This story is part of the popular series by A.P. Macdonald. It was originally published in “The People’s Friend” in October 1906.
“If I should be late, Jean,” thus provisionally hinted MacPeever, with the secret conviction that he would be very late indeed, “ye needna sit up for me unless ye like.”
And with this evidence of his kindly forethought, he gleefully prepared to go out.
“I ken I needna,” responded Mrs MacPeever in tart appreciation. “And it’s no’ that I like to sit up, but ye can rest assured I will. The sooner ye’re back, hooever, the better I’ll be pleased.”
MacPeever was perturbed rather than rested by this assurance. He knew that, along with bright eyes watching for his return, a sharp tongue might also figure on Mrs MacPeever’s effective list of charms.
The occasion was one on which he scarcely expected her to smile approval, for he was going to a Lodge meeting to be initiated as a Freemason. And towards Masonry, with its mysteries, its secret rites, and its exclusiveness (of the fair sex in particular), Mrs MacPeever, like many other ladies, was vaguely hostile.
At that precise moment, however, MacPeever, at tactician of great experience, did not desire to argue the subject.
All he wanted just then was to get out in comparative peace. So he meekly folded his umbrella and silently stole away in the well-known Arabic fashion.
Mrs MacPeever should have been satisfied with this hollow victory, especially as MacPeever came home so unquestionably early that it looked as if he had done his best to please her.
But, no! She had all along meant to have his new hobby trotted out and spanked hard, and she chose to do so that very night. She could not know that the strategic MacPeever was now fully prepared for her.
“So ye’ve gotten your mummery by for the night, hae ye?” she twitted.
“What mummery are ye referrin’ to, Jean?” demanded MacPeever rebukingly.
“Hoo mony different kinds o’ mummery had ye, like?” sneered Jean.
“Woman,” remarked MacPeever ponderously, “if ye’re alludin’ to the Masonic ritual, let me tell ye that it’s no’ a subject for jestin’ aboot.
“Yon solemnisin’ rites,” he murmured in retrospective awe, “were nae mummery.”
“I’ll wager that when ye thocht ye were at the maist solemnisin’ bits, they were laughin’ themsel’s silliest. And, I suppose, ye wud hae to wallow through a’ their booby-traps as if ye liked them?”
“I passed through the supreme test imposed on me wi’ every credit,” admitted MacPeever grandly.
“That wud be tallyin’ up the fees in advance, nae doot,” jeered Mrs MacPeever. “They wudna gie muckle credit for them, I’m thinkin.”
Although this was a shaft sped at a venture, it went home, for her surmise happened to be strictly correct. The greater the truth the greater the libel, and MacPeever rose to the occasion with a dignity that was magnificent.
“Jean Rattray,” he addressed her freezingly, “a’ your feminine satire wudna mak’ me reveal the grim secrets o’ this past evenin’. Nor yet your crafty female blandishments.”
(Jean had set a most appetising plate of stew under his very nose).
“For one thing, Freemasons are sworn to keep their proceedin’s hidden, and for another —” here MacPeever lowered his voice darkly — “ye wud bitterly regret hearin’ them.”
Now nothing could be more tantalising that to be deprived of a secret gnawing grief of this character, and Mrs MacPeever was of a fairly inquisitive disposition.
“I’m no’ wantin’ to ken ony o’ your secrets,” she snapped, with obviously feigned indifference, “but, for the life o’ me, I canna see hoo I wud bitterly regret hearin’ a lot o’ haverin’ balderdash.”
“There are some things, of course,” reflected MacPeever relentingly, “that I’ve no’ been exactly sworn to keep secret. They’re kind o’ left to my ain discretion like, and if ye wud promise no’ to tell onybody —”
“Dae ye think I wud?” queried Jean indignantly.
“Ay, I think ony woman wud,” was the callous reply, “unless she promised secrecy, and maybe whether or no! Hooever, as a sort o’ reliabeelity test, I’ll trust ye wi’ a bit trial secret of twa.
“Mind, ye’re no’ to interrupt me, and if the recital cause ye ony mental pain —”
“Gang on wi’ your recital. I’m sure I’ll no’ brak my he’rt ower a package o’ mummery.”
“A’richt, then, I’ll gie ye some,” and with an impressive air, which Mrs MacPeever struggled against in vain, he began —
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“When the Tyler —”
“There ye go interruptin’ me the instant I open my lips to speak. It’s easy seen women wud never dae to be Masons. Tyler, in Masonic parlance, means doorkeeper.”
“And what micht be their code word for a retired grocer, like yoursel’, for instance?”
“If ye ask ony mair fulish questions,” MacPeever informed her, “I’ll stop. When the Tyler ushered me into a pitch-dark room, wi’ my een bandaged —”
“Whatever was the use o’ the bandage, if it was pitch-dark?”
“I was gaged, so I didna ask, and if ye’ve got such a thing as a gag aboot ye, I wish ye wud wear it till I’ve told ye the story. My airms had been bound to my sides,”
“That’s what they dae wi’ lunatics. Are ye sure ye were at he richt place?”
MacPeever groaned in despair.
“If ye must speak, guidwide, ye micht try to think in proportion aforehand. As I was tellin’ ye, my ankles and knees had likewise been tied rigidly thegither.”
“I thocht ye said ye were ushered in. Hoo did ye walk?”
“I was ushered in on a streetcher, and then duly stood on end.”
“What end dae ye think? Could I stand on my heid? And then a hollow voice bade me beware no’ to tak’ a single step forward, as I valued my life.”
“A gey needless precaution that, and you trussed up like a deid hen!”
“They were surely better to tell me afore they untied me than efter, for when they’d cut my bonds and bandages I was left standin’ on the edge o’ a yawnin’ chasm o’ a cellar.”
“Hoo did ye ken, if the place was pitch-dark?”
“I didna ken till the licht was turned on, and then the sicht that met my gaze wud hae tested the strongest nerve. Everybody buy mysel’ was shrouded frae tap to tae in black cloaks, faces and a’, barrin’ slits to see through.”
“What a comical lot they wud look. Did ye no’ laugh?”
“No. Nor ye wudna hae lauched either, if ye’d been commanded as I was to descend that unfathomable abyss (by means o’ a danglin’ rope-ladder), twelve rungs, nae mair and nae less.”
“Did ye dae it?”
“Withoot a word.”
“That’s mair than ye ever did for me when I’ve asked ye to bring up ascuttlefu’ o’ coals frae the cellar.”
“Tut, tut, Jean. This was nae commonplace piece o’ domestic drudgery. This was a different kind o’ adventure athegither. Below, I could hear a clammy drip, drip, drip into a mysterious pool—”
“I should imagine that to be a burst waterpipe.”
“And an ominous tick-tickin’ like what ye’ve rad aboot hearin’ in thae infernal machine—”
“That wud be the gas meter.”
“And as I disappeared frae mortal view, a trap-door closed abune my heid and a’ was black. There i was left swingin’ in mid-air—”
“Were ye quite clear o’ the cellar pavement?”
“Over a bottomless pool—”
“I hope ye didna tramp on it, and get damp feet.”
“And when I was drawn oot—”
“Ye wud be like a chimney-sweep.”
“Cool, calm, and collected, the applause was deefenin’. Havin’ passed through the grand nerve test I was formally proposed as a full-fledged Mason. But it was just here that the real trouble began.
“The question was asked, ‘Can Colin MacPeever keep a secret?’ And somebody replied (seemingly in the direct negative) by statin’ that ‘Colin MacPeever is a married man,” at which a moan o’ sympathy welled up frae a’ that vast assemblage.”
“If there was ony real sympathy wellin’ up it wud be for your wife.”
“I raither thocht it was for me, but ye can judge frae what followed. The question was then put, ‘Can Colin MacPeever’s wife keep ony secret she worms oot o’ him?’ and the answer cam’ frae the back, no’ the speaker’s back, but the back o’ the hall, ye understand—”
“Get on wi’ your havers. What was the answer?” broke in Mrs MacPeever impatiently.
“The full-voiced answer rang oot, ‘No,’ at which there was an obvious sensation.”
“I should say there ocht to be. The wretch! Did ye no’ choke the life oot o’ him for his slanderous utterance?”
“No. I was aboot choked mysel’ wi’ cobwebs (obtained in the cellar), and, as a maitter o’ fact, I raither agreed wi’ him. Of coorse, if this recital’s giein’ ye pain, I’ll stop.”
“Ye’d better no’, my certie. I’ll sift this oot.”
“That’s just what ye’re no’ to dae. Ye promised to keep quiet, nae maitter what ye heard. And, besides, the whole affair’s been sifted oot for ye. Evidence was then led, and the man deponed, took oath, and said that nineteen years ago — to gang nae further back — Colin MacPeever was a tenant o’ his.
“That, on sundry vexatious pretexts, the said Colin MacPeever wheedled him into knockin’ a pound off the rent on the expleecit understandin’ that it was to be kept quiet frae the neebours in the land.
“That the aforesaid Colin MacPeever, instead o’ puttin’ the siller in his pouch like a sensible man, and sayin’ naething aboot it, went strecht hame, told his wife o’ the triumph, and handed over the fruits o’ his rapacity.
“That havin’ occasion to visit his property that same efternoon, the deponent was fair overwhelmed by a deluge o’ unscrupulous women clamourin’, like the daughters o’ the horse-leech, for a pound off their rents, the same as Mrs MacPeever had been boastin’ she’d got, and that there was one unprincipled vixen wanted thirty shillin’s.
“Frae that day, averred the deponent, owin’ to Mrs MacPeever’s incautious words, his life was a burden to him, and he only lost the burden, and very near his life, when the hoose fell in, kind o’ spontaneous like, twa or three years later —”
“Colin,” broke in Mrs MacPeever in a subdued voice, “ye’ll surely admit that was the first and last serious mistak’ o’ the kind I ever made, and that it was nineteen years ago.”
“Weel then, Jean, seein’ ye tak’ me that way, I’ll admit it’s the only mistak’ o’ ony kind ye ever made, and that it was mysel’ to blame for no’ cautionin’ ye.
“And to relieve your mind on the subject, I may mention that my Masonic experiences are drawn solely frae imagination.
“They were ower full up to initiate me this time or dae onything but tak’ my fees frae me in advance as ye suggested.”
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