Prester John HTML version

1. The Man On The Kirkcaple Shore
I mind as if it were yesterday my first sight of the man. Little I knew at the time
how big the moment was with destiny, or how often that face seen in the fitful
moonlight would haunt my sleep and disturb my waking hours. But I mind yet the
cold grue of terror I got from it, a terror which was surely more than the due of a
few truant lads breaking the Sabbath with their play.
The town of Kirkcaple, of which and its adjacent parish of Portincross my father
was the minister, lies on a hillside above the little bay of Caple, and looks
squarely out on the North Sea. Round the horns of land which enclose the bay
the coast shows on either side a battlement of stark red cliffs through which a
burn or two makes a pass to the water's edge. The bay itself is ringed with fine
clean sands, where we lads of the burgh school loved to bathe in the warm
weather. But on long holidays the sport was to go farther afield among the cliffs;
for there there were many deep caves and pools, where podleys might be caught
with the line, and hid treasures sought for at the expense of the skin of the knees
and the buttons of the trousers. Many a long Saturday I have passed in a crinkle
of the cliffs, having lit a fire of driftwood, and made believe that I was a smuggler
or a Jacobite new landed from France. There was a band of us in Kirkcaple, lads
of my own age, including Archie Leslie, the son of my father's session-clerk, and
Tam Dyke, the provost's nephew. We were sealed to silence by the blood oath,
and we bore each the name of some historic pirate or sailorman. I was Paul
Jones, Tam was Captain Kidd, and Archie, need I say it, was Morgan himself.
Our tryst was a cave where a little water called the Dyve Burn had cut its way
through the cliffs to the sea. There we forgathered in the summer evenings and
of a Saturday afternoon in winter, and told mighty tales of our prowess and
flattered our silly hearts. But the sober truth is that our deeds were of the
humblest, and a dozen of fish or a handful of apples was all our booty, and our
greatest exploit a fight with the roughs at the Dyve tan-work.
My father's spring Communion fell on the last Sabbath of April, and on the
particular Sabbath of which I speak the weather was mild and bright for the time
of year. I had been surfeited with the Thursday's and Saturday's services, and
the two long diets of worship on the Sabbath were hard for a lad of twelve to bear
with the spring in his bones and the sun slanting through the gallery window.
There still remained the service on the Sabbath evening - a doleful prospect, for
the Rev. Mr Murdoch of Kilchristie, noted for the length of his discourses, had
exchanged pulpits with my father. So my mind was ripe for the proposal of Archie
Leslie, on our way home to tea, that by a little skill we might give the kirk the slip.
At our Communion the pews were emptied of their regular occupants and the
congregation seated itself as it pleased. The manse seat was full of the Kirkcaple
relations of Mr Murdoch, who had been invited there by my mother to hear him,
and it was not hard to obtain permission to sit with Archie and Tam Dyke in the
cock-loft in the gallery. Word was sent to Tam, and so it happened that three
abandoned lads duly passed the plate and took their seats in the cock-loft. But
when the bell had done jowing, and we heard by the sounds of their feet that the
elders had gone in to the kirk, we slipped down the stairs and out of the side