The Privilege of the Limits by Edward William Thomson
"Yes, indeed, my grandfather wass once in
jail," said old Mrs. McTavish, of the
county of Glengarry, in Ontario, Canada; "but
that wass for debt, and he wass a ferry honest
man whateffer, and he would not broke his
promise—no, not for all the money in Canada.
If you will listen to me, I will tell chust exactly
the true story about that debt, to show you what
an honest man my grandfather wass.
"One time Tougal Stewart, him that wass the
poy's grandfather that keeps the same store in
Cornwall to this day, sold a plough to my grandfather,
and my grandfather said he would pay
half the plough in October, and the other half
whateffer time he felt able to pay the money.
Yes, indeed, that was the very promise my
"So he was at Tougal Stewart's store on the
first of October early in the morning pefore the
shutters wass taken off, and he paid half chust
exactly to keep his word. Then the crop wass
ferry pad next year, and the year after that one
of his horses wass killed py lightning, and the
next year his brother, that wass not rich and
had a big family, died, and do you think wass
my grandfather to let the family be disgraced
without a good funeral? No, indeed. So my
grandfather paid for the funeral, and there was
at it plenty of meat and drink for eferypody,
as wass the right Hielan' custom those days;
and after the funeral my grandfather did not
feel chust exactly able to pay the other half for
the plough that year either.
"So, then, Tougal Stewart met my grandfather
in Cornwall next day after the funeral,
and asked him if he had some money to
"'Wass you in need of help, Mr. Stewart?'
says my grandfather, kindly. 'For if it's in any
want you are, Tougal,' says my grandfather, 'I
will sell the coat off my back, if there is no
other way to lend you a loan;' for that was
always the way of my grandfather with all his
friends, and a bigger-hearted man there never
wass in all Glengarry, or in Stormont, or in
"'In want!' says Tougal—'in want, Mr.
McTavish!' says he, very high. 'Would you
wish to insult a gentleman, and him of the name
of Stewart, that's the name of princes of the
world?' he said, so he did.
"Seeing Tougal had his temper up, my
grandfather spoke softly, being a quiet, peaceable
man, and in wonder what he had said to
"'Mr. Stewart,' says my grandfather, 'it wass
not in my mind to anger you whatefer. Only
I thought, from your asking me if I had some
money, that you might be looking for a wee bit
of a loan, as many a gentleman has to do at
times, and no shame to him at all,' said my
"'A loan?' says Tougal, sneering. 'A loan,
is it? Where's your memory, Mr. McTavish?
Are you not owing me half the price of the
plough you've had these three years?'
"'And wass you asking me for money for
the other half of the plough?' says my grandfather,
"'Just that,' says Tougal.
"'Have you no shame or honor in you?'
says my grandfather, firing up. 'How could I
feel able to pay that now, and me chust yesterday
been giving my poor brother a funeral fit
for the McTavishes' own grand-nephew, that
wass as good chentleman's plood as any Stewart
in Glengarry. You saw the expense I wass at,
for there you wass, and I thank you for the
politeness of coming, Mr. Stewart,' says my
grandfather, ending mild, for the anger would
never stay in him more than a minute, so kind
was the nature he had.
"'If you can spend money on a funeral like
that, you can pay me for my plough,' says
Stewart; for with buying and selling he wass
become a poor creature, and the heart of a
Hielan'man wass half gone out of him, for all
he wass so proud of his name of monarchs and
"My grandfather had a mind to strike him
down on the spot, so he often said; but he
thought of the time when he hit Hamish Cochrane
in anger, and he minded the penances the
priest put on him for breaking the silly man's
jaw with that blow, so he smothered the heat
that wass in him, and turned away in scorn.
With that Tougal Stewart went to court, and
sued my grandfather, puir mean creature.
"You might think that Judge Jones—him
that wass judge in Cornwall before Judge Jarvis
that's dead—would do justice. But no, he
made it the law that my grandfather must pay
at once, though Tougal Stewart could not deny
what the bargain wass.
"'Your Honor,' says my grandfather, 'I
said I'd pay when I felt able. And do I feel
able now? No, I do not,' says he. 'It's a
disgrace to Tougal Stewart to ask me, and himself
telling you what the bargain was,' said my
grandfather. But Judge Jones said that he
must pay, for all that he did not feel able.
"'I will nefer pay one copper till I feel
able,' says my grandfather; 'but I'll keep my
Hielan' promise to my dying day, as I always
done,' says he.
"And with that the old judge laughed, and
said he would have to give judgment. And so
he did; and after that Tougal Stewart got out
an execution. But not the worth of a handful
of oatmeal could the bailiff lay hands on, because
my grandfather had chust exactly taken
the precaution to give a bill of sale on his gear
to his neighbor, Alexander Frazer, that could
be trusted to do what was right after the law
play was over.
"The whole settlement had great contempt
for Tougal Stewart's conduct; but he was a
headstrong body, and once he begun to do
wrong against my grandfather, he held on, for
all that his trade fell away; and finally he had
my grandfather arrested for debt, though you'll
understand, sir, that he was owing Stewart
nothing that he ought to pay when he didn't
"In those times prisoners for debt was taken
to jail in Cornwall, and if they had friends to
give bail that they would not go beyond the
posts that was around the sixteen acres nearest
the jail walls, the prisoners could go where they
liked on that ground. This was called 'the
privilege of the limits.' The limits, you'll
understand, wass marked by cedar posts painted
white about the size of hitching-posts.
"The whole settlement was ready to go bail
for my grandfather if he wanted it, and for the
health of him he needed to be in the open air,
and so he gave Tuncan-Macdonnell of the
Greenfields, and Æneas Macdonald of the
Sandfields, for his bail, and he promised, on his
Hielan' word of honor, not to go beyond the
posts. With that he went where he pleased,
only taking care that he never put even the toe
of his foot beyond a post, for all that some
prisoners of the limits would chump ofer them
and back again, or maybe swing round them,
holding by their hands.
"Efery day the neighbors would go into
Cornwall to give my grandfather the good word,
and they would offer to pay Tougal Stewart for
the other half of the plough, only that vexed my
grandfather, for he was too proud to borrow,
and, of course, every day he felt less and less
able to pay on account of him having to hire
a man to be doing the spring ploughing and
seeding and making the kale-yard.
"All this time, you'll mind, Tougal Stewart
had to pay five shillings a week for my grandfather's
keep, the law being so that if the debtor
swore he had not five pound's worth of property
to his name, then the creditor had to pay the
five shillings, and, of course, my grandfather had
nothing to his name after he gave the bill of sale
to Alexander Frazer. A great diversion it was
to my grandfather to be reckoning up that if he
lived as long as his father, that was hale and
strong at ninety-six, Tougal would need to pay
five or six hundred pounds for him, and there
was only two pound five shillings to be paid
on the plough.
"So it was like that all summer, my grandfather
keeping heartsome, with the neighbors
coming in so steady to bring him the news of
the settlement. There he would sit, just inside
one of the posts, for to pass his jokes, and tell
what he wished the family to be doing next.
This way it might have kept going on for forty
years, only it came about that my grandfather's
youngest child—him that was my father—fell
sick, and seemed like to die.
"Well, when my grandfather heard that bad
news, he wass in a terrible way, to be sure, for
he would be longing to hold the child in his
arms, so that his heart was sore and like to
break. Eat he could not, sleep he could not:
all night he would be groaning, and all day he
would be walking around by the posts, wishing
that he had not passed his Hielan' word of
honor not to go beyond a post; for he thought
how he could have broken out like a chentleman,
and gone to see his sick child, if he had
stayed inside the jail wall. So it went on three
days and three nights pefore the wise thought
came into my grandfather's head to show him
how he need not go beyond the posts to see his
little sick poy. With that he went straight to
one of the white cedar posts, and pulled it up
out of the hole, and started for home, taking
great care to carry it in his hands pefore him,
so he would not be beyond it one bit.
"My grandfather wass not half a mile out of
Cornwall, which was only a little place in those
days, when two of the turnkeys came after him.
"'Stop, Mr. McTavish,' says the turnkeys.
"'What for would I stop?' says my grandfather.
"'You have broke your bail,' says they.
"'It's a lie for you,' says my grandfather, for
his temper flared up for anybody to say he
would broke his bail. 'Am I beyond the
post?' says my grandfather.
"With that they run in on him, only that he
knocked the two of them over with the post, and
went on rejoicing, like an honest man should,
at keeping his word and overcoming them that
would slander his good name. The only thing
pesides thoughts of the child that troubled him
was questioning whether he had been strictly
right in turning round for to use the post to
defend himself in such a way that it was nearer
the jail than what he wass. But when he
remembered how the jailer never complained of
prisoners of the limits chumping ofer the posts,
if so they chumped back again in a moment,
the trouble went out of his mind.
"Pretty soon after that he met Tuncan Macdonnell
of Greenfields, coming into Cornwall
with the wagon.
"'And how is this, Glengatchie?' says Tuncan.
'For you were never the man to broke
"Glengatchie, you'll understand, sir, is the
name of my grandfather's farm.
"'Never fear, Greenfields,' says my grandfather,
'for I'm not beyond the post.'
"So Greenfields looked at the post, and he
looked at my grandfather, and he scratched his
head a wee, and he seen it was so; and then
he fell into a great admiration entirely.
"'Get in with me, Glengatchie—it's proud
I'll be to carry you home;' and he turned his
team around. My grandfather did so, taking
great care to keep the post in front of him all
the time; and that way he reached home. Out
comes my grandmother running to embrace
him; but she had to throw her arms around
the post and my grandfather's neck at the same
time, he was that strict to be within his promise.
Pefore going ben the house, he went to the
back end of the kale-yard which was farthest
from the jail, and there he stuck the post; and
then he went back to see his sick child, while
all the neighbors that came round was glad to
see what a wise thought the saints had put into
his mind to save his bail and his promise.
"So there he stayed a week till my father got
well. Of course the constables came after my
grandfather, but the settlement would not let
the creatures come within a mile of Glengatchie.
You might think, sir, that my grandfather would
have stayed with his wife and weans, seeing the
post was all the time in the kale-yard, and him
careful not to go beyond it; but he was putting
the settlement to a great deal of trouble day
and night to keep the constables off, and he
was fearful that they might take the post away,
if ever they got to Glengatchie, and give him
the name of false, that no McTavish ever had.
So Tuncan Greenfields and Æneas Sandfield
drove my grandfather back to the jail, him with
the post behind him in the wagon, so as he
would be between it and the jail. Of course
Tougal Stewart tried his best to have the bail
declared forfeited; but old Judge Jones only
laughed, and said my grandfather was a Hielan'
gentleman, with a very nice sense of honor, and
that was chust exactly the truth.
"How did my grandfather get free in the
end? Oh, then, that was because of Tougal
Stewart being careless—him that thought he
knew so much of the law. The law was, you
will mind, that Tougal had to pay five shillings
a week for keeping my grandfather in the limits.
The money wass to be paid efery Monday, and
it was to be paid in lawful money of Canada,
too. Well, would you belief that Tougal paid
in four shillings in silver one Monday, and one
shilling in coppers, for he took up the collection
in church the day pefore, and it wass not till
Tougal had gone away that the jailer saw that
one of the coppers was a Brock copper,—a
medal, you will understand, made at General
Brock's death, and not lawful money of Canada
at all. With that the jailer came out to my
"'Mr. McTavish,' says he, taking off his hat,
'you are a free man, and I'm glad of it.' Then
he told him what Tougal had done.
"'I hope you will not have any hard feelings
toward me, Mr. McTavish,' said the jailer; and
a decent man he wass, for all that there wass not
a drop of Hielan' blood in him. 'I hope you
will not think hard of me for not being hospitable
to you, sir,' says he; 'but it's against the
rules and regulations for the jailer to be offering
the best he can command to the prisoners.
Now that you are free, Mr. McTavish,' says the
jailer, 'I would be a proud man if Mr. McTavish
of Glengatchie would do me the honor of taking
supper with me this night. I will be asking
your leave to invite some of the gentlemen of
the place, if you will say the word, Mr. McTavish,'
"Well, my grandfather could never bear
malice, the kind man he was, and he seen how
bad the jailer felt, so he consented, and a great
company came in, to be sure, to celebrate the
"Did my grandfather pay the balance on the
plough? What for should you suspicion, sir,
that my grandfather would refuse his honest
debt? Of course he paid for the plough, for
the crop was good that fall.
"'I would be paying you the other half of
the plough now, Mr. Stewart,' says my grandfather,
coming in when the store was full.
"'Hoich, but you are the honest McTavish!'
says Tougal, sneering.
"But my grandfather made no answer to the
creature, for he thought it would be unkind to
mention how Tougal had paid out six pounds
four shillings and eleven pence to keep him in
on account of a debt of two pound five that
never was due till it was paid."