The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 11

Is all the counsel that we two have shared,

The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent

When we have chid the hasty-footed time

For parting us — Oh! — and is all forgot?

Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We have been a long while in conducting Butler to the door of the cottage at St. Leonard’s; yet the space which we have occupied in the preceding narrative does not exceed in length that which he actually spent on Salisbury Crags on the morning which succeeded the execution done upon Porteous by the rioters. For this delay he had his own motives. He wished to collect his thoughts, strangely agitated as they were, first by the melancholy news of Effie Deans’s situation, and afterwards by the frightful scene which he had witnessed. In the situation also in which he stood with respect to Jeanie and her father, some ceremony, at least some choice of fitting time and season, was necessary to wait upon them. Eight in the morning was then the ordinary hour for breakfast, and he resolved that it should arrive before he made his appearance in their cottage.

Never did hours pass so heavily. Butler shifted his place and enlarged his circle to while away the time, and heard the huge bell of St. Giles’s toll each successive hour in swelling tones, which were instantly attested by those of the other steeples in succession. He had heard seven struck in this manner, when he began to think he might venture to approach nearer to St. Leonard’s, from which he was still a mile distant. Accordingly he descended from his lofty station as low as the bottom of the valley, which divides Salisbury Crags from those small rocks which take their name from Saint Leonard. It is, as many of my readers may know, a deep, wild, grassy valley, scattered with huge rocks and fragments which have descended from the cliffs and steep ascent to the east.

This sequestered dell, as well as other places of the open pasturage of the King’s Park, was, about this time, often the resort of the gallants of the time who had affairs of honour to discuss with the sword. Duels were then very common in Scotland, for the gentry were at once idle, haughty, fierce, divided by faction, and addicted to intemperance, so that there lacked neither provocation, nor inclination to resent it when given; and the sword, which was part of every gentleman’s dress, was the only weapon used for the decision of such differences. When, therefore, Butler observed a young man, skulking, apparently to avoid observation, among the scattered rocks at some distance from the footpath, he was naturally led to suppose that he had sought this lonely spot upon that evil errand. He was so strongly impressed with this, that, notwithstanding his own distress of mind, he could not, according to his sense of duty as a clergyman, pass this person without speaking to him. There are times, thought he to himself, when the slightest interference may avert a great calamity — when a word spoken in season may do more for prevention than the eloquence of Tully could do for remedying evil — And for my own griefs, be they as they may, I shall feel them the lighter, if they divert me not from the prosecution of my duty.

Thus thinking and feeling, he quitted the ordinary path, and advanced nearer the object he had noticed. The man at first directed his course towards the hill, in order, as it appeared, to avoid him; but when he saw that Butler seemed disposed to follow him, he adjusted his hat fiercely, turned round, and came forward, as if to meet and defy scrutiny.

Butler had an opportunity of accurately studying his features as they advanced slowly to meet each other. The stranger seemed about twenty-five years old. His dress was of a kind which could hardly be said to indicate his rank with certainty, for it was such as young gentlemen sometimes wore while on active exercise in the morning, and which, therefore, was imitated by those of the inferior ranks, as young clerks and tradesmen, because its cheapness rendered it attainable, while it approached more nearly to the apparel of youths of fashion than any other which the manners of the times permitted them to wear. If his air and manner could be trusted, however, this person seemed rather to be dressed under than above his rank; for his carriage was bold and somewhat supercilious, his step easy and free, his manner daring and unconstrained. His stature was of the middle size, or rather above it, his limbs well-proportioned, yet not so strong as to infer the reproach of clumsiness. His features were uncommonly handsome, and all about him would have been interesting and prepossessing but for that indescribable expression which habitual dissipation gives to the countenance, joined with a certain audacity in look and manner, of that kind which is often assumed as a mask for confusion and apprehension.

Butler and the stranger met — surveyed each other — when, as the latter, slightly touching his hat, was about to pass by him, Butler, while he returned the salutation, observed, “A fine morning, sir — You are on the hill early.”

“I have business here,” said the young man, in a tone meant to repress farther inquiry.

“I do not doubt it, sir,” said Butler. “I trust you will forgive my hoping that it is of a lawful kind?”

“Sir,” said the other, with marked surprise, “I never forgive impertinence, nor can I conceive what title you have to hope anything about what no way concerns you.”

“I am a soldier, sir,” said Butler, “and have a charge to arrest evil-doers in the name of my Master.”

“A soldier!” said the young man, stepping back, and fiercely laying his hand on his sword —“A soldier, and arrest me! Did you reckon what your life was worth, before you took the commission upon you?”

“You mistake me, sir,” said Butler, gravely; “neither my warfare nor my warrant are of this world. I am a preacher of the gospel, and have power, in my Master’s name, to command the peace upon earth and good-will towards men, which was proclaimed with the gospel.”

“A minister!” said the stranger, carelessly, and with an expression approaching to scorn. “I know the gentlemen of your cloth in Scotland claim a strange right of intermeddling with men’s private affairs. But I have been abroad, and know better than to be priest-ridden.”

“Sir, if it be true that any of my cloth, or, it might be more decently said, of my calling, interfere with men’s private affairs, for the gratification either of idle curiosity, or for worse motives, you cannot have learned a better lesson abroad than to contemn such practices. But in my Master’s work, I am called to be busy in season and out of season; and, conscious as I am of a pure motive, it were better for me to incur your contempt for speaking, than the correction of my own conscience for being silent.”

“In the name of the devil!” said the young man impatiently, “say what you have to say, then; though whom you take me for, or what earthly concern you have with me, a stranger to you, or with my actions and motives, of which you can know nothing, I cannot conjecture for an instant.”

“You are about,” said Butler, “to violate one of your country’s wisest laws — you are about, which is much more dreadful, to violate a law, which God himself has implanted within our nature, and written as it were, in the table of our hearts, to which every thrill of our nerves is responsive.”

“And what is the law you speak of?” said the stranger, in a hollow and somewhat disturbed accent.

“Thou shalt do no murder,” said Butler, with a deep and solemn voice.

The young man visibly started, and looked considerably appalled. Butler perceived he had made a favourable impression, and resolved to follow it up. “Think,” he said, “young man,” laying his hand kindly upon the stranger’s shoulder, “what an awful alternative you voluntarily choose for yourself, to kill or be killed. Think what it is to rush uncalled into the presence of an offended Deity, your heart fermenting with evil passions, your hand hot from the steel you had been urging, with your best skill and malice, against the breast of a fellow-creature. Or, suppose yourself the scarce less wretched survivor, with the guilt of Cain, the first murderer, in your heart, with the stamp upon your brow — that stamp which struck all who gazed on him with unutterable horror, and by which the murderer is made manifest to all who look upon him. Think!”

The stranger gradually withdrew himself from under the hand of his monitor; and, pulling his hat over his brows, thus interrupted him. “Your meaning, sir, I dare say, is excellent, but you are throwing your advice away. I am not in this place with violent intentions against any one. I may be bad enough — you priests say all men are so — but I am here for the purpose of saving life, not of taking it away. If you wish to spend your time rather in doing a good action than in talking about you know not what, I will give you an opportunity. Do you see yonder crag to the right, over which appears the chimney of a lone house? Go thither, inquire for one Jeanie Deans, the daughter of the goodman; let her know that he she wots of remained here from daybreak till this hour, expecting to see her, and that he can abide no longer. Tell her, she must meet me at the Hunter’s Bog to-night, as the moon rises behind St. Anthony’s Hill, or that she will make a desperate man of me.”

“Who or what are you,” replied Butler, exceedingly and most unpleasantly surprised, “who charge me with such an errand?”

“I am the devil!”— answered the young man hastily.

Butler stepped instinctively back, and commanded himself internally to Heaven; for, though a wise and strong-minded man, he was neither wiser nor more strong-minded than those of his age and education, with whom, to disbelieve witchcraft or spectres, was held an undeniable proof of atheism.

The stranger went on without observing his emotion. “Yes! call me Apollyon, Abaddon, whatever name you shall choose, as a clergyman acquainted with the upper and lower circles of spiritual denomination, to call me by, you shall not find an appellation more odious to him that bears it, than is mine own.”

This sentence was spoken with the bitterness of self-upbraiding, and a contortion of visage absolutely demoniacal. Butler, though a man brave by principle, if not by constitution, was overawed; for intensity of mental distress has in it a sort of sublimity which repels and overawes all men, but especially those of kind and sympathetic dispositions. The stranger turned abruptly from Butler as he spoke, but instantly returned, and, coming up to him closely and boldly, said, in a fierce, determined tone, “I have told you who and what I am — who and what are you? What is your name?”

“Butler,” answered the person to whom this abrupt question was addressed, surprised into answering it by the sudden and fierce manner of the querist —“Reuben Butler, a preacher of the gospel.”

At this answer, the stranger again plucked more deep over his brows the hat which he had thrown back in his former agitation. “Butler!” he repeated —“the assistant of the schoolmaster at Liberton?”

“The same,” answered Butler composedly.

The stranger covered his face with his hand, as if on sudden reflection, and then turned away, but stopped when he had walked a few paces; and seeing Butler follow him with his eyes, called out in a stern yet suppressed tone, just as if he had exactly calculated that his accents should not be heard a yard beyond the spot on which Butler stood. “Go your way, and do mine errand. Do not look after me. I will neither descend through the bowels of these rocks, nor vanish in a flash of fire; and yet the eye that seeks to trace my motions shall have reason to curse it was ever shrouded by eyelid or eyelash. Begone, and look not behind you. Tell Jeanie Deans, that when the moon rises I shall expect to meet her at Nicol Muschat’s Cairn, beneath Saint Anthony’s Chapel.”


St. Anthony’s Chapel

As he uttered these words, he turned and took the road against the hill, with a haste that seemed as peremptory as his tone of authority.

Dreading he knew not what of additional misery to a lot which seemed little capable of receiving augmentation, and desperate at the idea that any living man should dare to send so extraordinary a request, couched in terms so imperious, to the half-betrothed object of his early and only affection, Butler strode hastily towards the cottage, in order to ascertain how far this daring and rude gallant was actually entitled to press on Jeanie Deans a request, which no prudent, and scarce any modest young woman, was likely to comply with.

Butler was by nature neither jealous nor superstitious; yet the feelings which lead to those moods of the mind were rooted in his heart, as a portion derived from the common stock of humanity. It was maddening to think that a profligate gallant, such as the manner and tone of the stranger evinced him to be, should have it in his power to command forth his future bride and plighted true love, at a place so improper, and an hour so unseasonable. Yet the tone in which the stranger spoke had nothing of the soft half-breathed voice proper to the seducer who solicits an assignation; it was bold, fierce, and imperative, and had less of love in it than of menace and intimidation.

The suggestions of superstition seemed more plausible, had Butler’s mind been very accessible to them. Was this indeed the Roaring Lion, who goeth about seeking whom he may devour? This was a question which pressed itself on Butler’s mind with an earnestness that cannot be conceived by those who live in the present day. The fiery eye, the abrupt demeanour, the occasionally harsh, yet studiously subdued tone of voice — the features, handsome, but now clouded with pride, now disturbed by suspicion, now inflamed with passion — those dark hazel eyes which he sometimes shaded with his cap, as if he were averse to have them seen while they were occupied with keenly observing the motions and bearing of others — those eyes that were now turbid with melancholy, now gleaming with scorn, and now sparkling with fury — was it the passions of a mere mortal they expressed, or the emotions of a fiend, who seeks, and seeks in vain, to conceal his fiendish designs under the borrowed mask of manly beauty? The whole partook of the mien, language, and port of the ruined archangel; and, imperfectly as we have been able to describe it, the effect of the interview upon Butler’s nerves, shaken as they were at the time by the horrors of the preceding night, were greater than his understanding warranted, or his pride cared to submit to. The very place where he had met this singular person was desecrated, as it were, and unhallowed, owing to many violent deaths, both in duels and by suicide, which had in former times taken place there; and the place which he had named as a rendezvous at so late an hour, was held in general to be accursed, from a frightful and cruel murder which had been there committed by the wretch from whom the place took its name, upon the person of his own wife.1

It was in such places, according to the belief of that period (when the laws against witchcraft were still in fresh observance, and had even lately been acted upon), that evil spirits had power to make themselves visible to human eyes, and to practise upon the feelings and senses of mankind. Suspicions, founded on such circumstances, rushed on Butler’s mind, unprepared as it was by any previous course of reasoning, to deny that which all of his time, country, and profession believed; but common sense rejected these vain ideas as inconsistent, if not with possibility, at least with the general rules by which the universe is governed — a deviation from which, as Butler well argued with himself, ought not to be admitted as probable, upon any but the plainest and most incontrovertible evidence. An earthly lover, however, or a young man, who, from whatever cause, had the right of exercising such summary and unceremonious authority over the object of his long-settled, and apparently sincerely returned affection, was an object scarce less appalling to his mind, than those which superstition suggested.

His limbs exhausted with fatigue, his mind harassed with anxiety, and with painful doubts and recollections, Butler dragged himself up the ascent from the valley to St. Leonard’s Crags, and presented himself at the door of Deans’s habitation, with feelings much akin to the miserable reflections and fears of its inhabitants.

1 Muschat’s Cairn.

Nichol Muschat, a debauched and profligate wretch, having conceived a hatred against his wife, entered into a conspiracy with another brutal libertine and gambler, named Campbell of Burnbank (repeatedly mentioned in Pennycuick’s satirical poems of the time), by which Campbell undertook to destroy the woman’s character, so as to enable Muschat, on false pretences to obtain a divorce from her. The brutal devices to which these worthy accomplices resorted for that purpose having failed, they endeavoured to destroy her by administering medicine of a dangerous kind, and in extraordinary quantities.

This purpose also failing, Nichol Muschat, or Muschet, did finally, on the 17th October 1720, carry his wife under cloud of night to the King’s Park, adjacent to what is called the Duke’s Walk, near Holyrood Palace, and there took her life by cutting her throat almost quite through, and inflicting other wounds. He pleaded guilty to the indictment, for which he suffered death. His associate, Campbell, was sentenced to transportation, for his share in the previous conspiracy. See MacLaurin’s Criminal Cases,pp. 64 and 738.

In memory, and at the same time execration, of the deed, a cairn, or pile of stones, long marked the spot. It is now almost totally removed, in consequence of an alteration on the road in that place.

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