The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 23

Lo! where he lies embalmed in gore,

His wound to Heaven cries:

The floodgates of his blood implore

For vengeance from the skies.

Uranus and Psyche.

The High Church of St. John in Perth, being that of the patron saint of the burgh, had been selected by the magistrates as that in which the community was likely to have most fair play for the display of the ordeal. The churches and convents of the Dominicans, Carthusians, and others of the regular clergy had been highly endowed by the King and nobles, and therefore it was the universal cry of the city council that “their ain good auld St. John,” of whose good graces they thought themselves sure, ought to be fully confided in, and preferred to the new patrons, for whom the Dominicans, Carthusians, Carmelites, and others had founded newer seats around the Fair City. The disputes between the regular and secular clergy added to the jealousy which dictated this choice of the spot in which Heaven was to display a species of miracle, upon a direct appeal to the divine decision in a case of doubtful guilt; and the town clerk was as anxious that the church of St. John should be preferred as if there had been a faction in the body of saints for and against the interests of the beautiful town of Perth.

Many, therefore, were the petty intrigues entered into and disconcerted for the purpose of fixing on the church. But the magistrates, considering it as a matter touching in a close degree the honour of the city, determined, with judicious confidence in the justice and impartiality of their patron, to confide the issue to the influence of St. John.

It was, therefore, after high mass had been performed with the greatest solemnity of which circumstances rendered the ceremony capable, and after the most repeated and fervent prayers had been offered to Heaven by the crowded assembly, that preparations were made for appealing to the direct judgment of Heaven on the mysterious murder of the unfortunate bonnet maker.

The scene presented that effect of imposing solemnity which the rites of the Catholic Church are so well qualified to produce. The eastern window, richly and variously painted, streamed down a torrent of chequered light upon the high altar. On the bier placed before it were stretched the mortal remains of the murdered man, his arms folded on his breast, and his palms joined together, with the fingers pointed upwards, as if the senseless clay was itself appealing to Heaven for vengeance against those who had violently divorced the immortal spirit from its mangled tenement.

Close to the bier was placed the throne which supported Robert of Scotland and his brother Albany. The Prince sat upon a lower stool, beside his father — an arrangement which occasioned some observation, as, Albany’s seat being little distinguished from that of the King, the heir apparent, though of full age, seemed to be degraded beneath his uncle in the sight of the assembled people of Perth. The bier was so placed as to leave the view of the body it sustained open to the greater part of the multitude assembled in the church.

At the head of the bier stood the Knight of Kinfauns, the challenger, and at the foot the young Earl of Crawford, as representing the defendant. The evidence of the Duke of Rothsay in expurgation, as it was termed, of Sir John Ramorny, had exempted him from the necessity of attendance as a party subjected to the ordeal; and his illness served as a reason for his remaining at home. His household, including those who, though immediately in waiting upon Sir John, were accounted the Prince’s domestics, and had not yet received their dismissal, amounted to eight or ten persons, most of them esteemed men of profligate habits, and who might therefore be deemed capable, in the riot of a festival evening, of committing the slaughter of the bonnet maker. They were drawn up in a row on the left side of the church, and wore a species of white cassock, resembling the dress of a penitentiary. All eyes being bent on them, several of this band seemed so much disconcerted as to excite among the spectators strong prepossessions of their guilt. The real murderer had a countenance incapable of betraying him — a sullen, dark look, which neither the feast nor wine cup could enliven, and which the peril of discovery and death could not render dejected.

We have already noticed the posture of the dead body. The face was bare, as were the breast and arms. The rest of the corpse was shrouded in a winding sheet of the finest linen, so that, if blood should flow from any place which was covered, it could not fail to be instantly manifest.

High mass having been performed, followed by a solemn invocation to the Deity, that He would be pleased to protect the innocent, and make known the guilty, Eviot, Sir John Ramorny’s page, was summoned to undergo the ordeal. He advanced with an ill assured step. Perhaps he thought his internal consciousness that Bonthron must have been the assassin might be sufficient to implicate him in the murder, though he was not directly accessory to it. He paused before the bier; and his voice faltered, as he swore by all that was created in seven days and seven nights, by heaven, by hell, by his part of paradise, and by the God and author of all, that he was free and sackless of the bloody deed done upon the corpse before which he stood, and on whose breast he made the sign of the cross, in evidence of the appeal. No consequences ensued. The body remained stiff as before, the curdled wounds gave no sign of blood.

The citizens looked on each other with faces of blank disappointment. They had persuaded themselves of Eviot’s guilt, and their suspicions had been confirmed by his irresolute manner. Their surprise at his escape was therefore extreme. The other followers of Ramorny took heart, and advanced to take the oath with a boldness which increased as one by one they performed the ordeal, and were declared, by the voice of the judges, free and innocent of every suspicion attaching to them on account of the death of Oliver Proudfute.

But there was one individual who did not partake that increasing confidence. The name of “Bonthron — Bonthron!” sounded three times through the aisles of the church; but he who owned it acknowledged the call no otherwise than by a sort of shuffling motion with his feet, as if he had been suddenly affected with a fit of the palsy.

“Speak, dog,” whispered Eviot, “or prepare for a dog’s death!”

But the murderer’s brain was so much disturbed by the sight before him, that the judges, beholding his deportment, doubted whether to ordain him to be dragged before the bier or to pronounce judgment in default; and it was not until he was asked for the last time whether he would submit to the ordeal, that he answered, with his usual brevity:

“I will not; what do I know what juggling tricks may be practised to take a poor man’s life? I offer the combat to any man who says I harmed that dead body.”

And, according to usual form, he threw his glove upon the floor of the church.

Henry Smith stepped forward, amidst the murmured applauses of his fellow citizens, which even the august presence could not entirely suppress; and, lifting the ruffian’s glove, which he placed in his bonnet, laid down his own in the usual form, as a gage of battle. But Bonthron raised it not.

“He is no match for me,” growled the savage, “nor fit to lift my glove. I follow the Prince of Scotland, in attending on his master of horse. This fellow is a wretched mechanic.”

Here the Prince interrupted him. “Thou follow me, caitiff! I discharge thee from my service on the spot. Take him in hand, Smith, and beat him as thou didst never thump anvil! The villain is both guilty and recreant. It sickens me even to look at him; and if my royal father will be ruled by me, he will give the parties two handsome Scottish axes, and we will see which of them turns out the best fellow before the day is half an hour older.”

This was readily assented to by the Earl of Crawford and Sir Patrick Charteris, the godfathers of the parties, who, as the combatants were men of inferior rank, agreed that they should fight in steel caps, buff jackets, and with axes, and that as soon as they could be prepared for the combat.

The lists were appointed in the Skinners’ Yards — a neighbouring space of ground, occupied by the corporation from which it had the name, and who quickly cleared a space of about thirty feet by twenty-five for the combatants. Thither thronged the nobles, priests, and commons — all excepting the old King, who, detesting such scenes of blood, retired to his residence, and devolved the charge of the field upon the Earl of Errol, Lord High Constable, to whose office it more particularly belonged. The Duke of Albany watched the whole proceeding with a close and wary eye. His nephew gave the scene the heedless degree of notice which corresponded with his character.

When the combatants appeared in the lists, nothing could be more striking than the contrast betwixt the manly, cheerful countenance of the smith, whose sparkling bright eye seemed already beaming with the victory he hoped for, and the sullen, downcast aspect of the brutal Bonthron, who looked as if he were some obscene bird, driven into sunshine out of the shelter of its darksome haunts. They made oath severally, each to the truth of his quarrel — a ceremony which Henry Gow performed with serene and manly confidence, Bonthron with a dogged resolution, which induced the Duke of Rothsay to say to the High Constable: “Didst thou ever, my dear Errol, behold such a mixture of malignity, cruelty, and I think fear, as in that fellow’s countenance?”

“He is not comely,” said the Earl, “but a powerful knave as I have seen.”

“I’ll gage a hogshead of wine with you, my good lord, that he loses the day. Henry the armourer is as strong as he, and much more active; and then look at his bold bearing! There is something in that other fellow that is loathsome to look upon. Let them yoke presently, my dear Constable, for I am sick of beholding him.”

The High Constable then addressed the widow, who, in her deep weeds, and having her children still beside her, occupied a chair within the lists: “Woman, do you willingly accept of this man, Henry the Smith, to do battle as your champion in this cause?”

“I do — I do, most willingly,” answered Magdalen Proudfute; “and may the blessing of God and St. John give him strength and fortune, since he strikes for the orphan and fatherless!”

“Then I pronounce this a fenced field of battle,” said the Constable aloud. “Let no one dare, upon peril of his life, to interrupt this combat by word, speech, or look. Sound trumpets, and fight, combatants!”

The trumpets flourished, and the combatants, advancing from the opposite ends of the lists, with a steady and even pace, looked at each other attentively, well skilled in judging from the motion of the eye the direction in which a blow was meditated. They halted opposite to, and within reach of, each other, and in turn made more than one feint to strike, in order to ascertain the activity and vigilance of the opponent. At length, whether weary of these manoeuvres, or fearing lest in a contest so conducted his unwieldy strength would be foiled by the activity of the smith, Bonthron heaved up his axe for a downright blow, adding the whole strength of his sturdy arms to the weight of the weapon in its descent. The smith, however, avoided the stroke by stepping aside; for it was too forcible to be controlled by any guard which he could have interposed. Ere Bonthron recovered guard, Henry struck him a sidelong blow on the steel headpiece, which prostrated him on the ground.

“Confess, or die,” said the victor, placing his foot on the body of the vanquished, and holding to his throat the point of the axe, which terminated in a spike or poniard.

“I will confess,” said the villain, glaring wildly upwards on the sky. “Let me rise.”

“Not till you have yielded,” said Harry Smith.

“I do yield,” again murmured Bonthron, and Henry proclaimed aloud that his antagonist was defeated.

The Dukes of Rothsay and Albany, the High Constable, and the Dominican prior now entered the lists, and, addressing Bonthron, demanded if he acknowledged himself vanquished.

“I do,” answered the miscreant.

“And guilty of the murder of Oliver Proudfute?”

“I am; but I mistook him for another.”

“And whom didst thou intend to slay?” said the prior. “Confess, my son, and merit thy pardon in another world for with this thou hast little more to do.”

“I took the slain man,” answered the discomfited combatant, “for him whose hand has struck me down, whose foot now presses me.”

“Blessed be the saints!” said the prior; “now all those who doubt the virtue of the holy ordeal may have their eyes opened to their error. Lo, he is trapped in the snare which he laid for the guiltless.”

“I scarce ever saw the man,” said the smith. “I never did wrong to him or his. Ask him, an it please your reverence, why he should have thought of slaying me treacherously.”

“It is a fitting question,” answered the prior. “Give glory where it is due, my son, even though it is manifested by thy shame. For what reason wouldst thou have waylaid this armourer, who says he never wronged thee?”

“He had wronged him whom I served,” answered Bonthron, “and I meditated the deed by his command.”

“By whose command?” asked the prior.

Bonthron was silent for an instant, then growled out: “He is too mighty for me to name.”

“Hearken, my son,” said the churchman; “tarry but a brief hour, and the mighty and the mean of this earth shall to thee alike be empty sounds. The sledge is even now preparing to drag thee to the place of execution. Therefore, son, once more I charge thee to consult thy soul’s weal by glorifying Heaven, and speaking the truth. Was it thy master, Sir John Ramorny, that stirred thee to so foul a deed?”

“No,” answered the prostrate villain, “it was a greater than he.” And at the same time he pointed with his finger to the Prince.

“Wretch!” said the astonished Duke of Rothsay; “do you dare to hint that I was your instigator?”

“You yourself, my lord,” answered the unblushing ruffian.

“Die in thy falsehood, accursed slave!” said the Prince; and, drawing his sword, he would have pierced his calumniator, had not the Lord High Constable interposed with word and action.

“Your Grace must forgive my discharging mine office: this caitiff must be delivered into the hands of the executioner. He is unfit to be dealt with by any other, much less by your Highness.”

“What! noble earl,” said Albany aloud, and with much real or affected emotion, “would you let the dog pass alive from hence, to poison the people’s ears with false accusations against the Prince of Scotland? I say, cut him to mammocks upon the spot!”

“Your Highness will pardon me,” said the Earl of Errol; “I must protect him till his doom is executed.”

“Then let him be gagged instantly,” said Albany. “And you, my royal nephew, why stand you there fixed in astonishment? Call your resolution up — speak to the prisoner — swear — protest by all that is sacred that you knew not of this felon deed. See how the people look on each other and whisper apart! My life on’t that this lie spreads faster than any Gospel truth. Speak to them, royal kinsman, no matter what you say, so you be constant in denial.”

“What, sir,” said Rothsay, starting from his pause of surprise and mortification, and turning haughtily towards his uncle; “would you have me gage my royal word against that of an abject recreant? Let those who can believe the son of their sovereign, the descendant of Bruce, capable of laying ambush for the life of a poor mechanic, enjoy the pleasure of thinking the villain’s tale true.”

“That will not I for one,” said the smith, bluntly. “I never did aught but what was in honour towards his royal Grace the Duke of Rothsay, and never received unkindness from him in word, look, or deed; and I cannot think he would have given aim to such base practice.”

“Was it in honour that you threw his Highness from the ladder in Curfew Street upon Fastern’s [St. Valentine’s] Even?” said Bonthron; “or think you the favour was received kindly or unkindly?”

This was so boldly said, and seemed so plausible, that it shook the smith’s opinion of the Prince’s innocence.

“Alas, my lord,” said he, looking sorrowfully towards Rothsay, “could your Highness seek an innocent fellow’s life for doing his duty by a helpless maiden? I would rather have died in these lists than live to hear it said of the Bruce’s heir!”

“Thou art a good fellow, Smith,” said the Prince; “but I cannot expect thee to judge more wisely than others. Away with that convict to the gallows, and gibbet him alive an you will, that he may speak falsehood and spread scandal on us to the last prolonged moment of his existence!”

So saying, the Prince turned away from the lists, disdaining to notice the gloomy looks cast towards him, as the crowd made slow and reluctant way for him to pass, and expressing neither surprise nor displeasure at a deep, hollow murmur, or groan, which accompanied his retreat. Only a few of his own immediate followers attended him from the field, though various persons of distinction had come there in his train. Even the lower class of citizens ceased to follow the unhappy Prince, whose former indifferent reputation had exposed him to so many charges of impropriety and levity, and around whom there seemed now darkening suspicions of the most atrocious nature.

He took his slow and thoughtful way to the church of the Dominicans; but the ill news, which flies proverbially fast, had reached his father’s place of retirement before he himself appeared. On entering the palace and inquiring for the King, the Duke of Rothsay was surprised to be informed that he was in deep consultation with the Duke of Albany, who, mounting on horseback as the Prince left the lists, had reached the convent before him. He was about to use the privilege of his rank and birth to enter the royal apartment, when MacLouis, the commander of the guard of Brandanes, gave him to understand, in the most respectful terms, that he had special instructions which forbade his admittance.

“Go at least, MacLouis, and let them know that I wait their pleasure,” said the Prince. “If my uncle desires to have the credit of shutting the father’s apartment against the son, it will gratify him to know that I am attending in the outer hall like a lackey.”

“May it please you,” said MacLouis, with hesitation, “if your Highness would consent to retire just now, and to wait awhile in patience, I will send to acquaint you when the Duke of Albany goes; and I doubt not that his Majesty will then admit your Grace to his presence. At present, your Highness must forgive me, it is impossible you can have access.”

“I understand you, MacLouis; but go, nevertheless, and obey my commands.”

The officer went accordingly, and returned with a message that the King was indisposed, and on the point of retiring to his private chamber; but that the Duke of Albany would presently wait upon the Prince of Scotland.

It was, however, a full half hour ere the Duke of Albany appeared — a period of time which Rothsay spent partly in moody silence, and partly in idle talk with MacLouis and the Brandanes, as the levity or irritability of his temper obtained the ascendant.

At length the Duke came, and with him the lord High Constable, whose countenance expressed much sorrow and embarrassment.

“Fair kinsman,” said the Duke of Albany, “I grieve to say that it is my royal brother’s opinion that it will be best, for the honour of the royal family, that your Royal Highness do restrict yourself for a time to the seclusion of the High Constable’s lodgings, and accept of the noble Earl here present for your principal, if not sole, companion until the scandals which have been this day spread abroad shall be refuted or forgotten.”

“How is this, my lord of Errol?” said the Prince in astonishment. “Is your house to be my jail, and is your lordship to be my jailer?”

“The saints forbid, my lord,” said the Earl of Errol “but it is my unhappy duty to obey the commands of your father, by considering your Royal Highness for some time as being under my ward.”

“The Prince — the heir of Scotland, under the ward of the High Constable! What reason can be given for this? is the blighting speech of a convicted recreant of strength sufficient to tarnish my royal escutcheon?”

“While such accusations are not refuted and denied, my kinsman,” said the Duke of Albany, “they will contaminate that of a monarch.”

“Denied, my lord!” exclaimed the Prince; “by whom are they asserted, save by a wretch too infamous, even by his own confession, to be credited for a moment, though a beggar’s character, not a prince’s, were impeached? Fetch him hither, let the rack be shown to him; you will soon hear him retract the calumny which he dared to assert!”

“The gibbet has done its work too surely to leave Bonthron sensible to the rack,” said the Duke of Albany. “He has been executed an hour since.”

“And why such haste, my lord?” said the Prince; “know you it looks as if there were practice in it to bring a stain on my name?”

“The custom is universal, the defeated combatant in the ordeal of battle is instantly transferred from the lists to the gallows. And yet, fair kinsman,” continued the Duke of Albany, “if you had boldly and strongly denied the imputation, I would have judged right to keep the wretch alive for further investigation; but as your Highness was silent, I deemed it best to stifle the scandal in the breath of him that uttered it.”

“St. Mary, my lord, but this is too insulting! Do you, my uncle and kinsman, suppose me guilty of prompting such an useless and. unworthy action as that which the slave confessed?”

“It is not for me to bandy question with your Highness, otherwise I would ask whether you also mean to deny the scarce less unworthy, though less bloody, attack upon the house in Couvrefew Street? Be not angry with me, kinsman; but, indeed, your sequestering yourself for some brief space from the court, were it only during the King’s residence in this city, where so much offence has been given, is imperiously demanded.”

Rothsay paused when he heard this exhortation, and, looking at the Duke in a very marked manner, replied:

“Uncle, you are a good huntsman. You have pitched your toils with much skill, but you would have been foiled, not withstanding, had not the stag rushed among the nets of free will. God speed you, and may you have the profit by this matter which your measures deserve. Say to my father, I obey his arrest. My Lord High Constable, I wait only your pleasure to attend you to your lodgings. Since I am to lie in ward, I could not have desired a kinder or more courteous warden.”

The interview between the uncle and nephew being thus concluded, the Prince retired with the Earl of Errol to his apartments; the citizens whom they met in the streets passing to the further side when they observed the Duke of Rothsay, to escape the necessity of saluting one whom they had been taught to consider as a ferocious as well as unprincipled libertine. The Constable’s lodgings received the owner and his princely guest, both glad to leave the streets, yet neither feeling easy in the situation which they occupied with regard to each other within doors.

We must return to the lists after the combat had ceased, and when the nobles had withdrawn. The crowds were now separated into two distinct bodies. That which made the smallest in number was at the same time the most distinguished for respectability, consisting of the better class of inhabitants of Perth, who were congratulating the successful champion and each other upon the triumphant conclusion to which they had brought their feud with the courtiers. The magistrates were so much elated on the occasion, that they entreated Sir Patrick Charteris’s acceptance of a collation in the town hall. To this Henry, the hero of the day, was of course invited, or he was rather commanded to attend. He listened to the summons with great embarrassment, for it may be readily believed his heart was with Catharine Glover. But the advice of his father Simon decided him. That veteran citizen had a natural and becoming deference for the magistracy of the Fair City; he entertained a high estimation of all honours which flowed from such a source, and thought that his intended son in law would do wrong not to receive them with gratitude.

“Thou must not think to absent thyself from such a solemn occasion, son Henry,” was his advice. “Sir Patrick Charteris is to be there himself, and I think it will be a rare occasion for thee to gain his goodwill. It is like he may order of thee a new suit of harness; and I myself heard worthy Bailie Craigdallie say there was a talk of furbishing up the city’s armoury. Thou must not neglect the good trade, now that thou takest on thee an expensive family.”

“Tush, father Glover,” answered the embarrassed victor, “I lack no custom; and thou knowest there is Catharine, who may wonder at my absence, and have her ear abused once more by tales of glee maidens and I wot not what.”

“Fear not for that,” said the glover, “but go, like an obedient burgess, where thy betters desire to have thee. I do not deny that it will cost thee some trouble to make thy peace with Catharine about this duel; for she thinks herself wiser in such matters than king and council, kirk and canons, provost and bailies. But I will take up the quarrel with her myself, and will so work for thee, that, though she may receive thee tomorrow with somewhat of a chiding, it shall melt into tears and smiles, like an April morning, that begins with a mild shower. Away with thee, then, my son, and be constant to the time, tomorrow morning after mass.”

The smith, though reluctantly, was obliged to defer to the reasoning of his proposed father in law, and, once determined to accept the honour destined for him by the fathers of the city, he extricated himself from the crowd, and hastened home to put on his best apparel; in which he presently afterwards repaired to the council house, where the ponderous oak table seemed to bend under the massy dishes of choice Tay salmon and delicious sea fish from Dundee, being the dainties which the fasting season permitted, whilst neither wine, ale, nor metheglin were wanting to wash them down. The waits, or minstrels of the burgh, played during the repast, and in the intervals of the music one of them recited With great emphasis a long poetical account of the battle of Blackearnside, fought by Sir William Wallace and his redoubted captain and friend, Thomas of Longueville, against the English general Seward — a theme perfectly familiar to all the guests, who, nevertheless, more tolerant than their descendants, listened as if it had all the zest of novelty. It was complimentary to the ancestor of the Knight of Kinfauns, doubtless, and to other Perthshire families, in passages which the audience applauded vociferously, whilst they pledged each other in mighty draughts to the memory of the heroes who had fought by the side of the Champion of Scotland. The health of Henry Wynd was quaffed with repeated shouts, and the provost announced publicly, that the magistrates were consulting how they might best invest him with some distinguished privilege or honorary reward, to show how highly his fellow citizens valued his courageous exertions.

“Nay, take it not thus, an it like your worships,” said the smith, with his usual blunt manner, “lest men say that valour must be rare in Perth when they reward a man for fighting for the right of a forlorn widow. I am sure there are many scores of stout burghers in the town who would have done this day’s dargue as well or better than I. For, in good sooth, I ought to have cracked yonder fellow’s head piece like an earthen pipkin — ay, and would have done it, too, if it had not been one which I myself tempered for Sir John Ramorny. But, an the Fair City think my service of any worth, I will conceive it far more than acquitted by any aid which you may afford from the common good to the support of the widow Magdalen and her poor orphans.”

“That may well be done,” said Sir Patrick Charteris, “and yet leave the Fair City rich enough to pay her debts to Henry Wynd, of which every man of us is a better judge than him self, who is blinded with an unavailing nicety, which men call modesty. And if the burgh be too poor for this, the provost will bear his share. The Rover’s golden angels have not all taken flight yet.”

The beakers were now circulated, under the name of a cup of comfort to the widow, and anon flowed around once more to the happy memory of the murdered Oliver, now so bravely avenged. In short, it was a feast so jovial that all agreed nothing was wanting to render it perfect but the presence of the bonnet maker himself, whose calamity had occasioned the meeting, and who had usually furnished the standing jest at such festive assemblies. Had his attendance been possible, it was drily observed by Bailie Craigdallie, he would certainly have claimed the success of the day, and vouched himself the avenger of his own murder.

At the sound of the vesper bell the company broke up, some of the graver sort going to evening prayers, where, with half shut eyes and shining countenances, they made a most orthodox and edifying portion of a Lenten congregation; others to their own homes, to tell over the occurrences of the fight and feast, for the information of the family circle; and some, doubtless, to the licensed freedoms of some tavern, the door of which Lent did not keep so close shut as the forms of the church required. Henry returned to the wynd, warm with the good wine and the applause of his fellow citizens, and fell asleep to dream of perfect happiness and Catharine Glover.

We have said that, when the combat was decided, the spectators were divided into two bodies. Of these, when the more respectable portion attended the victor in joyous procession, much the greater number, or what might be termed the rabble, waited upon the subdued and sentenced Bonthron, who was travelling in a different direction, and for a very opposite purpose. Whatever may be thought of the comparative attractions of the house of mourning and of feasting under other circumstances, there can be little doubt which will draw most visitors, when the question is, whether we would witness miseries which we are not to share, or festivities of which we are not to partake. Accordingly, the tumbril in which the criminal was conveyed to execution was attended by far the greater proportion of the inhabitants of Perth.

A friar was seated in the same car with the murderer, to whom he did not hesitate to repeat, under the seal of confession, the same false asseveration which he had made upon the place of combat, which charged the Duke of Rothsay with being director of the ambuscade by which the unfortunate bonnet maker had suffered. The same falsehood he disseminated among the crowd, averring, with unblushing effrontery, to those who were nighest to the car, that he owed his death to his having been willing to execute the Duke of Rothsay’s pleasure. For a time he repeated these words, sullenly and doggedly, in the manner of one reciting a task, or a liar who endeavours by reiteration to obtain a credit for his words which he is internally sensible they do not deserve. But when he lifted up his eyes, and beheld in the distance the black outline of a gallows, at least forty feet high, with its ladder and its fatal cord, rising against the horizon, he became suddenly silent, and the friar could observe that he trembled very much.

“Be comforted, my son,” said the good priest, “you have confessed the truth, and received absolution. Your penitence will be accepted according to your sincerity; and though you have been a man of bloody hands and cruel heart, yet, by the church’s prayers, you shall be in due time assoilzied from the penal fires of purgatory.”

These assurances were calculated rather to augment than to diminish the terrors of the culprit, who was agitated by doubts whether the mode suggested for his preservation from death would to a certainty be effectual, and some suspicion whether there was really any purpose of employing them in his favour, for he knew his master well enough to be aware of the indifference with which he would sacrifice one who might on some future occasion be a dangerous evidence against him.

His doom, however, was sealed, and there was no escaping from it. They slowly approached the fatal tree, which was erected on a bank by the river’s side, about half a mile from the walls of the city — a site chosen that the body of the wretch, which was to remain food for the carrion crows, might be seen from a distance in every direction. Here the priest delivered Bonthron to the executioner, by whom he was assisted up the ladder, and to all appearance despatched according to the usual forms of the law. He seemed to struggle for life for a minute, but soon after hung still and inanimate. The executioner, after remaining upon duty for more than half an hour, as if to permit the last spark of life to be extinguished, announced to the admirers of such spectacles that the irons for the permanent suspension of the carcass not having been got ready, the concluding ceremony of disembowelling the dead body and attaching it finally to the gibbet would be deferred till the next morning at sunrise.

Notwithstanding the early hour which he had named, Master Smotherwell had a reasonable attendance of rabble at the place of execution, to see the final proceedings of justice with its victim. But great was the astonishment and resentment of these amateurs to find that the dead body had been removed from the gibbet. They were not, however, long at a loss to guess the cause of its disappearance. Bonthron had been the follower of a baron whose estates lay in Fife, and was himself a native of that province. What was more natural than that some of the Fife men, whose boats were frequently plying on the river, should have clandestinely removed the body of their countryman from the place of public shame? The crowd vented their rage against Smotherwell for not completing his job on the preceding evening; and had not he and his assistant betaken themselves to a boat, and escaped across the Tay, they would have run some risk of being pelted to death. The event, however, was too much in the spirit of the times to be much wondered at. Its real cause we shall explain in the following chapter.

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