Steenie that he must return in a year to pay homage for the protection Sir Robert was giving him. However, Steenie said that he relied only on God, and the entire vision of hell disappeared.
Some time later, Steenie awoke in the churchyard near Redgauntlet Castle, receipt in hand, which he delivered to Sir John, who acknowledged that he must have gone to Hell for it. Hutcheon identified the Cat’s Cradle as a long unused turret, accessible only by ladder, and Sir John took one of his father’s pistols and went there. A shot rang out, followed by Sir John’s flinging down the body of the jackanape and calling out that he had found the silver, as well as several other missing objects. Steenie agreed with Sir John that no word could go out about the events of his “dream,” except that Steenie might speak with the local minister, who assured him that if he walked a straight path thereafter, Satan would not bother him.