The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 20

A woman wails for justice at the gate,

A widow’d woman, wan and desolate.

Bertha.

The council room of Perth presented a singular spectacle. In a gloomy apartment, ill and inconveniently lighted by two windows of different form and of unequal size, were assembled, around a large oaken table, a group of men, of whom those who occupied the higher seats were merchants, that is, guild brethren, or shopkeepers, arrayed in decent dresses becoming their station, but most of them bearing, like, the Regent York, “signs of war around their aged necks”— gorgets, namely, and baldricks, which sustained their weapons. The lower places around the table were occupied by mechanics and artisans, the presidents, or deacons, as they were termed, of the working classes, in their ordinary clothes, somewhat better arranged than usual. These, too, wore pieces of armour of various descriptions. Some had the blackjack, or doublets covered with small plates of iron of a lozenge shape, which, secured through the upper angle, hung in rows above each [other], and which, swaying with the motion of the wearer’s person, formed a secure defence to the body. Others had buff coats, which, as already mentioned, could resist the blow of a sword, and even a lance’s point, unless propelled with great force. At the bottom of the table, surrounded as it was with this varied assembly, sat Sir Louis Lundin; no military man, but a priest and parson of St. John’s, arrayed in his canonical dress, and having his pen and ink before him. He was town clerk of the burgh, and, like all the priests of the period (who were called from that circumstance the Pope’s knights), received the honourable title of Dominus, contracted into Dom, or Dan, or translated into Sir, the title of reverence due to the secular chivalry.

On an elevated seat at the head of the council board was placed Sir Patrick Charteris, in complete armour brightly burnished — a singular contrast to the motley mixture of warlike and peaceful attire exhibited by the burghers, who were only called to arms occasionally. The bearing of the provost, while it completely admitted the intimate connexion which mutual interests had created betwixt himself, the burgh, and the magistracy, was at the same time calculated to assert the superiority which, in virtue of gentle blood and chivalrous rank, the opinions of the age assigned to him over the members of the assembly in which he presided. Two squires stood behind him, one of them holding the knight’s pennon, and another his shield, bearing his armorial distinctions, being a hand holding a dagger, or short sword, with the proud motto, “This is my charter.” A handsome page displayed the long sword of his master, and another bore his lance; all which chivalrous emblems and appurtenances were the more scrupulously exhibited, that the dignitary to whom they belonged was engaged in discharging the office of a burgh magistrate. In his own person the Knight of Kinfauns appeared to affect something of state and stiffness which did not naturally pertain to his frank and jovial character.

“So you are come at length, Henry Smith and Simon Glover,” said the provost. “Know that you have kept us waiting for your attendance. Should it so chance again while we occupy this place, we will lay such a fine on you as you will have small pleasure in paying. Enough — make no excuses. They are not asked now, and another time they will not be admitted. Know, sirs, that our reverend clerk hath taken down in writing, and at full length, what I will tell you in brief, that you may see what is to be required of you, Henry Smith, in particular. Our late fellow citizen, Oliver Proudfute, hath been found dead in the High Street, close by the entrance into the wynd. It seemeth he was slain by a heavy blow with a short axe, dealt from behind and at unawares; and the act by which he fell can only be termed a deed of foul and forethought murder. So much for the crime. The criminal can only be indicated by circumstances. It is recorded in the protocol of the Reverend Sir Louis Lundin, that divers well reported witnesses saw our deceased citizen, Oliver Proudfute, till a late period accompanying the entry of the morrice dancers, of whom he was one, as far as the house of Simon Glover, in Curfew Street, where they again played their pageant. It is also manifested that at this place he separated from the rest of the band, after some discourse with Simon Glover, and made an appointment to meet with the others of his company at the sign of the Griffin, there to conclude the holiday. Now, Simon, I demand of you whether this be truly stated, so far as you know? and further, what was the purport of the defunct Oliver Proudfute’s discourse with you?”

“My Lord Provost and very worshipful Sir Patrick,” answered Simon Glover, “you and this honourable council shall know that, touching certain reports which had been made of the conduct of Henry Smith, some quarrel had arisen between myself and another of my family and the said Smith here present. Now, this our poor fellow citizen, Oliver Proudfute, having been active in spreading these reports, as indeed his element lay in such gossipred, some words passed betwixt him and me on the subject; and, as I think, he left me with the purpose of visiting Henry Smith, for he broke off from the morrice dancers, promising, as it seems, to meet them, as your honour has said, at the sign of the Griffin, in order to conclude the evening. But what he actually did, I know not, as I never again saw him in life.”

“It is enough,” said Sir Patrick, “and agrees with all that we have heard. Now, worthy sirs, we next find our poor fellow citizen environed by a set of revellers and maskers who had assembled in the High Street, by whom he was shamefully ill treated, being compelled to kneel down in the street, and there to quaff huge quantities of liquor against his inclination, until at length he escaped from them by flight. This violence was accomplished with drawn swords, loud shouts, and imprecations, so as to attract the attention of several persons, who, alarmed by the tumult, looked out from their windows, as well as of one or two passengers, who, keeping aloof from the light of the torches, lest they also had been maltreated, beheld the usage which our fellow citizen received in the High Street of the burgh. And although these revellers were disguised, and used vizards, yet their disguises were well known, being a set of quaint masking habits prepared some weeks ago by command of Sir John Ramorny, Master of the Horse to his Royal Highness the Duke of Rothsay, Prince Royal of Scotland.”

A low groan went through the assembly.

“Yes, so it is, brave burghers,” continued Sir Patrick; “our inquiries have led us into conclusions both melancholy and terrible. But as no one can regret the point at which they seem likely to arrive more than I do, so no man living can dread its consequences less. It is even so, various artisans employed upon the articles have described the dresses prepared for Sir John Ramorny’s mask as being exactly similar to those of the men by whom Oliver Proudfute was observed to be maltreated. And one mechanic, being Wingfield the feather dresser, who saw the revellers when they had our fellow citizen within their hands, remarked that they wore the cinctures and coronals of painted feathers which he himself had made by the order of the Prince’s master of horse.

“After the moment of his escape from these revellers, we lose all trace of Oliver’ but we can prove that the maskers went to Sir John Ramorny’s, where they were admitted, after some show of delay. It is rumoured that thou, Henry Smith, sawest our unhappy fellow citizen after he had been in the hands of these revellers. What is the truth of the matter?”

“He came to my house in the wynd,” said Henry, “about half an hour before midnight; and I admitted him, something unwillingly, as he had been keeping carnival while I remained at home; and ‘There is ill talk,’ says the proverb, ‘betwixt a full man and a fasting.’”

“And in which plight seemed he when thou didst admit him?” said the provost.

“He seemed,” answered the smith, “out of breath, and talked repeatedly of having been endangered by revellers. I paid but small regard, for he was ever a timorous, chicken spirited, though well meaning, man, and I held that he was speaking more from fancy than reality. But I shall always account it for foul offence in myself that I did not give him my company, which he requested; and if I live, I will found masses for his soul, in expiation of my guilt.”

“Did he describe those from whom he received the injury?” said the provost.

“Revellers in masking habits,” replied Henry.

“And did he intimate his fear of having to do with them on his return?” again demanded Sir Patrick.

“He alluded particularly to his being waylaid, which I treated as visionary, having been able to see no one in the lane.”

“Had he then no help from thee of any kind whatsoever?” said the provost.

“Yes, worshipful,” replied the smith; “he exchanged his morrice dress for my head piece, buff coat, and target, which I hear were found upon his body; and I have at home his morrice cap and bells, with the jerkin and other things pertaining. He was to return my garb of fence, and get back his own masking suit this day, had the saints so permitted.”

“You saw him not then afterwards?”

“Never, my lord.”

“One word more,” said the provost. “Have you any reason to think that the blow which slew Oliver Proudfute was meant for another man?”

“I have,” answered the smith; “but it is doubtful, and may be dangerous to add such a conjecture, which is besides only a supposition.”

“Speak it out, on your burgher faith and oath. For whom, think you, was the blow meant?”

“If I must speak,” replied Henry, “I believe Oliver Proudfute received the fate which was designed for myself; the rather that, in his folly, Oliver spoke of trying to assume my manner of walking, as well as my dress.”

“Have you feud with any one, that you form such an idea?” said Sir Patrick Charteris.

“To my shame and sin be it spoken, I have feud with Highland and Lowland, English and Scot, Perth and Angus. I do not believe poor Oliver had feud with a new hatched chicken. Alas! he was the more fully prepared for a sudden call!”

“Hark ye, smith,” said the provost, “answer me distinctly: Is there cause of feud between the household of Sir John Ramorny and yourself?”

“To a certainty, my lord, there is. It is now generally said that Black Quentin, who went over Tay to Fife some days since, was the owner of the hand which was found in Couvrefew Street upon the eve of St. Valentine. It was I who struck off that hand with a blow of my broadsword. As this Black Quentin was a chamberlain of Sir John, and much trusted, it is like there must be feud between me and his master’s dependants.”

“It bears a likely front, smith,” said Sir Patrick Charteris. “And now, good brothers and wise magistrates, there are two suppositions, each of which leads to the same conclusion. The maskers who seized our fellow citizen, and misused him in a manner of which his body retains some slight marks, may have met with their former prisoner as he returned homewards, and finished their ill usage by taking his life. He himself expressed to Henry Gow fears that this would be the case. If this be really true, one or more of Sir John Ramorny’s attendants must have been the assassins. But I think it more likely that one or two of the revellers may have remained on the field, or returned to it, having changed perhaps their disguise, and that to those men (for Oliver Proudfute, in his own personal appearance, would only have been a subject of sport) his apparition in the dress, and assuming, as he proposed to do, the manner, of Henry Smith, was matter of deep hatred; and that, seeing him alone, they had taken, as they thought, a certain and safe mode to rid themselves of an enemy so dangerous as all men know Henry Wynd is accounted by those that are his unfriends. The same train of reasoning, again, rests the guilt with the household of Sir John Ramorny. How think you, sirs? Are we not free to charge the crime upon them?”

The magistrates whispered together for several minutes, and then replied by the voice of Bailie Craigdallie: “Noble knight, and our worthy provost, we agree entirely in what your wisdom has spoken concerning this dark and bloody matter; nor do we doubt your sagacity in tracing to the fellowship and the company of John Ramorny of that ilk the villainy which hath been done to our deceased fellow citizen, whether in his own character and capacity or as mistaking him for our brave townsman, Henry of the Wynd. But Sir John, in his own behalf, and as the Prince’s master of the horse, maintains an extensive household; and as, of course, the charge will be rebutted by a denial, we would ask how we shall proceed in that case. It is true, could we find law for firing the lodging, and putting all within it to the sword; the old proverb of ‘Short rede, good rede,’ might here apply; for a fouler household of defiers of God, destroyers of men, and debauchers of women are nowhere sheltered than are in Ramorny’s band. But I doubt that this summary mode of execution would scarce be borne out by the laws; and no tittle of evidence which I have heard will tend to fix the crime on any single individual or individuals.”

Before the provost could reply, the town clerk arose, and, stroking his venerable beard, craved permission to speak, which was instantly granted.

“Brethren,” he said, “as well in our fathers’ time as ours; hath God, on being rightly appealed to, condescended to make manifest the crimes of the guilty and the innocence of those who may have been rashly accused. Let us demand from our sovereign lord, King Robert, who, when the wicked do not interfere to pervert his good intentions, is as just and clement a prince as our annals can show in their long line, in the name of the Fair City, and of all the commons in Scotland, that he give us, after the fashion of our ancestors, the means of appealing to Heaven for light upon this dark murder, we will demand the proof by ‘bier right,’ often granted in the days of our sovereign’s ancestors, approved of by bulls and decretals, and administered by the great Emperor Charlemagne in France, by King Arthur in Britain, and by Gregory the Great, and the mighty Achaius, in this our land of Scotland.”

“I have heard of the bier right, Sir Louis,” quoth the provost, “and I know we have it in our charters of the Fair City; but I am something ill learned in the ancient laws, and would pray you to inform us more distinctly of its nature.”

“We will demand of the King,” said Sir Louis Lundin, “my advice being taken, that the body of our murdered fellow citizen be transported into the High Church of St. John, and suitable masses said for the benefit of his soul and for the discovery of his foul murder. Meantime, we shall obtain an order that Sir John Ramorny give up a list of such of his household as were in Perth in the course of the night between Fastern’s Even and this Ash Wednesday, and become bound to present them on a certain day and hour, to be early named, in the High Church of St. John, there one by one to pass before the bier of our murdered fellow citizen, and in the form prescribed to call upon God and His saints to bear witness that he is innocent of the acting, art or part, of the murder. And credit me, as has been indeed proved by numerous instances, that, if the murderer shall endeavour to shroud himself by making such an appeal, the antipathy which subsists between the dead body and the hand which dealt the fatal blow that divorced it from the soul will awaken some imperfect life, under the influence of which the veins of the dead man will pour forth at the fatal wounds the blood which has been so long stagnant in the veins. Or, to speak more certainly, it is the pleasure of Heaven, by some hidden agency which we cannot comprehend, to leave open this mode of discovering the wickedness of him who has defaced the image of his Creator.”

“I have heard this law talked of,” said Sir Patrick, “and it was enforced in the Bruce’s time. This surely is no unfit period to seek, by such a mystic mode of inquiry, the truth to which no ordinary means can give us access, seeing that a general accusation of Sir John’s household would full surely be met by a general denial. Yet I must crave farther of Sir Louis, our reverend town clerk, how we shall prevent the guilty person from escaping in the interim?”

“The burghers will maintain a strict watch upon the wall, drawbridges shall be raised and portcullises lowered, from sunset to sunrise, and strong patrols maintained through the night. This guard the burghers will willingly maintain, to secure against the escape of the murderer of their townsman.”

The rest of the counsellors acquiesced, by word, sign, and look, in this proposal.

“Again,” said the provost, “what if any one of the suspected household refuse to submit to the ordeal of bier right?”

“He may appeal to that of combat,” said the reverend city scribe, “with an opponent of equal rank; because the accused person must have his choice, in the appeal to the judgment of God, by what ordeal he will be tried. But if he refuses both, he must be held as guilty, and so punished.”

The sages of the council unanimously agreed with the opinion of their provost and town clerk, and resolved, in all formality, to petition the King, as a matter of right, that the murder of their fellow citizen should be inquired into according to this ancient form, which was held to manifest the truth, and received as matter of evidence in case of murder so late as towards the end of the 17th century. But before the meeting dissolved, Bailie Craigdallie thought it meet to inquire who was to be the champion of Maudie, or Magdalen, Proudfute and her two children.

“There need be little inquiry about that,” said Sir Patrick Charteris; “we are men, and wear swords, which should be broken over the head of any one amongst us who will not draw it in behalf of the widow and orphans of our murdered fellow citizen, and in brave revenge of his death. If Sir John Ramorny shall personally resent the inquiry, Patrick Charteris of Kinfauns will do battle with him to the outrance, whilst horse and man may stand, or spear and blade hold together. But in case the challenger be of yeomanly degree, well wot I that Magdalen Proudfute may choose her own champion among the bravest burghers of Perth, and shame and dishonour were it to the Fair City for ever could she light upon one who were traitor and coward enough to say her nay! Bring her hither, that she may make her election.”

Henry Smith heard this with a melancholy anticipation that the poor woman’s choice would light upon him, and that his recent reconciliation with his mistress would be again dissolved, by his being engaged in a fresh quarrel, from which there lay no honourable means of escape, and which, in any other circumstances, he would have welcomed as a glorious opportunity of distinguishing himself, both in sight of the court and of the city. He was aware that, under the tuition of Father Clement, Catharine viewed the ordeal of battle rather as an insult to religion than an appeal to the Deity, and did not consider it as reasonable that superior strength of arm or skill of weapon should be resorted to as the proof of moral guilt or innocence. He had, therefore, much to fear from her peculiar opinions in this particular, refined as they were beyond those of the age she lived in.

While he thus suffered under these contending feelings, Magdalen, the widow of the slaughtered man, entered the court, wrapt in a deep mourning veil, and followed and supported by five or six women of good (that is, of respectability) dressed in the same melancholy attire. One of her attendants held an infant in her arms, the last pledge of poor Oliver’s nuptial affections. Another led a little tottering creature of two years, or thereabouts, which looked with wonder and fear, sometimes on the black dress in which they had muffled him, and sometimes on the scene around him.

The assembly rose to receive the melancholy group, and saluted them with an expression of the deepest sympathy, which Magdalen, though the mate of poor Oliver, returned with an air of dignity, which she borrowed, perhaps, from the extremity of her distress. Sir Patrick Charteris then stepped forward, and with the courtesy of a knight to a female, and of a protector to an oppressed and injured widow, took the poor woman’s hand, and explained to her briefly by what course the city had resolved to follow out the vengeance due for her husband’s slaughter.

Having, with a softness and gentleness which did not belong to his general manner, ascertained that the unfortunate woman perfectly understood what was meant, he said aloud to the assembly: “Good citizens of Perth, and freeborn men of guild and craft, attend to what is about to pass, for it concerns your rights and privileges. Here stands Magdalen Proudfute, desirous to follow forth the revenge due for the death of her husband, foully murdered, as she sayeth, by Sir John Ramorny, Knight, of that Ilk, and which she offers to prove, by the evidence of bier right, or by the body of a man. Therefore, I, Patrick Charteris, being a belted knight and freeborn gentleman, offer myself to do battle in her just quarrel, whilst man and horse may endure, if any one of my degree shall lift my glove. How say you, Magdalen Proudfute, will you accept me for your champion?”

The widow answered with difficulty: “I can desire none nobler.”

Sir Patrick then took her right hand in his, and, kissing her forehead, for such was the ceremony, said solemnly: “So may God and St. John prosper me at my need, as I will do my devoir as your champion, knightly, truly, and manfully. Go now, Magdalen, and choose at your will among the burgesses of the Fair City, present or absent, any one upon whom you desire to rest your challenge, if he against whom you bring plaint shall prove to be beneath my degree.”

All eyes were turned to Henry Smith, whom the general voice had already pointed out as in every respect the fittest to act as champion on the occasion. But the widow waited not for the general prompting of their looks. As soon as Sir Patrick had spoken, she crossed the floor to the place where, near the bottom of the table, the armourer stood among the men of his degree, and took him by the hand.

“Henry Gow, or Smith,” she said, “good burgher and draftsman, my — my —”

“Husband,” she would have said, but the word would not come forth: she was obliged to change the expression.

“He who is gone, loved and prized you over all men; therefore meet it is that thou shouldst follow out the quarrel of his widow and orphans.”

If there had been a possibility, which in that age there was not, of Henry’s rejecting or escaping from a trust for which all men seemed to destine him, every wish and idea of retreat was cut off when the widow began to address him; and a command from Heaven could hardly have made a stronger impression than did the appeal of the unfortunate Magdalen. Her allusion to his intimacy with the deceased moved him to the soul. During Oliver’s life, doubtless, there had been a strain of absurdity in his excessive predilection for Henry, which, considering how very different they were in character, had in it something ludicrous. But all this was now forgotten, and Henry, giving way to his natural ardour, only remembered that Oliver had been his friend and intimate — a man who had loved and honoured him as much as he was capable of entertaining such sentiments for any one, and, above all, that there was much reason to suspect that the deceased had fallen victim to a blow meant for Henry himself.

It was, therefore, with an alacrity which, the minute before, he could scarce have commanded, and which seemed to express a stern pleasure, that, having pressed his lips to the cold brow of the unhappy Magdalen, the armourer replied:

“I, Henry the Smith, dwelling in the Wynd of Perth, good man and true, and freely born, accept the office of champion to this widow Magdalen and these orphans, and will do battle in their quarrel to the death, with any man whomsoever of my own degree, and that so long as I shall draw breath. So help me at my need God and good St. John!”

There arose from the audience a half suppressed cry, expressing the interest which the persons present took in the prosecution of the quarrel, and their confidence in the issue.

Sir Patrick Charteris then took measures for repairing to the King’s presence, and demanding leave to proceed with inquiry into the murder of Oliver Proudfute, according to the custom of bier right, and, if necessary, by combat.

He performed this duty after the town council had dissolved, in a private interview between himself and the King, who heard of this new trouble with much vexation, and appointed next morning, after mass, for Sir Patrick and the parties interested to attend his pleasure in council. In the mean time, a royal pursuivant was despatched to the Constable’s lodgings, to call over the roll of Sir John Ramorny’s attendants, and charge him, with his whole retinue, under high penalties, to abide within Perth until the King’s pleasure should be farther known.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29