He was an old seaman, with weather-beaten face and black eyes, that had looked upon many lands and many sights.
“Well, indeed, I’ll tell you about Johnny Groats as it was told to me one night in the trades,” he said, blowing a whiff of smoke from his wheezy pipe.
“Well, in olden times there was a rich lord, who owned all the property looking on to the Pentlands—an awful place in bad weather; indeed, in any weather.
“He was a lone man, for his wife was dead, and his son had turned out to be a rake and a spendthrift, spending all his substance upon harlots and entertainments.
“Now this lord had a factor, by name John o’ Scales, a stingy, cunning man, who robbed his master all he could during the week, and prayed hard for forgiveness on the Sabbath.
“The lord, who was getting very old, was much grieved on account of his son’s behaviour. ‘He’ll spend everything when I am gone, and the estates will go into other hands,’ the old man said to himself.”
* * * * *
“One fine morning in summer the factor received orders to build a hut by the sea, and plant bushes and trees round about it. ‘But don’t make the door to fit close; leave the space of a foot at the bottom, so the leaves can blow in, for I want the hut to shoot sea-fowl as they flight, and it is cold standing on the bare ground,’ said the old man.
“The factor carried out his master’s instructions, but not without suspicion of ulterior motives on his master’s part. However, when he saw my lord shooting the birds and stuffing many of them his suspicions were allayed, and the factor thought that, after all, though his master wanted the hut for flight-shooting, still he must be getting softening of the brain, for it was very eccentric that he should take up this new hobby in his old age.
“So the old lord was never disturbed in his hut by curious and ill-timed visits.
“After a time the lord died, and was laid with his fathers, the prodigal inheriting the property.
“The old castle was then the scene of perpetual feastings and card parties, so that in a few years the property was heavily mortgaged, the old factor advancing the money.
“Things went apace, until one day the factor informed the young spendthrift that he had spent everything, and the estates were no longer his, so he gave him a few pounds, and turned him out.
“When the news spread round the countryside his old friends began to drop off, until at last the spendthrift found every door closed against him.
“When he had spent his last penny, the prodigal thought of the key which his father had given him, saying, ‘When you have spent everything, take this key, and go to the hut.’
“But he had lost the key long before.
“Nevertheless, he went to the hut. It had a deserted appearance, being overgrown with moss and lichens.
“He managed to squeeze himself under the door, and when he stood up he saw a rope, with a noose hanging from the centre of the roof. Pursuing his investigations, he found a parchment nailed to the back of the door, and in one corner stood an old three-legged stool. There was nothing else in the damp, mouldy room, so he began to read the parchment.
“‘Thou art come to beggary; end thy miserable existence, for it is thy father’s wish,’ he read.
“He was dazed, and looked from the parchment to the rope, and from the rope to the parchment, saying to himself: ‘Well, I have come to that, I must follow my father’s wish.’
“So he got the stool and put it under the noose, and standing upon it, adjusted the rope with trembling fingers round his neck, when he said, hoarsely: ‘Father, I do thy bidding,’ and he kicked the stool from under him.
“Immediately he heard a crash, and found himself lying upon the leaves, with a feeling that his neck had been jerked off. However, he soon recovered, and, taking the noose from his neck, he looked up and saw an open trap-door in the ceiling. Placing the stool beneath the opening, he got on to it, and lifted himself through the trap-door, when he found himself in a loft, a parchment nailed to the wall facing him, and on the parchment was written, ‘This has been prepared, for your end was foreseen, and your foolish father buried three chests of gold one foot below the surface of the floor of the hut. Go and take it and buy back your estate: marry, and beget an heir.’
“‘Good God! is this a ghastly joke?’ said the prodigal. But the words looked truthful; so he tore down the parchment, dropped through the trap-door, shut it, and readjusted the rope. He left the hut and borrowed a pick and shovel, and returning to the hut, he began to dig, and found one chest full of gold. When he made this discovery he closed the chest, filled in the hole, and spread leaves over the spot. He then ran off to his father’s best friend, and told him of his good luck. They then called in two other friends, and consulted together how the old lord’s wish was best to be carried out. ‘I’ll tell you,’ said his father’s oldest friend. ‘Mr. John o’ Scales gives a great dinner party once a month, and three of us here are invited as usual. You must come in in the middle of dinner in your ordinary beggar clothes and beg humbly for some food, when he will give orders to have you turned out. Then you must begin to call him a liar and a thief, and accuse him of robbing your father and yourself of your inheritance. You’ll see he’ll get angry, and offer to let you have it back.’
“So the prodigal dug up the chests, and carted the money away in canvas bags, storing it at his friend’s house.”
* * * * *
“When the night of the dinner party came, the prodigal drove up to the castle in a cart filled with canvas bags. Jumping off his seat by the driver, he went into the feast in his beggar’s clothes, and going up to the host, he begged humbly for some food.
“‘Go from this house! What business have you here?’ asked the host.
“Most of the gentlemen and ladies began to frown upon him, and murmur against him, as he walked to the lady of the house and begged her to give him some food, but she replied:
“‘Oh, thou spendthrift! thou fool of fools! if all fools were hanged, as they ought to be, you’d be the first.’
“Then the beggar’s countenance changed, a deep flush of anger overspread his features, and drawing himself up to his full height, he said, with solemn voice, addressing the host:
“‘Thou hast robbed my father all the days of his life, and thou hast robbed the orphan. May the curse of God be upon you!’
“The host grew furious; then he looked ashamed, and shouted angrily:
“‘Bring me £40,000, and you shall have your estate back. I never robbed you, but you lost your inheritance by your own follies.’
“‘Gentlemen,’ said the beggar, ‘I take you all to witness that this thief says I can have my estate back for £40,000.’
“The people murmured, and the three friends said: ‘We are witnesses.’
“The beggar ran out into the night, and returned with a man laden with sacks, and they began to count out £40,000 upon a side-table, where a haunch of venison still smoked.
“When they had counted out the money, the beggar said:
“‘There is your £40,000; sign this receipt.’
“The amazed factor drew back, when the three friends said:
“‘You must sign; you are a gentleman of your word, of course.’
“Mechanically John o’ Scales signed the paper.
“‘And now,’ said the former beggar, ‘leave my house at once, with your wife—you coward! you cur! You robbed my father, and then cheated me when I was a spendthrift. Begone, and may your name be accursed in the land!’
“And the son turned all out except his three friends.
“In a few months he married the daughter of one of his friends; but he never gambled again, only entertaining his three friends and their families, who came and went as they liked.
“And from that day John o’ Scales was called John o’ Groats.”