The Devil’s Hand: A Scottish Tale

The solemn bell of the grandfather clock in the downstairs hall tolled the hour, the eleven echoing reverberations reaching even into the closed upper chamber where three figures were seated about a round wooden table.

“It is your turn, Gilchrist,” one of the men, a florid-faced fellow, spoke, his lips curling as thinly and blackly as the moustache above them. The man to whom he addressed this statement, a young man who held with trembling fingers a sheaf of playing cards, glanced up falteringly before speaking:

“The stakes are too high – I will play no more.”

A silence ensued, broken only by the sound of the third figure, a sallow stick of a man, scraping the edge of his own cards against the dry knuckles of his thin-fingered hand. The young Gilchrist rose unsteadily, dropping his cards upon the table.

“Sit down,” the gaunt-faced man suggested, his gaze steady upon Gilchrist. Then, when he received no reply, he repeated the request in a tone no wise angered; but his hand all the while moved towards the dagger that hung at his side. The young man saw this movement and, pale-faced, seated himself once more. Taking up the three battered dice, he dropped them with a clatter upon the table, his eyes dull and incurious as his two companions leaned forward eagerly to examine them.

“Two ‘one’s’ and a ‘two,’” the florid-faced man declared. “Your number is ‘four,’ sir.”

Wordlessly, Gilchrist resigned the remainder of his cards to the gaunt man. The latter accepted them with a hard smile as their more jocund companion remarked, “A palpable loss, Gilchrist. Never fear – I am certain that you shall compensate your loss soon enough to play another round with us, eh, Alexander?”

Gilchrist, as though alive for the first time, rose with a start of horror and gazed at the two men with unutterable loathing. “I was forced into gambling with the two of you. No court of law would – ”

He was cut off by the gaunt man named Alexander who, with an easy smile, returned, “On the contrary, sir: no court of law would credit your testimony over that of mine and the Earl of Aberdeen here. I would advise you, then, to take yourself off and attempt to make the best of it in a hovel on the moors with that charming new bride of yours.”

At these last words, Gilchrist started forward as though meaning to strike the man; the florid-faced Earl of Aberdeen held him back forcibly and, after the youth had spent himself with oaths and threats, managed to coerce him out of the room before closing the chamber door securely behind him.

“A satisfying game,” he remarked, glancing down at the still-seated Alexander who toyed with the fallen dice and scattered cards with absent fingers.

“Yes, but we have no other player left,” Alexander reminded him. “We have ruined my nephew Gilchrist and with no other guests within my castle, I fear that we are now left to our own devices for amusement.”

His words were casual enough, but the tone in which he uttered them discomfited the Earl of Aberdeen enough to where the good man felt obliged to say, “Well, I fear that I haven’t enough spare funds to satisfy your love for high stakes. And,” he added gently but pointedly. “I am, unlike your nephew, no small landholder that you can force into a disastrous game.”

The muffled creak of the chamber door as it slowly opened brought the two men to their feet, both of them half-expecting to see the face of young Gilchrist, driven mad with murderous despair. Instead, Alexander’s manservant Joseph, lantern in hand, stood in the doorway. The elderly gentleman, who was swiftly approaching the venerable status of a nonagenarian, had served the lords of Glamis Castle throughout all the varied epochs of his life, beginning as a stable boy and gradually advancing at last to the coveted title of Steward of Glamis Castle. It was difficult, however, for his present master Alexander to conceive of the old man as a stable boy. In his mind’s eye, the inveterate Joseph had appeared whole and entire upon the Earth with a grizzled white beard eternally upon his cheek; golden spectacles clamped perpetually upon his nose, magnifying his round, nearsighted eyes; and his beloved skullcap fixed firmly atop his balding head. The aged servant was extremely attached to this latter belonging, as he superstitiously believed that his skullcap endowed him with psychic abilities. He had obtained it from a travelling pardoner thirty years ago and so eloquent was this pardoner that he had also managed to convince the loyal Joseph to forsake his masters at Glamis Castle and to accompany him as a mendicant friar. A fortnight later, the penitent Joseph returned to his masters at Glamis, void of all his savings and cured of his desire for the priesthood. However, though all of these doings had occurred long before Alexander’s time, he still often had to endure the pious fervor that old Joseph had never quite been able to rid himself of since his escapade so many decades ago. Now the ancient steward was shaking his head severely at the sight of the many appurtenances of gambling that lay so conspicuously upon the table.

“Do ye not know what hour it is?” he demanded, a frightful gleam in his eyes. “It is the eleventh hour of a Saturday and ‘tis an hour until midnight when the Sabbath begins. Shall ye be at your blasphemous abandonment even at that sacred hour, my lords?”

“Aye, and beyond it,” Alexander returned with a derisive smile. “I’d play on until Doomsday if I found a gambler who was no coward.” He glanced at the Earl of Aberdeen as he uttered these last words. “As it is, my friend and I will continue to play with stakes more suitable to his taste – all of which is no business of yours, Joseph.”

Joseph gazed with genuine horror upon his master. “Ye speak as a heathen, my lord.”

The two gamblers laughed.

“Away with you, Joseph,” the Earl of Aberdeen suggested. “Before you slay us with one of your interminable sermons.”

Shaking his head, Joseph departed, leaving the two men as they shuffled and dealt the cards by the flickering light of the single candle upon their table.

“You do not object too greatly to lowering the stakes somewhat?” the Earl of Aberdeen enquired, glancing up at his reckless companion.

Alexander shrugged, his eyes upon the hand that he had been dealt: “I am in a gamesome mood tonight, sir – and I would play with the Devil himself were he a guest in my house, so long as he had property enough to interest me!”

Joseph muttered many a forbidding augury to himself before he had completed his ascent up the steep, spiraling staircase of the castle to the chamber in which young Gilchrist and his bride reposed. He had endured many a cruel and arbitrary master, but the new Lord of Glamis’s callous impieties and atrocities against the commonfolk who dwelt upon his land never failed to aghast him more thoroughly than any of his former lords’ peccadilloes, causing the old man to regard Alexander as something of a Scottish Nero. Knocking at the door, he was admitted by the wan-faced Gilchrist who gazed upon the old man as though he did not for a moment recognise him.

“Your dinner, sir,” Joseph said by way of explanation, holding out a silver platter upon which rested two plates of veal and two goblets of wine.

“Dinner? At this hour?” Gilchrist spoke in a voice of sudden, animated despair. “My uncle sends it merely to mock me. He has shown his hospitality already to me – in robbing me of all that I own and leaving Catherine and me utterly destitute. I wondered at his invitation before, but now at last I know the reason behind his sudden kindness.”

He seemed as though he wished to say more but, convulsed with anger, turned away and bowed his head to hide the tears of rage and humiliation that fell from his haggard eyes. For the first time, Joseph espied within the chamber the figure of a young woman, whom he took to be Catherine. Though her own face was full of a sweet anxiety, it seemed to be directed more towards her unfortunate husband than their lost fortune. She put her arms about him and drew his head against her bosom, caressing his dark, tousled hair as though he were but a boy.

“I did warn you against accepting his invitation, darling,” she reminded him gently. “But now that it is all over, we shall make do with what we have.”

“We have nothing!” Gilchrist interjected.

“Then we must put our faith in God.”

Joseph seized upon this instantly. “Aye, hearken unto the lassie, sir. He will save ye – if it be your destiny to be saved!” (Though only a fifteenth-century steward, Joseph was forward-thinking enough to already anticipate Calvinism.)

At that moment, the clock struck twelve and as the low, solemn notes reached his ears, a maid-servant appeared in the doorway, her face a-fluster with surprise. Catching sight of Joseph, she spoke: “Oh, sir, there’s someone at the door!”

“Well, did ye open the door, ye flaysome fool?” Joseph questioned, at once frightened and irritable. He had overheard the last blasphemous remark of Alexander and, considering the impious manner in which he knew his master to be ushering in the Sabbath, he was full of a superstitious dread regarding any event at all unusual.

“Please, sir, I was so afraid that I did not.”

Unwillingly, Joseph accompanied the maid downstairs; the young couple followed as well, curious as to who should wish to call at such an hour. As they reached the great hall, the knock at the door was repeated, seeming to echo the tolling of the clock. Drawing the bolts of the door, Joseph opened it with much difficulty, struggling against the fierce wind that pressed in from the other side. When at last he had done so, he beheld upon the doorstep the tall figure of a man clothed in a dark cloak, the cowl of which entirely concealed his features. Joseph, thoroughly unnerved, raised his lantern against the gale, for it had now died to a small, quivering blue flame – a sure sign to the superstitious of the presence of the unearthly.

“Who are ye and what do ye wish?” the ancient demanded.

“A refuge from this tempest,” the stranger replied. As Joseph hesitated, he added, “I beg you, sir, out of charity, do not force me to remain unsheltered upon such a night as this.”

“Yes, of course you may come in,” Gilchrist replied and without another word, the stranger entered.

Once Joseph had closed the door and bolted it securely, he cast his spectacled eyes once more upon the newcomer. The cowl had now fallen back to reveal a face that astonished the old man fully as much as if he had caught sight of goat’s hooves under the man’s cloak. The quality of the stranger’s visage was neither old nor young but strangely redolent of both: for while he possessed all of the fine features of youth untarnished by age, there was an weariness about his eyes and a discontent that was neither the sullenness of youth nor the bitterness of old age but something far more strongly felt and eternal, that darkened his brow. Thin and considering were those lips in that face of ivory and it seemed to the querulous old man as though they were fashioned into a smile such as might have played upon the mouths of satyrs in wanton Greece. In the trembling light of the cressets and torches within the great hall, the stranger’s hair seemed like a coronet of dark flames that surrounded his face; his eyes, twin drops spilt from the same slow, emerald poison.

Joseph clapped a hand to his sacred skullcap and, deciding that prudence was the better part of politeness, crossed himself in the stranger’s sight. Seeing the man avert his eyes from the holy sign, he took courage and said, “Who are ye, sir, and how did ye come to be abroad upon such a night as this?”

“From going to and fro in the land,” the stranger replied. “I am a lord of great renown and I have known the earl of this stronghold for many years.” As he spoke, he inclined his head courteously towards Gilchrist and his wife, though with a faint expression of aversion as though even this small gesture of humble deference was galling. “But you,” he added to Gilchrist. “You are not the master of Glamis Castle.”

Gilchrist met the stranger’s dark, unwavering eyes with a sensation of mingled fear and fascinated repulsion that he could not entirely account for. “No,” he replied falteringly. “My uncle is the man whom you seek. He is in an upper chamber with the Earl of Aberdeen. Joseph, go tell my uncle that – ”

The stranger raised his hand peremptorily, signaling for silence. “Such a formality is unnecessary,” he said in a voice of calm assurance. “I am already expected – and I am not one to impose upon a host who is unwilling for my company.”

Gilchrist felt baffled confusion at these words but remained silent.

“I pray that you take me to his chamber,” the stranger continued to Joseph. The aged man muttered mistrustfully to himself, but seeing that Gilchrist did not voice an objection, the unfortunate Joseph had no other choice but to lead the way up to Alexander’s chamber.

They found the two earls still at their cards and it was several moments before they were noticed.

“What’s this, Joseph?” Alexander demanded furiously, his eyes bleary from both drink and lack of sleep. “Who have you brought to us?”

“A lord – whose company ye have been expecting,” Joseph replied, trembling at the thought that he was standing betwixt a cruel master who might slay him in a drunken rage at this interruption and possibly Lucifer himself. Considering which danger he thought to be most immediate at the present, he thought it safer to duck discreetly behind the Adversary of Souls.

The stranger did not speak but merely motioned for the deck of cards to be shuffled for the start of a new round. The Earl of Aberdeen obeyed with all the practised vigor of a well-oiled automaton whilst Alexander, naturally suspicious by nature, eyed the stranger carefully.

“What stakes shall you set?” he barked.

The stranger withdrew a velvet pouch from out of the depths of his cloak and placed it carefully upon the table. Both earls leaned forward and caught the dark, crimson flash of rubies within. Alexander glanced up, a smile of avaricious, unwilling admiration upon his lips.

“At last, a man with a bit of courage,” said he. “Well, Crawford, can you match this?”

The Earl of Aberdeen’s ruddy complexion reddened still more and he returned gruffly, “I’ll wager my two Arabian stallions.”

“And I shall put forward a quarter of my family jewels,” Alexander said, leaning back and gesturing for the stranger to sit.

All the while, Joseph had been watching these proceedings with an expression of growing distaste. Seeing the stranger draw nearer and take a seat at the round table, he finally could not forebear muttering, “Aye, lose your family jewels, your stallions, and your souls as well, ye Christ-less heathens!”

Neither of the earls took any notice of Joseph’s departure or overheard his unqualified remark. Rather, Alexander addressed the silent stranger, saying, “That senile old buffoon mentioned that you were a lord. Is this indeed true? Do you possess any land here in Scotland?”

“Yes,” the stranger replied. “You may have heard of it, for it has an unjustifiably ill reputation amongst the superstitious folk of this realm. I dwell within a stronghold that stands upon several acres of moors and heaths. There are few servants within, save those who are bound to the land: a poor, tongueless lady who tends the grounds; a bearded man who sees to the Blue Room; a servant girl who could find no other employer because of the strange rumours that attended her regarding her taste for human blood – baseless rumours, of course, that hardly disquieted me – ”

“‘Zounds, man!” Alexander laughed. “Why, it nearly sounds as though you are reciting a list of the ghosts that haunt us here in Glamis Castle!”

“Indeed?” the stranger said with an expression of polite interest.

“Yes, we’ve a tongueless lady as well as a score of other banshees to terrify the foolish locals. Who shall take up the dice first?”

The Earl of Aberdeen, always ready with his hands, volunteered. At the sight of the surprisingly fortunate outcome of his dice throw, he furnished a friendly smile for his two opponents and declared, “Now we shall see what man may top my number!”

Gilchrist stood by the window of his chamber, his face tight and rigid with uneasy contemplation. He felt a dogging disquiet, a desire to act rather than to await any further action on the part of his uncle. Catherine, sensing this change in his manner, enquired as to the cause of it.

“That guest of my uncle’s,” Gilchrist replied. “For what purpose could he have come here? My uncle told me nothing of another guest’s arrival.” His shoulders trembled slightly with the terrible shudder that a beast gives when it is under a heavy, clinging yoke that it cannot shrug off. “Whatever the reason, it cannot be for my good – that is certain.”

Catherine drew nearer and put a gentle hand upon his shoulder, but he brushed it away with a swift, brutal hand. Tears started in her eyes and she sought to turn away, but the next moment was arrested by the look in her husband’s gaze as he regarded her stricken face.

“Why do you look at me like that?” he asked, his voice soft. She sought in vain for a sign of relenting compassion within those formerly kind, tender eyes; and felt, perhaps, the same sort of despair that a suicide might feel when, as he gazes upon the moving waters beneath him, he hopes to hear some voice of pity rise up from those unfeeling currents within whose depths he has still firmly resolved to plunge himself. Thus, her heart thrilling with both devotion and fear, she caught his hand and implored him to be at peace. Again he repulsed her, his eyes blazing flame-like as they flashed mercilessly upon her, and without a word he moved past her towards the door.

Frightened at his distracted manner and at his visage which had strangely resembled for a moment the features and expression of Alexander’s unexpected guest, she caught his wrist with a stifled cry and flung her arms about him in an attempt to stay his progress. He was about to callously force her away when the door abruptly opened: it was old Joseph, eager to tell of his portentous opinions regarding Alexander’s new game of cards. However, his tongue was arrested at the sight of a dagger within Gilchrist’s hand. The young man, as though robbed of his rage and suddenly fully aware of what his former intentions had been, flung the weapon from him, his face paling with horror. Turning his eyes from the old servant to his wife, he flung himself upon his knees and cried, “Ah, God, what creature am I that I should seek to murder the brother of my own father for mere wealth?

And with a despairing countenance, he turned away, ashamed of the looks of pity upon the faces around him. Yet as Catherine timidly took his hand, he did not repulse it but pressed it tightly against his livid cheek.

“You have lost all of your hands to me, Alexander,” the Earl of Aberdeen remarked, the scratching of his quill pen against the parchment of his pocket book sounding as audible within that silent room as the teeth of foraging vermin within a well-stocked cupboard. Alexander watched expressionlessly as Crawford finished noting down the full extent of his winnings.

“Shall we play another hand?” the Earl of Aberdeen suggested.

“Yes,” Alexander replied. And then, in a whisper that was barely audible to his comrade: “I shall wager Glamis Castle.”

The conquering victor started. “My dear friend, you have lost your stables, your wealth, and the rest of your estates to me. Why do you wish to risk the one belonging you have left?”

Alexander laughed. “And why are you of a sudden so scrupulous with my property? Hypocrite, you are afraid to stake your own estate even for mine. Why should you? As you said, you own all of my manses now. Will whatever you wager be such a loss for the chance to possess Glamis? Or have you turned from a great conqueror into a great coward?”

The Earl of Aberdeen appeared doubtful; glancing at the stranger, he said, “And you – you have declined to enter the last several games. Shall you pass this one as well or will you stake your own land against ours?”

“My lord,” the stranger replied. “In my estate, there are many mansions and I should be an uncharitable miser were I to begrudge you and your comrade the opportunity of occupying one yourselves.”

“Nay,” Alexander interrupted. “Let this game be solely betwixt my comrade and I.”

“As you will,” the stranger said, but he drew his chair closer to that of Alexander and as the Earl of Aberdeen shuffled and sorted, he glanced at the cards that Alexander had been dealt with a speculative eye.

“What think you?” Alexander murmured in a low voice. “This hand is not so unlucky as those I have played earlier. Have I a chance?”

“If the dice chooses to favor you, my lord,” the stranger replied. “I myself have never had a love for these games of chance. A clever man chooses his games as wisely as he chooses his companions – that is, with an eye towards those that he is certain to win.”

At these ambiguous words, Alexander’s resolution faltered and his former recklessness, fanned to such a feverish pitch, abated somewhat. It was as though he had for the first time realized how truly close he stood to destitution, like a sleepwalker who awakens at the edge of a pit only to start back in horror from the brink. He parted his lips to call off the game. Instantly, the stranger’s fingers sought his own, pressing his hand as though in silent encouragement. The man’s grasp was amazingly strong and as warm as though it were the clutch of a fevered man and Alexander returned the comforting clasp with the convulsive motion of a man warming his hands against a furnace upon a winter’s eve. He met the stranger’s burning eyes and, as though impatient of his own foolish fear in contrast to the man’s silent calm, he took up the pieces of dice and flung them upon the table.

Several minutes passed; he was half-conscious of exchanging cards, listening to the clatter of dice, and murmuring blasphemies under his breath in the distracted manner of a priest reciting a prayer that repetition has made meaningless. At last, the voice of the Earl of Aberdeen reached him as though from an impossible distance, and he heard the words, distinct and clear: “My friend – you have lost Glamis Castle.”

Alexander stood, sober and silent, and felt for something that hung at his side. The Earl of Aberdeen rose from his seat as well and seemed about to speak but then stopped and lowered his eyes to the blade that now ran through his heart, about which trickled a steady stream of blood. He fell in a heap upon the floor and Alexander watched as the eyes of his friend darkened and then became as glassy as those of a fish. A pang of terrible horror at what he had done nearly felled him as well and he knelt to feel the Earl of Aberdeen’s pulse: there was none. The man was thoroughly dead.

Alexander’s eyes sped with guilty haste towards the stranger: the man continued to watch him impassively, though the stricken lord thought that a trace of cold merriment twinkled in his gaze. Trembling, he crossed the room towards the door, but the stranger spoke before his hand touched the doorknob:

“After inviting me to your home, shall you then depart before having played a hand alone with me?”

“I never set eyes upon you in my life until I played with you this evening,” Alexander swore, but even as he spoke, he added with a fateful recollection, “I would play with the Devil himself…” and found himself growing colder as he gazed upon the stranger. Then, with an oath that would have horrified old Joseph but merely brought another smile to the stranger’s lips, he took up the dice that lay upon the table and with his other hand he seized the cards that the stranger had dealt him, saying, “Even if you are the Arch-Fiend himself, you must still bow to chance.” Then, hesitating, he asked:

“But what shall be the stakes?”

The tempest that had descended upon the highlands had not abated with time but rather seemed to have gained more violence as the night continued; and the keening of the wind without the servant’s quarters was of so piercing a nature that poor Joseph had a difficult time in managing to fall asleep. When at last he had fallen into a fitful doze, he was awakened almost immediately by the sound of shouting and swearing from a higher floor of the castle. Recognizing the sound of his master’s voice, he rose, lantern in hand, and proceeded up the stairs to the chamber in which he had left Alexander at his card game several hours earlier. He was amazed to find as he reached the door that voices still issued from behind it. Straining his ears, he managed to catch a portion of what was said:

“The game is finished. You have taken all that I possess.”

“I have taken nothing that mere Death could not rob you of.”

“What more can you possibly desire?”

“The one possession that you value least of all – your soul.”

“And this will satisfy?”

“Satisfy? Along with the souls of all within this castle, within this isle, within this world – yes, that shall satisfy.”

“Then cease this terrible game and take me! I am maddened by your toying delay and that murdered thing in the corner.”

“You shame me, my lord, in believing that I would win a companion so unfairly. I shall depart once our game has at last ended – upon the day that you fixed earlier this evening for my departure – the day that men, seraphs, and daemons all must await: the day of wrath.” A pause. “But why do you recoil at such a prospect? Your state before this evening was no different. I have always remained with you.

Joseph’s face grew very pale as he listened to all of this and he was forced to set his lantern down upon the cold floor for fear that his trembling fingers would lose their grip. Terror and also a certain wisdom told him that it would be best to depart at once. Yet he felt as well a strange curiosity to behold his master in the terrible state that his impiety had led him to and, in spite of his fears, he bent his eye to the keyhole of the room.

Gilchrist hastened out of his chamber towards his uncle’s chamber, the sound of a terrible scream having reached his ears even above the din of the storm outside. His fingers smarted at the sting of dripping wax from the candle that he held but at last he found the hallway where he knew his uncle’s chamber was situated. A soft, pitiful sound like a kitten’s mewing caused him to look down and there, crouched beside a dying lantern, he beheld Joseph. The old man was fumbling about as though searching for something that he had lost upon the floor and Gilchrist, bewildered, took him by the arm and helped him to stand.

It was then that he beheld Joseph’s face for the first time and when he did, it was only pity that enabled him to stifle a cry of horror. For where the old man’s eyes had once been, there now remained but blackened hollows like burnt, ashen craters where lightning has fallen, ravaged, and died. Stricken, Gilchrist watched as the old man turned his face away and murmured in a low, sobbing whisper, “O Lucifer, son of the morning, how art thou fallen from Heaven?” And then, as though maddened by his own words, he repeated them again and again, all the while frantically running his hands along the wall as though desperate to discover something thereon. At last, he crumpled to the ground, utterly spent, his blind head bowed between his knees and his words slurring together as he lapsed at last into the utters delirium of madness.

A fresh clap of thunder rocked the castle’s foundations and above its trembling reverberations, Gilchrist heard other, fainter sounds – the clatter of dice, a loud oath, and the murmur of voices. Their callous incongruity filled him with an anguished horror, but as suddenly as they had arisen they died away and all that reached his ears was the ceaseless keening of the wind. Helping poor Joseph once again to feet, Gilchrist led him down the hallway, in search of his uncle so that a physician might be sent for at once.

As though sensing Gilchrist’s purpose, Joseph managed to pull away from him and, collapsing to his knees, pointed with a shaking finger as though guided by memory rather than sight.

There – there – ” he whispered. “There is his chamber.”

And Gilchrist’s gaze followed the direction in which the servant pointed and he saw that where his uncle’s chamber had once stood, there was now nothing but a grey, unbroken wall of solid, impenetrable stone.



4 responses to The Devil’s Hand: A Scottish Tale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s