HE stood six feet ten in his stockinged feet, and was the tallest ruffian that ever cut a purse or held up a coach on the highway. A mass of black hair curled over a low forehead, and a glittering eye intensified his villainous aspect; nor did a deep scar, furrowing his cheek from end to end, soften the horror of his sudden apparition. Valiant men shuddered at his approach; women shrank from the distant echo of his name; for fifteen years he terrorised Scotland from Caithness to the border; and the most partial chronicler never insulted his memory with the record of a good deed.
He was born to a gentle family in the Calendar of Monteith, and was celebrated even in boyhood for his feats of strength and daring. While still at school he could hold a hundredweight at arm's-length, and crumple up a horseshoe like a wisp of hay. The fleetest runner, the most desperate fighter in the country, he was already famous before his name was besmirched with crime, and he might have been immortalised as the Hercules of the seventeenth century, had not his ambition been otherwise flattered. At the outset, though the inclination was never lacking, he knew small temptation to break the sterner laws of conduct. His pleasures were abundantly supplied by his father's generosity, and he had no need to refrain from such vices as became a gentleman. If he was no drunkard, it was because his head was equal to the severest strain, and, despite his forbidding expression, he was always a successful breaker of hearts. His very masterfulness overcame the most stubborn resistance; and more than once the pressure of his dishonourable suit converted hatred into love. At the very time that he was denounced for Scotland's disgrace, his praises were chanted in many a dejected ballad. `Gilderoy was a bonny boy,' sang one heart-broken maiden:
Had roses till his shoon, His stockings were of silken soy, Wi' garters hanging doon.
But in truth he was admired less for his amiability than for that quality of governance which, when once he had torn the decalogue to pieces, made him a veritable emperor of crime.
His father's death was the true beginning of his career. A modest patrimony was squandered in six months, and Gilderoy had no penny left wherewith to satisfy the vices which insisted upon indulgence. He demanded money at all hazards, and money without toil. For a while his more loudly clamant needs were fulfilled by the amiable simplicity of his mother, whom he blackmailed with insolence and contempt. And when she, wearied by his shameless importunity, at last withdrew her support, he determined upon a monstrous act of vengeance. With a noble affectation of penitence he visited his home; promised reform at supper; and said good-night in the broken accent of reconciliation. No sooner was the house sunk in slumber than he crawled stealthily upstairs in order to forestall by theft a promised generosity. He opened the door of the bed-chamber in a hushed silence; but the wrenching of the cofferlid awoke the sleeper, and Gilderoy, having cut his mother's throat with an infamous levity, seized whatever money and jewels were in the house, cruelly maltreated his sister, and laughingly burnt the house to the ground, that the possibility of evidence might be destroyed.
Henceforth his method of plunder was assured. It was part of his philosophy to prevent detection by murder, and the flames from the burning walls added a pleasure to his lustful eye. His march across Scotland was marked by slaughtered families and ruined houses. Plunder was the first cause of his exploits, but there is no doubt that death and arson were a solace to his fierce spirit; and for a while this giant of cruelty knew neither check nor hindrance. Presently it became a superstition with him that death was the inevitable accompaniment of robbery, and, as he was incapable of remorse, he grew callous, and neglected the simplest precautions. At Dunkeld he razed a rifled house to the ground, and with the utmost effrontery repeated the performance at Aberdeen. But at last he had been tracked by a company of soldiers, who, that justice might not be cheated of her prey, carried him to gaol, where after the briefest trial he was condemned to death.
Gilderoy, however, was still master of himself. His immense strength not only burst his bonds, but broke prison, and this invincible Samson was once more free in Aberdeen, inspiring that respectable city with a legendary dread. The reward of one hundred pounds was offered in vain. Had he shown himself on the road in broad daylight, none would have dared to arrest him, and it was not until his plans were deliberately laid, that he crossed the sea. The more violent period of his career was at an end. Never again did he yield to his passion for burning and sudden death; and, if the world found him unconquerable, his self-control is proved by the fact that in the heyday of his strength he turned from his unredeemed brutality to a gentler method. He now deserted Scotland for France, with which, like all his countrymen, he claimed a cousinship; and so profoundly did he impose upon Paris with his immense stature, his elegant attire, his courtly manners (for he was courtesy itself, when it pleased him), that he was taken for an eminent scholar, or at least a soldier of fortune.
Prosperity might doubtless have followed a discreet profession, but Gilderoy must still be thieving, and he reaped a rich harvest among the unsuspicious courtiers of France. His most highly renowned exploit was performed at St. Denis, and the record of France's humiliation is still treasured. The great church was packed with ladies of fashion and their devout admirers. Richelieu attended in state; the king himself shone upon the assembly. The strange Scotsman, whom no man knew and all men wondered at, attracted a hundred eyes to himself and his magnificent equipment. But it was not his to be idle, and at the very moment whereat Mass was being sung, he contrived to lighten Richelieu's pocket of a purse. The king was a delighted witness of the theft; Gilderoy, assuming an air of facile intimacy, motioned him to silence; and he, deeming it a trick put upon Richelieu by a friend, hastened, at the service-end, to ask his minister if perchance he had a purse of gold upon him. Richelieu instantly discovered the loss, to the king's uncontrolled hilarity, which was mitigated when it was found that the thief, having emptied the king's pocket at the unguarded moment of his merriment, had left them both the poorer.