Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 8

Expert climbers — The crags — Something red — The horrible edge — David Haggart — Fine materials — The greatest victory — Extraordinary robber — The ruling passion.

Meanwhile I had become a daring cragsman, a character to which an English lad has seldom opportunities of aspiring; for in England there are neither crags nor mountains. Of these, however, as is well known, there is no lack in Scotland, and the habits of individuals are invariably in harmony with the country in which they dwell. The Scotch are expert climbers, and I was now a Scot in most things, particularly in language. The Castle in which I dwelt stood upon a rock, a bold and craggy one, which, at first sight, would seem to bid defiance to any feet save those of goats and chamois; but patience and perseverance generally enable mankind to overcome things which, at first sight, appear impossible. Indeed, what is there above man’s exertions? Unwearied determination will enable him to run with the horse, to swim with the fish, and assuredly to compete with the chamois and the goat in agility and sureness of foot. To scale the rock was merely child’s play for the Edinbro’ callants. It was my own favourite diversion. I soon found that the rock contained all manner of strange crypts, crannies, and recesses, where owls nestled, and the weasel brought forth her young; here and there were small natural platforms, overgrown with long grass and various kinds of plants, where the climber, if so disposed, could stretch himself, and either give his eyes to sleep or his mind to thought; for capital places were these same platforms either for repose or meditation. The boldest features of the rock are descried on the northern side, where, after shelving down gently from the wall for some distance, it terminates abruptly in a precipice, black and horrible, of some three hundred feet at least, as if the axe of nature had been here employed cutting sheer down, and leaving behind neither excrescence nor spur — a dizzy precipice it is, assimilating much to those so frequent in the flinty hills of Northern Africa, and exhibiting some distant resemblance to that of Gibraltar, towering in its horridness above the Neutral Ground.

It was now holiday time, and having nothing particular wherewith to occupy myself, I not unfrequently passed the greater part of the day upon the rocks. Once, after scaling the western crags, and creeping round a sharp angle of the wall, overhung by a kind of watch-tower, I found myself on the northern side. Still keeping close to the wall, I was proceeding onward, for I was bent upon a long excursion which should embrace half the circuit of the Castle, when suddenly my eye was attracted by the appearance of something red, far below me; I stopped short, and, looking fixedly upon it, perceived that it was a human being in a kind of red jacket, seated on the extreme verge of the precipice which I have already made a faint attempt to describe. Wondering who it could be, I shouted; but it took not the slightest notice, remaining as immovable as the rock on which it sat. ‘I should never have thought of going near that edge,’ said I to myself; ‘however, as you have done it, why should not I? And I should like to know who you are.’ So I commenced the descent of the rock, but with great care, for I had as yet never been in a situation so dangerous; a slight moisture exuded from the palms of my hands, my nerves were tingling, and my brain was somewhat dizzy — and now I had arrived within a few yards of the figure, and had recognised it: it was the wild drummer who had turned the tide of battle in the bicker on the Castle Brae. A small stone which I dislodged now rolled down the rock, and tumbled into the abyss close beside him. He turned his head, and after looking at me for a moment somewhat vacantly, he resumed his former attitude. I drew yet nearer to the horrible edge not close, however, for fear was on me.

‘What are you thinking of, David?’ said I, as I sat behind him and trembled, for I repeat that I was afraid.

David Haggart. I was thinking of Willie Wallace.

Myself. You had better be thinking of yourself, man. A strange place this to come to and think of William Wallace.

David Haggart. Why so? Is not his tower just beneath our feet?

Myself. You mean the auld ruin by the side of the Nor Loch — the ugly stane bulk, from the foot of which flows the spring into the dyke where the watercresses grow?

David Haggart. Just sae, Geordie.

Myself. And why were ye thinking of him? The English hanged him long since, as I have heard say.

David Haggart. I was thinking that I should wish to be like him.

Myself. Do ye mean that ye would wish to be hanged?

David Haggart. I wadna flinch from that, Geordie, if I might be a great man first.

Myself. And wha kens, Davie, how great you may be, even without hanging? Are ye not in the high road of preferment? Are ye not a bauld drummer already? Wha kens how high ye may rise? perhaps to be general, or drum-major.

David Haggart. I hae nae wish to be drum-major; it were nae great things to be like the doited carle, Else-than-gude, as they call him; and, troth, he has nae his name for naething. But I should have nae objection to be a general, and to fight the French and Americans, and win myself a name and a fame like Willie Wallace, and do brave deeds, such as I have been reading about in his story book.

Myself. Ye are a fule, Davie; the story book is full of lies. Wallace, indeed! the wuddie rebel! I have heard my father say that the Duke of Cumberland was worth twenty of Willie Wallace.

David Haggart. Ye had better sae naething agin Willie Wallace, Geordie, for, if ye do, De’il hae me, if I dinna tumble ye doon the craig.

Fine materials in that lad for a hero, you will say. Yes, indeed, for a hero, or for what he afterwards became. In other times, and under other circumstances, he might have made what is generally termed a great man, a patriot, or a conqueror. As it was, the very qualities which might then have pushed him on to fortune and renown were the cause of his ruin. The war over, he fell into evil courses; for his wild heart and ambitious spirit could not brook the sober and quiet pursuits of honest industry.

‘Can an Arabian steed submit to be a vile drudge?’ I cries the fatalist. Nonsense! A man is not an irrational creature, but a reasoning being, and has something within him beyond mere brutal instinct. The greatest victory which a man can achieve is over himself, by which is meant those unruly passions which are not convenient to the time and place. David did not do this; he gave the reins to his wild heart, instead of curbing it, and became a robber, and, alas! alas! he shed blood — under peculiar circumstances, it is true, and without malice prepense — and for that blood he eventually died, and justly; for it was that of the warden of a prison from which he was escaping, and whom he slew with one blow of his stalwart arm.

Tamerlane and Haggart! Haggart and Tamerlane! Both these men were robbers, and of low birth, yet one perished on an ignoble scaffold, and the other died emperor of the world. Is this justice? The ends of the two men were widely dissimilar — yet what is the intrinsic difference between them? Very great indeed; the one acted according to his lights and his country, not so the other. Tamerlane was a heathen, and acted according to his lights; he was a robber where all around were robbers, but he became the avenger of God — God’s scourge on unjust kings, on the cruel Bajazet, who had plucked out his own brothers’ eyes; he became to a certain extent the purifier of the East, its regenerator; his equal never was before, nor has it since been seen. Here the wild heart was profitably employed, the wild strength, the teeming brain. Onward, Lame one! Onward, Tamur — lank! Haggart. . . .

But peace to thee, poor David! why should a mortal worm be sitting in judgment over thee? The Mighty and Just One has already judged thee, and perhaps above thou hast received pardon for thy crimes, which could not be pardoned here below; and now that thy feverish existence has closed, and thy once active form become inanimate dust, thy very memory all but forgotten, I will say a few words about thee, a few words soon also to be forgotten. Thou wast the most extraordinary robber that ever lived within the belt of Britain; Scotland rang with thy exploits, and England, too, north of the Humber; strange deeds also didst thou achieve when, fleeing from justice, thou didst find thyself in the Sister Isle; busy wast thou there in town and on curragh, at fair and race-course, and also in the solitary place. Ireland thought thee her child, for who spoke her brogue better than thyself? — she felt proud of thee, and said, ‘Sure, O’Hanlon is come again.’ What might not have been thy fate in the far west in America, whither thou hadst turned thine eye, saying, ‘I will go there, and become an honest man!’ But thou wast not to go there, David — the blood which thou hadst shed in Scotland was to be required of thee; the avenger was at hand, the avenger of blood. Seized, manacled, brought back to thy native land, condemned to die, thou wast left in thy narrow cell, and told to make the most of thy time, for it was short: and there, in thy narrow cell, and thy time so short, thou didst put the crowning stone to thy strange deeds, by that strange history of thyself, penned by thy own hand in the robber tongue. Thou mightest have been better employed, David! — but the ruling passion was strong with thee, even in the jaws of death. Thou mightest have been better employed! — but peace be with thee, I repeat, and the Almighty’s grace and pardon.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32