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.
LONDON: WALTER SCOTT, 14 PATERNOSTER SQUARE, AND NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE. 1884.
A WIFE OR THE WUDDY, (John Mackay Wilson), 1 LORD DURIE AND CHRISTIE'S WILL, (Alexander Leighton), 33 RECOLLECTIONS OF BURNS, (Hugh Miller), 65 THE PROFESSOR'S TALES (Professor Thomas Gillespie)— THE CONVIVIALISTS, 122 PHILIPS GREY, 144 DONALD GORM, (Alexander Campbell), 155 THE SURGEON'S TALES, (Alexander Leighton)— THE CURED INGRATE, 188 THE ADOPTED SON, (John Mackay Wilson), 220 THE FORTUNES OF WILLIAM WIGHTON, (John Howell), 247 MY BLACK COAT; OR, THE BREAKING OF THE BRIDE'S CHINA, (John Mackay Wilson), 276
WILSON'S TALES OF THE BORDERS AND OF SCOTLAND.
THE WIFE OR THE WUDDY.
"There was a criminal in a cart Agoing to be hanged— Reprieve to him was granted; The crowd and cart did stand, To see if he would marry a wife, Or, otherwise, choose to die! 'Oh, why should I torment my life?' The victim did reply; 'The bargain's bad in every part— But a wife's the worst!—drive on the cart.'"
Honest Sir John Falstaff talketh of "minions of the moon;" and, truth to tell, two or three hundred years ago, nowhere was such an order of knighthood more prevalent than upon the Borders. Not only did the Scottish and English Borderers make their forays across the Tweed and the ideal line, but rival chieftains, though of the same nation, considered themselves at liberty to make inroads upon the property of each other. The laws of meum and tuum they were unable to comprehend. Theirs was the strong man's world, and with them might was right. But to proceed with our story. About the beginning of the seventeenth century, one of the boldest knights upon the Borders was William Scott, the young laird of Harden. His favourite residence was Oakwood Tower, a place of great strength, situated on the banks of the Ettrick. The motto of his family was "Reparabit cornua Phoebe," which being interpreted by his countrymen, in their vernacular idiom, ran thus—"We'll hae moonlight again." Now, the young laird was one who considered it his chief honour to give effect to both the spirit and the letter of his family motto. Permitting us again to refer to honest Falstaff, it implied that they were "gentlemen of the night;" and he was not one who would loll upon his pillow when his "avocation" called him to the foray.
It was drawing towards midnight, in the month of October, when the leaves in the forest had become brown and yellow, and with a hard sound rustled upon each other, that young Scott called together his retainers, and addressing them, said—"Look ye, friends, is it not a crying sin and a national shame to see things going aglee as they are doing? There seems hardly such a thing as manhood left upon the Borders. A bit scratch with a pen upon parchment is becoming of more effect than a stroke with the sword. A bairn now stands as good a chance to hold and to have, as an armed man that has a hand to take and to defend. Such a state o' things was only made for those who are ower lazy to ride by night, and ower cowardly to fight. Never shall it be said that I, William Scott of Harden, was one who either submitted or conformed to it. Give me the good, old, manly law, that 'they shall keep who can,' and wi' my honest sword will I maintain my right against every enemy. Now, there is our natural and lawful adversary, auld Sir Gideon Murray o' Elibank, carries his head as high as though he were first cousin to a king, or the sole lord o' Ettrick Forest. More than once has he slighted me in a way which it wasna for a Scott to bear; and weel do I ken that he has the will, and wants but the power, to harry us o' house and ha'. But, by my troth, he shall pay a dear reckoning for a' the insults he has offered to the Scotts o' Harden. Now, every Murray among them has a weel-stocked mailing, and their kine are weel-favoured; to-night the moon is laughing cannily through the clouds:—therefore, what say ye, neighbours—will ye ride wi' me to Elibank? and, before morning, every man o' them shall have a toom byre."
"Hurra!" shouted they, "for the young laird! He is a true Scott from head to heel! Ride on, and we will follow ye! Hurra!—the moon glents ower the hills to guide us to the spoils o' Elibank! To-night we shall bring langsyne back again."
There were twenty of them, stout and bold men, mounted upon light and active horses—some armed with firelocks, and others with Jeddart staves; while, in addition to such weapons, every man had a good sword by his side. At their head was the fearless young laird; and, at a brisk pace, they set off towards Elibank. Mothers and maidens ran to their cottage doors, and looked after them with foreboding hearts when they rode along; for it was a saying amongst them, that "when young Willie Scott o' Harden set his foot in the stirrup at night, there were to be swords drawn before morning." They knew, also, the feud between him and the house of Elibank, and as well did they know that the Murrays were a resolute and a sturdy race.
Morn had not dawned when they arrived at the scene where their booty lay. Not a Murray was abroad; and to the extreme they carried the threat of the young laird into execution, of making "toom byres." By scores and by hundreds, they collected together, into one immense herd, horned cattle and sheep, and they drove them before them through the forest towards Oakwood Tower. The laird, in order to repel any rescue that might be attempted, brought up the rear, and, in the joy of his heart, he sang, and, at times, cried aloud, "There will be dry breakfasts in Elibank before the sun gets oot, but a merry meal at Oakwood afore he gangs doun. An entire bullock shall be roasted, and wives and bairns shall eat o' it."
"I humbly beg your pardon, Maister William," said an old retainer, named Simon Scott, and who traced a distant relationship to the family; "I respectfully ask your pardon; but I have been in your faither's family for forty years, and never was backward in the hoor o' danger, or in a ploy like this; but ye will just alloo me to observe, sir, that wilfu' waste maks wofu' want, and I see nae occasion whatever for roasting a bullock. It would be as bad as oor neebors on the ither side o' the Tweed, wha are roast, roastin', or bakin' in the oven, every day o' the week, and makin' a stane weight o' meat no gang sae far as twa or three pounds wad hae dune. Therefore, sir, if ye will tak my advice, if we are to hae a feast, there will be nae roastin' in the way. There was a fine sharp frost the other nicht, and I observed the rime lying upon the kail; so that baith greens and savoys will be as tender as a weel-boiled three-month-auld chicken; and I say, therefore, let the beef be boiled, and let them hae ladlefu's o' kail, and ye will find, sir, that instead o' a hail bullock, even if ye intend to feast auld and young, male and female, upon the lands o' Oakwood, a quarter o' a bullock will be amply sufficient, and the rest can be sauted doun for winter's provisions. Ye ken, sir, that the Murrays winna let us lichtly slip for this nicht's wark; and it is aye safest, as the saying is, to lay by for a sair fit."
"Well argued, good Simon," said the young laird; "but your economy is ill-timed. After a night's work such as this there is surely some licence for gilravishing. I say it—and who dare contradict me?—to-night there is not one belonging to the house of Harden, be they old or young, who shall not eat of roast meat, and drink of the best."
"Weel, sir," replied Simon, "wi' reverence be it spoken, but I would beg to say that ye are wrang. Folk that ance get a liking for dainties tak ill wi' plainer fare again; and, moreover, sir, in a' my experience, I never kenned dainty bits and hardihood to go hand in hand; but, on the contrary, luxuries mak men effeminate, and discontented into the bargain."
The altercation between the old retainer and his young master ran farther; but it was suddenly interrupted by the deep-mouthed baying of a sleuth-hound; and its threatening howls were followed by a loud cry, as if from fifty voices, of—"To-night for Sir Gideon and the house of Elibank!"
But here we pause to say that Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank was a man whose name was a sound of terror to all who were his enemies. As a foe, he was fierce, resolute, unforgiving. He had never been known to turn his back upon a foe, or forgive an injury. He knew the meaning of justice in its severest sense, but not of compassion; he was a stranger to the attribute of mercy, and the life of the man who had injured him, he regarded as little as the life of the worm which he might tread beneath his heel upon his path. He was a man of middle age; and had three daughters, none of whom were what the world calls beautiful; but, on the contrary, they were what even the dependents upon his estates described as "very ordinary-looking young women."
Such was Sir Gideon Murray of Elibank; and, although the young laird of Harden conceived that he had come upon him as "a thief in the night"—and some of my readers, from the transaction recorded, may be somewhat apt to take the scriptural quotation in a literal sense—yet I would say, as old Satchel sings of the Borderers of those days, they were men—
"Somewhat unruly, and very ill to tame. I would have none think that I call them thieves; For, if I did, it would be arrant lies."
But, stealthily as the young master of Harden had made his preparations for the foray, old Sir Gideon had got timely notice of it; and hence it was, that not a Murray seemed astir when they took the cattle from the byres, and drove them towards Oakwood. But, through the moonlight, there were eyes beheld every step they took—their every movement was watched and traced; and amongst those who watched was the stern old knight, with fifty followers at his back.
"Quiet! quiet!" he again and again, in deep murmurs, uttered to his dependents, throwing back his hand, and speaking in a deep and earnest whisper, that awed even the slow but ferocious sleuth-hound that accompanied them, and caused it to crouch back to his feet. In a yet deeper whisper, he added, encouragingly—"Patience, my merry men!—bide your time!—ye shall hae work before long go by."
When, therefore, the young laird and his followers began to disperse in the thickest of the forest, as they drove the cattle before them, Sir Gideon suddenly exclaimed—"Now for the onset!" And, at the sound of his voice, the sleuth-hound howled loud and savagely.
"We are followed!—Halt! halt!—to arms! to arms!" cried the heir of Harden.
Three or four were left in charge of the now somewhat scattered herd of cattle, and to drive them to a distance; while the rest of the party spurred back their horses as rapidly as the tangled pass in the forest would permit, to the spot from whence the voice of their young leader proceeded. They arrived speedily, but they arrived too late. In a moment, and with no signal save the baying of the hound, old Sir Gideon and his armed company had burst upon young Scott and Old Simon, and ere the former could cry for assistance, they had surrounded them.
"Willie Scott! ye rash laddie!" cried Sir Gideon—"yield quietly, or a thief's death shall ye die; and in the very forest through which ye have this night driven my cattle, the corbies and you shall become acquaint—or, at least, if ye see not them, they shall see you and feel you too."
"Brag on, ye auld greybeard," exclaimed the youth; "but while a Scott o' Harden has a finger to wag, no power on earth shall make his tongue say 'I am conquered!' So come on!—do your best—do your worst—here is the hand and the sword to meet ye!—and were ye ten to one, ye shall find that Willie Scott isna the lad to turn his back, though ten full-grown Murrays stand before his face."
"By my sooth, then, callant," cried the old knight, "and it was small mercy, after what ye hae done, that I intended to show ye; and after what ye hae said, it shall be less that I will grant ye. Sae come on lads, and now to humble the Hardens."
"Arm! every Scott to arms!" again shouted the young laird; "and now, Sir Gideon, if ye will measure weapons, and leave your weel-faured daughters as a legacy to the world, be it sae. But there are lads among your clan o' whom they would hae been glad, and who, belike in pity, might hae offered them their hands, but who will this night mak a bride o' the green sward! Sae come on, Sir Gideon, and on you and yours be the consequence!"
"Before sunrise," returned Sir Gideon, "and the winsome laird o' Harden shall boast less vauntingly, and rue that he had broke his jeers upon an auld man. Touch me, sir, but not my bairns."
The conflict began, and on each side the strife was bloody and desperate. Bold men grasped each other by the throat, and they held their swords to each other's breasts, scowling one upon another with the ferocity of contending tigers, ere each gave the deadly plunge which was to hurl both into eternity. The report of fire-arms, the clash of swords, the clang of shields, with the neighing of maddened horses, the lowing of affrighted cattle, the howl of the sleuth-hounds, and the angry voices of fierce men, mingled wildly together, and, in one fearful and discordant echo, rang through the forest. This wild sound was followed by the low melancholy groans of the dying. But, as I have already stated, the Scotts, and the cattle which they drove before them, were scattered, and ere those who were in advance could arrive to the rescue of their friends in the rear, the latter were slain, wounded, or overpowered. They also fought against fearful odds. The young laird himself had his sword broken in his grasp, and his horse was struck dead beneath him. He was instantly surrounded and made prisoner by the Murrays; and, at the same time, old Simon fell into their hands.
The few remaining retainers of the house of Harden gave way when they found their leader a captive, and they fled, leaving the cattle behind them. Sir Gideon Murray, therefore, recovered all that had been taken from him; and though he had captured but two prisoners, the one was the chief, and the other his principal adviser and second in command. The old knight, therefore, commanded that they should be bound with cords together, and in such rueful plight led to his castle at Elibank. It was noon before they reached it, and Lady Murray came forth to welcome her husband, and congratulate him upon his success. But when she beheld the heir of Harden a captive, and thought of how little mercy was to be expected from Sir Gideon when once aroused, she remembered that she was a mother, and that one of her children might one day be situated as their prisoner then was.
The young laird, with his aged kinsman and dependent, were thrust into a dark room; and he who locked them up informed them that the next day their bodies would be hung up on the nearest tree.
"My life and lang fasting!" exclaimed Simon, "ye surely wouldna be speaking o' sic a thing as hanging to an auld man like me. If we were to be shot or beheaded—though I would like neither the ane nor the ither—it wouldna be a thing in particular to be complained o'; but to be hanged like a dog is so disgracefu' and unchristian-like, that I would rather die ten times in a day, than feel a hempen cravat about my neck ance. And, moreover, I must say that hanging is not treating my dear young maister and kinsman as he ocht to be treated. His birth, his rank, and the memory o' his ancestors and mine, demand mair respect; and therefore, I say, gae tell your maister, that, if he is determined that we are to die—though I have no ambition to cut my breath before my time—that I think, as a gentleman, it is his duty to see that we die the death o' gentlemen.
"Silence, Simon," cried the young laird; "let Murray hang us in his bedchamber if he will. No matter what manner o' death we die, provided only that we die like men. Let him hang us if he dare, and the disgrace be his that is coward enough so to make an end of his enemy.
"O sir," said Simon, "but that is poor comfort to a man that has to leave a small family behind him.
"Simon! are you afraid to die?" cried the captive laird, in a tone of rebuke.
"No, your honour," said Simon—"that is, I am no more afraid to die than other men are, or ought to be—but only ye'll observe, sir, that I have no ambition—not, as I may say, to draw my last breath upon a wuddy, but to have it very unnaturally stopped. Begging your pardon, but you are a young man, while I have a wife and family that would be left to mourn for me!—and O sir! the wife and the bits o' bairns press unco sairly upon a man's heart, when death tries to come in the way between him and them. In exploits like that in which we were last night engaged, and also in battles abroad, I have faced danger in every shape a hundred times—yet, sir, to be shot in a moment, as it were, or to be run through the body, and to die honourably on the field, is a very different thing from deliberately walking up a ladder to the branch o' a tree, from which we are never to come doun in life again. And mair than that, if we had been o' Johnny Faa's gang, they couldna hae treated us mair disrespectfully than to condemn us to the death that they have decreed for us."
"Providing ye die bravely, Simon," said the young laird, "it is little matter what manner o' death ye die; and as for your wife and weans, fear not; my faither's house will provide for them. For, though I fall now, there will be other heirs left to the estate o' Harden."
While the prisoners thus conversed in the place of their confinement, Lady Murray spoke unto her husband, saying—"And what, Sir Gideon, if it be a fair question, may ye intend to do wi' the braw young laird o' Harden, now that he is in your power?"
He drew her gently by the arm towards the window, and pointing towards a tree which grew at the distance of a few yards, he said—"Do ye see yonder branch o' the elm tree that is waving in the wind? To-morrow, young Scott and his kinsman shall swing there together, or hereafter say that I am no Murray."
"O guidman!" said she, "it is because I was terrified that ye would be doing the like o' that, that caused me to ask the question. Now, I must say, Sir Gideon, whatever ye may think, that ye are not only acting cruelly, but foolishly."
"I care naething about the cruelty," cried he; "what mercy did ever a Scott among them show to me or to mine? Lady Murray, the ball is at my foot, and I will kick it, though I deprive Scott o' Harden o' a head. And what mean ye, dame, by saying I act foolishly?"
"Only this, guidman," said she—"that ye hae three daughters to marry, whom the world doesna consider to be ower weel-faured, and it isna every day that ye hae a husband for ane o' them in your hand."
"Sooth!" cried he, "and for once in your life ye are right, guidwife—there is mair wisdom in that remark than I would hae gien ye credit for. To-morrow, the birkie o' Harden shall have his choice—either upon the instant to marry our daughter, Meikle-mouthed Meg, or strap for it."
"Weel, Sir Gideon," added she, "to make him marry Meg will be mair purpose-like than to cut off the head and the hope of an auld house, in the very flower o' his youth; and there is nae doubt as to the choice he will mak, for there is an unco difference between them."
"Dinna be ower sure," continued the knight; "there is nae saying what his choice may be. There is both pluck and a spirit o' contradiction in the callant, and I wouldna be in the least surprised if he preferred the wuddy. I ken, had I been in his place, what my choice would hae been."
"I daresay, Sir Gideon," replied the old lady, who was jocose at the idea of seeing one of her daughters wed, "I daresay I could guess what that choice would hae been."
"And what, in your wisdom," said he sharply, "do ye think it would hae been—the wife or the wuddy?"
"O Gideon! Gideon!" said she, good-humouredly, and shaking her head, "weel do ye ken that your choice would hae been a wife."
"There ye are wrang," cried he; "I would rather die a death that was before me, than marry a wife I had never seen. But go ye and prepare Meg for becoming a bride the morn, and I shall see what the intended bridegroom says to the proposal."
In obedience to his commands, she went to an apartment in which their eldest daughter Agnes, but commonly called "Meikle-mouthed Meg," then sat, twirling a distaff. The old dame sat down by her daughter's side, and, after a few observations respecting the weather, and the quality of the lint she was then torturing into threads, she said—"Weel, I'm just thinking, Meggie, that ye mak me an auld woman. Ye would be six-and-twenty past at last Lammas."
"So I believe, mother!" said Meggie; and a sigh, or a very deep and long-drawn breath, followed her words.
"Dear me!" continued the old lady, "young men maun be growing very scarce. I wanted four months and five days o' being nineteen when I married your faither, and I had refused at least six offers before I took him!"
"Ay, mother," replied the maiden; "but ye had a weel-faured face—there lay the difference! Heigho!"
"Heigho!" responded her mother, as in pleasant raillery—"what is the lassie heighoing at? Certes, if ye get a guidman before ye be six and twenty, ye may think yoursel' a very fortunate woman."
"Yes," added the maiden; "but I see sma' prospect o' that. I doubt ye will see the Ettrick running through the 'dowie dells o' Yarrow,' before ye hear tell o' an offer being made to me."
"Hoot, hoot!—dinna say sae, bairn," added her mother; "there is nae saying what may betide ye yet. Ye think ye winna be married before ye are six and twenty; but, truly, my dear, there has mony a mair unlikely ship come to land. Now, what wad ye think o' the young laird o' Harden?"
"Mother! mother!" said Agnes, "wherefore do ye mock me? I never saw ye do that before. My faither has ta'en William Scott a prisoner; and, from what I hae heard, he will hang him in the morning. Ye ken what a man my faither is—when he says a thing he will do it; and how can you jest about the young man, when his very existence is reduced to a matter o' minutes and moments. Though, rather than my faither should tak his life, if I could save him, he should take mine."
"Weel said, my bairn," replied the old woman; "but dinna ye be put about concerning what will never come to pass. I doubtna that, before morning, ye will find young Scott o' Harden at your feet, and begging o' you to save his life, by giving him your hand and troth, and becoming his wife: and then, ye ken, your faither couldna, for shame, hang or do ony harm to his ain son-in-law."
"O mother! mother!" replied Agnes, "it will never be in my power to save him; for what ye hae said he will never think o'; and even if I were his wife, I question if my faither would pardon him, though I should beg it upon my knees."
"Oh, your faither's no sae ill as that, Meggie, my doo," said the old lady. "Mark my words—if Willie Scott consent to marry you, ye will henceforth find him and your faither hand and glove."
While this conversation between Lady Murray and her daughter took place, Sir Gideon entered the room where his prisoners were confined, and, addressing the young laird, said—"Now, ye rank marauder, though death is the very least that ye deserve or can expect from my hands, yet I will gie ye a chance for your life, and ye shall choose between a wife and the wuddy. To-morrow morning, ye shall either marry my daughter Meg, or swing from the branch o' the nearest tree, and the bauldest Scott upon the Borders shanna tak ye down, until ye drop away, bone by bone, a fleshless skeleton."
"Good save us! most honourable and good Sir Gideon!" suddenly interrupted Simon, in a tone which bespoke his horror; "but ye certainly dinna intend to make an anatomy o' me too; or surely, when my honoured maister marries Miss Murray (as I hope and trust he will), ye will alloo me to dance at their wedding, instead o' dancing in the air, and keeping time to the music o' the soughing wind. And, O maister! for my sake, for your ain sake, and especially out o' regard to my sma' and helpless family, consent to marry the lassie, though she isna extraordinar' weel-faured; for I am sure that, rather than die a dog's death, swinging from a tree, I would marry twenty wives, though they were a' as auld as the hills, as ugly as a starless midnicht, and had tongues like trumpets."
"Peace, Simon!" cried the young laird, impatiently; "if ye hae turned coward, keep the sound o' yer fears within yer ain teeth. And ye, Sir Gideon," added he, turning towards the old knight, "in your amazing mercy and generosity, would spare my life, upon condition that I should marry your bonny daughter Meg! Look ye, sir—I am Scott o' Harden, and ye are Murray o' Elibank; there is no love lost between us; chance has placed my life in your hands—take it, for I wouldna marry your daughter though ye should gie me life, and a' the lands o' Elibank into the bargain. I fear as little to meet death as I do to tell you to your teeth that, had ye fallen into my hands, I would have hung ye wi' as little ceremony as I would bring a whip across the back o' a disobedient hound. Therefore, ye are welcome to do the same by me. Ye have taken what ye thought to be a sure mode o' getting a husband for ane o' your winsome daughters; but, in the present instance, it has proved a wrong one, auld man. Do your worst, and there will be Scotts enow left to revenge the death o' the laird o' Harden."
"There, then, is my thumb, young braggart," exclaimed Sir Gideon, "that I winna hinder ye in your choice; for to-morrow ye shall be exalted as Haman was; and let those revenge your death who dare."
"Maister!—dear maister!" cried Simon, wringing his hands, "will ye sacrifice me also, and break the hearts o' my puir wife and family! O sir, accept o' Sir Gideon's proposal, and marry his dochter."
"Silence! ye milk-livered slave!" cried the young laird. "Do ye pretend to bear the name o' Scott, and yet tremble like an ash leaf at the thought o' death!"
"Ye will excuse me, sir," retorted Simon, "but I tremble at no such thing; only, as I have already remarked, I have no particular ambition for being honoured wi' the exaltation o' the halter; and, moreover, I see no cause why a man should die unnecessarily, or where death can be avoided. Sir Gideon," added he, "humble prisoner as I at this moment am, and in your power, I leave it to you if ever ye saw ony thing in my conduct in the field o' battle (and ye have seen me there) that could justify ony ane in calling me either milk-livered or a coward? But, sir, I consider it would be altogether unjustifiable to deprive ane o' life, which is always precious, merely because my maister is stubborn, and winna marry your daughter. But, oh, sir, I am not a very auld man yet, and if ye will set me at liberty, though I am now a married man, in the event o' my ever becoming a widower, I gie ye my solemn promise that I will marry ony o' your dochters that ye please!"
"Audacious idiot!" exclaimed the old knight, raising his hand and striking poor Simon to the ground.
"Sir Gideon Murray!" cried the young laird fiercely, "are ye such a base knave as to strike a fettered prisoner! Shame fa' ye, man! where is the pride o' the Murrays now?"
Sir Gideon evidently felt the rebuke, and, withdrawing from the apartment, said, as he departed—"Remember that when the sun-dial shall to-morrow note the hour of twelve, so surely shall ye be brought forth—and a wife shall be your lot, or the wuddy your doom."
"Leave me!" cried the youth impatiently, "and the gallows be it—my choice is made. Till my last hour trouble me not again."
"Sir! sir!" cried Simon, "I beg, I pray that ye will alter your determination. There is surely naething so awful in the idea o' marriage, even though your wife should have a face not particularly weel-favoured. Ye dinna ken, sir, but that the young woman's looks are her worst fault; and, indeed, I hae heard her spoken o' as a lassie o' great sense and discretion, and as having an excellent temper; and, oh, sir, if ye kenned as weel what it is to be married as I do, ye would think that a good temper was a recommendation far before beauty."
"Hold thy fool's tongue, Simon," cried the laird; "would ye disgrace the family wi' which ye make it your boast to be connected, when in the power and presence o' its enemies? Do as ye see me do—die and defy them."
It was drawing towards midnight, when the prison-door was opened, and the sentinel who stood watch over it admitted a female dressed as a domestic.
"What want ye, or whom seek ye, maiden?" inquired the laird.
"I come," answered she mildly, "to speak wi' the laird o' Harden, and to ask if he has any dying commands that a poor lassie could fulfil for him."
"Dying commands!" responded Simon; "oh, are those no awful words!—and can ye still be foolhardy enough to say ye winna marry?"
"Who sent ye, maiden?—or who are ye?" continued the laird.
"A despised lassie, sir," answered she, "and an attendant upon Sir Gideon's lady, in whom ye hae a true and steadfast friend; though I doubt that, as ye hae refused poor Meg, her intercession will avail ye little."
"And wherefore has Lady Murray sent you here?" he continued.
"Just, sir, because she is a mother, and has a mother's heart; and, as ye hae a mother and sisters who will now be mourning for ye at Oakwood, she thought that, belike, ye would hae something to say that ye would wish to hae communicated to them; and, if it be sae, I am come to offer to be your messenger."
"Maiden!" said he, with emotion, "speak not of my poor mother, or you will unman me, and I would wish to die as becomes my father's son."
"That's right, hinny," whispered Simon; "speak to him about his mother again—talk about her sorrow, poor lady, and her tears, and distraction, and mourning—and I hae little doubt but that we shall get him to marry Meg, or do onything else, and I shall get back to my family after a'."
"What is it that ye whisper, Simon, in the maiden's ear?" inquired the laird, sternly.
"Oh, naething, sir—naething, I assure ye," answered Simon, falteringly; "I was only saying that, if ye sent her ower to Oakwood wi' a message to your poor, honoured, wretched mother, that she would inquire for my poor widow, Janet, and my bits o' bairns, and that she would tell them that nothing troubled me upon my death-bed—no, no, not my death-bed, but—I declare I am ashamed to think o't!—I was saying that I was simply telling her to inform my wife and bairns, that nothing distracted me in the hour o' death but the thought o' being parted from them."
Without noticing the evasive reply of his dependent and fellow-prisoner, the laird, addressing the intruder, said—"Ye speak as a kind and considerate lassie. I would like to send a scrape o' a pen to my poor mother, and, if ye will be its bearer, she will reward ye."
"And, belike," she replied, "ye would like to hear if the good lady has an answer back, or to learn how she bore the tidings o' your unhappy fate."
"Before you could return," said he, "the time appointed by my adversary for my execution will be past, and I shall feel for my mother's sorrows with the sympathy of a disembodied spirit."
"But," added she, "if you would like to hear from your poor mother, or, belike, to see her—for there may be family matters that ye would wish to have arranged—I think, through the influence of my lady, Sir Gideon could be prevailed upon to grant ye a respite for three or four days; and, as he isna a man that keeps his passion long, perhaps by that time he may be disposed to save your life upon terms that would be more acceptable."
"No, maiden," he replied; "he is my enemy; and from him I wish no terms—no clemency. Let him fulfil his purpose—I will die; but my death shall be revenged; and tell my mother that it was my latest injunction that she should command every follower of our house to avenge her son's death, while there is a Murray left in all Scotland to repent the deed o' the knight o' Elibank."
"Oh, sweet young ma'am, or mistress!" cried Simon; "bear the lady no such message; but rather, as ye hae said, try if it be possible to get your own good lady to persuade Sir Gideon to spare our lives for a few days; and, as ye say, the edge o' the auld knight's revenge may be blunted by that time, or, perhaps, my worthy young maister may be brought to see things in a clearer light, and, perhaps, to marry Miss Margaret, by which means our lives may be spared. For it is certainly the height o' madness in him to sacrifice my life and his own, rather than marry her before he has seen her."
"Simon," interrupted the laird, "the maiden has spoken kindly; let her endeavour to procure a respite—a reprieve for you. In your death my enemy can have no gratification; but for me—leave me to myself."
"O sir," replied Simon, "ye wrong me—ye mistake my meaning a'thegither. If you are to die, I will die also; but do ye no think it would be as valorous, and mair rational, at least to see and hear the young leddy before ye determine to die rather than to marry her?"
"And hae ye," said the maiden, addressing the laird, "preferred the gallows to poor Meg without even seeing her?"
"If I haena seen her I hae heard o' her," said he; "and by all accounts her countenance isna ane that ony man would desire to see accompanying him through the world like a shadow at his oxter."
"Belike," said the maiden, "she has been represented to you worse than she looks like—if ye saw her, ye might change your opinion; and, perhaps, after a', that she isna bonny is a' that any one can say against her."
"Wheesht, lassie!" said he; "I winna be forced to onything. A Scott may be led, but he winna drive. I have nae wish to see the face o' your young mistress, for I winna hae her. But you speak as one that has a feeling heart, and before I trust ye wi' my last letter to my poor mother, I should like to have a glance at your face, and by your countenance I shall judge whether or not it will be safe to trust ye."
"I doubt, sir," replied she, throwing back the hood that covered her head, "ye will see as little in my features as ye expect to find in my young mistress's to recommend me; but, sir, you ought to remember that jewels are often encrusted in coarser metals, and ye will often find a delicious kernel within an unsightly shell."
"Ye speak sweetly, and as sensibly as sweet," said he, raising the flickering lamp, which burned before them upon a small table, and gazing upon her countenance; "and I will now tell ye, lassie, that if your features be not beautiful, there is honesty and kindliness written upon every line o' them; and though ye are a dependent in the house o' my enemy, I will trust ye. Try if I can obtain writing materials to address a few lines to my mother, and I will confide in you to deliver them."
"Ye may confide in me," rejoined she, "and the writing materials which ye desire I hae brought wi' me. Write, and not only shall your letter be faithfully delivered, but, as ye hae confided in me, I will venture to say that your life shall be spared until ye receive her answer; for I may say that what I request, Lady Murray will try to see performed. And if I can find any means in my power by which ye can escape, it shall not be lang that ye will remain a prisoner."
"Thank ye!—doubly thank ye!" cried Simon; "ye are a good and a kind creature; and though my maister refuses to marry your mistress, yet, had I been single, I would hae married you. But, oh, when ye go wi' the letter to his mother, my honoured lady, will ye just go away down to a bit white house which lies by the river side, about a mile and a half aboon Selkirk, and there ye will find my poor wife and bairns—or rather, I should say, my unhappy widow and my orphans—and tell them—oh, tell my wife—that I never kenned how dear she was to me till now; but that, if she marries again, my ghost will haunt her night and day; and tell also the bairns that, above everything, I charge them to be good to their mother."
The young laird sat down, and, writing a letter to his mother, intrusted it to the hands of the stranger girl. He raised her hand to his lips as she withdrew, and a tear trickled down his cheeks as he thanked her.
It was early on the following morning that Meikle-mouthed Meg, as she was called, requested an interview with her father, which being granted, after respectfully rendering obeisance before him, she said—"So, faither, I understand that it is your pleasure that I shall this day become the wife o' young Scott o' Harden. I think, sir, that it is due to the daughter o' a Murray o' Elibank, that she should be courted before she gies her hand. The young man has never seen me; he kens naething concerning me; an' never will yer dochter disgrace ye by gieing her hand to a man who only accepted it to save his neck from a hempen cord. Faither, if it be your command that I am to marry him, I will an' must marry him; but, before I just make a venture upon him for better for worse, an' for life, I wad like to hae some sma' acquaintance wi' him, to see what sort o' a lad he is, and what kind o' temper he has; and therefore, faither, I humbly crave that ye will put off the death or the marriage for a week at least, that I may hae an opportunity o' judging for mysel' how far it would be prudent or becoming in me to consent to be his wife."
"Gie me your hand, Meg," cried the old knight; "I didna think ye had as muckle spirit and gumption in ye as to say what ye hae said. But your request is useless; for he has already, point blank, refused to hae ye; an' there is naething left for him, but, before sunset, to strike his heels against the bark o' the auld elm tree."
"Say not that, faither," said she—"let me at least hae four days to become acquainted wi' him; and if in that time he doesna mak a request to you to marry me without ony dowry, then will I say that I look even waur than I get the name o' doing."
"He shall have four days, Meg," cried the old knight; "for your sake he will have them; but if, at the end o' four days, he shall refuse to take ye, he shall hang before this window, and his poor half-crazed companion shall bear him company."
With this assurance Agnes, or, as she was called, Meg left her father, and bethought her of how she might save the prisoners and secure a husband.
The mother of the laird sat in the midst of her daughters, mourning for him, and looking from the window of the tower, as though, in every form that appeared in the distance, she expected to see him, or at least to gather tidings regarding him, when information was brought to her that he was the prisoner of Murray of Elibank.
"Then," cried she, and wept, "the days o' my winsome Willie are numbered, and his death is determined on; for often has Sir Gideon declared he would gie a' the lands o' Elibank for his head. My Willie is my only son, my first-born, and my heart's hope and treasure; and, oh, if I lose him now, if I shall never again hear his kindly voice say 'mother!' nor stroke down his yellow hair—wi' him that has made me sonless I shall hae a day o' lang and fearfu' reckoning; cauld shall be the hearth-stane in the house o' many a Murray, and loud their lamentation."
Her daughters wept with her for their brother's fate; but they wist not how to comfort her; and, while they sat mingling their tears together, it was announced to them that a humble maiden, bearing a message from the captive laird, desired to speak with her.
"Show her in!—take me to her!" cried the mother, impatiently. "Where is she?—what does she say?—or what does my Willie say?" And the maiden who has been mentioned as having visited the laird in his prison, was ushered into her presence.
"Come to me, lassie—come and tell me a'," cried the old lady; "what message does Willie Scott send to his heart-broken mother?"
"He has sent you this bit packet, ma'am," replied the bearer; "and I shall be right glad to take back to him whatever answer ye may hae to send."
"And wha are ye, young woman?" inquired the lady, "that speaks sae kindly to a mother, an' takes an interest in the fate o' my Willie?"
"A despised lassie," was the reply; "but ane that would risk her ain life to save either yours or his."
"Bless you for the words!" replied Lady Scott, as she broke the seal of her son's letter, and read:—
"My mother, my honoured mother,—Fate has delivered me into the power of Murray of Elibank, the enemy of our house. He has doomed me to death, and I die to-morrow; but sit not down to mourn for me, and uselessly to wring the hands and tear the hair; but rouse every Scott upon the Borders to rise up and be my avenger. If ye bewail the loss o' a son, let them spare o' the Murrays neither son nor daughter. Rouse ye, and let a mother's vengeance nerve your arm! Poor Simon o' Yarrow-foot is to be my companion in death, and he whines to meet his fate with the weakness of a woman, and yearns a perpetual yearning for his wife and bairns. On that account I forgie him the want o' heart and determination which he manifests; but see ye to them, and take care that they be provided for. As for me, I shall meet my doom wi' disdain for my enemy in my eyes and on my tongue. Even in death he shall feel that I despise him; and a proof o' this I have given him already; for he has offered to save my life, providing I would marry his daughter, Meikle-mouthed Meg. But I have scorned his proposal."——
"Ye were right, Willie! ye were right, lad!" exclaimed his mother, while the letter shook in her hand; but, suddenly bursting into tears, she continued—"No, no! my bairn was wrong—very wrong. Life is precious, and at all times desirable; and, for his poor mother's sake, he ought to have married the lassie, whate'er she may be like." And, turning to the bearer of the letter, she inquired—"And what like may the leddy be, the marrying o' whom would save my Willie's life?"
"Ye have nae doubt heard, my leddy," replied the stranger, "that she isna what the world considers to be a likely lass—though, take her as she is, and ye might find a hantle worse wives than poor Meg would make; and, as to her features, I may say that she looks much the same as I do; and if she doesna appear better, she at least doesna look ony waur."
"Then, if she be as ye say, and look as ye say," continued the lady, "my poor headstrong Willie ought to marry her. But, oh! weel do I ken that in everything he is just his father ower again, and ye might as weel think o' moving the Eildon hills as force him to onything."
She perused the concluding part o' her son's letter, in which he spoke enthusiastically of the kindness shown him by the fair messenger, and of the promise she had made to liberate him if possible. "And if she does," he added, "whatever be her parentage, on the day that I should be free, she should be my wife, though I have preferred death to the hand o' Sir Gideon's comely daughter."
"Lassie," said the lady, weeping as she spoke, "my poor Willie talks a deal o' the kindness ye have shown him in the hour o' his distress, and for that kindness his mother's heart thanks ye. But do you not think that it is possible that I could accompany ye to Elibank? and, if ye can devise no means for him to escape, perhaps, if ye could get me admitted into his presence, when he saw his poor distressed mother upon her knees before him, his heart would saften, and he would marry Sir Gideon's daughter, ill-featured though she may be."
"My leddy," answered the stranger maiden, "it is little that I can promise, and less that I can do; but if ye desire to see yer son, I think I could answer for accomplishing yer request; an' though nae guid micht come oot o't, I could also say that I wad see ye safe back again."
Within an hour, Lady Scott, disguised as a peasant, and carrying a basket on her arm, set out for Elibank, accompanied by the fair stranger.
Leaving them upon their melancholy journey, we shall return to the young laird. From the windows of his prison-house, he beheld the sun rise which was to be the last on which he was to look. He heard the sentinels, who kept watch over him, relieve each other; he heard them pacing to and fro before the grated door, and as the sun rose towards the south, proclaiming the approach of noon, the agitation of Simon increased. He sat in a corner of the prison, and strove to pray; and, as the footsteps of the sentinels quickened, he groaned in the bitterness of his spirit. At length the loud booming of the gong announced that the dial-plate upon the turret marked the hour of twelve. Simon clasped his hands together. "Maister! maister!" he cried, "our hour is come, an' one word from yer lips could save us baith, an' ye winna speak it. The very holding oot o' yer hand could do it, but ye are stubborn even unto death."
"Simon," said the laird, "I hae left it as an injunction upon my mother, that yer wife an' weans be provided for—she will fulfil my request. Therefore, be ye content. Die like a man, an' dinna disgrace both yourself an' me."
"O sir! I winna disgrace, or in any manner dishonour ye," said Simon—"only I do not see the smallest necessity for us to die, and especially when both our lives could be saved by yer doing yerself a good turn."
While he spoke, the sound of the sentinels' footsteps, pacing to and fro, ceased. The prison-door was opened; Simon fell upon his knees—the laird looked towards the intruder proudly.
"Your lives are spared for another day," said a voice, "that the laird o' Harden may have time to reflect upon the proposal that has been made to him. But let him not hope that he will find mercy upon other terms; or that, refusing them for another day, his life will be prolonged."
The door was again closed, and the bolts were drawn. The spirit of Sir Gideon was too proud and impatient to spare the lives of his prisoners for four days, as he had promised to his daughter to do, and he now resolved that they should die upon the following day.
The sun had again set, and the dim lamp shed around its fitful and shadowy lights from the table of the prison-room, when the maiden, who had carried the letter to the laird's mother, again entered.
"This is kind, very kind, gentle maiden," said he; "would that I could reward ye! An' hoo fares it with my puir mother?—what answer does she send?"
"An' oh, ma'am, or mistress!" cried Simon, "hoo fares it wi' my dear wife an' bairns? I hope ye told them all that I desired ye to say. Hoo did she bear the news o' being made a widow? An' what did she say to my injunction that she was never to marry again?"
"Ye talk wildly, man," said the maiden, addressing Simon; "it wasna in my power to carry yer commands to yer wife; but, I trust, it will be longer than ye expect before she will be a widow, or hae it in her power to marry again."
"O ye angel! ye perfect picture!" cried Simon, "what is that which I hear ye say? Do ye really mean to tell me that I stand a chance o' being saved, an' that I shall see my wife an' bairns again?"
"Even so," said she; "but whether ye do or do not, rests with yer master."
"Speak not o' that, sweet maiden," said the laird; "but tell me, what says my mother? How does she bear the fate o' her son; an' hoo does she promise to avenge my death?"
"She is as one whose heart-strings are torn asunder," was the reply, "and who refuses to be comforted; but she wad rather hae another dochter than lose an only son; an' her prayer is, that ye will live and mak her happy, by marrying the maiden ye despise."
"What!" he cried, "has even my mother so far forgot herself as to desire me to marry the dochter o' oor enemy, whom no other man could be found to take! It shall never be. I wad obey her in onything but that."
"But," said the maiden, "I still think ye are wrong to reject and despise puir Meg before that ye hae seen her. She may baith be better an' look better than ye are aware o'. There are as guid as Scott o' Harden who hae said, that were it in their power they wad mak her their wife; an' ye should remember, sir, that it will be as pleasant for you to hear the blithe laverock singing ower yer head, as for another person to hear the wind soughing and the long grass rustling ower yer grave. Ye hae another day to live, an' see her, an' speak to her, before ye decide rashly. Yours is a cruel doom, but Sir Gideon is a wrathfu' man; an' even for his ain flesh an' bluid he has but sma' compassion when his anger is provoked. Death, too, is an awfu' thing to think aboot; an', therefore, for yer ain sake, an' for the sake o' yer puir distressed mother an' sisters, dinna come to a rash determination."
"Sweet lass," replied he, "I respect the sympathy which ye evince; but never shall Sir Gideon Murray say that, in order to save my life, he terrified me into a marriage wi' his daughter. An' when my puir mother's grief has subsided, she will think differently o' my decision."
"Weel, sir," said the maiden, "since ye will not listen to my advice—an' I own that I hae nae richt to offer it—I will send ane to ye whose persuasion will hae mair avail."
"Whom will ye send?" inquired the laird; "it isna possible that ye can hae been playing me false?"
"No," she replied, "that isna possible; an' from her that I will send to you, you will see whether or not I hae kept my word, guid and truly, to fulfil yer message."
So saying, she withdrew, leaving him much wondering at her words, and yet more at the interest which she took in his fate. But she had not long withdrawn when the prison-door was again opened, and Lady Scott rushed into the arms of her son.
"My mother!" cried he, starting back in astonishment—"my mother!—hoo is this?"
"Oh, joy an' gladness, an' every blessing be upon my honoured lady! for noo I may stand some chance o' walkin' back upon my ain feet to see my family. Oh! yer leddyship," Simon added, "join yer prayers to my prayers, an' try if ye can persuade my maister to marry Sir Gideon's dochter, an' thereby save baith his life an' mine."
But she fell upon the neck of her son, and seemed not to hear the words which Simon addressed to her.
"O my son! my son!" she cried; "since there is no other way by which yer life can be ransomed, yield to the demand o' the fierce Murray. Marry his daughter an' live—save yer wretched mother's life; for yer death, Willie, wad be mine also."
"Mother!" answered he, vehemently, "I will never accept life upon such terms. I am in Murray's hands, but the day may come—yea, see ye that it does come—when he shall fall into the hands o' the Scotts o' Harden; an' see ye that ye do to him as he shall have done to me. But, tell me, mother, hoo are ye here? Wherefore did ye venture, or hoo got ye permission to see me? Ken ye not that if he found ye in his power, upon your life also he wad fix a ransom?"
"The kind lassie," she replied, "that brought the letter from ye, at my request conducted me here, and contrived to get me permission to see ye; an' she says that my visit shall not come to the knowledge o' Sir Gideon. But, O Willie! as ye love an' respect the mother that bore ye, an' that nursed ye nicht an' day at her bosom, dinna throw awa yer life when it is in yer power to save it, but marry Miss Murray, an' ye may live, an' so may I, to see many happy days; for, from a' that I hae heard, though not weel-favoured, she is a young lady o' an excellent disposition!"
"Oh! that's richt, my leddy," interrupted Simon; "urge him to marry her, for it would be a dreadfu' thing for him an' I to be gibbeted, as a pair o' perpetual spectacles for the Murrays to mak a jest o'. Ye ken if he does marry, an' if he finds he doesna like her, he can leave her; or he needna live wi' her; or, perhaps, she may soon die; an' ye will certainly agree that marriage, ony way ye tak it, is to be desired, a thousand times ower, before a violent death. Therefore, urge him again, yer leddyship, for he may listen to what ye say, though he despises my words, an' will not hearken to my advice."
"Simon," said the laird, "never shall a Murray hae it in his power to boast that he struck terror into the breast o' a Scott o' Harden. My determination is fixed as fate. I shall welcome my doom, an' meet it as a man. Come, dear mother," he added, "weep not, nor cause me to appear in the presence o' my enemies with a blanched cheek. Hasten to avenge my death, an' think that in yer revenge yer son lives again. Come, though I die, there will be moonlight again."
She hung upon his breast and wept, but he turned away his head and refused to listen to her entreaties. The young maiden again entered the prison, and said—
"Ye must part noo, for in a few minutes Sir Gideon will be astir, an' should he find yer leddyship here, or discover that I hae brought ye, I wad hae sma' power to gie ye protection."
"Fareweel, dear mother!—fareweel!" exclaimed the youth, grasping her hand.
"O Willie! Willie!" she cried, "did I bear ye to see ye come to an end like this! Bairn! bairn! live—for yer mother's sake, live!"
"Fareweel, mother!—fareweel!" he again cried, and the sentinel conducted her from the apartment.
It again drew towards noon. The loud gong again sounded, and Simon sank upon his knees in despair, as the voice of the warder was heard crying—"It is the hour! prepare the prisoners for execution!"
Again the prison-door was opened, and Sir Gideon, with wrath upon his brow, stood before them.
"Weel, youngster," said he, addressing the laird, "yer hour is come. What is yer choice—a wife or the wuddy?"
"Lead me to execution, ye auld knave," answered the laird, scornfully; "an' ken, that wi' the hemp around my neck, in contempt o' you an' yours, I will spit upon the ground where ye tread."
"Here, guards!" cried Sir Gideon; "lead forth William Scott o' Harden to execution. Strap him upon the nearest tree, an' there let him hang until the bauldest Scott upon the Borders dare to cut him down. As for you," added he, addressing Simon, "I seek not your life; depart, ye are free; but beware hoo ye again fall into the hands o' Gideon Murray."
"No, sir!" exclaimed Simon, "though I am free to acknowledge that I hae nae ambition to die before it is the wise will an' purpose o' nature, yet I winna, I canna leave my dear young maister; an' if he be to suffer, I will share his fate. Only, Sir Gideon, there is ae thing I hae to say, an' that is, that he is young, an' he is proud an' stubborn, like yersel', an' though he will not, o' his ain free will an' accord, nor in obedience to yer commandments, marry yer dochter—is it not possible to compel him, whether he be willing or no, an' so save his life, as it were, in spite o' him?"
"Away with both!" cried the knight, striking his ironed heel upon the ground, and leaving the apartment.
"Then, if it is to be, it must be," said Simon, folding his arms in resignation, "an' there is no help for it! But, oh, maister! maister! ye hae acted foolishly."
They were led from the prison-house, and through the court-yard, towards a tall elm-tree, round which all the retainers of Sir Gideon were assembled to witness the execution; and the old knight took his place upon an elevated seat in the midst of them.
The executioners were preparing to perform their office, when Agnes, or Muckle-mouthed Meg, as she was called, came forth, with a deep veil thrown over her face, and sinking on her knee before the old knight, said, imploringly—"A boon, dear faither—yer dochter begs a simple boon."
"Ye tak an ill season to ask it, Meg," said the knight, angrily; "but what may it be?"
She whispered to him earnestly for a few minutes, during which his countenance exhibited indignation and surprise; and when she had finished speaking, she again knelt before him and embraced his knees.
"Rise, Meg, rise!" said he, impatiently, "for yer sake, an' at yer request, he shall hae another chance to live." And, approaching the prisoner, he added—"William Scott, ye hae chosen death in preference to the hand o' my dochter. Will ye noo prefer to die rather than marry the lassie that ran wi' the letter to yer mother, an' without my consent brought her to see ye?"
"Had another asked me the question," said the laird, "though I ken not who she is, yet she has a kind heart, and I should hae said 'No,' an' offered her my hand, heart, an' fortune; but to you, Sir Gideon, I only say—do yer worst."
"Then, Willie, my ain Willie!" cried his mother, who at that moment rushed forward, "another does request ye to marry her, an' that is yer ain mother!"
"An'," said Agnes, stepping forward, and throwing aside the veil that covered her face, "puir Meg, ower whom ye gied a preference to the gallows, also requests ye!"
"What!" exclaimed the young laird, grasping her hand, "is the kind lassie that has striven, night and day, to save me—the very Meg that I hae been treating wi' disdain?"
"In troth am I," she replied, "an' do ye prefer the wuddy still?"
"No," answered he; and, turning to Sir Gideon, he added—"Sir, I am now willing that the ceremony end in matrimony."
"Be it so," said the old knight, and the spectators burst into a shout.
The day that began with preparations for death ended in a joyful bridal. The honour of knighthood was afterwards conferred upon the laird; and Meg bore unto him many sons and daughters, and was, as the reader will be ready to believe, one of the best wives in Scotland; while Simon declared that he never saw a better-looking woman in Ettrick Forest, his own wife and daughters not excepted.
LORD DURIE AND CHRISTIE'S WILL.
Who can journey, now-a-days, along the high parts of Selkirkshire, and hear the mire-snipe whistle in the morass, proclaiming itself, in the silence around, the unmolested occupant of the waste, or descend into the green valley, and see the lazy shepherd lying folded up in his plaid, while his flocks graze in peace around him and in the distance, and not think of the bold spirits that, in the times of Border warfare, sounded the war-horn till it rang in reverberating echoes from hill to hill? The land of the Armstrongs knows no longer their kindred. The hills, ravines, mosses, and muirs, that, only a few centuries ago, were animated by the boldest spirits that ever sounded a war-cry, and defended to the death by men whose swords were their only charters of right, have passed into other hands, and the names of the warlike holders serve now only to give a grim charm to a Border ballad. An extraordinary lesson may be read on the banks of the Liddel and the Esk—there is a strange eloquence in the silence of these quiet dales. Stand for a while among the graves of the chief of Gilnockie and his fifty followers, in the lonely churchyard of Carlenrig—cast a contemplative eye on the roofless tower of that brave riever, then glance at the gorgeous policies of Bowhill, and resist, if you can, the deep sigh that rises as a tribute to the memories of men who, having, by their sleepless spirits, kept a kingdom in commotion, died on the gallows, and left no generation to claim their lands from those who, with less bravery and no better sense of right, had the subtle policy to rise on their ruins. Poorly, indeed, now sound the names of Johnny Armstrong, Sim of Whittram, Sim of the Cathill, Kinmont Willie, or Christie's Will, besides those of Dukes of Buccleuch and Roxburgh, Scott of Harden, and Elliot of Stobbs and Wells; and yet, without wishing to take away the merit or the extent of their ancestors' own "reif and felonie," how much do they owe to their succession to the ill-got gear of those hardy Borderers whose names and scarcely credible achievements are all that have escaped the rapacity that, not satisfied with their lands, took also their lives! For smaller depredations, the old laws of the Border—and it would not be fair to exclude those of the present day, not confined to that locality—awarded a halter; for thefts of a larger kind, they gave a title. Old Wat of Buccleuch deserved the honour of "the neck garter" just as much as poor Johnny Armstrong; yet all he got was a reproof and a dukedom.
"Then up and spake the noble king— And an angry man, I trow, was he— 'It ill becomes ye, bauld Bucclew, To talk o' reif or felonie; For, if every man had his ain cow, A right puir clan yer name would be.'"
There is a change now. The bones of the bold Armstrongs lie in Carlenrig, and the descendants of their brother-rievers who got their lands sit in high places, and speak words of legislative command. But these things will be as they have ever been. We cannot change the world, far less remake it; but we can resuscitate a part of its moral wonders; and, while the property of Christie's Will, the last of the bold Armstrongs, is now possessed by another family, under a written title, we will do well to commit to record a part of his fame.
It is well known that the chief of the family of Armstrongs had his residence[A] at Mangerton in Liddesdale. There is scarcely now any trace of his tower, though time has not exerted so cruel a hand against his brother Johnny Armstrong's residence, which lies in the Hollows near Langholme. We know no tumult of the emotions of what may be called antiquarian sentiment, so engrossing and curious as that produced by the headless skeleton of "auld Gilnockie's Tower," as it is seen in the grey gloaming, with a breeze brattling through its dry ribs, and a stray owl sitting on the top, and sending his eldritch screigh through the deserted hollows. The mind becomes busy on the instant with the former scenes of festivity, when "their stolen gear," "baith nolt and sheep," and "flesh, and bread, and ale," as Maitland says, were eaten and drunk with the kitchen of a Cheviot hunger, and the sweetness of stolen things; and when the wild spirit of the daring outlaws, with Johnny at their head, made the old tower of the Armstrongs ring with their wassail shouts. This Border turret came—after the execution of Johnny Armstrong, and when the clan had become what was called a broken clan—into the possession of William Armstrong, who figured in the times of Charles I. He was called Christie's Will, though from what reason does not now seem very clear; neither is it at all evident why, after the execution of his forbear, Johnny, and his fifty followers, at Carlenrig, the Tower of Gilnockie was not forfeited to the crown, and taken from the rebellious clan altogether; but, to be sure it was in those days more easy to take a man's life than his property, insomuch as the former needed no guard, while the other would have required a small standing army to keep it and the new proprietor together. Certain, however, it is, that Christie's Will did get possession of the Tower of Gilnockie, where, according to the practice of the family, he lived "on Scottish ground and English kye;" and, when the latter could not easily be had, on the poorer land of his neighbours of Scotland.
[A] In a MS. we have seen, as old as the end of the 15th century, "the Laird of Mangerton" is placed at the head of the Liddesdale chiefs—Harden, Buccleuch, and others coming after him in respectful order.
This descendant of the Armstrongs was not unlike Johnny; and, indeed, it has been observed that throughout the whole branches of the family there was an extraordinary union of boldness and humour—two qualities which have more connection than may, at first view, be apparent. Law-breakers, among themselves, are seldom serious; a lightness of heart and a turn for wit being necessary for the sustenance of their outlawed spirits, as well as for a quaint justification—resorted to by all the tribe—of their calling, against the laws of the land. In the possession of these qualities, Will was not behind the most illustrious of his race; but he, perhaps, excelled them all in the art of "conveying"—a polite term then used for that change of ownership which the affected laws of the time denominated theft. This art was not confined to cattle or plenishing, though
"They left not spindell, spoone, nor speit, Bed, boster, blanket, sark, nor sheet: John of the Park ryps kist and ark— To all sic wark he is sae meet."[B]
[B] See Maitland's curious satire on the Border robberies.—ED.
It extended to abduction, and this was far seldomer exercised on damsels than on men, who would be well ransomed, especially of those classes, duke, earl, or baron, any of whom Johnny offered (for his life) to bring, "within a certain day, to his Majesty James V., either quick or dead." This latter part of their art was the highest to which the Borderers aspired; and there never was a riever among them all that excelled in it so much as Christie's Will. "To steal a stirk, or wear a score o' sheep hamewards," he used to say, "was naething; but to steal a lord was the highest flicht o' a man's genius, and ought never to be lippened to a hand less than an Armstrong's;" and, certainly, if the success with which he executed one scheme of that high kind will guarantee Will's boasted abilities, he did not transcend the truth in limiting lord-stealing to the Armstrongs.
Will married a distant relation of the true Border breed, named Margaret Elliot—a lass whose ideas of hussyskep were so peculiar, that she thought Gilnockie and its laird were going to ruin when she saw in the kail-pot a "heugh bane" of their own cattle, a symptom of waste, extravagance, and laziness, on the part of her husband, that boded less good than the offer made by "the Laird's Jock," (Johnny Armstrong's henchman,) to give "Dick o' the Cow" a piece of his own ox, which he came to ask reparation for, and, not having got it, tied with St. Mary's knot (hamstringed) thirty good horses. To this good housewife, in fact, might be traced, if antiquaries would renounce for it less important investigations, the old saying, that stolen joys (qu. queys?) are sweetest, undoubtedly a Border aphorism, and now received into the society of legitimate moral sayings. When lazy and not inclined for "felonie," Will would not subscribe to the truth of the dictum, and often got for grace to the dinner he had not taken from the English, and yet relished, the wish of the good dame, that, for his want of spirit, it might choke him. That effect, however, was more likely to be produced by the beef got in the regular Border way; for the laws were beginning now to be more vigorously executed, and many a riever was astonished and offended by the proceedings of the Justice-Ayr at Jedburgh, where they were actually going the length of hanging for the crime of conveying cattle from one property to another.
It was in vain that Will told his wife these proceedings of the Jedburgh court; she knew very well that many of the Armstrongs, and the famous Johnny among the rest, had been strung up, by the command of their king, for rebellion against his authority; but it was out of all question, beyond the reach of common sense, and, indeed, utterly barbarous and unjust to hang a man, as Gilderoy's lover said, "for gear," a thing that never yet was known to be stationary, but, even from the times of the Old Testament, given to taking to itself wings and flying away. It was, besides, against the oldest constitution of things, the old possessors being the Tories, who acted upon the comely principle already alluded to, that right was might—the new lairds, again, being the Whigs, who wished to take from the Tories (the freebooters) the good old law of nature and possession, and regulate property by the mere conceits of men's brains. To some such purpose did Margaret argue against Will's allusions to the doings at Jedburgh; but, secretly, Will cared no more for the threat of a rope, than he did for the empty bravado of a neighbour whom he had eased of a score of cattle. He merely brought in the doings of the Justice-Ayr at Jedburgh, to screen his fits of laziness; those states of the mind common to rievers, thieves, writers, and poets, and generally all people who live upon their wits, which at times incapacitate them for using sword or pen for their honest livelihood. But all Margaret's arguments and Will's courage were on one occasion overturned, by the riever's apprehension for stealing a cow, belonging to a farmer at Stobbs, of the name of Grant. He was carried to Jedburgh jail, and indicted to stand his trial before the Lord Justice-General at the next circuit. There was a determination, on the part of the crown authorities, to make an example of the most inveterate riever of the time, and Will stood a very fair chance of being hanged.
The apprehension of Will Armstrong made a great noise throughout all Liddesdale, producing, to the class of victims, joy, and to the class of spoilers, great dismay; but none wondered more at the impertinence and presumption of the government authorities in attempting thus to dislocate the old Tory principle of "might makes right," than Margaret Elliot; who, as she sat in her turret of Gilnockie, alternately wept and cursed for the fate of her "winsome Will," and, no doubt, there was in the projected condemnation and execution of a man six feet five inches high, with a face like an Adonis, shoulders like a Milo, the speed of Mercury, the boldness of a lion, and more than the generosity of that noble animal, for the crime of stealing a stirk, something that was very apt to rouse, even in those who loved him not so well as did Margaret, feelings of sympathy for his fate, and indignation against his oppressors. There was no keeping, as the artists say, in the picture, no proper causality in a stolen cow, for the production of such an effect as a hanged Phaon or strangled Hercules; and though we have used some classic names to grace our idea, the very same thought, at least as good a one, though perhaps not so gaudily clothed, occupied the mind of Margaret Elliot. She sobbed and cried bitterly, till the Gilnockie ravens and owls, kindred spirits, were terrified from the riever's tower.
"What is this o't?" she exclaimed, in the midst of her tears. "Shall Christie's Will, the bravest man o' the Borders, be hanged because a cow, that kenned nae better, followed him frae Stobbs to the Hollows; and shall it be said that Margaret Elliot was the death o' her braw riever? I had meat enough in Gilnockie larder that day I scorned him wi' his laziness, and forced him to do the deed that has brought him to Jedburgh jail. But I'll awa to the warden, James Stewart o' Traquair, and see if it be the king's high will that a man's life should be ta'en for a cow's."
Making good her resolution, Margaret threw her plaid about her shoulders, and hied her away to Traquair House, the same that still stands on the margin of the Tweed, and raises its high white walls, perforated by numerous Flemish-shaped windows, among the dark woods of Traquair. When she came to the front of the house, and saw the two stone figures stationed at the old gate, she paused and wondered at the weakness and effeminacy of the Lord High Steward in endeavouring to defend his castle by fearful representations of animals.
"My faith," muttered she to herself, as she approached to request entrance, "the warden was right in no makin' choice o' the figure o' a quey to defend his castle." And she could scarcely resist a chuckle in the midst of her tears, at her reference to the cause of her visit.
"Is my Lord Steward at hame?" said she to the servant who answered her call.
"Yes," answered the man; "who is it that wishes to see him?"
"The mistress o' Gilnockie," rejoined Margaret, "has come to seek a guid word for Christie's Will, who now lies in Jedburgh jail for stealing a tether, and I fear may hang for't."
The servant heard this extraordinary message as servants who presume to judge of the sense of their messages ever do, with critical attention, and, after serious consideration, declared that he could not deliver such a message to his lord.
"I dinna want ye to deliver my message, man," said Margaret. "I merely wished to be polite to ye, and show ye a little attention. God be thankit, the mistress o' Gilnockie can deliver her ain errand."
And, pushing the waiting man aside by a sudden jerk of her brawnie arm, she proceeded calmly forward to a door, which she intended to open; but the servant was at her heels, and, laying hold of her plaid, was in the act of hauling her back, when the Warden himself came out, and asked the cause of the affray.
"Is the house yours, my Lord, or this man's?" said Margaret. "Take my advice, my Lord," (whispering in his ear,) "turn him aff—he's a traitor; would you believe it, my Lord, that, though placed there for the purpose o' lettin' folk into yer Lordship, he actually—ay, as sure as death—tried to keep me oot! Can ye deny it, sir? Look i' my face, and deny it if ye daur!"
The man smiled, and his Lordship laughed; and Margaret wondered at the easy good-nature of a Lord in forgiving such a heinous offence on the part of a servitor.
"If ye're as kind to me as ye are to that rebel," continued Margaret, as she followed his Lordship into his sitting chamber, "Christie's Will winna hang yet."
"What mean you, good woman?" said the Warden. "What is it that you want?"
"As if your Lordship didna ken," answered Margaret, with a knowing look. "Is it likely that a Liddesdale woman frae the Hollows, should ca' upon the great Warden for aught short o' the life and safety o' the man wha's in Jedburgh jail?" (Another Scotch wink.)
"I am still at a loss, good woman," said the Warden.
"At a loss!" rejoined Margaret. "What! doesna a' the Forest,[C] and Teviotdale and Tweeddale to boot, ken that Christie's Will is in Jedburgh jail?"
"I know, I know, good dame," replied the Warden, "that that brave riever is in prison; but I thought his crime was the stealing of a cow, and not a tether, as I heard you say to my servant."
"Weel, weel—the cow may have been at the end o' the tether," replied Margaret.
"She is a wise woman who concealeth the extremity of her husband's crime," replied Lord Traquair, with a smile, "But what wouldst thou have me to do?"
"Just to save Christie's Will frae the gallows, my Lord," answered Margaret. And, going up close to his Lordship, and whispering in his ear—"And sometimes a Lord needs a lift as weel as ither folk. If there's nae buck on Traquair when your Lordship has company at the castle, you hae only to gie Christie's Will a nod, and there will be nae want o' venison here for a month. There's no a stouthriever in a' Liddesdale, be he baron or bondsman, knight or knave, but Christie's Will will bring to you at your Lordship's bidding, and a week's biding; and if there's ony want o' a braw leddie," (speaking low,) "to keep the bonny house o' Traquair in order, an' she canna be got for a carlin keeper, a wink to Christie's Will will bring her here, unscathed by sun or wind, in suner time than a priest could tie the knot, or a lawyer loose it. Is sic a man a meet burden for a fir wuddy, my Lord?"
"By my faith, your husband hath good properties about him," replied Traquair. "There is not one in these parts that knoweth not Christie's Will; but I fear it is to that fame he oweth his danger. He is the last of the old Armstrongs; and there is a saying hereaway, that
'Comes Liddesdale's peace When Armstrongs cease;'
and since, good dame, it would ill become the King's Warden to let slip the noose that is to catch peace and order for our march territories, yet Will is too noble a fellow for hanging. Go thy ways. I'll see him—I'll see him."
"Hech na, my Lord," answered Margaret; "I'll no budge frae this house till ye say ye'll save him this ance. I'll be caution and surety for him mysel', that he'll never again dine in Gilnockie on another man's surloins. His clan has been lang a broken ane; but I am now the head o't, and it has aye been the practice in our country to make the head answer for the rest o' the body."
"Well, that is the practice of the hangman at Jedburgh," replied Traquair, laughing. "But go thy ways. Will shall not hang yet. He hath a job to do for me. There's a 'lurdon'[D] of the north he must steal for me. I'll take thy bond."
[D] It has been attempted to derive this word from "Lord," (paper lord); but we have no faith in the etymology; it was, however, often applied to the wigged and gowned judges, as being, in their appearance, more like women than men—for "lurdon," though applied to a male, is generally used for a lazy woman.—ED.
"Gie me your hand then, my Lord," said the determined dame; "and the richest lurdon o' the land he'll bring to your Lordship, as surely as he ever took a Cumberland cow—whilk, as your Lordship kens, is nae rieving."
Traquair gave the good dame his hand, and she departed, wondering, as she went, what the Lord Warden was to do with a stolen lurdon. A young damsel might have been a fair prize for the handsome baron; but an "auld wife," as she muttered to herself, was the most extraordinary object of rieving she had ever heard of, amidst all the varieties of a Borderer's prey. Next day Traquair mounted his horse, and—
"Traquair has riden up Chaplehope, An' sae has he doun by the Grey-Mare's-Tail; He never stinted the light gallop, Until he speered for Christie's Will."
Having arrived at Jedburgh, he repaired direct to the jail, where Margaret had been before him, to inform her husband that the great Lord Warden was to visit him, and get him released; but upon the condition of stealing away a lurdon in the north—a performance, the singularity of which was much greater than the apparent difficulty, unless, indeed, as Will said, she was a bedridden lurdon, in which case, it would be no easy matter to get her conveyed, as horses were the only carriers of stolen goods in those days. But the wonder why Traquair should wish to steal away an old woman had perplexed the wits of Will and his wife to such an extent, that they had recourse to the most extraordinary hypotheses; supposing at one time that she was some coy heiress of seventy summers, who had determined to be carried off after the form of young damsels in the times of chivalry; at another, that she was the parent of some lord, who could only be brought to concede something to the Warden by the force of the impledgment of his mother; and, again, that she was the duenna of an heiress, who could only be got through the confinement of the old hag. Be who she might, however, Christie's Will declared, upon the faith of the long shablas of Johnny Armstrong, that he would carry her off through fire and water, as sure as ever Kinmont Willie was carried away by old Wat of Buccleuch from the Castle of Carlisle.
"Oh, was it war-wolf in the wood, Or was it mermaid in the sea, Or was it maid or lurdon auld, He'd carry an' bring her bodilie."
Such was the heroic determination to which Christie's Will had come, when the jailor came and whispered in his ear, that the Lord Warden was in the passage on the way to see him. Starting to his feet, the riever was prepared to meet the baron, of whom he generally stood in so much awe in his old tower of Gilnockie, but who came to him now on a visit of peace.
"Thou'lt hang, Will, this time," said the Warden, with an affectation of gruffness, as he stepped forward. "It is not in the power of man to save ye!"
"Begging yer Lordship's pardon," replied Will, "I believe it, however, to be in the power o' a woman. The auld lurdon will be in Gilnockie tower at yer Lordship's ain time."
"And who is the 'auld lurdon?'" replied the Warden, trying to repress a laugh, which forced its way in spite of his efforts.
"Margaret couldna tell me that," said Will; "but many a speculation we had on the question yer Lordship has now put to me. 'Wha can she be?' said Peggy; and 'Wha can she be?' replied I; but it's for yer Lordship to say wha she is, and for me to steal the auld limmer awa, as sure as ever I conveyed an auld milker frae the land o' the Nevills. I'm nae sooner free than she's a prisoner."
The familiarity with which Will spoke of the female personage thus destined to durance vile, produced another laugh on the part of the Warden, not altogether consistent, as Will thought, with the serious nature of the subject in hand.
"Where is she, my Lord?" continued Will; "in what fortress?—wha is her keeper?—whar will I tak her, and how long retain her a prisoner?"
"I fear, Will, she is beyond the power o' mortal," said his Lordship, in a serious voice; "but on condition of thy making a fair trial, I will make intercession for thy life, and take the chance of thy success. Much hangeth by the enterprise—ay, even all my barony of Coberston dependeth upon that 'lurdon' being retained three months in a quiet corner of Graeme's Tower. Thou knowest the place?"
"Ay, weel, weel," replied Will, who began to see the great importance of the enterprise, while his curiosity to know who the object was had considerably increased. "That tower has its 'redcap sly.' E'en Lord Soulis' Hermitage is no better guarded. Ance there, and awa wi' care, as we say o' Gilnockie as a rendezvous for strayed steers. But who is she, my Lord?"
"Thou hast thyself said she is a woman," replied the Warden, smiling, "and I correct thee not. Hast thou ever heard, Will, of fifteen old women—'lurdons,' as the good people call them—that reside in a large house in the Parliament close of Edinburgh?"
"Brawly, brawly," answered Will, with a particular leer of fun and intelligence; "and weel may I ken the limmers—real lurdons, wi' lang gowns and curches. Ken them! Wha that has a character to lose, or a property to keep against the claims o' auld parchment, doesna ken thae fifteen auld runts? They keep the hail country side in a steer wi' their scandal. Nae man's character is safe in their keeping; and they're sae fu' o' mischief that they hae even blawn into the king's lug that my tower o' Gilnockie was escheat to the king by the death o' my ancestor, who was hanged at Carlenrig. They say a' the mischief that has come on the Borders sin' the guid auld times, has its beginning in that coterie o' weazened gimmers. Dootless, they're at the root o' the danger o' yer bonny barony o' Coberston. By the rood! I wish I had a dash at their big curches."
"Ay, Will," responded Traquair; "but they're securely lodged in their strong Parliament House, and the difficulty is how to get at them."
"But I fancy ane o' the lurdons will satisfy yer Lordship," said Will, "or do ye want them a' lodged in Graeme's Tower? They would mak a bonny nest o' screighing hoolets, if we had them safely under the care o' the sly redcap o' that auld keep: they wad hatch something else than scandal, and leasin-makin, and reports o' the instability o' Border rights, the auld jauds."
"I will be content with one of them," rejoined the Warden.
"Ha! ha! I see, I see," replied Will. "Ane o' the limmers has been sapping and undermining Coberston wi' her hellish scandal. What's the lurdon's name, my Lord?"
"Gibson of Durie," rejoined Traquair.
"Ah! a weel-kenned scandalous runt that," replied Will. "She's the auldest o' the hail fifteen, if I'm no cheated—Leddie President o' the coterie. She spak sair against me when the King's advocate claimed for his Majesty my auld turret o' Gilnockie. I owe that quean an auld score. How lang do you want her lodged in Graeme's Tower?"