Wilson's Tales of the Borders
AND OF SCOTLAND.
HISTORICAL, TRADITIONARY, & IMAGINATIVE.
WITH A GLOSSARY.
REVISED BY ALEXANDER LEIGHTON, _One of the Original Editors and Contributors._
VOL. XXI. LONDON: WALTER SCOTT, 14 PATERNOSTER SQUARE, AND NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE.
THE BURGHER'S TALES, (_Alexander Leighton_)-- THE HOUSE IN BELL'S WYND, 5
THE PRODIGAL SON, (_John Mackay Wilson_), 39
THE LAWYER'S TALES, (_Alexander Leighton_)-- THE WOMAN WITH THE WHITE MICE, 56
GLEANINGS OF THE COVENANT, (_Prof. Thos. Gillespie_)-- THE EARLY DAYS OF A FRIEND OF THE COVENANT, 84
THE DETECTIVE'S TALE, (_Alexander Leighton_)-- THE CHANCE QUESTION, 119
THE MERCHANT'S DAUGHTER, (_Alexander Campbell_), 139
THE BRIDE OF BELL'S TOWER, (_Alexander Leighton_), 173
DOCTOR DOBBIE, (_Alexander Campbell_), 206
THE SEEKER, (_John Mackay Wilson_), 235
THE SURGEON'S TALES, (_Alexander Leighton_)-- THE WAGER, 244
WILSON'S TALES OF THE BORDERS, AND OF SCOTLAND.
THE BURGHER'S TALES.
THE HOUSE IN BELL'S WYND.
Some reference has been made by Mr. Chambers, in his _Traditions of Edinburgh_, to a story which looks very like fiction, but the foundation of which, I dare to say, is the following, derived at most third-hand, from George Gourlay, a blacksmith, whose shop was in the Luckenbooths, his dwelling-house in Bell's Wynd, and who was himself an actor in the drama.
It is not saying much for the topography of an Edinburgh wynd, to tell that it contained a flat such as that occupied by this blacksmith; but he who would describe one of these peculiar features of the Old Town, would be qualified to come after him who gave a graphic account of the Dædalian Labyrinth, or pictured Menander. Such a wynd has been likened to the vestibule to a certain place, more hot than cozy--at another time, to two long tiers of catacombs with living mummies piled row over row; but, resigning such extravagances, we may be within the bounds of moderation, and not beyond the attributes of fair similitude, when we say that one of these wynds is like a perpendicular town where the long, narrow, dark streets, in place of extending themselves, as they ought, on the earth's surface, proceed upwards to the sky. And which sky is scarcely visible--not that, if the perpendicular line were maintained, the empyrean would be so very much obscured, but that the inhabitants, in proportion as they rise away from mother earth and society, make amends by jutting out their dwellings in the form of Dutch gables, so as to be able to converse with their neighbours opposite on the affairs of the world below--that world above, to which they are so much nearer, being despised, on the principle of familiarity producing contempt. Then the sky-line would so much delight a Gothic architect, composed as it is of a long multiplicity on either side of pointed gables, lum-tops venting reek and smoke, dried women's heads venting something of the same kind. Next, the dark boles of openings to these perpendicular passages--so like entries to coal cellars,--yet where myriads of human beings pass and repass up to and down from these skyward streets, which have no name; being the only streets in the wide world without a nomenclature.
We picture the said George Gourlay and his wife, of an evening, at the time of the history of Bell's Wynd, and other such wynds, when a change was taking place among the masses there. The New Town was beginning to hold out its aristocratic attractions to the grandees and wealthy merchants, who had chosen to live so long in so pent-up a place. Ay, many had left years before, or were leaving their lairs to be occupied by those who never thought they would live in houses with armorial bearings over the door. So it was that flats were shut up, and little wonder was created by the circumstance of windows being closed by inside shutters for years. The explanation simply was, that the good old family would come back to its old _lares_, or that no tenant could be got for the empty house. And then, of course, the furniture had flitted to the palaces beyond the North Loch; and what interest could there be in an empty house with the bare walls overhung by cobwebs, or gnawed into sinuosities by hungry rats, thus cruelly deserted by the cooks who ought to have fed them? Yet, in that same stair where Gourlay lived, there was a _door_ with a history that could not be explained in that easy way.
"I say it puzzles me, guidwife Christian, and has done for years."
"And mair it should me, George. You have been here only nine years, but 'tis now twenty-one since my father was carried to the West Kirk; and a year afore that I heard him say the house was left o' a morning: nor sound nor sigh o' human being has been heard in't since that hour."
"And then the changes," said Geordie, "hae ta'en awa the auld folk whase gleg een would hae noticed it. As for Bailie or Dean o' Guild, nane o' them hae ever tirled the padlock."
"But the factor, auld Dallas o' Lady Stair's Close, dee'd shortly after my father, and that will partly account for't."
"It accounts for naething, guidwife Christian," rejoined he. "Whar's the laird? Men are sometimes forgetfu'; but what man, or woman either, ever forgets their property or heirlooms? Ye ken, love Christian," he continued, looking askance at her, half in seriousness and half in humour, "I am a blacksmith, and hae routh o' skeleton keys."
"And never ane o' them will touch that padlock while I'm in your keeping, Geordie. I took ye for an honest man."
An opposition or check which Gourlay did not altogether like; for, in secret truth, he had long contemplated an entry by these said skeleton keys, and, like all people who want a justification for some act they wish to perform, not altogether consistent with what is right, he had often in serious playfulness knocked his foot against the old worm-eaten, wood-rusted, dry-rotted door, as if he expected some confined ghost to shriek, like that unhappy spirit of the Buchan Caves, "Let me out, let me out!" whereupon Mr. Gourlay would have been, we doubt not, more humane than his old father-god, who would not let the pretty mother of love out of his iron net.
"Honest! there's twa-three kinds o' honesty, wife Christian. There's the cauld iron or steel kind, that will neither brak nor bend--the lukewarm, that is stiff--and the red hot, which canna be handled, but may be twisted by a bribe o' the hammer, or the cajoling o' the nippers. What kind would ye wish mine to be?"
"The cauld, that winna bend."
"And canna be fashioned to man's purposes, and made a picklock o'? Weel, weel, Christian, I'm content."
But George Gourlay was not content, neither then nor for several nights; nor even in that hour when, having watched guidwife Christian as she lay on the liver side, and heard the "snurr, snurr," of her deepest sleep, and listened to the corresponding knurr of the old timepiece as it beat hoarsely the key-stone hour between the night and the day, he slipt noiselessly out of bed, and listened again to ascertain whether his stealthy movement had disturbed his wife. All safe--nor sound anywhere within the house, or even in the Wynd, where midnight orgies of the new-comers sometimes annoyed the remaining grandees not yet gone over the Loch; no, nor rap, rap, upwards from the spirits in the deserted house right below him, inviting him by the call of "Let me out." Most opportune silence,--not even broken by guidwife Christian's Baudron watching with brain-lighted eyes at some hole in a meat-press. And dark too, not less than Cimmerian, save only for a small rule of moonlight, which, penetrating a circular hole in the shutter, played fitfully, as the clouds went over its source, on a point of the red curtains--sometimes disappearing altogether. By a little groping he got his hose; nor more would he venture to search for, but finding his way by touch of the finger, he reached the kitchen, where he lighted the end of a small dip. A sorry glimmer indeed; but it enabled him to lay his hands on a bunch of crooked instruments, which he lifted so stealthily that even a mouse would have continued nibbling forbidden cheese, and been not a whit alarmed. Then there was the more dangerous opening of the door leading to the tortuous stair--dangerous, for that quick ear ben the house, which knew the creak as well as she did the accents of Geordie Gourlay. Ah, _tutum silentii præmium_! has he not gone through all this, and reached the stair without a sneeze or sigh of mortal to disturb him!
So far was he fortunate; and slipshod in worsted of wife Christian's own working, who so little thought, as she pleased herself with the reflection of the softness for his feet, that she was to be cheated thereby, he slipped gently down the steps on this enterprise he had revolved in his mind for years and years of bygone time. Come to the identical old door. He had examined it often by candle-light before; and as for the rusty hasp and staple, and appended padlock, he knew them well, with all their difficulties to even smith's hands of his horny manipulation. He laid down the glimmering candle and paused. What a formidable object of occlusion, that door by which no one had entered for twenty years! Geordie knew nothing of the old notion, that time fills secret and vacant recesses with terrified ghosts, frightened away from the haunts of men; yet he had strange misgivings, which, being the instinctive suggestions of a rude mind, had a better chance for being true to nature. Perhaps the cold night air, to which his shirt offered small impediment, helped his tremulousness; and that was not diminished when, on seizing the padlock, a scream from some drunken unfortunate in the Wynd struck on his ear and died away in the midnight silence. Nor was he free from the pangs of conscience, as he thought of the injunctions of guidwife Christian, and, more than these, the sanctions of morality and the laws; but then he was not a thief,--only an antiquary, searching into a dungeon of time-hallowed curiosities and relics. He laid his hard hand on the rusty padlock. He was accustomed to the screech of old bolts, but that now was as if it came from some of Vulcan's chains whereby he caught the old thieves. The key-hole was entirely filled up with red rust, which, like silence stuffing up the mouth, had kept the brain-works unimpaired; so it needed no long time till, through his cunning crooks, he heard the nick of the receding bolt. A tug brought up the hasp, and now all ought to have been clear; but it was otherwise. Time, with his warpings and accumulating glues, had been there too long--the door would not give way, even to a smith's right hand; but Geordie had a potency in his back, before which other unwilling impediments of the same kind, sometimes with a debtor's resistance at the other side, had given way. That potency he applied; and the groan of the hinges responding fearfully to his ears, the vision was at length realized, of that door standing open for the passage of human beings.
So far committed, Geordie's courage came with a drawing up of his muscles; and muttering between his teeth, which risped like files, "I will face any one except the devil," he lifted the candle, the glimmer of which paled in the thick air of the opening. He waved it up and down before he entered; but it seemed as if the weak rays could not find their way in the dense atmosphere--enough, notwithstanding, to show him dimly a long lobby. He snorted as the accumulated must stimulated his nostrils; but there was more than must--the smell was that of an opened grave which had been covered with moil for a century. Yet his step was instinctively forward,--the small light flitting here and there like the fitful gleam of a magic lantern. Half groping with the left hand, as he held the candle with his right, he soon began to discover particulars. There were three doors, opening no doubt to rooms, on his left; and as the light--becoming accustomed, like men's eyes, to the dark--shone forwards towards the end, he saw another door, which was open. Desperate men--and Geordie was now wound up--aim at the farthest extremities. He made his way forward, laying down each stocking-clad foot as if in fear of being heard by the family below, whose hysterics at a tread above them at midnight, and in that house, would lead to inquiry and detection.
He came at length to the open door at the end of the lobby, and ventured in. He was presently in the middle of the kitchen, holding the candle up to see as far around him as he could. Geordie had never read of those scenes of enchantment where veritable men and women, with warm blood in their veins, were, on being touched by a wand, changed into statues with the very smile on their faces which they wore at the moment of transmutation; in which state they were to remain for a hundred years, till the wand was broken by a fairy, when they would all start into their old life. No matter if he had not, for here there was no change: the kitchen was as it had been left, twenty years before. The plate-rack, with the china set all along in regular order--no change there; nor on the row of pewter jugs, one of which stood on the dresser, with a bottle alongside, and a screw with the cork still on its spiral end. No doubt some one had been drinking just on the eve of the cessation of the living economy. A square fir-table stood in the middle, supplied with plates ready to be carried to the dining-room; and these plates were certainly not to have been supplied with imaginary meals, like those in the Eastern tale, for, as he held the candle down towards the grate, yet half filled with cinders, he saw the horizontal spit with the skeleton of a goose stuck on it. The motion of the spit had been suspended when the works ran out, and Baudron had feasted upon the flesh when it became cold. Nay, that cat, no doubt cherished, lay extended in anatomy before the fireplace. Nor could it be doubted that the roast had not been ready; for the axe lay beside a piece of coal half splintered, for the necessities of the diminished fire. An industrious house too, wherein the birr of the wheel and the sneck of the reel had sounded: the pirn was half filled, and the wisp, from which the thread had been drawn, lay over the back of a chair, as it had been taken from the waist of the servant maid. But why should not the sluttish girl's bed have been made at a time of the day when a goose was roasting for dinner? Nor did Geordie try to answer, because the question was as far from his wondering mind, as the time when he stood there himself enchanted was from the period of that marvellous dereliction.
With eyes rounder, and wider, and considerably glegger, than when he left goodwife Christian snoring in her bed, so unconscious of what her husband was to see, he retraced his steps to the kitchen-door, and turning to the right, opened that next to him. It was the dining-room. He peered about as his wonder still grew. The long oak-table, in place of the modern sideboard, ran along the farther end, whereon were decanters and two silver cups; and not far from these a salver, with a shrivelled lump, hard as whinstone, and of the form of a loaf, with a knife lying alongside. The very cushion of the settee opposite to the fireplace had preserved upon it the indentation of a human head. But much less wonderful was the cloth-covered table, with salt-cellars and spice-boxes, and plates, with knives and forks appropriated to each; for had not Geordie seen the goose at the fire in the kitchen! The indispensable pictures, too, were all round on the dingy walls--every one a portrait--staring through dust; and a special one of a female, with voluminous silks, and a high flour-starched toupee, claimed the charmed eye of the blacksmith. Even in the vertigo of his wonder, he looked stedfastly at that beautiful face; nor did the painted eye look less stedfastly at him, as if, after twenty years, it was again charmed by the vision of a living man, to the withdrawing of that eye from the figure alongside of her, so clearly that of her husband. That they were master and mistress of this very house he would have concluded, if he had been calm enough to think; but he was, alas, still under the soufflé of the bellows of romantic wonder.
Where next, if he could take his eye off that beautiful countenance? There was a middle door leading into another room: he would persevere and still explore. Holding up the fast-diminishing candle, he looked in. There was a female figure there, standing in the dark, beside a bed. It was arrayed in a long gown, reaching to the feet, of pure white (as accords). It moved. Geordie could see it plainly: it was the only thing with living motion in all that still and dreary habitation. Hitherto his hair had kept wonderfully flat and sleek, but now it began to crisp, and swirm, and rise on end; while his legs shook, and the trembling had made the glimmer oscillate in every direction, whereby sometimes it turned away from the figure, again to illuminate it sparingly, and again to vibrate off. He could not, notwithstanding his terror, recede; nay, he tried ineffectually to fix the ray on the very thing that thrilled him through every nerve. Verily, he would even go forward, under the charm of his fear, which, like other morbid feelings, would feed on the object which produced it. First a step, and then a step. The glimmer was again off the mark; and when he got to the bed, the figure was gone--according to the old law.
But the bed was too certainly there, with its deep green curtains, which were drawn close, indicating midnight; and yet the goose at the fire, and the table laid! Nor could Geordie explain the physical anomaly, probably for the reason that he did not try. His candle was wasting away with those endless oscillations: the figure in white itself had run off with the half of the short stump; and he feared again to be left in the dark, where he would have a difficulty in finding his way out. Yet he felt he must draw these deep green curtains: the broad hand of Fate was upon his shoulders. He seized them hysterically, and pulled them aside far enough to let in his head and the candle hand. A dark counterpane was covered quarter-inch thick with dust; but the odour was not now of must, it was a choking flesh and bone rot, scarcely bearable; even the light felt the heaviness, and almost died away in his tremulous fingers. There were clothes beneath the counterpane, and a long, narrow tumulus down the middle, as if a body were there, of half its usual size; but little more was visible, till the eye was turned to the top where the pillow lay, half up which the dark counterpane was drawn. There was a head on the pillow, partly covered by the coverlet, partly by a round-eared mutch--once, no doubt, white as snow, now brown as a Norway rat's back; yet Geordie would peer, and peer, till he saw an orbless socket of pure white bone, and a portion of two rows of white teeth clenched. An undoing of the clothes would have shown him--how much more? But his shaking was now a palsy of the brain, and he could not undo the suspected horror. He turned suddenly; and, as the green curtain fell with a flap, the dip lost its flame, and a black reek vied with that heavy cadaverousness. He was in the dark.
Such is the effect of degrees, that, as he groped and groped in a place where he had lost all landmarks, and the topography had become a confusion, he could have wished to see again the figure in white; which, from its own light, could surely, as a spirit, lead him out. His brain got into a swirl. If the white figure was the spirit of that thing which he had seen so partially in the bed, would it not return to flit about its own old tenement? yet not a trail of that white light cast a glance anywhere. Groping and groping, knocking his head against unknown things, he turned and turned, but could not find the lobby. He had got through another door, but not that leading outwards. He must have got into another room; for he felt and grasped things he had not heretofore seen. Then the noise he had made had such a dreary sound, falling on his strained, nerve-strung ear! His hand shrunk at everything he touched, as if it had been a deaf adder, or deadly nag--above all, a shock of hair, from which he recoiled more than ever yet, till the devious turns round and round obliterated every recollection of what he had understood of localities. So far he must have retraced his steps; for he had again the green curtain in his left hand without knowing it, and the right went slap upon that round-eared mutch, and the bone that was under the same. Recalled a little to his senses, he got at length to the kitchen, circumambulated and circummanipulated the table, and groped his way to the door in the end of the lobby, through which he had first entered. All safe now by the lines of the two walls, he hugged the outer door as if it had been a twenty years' absent friend, a father, or a wife.
Nor did he take time to relock the padlock. He had, besides, lost his crooked instruments. Ah! how sweet to get into a warm bed safe and sound, after having fancied that from such a white figure hovering round dry bones he had heard--for Geordie had read plays--
"I am that body's spirit, Doomed for a certain time to walk the night; And for the day confined, to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away."
How delightful to Geordie was that snore of wife Christian, as she still lay on the liver side, perhaps dreaming of seraphim!
The adventure of that midnight hour dated the beginning of a change on George Gourlay. One might have said of him, with the older playwright who never pictured a ghost, _quod scis nescis_; for then never a word scarcely would he speak to man or beast, nay, not even to a woman, who has a power of breaking the charm of that silence in others of which their sex are themselves incapable--even, we say, wife Christian. There are many Trophonian caves in the world about us, only known to ourselves, out of which, when we come, we are mute, because we have seen something different from the objects of the sunlight; yea, if, as the Indians say, the animals are the dumb of earth, these are the dumb of heaven. Certain at least it is, that while Geordie did not hesitate before that night to use his voice in asking an extravagant price for an old lock, or even damning him who below made more noise than nails, he never now used that tongue in such dishonesties and irreverences. But, what was even more strange, wife Christian did not seem to have any inclination to break his silent mood; nay, if he was moody, so was she. Then her eyelight was so changed to him, that he could not thereby, as formerly, read her thoughts. Perhaps she took all this on from imitation; but she was not one of the imitative children of genius--rather a hard-grained Cameronian, to whom others' thoughts are only as a snare; yet, might she not have had suspicions of her husband's silence? All facts were against such a supposition, except one: that, on the following morning, she observed dryly, that the dip she had left in the kitchen had burnt away of its own special accord. Vain thoughts all. Geordie was simply "born again;" and old women do not speak to infants, until, at least, they can hear.
Nor did this mood promise amendment even up to that night, when a rap having come to the door, Geordie started, while guidwife Christian went undismayed to open the same; for, moody as she was, she was not affected by evening raps as he was, and had been since that eventful midnight. But if the sturdy blacksmith was afraid before she obeyed the call, he was greatly more so after she had opened the door, and when she led into the parlour an old man, with hair more than usually grey even for his years, with a staff in his hand, bearing up, as he came in, a tall, wasted body--so wasted, that he might have been supposed to have waited all this time for a leg of that goose which had been so very long at the fire. The grief of years had eaten up his face, and only left untouched the corrugations itself had made. Yet withal he was a gentleman; for his bow to Geordie was just that which the grandees of the Wynd made to each other as they passed and repassed. No sooner was he seated, holding his cane between his shrivelled legs, and his sharp grey eye fixed on the blacksmith, than the latter became as one enchanted for a second time, with all the horrors of the first catalepsy upon him, by the process of the double sense insisted for by Abercromby, but thus known in Bell's Wynd before his day. Yes, Geordie was entranced again, nor less guidwife Christian--both staring at the stranger, as if their minds had gone back through long bygone years to catch the features of a prototype for comparison with that long, withered face, so yellow and grave-like; then Christian looked stealthily, and concealed her face.
"You are a blacksmith, Mr. Gourlay?"
"How long have you been here in Bell's Wynd?"
"Nine years, come Beltane Feast."
"Not so much as the half of twenty," said the stranger, more inwards than outwards.
"Twenty!" ejaculated Christian, as if she could not just help herself.
And Geordie searched her rigid face for a stray sympathy, repeating within the teeth that very same word--"Twenty."
"Then," continued the old man, "you cannot tell who occupied the flat below at that long period back?"
"And who occupies it now?"
Geordie was as dumb as the white figure, or as the head on the pillow with the rat-brown mutch; and this time Christian answered for him:
"It hasna been occupied for twenty years, sir; and it has been shut up a' that lang time."
"Twenty years!" ejaculated the old man, pondering deeply, and sighing heavily and painfully.
"Do any of you know Mr. Thomas Dallas, the Clerk to the Signet, who lived once in Lady Stair's Close?"
"Dead eighteen years since," replied the wife.
"Ah, I see," rejoined the stranger; "and so the house has been thus long closed!" Then musingly, "But then it will be empty--no furniture, nothing but bare walls."
"Naebody kens," replied George, still busy examining the face of the questioner, as if he could not get it to be steady alongside the image in his own mind.
"You can, of course, open a padlock?"
"Ou ay, when it's no owre auld, and the brass slide has been well kept on the key-hole." Then, as if recollecting himself, "I hinna tried an auld ane for years."
"One twenty years unopened?" rejoined the stranger.
Geordie was again dumb and rigid.
"Indeed, sir," replied Christian, who saw that her husband was under some strong feeling, "he can pick ony lock."
"The very man," said the mysterious visitor. "And now, madam, will you allow me to take the liberty of requesting to be for a few moments the only one present in this room with your husband, as I have some business of a very secret nature to transact with him, which it would not be proper for a woman, even of your evident discretion and confidence, to be acquainted with?"
"I dinna want ye to gang," whispered George.
"And what for no?" muttered she. "Let evil-doers dree the shame o' their deeds. Didna ye say to me ye were an honest man, ay, even as cauld iron or steel, and what ought ye to hae to fear? And now, sir," turning round, "I will e'en tak me to the kitchen, that what ye want wi' George Gourlay you may do in secret, even as he has been secret wi' me."
Then guidwife Christian went out, casting, as she went, a look of something like triumph at her husband.
"And now, George Gourlay," said the stranger, "the secret thing I have to transact with you, and for which I have come three thousand miles, is to ask you to go with me this night and open the padlock of the door of that house below, which has not been opened for twenty years."
"I winna, I canna, I daurna, sir. Gang to the Dean o' Guild. There's a dead body in the green bed, and there's a spirit in a lang white goun that watches it."
The hand of the stranger shook, as he grasped spasmodically his staff; his teeth for a moment were clenched; and he plainly showed a resolution not to seem moved by that which as clearly did move him to the innermost parts of his being. Nor did it now escape Gourlay, as he sat and gazed at him, that he was the original of that picture in the dining-room, which hung by the side of the beautiful lady.
"Then you must have been in?"
Geordie was silent, meditating on some new light gradually breaking in upon him.
"You must have been in, and--and--know the secret?"
"I ken nae secret, except it be that the goose which has been at the fire for twenty years is no roasted yet."
"That goose at the fire even yet!" ejaculated the stranger.
"Ay, and the thread still on the pirn."
"Pirn!" responded he mechanically.
"Ay, and the bottle standing on the dresser along by the pewter mug."
"Ay, and the half-cut loaf on the oaken table, with alongside o't the knife."
"Ay, and to cap a', the green bed with the dark red counterpane, and in it still the corpse."
"So, so," continued the stranger, "I have been wandering the wide world for twenty years to escape from myself, as if a man could leave his shadow in the east when he has gone to the west, and all that time found the vanity of a forced forgetfulness where the touch of God's finger still burned in the heart. Ay, nor long prairies, nor savannahs where objects are cast behind and not seen, nor thick woods which exclude the sun, nor rocky caves by the sea-shore, where there is only heard the roaring of the waves, could untwine the dark soul from its recollections. But other things of earth and human workmanship rot and pass away, as if all were vanity, but man's spirit; and yet here it has been decreed by Heaven, and wrought by miracle, that things of flesh, and bone, and wood, and dried grass should be enchanted for duration, yea, kept in the very place, and form, and lineaments they possessed in a terrible hour, the memory of which they must conserve for a purpose. Speak man: Have those sights and things taught you aught of a purpose? Why look ye at me as if you saw into my heart, and grin as if you were gifted with the right of revenge? What thoughts have you--what wishes? What do you premeditate?"
"Just nae mair than that you'll no get me to enter that house again."
The stranger's head was bent down in heavy sorrow; and, after being silent for a while, he rose, and bidding Gourlay good night, went away, saying he would get another locksmith. The strange manner of Christian was now made even more remarkable, as, taking her bonnet and cloak, she sallied forth, late as the hour was, proceeding up the Wynd, and muttering as she went, "The very man, the very man," she made direct for Blackfriars Wynd, where she stopt, and looked up to a small window on the right hand. There was light in it; and ascending a narrow stair she reached a door, which she quietly opened. A woman was there, busily spinning. The birr ceased as the door opened.
"Ann Hall," cried Christian, as she entered, "he is come, he is come! I kent his face the moment I saw it."
"Patience, patience, Christian," replied the woman, "what are you to do?"
"There maun be nae patience, when God says haste."
"Canny, canny. The wa's are thin and ears are gleg. I can hear a whisper frae the next room. Now, I'll spin and you'll speak."
And so she began to produce the dirl by turning the wheel and plying the thread.
"What although ye hae seen him? that maks nae difference. Your aith is still afore the Lord; and though we are forbidden to swear, when we hae sworn we hae nae right to brak that aith, as if it were a silly wand, to be broken and cast awa' at the end o' our journey. And then ye maun keep in mind, if you brak your word, ye stretch his neck."
"I carena," replied Christian. "The Lord maun hae His ain for reward, and Satan maun hae his ain, too, for punishment. Sin' ever that eery night when in my night-shirt I followed George into the house, and saw what I saw, the Spirit o' the Lord has been busy in my heart; and my aith has been to me nae mair than a windlestrae in the east wind, to be blawn awa' where it listeth. Ye are, like mysel', o' the Auld Light, and ken what it is to hae the finger o' command laid upon ye."
"We maun obey; but we maun ken whether the finger is for the will o' the auld rebel o' pride, wha rebelled in heaven, or Him wha says to the murderer, Get ye among the rocks or caves o' secrecy, and I will search ye out, and rug ye into the licht."
"And what for should I no ken whase finger it is?" said wife Christian. "Have I no seen what I have seen? For what are a' thae things keepit, as man keeps the apple o' his e'e? Is na the rust and the worm, ay, and Time's teeth, aye eating, and gnawing, and tearing, so that everything passes awa' to make room for others, as if the hail warld were a whirligig turning round like your ain wheel there for ever and ever?"
"Ay, the Lord's hand, na doubt. The deil doesna keep the instruments and signs o' his evil, but shuffles them awa' in nooks and corners to be out o' the een o' his victims."
"But hae I no laid my very hand on the fleshless head o' the bonny misguided creature? Wae tak the man wha brought sae muckle beauty to the earth to rot, and yet hae nae grave to cover it!"
"Weel mind I o' her," said Ann, as she still made the wheel go round. "How she sailed up the Wynd wi' her load o' silks and satins, and the ribbons that waved in the wind, as if to say, Look here; saw ye ever the like among the daughters o' men?"
"It was left to testify, woman, naething else; but the glimmer o' Geordie's candle showed me a' the lave. Ay, the very goose I plucked, and drew, and singed, and put on the spit--what for is it there, think ye, cummer, but to testify? and the pewter jug I drank out o' that forenoon, and my ain bed I hadna time to mak--what for but to testify?"
"And punish. But oh, woman, he had sair provocations. Wha was that goose for?"
"For her lover, nae doubt; for my master wasna expected hame for a week. And was I no guilty mysel', wha played into her hands, and was fause to him wha fed me?"
"Haud your peace, then, and say naething. The Lord will forgi'e you."
"Oh God, hae mercy on me, a sinner; and tak awa' frae me this transgression, that I may lift up my voice in the tabernacle without fear or trembling!"
The wheel turned with greater celerity and more noise, and wife Christian was on her knees, beating her bosom and crying for mercy.
"Say nae mair, woman," cried the spinner, "and do nae mair. Let the corpse lie in the green bed, and a' thing be in the wud-dream o' that dreary house; do nae mair."
"But the Lord drives me."
"Just sae; and he wham you would hang on the wuddy will stand up against ye, and swear ye were the cause o' the death o' his braw leddie, for that ye concealed her trothlessness, and winked at her wickedness."
"Haud your tongue, cummer," cried the Old Light Sinner; "haud your tongue, or you'll drive me mad. Is my heart no like aneugh to brak its strings, but ye maun tug at them? Is my brain no het aneugh, but ye maun set lowe to it, and burn it? And my conscience, ken ye na what it is to hae that terrible thing within ye, when it's waukened up like a fiend o' hell, chasing ye wi' a red-het brand, and nae escape, for the angel o' the Lord hauds ye agen? Ann Hall, my auldest friend, will ye do this thing for me?"
"What is it?"
"Gang to Mr B----, the fiscal, and tell him that the corpse is there, and that the man is here, and say naething o' me; do this, or I'll never haud up my hands again for grace and mercy."
Ann was silent, only driving the wheel, the sound of which in the silent house--dark enough, too, in the small light of the oil cruise over the fireplace--was all that was heard, save the occasional sobs of the unhappy victim of conscience.
"I canna, Christian; I canna, lass. I'll hang nae man for the death o' a light-o'-love limmer, and to save the conscience o' ane wha, if she didna see something wrang when it _was_ wrang, ought to hae seen it."
"I repent and am sair in the spirit," replied Christian; "but if I had tauld him what I suspected was wrang between Spynie--and ye ken he was a lord, and titles cast glamour ower the een o' maidens--and my mistress, it would hae been a' the same. But wae's me!" she added, as she sighed from the depths of the heart, and wrung her hands, "I had a lichtness about me myself. A woman's no in her ain keeping at wild happy nineteen. The heart is aye jumping against the head. But oh, how changed when the Auld Licht shone ower me! And hae I no been a guid wife to Geordie Gourlay? Will you no help me, woman?"
"I hae said it," replied Mrs Hall, as the energy of her resolution passed into the moving power of the wheel, and the revolutions became quicker and quicker.
The Cameronian stood for a moment looking at her--the lips compressed, the brow knit, the hand firmly bound up, and striking it upon the wall.
"Ye're o' my faith," said she bitterly; "and may the Evil One help ye when ye're in need o' the Lord!"
And with these words she left her old friend, drawing the door after her with a clang, which shook the crazy tenement. In a moment she was in the street, now beginning to be deserted. The wooden-pillared lamps, so thinly distributed, and their small dreary spunk of life, showed only the darkness they were perhaps intended to illumine; and here and there was seen a gay-dressed sprig of aristocracy, with his gold-headed cane, cocked hat, and braided vest, strolling unsteadily home, after having drunk his couple of claret. Solitary city guardsmen were lounging about, as if waiting for the peace being broken, when an encounter occurred between some such ornamented braggadocio and a low Wynd blackguard--ready to use his quarter-staff against the silver-handled sword of the aristocrat; and here and there the high-pattened, short-gowned light-o'-love, regardless of the loud-screamed "gardy-loo," frolicked with "gold lace and wine," or swore the Edinburgh oaths at untrue and discarded lovers of their own degree. But guidwife Christian saw none of all these things; only one engrossing vision was in her mind, that of the sleeping scene of enchantment in the old flat, associated with the figure of the stranger;--one feeling only was paramount in her heart, the inspired awe of the conviction that these petrified relics of another time, so long back, were there waiting for her to touch them, that they should be disenchanted, and speak and tell their tale, and then rot and depart, according to the usual law of change, and corruption, and decay.
In this mood she got to the top of the Wynd, and was hurrying along the first or covered portion, overspread by the front lands, and therefore dark, when she encountered a man rolled up in a cloak. Even in the dim light coming from the street lamp on the main pavement, she recognised him in a moment. He was slouching down by the side of the wall, and did not seem to notice her. So Christian held back, until he had got farther on. She felt herself concentrated upon his movements, and observed that he hung about her own stair, standing in the middle of the close, with his eye fixed on the dark windows of the deserted flat. There was no meaning in his action. It seemed simply that his eye was bound to that house. So far Christian understood the ways of the world; but there are deeper mysteries there than she wotted of or dreamed just then. A man will examine a gangrene if it is hopeful; and will hope, and shrink, and be alarmed, when the hope fails only but a little; nay, he will dread the undoing of the bandages, lest the hope of the prior undoing should be changed by the new aspect into a conviction of aggravation; but there is a state of that ailment, as of moral ills, where all hope having vanished, despair comes to be reconciled to its own terrors, and the eye will peer into the hopeless thing, ay, and be charmed with it, and dally with it, as an irremediable condition, which is his own peculium, a part of his nature, so far changed. He then becomes a lover of pity, as before he was a seeker for hope; and, like a desperate bankrupt, will hawk the balance-sheet of his ills, to make up for the subtraction from his credit by the sympathy of the world. So did that man look upon that house, a hopeless sore, after twenty years pain and agony, with these green spots, and the caustic-defying "proud flesh." Was not the fleshless corpse of his dead wife still there? She was a skeleton; but he could only fancy her as he had seen her twenty years before, a young and beautiful woman. Nor was he alarmed as Christian, weary of waiting but not unsteeled now for a recognition, stept forward and confronted him.
"Mrs. Gourlay!" he said, as he peered into her hard face.
"Ay, guidwife Christian, as my husband says. Christian Gourlay that is--Christian Dempster that was."
"Dempster!" ejaculated he, as he staggered and sustained himself against the side of the close.
"Yes, sir--Patrick Guthrie that was when I was Dempster, and is--ay, and will be till you are born again, and baptized with fire."
"Patrick Guthrie!" he repeated. "Yes, the man, the very man. And here, too, is the evidence kept and preserved, perhaps more than once snatched from death, to be here at this hour to see me, and lay your hand on me, and be certain that I am the man, the very man. And," after a pause, "you have kept your sworn promise?"
"Till this day. Look up there, and see thae closed shutters; go in, and behold, and say whether or not."
"Too faithful!" groaned he.
"To an aith wrung out o' me by a money-bribe and terror."
"And to be repaid by a money-reward and penitence."
"The ane, sir, but never the other. Another day--another day," she repeated, "will try a'."
"What mean you, Christian?"
"Mean I? Why are you here?"
"Because I am weary wandering over the face of the earth, an exile and a criminal, for twenty long--oh long years!"
"And now want rest and peace! And how can ye get them but through the fire of the law, and the waters of the gospel? Where are you living?"
"Why should I conceal from you, Christian?" said he, thoughtfully. "No--at the White Horse in the Canongate, under the name of Douglas."
"_Her_ name! Then look ye to it; for there will be human voices where none have been for twenty years, and cries o' wonder, and tears o' pity. Yes, yes, the long sleep is ended, for the charm is broken. Good night."
And hurrying away, she mounted the stair, leaving the man even more amazed than he was heart-broken and miserable. Nor will we be far wrong in supposing that Patrick Guthrie sought the White Horse probably not to sleep, but if to sleep, as probably to dream. As for guidwife Christian, she was soon on that side so propitious to her snoring; and as for her dreams, they were not more of seraphim, nor of Urim and Thummim, than they were on that night when she was the disembodied spirit of her who had lain so long in the bed with green curtains. Yet, no doubt, Geordie was just as certain that she slept as he was on that same night when he saw the said disembodied spirit; and as for himself, there could be little doubt that, sleeping or waking, his mind was occupied in tracing the marked resemblance of the stranger to the picture on the wall, which would lead him again to the beautiful lady, and which, again, would remind him of the bones below the red coverlet; and then there is as little doubt as there is about all these wonderful things, that he would fancy himself beridden with a terrible nightmare. Oppressed and tortured by thoughts which he could not bring to bear on any probable event, he turned and turned; but all his restlessness would produce no effect on guidwife Christian, who seemed as dead asleep as ever was he of the Cretan cave in the middle of the seventy years. Nor could he understand this: heretofore a slight cough, even slighter than that which brought the Doctor in the "Devil on Two Sticks," used to awaken the faithful wife; and now nothing would awaken her. He dodged, he cried; but she wouldn't help to take off the nightmare, which, with its old characteristic of tailor-folded legs and grinning aspect, sat upon his chest, as it heaved, but could not throw off the imp. But what was more extraordinary, this strange conduct of Christian was the continuation of--nay, a climax to--her inexplicable conduct since ever that night when he caught up in his mind, as in a prism, that midnight vision which he had seen, and the fiery coruscations of which still careered through his brain. Honest Geordie had no guile; and if he had had any, the new birth he had undergone, with the consequent baptism, would have taken it clean away, so that there was no chance of a suspicion of the part which guidwife Christian had played on the said occasion. Yet, wonder as he might, if he had known all, he would have wondered more how any woman, even with the advantage of a "New Light," could have snored under the purpose she had revolved in her mind, and which she had so darkly revealed to her old master. Ah yes, that female member, of which so much has been said--even that it contains on the subtle point thereof a little nerve which anatomists cannot find in the corresponding organ in man--can swim lightly _tanquam suber_, and yet never give an indication of the depths below. But Geordie became wild;--was she dead outright? Dead people do not snore, but the dying do in apoplexy. He took her by the shoulders, and shook her.
"Christian, woman, will ye no speak, when I can get nae rest? Wha was that man wha called here yestreen?"
No, she wouldn't.
"And did I no see you look at him as ye never looked at man before?"
"And what took ye out so soon after he was awa'?"
"And what's mair"--the murder was now out,--"did ye no meet him secretly at the stair-foot, and stand and speak to him in strange words and strange signs?"
"And what, in the name o' Heaven, and a' the ither powers up and down and round and round, was the aith that ye swore to him?"
"And what money-bribe was it ye spak o' sae secretly and darkly?"
All in vain. At length the knurr of the clock, and the most solemn of all the hours, "one," sounded hoarsely. Wearied, exhausted, and sorely troubled, Geordie fell asleep, greatly aided thereto by the eternal oscillation of that little tongue at the back of the greater and mute one, the sound of which ceased when the blacksmith was fairly and certainly over, just as if its services had been no longer needed that night.
Surely the next of these eventful days was destined, either by the Furies or the good goddess, to be that day that "would try a'." Even these words Geordie had heard, if he had not caught up many other broken sentences, which showed to his distracted mind that guidwife Christian was in some mysterious way mixed up with the events and things of the charmed house. The comparatively sleepless night induced a later than usual rising; but with what wonder did Geordie Gourlay ascertain, that late as Christian had been out on the previous night, she was already again forth of the house, leaving him to the bachelor work of making his own breakfast! Where she had gone he could not even venture to suppose; but certain he was that her absence was in some way connected with that stranger with whom he had seen her in communication the night before. The business did not admit of his waiting; so he took his morning meal of porridge and milk, and with thoughts anxious and deep, yet deeper in mere feeling than portrayment of outward coming events, he sallied forth for the Luckenbooths. On descending the stair, he found to his dire amazement the door of the portentous flat--that grave above ground of so many things that should have been either under the earth, in the sinless regions of mortality, or in the mendicant bag of Time, rolled away beyond the ken of mortal--open. Yes, that door, with the rusty padlock, and the creaking hinge, and the worm-eaten panels, was open. He shuddered: yet he looked ben into the old dark lobby, where he had groped and so nearly lost himself; and what did he see? His wife, guidwife Christian, standing in the middle thereof in her white short-gown, so like, to his imperfect vision, that spirit he had encountered in that house before! There seemed to be others there also; for he heard inside doors creaking, and by and by saw come out of the far-end door that very man--yea, the very man. The reflection of a light shone out upon him. To escape observation, he slipt to a side; and when he peered in again, no one was to be seen. They had passed together into some of the rooms, probably that bedroom where stood the bed with the green curtains. Resolved as he had been never to enter that door-way again, he would have rushed forward, had not a hand been laid on his shoulder.
"George Gourlay," said a voice behind him.
"Ay, nae doubt I'm weel kenned."
"You are in the meantime my prisoner," said an officer, with the indispensable blue coat, and the red collar, and the cocked hat.
"For what?" said Geordie.
"Ye'll ken that by and by," replied the officer; "the fiscal will tell ye. Awa' wi' me to the office."
"Humph! for picking a lock," said the blacksmith. "The deil put my left fingers between my hammer and the stiddy when I meddle again wi' rusty padlocks."
"There's naething dune on earth but what is seen," said the man, as with something like a smile on his left cheek, the other retaining its gravity, he held up his finger as if pointing to heaven.
"Ay, ay, there's an e'e there."
"And to break open a house," continued the officer, "is death en the wuddy up yonder at the 'Auld Heart.'"
"But wha, in God's name, is the witness against me?"
"Guidwife Christian," said the officer again, seriously enough at least for Geordie's belief of his sincerity.
"And the woman has turned against her husband! This is the warst blow ava. But, Lord, man, I stowe naething."
"Thieves are no generally at the trouble of picking locks, rummaging a house, and going away empty-handed, as if out o' a kirk. But come, you can tell the Lord Advocate's deputy a' that."
And George Gourlay was taken away, muttering to himself, as he went, "This explains a'. Nae wonder she wadna speak to the man she intended to hang. Woman, woman, verily from the beginning hae ye been we to man, and will be to the end."
Led up the High Street, yet in such a way as to avoid any suspicion that he was in the hands of an officer, George Gourlay was placed safely in the room of Mr. B----, the procurator-fiscal of that time, for reasons unknown to us, in the Old Tolbooth. The entry through the thick iron-knobbed door to the inside of this dark and dreary pile, which borrowed its light only through openings left by the irregularities of the high masses of St. Giles, and the parallel rows of overshadowing houses, flanked by the booths and the Crames, was enough to vanquish the heart of the strongest and the most innocent. Nor was it the darkness and the squalor alone that were so formidable. Thick air, loaded with the breath and exhalations from unhealthiness and disease itself, had made livid faces and bloodshot eyes; drunken, uproarious voices, and bacchanalian songs, oaths, denunciations, and peals of laughter, mixed with groans. Only awanting that inscription seen by the Hermet shadow who led the Florentine. Up a stair--through the midst of these children of evil or victims of misfortune, the innocent rendered guilty by infection, the condemned to death made drearily jolly by despair, imitating the recklessness of mirth,--and now the unfortunate George Gourlay is before his examinator.
"Mr. Gourlay," said the officer.
"Sit down, sir," said Mr. B----, "and wait till the others come. We cannot want Mrs. Gourlay, though no doubt you can swear to the man. In the meantime, hold your peace, lest you commit yourself. Say nothing till you are asked. Most strange affair."
Thus at once doomed to silence, George sat and listened to the mixed buzz of this misery become ludibund. Nor was his unhappiness thus limited: a fearful conviction seized him, that long before he was hanged he would take on the likeness of the wretches he had passed through;--he would become sleazy; his eyes would be red, fiery, or bleared with tears, dried up in the heat of his fevered blood; his cheeks would be pale-yellow or blue, his voice husky, and his nose red; he would sing, swear, dance--ay, douce Geordie would sing even as they. Better be hanged at once than sent hence thus deteriorated,--an unpleasant customer in the other world. Nay, one half of them had greasy, furzy, red nightcaps; and the chance was therefore a half that he would be thrown off in one of these, to the eternal disgrace of the Gourlays of Gersholm, from whom he was descended.
A full hour passed, bringing no comfort on its heavy wings. At length another red-necked official entered, and introduced guidwife Christian herself, and--Patrick Guthrie.
When these parties entered, Geordie's eyes and mouth had relapsed into that condition they presented on that occasion when he saw the wraith by the bed with the green curtains.
"Mrs. Gourlay," said Mr. B----, "you are the wife of George Gourlay, blacksmith?"
"Ay, and have been for nine years, come the time, the day, and the hour."
"Please throw your mind back twenty years."
"It ower aften gaes back to that time o' its ain accord, sir."
"Well, tell us where you lived, and what you did about that time."
"I was servant to Mr. Patrick Guthrie,--this gentleman sitting at my right hand."
"Was Mr. Guthrie a married man?"
"Ay, sir, he was married to a young lady, whose maiden name was Henrietta Douglas, ane o' the Brigstons, as I hae heard."
"What kind of woman was she?"
"Bonny, sir, as ony that ever walked the High Street or the Canongate; and the mair wae, sir. Cheerfu', too, and light-hearted and merry as the lavrock when it rises in the morning; ay, and the mair wae!"
"Why do you add these words?" continued Mr. B----. "What do you mean?"
"Because thae things brought gay gallants about the house when master was awa' in Angus, whaur he had a property near Gaigie; but he was nane, I think, o' the four Guthries."
"Then you knew that they came without the knowledge and against the wishes of your master?"
"Ower weel, sir, for my peace these twenty years bygane."
"Then you think there was more than indiscretion in Mrs. Guthrie?"
"Muckle mair, I doubt."
"Do you recollect the names of any of these gay gallants?"
"There was Lord Spynie, a wild dare-the-deil; but sae merry, and jovial, and pleasant, that his very een were nets to catch women's hearts."
"Do you remember anything happening when Lord Spynie was in the house in Bell's Wynd?"
"Ay; on the last day o' my service, yea, the last day o' my leddie's life. My maister had gane to Gaigie, as I thought; but I aye doubted if he had been farther than the White Horse. He wouldna return for a week, not he; and so my leddie thought, for the next day she ordered me to get a goose, and roast it on the spit; and weel I kenned wha the goose was for. But I didna like the business, for I had my pirns to finish--no, gude forgie me, that I was against this deception o' my master. The goose was bought, and plucket, and singed, and put to the fire. The dinner was to be at twa o'clock, and Lord Spynie was there by ane. In half an hour after, wha comes rushing in but my master? And the moment he saw Spynie, he drew his sword, and so did his lordship his. My mistress screamed, and ran between them; and oh! sir, the sword that was thrust at Spynie gaed clean through my mistress's fair body. She was dead. Then Lord Spynie lost a' his courage, and flew out o' the house; and just as he was passing through the door, my master thrust at him, and his bluidy sword snapt and was broken clean through. He came back and looked on my leddy, and kissed her, ay, and grat like a bairn; but oh! he was composed too. 'Christy,' said he, 'lay your mistress on the green bed.' And so I did, and streeked her, and drew the coverlet over her, and put a mutch upon her head. Oh how fair she was in death! 'Christy,' said master, 'come hither.' I obeyed. 'Get the Bible,' he said. I got it. 'Get on your knees,' he said. I knelt. 'Here,' said he, 'is twenty gowden guineas; and now swear upon the Laws and the Prophets, and the four Gospels, that you will never, by word, or look, or pen, reveal to man, or woman, or wean what has been done--in this house this day.' I swore. 'Now go,' said he; 'for I am to lock up the house, and go far away, where no man can know me.' So I took my little trunk, and went away sobbing. Nor was he a moment after me. I saw him shut the shutters and lock the door, and walk quickly away. Nor was he ever heard of more till yesterday; and there he is."
"Is all this true, Mr. Guthrie?"
"All true as God's word."
"And all this happened twenty years ago?"
"Then by the law of Scotland you are a free man, even were this murder or homicide; for twenty years is the period of our prescription. You may all go."
Then they rose to depart.
"Mr. Guthrie," cried Mr. B----, "bury your wife. And, hark ye, the goose has been at the fire for twenty years, and must now, I think, be roasted."
THE PRODIGAL SON.
The early sun was melting away the coronets of grey clouds on the brows of the mountains, and the lark, as if proud of its plumage, and surveying itself in an illuminated mirror, carolled over the bright water of Keswick, when two strangers met upon the side of the lofty Skiddaw. Each carried a small bag and a hammer, betokening that their common errand was to search for objects of geological interest. The one appeared about fifty, the other some twenty years younger. There is something in the solitude of the everlasting hills, which makes men who are strangers to each other despise the ceremonious introductions of the drawing-room. So it was with our geologists--their place of meeting, their common pursuit, produced an instantaneous familiarity. They spent the day, and dined on the mountain-side together. They shared the contents of their flasks with each other; and, ere they began to descend the hill, they felt, the one towards the other, as though they had been old friends. They had begun to take the road towards Keswick, when the elder said to the younger, "My meeting with you to-day recalls to my recollection a singular meeting which took place between a friend of mine and a stranger, about seven years ago, upon the same mountain. But, sir, I will relate to you the circumstances connected with it; and they might be called the History of the Prodigal Son."
He paused for a few moments, and proceeded:--About thirty years ago a Mr. Fen-wick was possessed of property in Bamboroughshire worth about three hundred per annum. He had married while young, and seven fair children cheered the hearth of a glad father and a happy mother. Many years of joy and of peace had flown over them, when Death visited their domestic circle, and passed his icy hand over the cheek of the first-born; and, for five successive years, as their children opened into manhood and womanhood, the unwelcome visitor entered their dwelling, till of their little flock there was but one, the youngest, left. And O, sir, in the leaving of that one, lay the cruelty of Death--to have taken him, too, would have been an act of mercy. His name was Edward; and the love, the fondness, and the care which his parents had borne for all their children, were concentrated on him. His father, whose soul was stricken with affliction, yielded to his every wish; and his poor mother
"Would not permit The winds of heaven to visit his cheek too roughly."
But you shall hear how cruelly he repaid their love--how murderously he returned their kindness. He was headstrong and wayward; and though the small still voice of affection was never wholly silent in his breast, it was stifled by the storm of his passions and propensities. His first manifestation of open viciousness was a delight in the brutal practice of cock-fighting; and he became a constant attender at every "_main_" that took place at Northumberland. He was a habitual "_bettor_," and his losses were frequent; but hitherto his father, partly through fear, and partly from a too tender affection, had supplied him with money. A "main" was to take place in the neighbourhood of Morpeth, and he was present. Two noble birds were disfigured, the savage instruments of death were fixed upon them, and they were pitted against each other. "A hundred to one on the Felton Grey!" shouted Fen-wick. "Done! for guineas!" replied another. "Done! for guineas!--done!" repeated the prodigal--and the next moment the Felton Grey lay dead on the ground, pierced through the skull with the spur of the other. He rushed out of the cockpit--"I shall expect payment to-morrow, Fen-wick," cried the other. The prodigal mounted his horse, and rode homeward with the fury of a madman. Kind as his father was, and had been, he feared to meet him or tell him the amount of his loss. His mother perceived his agony, and strove to soothe him.
"What is't that troubles thee, my bird?" inquired she. "Come, tell thy mother, darling."
With an oath he cursed the mention of birds, and threatened to destroy himself.
"O Edward, love! thou wilt kill thy poor mother. What can I do for thee?"
"Do for me!" he exclaimed, wildly tearing his hair as he spoke--"do for me, mother. Get me a hundred pounds, or my heart's blood shall flow at your feet."
"Child! child!" said she, "thou hast been at thy black trade of betting again. Thou wilt ruin thy father, Edward, and break thy mother's heart. But give me thy hand on't, dear, that thou'lt bet no more, and I'll get thy father to give thee the money."
"My father must not know," he exclaimed; "I will die rather."
"Love! love!" replied she; "but, without asking thy father, where could I get thee a hundred pounds?"
"You have some money, mother," added he; "and you have trinkets--jewellery!" he gasped, and hid his face as he spoke.
"Thou shalt have them!--thou shalt have them, child!" said she, "and all the money thy mother has--only say thou wilt bet no more. Dost thou promise, Edward--oh, dost thou promise thy poor mother this?"
"Yes, yes!" he cried. And he burst into tears as he spoke.
He received the money, and the trinkets, which his mother had not worn for thirty years, and hurried from the house, and with them discharged a portion of his dishonourable debt.
He, however, did bet again; and I might tell you how he became a horse-racer also; but you shall hear that too. He was now about two-and-twenty, and for several years he had been acquainted with Eleanor Robinson--a fair being, made up of gentleness and love, if ever woman was. She was an orphan, and had a fortune at her own disposal of three thousand pounds. Her friends had often warned her against the dangerous habits of Edward Fen-wick. But she had given him her young heart--to him she had plighted her first vow--and, though she beheld his follies, she trusted that time and affection would wean him from them; and, with a heart full of hope and love, she bestowed on him her hand and fortune. Poor Eleanor! her hopes were vain, her love unworthily bestowed. Marriage produced no change on the habits of the prodigal son and thoughtless husband. For weeks he was absent from his own house, betting and carousing with his companions of the turf; while one vice led the way to another, and, by almost imperceptible degrees, he unconsciously sunk into all the habits of a profligate.
It was about four years after his marriage, when, according to his custom, he took leave of his wife for a few days, to attend the meeting at Doncaster.
"Good-bye, Eleanor, dear," he said gaily, as he rose to depart, and kissed her cheek; "I shall be back within five days."
"Well, Edward," said she, tenderly, "if you will go, you must; but think of me, and think of these our little ones." And, with a tear in her eye, she desired a lovely boy and girl to kiss their father. "Now, think of us, Edward," she added; "and do not bet, dearest, do not bet!"
"Nonsense, duck! nonsense!" said he; "did you ever see me lose?--do you suppose that Ned Fen-wick is not 'wide awake?' I know my horse, and its rider too--Barrymore's Highlander can distance everything. But, if it could not, I have it from a sure hand--the other horses are all '_safe_.' Do you understand that--eh?"
"No, I do not understand it, Edward, nor do I wish to understand it," added she; "but, dearest, as you love me--as you love our children--risk nothing."
"Love you, little gipsy! you know I'd die for you," said he--and, with all his sins, the prodigal spoke the truth. "Come, Nell, kiss me again, my dear--no long faces--don't take a leaf out of my old mother's book; you know the saying, 'Never venture, never win--faint heart never won fair ladye!' Good-bye, love--'bye, Ned--good-bye, mother's darling," said he, addressing the children as he left the house.
He reached Doncaster; he had paid his guinea for admission to the betting-rooms; he had whispered with, and slipped a fee to all the shrivelled, skin-and-bone, half-melted little manikins, called jockeys, to ascertain the secrets of their horses. "All's safe!" said the prodigal to himself, rejoicing in his heart. The great day of the festival--the important St. Leger--arrived. Hundreds were ready to back Highlander against the field: amongst them was Edward Fen-wick; he would take any odds--he did take them--he staked his all. "A thousand to five hundred on Highlander against the field," he cried, as he stood near a betting-post. "Done!" shouted a mustachioed peer of the realm, in a barouche by his side. "Done!" cried Fen-wick, "for the double, if you like, my lord." "Done!" added the peer; "and I'll treble it if you dare!" "Done!" rejoined the prodigal, in the confidence and excitement of the moment--"Done! my lord." The eventful hour arrived. There was not a false start. The horses took the ground beautifully. Highlander led the way at his ease; and his rider, in a tartan jacket and mazarine cap, looked confident. Fen-wick stood near the winning-post, grasping the rails with his hands; he was still confident, but he could not chase the admonition of his wife from his mind. The horses were not to be seen. His very soul became like a solid and sharp-edged substance within his breast. Of the twenty horses that started, four again appeared in sight. "The tartan yet! the tartan yet!" shouted the crowd. Fen-wick raised his eyes--he was blind with anxiety--he could not discern them; still he heard the cry of "The tartan! the tartan!" and his heart sprang to his mouth. "Well done, orange!--the orange will have it!" was the next cry. He again looked up, but he was more blind than before.
"Beautiful!--beautiful! Go it, tartan! Well done, orange!" shouted the spectators; "a noble race!--neck and neck; six to five on the orange!" He became almost deaf as well as blind. "Now for it!--now for it!--it won't do, tartan!--hurrah!--hurrah!--orange has it!"
"Liar!" exclaimed Fen-wick, starting as if from a trance, and grasping the spectator who stood next him by the throat--"I am not ruined!"--In a moment he dropped his hands by his side, he leaned over the railing, and gazed vacantly on the ground. His flesh writhed, and his soul groaned in agony. "Eleanor!--my poor Eleanor!" cried the prodigal. The crowd hurried towards the winning-post--he was left alone. The peer with whom he had betted, came behind him; he touched him on the shoulder with his whip--"Well, my covey," said the nobleman, "you have lost it."
Fen-wick gazed on him with a look of fury and despair, and repeated--"Lost it!--I am ruined--soul and body!--wife and children ruined!"
"Well, Mr. Fen-wick," said the sporting peer, "I suppose, if that be the case, you won't come to Doncaster again in a hurry. But my settling day is to-morrow--you know I keep sharp accounts; and if you have not the '_ready_' at hand, I shall expect an equivalent--you understand me."
So saying, he rode off, leaving the prodigal to commit suicide if he chose. It is enough for me to tell you that, in his madness and his misery, and from the influence of what he called his sense of honour, he gave the winner a bill for the money--payable at sight. My feelings will not permit me to tell you how the poor infatuated madman more than once made attempts upon his own life; but the latent love of his wife and of his children prevailed over the rash thought, and, in a state bordering on insanity, he presented himself before the beings he had so deeply injured.
I might describe to you how poor Eleanor was sitting in their little parlour, with her boy upon a stool by her side, and her little girl on her knee, telling them fondly that their father would be home soon, and anon singing to them the simple nursery rhyme--
"Hush, my babe, baby bunting, Your father's at the hunting," etc.;
when the door opened, and the guilty father entered, his hair clotted, his eyes rolling with the wildness of despair, and the cold sweat running down his pale cheeks.
"Eleanor! Eleanor!" he cried, as he flung himself upon a sofa.
She placed her little daughter on the floor--she flew towards him--"My Edward!--oh my Edward!" she cried--"what is it, love?--something troubles you."
"Curse me, Eleanor!" exclaimed the wretched prodigal, turning his face from her. "I have ruined you I--I have ruined my children!--I am lost for ever!"
"No, my husband!" exclaimed the best of wives; "your Eleanor will not curse you. Tell me the worst, and I will bear it--cheerfully bear it, for my Edward's sake."
"You will not--you cannot," cried he; "I have sinned against you as never man sinned against woman. Oh! if you would spit upon the very ground where I tread, I would feel it as an alleviation of my sufferings; but your sympathy, your affection, makes my very soul destroy itself! Eleanor!--Eleanor-!--if you have mercy, hate me--tell me--show me that you do!"
"O Edward!" said she, imploringly, "was it thus when your Eleanor spurned every offer for your sake, when you pledged to her everlasting love? She has none but you, and can you speak thus? O husband! if you will forsake _me_, forsake not my poor children--tell me! only tell me the worst--and I will rejoice to endure it with my Edward!"
"Then," cried Fen-wick, "if you will add to my misery by professing to love a wretch like me--know you are a beggar!--and I have made you one! Now, can you share beggary with me?"
She repeated the word "Beggary!"--she clasped her hands together--for a few moments she stood in silent anguish--her bosom heaved--the tears gushed forth--she flung her arms around her husband's neck--"Yes!" she cried, "I can meet even beggary with my Edward!"
"O Heaven!" cried the prodigal, "would that the earth would swallow me! I cannot stand this!"
I will not dwell upon the endeavours of the fond, forgiving wife, to soothe and to comfort her unworthy husband; nor yet will I describe to you the anguish of the prodigal's father and of his mother, when they heard the extent of his folly and of his guilt. Already he had cost the old man much, and, with a heavy and sorrowful heart, he proceeded to his son's house to comfort his daughter-in-law. When he entered, she was endeavouring to cheer her husband with a tune upon the harpsichord--though, Heaven knows, there was no music in her breast, save that of love--enduring love!
"Well, Edward," said the old man, as he took a seat, "what is this that thou hast done now?"
The prodigal was silent.
"Edward," continued the grey-haired parent, "I have had deaths in my family--many deaths, and thou knowest it--but I never had to blush for a child but thee! I have felt sorrow, but thou hast added shame to sorrow--"
"O father!" cried Eleanor, imploringly, "do not upbraid my poor husband."
The old man wept--he pressed her hand, and, with a groan, said, "I am ashamed that thou shouldst call me father, sweetest; but if thou canst forgive him, I should. He is all that is left to me--all that the hand of death has spared me in this world! Yet, Eleanor, his conduct is a living death to me--it is worse than all that I have suffered. When affliction pressed heavily upon me, and, year after year, I followed my dear children to the grave, my neighbours sympathized with me--they mingled their tears with mine; but now, child--oh, now, I am ashamed to hold up my head amongst them! O Edward, man! if thou hast no regard for thy father or thy heart-broken mother, hast thou no affection for thy poor wife?--canst thou bring her and thy helpless children to ruin? But that, I may say, thou hast done already! Son! son! if thou wilt murder thy parents, hast thou no mercy for thine own flesh and blood?--wilt thou destroy thine own offspring? O Edward! if there be any sin that I will repent upon my death-bed, it will be that I have been a too indulgent father to thee--that I am the author of thy crimes!"
"No, father! no!" cried the prodigal; "my sins are my own! I am their author, and my soul carries its own punishment! Spurn me! cast me off!--disown me for ever!--it is all I ask of you! You despise me--hate me too, and I will be less miserable!"
"O Edward!" said the old man, "thou art a father, but little dost thou know a father's heart! Disown thee! Cast thee off, sayest thou! As soon could the graves of thy brothers give up their dead! Never, Edward! never! O son, wouldst thou but reform thy ways--wouldst thou but become a husband worthy of our dear Eleanor; and, after all the suffering thou hast brought upon her, and the shame thou hast brought upon thy family, I would part with my last shilling for thee, Edward, though I should go into the workhouse myself."
You are affected, sir--I will not harrow up your feelings by further describing the interview between the father and his son. The misery of the prodigal was remorse, not penitence. It is sufficient for me to say, that the old man took a heavy mortgage on his property, and Edward Fen-wick commenced business as a wine and spirit merchant in Newcastle. But, sir, he did not attend upon business; and I need not tell you that such being the case, business was too proud a customer to attend upon him. Neither did he forsake his old habits, and, within two years, he became involved--deeply involved. Already, to sustain his tottering credit, his father had been brought to the verge of ruin. During his residence in Bamboroughshire, he had become acquainted with many individuals carrying on a contraband trade with Holland. To amend his desperate fortunes, he recklessly embarked in it. In order to obtain a part in the ownership of a lugger, he _used his father's name_! This was the crowning evil in the prodigal's drama. He made the voyage himself. They were pursued and overtaken when attempting to effect a landing near the Coquet. He escaped. But the papers of the vessel bespoke her as being chiefly the property of his father. Need I tell you that this was a finishing blow to the old man?
Edward Fen-wick had ruined his wife and family--he had brought ruin upon his father, and was himself a fugitive. He was pursued by the law; he fled from them; and he would have fled from their remembrance if he could. It was now, sir, that the wrath of Heaven was showered upon the head, and began to touch the heart of the prodigal: Like Cain, he was a fugitive and a vagabond on the face of the earth. For many months he wandered in a distant part of the country; his body was emaciated and clothed with rags, and hunger preyed upon his very heart-strings. It is a vulgar thing, sir, to talk of hunger; but they who have never felt it know not what it means. He was fainting by the wayside, his teeth were grating together, the tears were rolling down his cheeks. "The servants of my father's house," he cried, "have bread enough and to spare, while I perish with hunger;" and continuing the language of the prodigal in the Scriptures, he said, "I will arise and go unto my father, and say, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight."
With a slow and tottering step, he arose to proceed on his journey to his father's house. A month had passed--for every day he made less progress--ere the home of his infancy appeared in sight. It was noon, and, when he saw it, he sat down in a little wood by a hill-side and wept, until it had become dusk; for he was ashamed of his rags. He drew near the house, but none came forth to welcome him. With a timid hand he rapped at the door, but none answered him. A stranger came from one of the outhouses and inquired, "What dost thou want, man?"
"Mr Fen-wick," feebly answered the prodigal.
"Why, naebody lives there," said the other; "and auld Fen-wick died in Morpeth jail mair than three months sin'!"
"Died in Morpeth jail!" groaned the miserable being, and fell against the door of the house that had been his father's.
"I tell ye, ye cannot get in there," continued the other.
"Sir," replied Edward, "pity me; and, oh, tell me is Mrs Fen-wick here--or her daughter-in-law?"
"I know nought about them," said the stranger. "I'm put in charge here by the trustees."
Want and misery kindled all their fires in the breast of the fugitive. He groaned, and, partly from exhaustion, partly from agony, sank upon the ground. The other lifted him to a shed, where cattle were wont to be fed. His lips were parched, his languid eyes rolled vacantly. "Water! give me water!" he muttered in a feeble voice; and a cup of water was brought to him. He gazed wistfully in the face of the person who stood over him--he would have asked for bread; but, in the midst of his sufferings, pride was yet strong in his heart, and he could not. The stranger, however, was not wholly destitute of humanity.
"Poor wretch!" said he, "ye look very fatigued; dow ye think ye cud eat a bit bread, if I were gi'en it to thee?"
Tears gathered in the lustreless eyes of the prodigal; but he could not speak. The stranger left him, and returning, placed a piece of coarse bread in his hand. He ate a morsel; but his very soul was sick, and his heart loathed to receive the food for lack of which he was perishing.
Vain, sir, were the inquiries after his wife, his children, and his mother; all that he could learn was, that they had kept their sorrow and their shame to themselves, and had left Northumberland together, but where, none knew. He also learned that it was understood amongst his acquaintances that he had put a period to his existence, and that this belief was entertained by his family. Months of wretchedness followed, and Fen-wick, in despair, enlisted into a foot regiment, which, within twelve months, was ordered to embark for Egypt. At that period the British were anxious to hide the remembrance of their unsuccessful attack upon Cadiz, and resolved to wrench the ancient kingdom of the Pharaohs from the grasp of the proud armies of Napoleon. The Cabinet, therefore, on the surrender of Malta, having seconded the views of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, several transports were fitted out to join the squadron under Lord Keith. In one of those transports the penitent prodigal embarked. You are too young to remember it, sir; but at that period a love of country was more widely than ever becoming the ruling passion of every man in Britain; and, with all his sins, his follies, and his miseries, such a feeling glowed in the breast of Edward Fen-wick. He was weary of existence, and he longed to listen to the neighing of the war-horse, and the shout of its rider, and as they might rush on the invulnerable phalanx, and its breastwork of bayonets, to mingle in the rank of heroes; and, rather than pine in inglorious grief, to sell his life for the welfare of his country; or, like the gallant Graham, amidst the din of war, and the confusion of glory, to forget his sorrows. The regiment to which he belonged joined the main army off the Bay of Marmorice, and was the first that, with the gallant Moore at its head, on the memorable seventh of March, raised the shout of victory on the shores of Aboukir.
In the moment of victory, Fen-wick fell wounded on the field, and his comrades, in their triumph, passed over him. He had some skill in surgery, and he was enabled to bind up his wound. He was fainting upon the burning sand, and he was creeping amongst the bodies of the slain, for a drop of moisture to cool his parched tongue, when he perceived a small bottle in the hands of a dead officer. It was half-filled with wine--he eagerly raised it to his lips--"Englishman!" cried a feeble voice, "for the love of Heaven! give me one drop--only one!--or I die!" He looked around--a French officer, apparently in the agonies of death, was vainly endeavouring to raise himself on his side, and stretching his hand towards him. "Why should I live?" cried the wretched prodigal; "take it, take it, and live, if you desire life!" He raised the wounded Frenchman's head from the sand--he placed the bottle to his lips--he untied his sash, and bound up his wounds. The other pressed his hand in gratitude. They were conveyed from the field together. Fen-wick was unable to follow the army, and he was disabled from continuing in the service. The French officer recovered, and he was grateful for the poor service that had been rendered to him; and, previous to his being sent off with other prisoners, he gave a present of a thousand francs to the joyless being whom he called his deliverer.
I have told you that Fen-wick had some skill in surgery; he had studied some years for the medical profession, but abandoned it for the turf and its vices. He proceeded to Alexandria, where he began to practise as a surgeon, and, amongst an ignorant people, gained reputation. Many years passed, and he had acquired, if not riches, at least an independency. Repentance also had penetrated his soul. He had inquired long and anxiously after his family. He had but few other relatives; and to all of them he had anxiously written, imploring them to acquaint him with the residence of the beings whom he had brought to ruin, but whom he still loved. Some returned no answer to his applications, and others only said that they knew nothing of his wife, or his mother, or of his children, nor whether they yet lived; all they knew was, that they had endeavoured to hide the shame he had brought upon them from the world. These words were daggers to his bruised spirit; but he knew he deserved them, and he prayed that Heaven would grant him the consolation and the mercy that were denied him on earth.
Somewhat more than seven years ago he returned to his native country, and he was wandering on the very mountain where, to-day, I met you, when he entered into conversation with a youth apparently about three or four and twenty years of age; and they spent the day together as we have done. Fen-wick was lodging in Keswick, and as, towards evening, they proceeded along the road together, they were overtaken by a storm. "You must accompany me home," said the young man, "until the storm be passed; my mother's house is at hand,"--and he conducted him to yonder lonely cottage, whose white walls you perceive peering through the trees by the water-side. It was dusk when the youth ushered him into a little parlour where two ladies sat; the one appeared about forty, the other threescore and ten. They welcomed the stranger graciously. He ascertained that they let out the rooms of their cottage to visitors to the lakes during the summer season. He expressed a wish to become their lodger, and made some observations on the beauty of the situation.
"Yes, sir," said the younger lady, "the situation is indeed beautiful; but I have seen it when the water, and the mountains around it, could impart no charm to its dwellers. Providence has, indeed, been kind to us, and our lodgings have seldom been empty; but, sir, when we entered it, it was a sad house indeed. My poor mother-in-law and myself had experienced many sorrows; yet my poor fatherless children--for I might call them fatherless"--and she wept as she spoke--"with their innocent prattle, soothed our affliction. But my little Eleanor, who was loved by every one, began to droop day by day. It was a winter night--the snow was on the ground--I heard my little darling give a deep sigh upon my bosom. I started up. I called to my poor mother. She brought a light to the bedside--and I found my sweet child dead upon my breast. It was a long and sad night, as we sat by the dead body of my Eleanor, with no one near us; and after she =was= buried, my poor Edward there, as he sat by our side at night, would draw forward to his knee the stool on which his sister sat--while his grandmother would glance at him fondly, and push aside the stool with her foot, that I might not see it;--but I saw it all."
The twilight had deepened in the little parlour, and its inmates could not perfectly distinguish the features of each other; but as the lady spoke, the soul of Edward Fen-wick glowed within him--his heart throbbed--his breathing became thick--the sweat burst upon his brow. "Pardon me, lady!" he cried, in agony; "but, oh! tell me your name?"
"Fen-wick, sir," replied she.
"Eleanor! my injured Eleanor!" he exclaimed, flinging himself at her feet. "I am Edward, your guilty husband! Mother! can you forgive me? My son! my son! intercede for your guilty father!"
Ah, sir, there needed no intercession--their arms were around his neck--the prodigal was forgiven! "Behold," continued the narrator, "yonder from the cottage comes the mother, the wife, and the son of whom I have spoken! I will introduce you to them--you shall witness the happiness and the penitence of the prodigal--you must stop with me to-night. Start not, sir--I am Edward Fen-wick the Prodigal Son!"
THE LAWYER'S TALES.
THE WOMAN WITH THE WHITE MICE.
Many have, doubtless, both heard and read of the case of murder in which Jeffrey performed his greatest feat of oratory and power over a jury, and in which, while engaged in his grand speech of more than six hours, he caught, from an open window, the aphony which threatened to close up his voice for ever afterwards. I have had occasion to notice the wants in reported cases tried before courts; and in reference to the one I have now mentioned, I have reason, from my inquiries, to know that the most curious details of the transaction are not only not to be found in the report, but not even suggested, if they do not, in some particulars, appear to be opposed to the public testimony. The agent of the panel sits behind the counsel, delivering to him sometimes very crude materials for the defence, and the counsel sifts that matter; sometimes taking a handful of the chaff to blind a juryman or a judge, but more often casting it away as either useless or dangerous. In that unused chaff there are often pickles not of the kind put into the sack, and again laid as an offering before the blind goddess, but of a different kind of grain--nor often less pleasant, or, if applied, less acceptable to justice.
In a certain month in the year 18--, a writer in Dundee, of the name of David M----, was busy in his office, in a dark street off the High Street--busy, no doubt, in discharging the functions of that office represented by Æsop as occupied by a monkey, holding the scales between the litigating cats. He heard a horse stop at his office door, as if brought suddenly up by a jerk of the rein.
"There is haste here," he thought; "what is up?"
And presently the door opened, and there came, or rather rushed, in a man, of the appearance of a country farmer, greatly more excited than these douce men generally are--except, perhaps, in the midst of a plentiful harvest-home--splashed up with mud to the back of the neck, and breathing as hard as, no doubt, the horse was that carried him.
"What is it, Mr. S----?" inquired the writer, as he looked at his client.
"A dreadful business!" replied he; and he turned, went back to the door, shut it, and tested the hold of the lock; then laying down his hat and whip, and pulling off his big-coat, he drew a chair so near the writer, that the man of law, _brusque_ and even jolly as he was, instinctively withdrew his, as if he feared an appeal for money.
"What is the business?" again asked the writer, as he saw the man in a spasmodic difficulty to begin.
"We are all ruined at D----!" he at length said; "Mrs. S----is in your jail, hard by, on a charge of murder."
"Mrs. S----! of all the women in the world!" ejaculated the writer in unfeigned amazement: "murder of whom?"
"Of a servant at D----," replied Mr. S----; "one of our own women."
"And what could be the motive?"
"The young woman," continued S----, "had been observed to be pregnant, and the report was got up that my son was the party responsible and blameable. Then the charge is, that my wife gave the girl poison, either to procure abortion, or to take away her life. The woman is dead and buried; but, I believe, her body has been taken up out of the grave and examined, and poison found in the stomach."
"An ugly account," said the writer. "I mean not ugly as regards the evidence, of which, as yet, I have heard nothing. I could say beforehand that I don't believe the authorities will be able to bring home an act of this kind to so rational and respectable a woman, as I have known Mrs. S----to be; but if you wish me to get her off, you must allow me to look at the case as if she were guilty."
"Guilty!" echoed the man, with a shudder.
"Yes. Were I to go fumbling about in an affair of this kind, acting upon a notion--whatever I may think or feel--that Mrs. S----, though your wife, _could not_ possibly do an act of that kind, I would neither hound up, as I ought, the investigations of the prosecutor, nor get up proper evidence--not to meet their proofs only, but to overturn them."
"I would have thought you would have been keener to get off an innocent person--a wife, and the mother of a family, too--than a guilty one," said S----.
"We cannot get you people to understand these things," replied the writer; "but so it is, at least with me, and I rather think a good number of my brethren. We have a pride in getting off a guilty person; whereas we have only a spice of satisfaction in saving an innocent one. Perhaps I have an object, for your own sake, in speaking thus frankly to you; and I tell you at once, that if you intend to help me to get off your wife, you must, as soon as you can--even here, at this moment--renounce all blind confidence in her innocence."
"Terrible condition!" said the farmer.
"Not pleasant, but useful. How, in God's name, am I to know how to doctor, purge, or scarify, or anoint a testimony against you, unless I know that it exists, and where to find it?"
"Very true," rejoined the farmer, trying to follow the clever "limb."
"Don't hesitate. I will have more pleasure, and not, maybe, much less hope, in hearing you detail all the grounds of your suspicion against your wife, than in listening to your nasaling and canting about her innocence. All this is for your good, my dear sir, take it as you will."
"I believe it," said the farmer, "and will try to act up to what you say; but I cannot, of my own knowledge, say much, as yet. These things are done privately, within the house, and a farmer is mostly out of doors."
"Well, away, get access to your wife, ferret everything out of her, as well for her as against her. If she bought poison, where she bought it, what rats were to be poisoned, how it was applied, how she communicated with the girl, and where, and all, and everything you can gather. Question your servants all they saw or heard; your son, what he has to say; ascertain who came about the house, how affected towards the girl, whether there were more lovers than your son, whether the girl was melancholy, or hopeful, and likely to do the thing or not; but, above all, keep it ever in view that your wife is in prison, and suspected, and let me know every item you can bring against her. Away, and lose no time, for I see it's a matter of neck and neck between her and the prosecutor, and, consequently, neck and noose, or neck and no noose, between her and the hangman."
Utterly confounded by this array of instructions, the poor farmer sat and looked blank. It was impossible he could remember all he had been requested to do; and the duty of finding out facts to criminate the wife who had lived with him so long in love and confidence, bore down upon him with a weight he could hardly sustain.
"I will do what I can," he said.
"You must do _more_ than you can," said the writer; "but, again I say, let me know every, the smallest item you can discover against your wife."
And, thus charged, Mr. S----mounted his horse, and rode home to a miserable house with a miserable heart.
Extraordinary as the case was, it was entrusted to the charge of an extraordinary man, well remembered yet throughout that county, and much beyond it. In personal respects he was strong, broad, and muscular, with a florid countenance never out of humour, and an eye that flashed in so many different directions, that it was impossible to arrest it for two moments at a time. All action, nothing resisted him; all impulse and sensibility, nothing escaped his observation; yet no one could say that any subject retained his mind for more time than would have sufficed another merely to glance at it. He could speak to a hundred men in a day upon a hundred topics, and sit down and run off twenty pages of a paper without an hour of previous meditation; break off at a pronoun, at a call to the further end of the town; drink as much in a few minutes' conversation with a client as would have taken another an hour to enjoy, and return and finish his paper in less time than another would take to think of it. Always, to appearance, off his guard, he was always master of his position, nor could any obstacle make him stand and calculate its dimensions--it must be surmounted or broken, if his head or the laws should be broken with it; always pressing, he never seemed to be impressed, and the gain or loss of a case was equally indifferent to him. His passion was action, his desire money; but the money went as it came--made without effort and spent without reason. Yet no man hated him; most loved him; few admired him; and even those he might injure by his apparent recklessness could not resist the good nature by which he warded off every attack.
He saw at once, after he had dismissed S----, that he had got hold of a desperate case, and also that he behoved to have recourse to desperate means; but it seemed to take no grip of his mind for more than a few minutes, by the end of which he was full swing in some other matter of business, to be followed with the same rapidity by something else, and, probably, after that, pleasure till three in the morning, when he would be carried home to an elegant house in a certain species of carriage with one wheel. Nor had even that consummation any effect on to-morrow's avocations, for which he would be ready at the earliest hour; and in this case he _was_ ready. He set about his inquiries, first proceeded to D----to get a view of the premises--the room where the young woman lay, where the son slept, and the bedroom of the mother--and ascertain whether the premises permitted of intercourse with the servants unknown to the farmer and his wife. He next began his precognition of those connected with the house, and, on returning to town, procured access to Mrs. S----.
The jail of Dundee was at that time over the courthouse, a miserable den of a few dark rooms, presenting the appearance of displenished garrets, with small grated windows and a few benches. Here the woman sat revolving, no doubt, in her mind all the events of a life of comfort and respectability, and now under the risk of being brought to a termination by her body being suspended in the front of that building where she had seen before this terrible consummation of justice enacted with the familiar and dismal forms of the tragedy of the gallows. We write of these things as parrots gabble, we read of them as monkeys ogle the, to them, strange actions of human beings; but what is all that comes by the eye or the ear of the experiences of an exterior spirit to the workings of that spirit in its own interior world, where thought follows thought with endless ramifications, weaving and interweaving scenes of love and joy and pain, contrasting and mixing, dissolving and remixing--bright lights and dark shadows--all seen through the blue-tinged and distorting lens of present shame? We cannot realize these things, nor did the writer try. He had only the practical work to do--if possible, to get this woman's neck kept out of a kench; nor did it signify much to him how that was effected; but effected it would be, if the invention of one man could do it, and if that failed, and the woman was suspended, it would trouble him no more than would the loss of a small-debt case.
"Sorry to see you in this infernal place, Mrs. S----," he said, as he threw himself upon a bench. "I must get you out, that's certain; but I can promise you that certainty only upon the condition of making a clean breast--only to me, you know."
"I know only that I never poisoned the woman," replied she.
"Do you want to be hanged?" said he, with the reckless abruptness so peculiar a feature of his character, at the same time taking a rapid glance of her demeanour. He knew all about the firmness derived from the confidence of innocence, of which a certain class of rhapsodists make so much in a heroic way, and yet he had always entertained the heterodoxical notion that guilt is a firmer and often more composed condition than innocence, inasmuch as his experience led him to know that the latter is shaky, anxious, and sensitive, and the former stern and imperturbable. Nor did his quick mind want reasons for showing that such ought, by natural laws, to be the case; for it is never to be lost sight of, that, in so far as regards murder, which requires for its perpetration a peculiar form of mind and a most unnatural condition of the feelings, the same hardness of nerve which enables a man or woman to do the deed, serves equally well the purpose of helping them to stand up against the shame, while the innocent person, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand--the probable proportion of those who _cannot_ kill--has not the fortitude to withstand the ignominy, simply because he wants the power to slay. So without in his heart prejudging the woman, he drew his conclusions, true or false, from the impassibility of her demeanour. Her answer was ready----
"How could they hang an innocent woman?"
"But they _do_ hang hundreds, who say just what you say," replied he. "What are you to make of that riddle? Come, did you ever buy any poison?--please leave out the rats."
"No; neither for rats nor servants," was the composed reply.
"And you never gave the woman a dose?"
"Yes; I have given her medicine more than once."
"Oh, a capital thing to save life; but you know her life was not saved. She died and was buried, and has been taken up; and I suspect it was not your jalap that was found in the body. But what interest had you in being so very kind to the woman who was to bring shame on your family by bearing a child to your son?"
"I never knew she was in that way; but though I had known it, I could not have taken away her life."
"Then, who gave her the poison?"
"I do not know."
"And cannot even suspect any one?"
"Good-bye!" he said, as he started up and hurried away; muttering to himself, as the jailer undid the bolts, "Always the same!--the women are always innocent; and yet we see them stretching ropes other than clothes' ropes every now and then."
Defeated, but as little discomfited, as we might gather from his pithy soliloquy, his next step was to double up, as he termed it, the authorities, who, he knew, would never have gone the length of apprehending the woman without having got hold of evidence sufficient to justify Sir William Rae, the Lord Advocate, a considerate and prudent man, that the charge lay heavy on the prisoner. He had no right of access, at this stage, to the names of the intended witnesses; but to a man of his activity it is no difficult matter to find these out, from the natural garrulity of the people, and a kind of self-importance in being a Crown testimony. Then to find them out was next to drawing them out; for it may be safely said for our writer that there was no man, from the time of John Wilkes, who could exercise a more winning persuasion. One by one he ferreted them out, wheedled, threatened, adjured, but found himself resisted in every attempt to break them down or to turn them to him. At every stage of his inquiry he saw the case for the prisoner assuming a dark aspect--as dark, he so termed it, as the face of a hanged culprit.
"The beagles have got a track. There are more foxes in the cover than one; and shall it be said I, David M----, cannot beat out another as stimulating to the nose?"
In a quarter of an hour after having made this observation to himself, he was posting on horseback to the farm of D----, where he arrived in as short a time as he generally took on his journeys.
"I am afraid to ask you for intelligence," said the farmer, as he stood by the horse's side, and addressed the writer, who kept his seat.
"Get me two and five-eighths of a glass of whisky in a jug of milk, and I'll tell you then what I want. I have no time to dismount."
The farmer complied.
"The case looks ugly," said the writer, as he handed back the jug. "These witnesses would hang a calendared saint of a hundred miracles. Are any tramps in the habit of coming about you?"
"Do you know any of them?"
"Scarcely--not by name."
"Any women?--never mind the men," said the writer impatiently.
"Yes; there is one who used to come often; she sold small things."
"Is that all you know of her? Has she no mark, man? Is her nose long or short? no squint, lame leg, or pock-pits?"
"She had usually a small cage, in which she kept a couple of white mice."
"White mice!" ejaculated the writer; "never was a better mark."
"You don't know her name?"
"No; nor do I think any of my present people do."
"When was she here last?"
"About a month ago."
"Anywhere near the time of the girl's death?"
"Ay, just about that time, or maybe a week before."
"And you can give me no trace of her?"
"None whatever, except that I think I saw her take to the east, in the way to Arbroath. But I do not see how she can be of any use."
"I don't want you to see that she can be of any use," said the writer, laughing; "but I want you to hear whereabout she is."
"I will try what I can," said the farmer.
"And let me know by some messenger who can ride as fast as I can." Then adding, "Gilderoy was saved by a _brown_ mouse, which gnawed the string by which the key of the jail door of Forfar hung on a nail, whereby the key fell to the ground, and was pulled by him through an opening at the bottom. Heard you ever the story?"
"But it's true, nevertheless. What would you say if a _white_ mouse, or two of them, should save the life of your wife?"
"I would say it was wonderful," replied the farmer, with eyes a-goggled by amazement.
"And so would I," answered Mr. M----, as he put the rowels into the side of his horse and began a hard trot, which he would not slacken till he was at the Cowgate port, and not even then, for he made his way generally through the streets of the town with equal rapidity, and always the safer that he was the "fresher."
On arriving at his office he sat down, and, without apparently any premeditation, unless what he had indulged in during his trot, wrote off with his usual rapidity four letters to the following effect:--"Dear Sir,--As agent for Mrs. S----, who now lies in our jail on a charge of murder, I request you will endeavour to find some trace of a woman who goes through the country with a cage and two white mice. Grave suspicions attach to her, as the person who administered the poison, and I wish your energies to be employed in aiding me to search her out." The letters were directed to agents in Arbroath, Forfar, Kirriemuir, and Montrose, and immediately committed to a clerk to be taken to the post-office, with a good-natured laugh on the lips of the writer--and, within the teeth, the little monologue--"The wrinkled skin easily conceals a scar."
From some source or another, probably the true one may be guessed, an _uberrima fides_ began to hang round a report that a new feature had spread over the face of Mrs. S----'s case; and that, in place of her being the guilty person, the culprit was a tramp, with white mice in a cage. Nor were the authorities long in being startled by the report; but where that woman was no one could tell, and a vague report was no foundation for authoritative action. But if it was not for a Lord Advocate to seek out or hunt after white mice, that was no reason why the prisoner's agent should not condescend to so very humble an office; and, accordingly, two days after the despatch of the letters I have mentioned, the same horse that carried the writer on the former occasion, and knew so well the prick of his rowels, was ready saddled at the door of the office. The head of the agent was instantly drawn out of some other deep well of legal truth, some score of directions given to clerks, and he was off on the road to Glammis, but not before some flash had shown him what he was to do when he got there. The same rapid trot was commenced, and continued, to the great diminution of the sap of the animal, until the place he was destined for loomed before him. He now commenced inquiries upon inquiries. Every traveller was questioned, every door got a touch of his whip, until at length he got a trace, and he was again in full pursuit. I think it is Suidas who says that these pretty little animals, called white mice, are very amatory, and have a strong odour, but this must be only to their mates. I doubt if even the nostrils of a writer are equal to this perception, whatever sense they may possess in the case of pigeons with a pluckable covering. But, however this may be, it was soon observable that our pursuer had at least something in his eye. The spurs were active; and, by and by, he drew up at a small road-side change-house, into the kitchen of which he tumbled, without a premonitory question, and there, before him, sat the veritable mistress of these very white mice, spaeing the fortunes of some laughing girls, who saw the illuminated figures of their lovers in the future.[A]
"Can you read me _my_ fortune?" he said, in his own peculiar way.
"Na; I ken ye owre weel," was the quick reply, as she turned a pair of keen, grey eyes on him.
"Well, you'll speak to me at any rate," he said. "I have something to say to you."
And, going into the adjoining parlour, he called for a half-mutchkin. He needed some himself, and he knew the tramp was not an abstainer.
"Tell the woman to come ben," he said, as the man placed the whisky on the table.
"What can you want, Mr. M----, with that old, never-mend vagabond?"
"Perhaps an uncle has left her five hundred pounds," said the writer with a chuckle.
"Gude save us! the creature will go mad," said the man, as he went out, not knowing whether his guest was in humour or earnest.
But, whatever he said to the woman, there she was, presently, white mice and all, seated alongside of the writer, who could make a beggar or a baron at home with him, with equal ease, and in an equally short time.
"You're obliged to me, I think, if I can trust to a pretty long memory," he said, handing her a glass of the spirits.
"Ay; but it doesna need a lang memory to mind gi'en me this," she replied, not wishing any other reason for her obligation.
"And you've forgotten the pirn scrape?"
"The deil's in a lang memory; but I hinna," she replied, with more confidence, for by this time the whisky had disappeared in the accustomed bourne of departed spirits.
"Weel, it's a bad business that at your auld freend's at D----," said he, getting into his Scotch, for familiarity. "Hae ye heard?"
"Wha hasna heard? I kenned the lassie brawly; but I didna like her--she was never gude to a puir cratur like me."
"But they say ye ken mair than ither folk?" said he.
"Maybe I do," replied the woman, getting proud of the impeachment. "Hae we nae lugs and een, ay, and stamachs, like ither folk?"
"And could ye do naething to save this puir woman, the wife o' a gude buirdly man, wi' an open hand to your kin, and the mither o' a family?"
"I care naething about her being the wife o' a man, or the mither o' a family; but I ken what I ken."
"And sometimes what ye dinna ken, when you tell the lasses o' their lovers ye never saw."
"The deil tak their louping hearts into his hand for silly gawkies; if they werena a' red-wood about lads, they wadna heed me a whistle. But though I might try to get Mrs. S----'s head out o' the loop, I wadna like to put my ain in."
"I'll tak gude care o' that," said the writer. "I got ye out o' a scrape before."
"And weel than," echoed he.
"And better than weel than; suppose I swore I did it mysel'--and maybe I did; that's no your business--they wadna hang a puir wretch like me for her ain words, wad they, when there's nae proof I did it but my ain tongue?"
"No likely," replied he; "and then a hunder gowden guineas as a present, no as a bribe----"
"I want nae bribes--I gie value for my fortunes. If it's wind, wind is the breath o' life; a present!"
"Would make your een jump," added he, finishing his sentence.
"Jump! ay, loup! Whar are they?"
"You'll get the half when you come into the town, and the other when Mrs. S----is safe. You will ca' at my office on Wednesday; and, after that, I'll tak care o' you. In the meantime, ye maun sell your mice."
"Geordie Cameron offered me five shillings for them; I'll gie them to him."
"No," replied the writer; "no to a _man_. Ken ye nae woman-tramp-will tak them, and show them about as you do?"
"Ou ay; I'll gie them to Meg Davidson, wha's to be here the night. But whaurfor no Geordie?"
"Never ye mind that, I ken the difference; and if Meg doesna give you the five shillings, I will."
"Well, buy them yoursel'," said the woman.
"Done," said he; "there's five guineas for them, and you can gie them to Meg as a present. Now, are ye firm?"
"Firm!" she cried, as she clutched the money, and gave a shrill laugh, from a nerve that was never softened by pity or penitence. "I think nae mair on't, man--sir, I mean, for ye proved yoursel' a gentleman to me afore--than I do now in spaeing twins to your wife at her next doun-lying."
A rap on the table, from the bottom of the pewter measure, brought in the landlord.
"Fill that again," said the writer.
And the man having re-entered with the pewter measure----
"You're to give this woman board and lodging for a day or two, and I will pay you before I start."
"That will be oot o' the five hundred frae her uncle," said the man, laughing. "She's my lady noo; but what will become o' the mice?"
"There's Meg Davidson passing the window e'en noo," said the woman.
"Send her in," said the writer to the change-house keeper.
The woman going under this name was immediately introduced by the man, with a kind of mock formality; for he could not get quit of the impression that his old customer had really succeeded to the five hundred pounds--a sum, in his estimation, sufficiently large to insure respect.
"Maggy," said the writer, "tak this chair, and here's a dram. What think ye?"
"I dinna ken."
"Ye're to get the twa white mice and the cage for naething, and this dram to boot."
Meg's face cleared up like a June sun come out in a burst.
"Na," she said; "ye're joking."
"But it's upon a condition," rejoined he.
"Weel, what is't--that I'm to feed them weel, and keep them clean?"
"You'll do that too," said he, laughing, "for they're valuable creatures, and bonny; but you're to say you've had them for a year."
"For twa, if you like," replied the woman; "a puir fusionless lee that, and no worth sending a body to the deil for."
"Here they are," said the tramp; "and you're to tak care o' them. They've been my staff for mony a day, and they're the only creatures on earth I care for and like; for they never said to me, 'Get out, ye wretch,' or banned me for a witch; but were aye sae happy wi' their pickles o' barley, and maybe a knot o' sugar, when I could get at a farmer's wife's bowl."
Even hags have pathetic moods. Meg was affected; and the writer, having appreciated the virtue, whispered in the ear of his _protegée_, "Seven o'clock on Wednesday night," and left them to the remainder of the whisky. At the door he settled with the man, and, mounting his horse, which he had ordered a bottle of strong ale for, in addition to his oats, he set off at his old trot.
"Now let the Crown blood-hounds catch Meg Davidson and her mice," he said, as he pushed on.
The writer was, no doubt, bent eagerly for home, but he seldom got to his intended destination, though we have given one or two examples of an uninterrupted course, without undergoing several stoppages, either from the sudden calls of business, which lay in every direction, or the seductions of conviviality, equally ubiquitous; and on this occasion he was hailed from the window of the inn by some ten-tumbler men of Forfar, whose plan for draining the loch, by making toddy of it, had not, to their discomfort, been realized, but who made due retaliation by very clean drainings elsewhere. The moment he heard the shout he understood the meaning thereof, because he knew the house, the locality, and the men; and Meg Davidson and her mice were passed into the wallet-bag of time, till he should give these revellers their satisfaction in a boon companion who could see them under the table, and then mount his horse, with a power of retention of his seat unexampled in a county famous for revolutions of heads as well as of bodies. Dismounting from his horse, he got his dinner, a meal he had expected at Dundee; and, in spite of the distance of fourteen miles which lay before him, he despatched tumbler after tumbler without being once tempted to the imprudence of letting out his extraordinary hunt, but rather with the prudence of sending, through his compotators, to the county town the fact that a woman who perambulated the country with white mice was really the murderer of the country girl. This statement he was able to make, even at that acme of his dithyrambics, when, as usual, he got upon the head of the table to make his speech of the evening. It was now eleven, and he had swallowed eight tumblers, yet he was comparatively steady when he mounted; and, though during the fourteen miles he swung like a well-ballasted barque in a gale of wind, he made sufficient headway to be home by half-past twelve.
Next morning, as ready and able as usual for the work of the day, he was at his desk about eleven, and when engaged with one client, while others were waiting to be despatched in the way in which he alone could discharge clients, he was waited on by a gentleman connected with the Crown Office. Having been yielded a preference, the official took his seat.
"I understand you are employed for Mrs. S----?" he said. "We have thought it necessary, as disinterested protectors of the lives of the king's subjects, to apprehend this woman. I need not say that our precognitions are our guarantee; but I have heard a report which would seem to impugn our discretion, if it do not shame our judgment, insomuch that, if it be true, we have seized the wrong person. Do you know anything of this woman with the white mice, who takes upon herself the burden of a self-accusation? Of course it is for you to help us to her as the salvation of your client."
"Too evident that for a parade of candour," replied Mr. M----. "Her name is Margaret Davidson. Her white companions will identify her. Her residence is where you may chance to find her."
"Very vague, considering your interest," replied the other. "Where did you find her?"
"Ask me first, my dear sir, whether I have found her. Perhaps not. If it is my interest to search her out, it is not less your duty to catch her. A vagrant with white mice is a kenspeckle, and surely you can have no difficulty in tracing her. I need scarcely add, that when you do find her, you will substitute her for my client, and make amends for the disgrace you have brought upon an innocent woman and a respectable family."
"I won't say that," replied the other, shaking his head. "The evidence against Mrs. S---- is too heavy to admit of our believing a vagrant, influenced by the desire of, perhaps, a paid martyrdom, or the excitement of a mania."
"Then, why ask me to help you to find her?"
"For our satisfaction as public officers."
"And to my detriment as a private agent."
"Not at all."
"Yes; if I choose to make her a witness for the defence, and leave the jury to judge of _paid_ martyrdom, or her real madness. Paid martyrdom!--paid by whom?"
"Not necessarily by you."
"But you want me to help you to be able to prove the bribe out of her own mouth, don't you?"
"Of course we would examine her."
"Yes, and cook her; but you must catch her first. Really, my dear sir, a very useful recipe in cuisine; and, hark ye, you can put the mice in the pan also. But, really, I am not bound, and cannot in justice be expected to do more. I have given you her name; and when had a culprit so peculiar and striking a designation as being the proprietor of a peripatetic menagerie?"
"Yes, _ridiculus mus_! But are you not the labouring mountain yourself, and do you not wish me to become the midwife?"
"I perceive I can make nothing of you," at length said the gentleman. "You either don't want to save your client, or the means you trust to cannot stand the test."
"God bless my soul!" roared the writer; "must I tell you again that I have given you her name and occupation? Even a cat, with nose-instinct put awry by the colour of the white race of victims, would smell her out."
Bowing the official to the door with these words, he was presently in some other ravelled web, which he disentangled with equal success and apparent ease; but, following him in his great scheme, we find him in the afternoon posting again to the farm. He found the farmer in the same collapse of hope, sitting in the arm-chair so long pressed by his wife, with his chin upon his breast, and his eyes dim and dead. The evidence had got piece by piece to his ear, paralyzing more and more the tissues of his brain; and hope had assumed the character of an impossibility in the moral world of God's government.
"You must cheer up," said the writer. "Come, some milk and whisky. Move about; I have got good news for you, but cannot trust you."
The head of the man was raised up, and a slight beam was, as it were, struck from his eye by the jerk of a sudden impulse. His step, as he moved to gratify the agent, seemed to have acquired even a spring.
"Why are you here," he said, as he brought the indispensable jug, with something even more than the five-eighths of the spiritual element added to the two glasses, "if you cannot tell me the grounds of my hope? I could not comprehend what you meant about the woman and the white mice."
"Nor do I want you to understand it; it is enough if I do," replied Mr. M----, as he put the jug to his mouth; "but this I want you to understand, in the first place, that I want an order for fifty pounds from you."
The farmer was too happy to write an order for any amount within the limits of his last farthing, and getting pen and ink, he wrote the cheque.
"And you couldn't tell me the name of the woman with the mice; but I can tell you," he continued. "It is Margaret Davidson; and, hark ye--come near me, man--if you are called upon by any one with the appearance of a sheriff's beagle, or whatever he may be like, for the name of that woman, say it is Margaret Davidson, and that they will find her between Lerwick and Berwick. Do you comprehend?"
"And, moreover, you are to tell every living soul within ear-shot, servants or strangers, that it was that very woman who gave the dose to the lass, and that the woman herself does not deny it."
"Gude Lord! but is all this true, Mr. M----?"
"Is it true your wife did it, then, you d----d idiot?" cried the writer, using thus one of his most familiar terms, but with perfect good-nature. "Don't you in your heart--or hope, at any rate--think the Lord Advocate a liar? and has his lordship a better right to lie than I or Meg Davidson? Isn't the world a great leavened lump of lies from the Cape of Good Hope to the Cape of Wrath? And you want your wife hanged, because the nose of truth is out of joint a bit! Ay, what though it were cut off altogether, if you get your wife's back without being coloured blue by the hangman? But, I tell you, it's not a lie: the woman with the white mice says it of her own accord."
"Wonderful! the woman with the white mice!"
"The woman with the white mice!" echoed the writer.
And, getting again upon his legs, he hurried out, throwing back his injunctions upon S---- to obey his instructions. In a few minutes more he was again upon the road, leaving the clatter of his horse's hoofs to mingle with the confused thoughts of his mystified client. Arrived at the High Street, where, as used to be said of him, he could not be ten minutes without having seized some five or six persons by the breast of the coat, and put as many questions on various matters of business, just as the thought struck him on the instant, he pounced upon one, no other than the confidential clerk of the fiscal.
"I say, man," seizing and holding him in the usual way, "have you catched the woman yet?"
"What woman?" replied the clerk.
"The woman with the white mice."
"Oh," cried the young man, "we have no faith in that quarter--a mere get-up; but we're looking about for her, notwithstanding."
"Well, tell your master that Meg Davidson was last seen on the Muir of Rannoch, and that the Highlanders in that outlandish quarter, having never seen white mice before, are in a state of perfect amazement."
A bolt at some other person left the clerk probably in as great amazement as the Highlanders; but our man of the law did not stop to see the extent of it. All his avocations, however, did not prevent the coming round of that seven o'clock on Wednesday evening, which he had appointed as the hour of meeting with the woman on whom his hopes of saving his client almost altogether rested. He was at his desk at the hour, and the woman, no doubt eager for the phenomenon of the "louping ee," was as true as the time itself. The writer locked the door of his office, and drawing her as near him as possible, inquired first whether any knew she was in town.
"Deil are," she replied; "naebody cares for me ony mair than I were an auld glandered spavin, ready for the knackers."
"And you've been remembering a' ye are to say?"
Now, the woman did not answer this question immediately. She had been, for some days, busy in the repository of her memory--a crazy box of shattered spunk-wood, through the crevices of which came the lurid lights sent from another box, called the imagination, and such was the close intimacy, or rather mixture, of the revelations of these two magic centres, that they could not be distinguished from one another; but the habit of fortune-telling had so quickened the light of the one, as to make it predominate over, and almost extinguish that of the other, so that she was at a loss to get a stray glimmer of the memory, to make her ready, on the instant, for the answer.
"Remembering! Ay," she said, "there's no muckle to remember. The lass was under the burden of shame, and couldna bear it: she wanted some doctor's trash to tak that burden aff her, if it should carry her life alang wi' 't. I got the stuff, and the woman dee'd."
All which was carefully written down--but the writer had his own way of doing his work. He would have day and date, the place where the doctor's trash was bought, the price thereof, the manner of administering the same, and many other particulars, every one of which was so carefully recorded, that the whole, no doubt, looked like a veritable precognition of facts, got from the said box called the memory, as if it had been that not one tint of light, from the conterminous chamber, had mixed with the pure spirit of truth.
"Now," said he, "regaining his English, when his purpose was served, "you'll stand firm to this, in the face of judge, jury, justice, and all her angels?"
"Never ye fear."
"Then, you will go with me to a private lodging, where I wish you to remain, seen by as few as you can. You're a widow; your name is Mrs. Anderson; your husband was drowned in the Maelstrom. Get weeds, a veil, and look respectable."
"A' save the last, for that's impossible."
"Try; and, as you will need to pay for your board and lodgings, and your dress, here's the sum I promised ye; the other half when Mrs. S---- is saved."
"A' right; and did I no say my ee would loup?--but 'ae gude turn deserves anither,' as the deil said to the loon o' Culloden, when he hauled him doun, screaming, to a place ye maybe ken o', and whaur I hae nae wish to be."
"Where is Meg Davidson?" he then asked.
"Oh ay!" she replied, "that puts me in mind o' a man wha met me on the road, and asked me if I was the woman wi' the twa white mice? I tauld him she was awa east to Montrose, and sae it is."
"Not a cheep of the sale," added he.
"Na, na, nor o' ony thing else, but just Mrs. Anderson, the widow, whase man was drouned in the Maelstream."
And, having thus finished, the writer led the woman to her place of safety, there to lie _in retentis_ till the court-day.
That eventful day came round. In the meantime, the prosecution never got access to the real white mouse tramp, and whatever they got out of Meg Davidson, satisfied them that she knew nothing of the murder. Large sums were given to secure the services of Jeffrey, then in the full blaze of his power, and Cockburn, so useful in examinations. The Lord Advocate led his proof, which was no darker than our writer had ascertained it to be, when he found himself driven to his clever expedient. The proof for the defence began; and, after some other witnesses were examined, the name of the woman with the white mice was called by the macer; and here occurred a circumstance, at the time known to very few. Cockburn turned round to our country agent, who was sitting behind him, and said, in a whisper--
"M----, if the angel Gabriel were at this moment to come down and blow a trumpet, and tell me that what this woman is going to swear to is truth, I would not believe her."
Nor is there any doubt to be entertained that the woman's testimony took the court and the audience by surprise. The judges looked at each other, and the jury were perplexed. There was only one thing that produced any solicitude in our writer. He feared the Lord Advocate would lay hands upon her, as either a murderer or a perjurer, the moment she left the witness-box. At that instant was he prepared. Quietly slipping out, he got hold of the woman, led her to the outer door, through a crowd, called to the door-keeper, who stood sentry, to open for the purpose of letting in a fresh witness of great importance to the accused; and having succeeded, as he seldom failed, he got the woman outside. A cab was in readiness--no time lost--the woman was pushed in, followed by her guardian, and in a short time was safely disposed of. Meanwhile, the Crown authorities had been preparing their warrant, and the woman was only saved from their mercies by a very few minutes.
It is well known, as I have already mentioned, that Jeffrey's speech for Mrs. S---- was the greatest of all modern orations, yet it was delivered under peculiar circumstances. When he rose and began, he seemed languid and unwell. The wonted sparkle was not seen in his eye, the usually compressed lip was loose and flaccid, and his words, though all his beginnings were generally marked with a subdued tone, came with difficulty. Cockburn looked at him inquiringly, anxious and troubled. There was something wrong, and those interested in the defence augured ominously. All of a sudden the little man stopped, fixed his eye on one of the walls of the court-room, and cried out, "Shut that window." Through that opening a cold wind had been blowing-upon and chilling a body which, though firm and compact, was thin, wiry, and delicately toned to the refined requirements of the spirit that animated and moved it with a grace peculiarly his own. The chill, in consonance with well-known pathological laws, produced first depression, and then a feverish reaction, which latter was even morbidly favourable to the development of his powers. He began to revive; the blood, pulsing with more than natural activity, warmed still more at the call of his enthusiasm. He analyzed every part of the cause, tore up the characters of the prosecutor's witnesses, held up microscopic flaws, and passed them through the lens of his ingenious exaggeration, till they appeared serious in the eyes of the jury. Then how touching, if not noble, was the conduct of that strange witness for the defence--who, a wretched criminal herself, would yet, under a secret power, so far expiate her guilt by offering herself as a sacrifice for innocence! Beyond all was the pathos of his peroration, where he brought home the case to the jury, as loving husbands of loving wives, and tender fathers of beloved children. A woman sat there before them--a wife and a mother. She had undergone an ordeal not much less trying than death itself, and even then she was trembling under the agony of suspense, extended beyond mortal powers of endurance--to be terminated by the breath of their mouths, either for life and a restoration to a previously happy family, or for a death on a gallows, with all its ignominy.
That speech, which nearly cost Jeffrey his life, saved that of another. The jury found the libel not proven; Mrs. S---- was free; Jeffrey was made more famous; but no one ever heard more of the woman with the white mice.
GLEANINGS OF THE COVENANT.
THE EARLY DAYS OF A FRIEND OF THE COVENANT.
I was born in the upper district and amidst the mountains of Dumfriesshire. My father, who died ere I had attained my second birthday, had seen better times; but, having engaged in mercantile speculations, had been overreached or unfortunate, or both, and during the latter years of his life had carried a gun, kept an amazing pointer bitch (of which my mother used to discourse largely), and had ultimately married in a fit of despondency. My mother, to whom he had long been affianced, was nearly connected with the Lairds of Clauchry, of which relationship she was vain; and in all her trials, of which she had no ordinary share, she still retained somewhat of the feelings, as well as the appearance of a gentlewoman. I remember, for example, a pair of high-heeled red Morocco shoes, overhung by the ample drapery of a quilted silk gown, in which habiliments she appeared on great occasions. Soon after my father's decease, my mother found it convenient and advisable to remove from the neighbourhood of the Clauchry to a cottage, or cottier as it was called, on her brother's farm, in the upper division of the parish of Closeburn.
Few situations could be better fitted for the purpose of a quiet and sequestered retreat. The scene is now as vividly before me as it was on that day when I last saw it, and felt that, in all probability, I viewed it for the last time. A snug kailyard, surrounded by a fullgrown bushy hedge of bourtree, saugh, and thorn, lay along the border of a small mountain stream, and hard by a thatched cottage, with a peat-stack at the one end and a small byre at the other. All this was nestled as it were in the bosom of mountains, which, to the north and the east in particular, presented a defence against all winds, and an outline of bold grandeur exceedingly impressive. The south and the west were more open; consequently the mid-day and afternoon sun reposed, with delightful and unobstructed radiance, on the green border of the stream, and the flowery foliage of the brae. And when the evening was calm, and the season suitable, the blue smoke winded upwards, and the birds sang delightfully amidst hazel, and oak, and birch, with a profusion of which the eastern bank was covered. It was here that I spent my early days; and it was in this scene of mountain solitude, with no immediate associate but my mother, and for a few years of my existence my grandmother, that my "feelings and fortunes were formed and shaped out."
To be brought up amidst mountain scenery, apart and afar from the busy or polluted haunts of man; to place one's little bare foot, with its first movement, on the greensward, the brown heath, or in the pure stream; to live in the retired glen, a perceptible part of all that lives and enjoys; to feel the bracing air of freedom in every breeze; to be possessed of elbow room from ridge to summit, from bank to brae,--this is, indeed, the most delightful of all infant schools, and, above all, prepares the young and infant mind for enlarged conception and resolute daring.
"To sit on rocks; to muse o'er flood and fell; To slowly trace the forest's shady scene, Where things that own not man's dominion dwell, And mortal foot hath ne'er or seldom been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen, With the wild flock that never needs a fold; Alone o'er steeps and foaming falls to lean: This is not solitude--'tis but to hold Converse with Nature's God, and see his works unrolled."
Here, indeed, are the things that own not the dominion of man! The everlasting hills, in their outlines of rock and heath; the floods that leap in freedom, or rush in defiance from steep to steep, from gullet to pool, and from pool to plain; the very tempest that overpowers; and heaven, through which the fowls of air sail with supreme and unchallenged dominion,--all these inspire the young heart with independence and self-reliance. True it is that the child, and even the boy, reflects not at all on the advantages of his situation; and this is the very reason that his whole imagination and heart are under their influence. He that is ever arresting and analyzing the current of his thoughts, will seldom think correctly; and he who examines with a microscopic eye the sources of beauty and sublimity, will seldom feel the full force and sway of such impressions. Early and lasting friendships are the fruit of accident, rather than of calculation--of feeling, rather than of reflection; and the circumstances of scenery and habit, which modify the child, and give a bent, a bias, and a character to the after-life, pass all unestimated in regard to such tendency at the time. The bulrush is not less unconscious of the marsh which modifies its growth, or the wallflower of the decay to which it clings, and by which alone its nature and growth would be most advantageously marked and perfected, than is the mountain child of that moral as well as physical development, which such peculiar circumstances are calculated to effect. If, through all the vicissitudes and trials of my past life, I have ever retained a spirit of independence, a spirit which has not, as the sequel (which I may yet give) will evince, proved at all times advantageous to my worldly advancement--if such has been the case, I owe it, in a great measure, to the impression which the home of my youth was calculated to make.
My mother had originally received a better education than in those days was customary with individuals of her class; and, in addition to this advantage, she had long acted as housekeeper to an unmarried brother, the minister of a parish in Galloway. In this situation, she had access to a large and well-chosen library; and at leisure intervals had improved the opportunity thus presented. She was quite familiar with Young, and Pope, and Dryden, as well as with Tate's translation of Ovid's Epistles. These latter, in particular, she used to repeat to me during the winter evenings, with a tone of plaintiveness which I felt at the time, and the impression of which can never be obliterated. From these early associations and impressions I am enabled to deduce a taste for poetry, which, while it has served to beguile many an otherwise unsupportable sorrow, has largely contributed to the actual enjoyments of life. There are, indeed, moments of sadness and of joy, to which poetry can bring neither alleviation nor zest; but these, when compared with the more softening shadings, are but rare; and when the intensity of grief or of delight has yielded, or is in the act of yielding, to time or reflection, it is then, in the gloaming or the twilight, as darkness passes into light, or light into darkness, that the soothing and softening notes of poesy come over the soul like the blessed south.
In religion, or rather in politics--in as far, at least, as they are interwoven with and inseparable from the Presbyterian faith--my mother was a staunch Covenanter. Nor was it at all surprising that one whose forefathers had suffered so severely in defence of the Covenant, and in opposition to oppression, should imbibe their sentiments. Her maternal grandfather had suffered at the Gallowlee; and her grandmother, who refused to give information to Clavers respecting the retreat of her husband, had her new-born babe plucked from her breast, dashed upon the floor, and the very bed, from which, to rescue her babe, she had sprung, pierced and perforated in a thousand places by the swords of the ruffians. Whilst this tragedy was enacting within doors, and in what, in these simple times, was denominated the _chaumer_, her eldest son, a boy of about twelve years of age, was arrested, and because he would not, or in all probability could not, disclose his father's retreat, he was blindfolded, tied to a tree, and taught to expect that every ball which he heard whizzing past his ear was aimed at his head. The boy was left bound; and, upon his being released by a menial, it was discovered that his reason had fled--and for ever! He died a few years afterwards, being known in the neighbourhood by the name of the Martyred Innocent! I have often looked at the bloody stone (for such stains are well known to be like those upon Lady Macbeth's hand, indelible,) where fell, after being perforated by a brace of bullets, Daniel M'Michael, a faithful witness to the truth, whose tomb, with its primitive and expressive inscription, is still to be seen in the churchyard of Durisdeer. Grierson of Lag made a conspicuous figure in the parish of Closeburn in particular; nor did my mother neglect to point out to me the ruined tower and the waste domain around it, which bespoke, according to her creed, the curse of God upon the seed of the persecutor. His elegy--somewhat lengthy and dull--I could once repeat. I can now only recall the striking lines where the Devil is introduced as lamenting over the death of his faithful and unflinching ally:--
"What fatal news is this I hear?-- On earth who shall my standard bear?-- For Lag, who was my champion brave, Is dead, and now laid in his grave.
"The want of him is a great grief-- He was my manager-in-chief, Who sought my kingdom to improve; And to my laws he had great love," etc.
* * * * *
And so on, through at least two hundred lines, composing a pamphlet, hawked about, in my younger days, in every huckster's basket, and sold in thousands to the peasantry of Dumfriesshire and Galloway, at the price of one penny. Whilst, however, the storm of evil passions raged with such fury in what was termed the western districts in particular, the poor, shelterless, and persecuted Covenanter was not altogether destitute of help or comfort. According to his own apprehension, at least, his Maker was on his side; his prayers, offered up on the mountain and in the cave, were heard and answered; and a watchful Providence often interfered, miraculously, both to punish his oppressors, and warn him against the approach of danger. In evidence of this, my mother was wont, amongst many others, to quote the following instances, respecting which she herself entertained no doubt whatever--instances which, having never before been committed to paper, have at least the recommendation of novelty in their favour.
One of the chief rendezvous of the Covenant was Auchincairn, in the eastern district of Closeburn. To this friendly, but, on that account, suspected roof, did the poor wanderer of the mist, the glen, and the mountain repair, at dead of night, to obtain what was barely necessary for the support of nature. Grierson of Lag was not ignorant of the fact, and accordingly, by a sudden movement, was often found surrounding the steading with men and horses before daybreak; yet, prompt and well arranged as his measures were, they were never successful. The objects of his search uniformly escaped before the search was made. And this singular good fortune was owing, according to my authority, to the following circumstance. On the night previous to such an unwelcome visit, a little bird, of a peculiar feather and note, such as are not to be found in this country, came, and perching upon the topmost branch of the old ash tree in the corner of the garden, poured forth its notes of friendly intimation. To these the poor skulking friend of the Covenant listened, by these he was warned, lifted his eyes and his feet to the mountain, and was safe.
The curate of Closeburn was eminently active in distressing his flock. He was one of those Aberdeen divines whom the wisdom of the Glasgow council had placed in the three hundred pulpits vacated in consequence of a drunken and absurd decree. As his church was deserted, he had had recourse to compulsory measures to enforce attendance, and had actually dragged servants and children, in carts and hurdles, to hear his spiritual and edifying addresses; whilst, on the other hand, his spies and emissaries were busied in giving information against such masters and parents as fled from his grasp, or resisted it. He had even gone so far, under the countenance and sanction of the infamous Lauderdale, as to forbid Christian burial in every case where there was no attendance on his ministry. Such was the character, and such the conduct of the man against whom the prayers of a private meeting of the friends of Presbytery were earnestly directed on the following occasion. The eldest son of the guidman of Auchincairn had paid the debt of nature, and behooved to be buried with his fathers in the churchyard of the parish. To this, from the well-known character both of curate and father, it was anticipated that resistance would be made. Against this resistance, however, measures were taken of a somewhat decided character. The body was to be borne to the churchyard by men in arms, whilst a part of the attendants were to remain at home, for the purpose of addressing their Maker in united prayer and supplication. Thus, doubly armed and prepared, the funeral advanced towards the church and manse. Meanwhile the prayer and supplication were warm, and almost expostulatory, that _His_ arm might be stretched forth in behalf of His own covenanted servants. A poor idiot, who had not been judged a proper person to join in this service, was heard to approach, and, after listening with great seeming attention to the strain of the petitions which were made, he, at length, unable to constrain himself any longer, was heard to exclaim, "Haud at him, sirs, haud at him--he's just at the pit brow!" Surprising as it may appear, and incredulous as some may be, there is sufficient evidence to prove that, just about the time when this prediction was uttered, the curate of Closeburn, whilst endeavouring to head and hurry on a party of the military, suddenly dropped down and expired.
Is it, then, matter of surprise that with my mother's milk I imbibed a strong aversion to all manner of oppression, and that, in the broadest and best sense of the word, I became "a Whig?" To the mountain, then, and the flood, I owe my spirit of independence--that shelly-coat covering against which many arrows have been directed; to my mother, and her Cameronian and political bias, I owe my detestation of oppression--in other words, my political creed--together with my poetical leanings. But to my venerated grandmother, in particular, I am indebted for my early acquaintance with the whole history and economy of the spiritual kingdoms, divided as they are into bogle, ghost, and fairy-land.
I shall probably be regarded as an enthusiast whose feelings no future evidence can reclaim from early impressions, when I express my regret that the dreams of my infancy and boyhood have fled--those dreams of dark and bright agency, which shall probably never again return, to agitate and interest--those dreams which charmed me in the midst of a spiritual world, and taught me to consider mere matter as only the visible and tangible instrument through which spirit was constantly acting--those dreams which appear as the shadow and reflection of sacred intimation, and which serve to guard the young heart, in particular, from the cold and revolting tenets of materialism. From the malevolence of him who walks and who works in darkness--who goes about like a roaring lion (but, in our climate and country, more frequently like a bull-dog, or a nondescript bogle), seeking whom he may terrify--I was taught to fly into the protecting arms of the omnipotent Jehovah; that no class of beings could break loose upon another without His high permission; that the Evil One, under whatever disguise or shape he might appear, was still restrained and over-mastered by the Source of all good and of all safety; whilst with the green-coated fairy, the laborious brownie, and the nocturnal hearth-bairn, I almost desired to live upon more intimate and friendly terms!
How poor, comparatively speaking, are the incidents, how uninteresting is the machinery, of a modern fictitious narrative!--sudden and unlooked-for reappearances of those who were thought to be dead, discoveries of substituted births, with various chances and misnomers--"antres vast, and deserts wild!" One good, tall, stalking ghost, with its compressed lips and pointed fingers, with its glazed eye and measured step, is worth them all! Oh for a real "_white lady_" under the twilight of the year seventeen hundred and forty! When the elegant Greek or warlike Roman walked abroad or dined at home, he was surrounded by all the influences of an interesting and captivating mythology--by nymphs of the oak, of the mountain, and of the spring--by the Lares and Penates of his fireside and gateway--by the genius, the Ceres and the Bacchus of his banquet. When our forefathers contended for religious and civil liberty on the mountain--when they prayed for it in the glen, and in the silent darkness of the damp and cheerless cave--they were surrounded, not by material images, but by popular conceptions. The tempter was still in the wilderness, with his suggestions and his promises; and there, too, was the good angel, to warn and to comfort, to strengthen and to cheer. The very fowls of heaven bore on their wing and in their note a message of warning or a voice of comforting; and when the sound of psalms commingled with the swelling rush of the cascade, there were often heard, as it were, the harping of angels, the commingling of heavenly with earthly melody. All this was elevating and comforting precisely in proportion to the belief by which it was supported; and it may fairly be questioned whether such men as Peden and Cameron would have maintained the struggle with so much nerve and resolution if the sun of their faith had not been surrounded by a halo--if the noonday of the gospel had not shaded away imperceptibly into the twilight of superstition. In fact, superstition, in its softer and milder modifications, seems to form a kind of barrier or fence around the "sacred territory;" and it seldom if ever fails to happen that, when the outworks are driven in, the citadel is in danger; when the good old woman has been completely disabused of her harmless fancies, she may then aspire to the faith and the religious comforts of the philosophy of Volney.
In confirmation of these observations, I may adduce the belief and life of my nearest relatives. To them, amidst all their superstitious impressions, religion, pure and undefiled, was still the main hold--the sheet anchor, stayed and steadied by which they were enabled to bear up amidst the turmoils and tempests of life. To an intimate acquaintance with, and a frequent reading of the sacred volume, was added, under our humble roof, family prayer both morning and evening--an exercise which was performed by mother and daughter alternately, and in a manner which, had I not actually thought them inspired, would have surprised me. Those who are unacquainted with the ancient Doric of our devotional and intelligent peasantry, and with that musical accentuation or chant of which it is not only susceptible, but upon which it is in a manner constructed, can have but a very imperfect notion of family prayer, performed in the manner I refer to. Many there are who smile at that familiarity of address and homeliness of expression which are generally made use of; but under that homely address there lie a sincerity and earnestness, a soothing, arousing, and penetrating eloquence, which neither in public nor in private prayer have ever been excelled. Again and again I have felt my breast swell and my eyes fill whilst the prayer of a parent was presented at a throne of grace in words to the following purpose:--"Help him, good Lord!" (speaking in reference to myself), "oh help my puir, faitherless bairn in the day of frowardness and in the hour of folly--in the season of forgetfulness and of unforeseen danger--in trial and in difficulty--in life and in death. Good Lord, for his sainted father's sake (who is now, we trust, with Thee), for my puir sake, who am unworthy to ask the favour, and, far aboon and above a', for thine own well-beloved Son's sake, do _Thou_ be pleased to keep, counsel, and support my puir helpless wean, when mine eyes shall be closed, and my lips shall be shut, and my hands shall have ceased to labour. Thou that didst visit Hagar and her child in the thirsty wilderness--Thou that didst bring thy servant Joseph from the pit and the miry clay--Thou that didst carry thy beloved people Israel through a barren desert to a promised and fruitful land--do Thou be a husband and a father to me and mine; and oh forbid that, in adversity or in prosperity, by day or by night, in the solitude or in the city, we should ever forget Thee!"
In an age when, amongst our peasantry in particular, family prayer is so extensively and mournfully neglected--when the farmer, the manufacturer, the mechanic, not to mention the more elevated orders, have ceased to obey the injunction laid upon all Presbyterian parents in baptism--it is refreshing to look back to the time when the taking of the book, as it was termed, returned as regularly as the rising and the setting of the sun--when the whole household convened together, morning and evening, to worship the God of their fathers. In public worship, as well as in private prayer, there is much of comforting and spiritual support. It is pleasing, as well as useful, to unite voice with voice, and heart with heart; it is consolatory, as well as comforting, to retire from the world to commune with one's heart and be still; but it is not the less delightful and refreshing to unite in family prayer the charities and sympathies of life--to come to the throne of mercy and of pardon in the attitude and capacity of parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, master and servant, and to express, in the common confession, petition, and thanksgiving, our united feelings of sinfulness, resignation, and gratitude.
Milton paints beautifully the first impressions which death made upon Eve; and sure I am that, though conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity, I remember the time when I was entirely ignorant of death. I had indeed been informed that I had a father; but as to any change which had been effected upon him by death, I was as ignorant as if I had been embowered from my birth amidst the evergreens of paradise. Everything around me appeared to be permanent and undying, almost unchanging. The sun set only to rise again; the moon waned, and then reappeared, reassured in strength and repaired in form; the stars, in their courses, walked steadily and uniformly over my head; the flowers faded and nourished; the birds exchanged silence for song; the domestic animals were all my acquaintances from the dawn of memory. To me, and to those associated with me, similar events happened: we ate, drank, went to sleep, and arose again, with the utmost regularity. I had, indeed, heard of death as of some inconceivable evil; but, in my imagination, its operation had no figure. I had not even seen a dog die; for my father's favourite Gipsy lived for nine years after his death--a cherished and respected pensioner. At last, however, the period arrived when the spell was to be broken for ever--when I was to be let into the secret of the house of corruption, and made acquainted with the change which death induces upon the human countenance.
My grandmother had attained a very advanced old age, yet was she straight in person, and perfect in all her mental faculties. Her countenance, which I still see distinctly, was expressive of good-will; and the wrinkles on her brow served to add a kind of intellectual activity to a face naturally soft, and even comely. She had told me so many stories, given me so many good advices, initiated me so carefully in the elements of all learning, "the small and capital letters," and, lastly, had so frequently interposed betwixt me and parental chastisement, that I bore her as much good-will and kindly feeling as a boy of seven years could reasonably be expected to exhibit. True it is, and of verity, that this kindly feeling was not incompatible with many acts of annoyance, for which I now take shame and express regret; but these acts were anything but malevolent, being committed under the view of self-indulgence merely. It was, therefore, with infinite concern that I received the intelligence from my mother that grannie was, in all probability, on the point of leaving us, and for ever.
"Leaving us, and for ever," sounded in my ears like a dream of the night, in which I had seen the stream which passed our door swell suddenly into a torrent, and the torrent into a flood, carrying me, and everything around me, away in its waters. I felt unassured in regard to my condition, and was half disposed to believe that I was still asleep and imagining horrors! But when my mother told me that the disease which had for days confined my grandmother to bed would end in death--in other words, would place her alongside of my father's grave in the churchyard of Closeburn--I felt that I was not asleep, but awake to some dreadful reality, which was about to overtake us. From this period till within a few hours of her dissolution, I kept cautiously and carefully aloof from all intercourse with my grandmother--I felt, as it were, unwilling to renew an intercourse which was so certainly, and so soon, and so permanently to be interrupted; so I betook myself to the hills, and to the pursuit of all manner of bees and butterflies. I would not, in fact, rest; and as I lay extended on my back amidst the heath, and marked the soft and filmy cloud swimming slowly along, "making the blue one white," I thought of her who was dying, and of some holy and happy residence far beyond the utmost elevation of cloud, or sun, or sky. Again and again I have risen from such reveries to plunge myself headlong into the pool, or pursue with increased activity the winged insects which buzzed and flitted around me. Strange indeed are the impressions made upon our yet unstamped, unbiassed nature; and could we in every instance recall them, their history would be so unlike our more recent experience, as to make us suspect our personal identity. I do not remember any more recent feeling which corresponded in character and degree with this, whose wayward and strange workings I am endeavouring to describe; and yet in this case, and in all its accompaniments, I have as perfect a recollection of facts, and reverence of feeling, as if I were yet the child of seven, visited for the first time with tidings of death.
My grandmother's end drew nigh, and I was commanded, or rather dragged, to her bedside. There I still see her lying, calm, but emaciated, in remarkably white sheets, and a head dress which seemed to speak of some approaching change. It was drawn closely over her brow, and covered the chin up to her lips. Nature had manifestly given up the contest; and although her voice was scarcely audible, her reason evidently continued unclouded and entire. She spoke to me slowly and solemnly of religion, obedience to my mother, and being obliging to every one; laid, by my mother's assistance, her hand upon my head, as I kneeled at her bedside, and in a few instants had ceased to breathe. I lifted up my head at my mother's bidding, and beheld a corpse. What I saw or what I felt, I can never express in words. I can only recollect that I sprang immediately, horror-struck, to my feet, rushed out at the door, made for the closest and thickest part of the brushwood of the adjoining brae, and, casting myself headlong into the midst of it, burst into tears. I wept, nay, roared aloud; my grief and astonishment were intense whilst they lasted, but they did not last long; for when I returned home about dusk, I found a small table spread over with a clean cloth, upon which was placed a bottle with spirits, a loaf of bread, and cheese cut into pretty large pieces. Around this table sat my mother, with two old women from the nearest hamlet. They were talking in a low but in a wonderfully cheerful tone, as I thought, and had evidently been partaking of refreshment. Being asked to join them, I did so; but ever and anon the white sheet in the bed, which shaped itself out most fearfully into the human form, drew my attention, and excited something of the feeling which a ghost might have occasioned. I had ceased in a great measure to feel for my grandmother's death. I now felt the alarms and agitations of superstition. It was not because she had fled from us that I was agitated, but because that, though dead, she still seemed present, in all the inconceivable mystery of a dead life!
The funeral called forth, from the adjoining glens and cottages, a respectable attendance, and at the same time gave me an opportunity of partaking, unnoticed, of more refreshment than suited the occasion or my years; in fact, I became little less than intoxicated, and was exceedingly surprised at finding myself, towards evening, in the midst of the same bush where I had experienced my paroxysm of grief, singing aloud, in all the exultation of exhilarated spirits. Such is infancy and boyhood--
"The tear forgot, as soon as shed."
I returned, however, home, thoughtful and sad, and never, but once, thought the house so deserted and solitary as during that evening.
My mother was not a Cameronian by communion, but she was in fact one in spirit. This spirit she had by inheritance, and it was kept alive by an occasional visit from "Fairly." This redoubted champion of the Covenant drew me one day towards him, and, placing me betwixt his knees, proceeded to question me how I would like to be a minister; and as I preserved silence, he proceeded to explain that he did not mean a parish minister, with a manse and glebe and stipend, but a poor Cameronian hill-preacher like himself. As he uttered these last words, I looked up, and saw before me an austere countenance, and a threadbare black coat hung loosely over what is termed a hunchback. I had often heard Fairly mentioned, not only with respect, but enthusiasm, and had already identified him and his followers with the "guid auld persecuted folks" of whom I had heard so much. Yet there was something so strange, not to say forbidding, in Fairly's appearance, that I hesitated to give my consent, and continued silent; whereupon Fairly rose to depart, observing to my mother, that "my time was not come yet." I did not then fully comprehend the meaning of this expression, nor do I perhaps now, but it passed over my heart like an awakening breeze over the strings of an Æolian harp. I immediately sprang forward, and catching Fairly by the skirt of his coat, exclaimed--
"Oh stay, sir!--dinna gang and leave us, and I will do onything ye like."
"But then mind, my wee man," continued Fairly in return, "mind that, if ye join us, ye will have neither house nor hame, and will often be cauld and hungry, without a bed to lie on."
"I dinna care," was my uncouth, but resolute response.
"There's mair metal in that callant than ye're aware o'," rejoined Fairly, addressing himself to my mother, and looking all the while most affectionately into my countenance. "Here, my little fellow, here's a penny for ye, to buy a _charitcher_; and gin ye leeve to be a man, ye'll aiblins be honoured wi' upholding the doctrines which it contains, on the mountain and in the glen, when my auld banes are mixed wi' the clods."
I looked again at Fairly as he pronounced these words, and had an angel descended from heaven in all the radiance and benignity of undimmed glory, such a presence would not have impressed me more deeply with feelings of love, veneration, and esteem.
This colloquy, short as it was, exercised considerable influence over my future life.
I cannot suppose anything more imposing, and better calculated to excite the imagination, than the meetings of these Cameronians or hill-men. They are still vividly under my view: the precipitous and green hills of Durrisdeer on each side--the tent adjoining to the pure mountain stream beneath--the communion table stretching away in double rows from the tent towards the acclivity--the vast multitude in one wide amphitheatre round and above--the spring gushing solemnly and copiously from the rock, like that of Meribah, for the refreshment of the people--the still or whispering silence when Fairly appeared, with the Bible under his arm, without gown, or band, or any other clerical badge of distinction--the tent-ladder, ascended by the bald-headed and venerable old man, and his almost divine regard of benevolence, cast abroad upon a countless multitude--his earnestness in prayer--his plain and colloquial style of address--the deep and pious attention paid to him, from the plaided old woman at the front of the tent to the gaily dressed lad and lass on the extremity of the ground--his descent, and the communion service--his solemn and powerful consecration prayer, over which the passing cloud seemed to hover, and the sheep on the hill-side to forego for a time their pasture--his bald head (like a bare rock encompassed with furze) slightly fringed with grey hairs, remaining uncovered under the plashing of a descending torrent, and his right hand thrust upward, in holy indignation against the proffered umbrella;--all this I see under the alternating splendours and darkenings, lights and shadows, of a sultry summer's day. The thunder is heard in its awful sublimity; and whilst the hearts of man and of beast are quaking around and above, Fairly's voice is louder and more confirmed, his countenance is brighter, and his eye more assured, and stedfastly fixed on the muttering heaven. "Thou, O Lord, art ever near us, but we perceive Thee not; Thou speakest from Zion, and in a still small voice, but it is drowned in the world's murmurings. Then Thou comest forth as now, in thy throne of darkness, and encompassest thy Sinai with thunderings and lightnings; and then it is, that like silly and timid sheep who have strayed from their pasture, we stand afar off and tremble. _This_ flash of thy indignant majesty, which has now crossed these aged eyes, might, hadst Thou but so willed it, have dimmed them for ever; and this vast assemblage of sinful life might have been, in the twinkling of an eye, as the hosts of Assyria, or the inhabitants of Admah and Zeboim; but Thou knowest, O Lord, that Thou hast more work for me, and more mercy for them, and that the prayers of penitence which are now knocking hard for entrance and answer, must have time and trial to prove their sincerity. So be it, good Lord! for thine ire, that hath suddenly kindled, hath passed; and the Sun of Righteousness himself hath bid his own best image come forth from the cloud to enliven our assembly." In fact, the thunder-cloud had passed, and under the strong relief of a renewed effulgence, was wrapping in its trailing ascent the summits of the more distant mountains.
"I to the hills will lift mine eyes, From whence doth come mine aid: My safety cometh from the Lord"----
These were the notes which pealed in the after-service of that memorable occasion from at least ten thousand hearts. Nor is there any object in nature better calculated to call forth the most elevated sentiments of devotion, than such a simultaneous concordant union of voice and purpose, in praise of Him "who heaven and earth hath made."
"All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord"----
So says the divine monitor; but what says modern fashion and refinement? Let them answer in succession for themselves. And first, then, in reference to fashion. When examined and duly purged, she deposeth that the time was when men were not ashamed to praise their God "before his people all;" when they even rejoiced with what tones they might to unite their tributary stream of praise to that vast flood which rolled, in accumulated efficacy, towards the throne on high; when lord and lady, husbandman and mechanic, learned and unlearned, prince and people, sent forth their hearts in their united voices towards Him who is the God over all and the Saviour of all. She further deposeth that the venerated founders of our Presbyterian Church were wont to scare the curlew and the bittern of the mountain and the marsh by their nightly songs of solemn and combined thanksgiving and praise; and that, with the view of securing a continuance of this delightful exercise, our Confession of Faith strictly enjoins us, providing, by the reading of "the line," against cases of extreme ignorance or bodily infirmity; and yet she averreth that, in defiance of law and practice, of reason and revelation, of good feeling and common-sense, hath it become unfashionable to be seen or to be heard praising God. It is vulgar and unseemly, it would appear, in the extreme, to modulate the voice or to compose the countenance into any form or expression which might imply an interest in the exercise of praise. The young Miss in her teens, whose tender and susceptible heart is as wax to impressions, is half betrayed into a spontaneous exhibition of devotional feeling; but she looks at the marble countenance and changeless aspect of Mamma, and is silent. The home-bred, unadulterated peasant would willingly persevere in a practice to which he has been accustomed from his first entrance at the church stile; but his superiors, from pew and gallery, discountenance his feelings, and indicate by the carelessness--I had almost added the levity--of their demeanour, that they are thinking of anything, of everything, but God's praise; whilst the voices of the hired precentor and of a few old women and rustics are heard uniting in suppressed and feeble symphony. Nay, there is a case still more revolting than any which has been hitherto denounced--that, namely, of our young probationers and ministers, who, in many instances, refuse even in the pulpit that example which, with their last breath, they were perhaps employed in recommending. There they sit or stoop whilst the psalm is singing, busily employed in revising their MS., or in reviewing the congregation, in selecting and marking for emphasis the splendid passages, or in noting for observation whatever of interesting the dress or the countenances of the people may suggest. So much for _fashion_; and now for the deposition of _refinement_ on the same subject.
Refinement has indeed much to answer for; she has brushed the coat threadbare; she has wiredrawn the thread till it can scarcely support its own weight; and in no one instance has her besetting sin been more conspicuous than in her intercommunings with our church psalmody. The old women who, from the original establishment of Presbytery, have continued to occupy and grace our pulpit stairs, are oftentimes defective in point of sweetness and delicacy of voice; in fact, they do not sing, but croon, and in some instances they have even been known to outrun the precentor by several measures, and to return upon him a second time ere the conclusion of the line. What then?--they always croon in a low key; and if _they_ are gratified, their Maker pleased, and the congregation in general undisturbed, the principal parties are disposed of. There is no doubt something unpleasing to a refined ear in the jarring concord of a rustic euphony, when, in full voice, of a sacramental Sabbath evening, they are inclined to hold on with irresistible swing. But what they want in harmony, they have in good-will; what they lose in melody, they gain in the ringing echo of their voices from roof and ceiling. And were it possible, without silencing the uninstructed, to gratify and encourage the refined and the disciplined, then were there at once a union and a unison of agreeables; but as this object has never been effected, or even attempted, and as refinement has at once laid aside all regard for the humble and untrained worshipper, and has set her stamp and seal upon a trained band of vocal performers, it becomes the duty of all rightly constituted minds to oppose, if they cannot stem the tide--to mark and stigmatize that as unbecoming and absurd which the folly of the age would have us consider as improvement. It is of little moment whether the office of psalm-singing be committed to a select band, who surround, with their merry faces and tenor pipes, the precentor's seat, or be entrusted to separate parties scattered through the congregation; still, so long as the _taught_ alone are expected to sing, the original end of psalm-singing is lost sight of, the habits of a Presbyterian congregation are violated, and _manner_ being preferred to _matter_--an attuned voice to a fervent spirit--a manifest violence is done to the feelings of the truly devout.
No two things are probably more distinct and separate in the reader's mind than preaching and fishing; yet in mine they are closely associated.
And is not fishing or angling with the rod a most fascinating amusement? There is just enough of address required to admit and imply a gratifying admixture of self-approbation; and enough, at the same time, of chance or circumstance, over which the fisher has no control, to keep expectation alive even during the most deplorable luck. Hence a real fisher is seldom found, from want of success merely, to relinquish his rod in disgust; but, with the spirit of a true hill-man of the old school, he is patient in tribulation, rejoicing in hope. "_Meliore opera_" is written upon his countenance; and whilst mischance and misfortune haunt him, it may be, from stream to stream, or from pool to pool, he still looks down the glen and along the river's course; he still regards in anxious expectation the alluring and more promising curl, the circulating and creamy froth, the suddenly broken and hesitating gullet, and the dark clayey bank, under which the water runs thick and the foam-bells figure bright and starry. He knows that one single hour of successful adventure, when the cloud has ascended and the shadow is deep, and the breeze comes upwards on the stream, and the whole finny race are in eager expectation of the approaching shower--that one single hour of this description will amply repay him for every discouragement and misfortune.
And who that has enjoyed this one little hour of success would consider the purchase as dearly made? Is it with bait that you are angling?--and in the solitude of a mountain glen can you discover the stream of your hope, stretching away like a blue pennant waving into the distance, and escaping from view behind some projecting angle of the hill? Your fishing-rod is tight and right, your line is in order, your hook penetrates your finger to the barb; other companions than the plover, the lark, and the water-wagtail you have none. This is no hour for chirping grasshopper, or flaunting butterfly, or booming bee; the overshaded and ruffled water receives your bait with a plump; and ere it has travelled to the distance of six feet, it is nailed down to the leeward of a stone. You pull recklessly and fearlessly, and flash after flash, and flap after flap, comes there in upon your hull the spotted and ponderous inmate of the flood! Or is it the fly with which you are plying the river's fuller and more seaward flow? The wide extent of streamy pool is before you, and beyond your reach. Fathom after fathom goes reeling from your pirn, but still you are barely able to drop the far fly into the distant curl. "Habet!" he has it; and proudly does he bear himself in the plenitudes of strength, space, and freedom. Your line cuts and carves the water into all manner of squares, triangles, and parallelograms. Now he makes a few capers in the air, and shows you, as an opera dancer would do, his proportions and agility: now again he is sulky and restive, and gives you to understand that the _vis inertiæ_ is strong within him. But fate is in all his operations, and his last convulsive effort makes the sand and the water commingle at the landing-place.
The resort of the fisher is amidst the retirements of what, and what alone, can be justly denominated undegraded nature. The furnace, and the manufactory, and the bleaching-green, and the tall red smoke-vomiting chimney are his utter aversion. The village, the clachan, the city, he avoids: he flies from them as something intolerably hostile to his hopes. He holds no voluntary intercourse with man, or with his petty and insignificant achievements. "He lifts his eyes to the hills," and his steps lie through the retired glen, and winding vale, and smiling strath, up to the misty eminence and cairn-topped peak. He catches the first beams of the sun, not through the dim and disfiguring smoke of a city, but over the sparkling and diamonded mountain, above the unbroken and undulating line of the distant horizon. His conversation is with heaven, with the mist, and the cloud, and the sky; the great, the unmeasured, the incomprehensible are around him; and all the agitation and excitement to which his hopes and fears as a mere fisher subject him, cannot completely withdraw his soul from that character of sublimity by which the mountain solitude is so perceptibly impressed.
I shall never forget one day's sport. The morning was warm, and in fact somewhat sultry; and swarms of insects arose on my path. As every gullet was gushing with water, it behoved me to ascend, even beyond my former travel, to the purest streams or feeders, which ran unseen, in general, among the hills. The clouds, as I hurried on my way, began to gather up into a dense and darkening awning. There was a slight and somewhat hesitating breeze on the hill-side, for I could see the heath and bracken bending under it, but it was scarcely perceptible beneath. This, however, I regretted the less, as the mountain torrent to which I had attached myself was too precipitous and streamy in its course to require the aids of wind and curl to forward the sport. Let the true fisher--for he only can appreciate the circumstances--say what must have been my delight, my rapture, as I proceeded to prepare my rod, open out my line over the brink of a gullet, along which the water rushed like porter through the neck of a bottle, and at the lower extremity of which the froth tilted round and round in most inviting eddies! Here there was no springing of trouts to the surface, nor coursing of alarmed shoals beneath. The darkened heaven was reflected back by the darker water; and the torrent kept dashing, tumbling, and brawling along under the impulse and agitation of a swiftly ebbing flood. I had hit upon that very critical shade, betwixt the high brown and soft blue colour, which every mountain angler knows well how to appreciate; and I felt as if every turn and entanglement of my line formed a barrier betwixt me and paradise. The very first throw was successful, ere the bait had travelled twice round the eddy at the bottom of the gullet. When trouts in such circumstances take at all, they do so in good earnest. They are all on the outlook for food, and dash at the swiftly-descending bait with a freedom and good-will which almost uniformly insures their capture. And here, for the benefit of bait fishers, it may be proper to mention, that success depends not so much on the choosing and preparing of the worms--though these undoubtedly are important points--as in the throwing and drawing, or rather dragging of the line. In such mountain rapids, the trout always turn their heads to the current, and never gorge the bait till they have placed themselves lower down in the water; consequently, by pulling _downwards_, two manifest advantages are gained: the trout is often hooked without gorging, or even biting at all, and the current assists the fisher in landing his prize, which, in such circumstances, may be done in an instant, and at a single pull. But to return. My success on this occasion was altogether beyond precedent: at every turn and wheel of the winding torrent, I was sure to grace the green turf or sandy channel with another and another yellow-sided and brightly-spotted half-pounder. The very sheep, as they travelled along their mountain pathway, stopped and gazed down on the sport. The season was harvest, and the Lammas floods had brought up the bull or sea trouts. I had all along hoped that one or two stragglers might have reached my position; and this hope had animated every pull. It was not, however, till the day was well advanced, that I had the good fortune to succeed in hooking a large, powerful, active, and new-run "milter." In fisher weight he might seem _five_, but in imperial he would possibly not exceed two or three pounds. Immediately upon his feeling the steel he plunged madly, flung himself into the air, dived again into the depths, and flounced about in the most active and courageous style imaginable. At last, taking the stream-head somewhat suddenly, he showed tail and fin above the surface of the water, brought his two extremities almost into contact, shot himself upwards like an arrow, and was off with the hook and a yard of line ere I had time to prepare against the danger; but as unforeseen circumstances led to this catastrophe, occurrences equally unlooked-for repaired the loss; for in an instant I secured the disengaged captive whilst floundering upon the sand, having, by his headlong precipitancy, fairly pitched himself out of his native element. There he lay, like a ship in the shallows, exhibiting scale and fin, and shoulder and spot, of the most fascinating hue; and, ever and anon, as the recollection of the fatal precipitancy seemed to return upon him, he cut a few capers and exhibited a few somersets, which contributed materially to insure his capture, and increase my delight.
By this time I had ascended nearly to the source of the stream; and at every opening up of the glen I could perceive a sensible diminution of the current. I was quite alone in the solitude; and my unwonted success had rendered me insensible to the escape of time. The glen terminated at last in a linn and scaur, beyond which it did not appear probable that trouts would ascend. Whilst I was engaged in the consideration of the objects around me, with a reference to my return home, I became all at once enveloped in mist and darkness. The mist was dense and close and suffocating, while the darkness increased every instant. I felt a difficulty in breathing, as if I had been shut up in an empty oven; my situation stared me at once in the face, and I took to my heels over the heath, in what I considered a homeward direction. Now that my ears were relieved from the gurgling sound of the water, I could perceive, through the stillness of the air, that the thunder was behind me. I had been taught to consider thunder as the voice of the "Most High," when He speaks in his wrath, and felt my whole soul prostrated under the divine rebuke. Some passages of the 18th Psalm rushed on my remembrance; and as the lightnings began to kindle, and the thunder to advance, I could hear myself involuntarily repeating--
"Up from his nostrils came a smoke, And from his mouth there came Devouring fire; and coals by it Were turned into flame.
"The Lord God also in the heavens Did thunder in his _ire_, And there the Highest gave his voice-- Hail-stones and coals of fire."
Such was the subject of my meditation, as the muttering and seemingly subterraneous thunder boomed and quavered behind me. At last, one broad and whizzing flash passed over, around, beneath, and I could almost imagine, _through_ me. The clap followed instantly, and, by its deafening knell, drove me head foremost into the heathy moss. Had the earth now opened (as to Curtius of old) before me, I should certainly have dashed into the crater, in order to escape from that explosive omnipotence which seemed to overtake me. Peal after peal pitched, with a rending and tearing sound, upon the drum of my ear and the parapet of my brain; whilst the mist and the darkness were kindled up around me into an open glow. I could hear a strange rush upon the mountain, and along the glen, as if the Solway had overleaped all bounds, and was careering some thousand feet abreast over Criffel and Queenberry. Down it came at last, in a swirl and a roar, as if rocks and cairns and heath were commingled in its sweep. This terrible blast was only the immediate precursor of a hail-storm, which, descending at first in separate and distinct pieces, as if the powers of darkness and uproar had been pitching marbles, came on at last with a rush, as if Satan himself had been dumriddling the elements. The water in the moss-hag rose up, and boiled and sputtered in the face of heaven, and a rock, underneath the hollow corner of which I had now crept on hands and knees, rattled all over, as if assailed by musketry. I lay now altogether invisible to mortal eye, amidst the mighty movements of the elements--a thing of nought, endeavouring to crawl into nonentity--a tiny percipient amidst the blind urgency of nature. I lay in all the prostration of a bruised and subdued spirit, praying fervently and loudly unto God that He might be pleased to cover me with his hand till his wrath was overpast. And, to my persuasion at the time, my prayers were not altogether insufficient: the storm softened, rain succeeded hail, a pause followed the hurricane, and the thunder's voice had already travelled away over the brow of the onward mountain.
Whilst I was debating with myself whether it were safer, now that the night had fairly closed in upon the pathless moor, to remain all night in my present position, or to attempt once more my return home, I heard, all of a sudden, the sound of human voices, which the violence of the storm had prevented me from sooner perceiving. I scarcely knew whether I was more alarmed or comforted by this discovery. From my previous state of agitation, combined with my early and rooted belief in all manner of supernaturals, I was strongly disposed to terror; but the accents were so manifestly human, that, in spite of my apprehensions, they tended to cheer me. As I continued, therefore, to listen with mouth and ears, the voices became louder and louder, and more numerous, mixed and commingled as they appeared at last to be with the tread and the plash of horses' feet. These demonstrations of an approaching cavalcade naturally called upon me to narrow, as much and as speedily as possible, my circumference; in other words, to creep, as it were, into my shell, by occupying the farthest extremity of the recess, to which I betook myself at first for shelter, and now for concealment. There I lay like a limpet stuck to the rock, against which I could feel my heart beat with accelerated rapidity. In this situation I could distinguish voices and expressions, and ultimately unravel the import of a conversation interlarded with oaths and similar ornamental flourishes. There was a proposal to halt, alight, and refresh in this sequestered situation. Such a proposal, as may readily be supposed, was to me anything but agreeable. Here was I, according to my reckoning, surrounded by a band of robbers, and liable every instant to detection. Firearms were talked of, and preparations, offensive and defensive, were proposed. I could distinctly smell gunpowder. In the meantime, a fire was struck up at no great distance, under the glare of which I could distinguish horses heavily panniered, and strange-looking countenances, congregating within fifty paces of my retreat. The shadow of the intervening corner of the rock covered me, otherwise immediate detection would have been inevitable. The thunder and lightnings with all their terrors were nothing to this. In the one case, I was placed at the immediate disposal of a merciful, as well as a mighty Being; but at present I ran every risk of falling into the hands of those whose counsels I had overheard, and whose tender mercies were only cruelty. As I lay--rod, basket, and fish crumpled up into a corner of contracted dimensions--all ear, however, and eye towards the light--I could mark the shadows of several individuals who were manifestly engaged in the peaceful and ordinary process of eating and drinking; hands, arms, and flagons projected in lengthened obscurity over the mass, and intimated, by the rapidity and character of their movements, that jaws were likewise in motion. The long pull, with the accompanying _smack_, were likewise audible; and it was manifest that the repast was not more substantial than the beverage was exhilarating. "Word follows word, from question answer flows." Dangers and contingencies--which, while the flame was kindling and the flagon was filling, seemed to agitate and interest all--were now talked of as bugbears; and oaths of heavy and horrifying defiance were hurled into the ear of night, with many concomitant expressions of security and self-reliance. The night, though dark, had now become still and warm; and the ground which they occupied, like my own retreat, had been partially protected from the hail and the rain by the projecting rock. The stunted roots of burnt heath, or "brins," served them plentifully for fuel; and altogether their situation was not so uncomfortable as might have been expected. Still, however, their character, employment, and conversation appeared to me a fearful mystery. One thing, however, was evident, that they conceived themselves as engaged in some illegal transactions. Their whole revel was tainted with treason and insubordination: kings and rulers were disposed of with little ceremony; and excise officers, in particular, were visited with anathemas not to be mentioned. At this critical moment, when the whole party seemed verging towards downright intoxication, a pistol bullet burst itself to atoms on the projecting corner of the rock; and the report which accompanied this demonstration was followed up by oaths of challenge and imprecation. The fire went out as if by magic, and an immediate rush to arms, accompanied by shots and clashing of lethal weapons, indicated a struggle for life.
"Stand and surrender, you smuggling scoundrels! or by all that is sacred, not one of you shall quit this spot in life!"
This salutation was answered by a renewed discharge of musketry; and the darkness, which was relieved by the momentary flash, became instantly more impenetrable than ever. Men evidently pursued men, and horses were held by the bridle, or driven into speed as circumstances permitted. How it happened that I neither screamed, fainted, nor died outright, I am yet at a loss to determine. The darkness, however, was my covering; and even amidst the unknown horrors of the onset, I felt in some degree assured by the extinction of the fire. But this assurance was not of long continuance: the assailing party had evidently taken possession of the field; and, after a few questions of mutual recognition and congratulation, proceeded to secure their booty, which consisted of one horse, with a considerable assortment of barrels and panniers. This was done under the light of the rekindled fire, around which a repetition of the former festivities was immediately commenced. The fire, however, now flared full in my face, and led to my immediate detection. I was summoned to come forth, with the muzzle of a pistol placed within a few inches of my ear--an injunction which I was by no means prepared to resist. I rolled immediately outwards from under the rock, displaying my basket and rod, and screaming all the while heartily for mercy. At this critical moment a horse was heard to approach, and a challenge was immediately sent through the darkness,--every musket was levelled in the direction of the apprehended danger,--when a voice, to which I was by no means a stranger, immediately restored matters to their former bearing.
"Now, what is the meaning o' a' this, my lads? And how come the king's servants to be sae ill lodged at this time o' night? He must be a shabby landlord that has naething better than the bare heath and the hard rock to accommodate his guests wi'."
"Oh, Fairly, my old man of the Covenant," vociferated the leader of the party, "how come you to be keeping company with the whaup and the curlew at this time o' night? But a drink is shorter than a tale; fling the bridle owre the grey yad's shoulders, an' ca' her to the bent, till we mak ourselves better acquainted with this little natty gentleman, whom we have so opportunely encountered on the moor"--displaying, at the same time, a keg or small flask of liquor referred to, and shaking it joyously till it clunked again.
In an instant Fairly was stationed by the side of the fire, with a can of Martin's brandy in his hands, and an expression of exceeding surprise on his countenance as he perceived my mother's son in full length exhibited before him. I did not, however, use the ceremony of a formal recognition; but, rushing on his person, I clung to it with all the convulsive desperation of a person drowning. Matters were now adjusted by mutual recognitions and explanations; and I learned that I had been the unconscious spectator of a scuffle betwixt the "king's officers" and a "band of smugglers;" and that Fairly, who had been preaching and baptizing that day at Burnfoot, and was on his return towards Durrisdeer (where he was next day to officiate), had heard and been attracted to the spot by the firing. In these times to which I refer, the Isle of Man formed a depot for illegal traffic. Tea, brandy, and tobacco, in particular, found their way from the Calf of Man to the Rinns of Galloway, Richmaden, and the mouth of the Solway. From the latter depot the said articles were smuggled, during night marches, into the interior, through such byways and mountain passes as were unfrequented or inaccessible. After suitable libations had been made, I was mounted betwixt a couple of panniers, and soon found myself in my own bed, some time before
"That hour o' night's black arch the keystane!"
THE DETECTIVE'S TALE.
THE CHANCE QUESTION.
It is not long since the cleverest of these strangely constituted men called detectives [_entre nous_ myself] went up to his superintendent with a very rueful face, and told him that all his energies were vain in discovering a clue to an extensive robbery of plate which had occurred in ---- Street some short time before.
"I confess myself fairly baffled," he said; and could say no more.
"With that singular foxhound organ of yours?" replied his superior. "The herring must have been well smoked."
"At the devil's own fire of pitch and brimstone," said the detective. "But the worst is, I have had no trail to be taken off. I never was so disconcerted before. Generally some object to point direction, if even only a dead crow or smothered sheep; but here, not even that."
"No trace of P---- or any of the English gang?"
"None; all beyond the bounds, or up chimneys, or down in cellars, or covered up in coal-bunkers. I am beginning to think the job to be of home manufacture."
"Generally a clumsy affair; and therefore very easy for a man of your parts. What reason have you?"
"That is, I fancy," said the superintendent, "the thousand pounds of good silver, watches, and rings, are absolutely gone."
"You know my conditions," said the officer: "give me the thing stolen, and I will find to a living certainty the man who stole it; or give me the man who stole it, and I will find you to a dead certainty the thing stolen. But it's a deuced unfortunate thing that a man can't get even a sniff."
"Yes, especially when, as in your case, all his soul is in his nose."
"And with such a reward!" continued the chagrined officer; "scarcely anything so liberal has been offered in my time; but, after all, the reward is nothing--it is the honour of the force and one's character. It is well up for the night anyhow, and I rather think altogether, unless some flash come by telegraph."
"You have no other place you can go to now?" said the superintendent musingly, and not altogether satisfied.
"None," replied the officer resolutely. "I have been out of bed for ten nights--every den scoured, and every 'soup-kitchen'[B] visited, every swell watched and dogged, and every trull searched; I can do no more. It is now eleven, my eyes will hardly hold open, and I request to be allowed to go and rest for the present."
"As you like," replied the superintendent. "We are neither omniscient nor omnipotent."
"The people who get robbed think us both," said the officer; and taking his hat, left the office, and began to trudge slowly down the street. The orderly people had mostly retired to their homes. The midnight ghouls from the deep wynds and closes were beginning to form their gossiping clusters; the perambulators had begun their courses; and fast youths from the precincts of the College or the New Town were resuming their search for sprees, or determined to make them. There were among them many clients of our officer, whom he knew, and had hopes of at some future day; but now he surveyed them with the eye of one whose occupation for the time was gone. His sadness was of the colour of Jacques', but there was a difference: the one wove out of his melancholy golden verses in the forest of Arden; our hero could not draw out of his even silver plate in the dens of Edinburgh. He had come to the Tron Kirk, and hesitated whether, after all, he should renounce his hunt for the night--true to the peculiarity of this species of men, whose game are wretched and wicked beings, always less or more between them and the wind's eye, and therefore always stimulating to pursuit; but again he resolved upon home, or, rather, his heavy eyes and worn-out spirits resolved him, in spite of himself, and he turned south, in which direction his residence was. So on he trudged till he came about the middle part of the street called the South Bridge, when he heard pattering behind him the feet of a woman. She came up to him, and passed him, or rather was in the act of passing him, when, from something no better than a desire to stimulate activity, or rather to free himself from the conviction that he was utterly and entirely defeated, he turned round to the girl, whom he saw in an instant was a street-walker, and threw carelessly a question at her.
"Where are you going?"
"Home," was the reply.
"Where do you live?"
"In Simon Square."
Here he was at first inclined to make a stop, having put the questions more as common routine than with any defined intention; but just as the girl came opposite to a lamp-post, and was on the eve of outstripping him, he said,
"Oh, by-the-bye, do you know any one thereabouts, or anywhere else, who mends rings?"
"Who is it?"
"I don't know his other name; we just call him Abram, and sometimes Jew Abram."
"Did you ever get anything mended by him?"
"No; but I bought a ring from him once."
"And what did you do with it?"
"I have it on my finger," she replied.
"Will you let me see it?" he continued.
And as they came forward to another lamp-post, he was shown the ring. He examined it carefully, taking from his waistcoat another, and comparing the two--"Won't do."
"How long is it since you made this purchase?"
"About ten days ago."
"And what did you pay for it?"
"Three and sixpence."
By this time they had got opposite the square where the girl lived. She crossed, and he followed, in the meantime asking her name.
"There is Abram's house," she said; "there's light in the window."
And the officer, standing a little to see where she went, now began to examine the outside of Abram's premises. A chink in the shutters showed him a part of the person of some one inside, whom he conjectured to be Abram sitting at his work. He opened the door, and it was as he thought. An old man was sitting at a bench, with a pair of nippers in his hand, peering into some small object.
"Can you mend that?" said the officer abruptly, and, without a word of prelocution, pressing into his hands a ring.
"Anything," was the prompt reply.
But no sooner had the ring come under the glance of his far-ben eye--
And the peering eye came, as it were, forward out of its recess, and scanned the face of the officer, who, on the other hand, was busy watching every turn of the Jew's features.
"No; I cannot mend that."
"Why? You said you could mend anything."
"Ye-es, anything; but not that."
"No matter--no harm in asking," replied the officer, as he looked round the apartment, and fixed his eye on the back wall, where, in utter opposition to all convenience, let alone taste, and even to the exclusion of required space, there were battered two or three coarse engravings.
"Now what, in the name of decoration, are these prints hung up on that wall for?" asked the officer of himself, without making any question of the import of the Jew's look, and his yes and no. He was now standing in the middle of the square, and, turning round, he saw the light put out. Another thought struck him, but whatever it was, it was the cause of a laugh that took hold of him, even in the grasp of his anxiety; yea, he laughed, for a detective, greatly more heartily than could be authorized by anything I have recorded.
"Why, the lower print is absolutely the old Jewish subject of the cup in the sack," he muttered, and laughed again. "Was ever detective so favoured?--a representation of concealed treasure on the very wall where that treasure is! Were the brethren fools enough to put the representation of a cup on Benjamin's sack?"
"Robertson!" he called to one of his men, whom, by the light at the street-end of the entry, he saw passing, "send two men here upon the instant."
And then he began to examine more thoroughly the premises, to ascertain whether there were any exit-openings besides the door and window. There were none. He had a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes to wait, and five of these had not passed before he observed some one go up and tap at Abram's door. A question, though he did not hear it, must have been put by the Jew, for an answer, in a low voice, responded,
"The crack name of that fellow Clinch, whom I've been after for a week," said the officer to himself, as he kept in the shadow of a cellar which jutted out from the other houses.
The Jew had again answered, for the visitor repeated to himself, as if in fear and surprise, "Red-light," and, looking cautiously about him, made off.
"It is not my cue to follow," muttered the detective; "but I will do next best."
And hurrying out of the mouth of the entry at the heels of the visitor, he caught the policeman on the Nicolson Street beat almost immediately.
"Track that fellow," he said; "there--there, you see him--'tis Slabberdash; do not leave him or the front of his den till sunrise. I'll get a man for your beat."
"Yes, sir," replied the policeman, adroitly blowing out his bull's-eye and making off at a canter.
The officer returned to his post, and within the time the two assistants arrived.
"Go you, Reid, to the office, and send a man to supply Nicolson Street beat till Ogilvy return; he's on commission; come back instantly."
The man obeyed with alacrity.
"And now, Jones, you and your neighbour take charge of that door--keep seeing it without it seeing; you understand? Keep watch; and if any one approach, scan him for Slabberdash, but take care he doesn't see you. I will relieve you at shutters-down in the morning; meanwhile, I'm at home for report or exigency."
"I comprehend," replied the man, "and will be careful."
The officer took for home, weary and drowsy, though a little awakened by the events of one half-hour. There was sight of game, as well as scent. The Jew's look by itself was not much, yet greatly more to the eye of a detective than even an expert physiognomist could imagine. The picture-plastered wall was more; the cup in the sack was merely an enlivening joke; but Slabberdash was no joke, as many a douce burgher in Edinburgh knew to his cost. The fellow was a match for the father of cheats and lies himself; and therefore it could be no dishonour to our clever detective that hitherto he had had no chance with him, any more than if he had been James Maccoul, or the great Mahoun.
Meanwhile, the other watch having arrived, the two kept up their surveillance; nor would they be without something to report to their officer, were it nothing more than that little Abram--for he was very diminutive--about one in the morning rather surprised one of the guard, who was incautiously too near the house, by slowly opening the door, and looking out with an inquiring eye, in his shirt; and upon getting a glimpse of the dark figure of the policeman, saying, as if to himself, though intended for the said dark figure, whoever it might be,
"I vash wondering if it vash moonlight."
And, shutting the door hurriedly, he disappeared. About an hour afterwards, a tall female figure, coming up the entry from North Richmond Street, made a full stop, at about three yards from Abram's door, and then darted off, but not before one of the guard had seen enough, as he thought, to enable him to swear that it was Slabberdash's companion, a woman known by the slang name of Four-toed Mary, once one of the most dashing and beautiful of the local street-sirens. About an hour after that the two guards forgathered to compare notes.
"The devil is surely in that little man," said the one who had heard the soliloquy about the moon; "for, whether or not he wanted light outside or in to drive away the shadows of his conscience, he served his purpose a few minutes since by lighting his lamp. I saw the light through the chinks, and venturing to listen, heard noises as of working. He is labouring at something, if not sweating."
"Perhaps _melting_," said the other, with a laugh.
"But here comes our officer; there is never rest for that man when there's a bird on the moor or a fox in the covert."
The truth was, as the man said, the detective had gone home to sleep; but no sooner had he lain down than the little traces he had discovered began to excite his imagination, and that faculty, so suggestive in his class, getting inflamed, developed so many images in the camera of his mind, that he soon found sleep an impossibility, and he was now there to know whether anything further had transpired. The men made their report, and he soon saw there was something more than ordinary in Abram's curiosity about the moon, and still more in the coincidence of the visits of Slabberdash and Four-toes. He had a theory, too, about the working, though it did not admit the melting. He knew better what to augur. But he had a fault to find, and he was not slow to find it.
"Why didn't one of you track Four-toes? One of you could have served here. She has been off the scene for three weeks, and is hiding. You ought to have known that a woman is a good subject for a detective. Her strength is her weakness, and her weakness our opportunity. But there's no help for it now. We must trace the links we have. If she come again, be more on the alert, and follow up the track. Keep your guard, and let not a circumstance escape you."
"The light is out again," remarked one of the men; "he has gone to bed."
"But not to sleep, I warrant," said his superior. "Look sharp and listen quick, and I will be with you when I promised."
He now proceeded to the office in the High Street, where he found the superintendent waiting for a report in another case. He recounted all he had seen and heard.
"You have a chance here," said the latter; "and, to confirm our hopes, I can tell you that Four-toes' mother gave yesterday to a shebeen-master in Toddrick's Close, one of the rings for a mutchkin of whisky; and, what is more, Clinch has been traced to the old woman's house in Blackfriars Wynd. I suspect that the picture's true after all. The cup is verily in Benjamin's sack."
Thus fortified, our detective sought his way again down the High Street; and as he had time to kill between that and the opening of the shutters in Simon Square, he paid a visit to Blackfriars Wynd, where he found his faithful myrmidon keeping watch over the old mother's house, like a Skye terrier at the mouth of a rat-hole. He here learned that Mary with the deficient toe had also been seen to go upstairs to her mother's garret, which circumstance accorded perfectly with the statement of the guard in the square, as no doubt she had returned home after being startled at the door of Abram. But then she was seen to go out again, about an hour before, though whither she went the watch could not say. The hour of appointment was now approaching. The day had broken amidst watery clouds, driven about by a fitful, gusty wind, and every now and then sending stiff showers of rain, sufficient to have cooled the enthusiasm of any one but a hunter after the doers of evil. He had been drenched two or three times, and now he felt that a glass of brandy was necessary as an auxiliary to internal resistance against external aggression. He was soon supplied, and, wending his way to the old rendezvous, he found his guard, but without any addition to their report of midnight. Abram was long of getting up, and it seemed that he was first roused by the clink of a milkwoman's tankard on the window-shutter. The door was slowly opened, but in place of the vendor of milk handing in to her solitary customer the small half-pint, she went in herself, pails, and tankard, and all. Our detective marked the circumstance as being unusual, and, more than unusual still, the door was partly closed upon her as she entered. Then he began to think that she had nothing about her of the appearance of that class of young women.
"Has not that woman the appearance of Four-toes?" said the officer.
"I'm blowed if she's not the very woman I saw in the dark," said one of the men.
"Split," said the lieutenant; "but be within sign."
The precaution was wise. In a few minutes Abram's face was peering out at the door, not this time looking for the moon--more probably for the enemies of her minions; and what immediately succeeded showed that he had got a glimpse of the men, for by-and-by the milk-maid came forth and proceeded along the square.
"Go and look into her pails," said the lieutenant to Reid, as he hastened up to him. "Jones and I will remain for a moment here."
Reid set off, and disappeared in the narrow passage leading to West Richmond Street; but he remained only a short time.
"Crumbie is yeld! there's not a drop of milk in her pitchers," said he, on his return; "and it's no other than Four-toes."
"Ah, we've been seen by Abram," said the officer; "and the pitchers are sent away empty, which otherwise would have contained something more valuable than milk. After her again, and track her. Jones and I will pay Abram a morning visit."
The man again set off; and the officer and Jones having hung about a few minutes till Abram came out to open the shutters and afford them light inside, they caught their opportunity, and, just as the Jew was taking down the shattered boards, they darted into the house. Abram was at their heels in a moment.
"Vat ish it, gentlemen?"
"A robbery of plate has been committed," said the officer at once; "and I am here, with your permission no doubt, to search this house."
"Very goo-ood; there ish nothing but vat ish my property."
The officer had even already seen a half of the bench--which had consisted of two parts put together, probably originally intended for some other purpose than mending jewellery--had been removed and placed against the wall where Joseph and his brethren were standing round the cup in the sack, so that it was more difficult to reach the wall, though the device was clearly only the half of an idea, as the prints still stood above the bench, and might, by a sharp eye, have still suggested the suspicion that they were intended for something else than decoration, or even the gratification of a Jew's love for the legends of his country. But the officer did not go first to the suspected part. He took a hammer from his pocket, and began rapping all round the wall. "Stone, stone--lath, lath; ah, a compact house."
"Very goo-ood. Vash only three weeks a tenant."
The officer recollected the estimate of the time given by the street-walker, the _fons et origo_ of all, and his hammer went more briskly till he came to the patriarchs. "Good head, that, of Joseph," he said with a laugh; "hollow, eh?"
"Vash a good head--not hollow; the best at the court of Pharaoh."
In an instant, a long chisel was through the picture; and in another, the poker, driven into the chisel-hole, and wrenched to a side, sent a thin covering of fir lath into a dozen of splinters. The hand did the rest. A cupboard was exposed to the eyes of the apparently wondering Israelite, containing, closely packed, an array of plate, watches, rings, and bijouterie, sufficient to make any eye besides a Jew's leap for the wish of possession.
Abram held up his hands in affected wonderment as the lieutenant stood gazing at the treasure, and almost himself entranced. Jones was fixed to the ground; at one time looking at the costly treasure, at another at his superior, who had already, in this department of his art, acquired an envied reputation.
"Very goo-ood!" exclaimed Abram; "vash only here three weeks. What fools to leave here all this wonderful treasure!"
"Abram, will you be so good as take a walk up the High Street? Jones will show you the way. Breakfast will be waiting you. And do you," looking to Jones, "send down a box large enough to hold this silver, and two of our men to remove it to the office."
"Vash the other tenant," cried Abram, as he saw the plight he had got into--"vash not me, so help me the God of my forefathers, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were just men, as I am a just man; it vash not me. Vash not the cup put in Benjamin's sack?"
The officer laughed--at this time inside, for it behoved him now to be grave--at the recollection of the strange coincidence of the picture and the stolen plate.
"Come," said Jones, "let us start;" and, clapping the Jew's old hat on the head of the little man, he took him under the arm to lead him out.
"After depositing him," whispered the officer into Jones' ear, "get help; proceed to Blackfriars, where Ogilvy is on the watch, and lay hold of Clinch. Some others will start in search of Reid, who may have tracked Four-toes, and seize her. You comprehend?"
"Perfectly. Come, Abram--unless you would like to walk at a safe distance?"
"Surely I would," replied Abram; "and so would every man who vash as innocent as the child vash born yesterday, or this minute."
When the prisoner had departed, the officer sat down on the Jew's stool to rest himself, previous to making a survey of the articles, with reference to an inventory he had in his pocket. In this attitude, he took up a pair of Abram's nippers to fasten a link in his watch chain, which threatened to give way, so that he might very well have represented the master of the establishment sitting at his work. This observation is here made, as explanatory of another circumstance which presently occurred in this altogether remarkable case. The door, which Jones had closed after him, was opened stealthily; an old woman, wrapped up in a duffle cloak, slipped quietly and timidly in, and going round the end of the bench, whispered into the ear of the lieutenant--
"You'll be Abram, nae doubt?"
"Ay," replied he.
"Ye're early at wark."
"Weel, the milk-woman--ye ken wha I mean?"
"Oh yes; Four-toes."
"Ha! ha! ay, just Four-toes, that's Mary Burt; ah! she _was_ a buxom lass in my kennin'. Weel, she has sent me to you, in a quiet way, ye ken, to tell ye that the p'lice have an e'e on you. That ill-lookin' scoondrel, the cleverest o' the 'tectives, as they ca' them--I never saw him mysel, but dootless you'll ken him--has been seen in the coort here, wi' twa o' his beagles, and you're to tak tent."
"Yes, I know the ill-looking Christian dog. Vat ish your name?"
"Where do you live, Christian?"
"In Wardrop's Coort, at the tap o' the lang stair. And the milk-maid--ha! ha!--says you're to shift the things to my room i' the dark'nin', whaur Geordie, my laddie, will hae a plank lifted, and you can stow them awa, ayont the ken o' the cleverest o' them."
"And where ish the milk-woman?"
"In my room, pitchers an' a'."
"Well, tell her to keep there, as vash a prisoner, till I come to her place."
"Isn't Geordie, my good woman, called Squint?"
"Just the same," she replied with a laugh; "and, ye ken, he has a right to a silver jug or twa, for he risked his neck for't as weel as Clinch."
"But you're to gie me a ring to tak to her, for she's hard up, and I'll try Mr. E----e wi' 't at night, and get some shillings on't."
"Certainly, Christian--not a good name that; but here," taking her by the shoulders, and turning sharply in the direction of the door--for he was afraid she might notice the wreck made in the recess,--"look out at the door, and be on the good watch for the ill-looking dog."
"Ah, Abram, ye're sae clever! The deil's in them if they put saut on _your_ tail."
"Here, give that to Four-toes, and tell her to keep good prisoner till I come."
"Just sae--a bonny ring!"
"Quick! turn to your right, and go by the Pleasance, along St. Mary's Wynd, up the High Street, to your home."
"Ay," replied the woman as she departed.
Not five minutes elapsed, when Jones and the two assistants with the box arrived; when the officer cried--
"Jones, follow up an old woman, in a grey duffle cloak, Christian Anderson by name, who is this moment gone down by the Pleasance, to take St. Mary's Wynd and the High Street on her way to her room, in Wardrop's Court, at the top of the stair. Having seen her landed, stop five minutes at the door, to give her time to deliver a ring to Four-toes, then step in, and take the young woman to the office. You will find Geordie Anderson there also, the notorious Squint; so pick up a man as you go, and make Squint sure."
"At once, sir," replied the man, and was off.
By-and-by, and just as our officer was beginning to compare the plate with the inventory, the superintendent, who had got intelligence of the discovery, came hurrying in. They found, to their astonishment, that every article was there, excepting two rings--the one, probably, that offered to the shebeen-man by Four-toes' mother, and the other that which had been presently sent to Four-toes herself. A more complete recovery was perhaps never achieved; and it was all the more wonderful from the small beginning from which the trace had been detected. Having completed the examination and packed the treasure, which was presently removed to the office, the discoverer set about examining Abram's room; but so cunningly had the whole affair of the resettership been conducted, that there was not found a trace of any kind to show his connection with the burglars. The joke of the man in reference to the process of melting had, however, had a narrow escape from being realized; for a kind of furnace had been erected with bricks, and a large crucible, sufficient to hold a Scotch pint of the "silver soup," was lying in what had been used as a coal-bunker. Meanwhile, Reid hurried in in great dejection, because the milk-woman had baffled him by going into a house in one of the wynds, and emerging by the back, and escaping.
"She's provided for," said the officer, "and you may go. I don't need you here; but you may go to Wardrop's Court, top of stair, and help Jones to take care of Four-toes and George Anderson called Squint; you know him?"
"Who that has once seen him will ever forget him?" replied the other. "When will Jones be there?"
"Just when you will arrive, giving you time to walk slow, like a good detective."
"And now," said our officer, as he proceeded to fasten up the door, "so much for a casual question,--a good night's work, and a reward of a hundred for recovering a thousand. I think I am entitled to my breakfast. It's not often a man makes so much of a morning." And resuming his deliberate walk--a characteristic, as he himself acknowledged, of a true thief-catcher--he repaired to a coffee-house in Nicolson Street, and allayed his hunger by coffee and a pound of chops. It was about ten o'clock when he reached the office, where he had the pleasant scene presented to him of a well-assorted bag of game--the last victims, Four-toes and Squint, being in the act of being deposited as he entered. The principals secure, the accessories were of less consequence. There were there Abram, Slabberdash, Squint, and Four-toes.
"To complete our complement we must have Four-toes' mother and Mrs. Anderson," he said to the superintendent, "and Reid and Jones will go and fetch them."
In the course of an hour both these ladies were brought into the already considerable company. That they were all surprised at the unexpected meeting, belongs to reasonable conjecture; and that Christian Anderson was more surprised than any of them, when she discovered her mistake in trusting her secrets to the "ill-looking scoundrel" of a detective in place of Abram, is not less reasonable. Our officer was, in truth, too gallant a man to traverse those laws of etiquette which demand respect for the feelings of females, and he never once alluded to the _contretemps_. But Chirsty did not feel the same delicacy in regard to him, who she feared would hang her for misplaced confidence. She had no sooner recovered from her surprise than she cried out to him, in a shrill, piercing voice--
"I hope you'll hae mercy on me, sir. It wad do ye nae guid to stretch the wizzened craig o' an auld woman, because some silly words--I wish they had choket me--cam oot o't."
"They will never be brought against you," said he; "make yourself easy on that score."
"Then what am I here for?" she growled, as, relieved somewhat from her fear, she got into her natural temper.
"For agreeing to hide stolen property."
"Stolen property!" she replied. "And did ye no steal from me my secret about my puir laddie, that ye may string him to a wuddy? There's an auld sayin' that speech is silvern, but silence is gowden. Whaur is the difference between stealing frae me the siller o' my speech, and robbing a man o' the siller o' his jugs and teaspoons?"
"Quiet," he said calmly. "Abram, I want to speak with you. Separate these," he added, addressing one of the men.
And having got Abram by himself, he asked him if he was inclined to run the risk of a trial and condemnation, or tell the truth, and trust to the Royal mercy. The Jew hesitated; but our officer knew that a hesitating criminal is like a hesitating woman--each waits for an argument to resolve them against their faith and honour. He knew that misfortune breaks up the bonds of etiquette, even among the virtuous; and that the honour among themselves, of which thieves boast, and a portion of mankind, for some strange reason, secretly approve, becomes weak in proportion to the danger of retributive justice. Not much given to speculate, he yet sometimes wondered why it was that one should be despised and treated harshly because he comes forward to serve the ends of justice and benefit society; but a less acute mind may feel no difficulty in accounting for the anomaly. The king's-evidence, while he proves himself a coward and false to his faith, acts from pure selfishness; and though he offers a boon to society, it is in reality a bargain which he drives for self-preservation. These speculations certainly did not pass through the mind of Abram, if his prevailing thought was not more likely in the form--
"If I can't get my pound of silver out of the Christian, I can at least keep my own pound of flesh."
But whether he thought in this Jewish form or not, it is certain that he was not long in making as clean a breast as a Jew might be expected to make of the whole secret of the robbery. It was planned and executed, he said, by Slabberdash and Squint, and he agreed to become resetter on the condition of being allowed to retain a half of the proceeds. Four-toes brought the plate to him at half a dozen courses of her pitchers, and he had intended on that very day to melt all that was meltable. The watches and rings were to be reserved for opportunities, as occasions presented.
I give this story by way of an example of those strange workings in a close society, whereby often great events are discovered from what is termed chance. Such occurrences, however they may startle us, are all explainable by the laws of probabilities. They occur often just in proportion to the increase of ramifications in civilised conditions. More people come into the plot; the increased activity drives the culprits to shifts, and these shifts are perilous from the very circumstance of being forced. We thus find detection often more easy and certain in populous towns, with a good staff of criminal officers, than in quieter places, where both plotters and shifts are proportionally fewer. If nature is always true to her purpose, so art, which is second nature, is equally true to hers, and man is better provided for than he deserves. I do not concern myself with the vulgar subject of punishments, never very agreeable to polite minds, and not at all times useful to those who gloat over descriptions of them. It is enough to say that the law was justly applied. Two got clear off--the mothers of Squint and Four-toes; and I may add that Chirsty Anderson probably afterwards acted up more to her own proverb, that "speech is silvern, but silence is golden."
THE MERCHANT'S DAUGHTER.
On the western skirts of the Torwood--famous in Scottish story for its association with the names of Wallace and Bruce--there stood, in the middle of the sixteenth century, a farm-house of rather superior appearance for the period.
This house was occupied at the time of which we speak by a person of the name of Henderson, who farmed a pretty extensive tract of land in the neighbourhood.
Henderson was a respectable man; and although not affluent, was in tolerably easy circumstances.
The night on which our story opens, which was in the September of the year 1530, was a remarkably wild and stormy one. The ancient oaks of the Torwood were bending and groaning beneath the pressure of the storm; and, ever and anon, large portions of the dark forest were rendered visible, and a wild light thrown into its deepest recesses by the flashing lightning.
The night, too, was pitch-dark; and, to add to its dismal character, a heavy drenching rain, borne on the furious blast, deluged the earth, and beat with violence on all opposing objects.
"A terrible night this, goodwife," said Henderson to his helpmate, as he double-barred the outer door, while she stood behind him with a candle to afford him the necessary light to perform this operation.
"I wish these streamers that have been dancing all night in the north may not bode some ill to poor Scotland. They were seen, I mind, just as they are now, eight nights precisely before that cursed battle of Flodden; and it was well judged by them that some serious disaster was at hand."
"But I have heard you say, goodman," replied David Henderson's better-half, who--the former finding some difficulty in thrusting a bar into its place--was still detained in her situation of candle-holder, "that the fight of Flodden was lost by the king's descending from his vantage-ground."
"True, goodwife," said David; "but was not his doing so but a means of fulfilling the prognostication? How could it have been brought about else?"
The door being now secured, Henderson and his wife returned without further colloquy into the house; and shortly after, it being now late, retired to bed.
In the meantime, the storm continued to rage with unabated violence. The rush of the wind amongst the trees was deafening; and at first faintly, but gradually waxing louder, as the stream swelled with the descending deluge of rain, came the hoarse voice of the adjoining river on the blast as it boiled and raged along.
Henderson had been in bed about an hour--it was now midnight--but had been kept awake by the tremendous sounds of the tempest, when, gently jogging his slumbering helpmate--
"Goodwife," he said, "listen a moment. Don't you hear the voice of some one shouting without?"
They now both listened intently; and loudly as the storm roared, soon distinguished the tramp of horses' feet approaching the house.
In the next moment, a rapid succession of thundering strokes on the door, as if from the butt end of a heavy whip, accompanied by the exclamations of--"Ho! within there! house, house!" gave intimation that the rider sought admittance.
"Who can this be?" said Henderson, making an attempt to rise; in which, however, he was resisted by his wife, who held him back, saying--
"Never mind them, David; let them just rap on. This is no time to admit visitors. Who can tell who they may be?"
"And who cares who they may be?" replied the sturdy farmer, throwing himself out of bed. "I'll just see how they look from the window, Mary;" and he proceeded to the window, threw it up, looked over, and saw beneath him a man of large stature, mounted on a powerful black horse, with a lady seated behind him.
"Dreadful night, friend," said the stranger, looking up to the window occupied by Henderson, and to which he had been attracted by the noise made in raising it. "Can you give my fellow-traveller here shelter till the morning? She is so benumbed with cold, so drenched with wet, and so exhausted by the fatigue of a long day's ride, that she can proceed no further; and we have yet a good fifteen miles to make out."
"This is no hostel, friend, for the accommodation of travellers," replied the farmer. "I am not in the habit of admitting strangers into my house, especially at so late an hour of the night as this."
"Had I been asking for myself," rejoined the horseman, "I should not have complained of your wariness; but surely you won't be so churlish as refuse quarters to a lady on such a night as this. She can scarce retain her seat on the saddle. Besides, you shall be handsomely paid for any trouble you may be put to."
"Oh do, good sir, allow me to remain with you for the night, for I am indeed very much fatigued," came up to the ear of Henderson, in feeble but silvery tones, from the fair companion of the horseman, with the addition, after a short pause, of "You shall be well rewarded for the kindness."
At a loss what to do, Henderson made no immediate reply, but, scratching his head, withdrew from the window a moment to consult his wife.
Learning that there was a lady in the case, and judging from this circumstance that no violence or mischief of any kind was likely to be intended, the latter agreed, although still with some reluctance, to her husband's suggestion that the benighted travellers should be admitted.
On this resolution being come to, Henderson returned to the window, and thrusting out his head, exclaimed, "Wait there a moment, and I will admit you."
In the next instant he had unbarred the outer door, and had stepped out to assist the lady in dismounting; but was anticipated in this courtesy by her companion, who had already placed her on the ground.
"Shall I put up your horse, sir?" said Henderson, addressing the stranger, but now with more deference than before; as, from his dress and manner, which he had now an opportunity of observing more closely, he had no doubt he was a man of rank.
"Oh no, thank you, friend," replied the latter. "My business is pressing, and I must go on; but allow me to recommend this fair lady to your kindest attention. To-morrow I will return and carry her away."
Saying this, he again threw himself on his horse--a noble-looking charger--took bridle in hand, struck his spurs into his side, and regardless of all obstacles, and of the profound darkness of the night, darted off with the speed of the wind.
In an instant after, both horse and rider were lost in the gloom; but their furious career might for some time be tracked, even after they had disappeared, by the streams of fire which poured from the fierce collision of the horse's hoofs with the stony road over which he was tearing his way with such desperate velocity.
Henderson in the meantime had conducted his fair charge into the house, and had consigned her to the care of his wife, who had now risen for the purpose of attending her.
A servant having been also called up, a cheerful fire soon blazed on the hearth of the best apartment in the house--that into which the strange lady had been ushered.
The kind-hearted farmer's wife now also supplied her fair guest with dry clothing and other necessaries, and did everything in her power to render her as comfortable as possible.
To this kindness her natural benevolence alone would have prompted her; but an additional motive presented itself in the youth and extreme beauty of the fair traveller, who was, as the farmer's wife afterwards remarked to her husband, the loveliest creature her eyes ever beheld. Nor was her manner less captivating: it was mild and gentle, while the sweet silvery tones of her voice imparted an additional charm to the graces of her person.
Her apparel, too, the good woman observed, was of the richest description; and the jewellery with which she was adorned, in the shape of rings, bracelets, etc., and which she deposited one after another on a table that stood beside her, with the careless manner of one accustomed to the possession of such things, seemed of great value.
A purse, also, well stored with golden guineas, as the sound indicated, was likewise thrown on the table with the same indifferent manner.
The wealth of the fair stranger, in short, seemed boundless in the eyes of her humble, unsophisticated attendant.
The comfort of the young lady attended to in every way, including the offer of some homely refreshment, of which, however, she scarcely partook, pleading excessive fatigue as an apology, she was left alone in the apartment to retire to rest when she thought proper; the room containing a clean and neat bed, which had always been reserved for strangers.
On rejoining her husband, after leaving her fair guest, a long and earnest conversation took place between the worthy couple as to who or what the strangers could be. They supposed, they conjectured, they imagined, but all to no purpose. They could make nothing of it beyond the conviction that they were persons of rank; for the natural politeness of the "guidwife" had prevented her asking the young lady any questions touching her history; and she had made no communication whatever on the subject herself.
As to the lady's companion, all that Henderson, who was the only one of the family who had seen him, could tell, was, that he was a tall, dark man, attired as a gentleman, but so muffled up in a large cloak, that he could not, owing to that circumstance and the extreme darkness of the night, make out his features distinctly.
Henderson, however, expressed some surprise at the abruptness of his departure, and still more at the wild and desperate speed with which he had ridden away, regardless of the darkness of the night and of all obstacles that might be in the way.
It was what he himself, a good horseman, and who knew every inch of the ground, would not have done for a thousand merks; and a great marvel he held it, that the reckless rider had got a hundred yards without horse and man coming down, to the utter destruction of both.
Such was the substance of Henderson's communications to his wife regarding the horseman. The latter's to him was of the youth and exceeding beauty of his fair companion, and of her apparently prodigious wealth. The worthy man drank in with greedy ears, and looks of excessive wonderment, her glowing descriptions of the sparkling jewels and heavily laden purse which she had seen the strange lady deposit on the table; and greatly did these descriptions add to his perplexity as to who or what this lady could possibly be.
Tired of conjecturing, the worthy couple now again retired to rest, trusting that the morning would bring some light on a subject which so sadly puzzled them.
In due time that morning came, and, like many of those mornings that succeed a night of storm, it came fair and beautiful. The wind was laid, the rain had ceased, and the unclouded sun poured his cheerful light through the dark green glades of the Torwood.
On the same morning another sun arose, although to shine on a more limited scene. This was the fair guest of David Henderson of Woodlands, whose beauty, remarkable as it had seemed on the previous night under all disadvantages, now appeared to surpass all that can be conceived of female perfection.
Mrs. Henderson looked, and, we may say, gazed on the fair stranger with a degree of wonder and delight, that for some time prevented her tendering the civilities which she came for the express purpose of offering. For some seconds she could do nothing but obey a species of charm, for which, perhaps, she could not have very well accounted. The gentle smile, too, and melodious voice of her guest, seemed still more fascinating than on the previous evening.
In the meantime the day wore on, and there was yet no appearance of the lady's companion of the former night, who, as the reader will recollect, had promised to Henderson to return and carry away his fair lodger.
Night came, and still he appeared not. Another day and another night passed away, and still he of the black charger was not forthcoming.
The circumstance greatly surprised both Henderson and his wife; but it did not surprise them more than the lady's apparent indifference on the subject. She indeed joined, in words at least, in the wonder which they once or twice distantly hinted at the conduct of the recreant knight; but it was evident that she did not feel much of either astonishment or disappointment at his delay.
Again and again, another and another day came and passed away, and still no one appeared to inquire after the fair inmate of Woodlands.
It will readily be believed that the surprise of Henderson and his wife at this circumstance increased with the lapse of time. It certainly did. But however much they might be surprised, they had little reason to complain, so far, at any rate, as their interest was concerned, for their fair lodger paid them handsomely for the trouble she put them to. She dealt out the contents of her ample and well-stocked purse with unsparing liberality, besides presenting her hostess with several valuable jewels.
On this score, therefore, they had nothing to complain of; and neither needed to care, nor did care, how long it continued.
During all this time the unknown beauty continued to maintain the most profound silence regarding her history,--whence she had come, whither she was going, or in what relation the person stood to her who had brought her to Woodlands, and who now seemed to have deserted her.
All that the most ingeniously-put queries on the subject could elicit was, that she was an entire stranger in that part of the country; and an assurance that the person who brought her would return for her one day, although there were reasons why it might be some little time distant.
What these reasons were, however, she never would give the most remote idea; and with this measure of information were her host and hostess compelled to remain satisfied.
The habits of the fair stranger, in the meantime, were extremely retired. She would never go abroad until towards the dusk of the evening; and when she did, she always took the most sequestered routes; her favourite, indeed only resort on these occasions, being a certain little retired grove of elms, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile from Woodlands.
The extreme caution the young lady observed in all her movements when she went abroad, a good deal surprised both Henderson and his wife; but, from a feeling of delicacy towards their fair lodger, who had won their esteem by her affable and amiable manners, they avoided all remark on the subject, and would neither themselves interfere in any way with her proceedings, nor allow any other member of their family to do so.
Thus was she permitted to go out and return whensoever she pleased, without inquiry or remark.
Although, however, neither Henderson nor his wife would allow of any one watching the motions of their fair but mysterious lodger when she went abroad, there is nothing to hinder us from doing this. We shall therefore follow her to the little elm grove by the wayside, on a certain evening two or three days after her arrival in Woodlands.
Doing this, we shall find the mysterious stranger seated beside a clear sparkling fountain, situated a little way within the grove, that, first forming itself into a little pellucid lake in the midst of the greensward, afterwards glided away down a mossy channel bedecked with primroses.
All alone by this fountain sat the young lady, looking, in her surpassing features and the exquisite symmetry of her light and graceful form, the very nymph of the crystal waters of the spring--the goddess of the grove.
As she thus sat on the evening in question--it being now towards the dusk--the bushes, by which the fountain was in part shut in, were suddenly and roughly parted, and in the next moment a young man of elegant exterior, attired in the best fashion of the period, and leading a horse behind him by the bridle, stood before the half-alarmed and blushing damsel.
The embarrassment of the lady, however, was not much greater than that of the intruder, who appeared to have little expected to find so fair and delicate a creature in such a situation, or indeed to find any one else. He himself had sought the fountain, which he knew well, and had often visited, merely to quench his thirst.
After contemplating each other for an instant with looks of surprise and embarrassment, the stranger doffed his bonnet with an air of great gallantry, and apologised for his intrusion.
The lady, smiling and blushing, replied, that his appearance there could be no intrusion, as the place was free to all.
"True, madam," said the former, again bowing low; "but your presence should have made it sacred, and I should have so deemed it, had I been aware of your being here."
The only reply of the young lady to this gallant speech, was a profound curtsey, and a smile of winning sweetness which was natural to her.
Unable to withdraw himself from the fascinations of the fair stranger, yet without any apology for remaining longer where he was, the young man appeared for a moment not to know precisely what he should say or do next. At length, however, after having vainly hinted a desire to know the young lady's name and place of residence, his courtesy prevailed over every other more selfish feeling, and he mounted his horse, and, bidding the fair wood-nymph a respectful adieu, rode off.
The young gallant, however, did not carry all away with him that he brought,--he left his heart behind him; and he had not ridden far before he found that he had done so.
The surpassing beauty of the fair stranger, and the captivating sweetness of her manner, had made an impression upon him which was destined never to be effaced.
His, in short, was one of those cases in the matter of love, which, it is said, are laughed at in France, doubted in England, and true only of the warm-tempered sons and daughters of the sunny south,--love at first sight.
It was so. From that hour the image of the lovely nymph of the grove was to remain for ever enshrined in the inmost heart of the young cavalier.
He had met with no encouragement to follow up the accidental acquaintance he had made. Indeed, the lady's reluctance to give him any information whatever as to her name or residence, he could not but consider as an indirect intimation that she desired no further correspondence with him.
But, recollecting the old adage, that "faint heart never won fair lady," he resolved, although unbidden, to seek, very soon again, the fountain in the elm grove.
Having brought our story to this point, we shall retrace our steps a little way, and take note of certain incidents that occurred in the city of Glasgow on the day after the visit of him of the black charger at Woodlands.
Early on the forenoon of that day, the Drygate, then one of the principal streets of the city above named, exhibited an unusual degree of stir and bustle.
The causeway was thronged with idlers, who were ever and anon dashed aside, like the wave that is thrown from the prow of a vessel, by some prancing horseman, who made his way towards an open space formed by the junction of three different streets.
At this point were mustering a band of riders, consisting of the civil authorities of the city, together with a number of its principal inhabitants, and other gentlemen from the neighbourhood.
The horsemen were all attired in their best,--hat and feathers, long cloaks of Flemish broad-cloth, and glittering steel-handed rapiers by their sides.
Having mustered to about the number of thirty, they formed themselves into something like regular order, and seemed now to be but awaiting the word to march. And it was indeed so; but they were also awaiting he who was to give it. They waited the appearance of their leader. A shout from the populace soon after announced his approach.
"The Provost! the Provost!" exclaimed a hundred voices at once, as a man of large stature, and of a bold and martial bearing, mounted on a "coal-black steed," came prancing alongst the Drygate-head, and made for the point at which the horsemen were assembled.
On his approach, the latter doffed their hats respectfully--a civility which was gracefully returned by him to whom it was addressed.
Taking his place at the head of the cavalcade, the Provost gave the word to march, when the whole party moved onwards; and after cautiously footing it down the steep and ill-paved descent of the Drygate, took, at a slow pace, the road towards Hamilton.
The chief magistrate of Glasgow, who led the party of horsemen on the present occasion, was Sir Robert Lindsay of Dunrod,--a powerful and wealthy baron of the neighbourhood, who had been chosen to that appointment, as all chief magistrates were chosen in those wild and turbulent times, on account of his ability to protect the inhabitants from those insults and injuries to which they were constantly liable at the hands of unprincipled power, and from which the laws were too feeble to shield them.
And to better hands than those of Sir Robert Lindsay, who was a man of bold and determined character, the welfare of the city and the safety of the citizens could not have been entrusted.
In return for the honour conferred on him, and the confidence reposed in him, he watched over the interests of the city with the utmost vigilance. But it was not to the general interest alone that he confined the benefits of his guardianship. Individuals, also, who were wronged, or threatened to be wronged, found in him a ready and efficient protector, let the oppressor or wrongdoer be whom he might.
Having given this brief sketch of the leader of the cavalcade, we resume the detail of its proceedings.
Holding on its way in a south-easterly direction, the party soon reached and passed Rutherglen Bridge; the road connecting Hamilton with Glasgow being then on the south side of the Clyde. But a little way farther had they proceeded, when the faint sound of a bugle was heard, coming apparently from a considerable distance.
"There he comes at last," said Sir David Lindsay, suddenly checking his horse to await the coming up of his party, of which he had been riding a little way in advance, immersed in a brown study. "There he comes at last," he exclaimed, recalled from his reverie by the sound of the bugle. "Look to your paces, gentlemen, and let us show some order and regularity as well as respect."
Obeying this hint, the horsemen, who had been before jogging along in a confused and careless manner, now drew together into a closer body; the laggards coming forward, and those in advance holding back.
In this order, with the Provost at their head, the party continued to move slowly onwards; but they had not done so for many minutes, when they descried, at the farther extremity of a long level reach of the road, a numerous party of horse approaching at a rapid, ambling pace, and seemingly straining hard to keep up with one who rode a little way in their front.
The contrast between this party and the Provost's was striking enough.
The latter, though exceedingly respectable and citizen-like, was of extremely sober hue compared to the former, in which flaunted all the gayest dresses of the gayest courtiers of the time. Long plumes of feathers waved and nodded in velvet bonnets, looped with gold bands; and rich and brilliant colours, mingling with the glitter of steel and silver, gave to the gallant cavalcade at once an imposing and magnificent appearance. In point of horsemanship, too, with the exception of Sir Robert Lindsay himself, and one or two other men of rank who had joined his party, the approaching cavaliers greatly surpassed the worthy citizens of St. Mungo,--coming on at a showy and dashing pace, while the latter kept advancing with the sober, steady gait assimilative of their character.
On the two parties coming within about fifty paces of each other, Sir Robert Lindsay made a signal to his followers to halt, while he himself rode forward, hat in hand, towards the leader of the opposite party.
"Our good Sir Robert of Dunrod," said the latter, who was no other than James V., advancing half-way to meet the Provost, and taking him kindly and familiarly by the hand as he spoke. "How did'st learn of our coming?"
"The movements of kings are not easily kept secret," replied Sir Robert, evasively.
"By St. Bridget, it would seem not," replied James, laughingly. "My visit to your good city, Sir Robert, I did not mean to be a formal one, and therefore had mentioned it only to one or two. In truth, I--I"--added James, with some embarrassment of manner--"I had just one particular purpose, and that of a private nature, in view. No state matter at all, Sir Robert--nothing of a public character. So that, to be plain with you, Sir Robert, I could have dispensed with the honour you have done me in bringing out these good citizens to receive me; that being, I presume, your purpose. Not but that I should have been most happy to meet yourself, Sir Robert; but it was quite unnecessary to trouble these worthy people."
"It was our bounden duty, your Grace," replied Sir Robert, not at all disconcerted by this royal damper on his loyalty. "It was our bounden duty, on learning that your Grace was at Bothwell Castle, and that you intended visiting our poor town of Glasgow, to acknowledge the favour in the best way in our power. And these worthy gentlemen and myself could think of no better than coming out to meet and welcome your Grace."
"Well, well, since it is so, Sir Robert," replied the king, good-humouredly, "we shall take the kindness as it is meant. Let us proceed."
Riding side by side, and followed by their respective parties, James and the Provost now resumed their progress towards Glasgow, where they shortly after arrived, and where they were received with noisy acclamations by the populace, whom rumour had informed of the king's approach.
On reaching the city, the latter proceeded to the Bishop's Castle,--an edifice which has long since disappeared, but which at this time stood on or near the site of the infirmary,--in which he intended taking up his residence.
Having seen the king within the castle gates, his citizen escort dispersed, and sought their several homes; going off, in twos and threes, in different directions.
"Ken ye, Sir Robert, what has brought his Grace here at present?" said an old wealthy merchant, who had been one of the cavalcade that went to meet James, and whom the Provost overtook as he was leisurely jogging down the High Street, on his way home.
"Hem," ejaculated Sir Robert. "Perhaps I have half a guess, Mr, Morton. The king visits places on very particular sorts of errands sometimes. His Grace didn't above half thank us for our attendance to-day. He would rather have got somewhat more quietly into the city; but I had reasons for desiring it to be otherwise, so did not mind his hints about his wish for privacy."
"And no doubt he had his reasons for the privacy he hinted at," said Sir Robert's companion.
"You may swear that," replied the latter, laughingly.
"Heard ye ever, Mr. Morton, of a certain fair and wealthy young lady of the name of Jessie Craig?"
"John Craig's daughter?" rejoined the old merchant.
"The same," said Sir Robert. "The prettiest girl in Scotland, and one of the wealthiest too."
"Well; what if the king should have been smitten with her beauty, having seen her accidentally in Edinburgh, where she was lately? and what, if his visit to Glasgow just now should be for the express purpose of seeing this fair maiden? and what, if I should not exactly approve of such a proceeding, seeing that the young lady in question has, as you know, neither father nor mother to protect her, both being dead?"
"Well, Sir Robert, and what then?" here interposed Mr. Morton, availing himself of a pause in the former's supposititious case.
"Why, then, wouldn't it be my bounden duty, worthy sir, as Provost of this city, to act the part of guardian towards this young maiden in such emergency, and to see that she came by no wrong?"
"Truly, it would be a worthy part, Sir Robert," replied the old merchant; "but the king is strong, and you may not resist him openly."
"Nay, that I would not attempt," replied the Provost. "I have taken quieter and more effectual measures. Made aware, though somewhat late, through a trusty channel, of the king's intended visit and its purpose, I have removed her out of the reach of danger, to where his Grace will, I rather think, have some difficulty in finding her."
"So, so. And this, then, is the true secret of the honour which has just been conferred on us!" replied Sir Robert's companion, with some indignation. "But the matter is in good hands when it is in yours, Provost. In your keeping we consider our honours and our interests are safe. I wish you a good day, Provost." And the interlocutors having by this time arrived at the foot of the High Street, where four streets joined, the old merchant took that which conducted to his residence, Sir Robert's route lying in an opposite direction.
From the conversation just recorded, the reader will at once trace a connection between Sir Robert Lindsay of Dunrod and he of the black charger who brought to Woodlands the fair damsel whom we left there. They were the same; and that fair damsel was the daughter of John Craig, late merchant of the city of Glasgow, who left an immense fortune, of which this girl was the sole heir.
In carrying the young lady to Woodlands, and leaving her there, Sir Robert, although apparently under the compulsion of circumstances, was acting advisedly. He knew Henderson to be a man of excellent character and great respectability; and in the secrecy and mystery he observed, he sought to preclude all possibility of his interference in the affair ever reaching the ears of the king. What he had told to old Morton, he knew would go no further; that person having been an intimate friend of the young lady's father, and of course interested in all that concerned her welfare.
The palace of a bishop was not very appropriate quarters for one who came on such an errand as that which brought James to Glasgow. But this was a circumstance that did not give much concern to that merry and somewhat eccentric monarch; and the less so, that the bishop himself happened to be from home at the time, on a visit to his brother of St. Andrews.
Having the house thus to himself, James did not hesitate to make as free use of it as if he had been at Holyrood.
It was not many hours after his arrival at the castle, that he summoned to his presence a certain trusty attendant of the name of William Buchanan, and thus schooled him in the duties of a particular mission in which he desired his services.
"Willie," said the good-humoured monarch, "at the further end of the Rottenrow of this good city of Glasgow--that is, at the western end of the said row--there stands a fair mansion on the edge of the brae, and overlooking the strath of the Clyde. It is the residence of a certain fair young lady of the name of Craig. Now, Willie, what I desire of you to do is this: you will go to this young lady from me, carrying her this gold ring, and say to her that I intend, with her permission, doing myself the honour of paying her a visit in the course of this afternoon.
"Make your observations, Willie, and let me know how the land lies when you return. But, pray thee, keep out of the way of our worthy knight of Dunrod; and if thou shouldst chance to meet him, and he should question thee, seeing that you wear our livery, breathe no syllable of what thou art about, otherwise he may prove somewhat troublesome to both of us. At any rate, to a certainty, he would crop thy ears, Willie; and thou knowest, king though I be, I could not put them on again, nor give thee another pair in their stead. So keep those thou hast out of the hands of Sir Robert Lindsay of Dunrod, I pray thee."
Charged with his mission, Willie, who had been often employed on matters of this kind before, proceeded to the street with the unsavoury name already mentioned; but, not knowing exactly where to find the house he wanted, he looked around him to see if he could see any one to whom he might apply for information. There happened to be nobody on the street at the time; but his eye at length fell on an old weaver--as, from the short green apron he wore, he appeared to be--standing at a door.
Towards this person Willie now advanced, discarding, however, as much as possible, all appearance of having any particular object in view; for he prided himself on the caution and dexterity with which he managed all such matters as that he was now engaged in.
"Fine day, honest man," said Willie, approaching the old weaver. "Gran wather for the hairst."
"It's just that, noo," replied the old man, gazing at Willie with a look of inquiry. "Just uncommon pleesant wather."
"A bit nice airy place up here," remarked the latter.
"Ou ay, weel aneuch for that," replied the weaver. "But air 'll no fill the wame."
"No very substantially," said Willie. "Some gran hooses up here, though. Wha's is that?" and he pointed to a very handsome mansion-house opposite.
"That's the rector o' Hamilton's," replied the weaver.
"And that are there?"
"That's the rector o' Carstairs'."
"That's the rector o' Erskine's."
"'Od, but ye do leeve in a godly neighbourhood here," said Willie, impatient with these clerical iterations. "Do a' the best houses hereawa belang to the clergy?"
"Indeed, the maist feck o' them," said the weaver. "Leave ye them alane for that. The best o' everything fa's to their share."
"Yonder's anither handsome hoose, noo," said Willie, pointing to one he had not yet indicated. "Does yon belang to the clergy too?"
"Ou no; yon's the late Mr. Craig's," replied the weaver; "ane o' oor walthiest merchants, wha died some time ago."
"Ou ay," said Willie, drily; "just sae. Gude mornin', friend." And thinking he had managed his inquiries very dexterously, he sauntered slowly away--still assuming to have no special object in view--towards the particular house just spoken of, and which, we need not say, was precisely the one he wanted.
It was a large isolated building, with an extensive garden behind, and stretching down the face of what is now called the Deanside Brae. On the side next the street, the entrance was by a tall, narrow, iron gate. This gate Willie now approached, but found it locked hard and fast. Finding this, he bawled out, at the top of his voice, for some one to come to him. After a time, an old woman made her appearance, and, in no very pleasant mood, asked him what he wanted.
"I hae a particular message, frae a very particular person, to the young leddy o' this hoose," replied Willie.
"Ye maun gang and seek the young leddy o' this hoose ither whars than here, then," said the old dame, making back to the house again, without intending any further communication on the subject.
"Do ye mean to say that she's no in the hoose?" shouted Willie.
"Ay, I mean to say that, and mair too," replied the old crone. "She hasna been in't for a gey while, and winna be in't for a guid while langer; and sae ye may tell them that sent ye."
Saying this, she passed into the house; and by doing so, would have put an end to all further conference.
But Willie was not to be thus baffled in his object. Changing his tactics from the imperative to the wheedling, in which last he believed himself to be exceedingly dexterous--
"Mistress--I say, Mistress," he shouted, in a loud, but coaxing tone; "speak a word, woman--just a word or two. Ye maybe winna fare the waur o't."
Whether it was the hint conveyed in the last clause of Willie's address, or that the old woman felt some curiosity to hear what so urgent a visitor had to say, she returned to the door, where, standing fast, and looking across the courtyard at Willie, whose sly though simple-looking face was pressed against the iron bars of the outer gate, she replied to him with a--
"Weel, man, what is't ye want?"
"Tuts, woman, come across--come across," said Willie, wagging her towards him with his forefinger. "I canna be roarin' out what I hae to say to ye a' that distance. I micht as weel cry it oot at the cross. See, there's something to bring ye a wee nearer."
And he held out several small silver coin through the bars of the gate. The production of the cash had the desired effect. The old woman, who was lame, and who walked by the aid of a short thick stick with a crooked head, hobbled towards him, and, having accepted the proffered coin, again asked, though with much more civility than before, what it was he wanted?
"Tuts, woman, open the yett," said Willie in his cagiest manner, "and I'll tell ye a' aboot it. It's hardly ceevil to be keeping a body speakin' this way wi' his nose thrust through atwixt twa cauld bars o' airn, like a rattin atween a pair o' tangs."
"Some folks are safest that way, though," replied the old woman, with something like an attempt at a laugh. "Bars o' airn are amang the best freens we hae sometimes. But as ye seem a civil sort o' a chiel, after a', I'll let ye in, although I dinna see what ye'll be the better o' that."
So saying, she took a large iron key from her girdle, inserted it in the lock, and in the next moment the gate grated on its hinges; yielding partly to the pressure of Willie from without, and partly to the co-operative efforts of the old woman from within.
"Noo," said Willie, on gaining the interior of the courtyard--"Noo," he said, affecting his most coaxing manner, "you and me 'll hae a bit crack thegither, guidwife."
And, sitting down on a stone bench that ran along the front of the house, he motioned to the old lady to take a seat beside him, which she did.
"I understand, guidwife," began Willie, who meant to be very cunning in his mode of procedure, "that she's just an uncommon bonny leddy your mistress; just wonderfu'."
"Whaever tell't ye that, didna misinform ye," replied the old woman drily.
"And has mints o' siller?" rejoined Mr. Buchanan.
"No ill aff in that way either," said the old woman.
"But it's her beauty--it's her extraordinary beauty--that's the wonder, and that I hear everybody speakin' aboot," said Willie. "I wad gie the price o' sax fat hens to see her. Could ye no get me a glisk o' her ony way, just for ae minute?"
"Didna I tell ye before that she's no at hame?" said the old dame, threatening again to get restive on Willie's hands.
"Od, so ye did; I forgot," said Mr. Buchanan, affecting obliviousness of the fact. "Whaur may she be noo?" he added in his simplest and _couthiest_ manner.
"Wad ye like to ken?" replied the old lady with a satirical sneer.
"'Deed wad I; and there's mae than me wad like to ken," replied Willie; "and them that wad pay handsomely for the information."
"Really," said the old dame, with a continuation of the same sneer, and long ere this guessing what Willie was driving at. "And wha may they be noo, if I may speer?"
"They're gey kenspeckled," replied Mr. Buchanan; "but that doesna matter. If ye canna, or winna tell me whaur Mistress Craig is, could ye no gie's a bit inklin' o' whan ye expect her hame?"
"No; but I'll gie ye a bit inklin o' whan ye'll walk oot o' this," said the old woman, rising angrily from her seat; "and that's this minute, or I'll set the dug on ye. Hisk, hisk--Teeger, Teeger!"
And a huge black dog came bouncing out of the house, and took up a position right in front of Willie; wagging his tail, as if in anticipation of a handsome treat in the way of worrying that worthy.
"Gude sake, woman," said Willie, rising in great alarm from his seat, and edging towards the outer gate--"What's a' this for? Ye wadna set that brute on a Christian cratur, wad ye?"
"Wadna I? Ye'd better no try me, frien', but troop aff wi' ye. Teeger," she added, with a significant look. The dog understood it, and, springing on Willie, seized him by one of the skirts of his coat, which, with one powerful tug, he at once separated from the body.
Pressed closely upon by both the dog and his mistress, Willie keeping, however, his face to the foe, now retreated towards the gate, when, just at the moment of his making his exit, the old lady, raising her staff, hit him a parting blow, which, taking effect on the bridge of his nose, immediately enlarged the dimensions of that organ, besides drawing forth a copious stream of claret. In the next instant the gate was shut and locked in the sufferer's face.
"Confound ye, ye auld limmer," shouted Willie furiously, and shaking his fist through the bars of the gate as he spoke, "if I had ye here on the outside o' the yett, as ye're in the in, if I wadna baste the auld hide o' ye. But my name's no Willie Buchanan if I dinna gar ye rue this job yet, some way or anither."
To these objurgations of the discomfited messenger the old lady deigned no word of answer, but merely shaking her head, and indulging in a pretty broad smile of satisfaction, hobbled into the house, followed by Tiger, wagging his tail, as much as to say, "I think we've given yon fellow a fright, mistress."
Distracted with indignation and resentment, Willie hastened back to the castle, and, too much excited to think of his outward appearance, hurried into the royal presence with his skirtless coat and disfigured countenance, which he had by no means improved by sundry wipes with the sleeve of his coat.
On Willie making his appearance in this guise, the merry monarch looked at him for an instant in silent amazement, then burst into an incontrollable fit of laughter, which the grave, serious look of Willie showed he by no means relished. There was even a slight expression of resentment in the manner in which the maltreated messenger bore the merry reception of his light-hearted master.
"Willie, man," at length said James, when his mirth had somewhat subsided, "what's this has happened thee? Where gottest thou that enormous nose, man?"
"Feth, your Majesty, it may be a joke to you, but it's unco little o' ane to me," replied Willie, whose confidential duties and familiar intercourse with his royal master had led him to assume a freedom of speech which was permitted to no other, and which no other would have dared to attempt.
"I hae gotten sic a worryin' the day," he continued, "as I never got in my life before. Between dugs and auld wives, I hae had a bonny time o't. Worried by the tane and smashed by the tither, as my nose and my coat-tails bear witness."
"Explain yourself, Willie. What does all this mean?" exclaimed James, again laughing.
Willie told his story, finishing with the information that the bird was flown--meaning Jessie Craig. "Aff and awa, naebody kens, or'll tell whaur."
"Off--away!" exclaimed the king, with an air of mingled disappointment and surprise. "Very odd," he added, musingly; "and most particularly unlucky. But we shall wait on a day or two, and she will probably reappear in that time; or we may find out where she has gone to."
On the day following that on which the incidents just related occurred, the curiosity of the good people in the neighbourhood of the late Mr. Craig's house in Rottenrow was a good deal excited by seeing a person in the dress of a gentleman hovering about the residence just alluded to.
Anon he would walk to and fro in front of the house, looking earnestly towards the windows. Now he would descend the Deanside Brae, and do the same by those behind. Again he would return to the front of the mansion, and taking up his station on the opposite side of the street, would resume his scrutiny of the windows.
The stranger was thus employed, when he was startled by the appearance of some one advancing towards him, whom, it was evident, he would fain have avoided if he could. But it was too late. There was no escape. So, assuming an air of as much composure and indifference as he could, he awaited the approach of the unwelcome intruder. This person was Sir Robert Lindsay.
Coming up to the stranger with a respectful air, and with an expression of countenance as free from all consciousness as that which had been assumed by the former--
"I hope your Grace is well?" he said, bowing profoundly as he spoke.
"Thank you, Provost--thank you," replied James; for we need hardly say it was he.
"Your Grace has doubtless come hither," said the former gravely, "to enjoy the delightful view which this eminence commands?"
"The precise purpose, Sir Robert," replied James, recovering a little from the embarrassment which, after all his efforts, he could not entirely conceal. "The view is truly a fine one, Provost," continued the king. "I had no idea that your good city could boast of anything so fair in the way of landscape. Our city of Edinburgh hath more romantic points about it; but for calm and tranquil beauty, methinks it hath nothing superior to the scene commanded by this eminence."
"There are some particular localities on the ridge of the hill here, however," said Sir Robert, "that exhibit the landscape to much better advantage than others, and to which, taking it for granted that your Grace is not over-familiar with the ground, it will afford me much pleasure to conduct you."
"Ah! thank you, good Sir Robert--thank you," replied James. "But some other day, if you please. The little spare time I had on my hands is about exhausted, so that I must return to the castle. I have, as you know, Sir Robert, to give audience to some of your worthy councillors, who intend honouring me with a visit.
"Amongst the number I will expect to see yourself, Sir Robert." And James, after politely returning the loyal obeisance of the Provost, hurried away towards the castle.
On his departure, the latter stood for a moment, and looked after him with a smile of peculiar intelligence; then muttered, as he also left the spot--
"Well do I know what it was brought your Grace to this quarter of the town; and knowing this, I know it was for anything but the sake of its view. Fair maidens have more attractions in your eyes than all the views between this and John o'Groat's. But I have taken care that your pursuit in the present instance will avail thee little." And the good Provost went on his way.
For eight entire days after this did James wait in Glasgow for the return of Jessie Craig; but he waited in vain. Neither in that time could he learn anything whatever of the place of her sojournment. His patience at length exhausted, he determined on giving up the pursuit for the time at any rate, and on quitting the city.
The king, as elsewhere casually mentioned, had come last from Bothwell Castle. It was now his intention to proceed to Stirling, where he proposed stopping for two or three weeks; thence to Linlithgow, and thereafter returning to Edinburgh.
The purpose of James to make this round having reached the ears of a certain Sir James Crawford of Netherton, whose house and estate lay about half-way between Glasgow and Stirling, that gentleman sent a respectful message to James, through Sir Robert Lindsay, to the effect that he would feel much gratified if his Grace would deign to honour his poor house of Netherton with a visit in passing, and accept for himself and followers such refreshment as he could put before them.
To this message James returned a gracious answer, saying that he would have much pleasure in accepting the invitation so kindly sent him, and naming the day and hour when he would put the inviter's hospitality to the test.
Faithful to his promise, the king and his retinue, amongst whom was now Sir Robert Lindsay, who had been included in the invitation, presented themselves at Netherton gate about noon on the day that had been named.
They were received with all honour by the proprietor, a young man of prepossessing appearance, graceful manners, and frank address.
On the king and gentlemen of his train entering the house, they were ushered into a large banqueting hall, where was an ample table spread with the choicest edibles, and glittering with the silver goblets and flagons that stood around it in thick array. Everything, in short, betokened at once the loyalty and great wealth of the royal party's entertainer.
The king and his followers having taken their places at table, the fullest measure of justice was quickly done to the good things with which it was spread. James was in high spirits, and talked and rattled away with as much glee and as entire an absence of all kingly reserve as the humblest good fellow in his train.
Encouraged by the affability of the king, and catching his humour, the whole party gave way to the most unrestrained mirth. The joke and the jest went merrily round with the wine flagon; and he was for a time the best man who could start the most jocund theme.
It was while this spirit prevailed that Sir Robert Lindsay, after making a private signal to Sir James Crawford, which had the effect of causing him to quit the apartment on pretence of looking for something he wanted, addressing the king, said--
"May I take the liberty of asking your Grace if you have seen any particularly fair maidens in the course of your present peregrinations? I know your Grace has a good taste in these matters."
James coloured a little at this question and the remark which accompanied it; but quickly regaining his self-possession and good-humour--
"No, Sir Robert," he said, laughingly, "I cannot say that I have been so fortunate on the present occasion. As to the commendation which you have been pleased to bestow on my taste, I thank you, and am glad it meets with your approbation."
"Yet, your Grace," continued Sir Robert, "excellent judge as I know you to be of female beauty, I deem myself, old and staid as I am, your Grace's equal, craving your Grace's pardon; and, to prove this, will take a bet with your Grace of a good round sum, that you have never seen, and do not know, a more beautiful woman than the lady of our present host."
"Take care, Provost," replied James. "Make no rash bets. I know the most beautiful maiden the sun ever shone upon. But it would be ungallant and ungracious to make the lady of our good host the subject of such a bet on the present occasion."
"But our host is absent, your Grace," replied the Provost pertinaciously; "and neither he nor any one else, but your Grace's friends present, need know anything at all of the matter. Will your Grace take me up for a thousand merks?"
"But suppose I should," replied James, "how is the thing to be managed? and who is to decide?"
"Both points are of easy adjustment, your Grace," said Sir Robert. "Your Grace has only to intimate a wish to our host, when he returns, that you would feel gratified by his introducing his lady to you; and as to the matter of decision, I would, with your Grace's permission and approval, put that into the hands of the gentlemen present. Of course, nothing need be said of the purpose of this proceeding to either host or hostess."
"Well, be it so," said James, urged on by the madcaps around him, who were delighted with the idea of the thing. "Now then, gentlemen," he continued, "the lady on whose beauty I stake my thousand merks is Jessie Craig, the merchant's daughter, of Glasgow, whom, I think, all of you have seen."
"Ha! my townswoman," exclaimed Sir Robert, with every appearance of surprise. "On my word, you have made mine a hard task of it; for a fairer maiden than Jessie Craig may not so readily be found. Nevertheless, I adhere to the terms of my bet."
The Provost had just done speaking, when Sir James Crawford entered the apartment, and resumed his seat at table. Shortly after he had done so, James, addressing him, said--
"Sir James, it would complete the satisfaction of these gentlemen and myself with the hospitality you have this day shown us, were you to afford us an opportunity of paying our respects to your good lady; that is, if it be perfectly convenient for and agreeable to her."
"Lady Crawford will be but too proud of the honour, your Grace," replied Sir James, rising. "She shall attend your Grace presently."
Saying this, the latter again withdrew; and soon after returned, leading a lady, over whose face hung a long and flowing veil, into the royal presence.
It would require the painter's art to express adequately the looks of intense and eager interest with which James and his party gazed on the veiled beauty, as she entered the apartment and advanced towards them. Their keen and impatient scrutiny seemed as if it would pierce the tantalizing obstruction that prevented them seeing those features on whose beauty so large a sum had been staked. In this state of annoying suspense, however, they were not long detained. On approaching within a few paces of the king, and at the moment Sir James Crawford said, with a respectful obeisance, "My wife, Lady Crawford, your Grace," she raised her veil, and exhibited to the astonished monarch and his courtiers a surpassingly beautiful countenance indeed; but it was that of Jessie Craig.
"A trick! a trick!" exclaimed James, with merry shout, and amidst a peal of laughter from all present, and in which the fair cause of all this stir most cordially joined. "A trick, a trick, Provost! a trick!" repeated James.
"Nay, no trick at all, your Grace, craving your Grace's pardon," replied the Provost gravely. "Your Grace betted that Jessie Craig was more beautiful than Lady Crawford. Now, is it so? I refer the matter, as agreed upon, to the gentlemen around us."
"Lost! lost!" exclaimed half a dozen gallants at once.
"Well, well, gentlemen, since you so decide," said James, "I will instantly give our good Provost here an order upon our treasurer for the sum."
"Nay, your Grace, not so fast. The money is as safe in your hands as mine. Let it there remain till I require it. When I do, I shall not fail to demand it."
"Be it so, then," said James, when, placing his fair hostess beside him, and after obtaining a brief explanation--which we will, in the sequel, give at more length--of the odd circumstance of finding Jessie Craig converted into Lady Crawford, the mirth and hilarity of the party were resumed, and continued till pretty far in the afternoon, when the king and his courtiers took horse,--the former at parting having presented his hostess with a massive gold chain which he wore about his neck, in token of his good wishes,--and rode off for Stirling.
To our tale we have now only to add the two or three explanatory circumstances above alluded to.
In Sir James Crawford the reader is requested to recognise the young man who discovered Jessie Craig, then the unknown fair one, by the side of the fountain in the little elm grove at Woodlands.
Encouraged by and acting on the adage already quoted,--namely, that "faint heart never won fair lady,"--he followed up his first accidental interview with the fair fugitive from royal importunity with an assiduity that in one short week accomplished the wooing and winning of her.
While the first was in progress, Sir James was informed by the young lady of the reasons for her concealment. On this and the part Sir Robert Lindsay had acted towards her being made known to him, he lost no time in opening a communication with that gentleman, riding repeatedly into Glasgow himself to see him on the subject of his fair charge; at the same time informing him of the attachment he had formed for her, and finally obtaining his consent, or at least approbation, to their marriage. The bet, we need hardly add, was a concerted joke between the Provost, Sir James, and his lady.
When we have added that the circumstance of Sir Robert Lindsay's delay in returning for Jessie Craig, which excited so much surprise at Woodlands, was owing to the unlooked-for prolongation of the king's stay in Glasgow, we think we have left nothing unexplained that stood in need of such aid.
THE BRIDE OF BELL'S TOWER.
Some time ago I made inquiry at the editor of _Notes and Queries_ for information as to the whereabouts of an old mansion called Bell's Tower, and whether it was occupied by a family of the name of Bower; but my inquiry was not attended with any success beyond the usual production of surmises and speculations. There was a place so called in Perthshire; but then it never was occupied by people of that name,--the Bowers being an old family in Angus, whose principal messuage was Kincaldrum. Yet I cannot be mistaken in the name, either of the house or the family, as connected with the occurrences of the tradition, the essentials of which have floated in my mind ever since I heard them from one to whom they were also traditional. Then the story has something of an antique air about it, as may be noticed from the application of adjectives to baptismal names, as Devil Isobel and Sweet Marjory,--by no means a modern usage, but easily recognised in analogues of our old poetry. We may say, at least, that whether the Bowers were a very or only a moderately ancient family, Bell's Tower was an old structure--the name being applied to the mansion, which was an addition to a peel or castle-house of many centuries--not without its battlements and barnkin, and all the other appurtenances of a strength, as such places were called.
Had we more to do than our subject requires with the _physique_ of this mansion--and we have something; for what romance in the moral world is independent of a _locale_, and of those lights and shadows that play where men live and act all the wondrous things they do?--we might be particular in our description; but our narrator's shade will be sufficiently conciliated, if we say that there was room enough, and ill-lighted chambers enough, and sufficiently tortuous breakneck stairs here and there, as well as those peculiar to castles, lobbies in all conscience long enough--not forgetting a blue parlour with some mysterious associations--to supply elements for genius to weave the many-coloured web of fiction. But we have a humbler part to play; and it begins here,--that Mrs. Bower had in the said blue parlour, a fortnight before our incidents, told her eldest daughter, whom we are, for the sake of the antique nomenclature--discriminative, and therefore kindly, if also sometimes harsh--to call Sweet Marjory, a piece of information, to her unexpected and strange,--no other than that Isobel, her sister, was the accepting and accepted of the rich and chivalrous youth, Hector Ogilvy, a neighbouring laird's son. Nor would it have appeared wonderful, if we had known more of the inside of that heaving breast, wherein a heart was too obedient to those magic chords, with their minute capillaries spread over the tympanum, that Marjory was as mute and pale as a statue of marble. But the truth really was, that Ogilvy had courted Marjory, and won her heart, and Isobel--Devil Isobel--had contrived means to win him to herself, at the expense of a sister's reputation for all the beautiful qualities that adorn human nature. And as all the world knows that both men and women hate those they injure, we may be at no loss to ascertain the feelings by which Isobel regarded Marjory. Nor shall those who know the nature of woman have any difficulty in supposing that not more carefully does nature guard in the bosom the physical organ of the affections, than she concealed the feelings which had for that fortnight eaten into the vital tissues of her being.
How swiftly that fortnight had flown for Isobel! how charged with heavy hours for Marjory! and to-morrow was the eventful day. What doings in Bell's Tower during this intervening time! what pattering of feet along the sombre lobbies! what gossiping among servants! what applications to the gate--comings and goings! and the rooms, how bestrewn with clippings of silk, and stray bits of artificial flowers! And, amidst all the triumphing, Isobel displayed her nature in spite of old saws and maxims, which lay upon brides conditions of reserve and humility, held to be so becoming in those who, as it were, occupy the place of a sacrifice; yea, if some tears are shed, so much better is custom obeyed. Then where could Marjory go, in the midst of this confusion of gaiety?--where, as the poet says, "weep her woes" in secret, and listen to the throbbings of a broken heart? Not in her own room, in the lower part of the castle tower, where her mother had still the privilege of chiding her for throwing the shadows of melancholy over a scene of happiness, and where Isobel would force an entrance, to show her, in the very spite of her evil nature, some bridal present from him who was still to the deserted one the idol of her heart. There was scarcely a refuge for grief, where joy was impatient of check, and, like all tyrants, would force reluctant conditions into a unanimity of compliance; but up these castle stairs, in the second room, there was one whom time had shut out from the sympathies of the world, so old, as to be almost forgotten, except by Marjory herself, who, all gentleness and love, delighted to supply vacant hearts with the fervours of her friendship, and to ameliorate evils by the appliances of her humanity.
With languid step she ascended the stair, and was presently beside her great-grandaunt, Patricia Bower. Twilight was dropping her wing, and the shadows were fast collecting round the square windows, which, narrow and grated, would scarcely at noonday let in light enough to enliven the human eye. There, solitary and in the gloom, sat the creature of the prior century, whose birth could only be arrived at by going through generations back ninety and five years before; but not gloom to her, to whom the light of memory was as a necromancer, arraying before the gleg eye of her spirit the images of persons and things and circumstances of the far past, with all the vividness of enchantment, and still even raising again those very loves and sympathies they elicited when they were of the passing hour. Yet the doings in this house of Bell's Tower at the time, so far removed from the period of the living archetypes of her dreams, had got to her ear, where still the word marriage was a charm, against which the dry impassable nerve resisted in vain.
"I will go to this marriage, Marjory," she said, as the maiden entered, and without appearing to notice her distress.
"No, aunt," replied Marjory, as she sat down opposite to her.
"And shall I not?" continued the ancient maiden, as her eyes seemed to come forward out of the deep sockets into which they had long sunk, and emitted an unearthly lustre. "And shall I not? It is four times a score of years bating five since I was at a bridal; and when all were waiting, ay, Marjory, expecting the young bridegroom, the door was opened, and four men carried in Walter Ogilvy's bleeding corpse, and laid him in the bridal hall; for he had been stabbed by a rival in the Craig Glen, down by there; and where could they take the body but to Bell's Tower, where his bride waited for him? But she did not go mad, Sweet Marjory; no, no."
And as the image grew more distinct in the internal chambers, so did the eyes shine more lustrously, like stars peering through between grey clouds; and the shrivelled muscles, obeying once more the excited nerve, imparted to her almost the appearance of youth. Gradually a humming tone essayed to take form in words; but the wavering treble disconcerted her, till, calming herself by some effort, she recited, in solemn see-saw--
"The guests they came from the grey mountain side,-- The bride she was fair, and the bride she was fain; But where was the lover, who sought not his bride? Oh! a maid she is now, as a maid she was then; And her cheek it is pale, and her hair it is grey, Since the long long time of her bridal day."
The last line descended into a quavering whisper.
With the effusion, adopted probably from an old ditty, and brought forth from its long-retaining chamber of the brain by the inspiration of one of her often-returning visions, the fervour of the tasked spirit died away, and, reclining her head, she sat before the wondering Marjory--who had heard, as a tale of the family, and applicable to Patricia herself, the circumstances she had related--as one suspended between death and life; nor did it seem that it required more than a rude vibration to decide to which of the two worlds she would in a few minutes belong. Only a short time sufficed to restore her to her ordinary composure, and, waving her shrivelled hand, she said--
"Open the door to the bartisan, Marjory, that I may have air, and see the moon, who, amidst all the changes of life, is ever the same to the miserable and the happy."
Marjory obeyed her; and as she looked forth, the moon was rising over the tops of the trees, as if to chase away the envious shades, ready to follow the departure of twilight. There was solace in her soft splendour for the melancholy of the youthful girl, which might be ameliorated by a turn of fortune, as well as for the sadness of her aged friend, which was not only beyond the influence of worldly change, but so like the forecast gloom of the grave, as if the inexorable tyrant, long disappointed, was already rejoicing in his victim. But no sooner was the door casement opened, than the sound of voices entered. Then Marjory stepped out on the bartisan, not to listen, for her spirit was superior to artifice; and, leaning over the bartisan, she soon recognised the voices of Isobel and Ogilvy; nor could she escape the words--
"I loved her for her own sake," said he, "before I loved you, Isobel; and now I love her as your sister. But I shall have no peace in my wedded life with you, save on the condition that you love her also; for my conscience tells me I have not done by Sweet Marjory what is deemed according to the honour of man. You see what your power has been, Isobel. Nor would I have spoken thus on the very evening before our wedding, were it not that I have heard you do not love her, nay, that you hate her."
Then Marjory heard Devil Isobel reply; and she knew by the voice that she was in anger, though she cunningly repressed her passion.
"Believe them not," said Isobel. "By the pale face of yonder moon, and all those bright stars that are coming out one by one to add honour upon honour to this evening, the last of my maiden life, I love sweet Marjory Bower; and I swear by Him who made all these heavenly orbs, that I shall love her as a sister ought."
"It pleases me much to hear my Isobel speak thus," said Ogilvy. "And hark ye, love, I have here a valuable locket, set with diamonds and opals--see, it contains the grey hair of my mother; and, will I or nill I, she will send this by me to Marjory as a love-token. Now I want to convey it to Sweet Marjory through you, because it will make you a party to the love-gift, and so bind us all in a circle of affection."
"Give it me," cried Isobel, fixing her piercing eye on the diamonds as they sparkled in the moonlight; "and, on the honour of a bride, I will give it to my sister, whom I love so dearly."
And Isobel continued to speak; but the movement of the lovers as they walked prevented Marjory from hearing more. Still she followed them with her weeping eyes, as their figures, clearly revealed to her by the moon, glided among the wide-standing trees of the lawn, and at length disappeared. The moon had now less solace for her. Her wound had been retouched by a hand of all others calculated to irritate, even by that of Ogilvy himself, who, she now knew, felt compunction for the cruelty of his desertion. His regret was too late to save her sorrow, but it was not too late to increase that sorrow; for the words by which he had uttered it reminded her, in their tone, of that unctuous luxury he had so often poured into her heart, and which, in their sincerity, were so unlike the dissimulation of her wicked sister. With a deep-drawn sigh she entered the bartisan casement, shut it after her, and having spoken some kindly words to her aunt, whom she kissed, she sought her way down the bastle stair to her own room below. There she threw herself upon a couch, not to seek assuagement, but only to give rest to limbs that would scarcely support her. Nor did the closed door keep from her ear those notes of preparation, coming in so many shapes; for there was, in addition to the customary rites of the great sacrifice, to be a sumptuous feast, at which, too, she would be expected to attend. Yet all these noisy tokens did not keep from her mind the tones of that remorse she had heard from the lips of Ogilvy, and she fondled them, in her misery, as one would the dead body of a dear friend on whose face still sat the look of love in which he died. By-and-by she heard once more the voice of Isobel, who had returned; and she trembled as she expected the visit in execution of her commission. The door opened, and there entered her sister, with a face, as it appeared in the light of the lamp she carried, beaming with the old exultation, mingled with the smile of a soft deceit.
"Look here, Sweet Marjory," she said, as she held out the golden trinket. "Saw you ever so lovely a piece of workmanship? But you cannot discern its value till you know it contains a lock of the hair of _my_ mother-in-law-to-be--Mrs. Ogilvy. That locket was given to me even now by my Hector, the bridegroom----"
"To give to me," sighed Marjory faintly.
"You lie for a false fiend," cried Devil Isobel. "He gave it to me, and to me it belongs."
"You may keep it," said Marjory; "but I heard Hector Ogilvy say to you that it was a gift from his mother to me, and you promised to him to deliver it."
Isobel's lips turned white and whiter, as her eye flared with the internal light struck out of the quivering nerve by the brain inflamed by fury. Nor was it the detection alone that produced these effects: she had construed Ogilvy's confession that he once loved Marjory into an admission that the latter was still dear to him, and she considered herself justified in her suspicion by the tones of his regret; then there had shot through her the pang of envy, when she heard that there was a gift for Marjory from the mother, and none to her. All these pent-up passions had been quickened into expression by Marjory's gentle detection; and as Marjory looked at her, she trembled.
"Do not be angry at me, Isobel," she said. "I did not go out upon the bartisan to hear you; and as for the gift, I do not want it."
But Marjory's simplicity and generosity, in place of appeasing her passion, only gave it a turn into a forced stifling, which suited the purpose of her dissimulation. In an instant the evil features, which, as a moral expression, had changed her into hideousness, gave way, and she stood before her sister the beautiful being who had enchanted Ogilvy out of his first and purest love.
"Come, Marjory," she said, as she grasped the faint hand of the almost unresisting girl. "Come."
And leading her by a half-dragging effort out of the room and along the passages, she took her to the large hall, where servants were busy laying the long table for the feast.
"There will be seventy here," she said, "and all to do honour to me. How would _you_ have liked it, Sweet Marjory? You do not envy me, though you look so sad? But oh! there is more honour for me. Come." And still, with the application of something like force, she led Marjory out by the front door towards the lawn, where a number of men were, with the light of pine torches, piling up fagots over layers of pitch. The glare of the torches was thrown over the dark bastle house, and under the relief of the deep shadows, where the light of the moon did not penetrate, was romantic enough even for the taste of Isobel, whose spirit ever panted for display. To add to the effect, the men were jolly; for their supply of ale had been ample, and the occasion of a marriage in the house of the Bowers warranted a merriment which was acceptable to her for whom all these expensive preparations were made.
"This is the marriage-pile, Marjory," said Isobel. "I am not to be put upon it after the manner of Jephthah's daughter; but it will blaze up to the sky, and tell the gods and goddesses that there is one to be honoured here on earth. How would _you_ have liked that honour, Marjory? But you are not envious. Come, there is more."
And as she was leading Marjory away, an exclamation from one of the men attracted their attention. On turning round, they saw the men's faces, lighted up by the torches, all directed to the bastle tower on which the glare shone full and red. Their merriment was gone, to give place to the feeling of awe; nor did a syllable escape from their lips. The eyes of the sisters followed those of the men, and were in like manner riveted.
"It is the wraith bride o' the peel," said the old forester. "She gaes round about and round about. My mither saw it thirty years syne, when the laird brought hame his leddy; and we ken he broke his leg in coming off his horse to help her down. I have heard her say
'There's evil for the house o' Bower, When the bride gaes round the bastle tower.'"
"You are a lying knave," cried Isobel. "It is that old cantrup-working witch, Patricia Bower, who should have been burnt with tar-barrels and tormented by prickers fifty years ago. Nor ghost, nor ghoul, nor demon or devil, shall come between me and my happy destiny."
A speech which, spoken in excitement, was cheered by all the men but the unfortunate forester; for, as we have said, they were merry with ale. And they knew by report, as they now saw with their eyes, the beauty of the young woman, who, in addition to her natural charms, appeared, as they whirled the torches round their heads, and the cheers rose and echoed in the woods, to be invested with the dignity of a queen. But as this natural enthusiasm died down, they turned again their wondering eyes to the bastle house; and as the figure still went round the bartisan and round the bartisan, they looked at each other, and shook their heads with a motion which appeared very grotesque in the glare of the torches. At length it disappeared, and they began again to pile the fagots, now in silence, and not with the merry words and snatches of their prior humour, as if each of them had foreseen some evil which he could not define.
Meanwhile Isobel had again seized Marjory, to continue the round of her triumphs.
"We will now go to my boudoir, nor mind that witch," she said, "and I will show you all the presents I have got from my neighbours and friends. Oh! they are so fine, that did I not know that you are not envious, I would fear that you would tear my eyes out. Oh, but look, there is Ogilvy's horse standing waiting for him to carry him home, and I shall see him only this once before I am made his wife." Then, pausing and becoming meditative, she led her sister into the shade of a gigantic elm, the stem of which sufficed to conceal them from observers. "Kneel down," she continued in a stern tone.
"Why so?" replied Marjory, trembling with fear, yet obeying instinctively.
"Swear," cried Isobel, "that you will not, before Ogilvy, contradict what I shall say to him about his mother's gift. Swear."
"I swear," replied the sister.
And rising up, her hand was again grasped by Isobel, as she led her forward to where the horse stood. Nor had they proceeded many paces, when Ogilvy himself was observed coming forward. He could see them by the light of the torches, as they saw him; and upon the instant, Isobel, clasping Marjory in her arms, kissed her with all the fervency of love.
"How pleasant this is to me," said Ogilvy, as he came up equipped and spurred for his ride, "to see you so loving and sisterly!"
"Did I not swear by Dian and the stars I would love her?" said Devil Isobel; "and is she not called Sweet Marjory?"
"Sweet she is," said he, as he timidly scanned the face of his first love, and pressed her hand; but his countenance changed as he felt the silky-skinned hand of the girl tremble within his, as if it shrunk from the touch, and saw her blue eyes turned on the ground, and heard a sigh steal from her breast. A feeling that was new to him thrilled through the circle of his nerves, and made him tremble to the centre of his being. He had never calculated upon that strange emotion, nor could he analyze it: it was inscrutable, but it was terrible; it was not simply a return of his own love under the restraint of the new one, neither was it simple remorse, but a mixture of various thrills which induced no purpose, but only rendered him uncertain, feeble, and miserable. So engrossed for a moment was he, that he did not even seek the eye of Isobel, who was watching him in every turn of his countenance. Then he would seek some relief in words.
"You have my mother's love at least, Marjory," he said; and he could not help saying it. "And I shall be pleased to see you wear her gift, which she sent to you through me, who gave it to Isobel."
Marjory was silent, and Ogilvy turned his eye upon Isobel.
"She rejects it," said Isobel, "and wishes me to return it."
"Rejects it!" ejaculated the youth, as he again looked at Marjory.
Marjory was still silent, and her eyes were even more timidly turned to the ground.
"I did not regard the gift as valuable for the brilliants and opals," continued he, "but as conveying the love of my mother; and surely Marjory cannot reject that love."
Yet still was Marjory silent, for she had sworn.
"Oh, she is frightened, poor Sweet Marjory," cried Isobel, with a satirical laugh; "for she has seen the wraith bride on the bastle tower."
"The wraith bride!" responded Ogilvy, relapsing into silence, and instinctively looking round him, where only glared the torchlight among the trees of the lawn, and the dark bodies of the fagot-pilers were moving backwards and forwards. He had heard the couplet mentioned by the forester, and had of course viewed it as a play of superstition; but reason is a weak thing in the grasp of feeling, and now he was all feeling. The remorse of which he had had premonitions, had now taken him as a fit. His eye sought Marjory's down-turned face, and shrunk from Isobel's watchful stare; but the direction of that organ did not form an index to his mind, for his fancy was, even during these swift instants, busy weaving the many-coloured web of the future of his married life, and clouding it with sombre shades; nor did the active agent hesitate to draw materials from the past fortunes of the house of Bell's Tower, and mix them up as things yet to be repeated. Even the wraith bride performed her part now, where she had feeling to help her weakness, and set her up among realities.
At this critical juncture of Ogilvy's thoughts, there came up from the mansion good Dame Bower herself, of portly corporation, often resonant of a comfortable laugh; and now, when flushed with the exercise of her domestic superintendence, looking the very picture of the joyous mother of a happy bride.
"I had forgotten," she said as she approached, "to ask you to convey my thanks to Dame Ogilvy for that beautiful locket with her hair therein--more precious, I ween, than the diamonds and opals, though these, I'm told, are worth five thousand good merks--which she has so thoughtfully sent to Isobel."
"Isobel!" ejaculated Ogilvy, fixing his eye on the face of his bride, where there were no blushes to reveal the consciousness of deceit. "To Isobel!" he repeated; "and did Isobel say this?"
"Yes," replied the mother.
"It is false," cried the damsel, precipitated by anger into the terrible imputation.
The mother stood aghast, and Marjory held her head away.
"Speak, Marjory," said Ogilvy, with lips that in an instant had become white and parched.
"I have sworn," said Marjory.
"And dare not speak?" said Ogilvy. Then a deep gloom spread over his face, his eye flashed with a sudden flame. He spoke not a word more; but, vaulting into the saddle, he drove his spurs into the side of his horse, and rode off. As he passed the fagot-hewers, he saw them clustered together, and heard high words among them, with names of so potent a charm to him, that, even in his confusion and speed, he could not drive them from his mind. These names were, Sweet Marjory and Devil Isobel.
And as if the words had entered the rowels and made them sharper, his horse reared, and he sped on with a whirling tumult in his brain, but yet without uttering a word--nor even to himself did he mutter a remark--still urging his steed, yet unconscious that his journey's end would bring no assuagement of that tumult, nor mean of extricating him from his strange and perilous predicament. Nor was he aware of the speed of his riding, or how far he had gone, till he came to some huts in the outskirts of the Craigwood, which bounds the domain of Bell's Tower on the west, where he saw some cottagers assembled at a door, and again heard words which pierced his ear--no other than those of his own marriage. Again urged by curiosity, he put the question,
"Whom do you speak of, good folks?"
"Sweet Marjory," said one; and another added, "Devil Isobel."
Fain would he have asked more--these were not to him more than sufficient; but pride interposed, and fear aided pride, and away he again sped even at a still quicker pace. Never before had he been so agitated: fear, anger, or remorse had never ruffled the tenor of an existence which passed amidst rural avocations and unsophisticated pleasures,--knew nothing of intrigue, falsehood, or dissimulation--those parasitic plagues that follow the societies of men. The moon that shone over his head was as placid and beautiful, and forest and wold as quiet, as they used to be when his mind was a reflection of the peace that was without; but now, as he rode on and on, wild images arose from the roused autonomy of the spirit, and seemed to be impressed by fire,--the face of Isobel reflecting the light of the moon, and those eyes which, looking up, were in their own expression an adjuration similar to that pronounced by her lips, that she would obey him, and deliver the diamond gift to its rightful owner; then the same eyes when, inflamed by the fire of her wrath, she called her mother a liar, and proved her own falsehood, while she cast off the duty of a daughter. But through all glided the face of Sweet Marjory, with its mildness, beneficence, and timidity; and the eye that, quailing under her sister's tyranny, looked so lovingly in the face of the mother, but dared not chide him who had been false to her. He felt within him that revolution from one feeling to its opposite, which, when it begins in the mind, is so energetic and startling. His love for Isobel--which had been a frenzy, tearing him from another love which had been a sweet dream--began to undergo the wonderful change: her beauty faded before a moral expression which waxed hideous, and grew up in these passing moments into a direct contrast with the gentle loveliness of her sister, which, coming from the heart, beamed through features fitted to enhance it. Nor could he stop this revolution of his sentiments, the full effect of which, aggravated by remorse, shook his frame, as his horse bounded, and added to the turmoil within him. Yet ever the words came from his quivering lips--"Am I fated to be the husband of Devil Isobel? Is Sweet Marjory destined to bless the nuptial bed of another?" And at every repetition he unconsciously drove the spur into the sides of his now foaming steed.
But whither all this hot haste--whither was he flying? To his home, where he knew that his mother condemned his choice, though her delicacy had limited her dissatisfaction to that strange but pregnant expression, whereby she had sent her most valuable jewel to her whom she valued and loved, and whom, in the madness of fascination, he had left to sorrow, if not to heartbreaking--perhaps death. He felt that he behoved to be home to make certain preparations for his appearance on the morrow, as a bridegroom by the side of Isobel Bower; and yet he felt that he could not face his mother under the feelings which now ruled him, and the very weakness of his resolution prompted the device of tarrying by the way until she should have gone to bed. He knew where to watch her chamber light, and he began to draw the rein. Yet how unconscious he was of a peculiarity of that power that had been for some time working within him!--yea, even remorse, who, true to her unfailing purpose, was moulding his heart into that yearning to visit the victim on which she insists for ever as a condition of peace to the betrayer. He had come to the cross-road leading eastwards; and even while muttering his purpose of merely prolonging the period of his home-going, he was twitching the rein to the right, so that the obedient steed turned and carried him forward at the old speed. Whither now, versatile and remorseful youth? From this eastern road there goes off, a couple of miles forward, a rough track, leading to the mansion he had so recently left. And it was not long ere he reached the point of turn. Nor was he even decided when there, that he would again draw the rein to the right. But if he was master of his horse, he was not master of himself: the rough track was taken, and Ogilvy was in full swing to Bell's Tower. He did not know that it is only when the act is accomplished that one thinks of the decrees of Fate, though it is true that the purposes of man are equally fated in their beginnings, when reason is battling against feeling, as in their termination. In how short time was he in the pine wood, behind the house, where were his bane, and perhaps his antidote, though he could not divine the latter! And he trembled as through the trees he saw the flitting lights, as they came and went past the windows, indicating the joy of preparation: not for these he looked, only for one, sombre and steady, like Melancholy's dull eye, wherein no tear glistens. Leaving his horse tied to a pine stem, Ogilvy was in an instant kneeling at the low casement at the foot of the bastle house, where glimmered that light for which he had been so intensely looking.
Was it that grief, forced into an excitement foreign to its lonely, self-indulgent nature, wooed the evening air, to cool by the open window the fever of her slow-throbbing veins? Certain it is at least that Marjory Bower expected no salutation from without at that hour.
"Sweet Marjory, will you listen to one who once dared to love you, and who has now sorrow at his heart, yet Heaven's wrath will not send forth lightnings to kill?"
"What terrible words are these?" replied the maiden, as she took her hand from her brow and looked in the direction of the open casement.
"Not those," replied he, "which are winged with the hope of a bridegroom. But I am miserable! Marjory Bower, I loved you, and you returned my love; I deserted you, and you never even gloomed on me; and I am now the bridegroom of your sister,--ay, your sister, Devil Isobel! Will you give me hope if I break off this marriage?"
"Nay," rejoined she; "that cannot be. You have gone too far to go back with honour."
"Or forward with any hope of happiness," said he. "But I will brave all your father's anger, Isobel's revenge, and my loss of honour, if you will consent to be mine within a year."
"Nay," repeated the maid with a sigh. "Out of my unhappiness may come the happiness of others. Though I may not live to see it, I may die in the hope that Isobel Bower may, in your keeping, come to deserve a name better than that terrible one she has earned, and which just now sounded so terrible from your lips."
"Is she not a liar, who falsified my words?" said he impassionedly. "Is she not a thief, who appropriated the diamond gift of my mother, intended for you? Is she not an undutiful daughter, who first deceived her mother by a falsehood, and then denounced her as herself false? Is that woman, with the form of an angel and the heart of a devil, to be my wife? And does Marjory Bower counsel it? Then Marjory Bower hates Hector Ogilvy!"
"Nay," replied she calmly, "I only love your honour. Night and day I will pray for a blessing on your marriage, and that God, who made the heart of my sister, may change it into love and goodness."
A repressed spasmodic laugh shook the frame of the youth. "What a hope," he said, "on which to found the happiness of a life, and for which to barter such a creature as you! But, Marjory, you have roused the pride of my honour, while you have appeased my remorse; and I will marry Isobel because you have said that I should. It is thus I shall punish myself by becoming a victim in turn to the honour I was false to."
As he pronounced these words, he fixed his eye on the face of Marjory, which at the moment reflected brightly the light of the lamp. Her eyes were swimming in tears. She seemed to struggle with herself, as if she feared that, in thus counselling him, she incurred some heavy responsibility. So Ogilvy thought. But he little knew that there was mixed up with these emotions the keen anguish of a sacrifice; for she had not as yet admitted to him how dear he had been to her, and how bitterly she had felt the transference of his affections from her to her sister. He waited for a few moments. He got no reply, except from these swimming eyes. "Adieu! dear Marjory," he said; and hastened again to the pine wood, where, having flung himself on his steed, he started for home.
As he hurried along, he felt that he had appeased one feeling at the expense of a life's happiness, and yet he was satisfied, according to that law whereby the present evil always appears the greatest. About half way up the rough track he met one of the servants of Bell's Tower proceeding homewards, and suspecting that he had been with a message to him or his mother, he stopped and questioned him.
"I have been to Dame Ogilvy with a letter from Dame Bower," said the man; "and well I may," he added, as he sided up and whispered, "The fagot-hewers have seen the bride to-night on the top bartisan of the castle tower."
"And I now see a fool," replied Ogilvy, and rode on. Not that he thought the man the fool he called him, but that he felt it necessary, as many men do, to make a protest against the weakness of superstition at the very moment when the mysterious power was busy with his heart; and, repeating the word "fool," he went on auguring and condemning in the double way of mortals. How strangely he had been led for the last hour! The terms he had heard applied to his bride, justifying what he had himself seen, had all but resolved him to remain absent from the intended ceremony of the morrow. He had had some lurking hope that Marjory would agree to his resolution, and again inspire him with hope; and he knew that his mother would be pleased with a change which would yield her a chance of having her favourite for her daughter-in-law. He had been proposing as a weak mortal. Another power was purposing as a God; and yet he considered himself as so much master of himself and the occasion as to laugh with bitter scorn at the rustic diviner, and his folly of the apparition bride. And now there was shining before him the light of the lamp from the chamber of his mother, whom he had still stronger reasons than ever for avoiding that night. But even these reasons were unavailing. The spirit of his honour, which had been so fragile a thing when opposed by the advent of a new love, had been breathed upon and increased to a flame by her he had deserted; and he for the moment felt he could face the mild reproof of a mother whom he loved. What a versatile, incomprehensible creature is man, even in those inspired moments, when, with the nerve trembling under the tension of purpose, he appears to himself and others in his highest position! In a few minutes more he was in the presence of his mother.
There sat in her painted chamber the fine gentlewoman, with her fixed eye divining in the light of the gilded lamp, as the spirit cast upon the dark curtain of the future the forms which were but as re-adaptations of the signs of what had come and gone in her memory and experience. The two families had been linked by the power of fate, and the connection, which had never been dissolved; was to evolve in some new form. She had grieved for her gentle favourite, Marjory Bower; and had she been as stern as she was mild, she would have interposed a parent's authority against her son's change of purpose. Yea, there might have been true affection in that sternness; but such would have been the resolution of a mental strength which she did not possess, for she was as those whose parental love gratifies wilfulness from a fear of producing pain. Nor even now, when she held in her hand a letter of, to her, strange import, could she call up from her soft heart an energy to save her son from the ruin which seemed to impend over him. He stood for a moment before her, silent, pale, and resolved against all chances,--verily a puppet under the reaction of affections and principles he had dared to tamper with against the injunctions of honour,--and yet he could not see that the soft and trembling hand of her in Bell's Tower, which held the strings that bound him so, held them and straitened them by a spasm. Nor was it of use to him now that the strings trembled, and relaxed only for the time when the soft, reproving, yet loving light of his mother's eye, as it turned from her reverie, fell upon his soul; for his purpose came again, as his lip quivered and he waxed more pale.
"What means this letter?" said she, as she held it forth in her hand. "Mrs. Bower thanks me for the gift I sent to your bride."
"It means, dear mother," replied he firmly, "what it says. I was weak enough to think that, if I committed your jewelled locket to Isobel's hand as the mean whereby it would reach Marjory, I would do something to cement their love. I saw Isobel's eye light up as she fixed it on the diamonds--their glare had entered her soul and made it avaricious; and envy threw her red glance to fire the passion. Yes, she appropriated the gift. I have other evidence than this, even from my bride." And as he pronounced the word "bride," a scornful laugh escaped from him, and alarmed his mother.
"And yet she _is_ your bride, and will be your wife to-morrow?" said she, looking inquiringly.
"She will," replied he, in a tone which, though soft, if not pitiful, was firm, if a trait of sarcasm against himself might not have been detected in it.
"Strange!" ejaculated the mother, as she still fixed her eyes on him. Then, musing a little, "Do you know that the bride has been seen to-night on the bastle tower?"
"An ill-used word, Hector," said she; "as if God was not the Ruler of his own world. When we see unnatural motives swaying men, and all working to an event, are we not to suppose that that event shall also be out of Nature's scheme? and that which is out of Nature's scheme must be in God's immediate hand. What motives impel you to wed a woman with whom you must be miserable, and have that misery enhanced by seeing every day her who would have rendered you happy?"
"My honour pledged to the world, which must condemn and laugh at a breach of faith, not to be justified except at the expense of Isobel."
"A false reason," continued the mother. "Is there more honour in adhering to a breach of honour than in returning to the honour that was broken?"
"There is another reason, mother," said Ogilvy, as he carried his hand over his sorrowful face.
"What is that?"
"Sweet Marjory commands me."
"Ah, Hector, Hector, how little you know of the heart of woman! Know you not that in a forsaken woman the heart has an irony even when it is breaking? Ask her if you should wed her rival, and the breaking heart-string will respond Yes, even as the cord of the harp will twang when it is severed. Well do I know Sweet Marjory, and what she must have felt when she uttered this command. The canker has begun, and she will die. The worm does not seek always the withered leaf. You've heard the song that Patricia used to sing--
"'The dainty worm, it loves the tomb, And gnaws, and gnaws its nightly food; But a daintier worm selects the bloom, And a daintier still affects the bud.'"
"Oh, God forgive me!" ejaculated the miserable youth, as, holding his hand on his brow, he rushed out of the room and sought his bed-chamber. Was there ever such a night before the day, of all days auspicious to mortals, of the culminating joy of human life! Could he not find refuge in sleep, where the miserable so often seek to escape from the vibrations of the leaping, palpitating nerve, inflamed by the fever of life? A half-hour's dreamy consciousness, an hour's vision of returning images, rest and unrest, haunting scenes woven by some secret power, so varied, so ephialtic, so monstrous, yet all, somehow or another, however unlike the reality, still vindicating a connection. Why should Sweet Marjory be in the deep recesses of the pine wood, resting by his foaming steed, with his mother sitting and breathing hope's accents in her ear, and ever and again calling on him in sobbing vocables to return from his pursuit of another? He would return. The charm of her sweet voice is felt to be irresistible; yet it is resisted. And though he looks back only to see her by the flaught of the lightning that plays among the trees, his steps are forward, where Devil Isobel charms him with a song, in comparison of which the magic of the sirens is but the rustle of the reed as it swerves in the blast. He struggles, and seizes the stems of the pines to hold him from his progress and keep him steady; and he writhes as he finds he cannot obey the maternal appeal to a son's love. All is still again, and there is rest, only to be alternated by the recurring visions always assuming new forms, changing and disappearing, flaring up again, and then the deep breast-riding oppression, and those hollow moans, which never can be imitated by the waking sense, as if Nature preserved this domain of the spirit as an evidence, in the night of the soul, that there is another world where the limbo of agony is not less certain than the heaven which is simulated by sweet dreams.
But, _lucidus die--nocte inutilis_. As the day dawned, and the morning sun, fresh from the east, threw in between the chinks of the shutters the virgin beams, Ogilvy felt the truth of the old saying, that every day vindicates its two conditions of good and evil. There was again a change in the versatile mind of the romantic youth; and Honour, pinkt out in those gaudy decorations woven by the busy spirits that move so cunningly the springs of man's thoughts in a conventional world, appeared before him. If Isobel was still the Devil Isobel, Honour was a smiling angel, even more beautiful than Sweet Marjory. Yet he was not happy--only firm, as he confessed by that lying power of the mind, to the strength of bonds he had himself imposed, and yet repented of--setting necessity as a will-power amidst the wreck and ruin of his affections. The hour advanced, and he must superinduce the happy bridegroom on the dead statue. Unsteady and fitful even in the common actions of life--lifting the wrong thing, and suddenly throwing it down in the wrong place, again to snatch the right thing at the wrong time--he was not so this morning. Every step and manipulation was like the movement of a machine. Composedness was a luxury to him. Ornament after ornament, at a time when a bridegroom's decorations were the expression of a rude refinement, found its place with a steady, nay, affectedly formal hand; yea, a more cool bridegroom had never been seen in the world's history, since that eventful morning when the hero of Bæotia put on his lion's skin, and took up his wooden club, to marry the fifty daughters of the king, though among these, if the wise man is right, there must have been forty-nine devils. As the solemn work went on, he looked again and again into the mirror, where he saw none of the wrinkles of care, no brow-knitting of fractiousness, no sternness of resolute determination,--all quiet, smooth, even mild. Ay, such a mime is man when he is a mome, that he even smiled as he felt his pulse,--how cool was his blood, how regular the vibrations! And so the mummery went on: the flowered-red vest, the braided coat of sky-blue, the cravat, the ruffles, the wrist-bands scolloped and stiff, the indispensable ruff, concealed behind by the long locks of auburn, so beautiful in Isobel's eyes, that flowed over his broad shoulders.
The work was finished; Ogilvy was dressed--his body in all the colours of the arc of hope--his mind in the dark midnight weeds of a concealed misery, concealed even from himself. He sought the chamber of his mother, and, taking her hand, kissed it fervently; but could not trust himself to even a broken syllable of speech, and his silence was sympathetic. She looked into the face of her son, and then threw her eye solemnly over the array of his dress. The tear stood apparent, yet her face seemed to have borrowed his composedness, as if she felt that the old doom still followed the house of Ogilvy, and was inevitable, when the evil genius of the Bowers was in the ascendant. There was no reproof now, save that which lies in the dumb expression of sorrow--even that reproof which, melting the obstruction of man's egotism, finds its way to the heart, when even scorn would be only a hardening coruscation. Yet even this he could bear for the sake of that conventionality which is a tyrant. Turning away his head, he again kissed the soft hand, and hurried away.
As he issued from the gate and mounted his steed, now refreshed from the rough stress of the previous evening, the sun shone high and flaring, and the face of the country, with its rising hills and heather-bloom, and patches of waving corn, responded--as became it surely on a bridal morning--to the clang of the bell in Bell's Tower,--so like in all but the workings of the heart to the Sabbath morning when the union is to be between the spirit of man and the Lamb without guile. Yet art, self-confident and pragmatic, was not to be cajoled by the solicitations of, to it, a lying nature, however beautiful; and Ogilvy found it convenient, if not manly and heroic, to knit his eyebrows against the sun. So does the Indian hurl his wooden spear against the lightning, because he is a greater being than the Author of the thunder. So he rode on to where the bells rung--for was not he specially called?--the gloom on his countenance, with which his forced determination kept pace, increasing as he proceeded. Nor had he ever ridden thus before. Even his steed might have known, as he opened his nostrils, that there was something more than common in the wind's eye, accustomed as he was to the speed of enthusiasm, or the walk of exhaustion. He was now a solemn stalking-horse, bearing a rigid, buckram-mailed showman, whose only sound or movement resided in the plates of his armour, or his lath sword or gilded spontoon.
As Ogilvy had thus enrolled himself among the chivalry of honour, and was consequently, in his own estimation, as we have hinted, a personage of romance, so was it only consistent with the indispensable gloom of his dignity and sternness that he should ride alone: nor was it seeming that he should accost the guests whom he saw on either side, obeying the call of the bell, and riding along to the bridal and the feast. Yet the scene might have enlivened somewhat a very gloomy knight, as, looking around, he saw the lairds rounding the bases of the hills, and heard, as others came into sight, the sound of bagpipes, however little these might be associated with chivalric notions and aspirations. But then it was not easy to act this solitary part; for what more natural than that those passing to his own celebration should salute him? Nor could he avoid those salutations.
"Joy to thee, Ogilvy," said one, as he rode up; "the nightshade is sweeter than the rose;" and departed.
"A happy day," said another, "when the wolf becomes more innocent than the lamb."
"Good morning, bridegroom," said a third. "The sun shines bright, and the moss-brown tarn is more limpid than the running rill."
"All happiness," said a fourth rider, "when the merle nestles with the jolly owl, and is not afraid when he sounds his horn."
But Ogilvy only compressed his lips the more, and looked the more gloomy, solacing himself with the vision of Honour, the beautiful yet stern virgin, and immaculate as she who shook her mailed petticoats after getting out of Jupiter's head. Nor was the inspiration diminished as he now saw rising before him the rugged pile of Bell's Tower, wherein the bell rang still more lustily as the hour approached. The guests were thronging in a multiform, many-coloured mass, all eager for the honour of a Bower's smile. He was soon among the midst of them, repaying neither compliment, nor salutation, nor mute nod, with a single sign of acknowledgment. And now he entered the great hall, where already the invited numbers were nearly completed. How grand the scene! What silks, and satins, and taffetas, flowerings, braidings, and be-purflings, and hooped inflations! what towering toupees, built up with horse-hair and dyed hemp, stiffened with starch! what nosegays, redolent of heather-bells, and roses, and orange blossoms! There sat Dame Bower herself, fat and jolly, with her ruby dewlap, looking dignity; and Bower, the laird, great in legend. Mess John, too, even fatter than tradition will have him--the sleek bald head and face, where a thousand slynesses could play together without jostling. But what were all these, and the fairest and the proudest there, to Isobel Bower, as, arrayed in her long white veil, she sailed about, heedless of all decorum, showering her triumph upon envious damsels, as if she would blight all their fond hopes to make a rich soil for the flowering of her own! If others sat and looked for being looked at, and others stood for being admired, she walked and moved for worship, as if she claimed the peripatetic honour of the entire round of adoration. Not that she stared for it: she was too intensely magnetized to doubt of the jumping of the steel sparks to be all arranged _rayonnant_, like a horse-shoe, round the centre of her glory. Then, as there is by the domestic law a wearock in every nest, however speckled, and however redolent of balm-leaves or resonant of chirpings, where was Sweet Marjory Bower? Where that law ought to place her, by older legends than the date of Bower pride and power--in a corner, plainly dressed, and trying with downcast eyes to escape observation. But how pallid!--as if all the colours there had vied to steal from her cheeks, not the rosy bloom--for it never was there---but the fresh white of the lily, more beautiful than all the flowers of the garden; and not the colour alone, but the light itself of the lily's eye. Nay, it would seem that the greatest robber of all was her sister, whose look turned upon her as if in scorn of her humility, and in pleasure of her woe.
As Ogilvy entered, walking up direct and stedfastly to the midst of the great hall, there arose the welcome buzz, like that humming which makes musical the sphere where comes the reigning queen of the hive. But how soon, as the bell in the tower ceased to ring, was all that noise hushed into a death-like silence, as he stood without sign or movement, with his arms crossed, and his gloomy eyes fixed on the only empty space in that crowded assembly! Would he not look at the bride, or salute the bride's mother, or shake hands with the bride's father, or do any one of all those many things which lay to his duty--far more to his inclination--as a happy bridegroom? Not one of them. And there he stood, as a motionless Grecian god hewn out of veritable panthelion, with its ivory eyes, and the mute worshippers all about. Nay, the likeness was even more perfect; for as these worshippers, from the very fear of reverence and the impression of awe, kept at a distance from that centre of deity, so those guests who were nearest to the strange man moved instinctively away, leaving him in the middle of the charmed ring. But even this did not move him. Then there was business to be done. "Oh! he was only meditative." The greatness of the occasion was the mother of a hundred excuses. Still to all it was oppressive, killing enthusiasm, and so unlike what these gay hopefuls had prefigured of that celestial state in which they wished themselves to be. Only Isobel seemed unchanged. She whispered to Mess John--most unseemly; but was she not the Devil Isobel? Ogilvy, even as a statue, was hers, and could not get away. Then the bridesmaids sought each other, by the clustering sympathy of their gay wreaths and their office, and the bridesman stood in readiness. Mess John was at the altar; and the bell was to ring the celebrating peal after the ceremony was ended, and the guests should fall to their knives and forks; and the retainers on the lawn, where the fire blazed wild to roast the ox and honour the bride, should sit down to their marriage feast.
As Solemnity is the mother of Angerona, with her finger on her lip, so here reigned now the utmost stillness that could be enforced by heaving hearts against the buzz of a crowd. Scarcely a sound was heard as the altar was encircled. You might have detected a sigh, if it had not been that every sigh was suppressed. Even Isobel was mute, but not from any cessation of her triumph--rather from the impression of its culmination in possession. She stood grandly, looking around her, in defiance of the inexorable law of down-gazing on the ground, where brides see so much which no one else sees. Nor had she yet expressed by a look any wonder at the statue bridegroom, whose attitude was still unchanged. All is eye, and ear, and throbbing heart, when of a sudden the door of the great hall opened, calling the eye in the direction of the screech. Who dared? Some one more daring than common humanity. A figure entered, in the dress of another bride,--a tall figure, with surely nothing to be covered by the white satin and the long lace mantilla, suspended from the top of a wreathed head white as the driven snows of Salmon, but bones, sheer bones. The face could scarcely be seen for the folds of the veil: only two eyes, with no more light in them than what plays on the surface of untransparent things, and fixed and immoveable as if they saw nothing. The guests were breathless from stupefying amazement. They beheld it pass into the middle of the hall, where, in the space that had been deserted, it began a movement something like dancing. Strange mutterings of a broken-voiced song, with words about long years having passed away, rhyming with bridal day, and so forth, in the cauldron-kettle-and-incantation style, came in snatches.
"It is that infernal old witch, Patricia Bower," screamed Devil Isobel.
And rushing forward, the impassioned creature threw the weight of her body on the composition of bones and satin. It fell, with a loud shrill scream from a windpipe dried by the breath of ninety-seven years.
Dame Bower and Sweet Marjory rushed forward and drew back the veil. It was the antediluvian Patricia. She was dead. The last spark had been offered to Hymen, and the incense canister was broken. Drops of blood issued from her mouth and nose, and sat upon the marble face, with still remains of the old beauty in it which had charmed Walter Ogilvy, like dots on the tiger lily.
At this moment the bell began to clang. Devil Isobel was gone. She had hurried out the moment she knew that the spark of life had fled. Nor could she be found. The song says--
"They sought her here, they sought her there, By lochs and streams that scent the main, By forests dark, and gardens fair; But she was never seen again."
A trick, this last line, of some of the old legend-mongers of the Bell's Tower minstrels, no doubt to conceal the shame of the family; for Devil Isobel had flown to the tower, where, having concealed herself till the bell-ringers went away to join in the feast of the ox, which they never tasted even after so much pulling and hauling, she mounted to the belfry. Somehow she had contrived to cast the bell-rope round one of the beams by which the bell was suspended, so as to produce no noise, and then, having made a noose of a different kind from that she had that day been busily twining, she suspended herself by the neck. It was some days before she was discovered. The long white figure, still arrayed in the marriage dress with the flowing veil, had been observed by some of the searchers; and then, strange enough, it was remembered that one solitary clang of the bell had been heard after the cessation of the ringing. That was the death-peal of Isobel Bower. But, a year after, that same bell had another peal to sound--no other than the celebration of the marriage of Hector Ogilvy and Sweet Marjory. Some say that Bell's Tower got its name from the contraction of Isobel. Names stick after the things have passed away. They did well at least to change the rope--_finis funis_.
The particular day in the life of the worthy disciple of Esculapius to which we desire to direct the attention of the reader, was raw, coldish, and drizzly in the morning, but cleared up towards noon; and although it never became what could be called warm (it was the latter end of September), it turned out a very passable sort of day on the whole--such a day as no man could reasonably object to, unless he had some particular purpose of his own to serve. In such case he might perhaps have wished more rain, or probably more sunshine, as the one or the other suited his interest; but where no such selfish motives interfered, the day must have been generally allowed to have been a good one. The thermometer stood at--we forget what; and the barometer indicated "Fair."
PERSONAL APPEARANCE, CHARACTER, AND PECULIARITIES OF THE DOCTOR.
The doctor was a little stout man, not what could be called corpulent, but presenting that sort of plump appearance which gives the idea of a person's being hard-packed, squeezed, crammed into his skin.
Such was the doctor, then--not positively fat, but thick, firm, and stumpy; the latter characteristic being considerably heightened by his always wearing a pair of glossy Hessian boots, which, firmly encasing his little thick legs up nearly to the knees, gave a peculiar air of stamina and solidity to his nether person. The doctor stood like a rock in his Hessians, and stumped along in them--for he was excessively vain of them--as proudly as a field-marshal, planting his little iron heels on the flag-stones with a sharpness and decision that told of a firm and vigorous step.
The doctor was no great hand at his trade; but this, it is but fair to observe, was not his own opinion. It was the opinion only of those who employed him, and of the little public to whom he was known. He himself entertained wholly different sentiments on the subject. The doctor, in truth, was a vain, conceited little gentleman; but, withal, a pleasant sort of person, and very generally liked. He sung a capital song, and had an inexhaustible fund of animal spirits.
One consequence of the latter circumstance was his being much invited out amongst his friends and acquaintances. He was, in fact, a regular guest at all their festivities and merry-makings, and on these occasions used to get himself fully more strongly malted than became a gentleman of his grave profession.
When returning home of a night in this state, the little doctor's little iron heels might be heard rap-rapping on the flag-stones at a great distance in the quiet street, for he then planted them with still more decision and vigour than when sober; and so well known in his neighbourhood was the sound of his footsteps, so audible were they in the stillness of the night, and so habitually late was he in returning home--his profession forming an excellent excuse for this--that people, even while sitting at their own firesides, or, it might be, in bed, although at the height of three storeys, became aware, the moment they heard his heels, that the doctor was passing beneath; and the exclamations, "That's the doctor," or "There goes the doctor," announced the important fact to many a family circle. All unconscious, however, of these recognitions, the doctor stumped on his way, reflecting the while, it might be, on the good cheer he had just been enjoying.
On these occasions, the doctor, while he kept the open street, got on swimmingly; but the dark and somewhat tortuous staircase which he had to ascend to reach his domicile--the said domicile being on the third flat--used to annoy him sadly. When very much overcome, as, we grieve to say it, the doctor very frequently was, the labour it cost him to make out the three stairs was very serious. It was long protracted, too; it took him an immense time; for, conscious of his unsteady condition, he climbed slowly and deliberately, but we cannot add quietly; for his shuffling, kicking, and blowing, to which he frequently added a muttered objurgation or two on missing a step, as he struggled up the dark stair, were distinctly audible to the whole land. By merely listening, they could trace his whole progress with the utmost accuracy, from the moment he entered the close, until the slam of a door announced that the doctor was housed. They could hear him pass along the close--they could hear him commence his laborious ascent--they could hear him struggling upwards, and, anon, the point of his boot striking against a step, which he had taken more surely than necessary--they could hear him gain the landing-place at his own door, signified by a peculiar shuffle, which almost seemed to express the intelligence that a great work had been accomplished--they could hear the doctor fumbling amongst his keys and loose coin for his check-key, and again fumbling with this check-key about its aperture in the door, the hitting of the latter being a tedious and apparently most difficult achievement--and, lastly, they could hear the door flung to with great violence, announcing the finale of the doctor's progress.
Over and above the more ordinary and obvious difficulties attending the doctor's ascent on such occasions, and under such circumstances as those of which we speak, there was one of a peculiar and particularly annoying nature. This was the difficulty he found in discriminating his own landing-place from the others,--a difficulty which was greatly increased by the entire similarity of all the landing-places on the stair, the doors in all of which were perfect counterparts of each other, and stood exactly in the same relative positions. This difficulty often nonplussed him sadly; but he at length fell upon a method of overcoming it, and of ensuring his making attempts on no door but his own. He counted the landing-places as he gained them, pausing a second or two on each to draw breath, and impress its number on his memory,--one, two, three, then out with the check-key.
Now this was all very well had the doctor continued to reckon accurately; but, considering the state of obfuscation in which he generally returned home at night, it was very possible that he might miscount on an occasion, and take that for three which, according to Cocker, was only two, or that for two which, by the same authority, was but one. This was perfectly possible, as the sequel of our tale will sufficiently prove. In the meantime, we proceed to other matters; and, to make our history as complete as possible, we start anew with--
THE DOCTOR'S SHOP.
It had not a very imposing appearance; for, to tell a truth, the doctor's circumstances were by no means in a palmy state. The shop, therefore, was decidedly a shabby one. It was very small and very dirty, with a little projecting bow window, the lower panes of which were mystified with some sort of light green substance--paint or paper, we don't know which--in order to baffle the curiosity of the prying urchins who used to congregate about it. Not that they were attracted by anything in the window itself, but that it happened to be a favourite station of the boys in the neighbourhood,--a sort of mustering place, or place of call, where they could at any time find each other. The typical display in the doctor's window consisted of a blue bottle, a pound of salts, and a serpent; the second being made up into labelled packages of about an ounce weight each, and built up with nice skill against one of the panes, so as to make as much show as possible. The serpent was a native of the Lammermoor Hills, which a boy, who drove a buttermilk cart, brought in one morning, and sold to the doctor for a shilling.
The inside of the doctor's shop, which besides being very dirty was very dark, had a strange, mysterious, equivocal sort of character about it. Everything was dingy, and greasy, and battered, and mutilated. Dirty broken glasses stood in dark and dirty corners; rows of dirty bottles, some without stoppers, and some with the necks chipped off, and containing drops of black, villanous-looking liquids, stood on dirty shelves; rows of battered, unctuous-looking drawers, rising tier above tier, lined one side of the shop, most of which were handled with bits of greasy cord, the brass handles with which they had been originally furnished having long since disappeared, and never having been replaced.
What these drawers contained, no human being but the doctor himself could tell. In truth, few of them contained anything at all. Those that did, could be described only as holding mysterious, dirty-looking powders, lumps of incomprehensible substances, or masses of desiccated vegetable matter of powerful and most abominable flavour.
For all these, the doctor had, doubtless, very learned names; but such as we have described them was their appearance to the eye of the uninitiated.
To complete the charms of the doctor's medical establishment, it was constantly pervaded by a heavy, unearthly smell, that, we verily believe, no man but himself could have inhaled for an hour and lived.
Notwithstanding the unpretending and homely character of the doctor's establishment, it boasted a sounding name. The doctor himself called it, and so did the signboard over the door, "The ---- Medical Hall,"--a title which the envious thought absurd enough for a place whose proudest show was a blue bottle, a pound of salts, and a serpent. But these people did not recollect, or did not choose to recollect, the high pretensions of the doctor himself. They did not advert to the numerous degrees, honorary titles, fellowships, etc., which he had acquired, otherwise they would have looked to the man, not to the shop. Probably, however, few of them were aware of the number of these which he boasted; but it is a fact, nevertheless, that the doctor could, and did on particular occasions, sign himself thus:--"David Dobbie, M.D.; E.F.; M.N.O.; U.V.; Z.Y.X.; W.V.U.;" nor did he hesitate sometimes to alter the letters according to the inspiration of the happy moment.
Now, had the doctor's right to all these titles been taken into account, and, so taken, been appreciated as it ought, there would have been fewer sneers at his Medical Hall than there was as matters stood.
In another part of this history we have stated that the doctor, being generally liked, was much invited out to feastings and merry-makings, and convivialities of all sorts, from the aristocratic roast turkey and bottle of port, to the plebeian Findhorn haddock and jug of toddy. But all, in this way, was fish that came in the doctor's net. Provided there was quantity--particularly in the liquor department--he was not much given to shying at quality. He certainly preferred wine, but by no means turned up his nose at a tumbler. Few men, in fact, could empty more at a sitting.
It was observed of the doctor, by those who knew him intimately, that he was always in bad humour on what he called blank days. These were days on which he had no invitation on hand for any description of guzzle whatever--either dinner, tea, supper, or a "just come up and take a glass of toddy in the evening." This seldom occurred, but it did sometimes happen; and on these occasions the doctor's short and snappish answers gave sufficient intimation of the provoking fact.
In such temper, then, and for such reason, was the doctor in the forenoon of the particular day in his life which we have made the subject of this paper. He was as cross as an old drill-sergeant; and what made him worse, the affair he had been at on the preceding night had been a very poor one. He had been hinted away after the third tumbler--treatment which had driven the doctor to swear, mentally, that he would never enter the house again. How far he would keep this determination, it remained for another invitation to prove.
In this mood, then, and at the time already alluded to, was the doctor employed, behind his counter, in measuring off some liquid in a graduated glass, which he held between him and the light, and on which he was looking very intently, as the liquid was precious, the quantity wanted small, and the glass but faintly marked, when a little boy entered the shop, and inquired if Dr. Dobbie was within.
"Yes. What do you want?" replied the doctor gruffly, and without taking his eye off the graduated glass.
"Here's a line for ye, sir," said the boy, laying a card on the counter.
"Who's it from?" roared the doctor.
"Frae Mr. Walkinshaw, sir," replied the boy, meekly; "and he would like to ken whether ye can come or no."
"Come; oh, surely. Let me see," said the doctor. "Come; ay, certainly," he added, his tone suddenly dropping down to the mild and affable, and speaking from an intuitive knowledge of the tenor of the card. "Surely; let me see." And the doctor opened the note and read, his eyes gloating, and his countenance dissolving into smiles, as he did so:--
"DEAR DOCTOR,--A few friends at half-past eight. Just a haddock and a jug of toddy. Be as pointed as you can. Won't be kept _very_ late. Dear Doctor, yours truly,
"My compliments to Mr. Walkinshaw," said the doctor, with a bland smile, and folding up the card with a sort of affectionate air as he spoke, "and tell him I will be pointed. Stop, boy," he added, on the latter's being about to depart with his message; "stop," he said, running towards his till, and thence abstracting threepence, which he put into the boy's hand, with a--"There, my boy, take that to buy marbles." The doctor always rewarded such messengers; but he did so systematically, and by a rule of his own. For an invitation to breakfast he gave a penny, thus estimating that meal at all but the lowest possible rate; for an invitation to dinner he gave sixpence; for one to supper, threepence, as exemplified in the instance above.
In possession of Mr. Walkinshaw's invitation, the doctor continued in excellent spirits throughout the remainder of the day.
At the height of three stories, in a respectable-looking tenement in a certain quarter of a certain city which shall be nameless, there resided a decent widow woman of the name of Paton, who kept lodgers.
At the particular time, and on the particular occasion at and on which we introduce the reader to Mrs. Paton's lodging-house, there was a certain parlour in the said house in a state of unusual tidiness. Not to say that this parlour was not always in good order: it was; but in the present instance, it displayed an extra degree both of _redding_-up and of comfort.
An unusually large fire blazed in the polished grate, and a couple of candles, in shining candlesticks, stood on the bright mahogany table. On a small old-fashioned sideboard was exhibited a goodly display of bottles and glasses, flanked by a sugar basin, heaped up with snowy bits of refined sugar; a small plate of cut cheese, another of biscuit, and a third bearing a couple of lemons.
Everything about the room, in short, gave indication of an approaching guzzle. The symptoms were unmistakeable. The only occupant of the room at this time was a gentleman, who sat in an arm-chair opposite the fire, carelessly turning over the leaves of a new magazine. His heart, evidently, was not in the employment; he was merely putting off time, and doing so with some impatience of manner, for he was ever and anon pulling out his watch to see how the night sped on.
This gentleman was Mr. Walkinshaw, the doctor's inviter, head clerk in a respectable mercantile establishment in the city; and, we need hardly say, one of Mrs. Paton's lodgers. Neither need we say, we fancy, that he was just now waiting, and every moment expecting, the arrival of the doctor, and the other friends he had invited, nor that the preparations above described were intended for the special enjoyment of the party alluded to.
"Five-and-twenty minutes to nine," said Mr. Walkinshaw, looking for the twentieth time at the dial of his watch. "I wonder what has become of the doctor! _he_ used to be so pointed."
At this moment a ring of the door bell announced a visitor. Mr. Walkinshaw, in his impatience for the appearance of his friends, and not doubting that this was one of them, snatched up the candle, and ran to the door himself. He opened it; when a little thick-set figure, in Hessian boots, wrapped up in an ample blue cloth cloak, with an immense cape, and having a red comforter tied round his throat, presented himself. It was the doctor.
"How d'ye do? and how d'ye do? Come away. Glad to see you!" with cordial shaking of hands and joyous smiles, marked the satisfaction with which the inviter and the invited met. The doctor was in high spirits, as he always was on such occasions; that is, when there was a prospect of good eating and drinking, and nothing to pay.
Having assisted the doctor to divest himself of his cloak, hat, and comforter, Mr. Walkinshaw ushered him into his room; and having kindly seated him in the arm-chair which he had himself occupied a minute or two before, he ran to the sideboard, took therefrom a small bottle, and very small glass of the shape of a thistle-top, and approaching his guest, said in a coaxing tone, filling up at the same time--
"Thimbleful of brandy, doctor; just to take the chill off." Anything for an excuse in such cases.
"Why, no objection, my dear sir," said the doctor, smiling most graciously, taking the proffered glass of ruby-coloured liquid, wishing health and a good wife to his host, and tossing off the tiny bumper.
The doctor had scarcely bolted his alcohol, when the door bell again rung violently.
"There _they_ are at last!" exclaimed Walkinshaw, joyously.
And there they were, to be sure. Half-a-dozen rattling fellows all in a lump. In they poured into Walkinshaw's room with hilarious glee.
"Ah, doctor. Oh, doctor. Here too, doctor. Hope you're well, doctor. Glad to see you, doctor!" resounded in all quarters; for they were all intimate acquaintances of our medical friend, and were really delighted to see him.
To this running fire of salutation, the doctor replied by a series of becks, bows, and smiles, and a shaking of hands, right and left, in rapid succession.
All these, and such like preliminaries, gone through, the party took their seats around the table, and the business of the evening began. It soon did more: it progressed, and that most joyously. Jug followed jug in rapid succession. The doctor got into exuberant spirits, and sung several of his best songs, in his best manner. But alas!--
"Pleasures are," etc. etc.
They are, sweet poet, and no man could be more strongly impressed with, or would have more readily allowed the truth and happy application of thy beautiful similes, than the doctor, on the occasion of which we are speaking. Enjoyment was quickly succeeded by satiety; and alert apprehension, and quick perception, by that doziness and obfuscation of the faculties which marks the _quantum suff._ at the festive board.
The doctor was a man who could have said with the face of clay--
"And cursed be he who first cries, Hold, enough!"
But, being but mortal, after all, his powers were not illimitable. There was a boundary which even he could not pass, and at the same time lay his hand on his breast and say, "I'm sober."
That boundary the doctor had now passed by a pretty good way. In plain language, he was cut, very much cut, as was made sufficiently evident by various little symptoms,--such as a certain thickness of speech; a certain diffusion of dull red over the whole countenance, extending to and including the ears, which seemed to become transparent, like a pair of thin, flat, red pebbles; a certain look of stupidity and non-comprehension; and a certain heaviness and lacklustreness of eye, that gave these organs a strong resemblance to a couple of parboiled gooseberries.
Sensible of his own condition, sensible that he could hold out no longer, the doctor now moved, in the most intelligible language which he could conveniently command, that the diet should be deserted _pro loco et tempore_.
The motion was unanimously approved of; this unanimity having been secured by the inability of several of the party, who had been rendered _hors de combat_, to express dissent.
A general break up, then, was the consequence of the doctor's motion. Candle in hand, Mr. Walkinshaw rose and accompanied his guests to the door, towards which they moved in a long irregular file, he leading the way. In the passage, however, a momentary halt was called. It was to allow the doctor to don himself in his walking gear. With some assistance from his host, this was soon accomplished. His hat was stuck on his head, his martial cloak thrown around him, and his immense comforter, like a red blanket, coiled around his neck. Thus accoutred, the doctor and his friends evacuated the premises of their worthy host, Mr. Walkinshaw.
THE RETURN HOME, AND INCIDENTS THEREFROM ARISING.
The doctor had not proceeded far on his way home, until he found himself alone. One after another, his friends had popped off; some disappearing mysteriously, others giving fair warning of their departure, by shaking him by the hand, and wishing him
----"good night, And rosy dreams and slumbers light."
Left to his own reflections, and, we may add, to his own exertions, the doctor stumped bravely homeward, and, without meeting with anything particularly worthy of notice, arrived safely at his own _close_ mouth.
In another part of this history, we have mentioned that there were one or two difficulties that always awaited the doctor on his return home when in the particular state in which he was at this moment. The first of these difficulties was to climb the dark tortuous staircase, on the third story of which was his domicile. The second was to discriminate between his neighbours' door and his own. The reader will recollect that, to obviate this last difficulty, the doctor fell upon the ingenious expedient of counting the landing-places as he ascended, his own being number three.
The reader's memory refreshed as to these particulars, we proceed to say that the doctor, having traversed the close with a tolerably firm and steady step, commenced his laborious ascent of the stair in his usual manner, but with evidently fully more difficulty, as some of the neighbours, who heard his struggles, remarked, than ordinary,--a circumstance from which they inferred--and correctly enough, as we have seen--that the doctor was more than ordinarily overcome.
The first flight of steps the doctor accomplished with perfect success, and with perfect accuracy recorded it as number one. This done, he commenced the ascent of number two; and, after a severe struggle, accomplished it also. But by the time he had done so, the doctor had lost his reckoning, and, believing that he had gained his own landing-place, from which, we need hardly remind the reader, he was yet an entire flight of stairs distant, he deliberately pulled out his check-key, and applied it to the door of the neighbour who lived right under him,--a certain Mr. Thomson, who pursued the intellectual calling of a cheesemonger.
Having inserted the key in the lock, the doctor gave it the necessary twitch; and, obedient to the hint, the bolt rose, the door opened, and the doctor walked in.
Being pitch-dark, and the two houses--that is, the doctor's and Mr. Thomson's--being of precisely the same construction within, nothing presented itself to the unconscious burglar to inform him of the blunder he had made.
Satisfied, or rather never doubting, that all was right, the doctor shut the door, and, groping along the passage, sought the door of a small apartment on the left, which, in his own house, was his bedroom. This room he readily found; and it so happened that in Mr. Thomson's house this same apartment was also a bedroom; so that the doctor, under all circumstances, could not be blamed for feeling perfectly at ease as to his situation. In this feeling, he planted himself down in a chair, and began deliberately to unbutton his waistcoat, preparatory to tumbling in. While thus employed, the doctor indulged in a sort of soliloquy, embracing certain reflections and reminiscences connected with his present condition and recent revelries.
"All right, then," said the doctor, referring to his present position. "Snug in my own bedroom. Capital song yon of Ned's; one of Gilfirian's, I think. Writes a beautiful song, Gil--a pretty song--very pretty. Good feeling, sweet natural sentiment, and all that sort of thing. Must get his new edition, and learn half-a-dozen of them. Hah! confoundedly drunk though--that lee-lurch ugly. Never mind: dead sober in the morning; sound as a roach. Take a seidlitz, and all right."
While thus expressing the ideas that were crowding through his addled brain, the doctor's attention was suddenly attracted by a noise at the outer door. He paused to listen. It was some one, with a key, endeavouring to gain access. What could it mean? Thieves, robbers, no doubt of it. The doctor did not doubt it. So, grasping a huge, thick crab-stick, which he always carried at night, and which he had on the present occasion laid against the wall close by where he sat, the doctor stole on tiptoe towards the door, and taking up a position about a yard distant from it, raised his crab-stick aloft, and in this attitude slily awaited the entrance of the thief, whom he proposed to knock quietly down the moment he passed the door-way.
Leaving the doctor in this gallant position for a few seconds, we step aside to inform the reader of a circumstance or two with which it is right he should be made acquainted. In the first place, he should be, as he now is, informed that the person at the door, and whom the doctor took to be a midnight robber, was no other than the doctor's neighbour, Mr. Thomson himself, the lawful occupant of the house of which the former had taken possession. He had happened, like the doctor, to have been out late that night; and, like the doctor, too, was several sheets in the wind. However, that is neither here nor there to our story. But it is of some consequence to it to add, inasmuch as it accounts for the non-appearance of any one to avert the impending catastrophe, that there was no one residing in Mr. Thomson's house at the particular period of which we speak, but Mr. Thomson himself; his wife, children, and servant, being at sea-bathing quarters. Thus, then, it was that the doctor had been allowed to take and keep such undisturbed possession of the premises.
Again, the doctor being a bachelor, kept no servant at all; the domestic duties of his establishment being performed by an old woman, who came at an early hour of the morning, remained all day, and left at night.
There was thus no family circumstance connected with his own domestic establishment, the absence of which, on the present occasion, might have excited his suspicions as to his real position. Everything, then, favoured the unlucky chance now in progress. To resume: The doctor having placed himself in the hostile attitude already described, coolly and courageously awaited the entrance of the supposed burglar. He had not to wait long. The door opened; and, all unconscious of what was awaiting him, Thomson entered. It was all he was allowed to do, however; for, in the next instant, a well-directed blow from the doctor's crab-stick laid him senseless on the floor.
"Take that, you burglarious villain," shouted the doctor triumphantly, on seeing the success of his assault; "and that, and that, and that," he added, plunging sundry forcible kicks into the body of his prostrate victim with the points of his little stumpy Hessians.
Having settled his man, as he imagined, the doctor stooped down, and, seizing him by the neck of his coat, proceeded to drag him to the outside of the door. This was a work of some difficulty, as Thomson was rather a heavy man; but it was accomplished. The doctor exerted himself, and succeeded in hauling the unconscious body of his unfortunate neighbour on to the landing-place on the outside. Having got him there, he edged him towards the descent, and, giving him a shove with his foot, sent him rolling down the stairs.
The housebreaker thus disposed of, and put, as the doctor believed, beyond all power of doing any more mischief in this world, the latter, highly satisfied with what he had done, and not a little vain of his prowess, re-entered the house, carefully secured the door after him with chain and bolt, and retired to the little bedroom of which he had been before in possession.
Somewhat sobered by the occurrence which had just taken place, the doctor now discovered various little circumstances which rather surprised him. He could not, for instance, find his nightcap; it was not in the place where it used to be. Neither could he find the boot-jack; it was not where it used to be either. The bed, too, he thought, had taken up a strange position; it was not in the same corner of the room, and the head was reversed. The head of his bed used to be towards the door; he now found the foot in that direction.
All these little matters the doctor noted, and thought them rather odd; but he set them all down to the debit of his housekeeper,--some as the results of carelessness--such as the absence of the nightcap and boot-jack; others--the shifting of the bed and altering its position--to the whim of some new arrangement.
Thus satisfactorily accounting for the little omissions and discrepancies he noted, the doctor began to peel; and, in a short time after, was snugly buried beneath the blankets, with his red comforter round his head in place of a nightcap.
Leaving the doctor for a time, thus comfortably quartered, we will look after the unfortunate victim of his prowess, whose rights he was now so complacently usurping.
For fully half an hour after he had been bundled down stairs by the doctor in the way already described, poor Thomson lay without sense or motion. At about the end of that time, however, he so far recovered as to be able to emit two or three dismal groans, which happening to be overheard by the policeman on the station, who was at the moment going his rounds, he hastened towards the quarter from whence the alarming sounds proceeded, and found the ill-used cheesemonger lying at full length on the stair, head downwards, and, of course, feet uppermost.
The policeman held his lantern close to the face of the unfortunate man, to see if he could recognise him; but this he could not, and that for two reasons: First, being newly come to the station, he did not know Thomson at all; and, second, the countenance of the latter was so covered with blood, and otherwise disfigured, that, suppose he had, he could not possibly have recognised him.
Seeing the man in a senseless state, and, as he thought, perhaps mortally injured, the policeman hastened to the office to give notice of his situation, and to procure assistance to have him carried there; all of which was speedily done. A bier was brought, and on this bier the person of the unfortunate cheesemonger was placed, and borne to the police office.
Medical aid being here afforded to the sufferer, he was soon brought so far round as to be able to give some account of himself, and of the misfortune which had befallen him. His face, too, having been cleared of the blood by which it was disguised, he was recognised by several persons in the office; and being known to be a respectable man, the wonder was greatly increased to see him in so lamentable a condition. Mr. Thomson's account, however, of the occurrences of the night explained all.
He stated that, on returning home to his own house, in which there was no one living at present but himself, he was encountered by some one in the passage, and knocked down the instant he entered the door. Who or what the person was he could not tell, but he had no doubt that it was some one who had entered the house for the purpose of robbing it; and added his belief that the house was filled with robbers, who, he had no doubt, had plundered it of every portable article worth carrying away.
How he came to be found on the stair he could not tell, but supposed that he had been dragged there after he had been knocked down--that proceeding having deprived him of all consciousness.
Here ended Mr. Thomson's deposition; and great was the sensation, great the commotion which it excited in the police office. So daring a burglary--so daring an assault. The like had not been heard of for years. In a twinkling, eight or ten men were mustered, lanterned, and bludgeoned; and, headed by a sergeant, were on their march to the scene of robbery.
On arriving at Mr. Thomson's door, they found it fast, and all quiet within. What was to be done? Force open the door? Perhaps some of the villains were still in the house. At any rate, it was proper to see what state things were in.
A smith was accordingly sent for, the lock picked, and the door thrown open, when, headed by the sergeant with a pistol in his hand, in rushed a mob of policemen, a constellation of lanterns, a forest of bludgeons.
The guardians of the night now dispersed themselves over the house; but, to their great surprise, found no trace whatever of the thieves. There appeared to have been nothing disturbed, and the doors and windows remained all fast.
Puzzled by these circumstances, the police had begun to abate somewhat of that zeal with which they had first commenced their search, and were standing together in knots, some in one room and some in another, discussing the probabilities and likelihoods of the case, when those in the doctor's apartment were suddenly startled by a loud snore or grunt, proceeding from the bed, which was followed by a restless movement, and the exclamation--"Thieves, robbers!" muttered in the thick indistinct way of a person dreaming.
In an instant, half a dozen policemen rushed towards the bed, drew aside the curtains, and there beheld the unconscious face of the heroic little doctor just peering out of the blankets, and a section of the red comforter in which his head was entombed in the manner already set forth. We have said that the face on which the astonished policemen now looked was an unconscious one. So it was; for, notwithstanding the grunt he had emitted, the movement he had made, and the exclamations he had uttered, the doctor was still sound asleep; the former having been merely the result of dreamy reminiscences of the past, awakened by an indistinct sense of the presence of some person or persons in the house.
In mute surprise, the police, every one holding his lantern aloft, and thus surrounding the bed with a halo of light, gazed for a second or two on the sleeping Esculapius. They had never, in the course of all their experience, seen a burglar take things so coolly and comfortably. That he should enter a house with the intention of robbing it, and should deliberately strip, go to bed, and take a snooze in that house, was a piece of such daring impudence as they had never heard of before.
It was no time, however, for making reflections on the subject. The business in hand was to secure the villain; and this was promptly done. Finding his sleep so profound as not to be easily disturbed, half a dozen men, lanterns and sticks in hand, flung themselves on the doctor, and, seizing him by the legs and arms, had him in a twinkling on the floor on the breadth of his back. Confounded and bewildered as he was by the extraordinary and appalling circumstances in which he now found himself--surrounded with what appeared to him to be a mob--lanterns flitting about as thick as the sparks on a piece of burned paper--cudgels bristling around him like a paling--and, to complete all, a clamour and hubbub of tongues that might have been heard three streets off;--we say, confounded and bewildered as he was by these sights and sounds, the doctor's pluck did not desert him. Starting to his feet, and not doubting that he was in the midst of a mob of housebreakers, he seized one of the policemen by the throat, when a deadly struggle ensued, in which the doctor's shirt was, in a twinkling, torn up into ribbons; in another twinkling he was floored by a blow from a baton, and rendered incapable of further resistance.
The combat had been a most unequal one, and no other consequence could possibly have arisen from it.
Having knocked down the doctor, the next business, as is usual in such and similar cases, was to get him up again. Accordingly, three or four men got hold of him by the arms and shoulders, and having raised him to his feet, planted him, still senseless, in a chair.
A clamorous consultation, spoken in half a dozen different dialects, now ensued, as to how the housebreaker was to be disposed of.
"We'll teuk him to the office, to pe surely," said a hard-faced, red-whiskered Celt. "What else you'll do wi' ta roke that'll proke into shentleman's hoose, and go to ped as comfortable as a lort. Dam's impitence."
"Soul, and it's to the office we'll have him, by all manner o' means, and that in the twinkling of a bedpost," chimed in a tall raw-boned Irishman, with a spotted cotton handkerchief tied so high around the lower part of his face as to bury his mouth. "The thaif o' the world. It's a free passage across the wather he'll now get, anyhow, bad luck to him."
"Fat, tiel, would you tak the man stark naked through the street?" said a little thick-set Aberdonian. "It would be verra undecent. There's a bit cloaky there; throw that aboot his shouthers, and then we'll link him awa like a water-stoup."
"Od, ye'll no fin that so easy, I'm thinkin!" exclaimed a lumpish, broad-shouldered young fellow. "He's as fat's a Lochrin distillery pig. He's a hantle mair like his meat than his wark, that ane."
Hitherto the unfortunate subject of these remarks had been able to take no part in what was passing; but, stupefied by the blow he had received, which had covered his face with blood, and further confounded by the various circumstances of the case--his previous debauch, the violence and suddenness of his awakening, and the extraordinary clamour and uproar that surrounded him--he sat, with drooping head and confused senses, without uttering a word.
His physical energies, however, gradually recovering a little, he began to stare about him with a look of bewilderment; and at length, fixing his eye on the Irishman, who happened to be standing directly opposite him, he addressed him with a--
"Pray, friend, what is the meaning of all this?"
"Faiks, my purty fellow, and it's yourself that might be after guessing that with your own 'cute genius," replied Paddy. "Haven't you half a notion, now, of what you have been about the same blessed night?"
"I have a pretty good notion that my house has been broken into by a parcel of ruffians," said the doctor, "and that I have been half, perhaps wholly, murdered by you."
"Capital, ould fellow; capital," said the Irishman. "Tell truth, and shame the devil. Your house! Stick to that, my jewel, and you'll astonish the spalpeens. But come, come, my tight little mannikin, get up wid ye. You'll go and have a peep of _our_ house now. Time about's fair play."
And he seized the doctor, who was now wrapped in his cloak, and was forcing him from his seat, when the latter, resisting this movement, called out--
"Does no one here know me? Will no one here protect me? What am I assailed in my own house in this manner for? My name's Dobbie--Doctor Dobbie!"
"Your name's no nosin to nobody, you roke," said Duncan M'Kay, seconding the efforts of his colleague to lug the doctor out of his seat. "You'll be one names to-day and anodder names to-morrow. So shust come along to ta office, toctor--since you calls yourselfs a toctor--and teuket a nicht's quarters wi' some o' your frients that's there afore you."
"Let's get a grup o' him," exclaimed the broad-shouldered young fellow already spoken of, edging himself in to have a share in the honour of laying a capturing hand on the doctor. "Od, he's as round as a pokmanky. There's nae getting hand o' him. Come awa, doctor; come awa, my man. Bailie Morton 'll be unco glad to see ye," he added, having succeeded in getting hold of one of the doctor's arms, which he seized with a grip like a vice.
Undeterred by the overpowering force with which he was assailed, the doctor still resisted, vainly announcing and re-announcing his name and calling. It had the effect only of increasing the clamour and hubbub amongst the police, who now all huddled round him in a mob; and without listening to a word he said, finally succeeded in carrying him bodily out of the house, in despite of some desperate struggling, and a great deal of noisy vociferation on the part of the doctor.
THE POLICE OFFICE, AND FINALE.
Leading off from and immediately behind the public office, there was a small carpeted room, provided with a sofa, some chairs, and a writing-desk.
This room was appropriated to some of the upper functionaries connected with the police establishment of ----, and was the scene of private examinations of culprits, and of other kinds of proceedings of a private nature.
At the time at which we introduce the reader to this apartment, there lay extended on the sofa above spoken of, a gentleman who appeared to have seen some recent service, if one might judge from the circumstance of his head being bound up in a blood-stained handkerchief, and his exhibiting some symptoms of languor and debility. This gentleman was Mr. Thomson, who was awaiting the result of the expedition which had gone to examine his house, and whose return he was now momentarily expecting. Awaiting the same issue then, and awaiting it in the same apartment, was another gentleman. This person was a sort of sub-superintendent of the police; and was, at the moment of which we speak, busily engaged writing at the desk formerly mentioned.
Both of those persons, then, were anxiously waiting the return of the detachment whose proceedings are already before the reader, beguiling the time, meanwhile, by discussing the probabilities of the case. They were thus engaged, when a tremendous noise in the outer office gave intimation of an arrival, and one of no ordinary kind; for the tramping of feet was immense, and the hubbub astounding.
"That's _them_," said Mr. Thomson.
"I think it is," said the sub.
Ere any other remark could be made, the door of the private apartment was opened, and in marched a short, stout, half-dressed, bloody-faced gentleman, in a blue cloth cloak, between two policemen, and followed by a mob of functionaries of the same description, who stood so thick as to completely block up the door. This stout, half-dressed gentleman in the blue cloth cloak was the doctor.
"Dear me, doctor," said Mr. Thomson, advancing towards the former, whom he at once recognised, "what's the matter? What terrible affair is this?"
"Terrible indeed--unheard of, monstrous!" exclaimed the doctor, in a towering passion. "My house, sir, has been broken into by these ruffians. I have been torn from my bed, maltreated in the way you see, and dragged here like a felon by them, and for what I know not. But I _will_ know it; and if I don't--"
"This is odd, doctor," here interposed Mr. Thomson; "I have been the victim of a similar kind of violence to-night, as you may see by the state of my head, although the case is in other respects somewhat different. My house has been also broken into."
"Bless my soul, very strange!" said the doctor, taking a momentary interest in the misfortunes of his neighbour. "By these ruffians?" he added, pointing to the police.
"No, no, not them," replied Thomson; "housebreakers. Some villains had got into the house; and I had no sooner entered it, on returning home a little later than usual, than I was knocked down, dragged out to the stair, and thrown down, where I was found in a state of insensibility and brought here."
The doctor winced a little at this statement: a vague suspicion, we can hardly say of the fact, but of something akin thereto, began to glimmer dimly on his mental optics. He, however, said nothing; nor, even had he been inclined to say anything, was opportunity afforded him; for here the presiding official of the place, the sub-superintendent, to whom the doctor was well known, and who had impatiently awaited the conclusion of the conversation between the latter and Thomson, interfered with a--
"Good heaven, doctor, how came you to be in this situation? What is the meaning of all this?" he added, turning to his men.
"The maining's as plain as a pike-staff, your honour," replied the Irish watchman, to whom we have already introduced the reader. "We found this little gentleman, since he turns out to be a gentleman, where he shouldn't have been."
"And where was that, pray?" inquired the sub.
"Why, in Mr. Thomson's house, your honour. And not only that, but in bed too, as snug as a fox in a chimbley."
"In ta fery peds, ta roke!" here chimed in our friend M'Kay.
"What! you don't mean to say that you found the doctor here in _Mr. Thomson's_ house?" said the astonished official, laying a marked emphasis on the name.
"To pe surely we do, sir," replied Duncan.
"I'll tak my Bible oath till't," added another personage, whom the reader will readily recognise.
"In my house! The doctor in _my_ house!" exclaimed Mr. Thomson, in the utmost amazement.
"Mr. Thomson's house! Me in Mr. Thomson's house!" said the doctor, with a look of blank dismay; for a tolerably distinct view of the truth had now begun to present itself to his mind's eye. It was, therefore, rather in the desperate hope of there being yet some chance in his favour, than from any conviction that the testimony against him was founded in error, that he added--
"My _own_ house, you scoundrels; you found me in my _own_ house!"
Here the whole mob of policemen simultaneously, and as if with one voice, shouted--"It's a lie, it's a lie. We found him in Mr. Thomson's."
"How do you explain this, doctor?" said Mr. Thomson mildly, although beginning--he couldn't help it--to think rather queerly of the doctor.
"Why, why," replied the crest-fallen and perplexed doctor, "if I really have been in your house, Mr. Thomson, although I can't believe it, I must, I must--in fact, I must have mistaken it for my own. To tell a truth, I came home rather cut last night; and it is possible, quite possible, although I can hardly think probable, that I may have taken your house for my own. That's the fact," added the doctor, with something like an appeal to the lenity of the person whose rights he had so unwittingly usurped, and whose corporeal substance he had so seriously maltreated.
"And was it you that knocked me down, doctor?" said Mr. Thomson. "Too bad that, to knock me down in my own house."
"Why, my dear sir, I trust I did not. I hope I did not. But really I don't know; perhaps I--you see, I thought thieves were coming in, and I--"
Here a burst of laughter from the presiding officer, which was instantly taken up by every one in the apartment, and in which Thomson himself couldn't help joining, interrupted the doctor's further explanations.
"Well, doctor," said the latter, who was a good-natured sort of person, and who, like every one else, had a kind of esteem for the little medical gentleman, "I must say that when you broke my head, you were only in the way of your trade; but I think the least thing you can do is to mend it for nothing."
"Most gladly, my dear sir," replied the doctor; "for I did the damage,--at least I fear it, however unknowingly,--and am bound to repair it."
"Done; let it be a bargain," said Thomson. "But, doctor, be so good as to give me previous notice when you again desire to take possession of my house. At any rate, don't knock me down when I come to seek a share of it."
The doctor promised to observe the conditions; and shortly after, the two left the office, arm in arm, in the most friendly way imaginable.
It is said, although we cannot vouch for the truth of the report, that the doctor, after this, fell upon the expedient of casting a knot on his handkerchief for each landing-place in the stair as he gained it, when ascending the latter under such circumstances as those that gave rise to the awkward occurrence which has been the subject of these pages.
Amongst the many thousand readers of these tales, there are perhaps few who have not observed that the object of the writers is frequently of a higher kind than that of merely contributing to their amusement. They would wish "to point a moral," while they endeavour to "adorn a tale." It is with this view that I now lay before them the history of a SEEKER. The first time I remember hearing, or rather of noticing the term, was in a conversation with a living author respecting the merits of a popular poet, when, his religious opinions being adverted to, it was mentioned that, in a letter to a brother poet of equal celebrity, he described himself as a SEEKER. I was struck with the word and its application. I had never met with the fool who saith in his heart that there is no God; and though I had known many deniers of revelation, yet a SEEKER, in the sense in which the word was applied, appeared a new character. But, on reflection, I found it an epithet applicable to thousands, and adopted it as a title to our present story.
Richard Storie was the eldest son of a Dissenting minister, who had the pastoral charge of a small congregation a few miles from Hawick. His father was not what the world calls a man of talent, but he possessed what is far beyond talents--piety and humanity. In his own heart he felt his Bible to be true--its words were as a lamp within him; and from his heart he poured forth its doctrines, its hopes, and consolations, to others, with a fervour and an earnestness which Faith only can inspire. It is not the thunder of declamation, the pomp of eloquence, the majesty of rhetoric, the rounded period, and the glow of imagery, which can chain the listening soul, and melt down the heart of the unbeliever, as metals yield to the heat of the furnace. Show me the hoary-headed preacher, who carries sincerity in his very look and in his very tones, who is animated because faith inspires him, and out of the fulness of his own heart his mouth speaketh, and there is the man from whose tongue truth floweth as from the lips of an apostle; and the small still voice of conscience echoes to his words, while hope burns, and the judgment becomes convinced. Where faith is not in the preacher, none will be produced in the hearer. Such a man was the father of Richard Storie. He had fulfilled his vows, and prayed with and for his children. He set before them the example of a Christian parent, and he rejoiced to perceive that that example was not lost upon them.
We pass over the earlier years of Richard Storie, as during that period he had not become a SEEKER, nor did he differ from other children of his age. There was indeed a thoughtfulness and sensibility about his character; but these were by no means so remarkable as to require particular notice, nor did they mark his boyhood in a peculiar degree. The truths which from his childhood he had been accustomed to hear from his father's lips, he had never doubted; but he felt their truth as he felt his father's love, for both had been imparted to him together. He had fixed upon the profession of a surgeon, and at the age of eighteen he was sent to Edinburgh to attend the classes. He was a zealous student, and his progress realized the fondest wishes and anticipations of his parent. It was during his second session that Richard was induced, by some of his fellow collegians, to become a member of a debating society. It was composed of many bold and ambitious young men, who, in the confidence of their hearts, rashly dared to meddle with things too high for them. There were many amongst them who regarded it as a proof of manliness to avow their scepticism, and who gloried in scoffing at the eternal truths which had lighted the souls of their fathers when the darkness of death fell upon their eyelids. It is one of the besetting sins of youth to appear wise above what is written. There were many such amongst those with whom Richard Storie now associated. From them he first heard the truths which had been poured into his infant ear from his father's lips attacked, and the tongue of the scoffer rail against them. His first feeling was horror, and he shuddered at the impiety of his friends. He rose to combat their objections and refute their arguments, but he withdrew not from the society of the wicked. Week succeeded week, and he became a leading member of the club. He was no longer filled with horror at the bold assertions of the avowed sceptic, nor did he manifest disgust at the ribald jest. As night silently and imperceptibly creeps through the air, deepening shade on shade, till the earth lies buried in its darkness, so had the gloom of _Doubt_ crept over his mind, deepening and darkening, till his soul was bewildered in the sunless darkness.
The members acted as chairman of the society in rotation, and, in his turn, the office fell upon Eichard Storie. For the first time, he seemed to feel conscious of the darkness in which his spirit was enveloped; conscience haunted him as a hound followeth its prey; and still its small still voice whispered,
"Who sitteth in the scorner's chair."
The words seemed burning on his memory. He tried to forget them, to chase them away--to speak of, to listen to other things; but he could not. "_Who sitteth in the scorner's chair_" rose upon his mind as if printed before him--as if he heard the words from his father's tongue--as though they would rise to his own lips. He was troubled--his conscience smote him--the darkness in which his soul was shrouded was made visible. He left his companions--he hastened to his lodgings, and wept. But his tears brought not back the light which had been extinguished within him, nor restored the hopes which the pride and the rashness of reason had destroyed. He had become the willing prisoner of _Doubt_, and it now held him in its cold and iron grasp, struggling in despair.
Reason, or rather the self-sufficient arrogance of fancied talent which frequently assumes its name, endeavoured to suppress the whisperings of conscience in his breast; and in such a state of mind was Richard Storie, when he was summoned to attend the death-bed of his father. It was winter, and the snow lay deep on the ground, and there was no conveyance to Hawick until the following day; but, ere the morrow came, eternity might be between him and his parent. He had wandered from the doctrines that parent had taught, but no blight had yet fallen on the affections of his heart. He hurried forth on foot; and having travelled all night in sorrow and anxiety, before daybreak he arrived at the home of his infancy. Two of the elders of the congregation stood before the door.
"Ye are just in time, Mr. Richard," said one of them mournfully, "for he'll no be lang now; and he has prayed earnestly that he might only be spared till ye arrived."
Richard wept aloud.
"Oh, try and compose yoursel', dear sir," said the elder. "Your distress may break the peace with which he's like to pass away. It's a sair trial, nae doubt--a visitation to us a'; but ye ken, Richard, we must not mourn as those who have no hope."
"Hope!" groaned the agonized son as he entered the house. He went towards the room where his father lay; his mother and his brethren sat weeping around the bed.
"Richard!" said his afflicted mother as she rose and flung her arms around his neck. The dying man heard the name of his first-born, his languid eyes brightened, he endeavoured to raise himself upon his pillow, he stretched forth his feeble hand. "Richard!--my own Richard!" he exclaimed; "ye hae come, my son; my prayer is heard, and I can die in peace! I longed to see ye, for my spirit was troubled upon yer account--sore and sadly troubled; for there were expressions in yer last letter that made me tremble--that made me fear that the pride o' human learning was lifting up the heart o' my bairn, and leading his judgment into the dark paths o' error and unbelief; but oh! these tears are not the tears of an unbeliever!"
He sank back exhausted. Richard trembled. He again raised his head.
"Get the books," said he feebly, "and Richard will make worship. It is the last time we shall all join together in praise on this earth, and it will be the last time I shall hear the voice o' my bairn in prayer, and it is long since I heard it. Sing the hymn,
'The hour of my departure's come,'
and read the twenty-third psalm."
Richard did as his dying parent requested; and as he knelt by the bedside, and lifted up his voice in prayer, his conscience smote him, agony pierced his soul, and his tongue faltered. He now became a Seeker, seeking mercy and truth at the same moment; and, in the agitation of his spirit, his secret thoughts were revealed, his doubts were manifested! A deep groan issued from the dying-bed. The voice of the supplicant failed him--his _amen_ died upon his lips; he started to his feet in confusion.
"My son! my son!" feebly cried the dying man, "ye hae lifted yer eyes to the mountains o' vanity, and the pride o' reason has darkened yer heart, but, as yet, it has not hardened it. Oh Richard! remember the last words o' yer dying faither: 'Seek, and ye shall find.' Pray with an humble and a contrite heart, and in yer last hour ye will hae, as I hae now, a licht to guide ye through the dark valley of the shadow of death."
He called his wife and his other children around him--he blessed them--he strove to comfort them--he committed them to his care who is the Husband of the widow and the Father of the fatherless. The lustre that lighted up his eyes for a moment, as he besought a blessing on them, vanished away, his head sank back upon his pillow, a low moan was heard, and his spirit passed into peace.
His father's death threw a blight upon the prospects of Richard. He no longer possessed the means of prosecuting his studies; and in order to support himself and assist his mother, he engaged himself as tutor in the family of a gentleman in East Lothian. But there his doubts followed him, and melancholy sat upon his breast. He had thoughtlessly, almost imperceptibly, stepped into the gloomy paths of unbelief, and anxiously he groped to retrace his steps; but it was as a blind man stumbles; and in wading through the maze of controversy for a guide, his way became more intricate, and the darkness of his mind more intense. He repented that he had ever listened to the words of the scoffer, or sat in the chair of the scorner; but he had permitted the cold mists of scepticism to gather round his mind, till even the affections of his heart became blighted by their influence. He was now a solitary man, shunning society; and at those hours when his pupils were not under his charge, he would wander alone in the wood or by the river, brooding over unutterable thoughts, and communing with despair; for he sought not, as is the manner of many, to instil the poison that had destroyed his own peace into the minds of others. He carried his punishment in his soul, and was silent--in the soul that was doubting its own existence! Of all hypochondriacs, to me the unbeliever seems the most absurd. For can matter think? can it reason, can it doubt? Is it not the thing that doubts which distrusts its own being? Often when he so wandered, the last words of his father--"Seek, and ye shall find"--were whispered in his heart, as though the spirit of the departed breathed them over him. Then would he raise his hands in agony, and his prayer rose from the solitude of the woods.
After acting about two years as tutor, he returned to Edinburgh and completed his studies. Having with difficulty, from the scantiness of his means, obtained his diplomas, he commenced practice in his native village. His brothers and his sisters had arrived at manhood and womanhood, and his mother enjoyed a small annuity. Almost from boyhood he had been deeply attached to Agnes Brown, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer; and about three years after he had commenced practice, she bestowed on him her hand. She was all that his heart could wish--meek, gentle, and affectionate; and her anxious love threw a gleam of sunshine over the melancholy that had settled upon his soul. Often, when he fondly gazed in her eyes, where affection beamed, the hope of immortality would flash through his bosom; for one so good, so made of all that renders virtue dear, but to be born to die and to be no more, he deemed impossible. They had been married about nine years, and Agnes had become the mother of five fair children, when in one day death entered their dwelling, and robbed them of two of their little ones. The neighbours had gathered together to comfort them, and the mother in silent anguish wept over her babes; but the father stood tearless and stricken with grief, as though his hopes were sealed up in the coffin of his children. In his agony he uttered words of strange meaning. The doubts of the Seeker burst forth in the accents of despair. The neighbours gazed at each other. They had before had doubts of the religious principles of Dr. Storie; now those doubts were confirmed. Many began to regard him as an unsafe man to visit a death-bed, where he might attempt to rob the dying of the everlasting hope which enables them to triumph over the last enemy. His practice fell off, and the wants of his family increased. He was no longer able to maintain an appearance of respectability. His circumstances aggravated the gloom of his mind; and for a time he became, not a Seeker, but one who abandoned himself to callousness and despair. Even the affection of his wife--which knew no change, but rather increased as affliction and misfortune came upon them--with the smiles and affection of his children, became irksome. Their love increased his misery. His own house was all but forsaken, and the blacksmith's shop became his consulting room, the village alehouse his laboratory. Misery and contempt heightened the "shadows, clouds, and darkness" which rested on his mind. To his anguish and excitement he had now added habits of intemperance; his health became a wreck, and he sank upon his bed, a miserable and a ruined man. The shadow of death seemed lowering over him, and he lay trembling, shrinking from its approach, shuddering and brooding over the cheerless, the horrible thought--_annihilation_! But, even then, his poor Agnes watched over him with a love stronger than death. She strove to cheer him with the thought that he would still live--that they would again be happy. "Oh my husband!" cried she fondly, "yield not to despair; _seek, and ye shall find_!"
"Oh heavens, Agnes!" exclaimed he, "I have sought!--I have sought! I have been a SEEKER until now; but Truth flees from me, Hope mocks me, and the terrors of Death only find me!"
"Kneel with me, my children," she cried; "let us pray for mercy and peace of mind for your poor father!" And the fond wife and her offspring knelt around the bed where her husband lay. A gleam of joy passed over the sick man's countenance, as the voice of her supplication rose upon his ear, and a ray of hope fell upon his heart. "_Amen_!" he uttered as she arose; and "_Amen_!" responded their children.
On the bed of sickness his heart had been humbled; he had, as it were, seen death face to face; and the nearer it approached, the stronger assurances did he feel of the immortality he had dared to doubt. He arose from his bed a new man; hope illumined, and faith began to glow in his bosom. His doubts were vanquished, his fears dispelled. He had sought, and at length found the hopes of the Christian.
THE SURGEON'S TALES.
About thirty years ago, the office of carrier between Edinburgh and a certain town on the north of the Tay was discharged by a person of the name of George Skirving. At the time of which we speak he might be about forty-five years of age, a man of considerable physical strength, and with as much mental firmness as will be found among the generality of mankind. His occupation, in travelling during night, required often the confirming influence of personal courage, to keep him from being alarmed; and his activity, and exposure to the fresh air of both land and water, were conducive to bodily health and elasticity of spirits. He was at once a faithful carrier and a good companion on the road, along which he was generally respected; and, by attention to business and economical habits of living, he had been enabled to realize as much money as might suffice to sustain him, with his wife and three children, in the event of his being disabled, by accident or ill health, from following his ordinary employment.
The day in which George Skirving left the northern town for Edinburgh, was Wednesday of each week; and he started at the hour of seven, both in winter and summer. On one occasion, in the month of August, he set out from his quarters at his usual hour; and having crossed the Tay with his goods, proceeded on his way through Fife. He had with him his dog Wolf, who usually served him as a companion; his waggons were loaded with goods, the proceeds of the carriage of which he counted as he trudged along; and he now and then had recourse to a small flask of spirits which his wife had, without his knowledge, and contrary to her usual custom, placed in the breast-pocket of his great-coat. He was thus in good spirits; and as he applied himself with great moderation--for he was a sober man--to his inspiring companion, he jocularly blamed Betty (such was the name of his consort) for defrauding his houses of call on the road of the custom he used to bestow on them.
"It was kind o' ye, Betty," he said; "but it saves naething; for if I, wha have travelled this road for sae mony years, were to pass John Sharpe's, or Widow M'Murdo's, or Andrew Gemmel's, without takin' my usual allowance, I would be set doun as fey or mad. I maun gae through a' my usual routine--mak my ca's, order my drams, drink them, and pay for them, as I hae dune for twenty years. Men are just like clocks--some gae owre fast, and some owre slow; but the carrier, beyond a', maun keep to his time aye, and _chap_ at the proper time and place, or idleness and beggary would soon mak time hang weary on his hands."
He had trudged onwards in his slow pace for a space of about eight miles, and was at the distance of about three from Cupar, when he was accosted by a person of the name of James Cowie, an inhabitant of Dundee, with whom he had for a long time been in habits of intimacy.
"You are weel forward the day, George," said Cowie. "Ye'll be in Cupar before your time. There's rowth a parcels for ye at John Sharpe's door, yonder. But, mercy on me!" he continued, starting and looking amazed, "what's the matter wi' ye, man?"
"Naething," replied George. "I hae been takin' a few draps o' Betty's cordial, here," pointing to the flask, "and maybe the colour may have mounted to my face."
"The colour mounted to your face, man!" ejaculated Cowie. "Is it whiteness--paleness--ye mean by colour? Ye're like a clout, man--a bleached clout. There's something wrang, rely upon it, George; some o' that intricate machinery o' our fearfu' systems out o' joint. Is it possible ye have felt or feel nae change?"
"Nane whatever, Jamie," answered the carrier, somewhat alarmed. "You're surely joking me; I never felt better i' my life. No, no, Jamie, there's naething the matter; thank God, I'm in gude health."
"It's weel ye think sae," replied Cowie, with a satirical tone; "but if I'm no cheated, ye're on the brink o' some fearfu' disease. Get up on your cart, man; hasten to Cupar, an' speak to Doctor Lowrie. It's a braw thing to tak diseases in time."
"If a white face is a' ye judge by," said George, attempting to make light of the matter, "I can remove it by an application to Betty's cordial."
"Ay, do that," said Cowie ironically, "and add fuel to the flame. If I werena your friend, I wadna tak this liberty wi' ye. I assure ye again, an' I hae some judgment o' thae matters, that ye're very ill. That's no an ordinary paleness: your lips are blue, an' your eyes dull an' heavy--sure signs o' an oncome. Haste ye to Cupar an' get advice, an' ye may yet ca' me your best friend."
As he finished these words, Cowie turned to proceed onwards towards Newport.
"Ye've either said owre little or owre muckle, James," replied George, after a slight pause, and resigning his carelessness.
"I hae just said the truth, George," added Cowie; "but I maun be in Dundee by one o'clock, an' canna wait. I'll say naething to Mrs. Skirving to alarm her; but, for God's sake, tak my advice, an' consult Doctor Lowrie."
He proceeded on his journey, leaving Skirving in doubt and perplexity. At first he was considerably affected by Cowie's speech and manner, because he knew him to be a serious man, and averse to all manner of joking. It was possible, he admitted, that a disease might be lurking secretly in his vitals, unknown to himself, but discernible to another; and the circumstance of his wife having put the flask of cordial in his coat-pocket, seemed to indicate that she had observed something wrong before he set out, and had been afraid to communicate it to him, in case it might alarm him. His spirits sank, as this confirmation of Cowie's statement came to his mind; he put his right hand to his left wrist, to feel the state of the pulse, and, as might have been expected, discovered (for he overlooked the effects of his fear) that it was much quicker than it used to be when he was in perfect health.
Having been taken thus by surprise, he remained in a state of considerable depression for some time; but when he came to think of the inadequate grounds of his alarm, he began to rally; and his mind, rebounding, as it were, on the cessation of the depressing reverie, threw off the fear, and he recovered so far his natural courage as to laugh at the strange fancy that had taken possession of him.
"I was a fule," he said to himself. "What though my face be pale, and my eyes heavy, and my pulse a little quicker than usual, am I to dee for a' that? Cowie has probably had his _morning_; and truly his appearance, now when I think of it, didna assort ill wi' that supposition. Johnny Sharpe and he are auld cronies, and they couldna part without some wet pledge o' their auld friendship. I'll wad my best horse on the point. Ha! ha! what a fule I was!" He accompanied these words by again feeling his pulse. The fear was greatly off, the pulsations had become more regular; and this confirmation enabled him to laugh off the effects the extraordinary announcements had made upon him.
He proceeded onwards to Cupar, and stopped at John Sharpe's inn. The landlord was at the door. George looked at him narrowly, as he saluted him in the ordinary form. He thought the innkeeper looked also very narrowly at him, as he answered his salutation; but he was afraid to broach the question of his sickly appearance, and hurried away to get the goods packed that stood at the inn door. Having finished his work, during which he thought he saw the landlord looking strangely at him, he called for the quantity of spirits he was usually in the habit of getting, and, as he filled out the glass, asked quickly if James Cowie had been there that morning. The landlord answered that he had; but added, of his own accord, that he did not remain in the house so long as to give time for even drinking to each other. This answer produced a greater effect upon George than he was even then aware of; and it is not unlikely that this, and the impression that the landlord looked at him _strangely_, produced the very paleness that Cowie had mentioned. Be that as it may, he took up the glass of spirits and laid it down again, without almost tasting it; and his reason for this departure from his ordinary course, was, that he had already partaken sufficiently of his wife's cordial; and he had some strange misgivings about drinking ardent spirits, in case, after all, it might turn out that there was hanging about him some disease. The moment he laid down the full glass, the landlord said to him, looking in an inquiring and sympathetic manner into his face--
"George, I haena seen you do that for ten years. Are you well enough?"
"What! what! eh, what!" stammered out the carrier confusedly; "do you think I'm ill, John?"
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the inn bell rang, and the landlord was called away, and, being otherwise occupied, did not return. After waiting for him a considerable time, Skirving became impatient, and, making another effort to shake off his fears, applied the whip to his horses, and proceeded on his journey. For a time his mind was so much confused that he could not contemplate the whole import of the extraordinary coincidence he had just witnessed; but as he proceeded and came to a quieter part of the road, his thoughts reverted to the statements of James Cowie--who, he was now satisfied, had been quite sober--to the looks and extraordinary question of John Sharpe, and to the intention of his wife in providing him with the cordial. As he pondered on this strange accumulation of according facts, he again felt his pulse, which had again risen to the height it had attained during the prior paroxysm. The affair had now assumed a new aspect. It was impossible that this concurrence of circumstances could be fortuitous. He was now much afraid that he was ill--very ill indeed; perhaps under the incipient symptoms of typhus or brain fever, or small-pox, or some other dreadful disease. As these thoughts rose in his mind, he grew faint, and would have sat down; but he felt a reluctance to stop his carts, and a feeling of shame struggled against his conviction, and kept him walking.
This state of nervous excitement remained, in spite of many efforts he made to throw off his fears. Yet he was bound to admit that he felt no symptoms of pain or sickness. By and by the feeling of alarm began again to decay, and by the time he got eight or ten miles farther on his road, he had conjured up a good many sustaining ideas and arguments, whereby he at least contrived to increase the quantum of _doubt_ of his being really ill. He rallied a little again; but the temporary elevation was destined to be succeeded by another depression, which, in its turn, gave place to another accession of relief; and thus he was kept in a painful alternation of changing fancies, until he was within a mile and a half of the next place of call--a little house at some distance from the Plasterers' Inn.
He had hitherto been progressing at a very slow rate, and was in the act of raising his hand to apply the whip to his horses, when he saw before him Archibald Willison, a sort of itinerant cloth merchant, a native of Dundee, with whom he was on terms of intimacy. They had met often on the road, and had gossiped together over a little refreshment at the inns where the carrier stopped. At this particular time, George Skirving would rather have avoided his old friend; for he was under a depression of spirits, and felt also a disinclination or fear, he could not account for, to submit his face and appearance to the lynx eye of the travelling merchant. He had, however, no choice.
"Ah, George," cried Archie, "it's lang since I saw ye. How are ye? What!"--starting as if surprised--"have ye been lyin', man--confined--sick?--what, in God's name, has been the matter wi' ye? Some sad complaint, surely, to produce so mighty a change!"
This address seemed to George just the very confirmation he now required to make him perfectly satisfied of his danger. It was too much for him to hear and suffer. Staggering back, he leant upon the side of his cart, and drew breath with difficulty, attempting in vain to give his friend some reply.
"It's wrang in ye, man," continued Archie, as he saw the carrier labouring to find words to reply to him--"it's wrang in ye, George, to be here in that state o' body. How did Betty permit it? Wha wad guarantee your no lyin' doun an' deein' by the road-side? I'm sure I wadna undertake the suretyship."
"I have not been a day confined, Archie," said George, as he slightly recovered from the shock caused by the announcement. "I have not been ill; and left home this morning in my usual health."
"Good God!" ejaculated Archie, "is that possible? Then is it sae muckle the waur. I thought it had been a' owre wi' ye--that ye had been ill, an' partly recovered; but now I see the disease is only comin' yet. How deadly pale ye are, man; an' what a strange colour there is on your lips, round the sockets o' your een, an' the edges o' your nostrils!"
"I hae been told that the day already, Archie," said George; "I fear there's some truth in't. Yet I feel nae pain; I'm only weak an' nervous."
"Ah, ye ken little about fevers o' the putrid kind--typhus, an' the like," continued the other,--"when ye think they show themselves by ordinary symptoms. I had a cousin who died o' typhus last week; an' he looked, when he took it, just as ye look, an' spoke just as ye speak. Tak the advice o' a friend, George. Dinna stop at Widow M'Murdo's; ye can get nae advice there; hurry on to Edinburgh, and apply immediately, on your arrival, to a doctor o' repute. I assure ye a' his skill will be required."
After some conversation, all tending to the same effect, Willison parted from him, continuing his route to Cupar. All the doubt that had existed in the mind of the victim was now removed, and a settled conviction took hold of him that he was on the very eve of falling into some terrible illness. A train of gloomy fancies took possession of his mind, and he pictured himself lying extended on a bed of sickness, with the angel of death hanging over him, and an awakened conscience within, wringing him with its agonizing tortures. The nature of the disease which impended over him--the putrid typhus--was fixed, and put beyond doubt; and all the cases he had known of individuals who had died of that disease were brought before the eye of his imagination, to feed the appetite for horrors, which now began to crave food. He endeavoured to analyze his sensations, and discovered, what he never felt before, a hard, fluttering palpitation at his heart, a difficulty of breathing, weakness, trembling of the limbs, and other clear indications of the oncoming attack of a fatal disease.
Moving slowly forward, under the load of these thoughts, he arrived at Widow M'Murdo's, where he fed his horses. He was silent and gloomy; and the fear under which he laboured produced a _real_ appearance of illness, which soon struck the eye of the kind dame.
"What ails ye?" asked she kindly; and ran and brought out her bottle of cordial, to administer to him that universal medicine. But her question was enough. Moody and miserable, he paid little attention to her kindness, and departed for Kirkcaldy. Under the same load of despondency and apprehension, he arrived at Andrew Gemmel's, where it was his practice to remain all night. He exhibited the appearance of a person labouring under some grievous misfortune; and deputing the feeding of his horses to the ostler, he seemed to be careless whether justice was done to them or not. The landlord noticed the change that had taken place upon him. "What ails ye, George?" was asked repeatedly; and the death-like import of the question prevented him from giving any satisfactory answer. Long before his usual period, he retired to his bed, where he passed a night of fevered dreams, restlessness, and misery.
In the morning, he was still under the operation of his apprehension, and was unable to take any breakfast. The ostler managed for him all the details of his business, and he departed in the same gloomy mood for Pettycur. Sauntering along at a slow pace, he met, half-way between the two towns, Duncan Paterson, a Dundee weaver, an old acquaintance, by whom he was hailed in the ordinary form of salutation. But he wished to proceed without standing to speak to his old friend; for he was so sorely depressed, and was so much afraid of another fearful announcement about his sickly appearance, that he could not bear an interview. This strange conduct seemed to rouse the curiosity of his friend, who, running up to him, held forth his hand, crying out--
"Ha! George, man!--this is no like you, to pass auld friends. What ails ye, man?"
"I dinna feel altogether weel," answered the carrier in a mournful tone.
"I saw that, man, lang before ye cam up," replied the other; "and it was just because ye were looking so grievously ill, that I was determined to speak to ye. When were ye seized?"
"I was weel when I left the north, yesterday morning; but I hadna been lang on the road, when I began to gie tokens o' illness," replied the carrier mournfully, and with a drooping head.
"If I had met you in that waefu' state," said the other, "with that death-like face and unnatural-like look, I wadna have allowed ye to proceed a mile farther; but now since ye're sae far on the road, it's just as weel that ye hurry on to Edinburgh, whaur ye'll get the best advice. What symptoms do ye feel?"
"I'm heavy and dull," replied George; "my pulse rises and fa's, my heart throbs, and my legs hae been shakin' under me, as if I were palsied."
"Ah, George, George! these are a' clear signs o' typhus, man," replied Paterson. "My mother died o't. I watched, wi' filial care and affection, a' her maist minute symptoms. They were just yours. I'm vexed for ye; but maybe the hand o' a skilfu' doctor may avert the usual fatal issue."
"Was yer mither lang ill?" asked George in a low tone.
"Nine days," answered Paterson. "By the seventh she was spotted like a leopard, on the eighth she went mad, and the ninth put an end to her sufferings."
"Ay, ay," muttered George, with a deep sigh.
"But the power o' medicine's great," rejoined Paterson. "Lose nae time, after ye arrive in Edinburgh, in applying to a doctor. Mind my words."
And Paterson, casting upon him a look suited to the parting statement, left the carrier, and proceeded on his way. The victim, now completely immerged in melancholy, progressed slowly onwards to Pettycur. His downcast appearance attracted there the attention of the people who assisted him in the discharge of his business. The question, "What ails ye, George?" was repeated, and answered by silence and a sorrowful look. In the boat in which he crossed the Forth, his unusual sadness was also noticed by the captain and crew, with whom he was intimately acquainted. As he sat in the fore-part of the vessel, silent and gloomy, they repeated the dreadful question--"What ails ye, George?"--that had been so often before put to him. To some he said he felt unwell, to others he replied by a melancholy stare, and relapsed again into his melancholy.
When he arrived at Leith, he was assisted, according to custom, by porters, in getting his goods disembarked. The men were not long in noticing the great change that had taken place upon his spirits. "What ails ye, George?" was the uniform question; and every time it was put it went to his heart, for it showed more and more, as he thought, his sick-like appearance, which seemed to escape the eyes of no one. The men assisted him more assiduously than they had ever done before; and having got everything ready, he proceeded up Leith Walk. The toll-man noticed also his dejected appearance, and the same question was put by him. He proceeded to his quarters, and, committing his carts to a man that was in the habit of assisting him, he went into the house and threw himself into a chair. "What ails ye, George?" exclaimed Widow Gilmour, as she saw him exhibiting these indications of illness. He said he felt unwell, and, rising, went away up to his bedroom, where he retired to bed.
The torture of mind to which he had been exposed for a day and a night, and a part of another day, with the want of food, and the exercise of his trade, had operated so powerfully on his body, that he was now in reality in a fever. The landlady felt his pulse, and, becoming alarmed, sent for a doctor, a young man, who immediately bled him to a much greater extent than was necessary; but the statements of George himself, and the fevered appearance he presented, convinced the young doctor that nothing but copious bleeding would overcome the disease. The application of the lancet stamped the whole affair with the character of reality; and the sick man, still overcome by gloomy anticipations, was soon in the very height of a dangerous fever. Two days afterwards, his wife was sent for; but the poor man got gradually worse, and, notwithstanding all the efforts of the doctor, was soon pronounced to be in a state of imminent danger. One day James Cowie called at the house, and inquired, in a flurried manner, how George Skirving was.
"He is sae ill that I hae very little hope o' him," said Mrs. Skirving.
"Good God!" replied the man, "is it possible? I have murdered him." And he groaned in distress.
"What do ye mean, James?"
"Six o' us wagered, three against three, and twa to ane," he proceeded, "that our side wadna put your husband to his bed. We met him in Fife at different places o' the road, and terrified him, by describing his looks, into an opinion that he was unwell. I'm come to make amends. What is the £10 to me when the life o' a fellow-creature is at jeopardy?"
It was too late. We need say no more. The communication was made to the sick man; but he was too far gone to recover, and died in a few days afterwards. This is a true tale, and requires little more explanation. It may have been gathered from our narrative, that Cowie, Willison, and Paterson were the only persons who were in the plot. John Sharpe, Widow M'Murdo, Andrew Gemmel, and the others who merely noticed his dejection, were entirely ignorant of the cruel purpose.
* * * * *
[Footnote A: One version of the story says that Mr. M---- picked up the tramp at Cammerton, in Fife; but I adhere to my authority.]
[Footnote B: Places for melting plate.]
[Footnote C: This strange tale is given from materials supplied by the Surgeon with whom I was brought up.]