The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 13

I’ll warrant that fellow from drowning,

were the ship no stronger than a nut-shell.

The Tempest.

Butler felt neither fatigue nor want of refreshment, although, from the mode in which he had spent the night, he might well have been overcome with either. But in the earnestness with which he hastened to the assistance of the sister of Jeanie Deans, he forgot both.

In his first progress he walked with so rapid a pace as almost approached to running, when he was surprised to hear behind him a call upon his name, contending with an asthmatic cough, and half-drowned amid the resounding trot of a Highland pony. He looked behind, and saw the Laird of Dumbiedikes making after him with what speed he might, for it happened, fortunately for the Laird’s purpose of conversing with Butler, that his own road homeward was for about two hundred yards the same with that which led by the nearest way to the city. Butler stopped when he heard himself thus summoned, internally wishing no good to the panting equestrian who thus retarded his journey.

“Uh! uh! uh!” ejaculated Dumbiedikes, as he checked the hobbling pace of the pony by our friend Butler. “Uh! uh! it’s a hard-set willyard beast this o’ mine.” He had in fact just overtaken the object of his chase at the very point beyond which it would have been absolutely impossible for him to have continued the pursuit, since there Butler’s road parted from that leading to Dumbiedikes, and no means of influence or compulsion which the rider could possibly have used towards his Bucephalus could have induced the Celtic obstinacy of Rory Bean (such was the pony’s name) to have diverged a yard from the path that conducted him to his own paddock.

Even when he had recovered from the shortness of breath occasioned by a trot much more rapid than Rory or he were accustomed to, the high purpose of Dumbiedikes seemed to stick as it were in his throat, and impede his utterance, so that Butler stood for nearly three minutes ere he could utter a syllable; and when he did find voice, it was only to say, after one or two efforts, “Uh! uh! uhm! I say, Mr. — Mr. Butler, it’s a braw day for the har’st.”

“Fine day, indeed,” said Butler. “I wish you good morning, sir.”

“Stay — stay a bit,” rejoined Dumbiedikes; “that was no what I had gotten to say.”

“Then, pray be quick, and let me have your commands,” rejoined Butler; “I crave your pardon, but I am in haste, and Tempus nemini — you know the proverb.”

Dumbiedikes did not know the proverb, nor did he even take the trouble to endeavour to look as if he did, as others in his place might have done. He was concentrating all his intellects for one grand proposition, and could not afford any detachment to defend outposts. “I say, Mr. Butler,” said he, “ken ye if Mr. Saddletree’s a great lawyer?”

“I have no person’s word for it but his own,” answered Butler, drily; “but undoubtedly he best understands his own qualities.”

“Umph!” replied the taciturn Dumbiedikes, in a tone which seemed to say, “Mr. Butler, I take your meaning.” “In that case,” he pursued, “I’ll employ my ain man o’ business, Nichil Novit (auld Nichil’s son, and amaist as gleg as his father), to agent Effie’s plea.”

And having thus displayed more sagacity than Butler expected from him, he courteously touched his gold-laced cocked hat, and by a punch on the ribs, conveyed to Rory Bean, it was his rider’s pleasure that he should forthwith proceed homewards; a hint which the quadruped obeyed with that degree of alacrity with which men and animals interpret and obey suggestions that entirely correspond with their own inclinations.

Butler resumed his pace, not without a momentary revival of that jealousy which the honest Laird’s attention to the family of Deans had at different times excited in his bosom. But he was too generous long to nurse any feeling which was allied to selfishness. “He is,” said Butler to himself, “rich in what I want; why should I feel vexed that he has the heart to dedicate some of his pelf to render them services, which I can only form the empty wish of executing? In God’s name, let us each do what we can. May she be but happy! — saved from the misery and disgrace that seems impending — Let me but find the means of preventing the fearful experiment of this evening, and farewell to other thoughts, though my heart-strings break in parting with them!”

He redoubled his pace, and soon stood before the door of the Tolbooth, or rather before the entrance where the door had formerly been placed. His interview with the mysterious stranger, the message to Jeanie, his agitating conversation with her on the subject of breaking off their mutual engagements, and the interesting scene with old Deans, had so entirely occupied his mind as to drown even recollection of the tragical event which he had witnessed the preceding evening. His attention was not recalled to it by the groups who stood scattered on the street in conversation, which they hushed when strangers approached, or by the bustling search of the agents of the city police, supported by small parties of the military, or by the appearance of the Guard-House, before which were treble sentinels, or, finally, by the subdued and intimidated looks of the lower orders of society, who, conscious that they were liable to suspicion, if they were not guilty of accession to a riot likely to be strictly inquired into, glided about with an humble and dismayed aspect, like men whose spirits being exhausted in the revel and the dangers of a desperate debauch over-night, are nerve-shaken, timorous, and unenterprising on the succeeding day.

None of these symptoms of alarm and trepidation struck Butler, whose mind was occupied with a different, and to him still more interesting subject, until he stood before the entrance to the prison, and saw it defended by a double file of grenadiers, instead of bolts and bars. Their “Stand, stand!” the blackened appearance of the doorless gateway, and the winding staircase and apartments of the Tolbooth, now open to the public eye, recalled the whole proceedings of the eventful night. Upon his requesting to speak with Effie Deans, the same tall, thin, silver-haired turnkey, whom he had seen on the preceding evening, made his appearance,

“I think,” he replied to Butler’s request of admission, with true Scottish indirectness, “ye will be the same lad that was for in to see her yestreen?”

Butler admitted he was the same person.

“And I am thinking,” pursued the turnkey, “that ye speered at me when we locked up, and if we locked up earlier on account of Porteous?”

“Very likely I might make some such observation,” said Butler; “but the question now is, can I see Effie Deans?”

“I dinna ken — gang in by, and up the turnpike stair, and turn till the ward on the left hand.”

The old man followed close behind him, with his keys in his hand, not forgetting even that huge one which had once opened and shut the outward gate of his dominions, though at present it was but an idle and useless burden. No sooner had Butler entered the room to which he was directed, than the experienced hand of the warder selected the proper key, and locked it on the outside. At first Butler conceived this manoeuvre was only an effect of the man’s habitual and official caution and jealousy. But when he heard the hoarse command, “Turn out the guard!” and immediately afterwards heard the clash of a sentinel’s arms, as he was posted at the door of his apartment, he again called out to the turnkey, “My good friend, I have business of some consequence with Effie Deans, and I beg to see her as soon as possible.” No answer was returned. “If it be against your rules to admit me,” repeated Butler, in a still louder tone, “to see the prisoner, I beg you will tell me so, and let me go about my business. — Fugit irrevocabile tempus!” muttered he to himself.

“If ye had business to do, ye suld hae dune it before ye cam here,” replied the man of keys from the outside; “yell find it’s easier wunnin in than wunnin out here — there’s sma’ likelihood o’ another Porteous mob coming to rabble us again — the law will haud her ain now, neighbour, and that yell find to your cost.”

“What do you mean by that, sir?” retorted Butler. “You must mistake me for some other person. My name is Reuben Butler, preacher of the gospel.”

“I ken that weel eneugh,” said the turnkey.

“Well, then, if you know me, I have a right to know from you in return, what warrant you have for detaining me; that, I know, is the right of every British subject.”

“Warrant!” said the jailor — “the warrant’s awa to Libberton wi’ twa sheriff officers seeking ye. If ye had staid at hame, as honest men should do, ye wad hae seen the warrant; but if ye come to be incarcerated of your ain accord, wha can help it, my jo?”

“‘So I cannot see Effie Deans, then,” said Butler; “and you are determined not to let me out?”

“Troth will I no, neighbour,” answered the old man, doggedly; “as for Effie Deans, ye’ll hae eneuch ado to mind your ain business, and let her mind hers; and for letting you out, that maun be as the magistrate will determine. And fare ye weel for a bit, for I maun see Deacon Sawyers put on ane or twa o’ the doors that your quiet folk broke down yesternight, Mr. Butler.”

There was something in this exquisitely provoking, but there was also something darkly alarming. To be imprisoned, even on a false accusation, has something in it disagreeable and menacing even to men of more constitutional courage than Butler had to boast; for although he had much of that resolution which arises from a sense of duty and an honourable desire to discharge it, yet, as his imagination was lively, and his frame of body delicate, he was far from possessing that cool insensibility to danger which is the happy portion of men of stronger health, more firm nerves, and less acute sensibility. An indistinct idea of peril, which he could neither understand nor ward off, seemed to float before his eyes. He tried to think over the events of the preceding night, in hopes of discovering some means of explaining or vindicating his conduct for appearing among the mob, since it immediately occurred to him that his detention must be founded on that circumstance. And it was with anxiety that he found he could not recollect to have been under the observation of any disinterested witness in the attempts that he made from time to time to expostulate with the rioters, and to prevail on them to release him. The distress of Deans’s family, the dangerous rendezvous which Jeanie had formed, and which he could not now hope to interrupt, had also their share in his unpleasant reflections. Yet, impatient as he was to receive an e’claircissement upon the cause of his confinement, and if possible to obtain his liberty, he was affected with a trepidation which seemed no good omen; when, after remaining an hour in this solitary apartment, he received a summons to attend the sitting magistrate. He was conducted from prison strongly guarded by a party of soldiers, with a parade of precaution, that, however ill-timed and unnecessary, is generally displayed after an event, which such precaution, if used in time, might have prevented.

He was introduced into the Council Chamber, as the place is called where the magistrates hold their sittings, and which was then at a little distance from the prison. One or two of the senators of the city were present, and seemed about to engage in the examination of an individual who was brought forward to the foot of the long green-covered table round which the council usually assembled. “Is that the preacher?” said one of the magistrates, as the city officer in attendance introduced Butler. The man answered in the affirmative. “Let him sit down there for an instant; we will finish this man’s business very briefly.”

“Shall we remove Mr. Butler?” queried the assistant.

“It is not necessary — Let him remain where he is.”

Butler accordingly sate down on a bench at the bottom of the apartment, attended by one of his keepers.

It was a large room, partially and imperfectly lighted; but by chance, or the skill of the architect, who might happen to remember the advantage which might occasionally be derived from such an arrangement, one window was so placed as to throw a strong light at the foot of the table at which prisoners were usually posted for examination, while the upper end, where the examinants sate, was thrown into shadow. Butler’s eyes were instantly fixed on the person whose examination was at present proceeding, in the idea that he might recognise some one of the conspirators of the former night. But though the features of this man were sufficiently marked and striking, he could not recollect that he had ever seen them before.

The complexion of this person was dark, and his age somewhat advanced. He wore his own hair, combed smooth down, and cut very short. It was jet black, slightly curled by nature, and already mottled with grey. The man’s face expressed rather knavery than vice, and a disposition to sharpness, cunning, and roguery, more than the traces of stormy and indulged passions. His sharp quick black eyes, acute features, ready sardonic smile, promptitude and effrontery, gave him altogether what is called among the vulgar a knowing look, which generally implies a tendency to knavery. At a fair or market, you could not for a moment have doubted that he was a horse-jockey, intimate with all the tricks of his trade; yet, had you met him on a moor, you would not have apprehended any violence from him. His dress was also that of a horse-dealer — a close-buttoned jockey-coat, or wrap-rascal, as it was then termed, with huge metal buttons, coarse blue upper stockings, called boot-hose because supplying the place of boots, and a slouched hat. He only wanted a loaded whip under his arm and a spur upon one heel, to complete the dress of the character he seemed to represent.

“Your name is James Ratcliffe?” said the magistrate.

“Ay — always wi’ your honour’s leave.”

“That is to say, you could find me another name if I did not like that one?”

“Twenty to pick and choose upon, always with your honour’s leave,” resumed the respondent.

“But James Ratcliffe is your present name? — what is your trade?”

“I canna just say, distinctly, that I have what ye wad ca’ preceesely a trade.”

“But,” repeated the magistrate, “what are your means of living — your occupation?”

“Hout tout — your honour, wi’ your leave, kens that as weel as I do,” replied the examined.

“No matter, I want to hear you describe it,” said the examinant.

“Me describe! — and to your honour! — far be it from Jemmie Ratcliffe,” responded the prisoner.

“Come, sir, no trifling — I insist on an answer.”

“Weel, sir,” replied the declarant, “I maun make a clean breast, for ye see, wi’ your leave, I am looking for favour — Describe my occupation, quo’ ye? — troth it will be ill to do that, in a feasible way, in a place like this — but what is’t again that the aught command says?”

“Thou shalt not steal,” answered the magistrate.

“Are you sure o’ that?” replied the accused. —“Troth, then, my occupation, and that command, are sair at odds, for I read it, thou shalt steal; and that makes an unco difference, though there’s but a wee bit word left out.”

“To cut the matter short, Ratcliffe, you have been a most notorious thief,” said the examinant.

“I believe Highlands and Lowlands ken that, sir, forby England and Holland,” replied Ratcliffe, with the greatest composure and effrontery.

“And what d’ye think the end of your calling will be?” said the magistrate.

“I could have gien a braw guess yesterday — but I dinna ken sae weel the day,” answered the prisoner.

“And what would you have said would have been your end, had you been asked the question yesterday?”

“Just the gallows,” replied Ratcliffe, with the same composure.

“You are a daring rascal, sir,” said the magistrate; “and how dare you hope times are mended with you today?”

“Dear, your honour,” answered Ratcliffe, “there’s muckle difference between lying in prison under sentence of death, and staying there of ane’s ain proper accord, when it would have cost a man naething to get up and rin awa — what was to hinder me from stepping out quietly, when the rabble walked awa wi’ Jock Porteous yestreen? — and does your honour really think I staid on purpose to be hanged?”

“I do not know what you may have proposed to yourself; but I know,” said the magistrate, “what the law proposes for you, and that is, to hang you next Wednesday eight days.”

“Na, na, your honour,” said Ratcliffe firmly, “craving your honour’s pardon, I’ll ne’er believe that till I see it. I have kend the law this mony a year, and mony a thrawart job I hae had wi’ her first and last; but the auld jaud is no sae ill as that comes to — I aye fand her bark waur than her bite.”

“And if you do not expect the gallows, to which you are condemned (for the fourth time to my knowledge), may I beg the favour to know,” said the magistrate, “what it is you do expect, in consideration of your not having taken your flight with the rest of the jail-birds, which I will admit was a line of conduct little to have been expected?”

“I would never have thought for a moment of staying in that auld gousty toom house,” answered Ratcliffe, “but that use and wont had just gien me a fancy to the place, and I’m just expecting a bit post in’t.”

“A post!” exclaimed the magistrate; “a whipping-post, I suppose, you mean?”

“Na, na, sir, I had nae thoughts o’ a whuppin-post. After having been four times doomed to hang by the neck till I was dead, I think I am far beyond being whuppit.”

“Then, in Heaven’s name, what did you expect?”

“Just the post of under-turnkey, for I understand there’s a vacancy,” said the prisoner; “I wadna think of asking the lockman’s1 place ower his head; it wadna suit me sae weel as ither folk, for I never could put a beast out o’ the way, much less deal wi’ a man.”

“That’s something in your favour,” said the magistrate, making exactly the inference to which Ratcliffe was desirous to lead him, though he mantled his art with an affectation of oddity.

“But,” continued the magistrate, “how do you think you can be trusted with a charge in the prison, when you have broken at your own hand half the jails in Scotland?”

“Wi’ your honour’s leave,” said Ratcliffe, “if I kend sae weel how to wun out mysell, it’s like I wad be a’ the better a hand to keep other folk in. I think they wad ken their business weel that held me in when I wanted to be out, or wan out when I wanted to hand them in.”

The remark seemed to strike the magistrate, but he made no further immediate observation, only desired Ratcliffe to be removed.

When this daring and yet sly freebooter was out of hearing, the magistrate asked the city clerk, “what he thought of the fellow’s assurance?”

“It’s no for me to say, sir,” replied the clerk; “but if James Ratcliffe be inclined to turn to good, there is not a man e’er came within the ports of the burgh could be of sae muckle use to the Good Town in the thief and lock-up line of business. I’ll speak to Mr. Sharpitlaw about him.”

Upon Ratcliffe’s retreat, Butler was placed at the table for examination. The magistrate conducted his inquiry civilly, but yet in a manner which gave him to understand that he laboured under strong suspicion. With a frankness which at once became his calling and character, Butler avowed his involuntary presence at the murder of Porteous, and, at the request of the magistrate, entered into a minute detail of the circumstances which attended that unhappy affair. All the particulars, such as we have narrated, were taken minutely down by the clerk from Butler’s dictation.

When the narrative was concluded, the cross-examination commenced, which it is a painful task even for the most candid witness to undergo, since a story, especially if connected with agitating and alarming incidents, can scarce be so clearly and distinctly told, but that some ambiguity and doubt may be thrown upon it by a string of successive and minute interrogatories.

The magistrate commenced by observing, that Butler had said his object was to return to the village of Libberton, but that he was interrupted by the mob at the West Port. “Is the West Port your usual way of leaving town when you go to Libberton?” said the magistrate, with a sneer.

“No, certainly,” answered Butler, with the haste of a man anxious to vindicate the accuracy of his evidence; “but I chanced to be nearer that port than any other, and the hour of shutting the gates was on the point of striking.”

“That was unlucky,” said the magistrate, drily. “Pray, being, as you say, under coercion and fear of the lawless multitude, and compelled to accompany them through scenes disagreeable to all men of humanity, and more especially irreconcilable to the profession of a minister, did you not attempt to struggle, resist, or escape from their violence?”

Butler replied, “that their numbers prevented him from attempting resistance, and their vigilance from effecting his escape.”

“That was unlucky,” again repeated the magistrate, in the same dry inacquiescent tone of voice and manner. He proceeded with decency and politeness, but with a stiffness which argued his continued suspicion, to ask many questions concerning the behaviour of the mob, the manners and dress of the ringleaders; and when he conceived that the caution of Butler, if he was deceiving him, must be lulled asleep, the magistrate suddenly and artfully returned to former parts of his declaration, and required a new recapitulation of the circumstances, to the minutest and most trivial point, which attended each part of the melancholy scene. No confusion or contradiction, however, occurred, that could countenance the suspicion which he seemed to have adopted against Butler. At length the train of his interrogatories reached Madge Wildfire, at whose name the magistrate and town-clerk exchanged significant glances. If the fate of the Good Town had depended on her careful magistrate’s knowing the features and dress of this personage, his inquiries could not have been more particular. But Butler could say almost nothing of this person’s features, which were disguised apparently with red paint and soot, like an Indian going to battle, besides the projecting shade of a curch, or coif, which muffled the hair of the supposed female. He declared that he thought he could not know this Madge Wildfire, if placed before him in a different dress, but that he believed he might recognise her voice.

The magistrate requested him again to state by what gate he left the city.

“By the Cowgate Port,” replied Butler.

“Was that the nearest road to Libberton?”

“No,” answered Butler, with embarrassment; “but it was the nearest way to extricate myself from the mob.”

The clerk and magistrate again exchanged glances.

“Is the Cowgate Port a nearer way to Libberton from the Grassmarket than Bristo Port?”

“No,” replied Butler; “but I had to visit a friend.”

“Indeed!” said the interrogator —“You were in a hurry to tell the sight you had witnessed, I suppose?”

“Indeed I was not,” replied Butler; “nor did I speak on the subject the whole time I was at St. Leonard’s Crags.”

“Which road did you take to St. Leonard’s Crags?”

“By the foot of Salisbury Crags,” was the reply.

“Indeed? you seem partial to circuitous routes,” again said the magistrate. “Whom did you see after you left the city?”

One by one he obtained a description of every one of the groups who had passed Butler, as already noticed, their number, demeanour, and appearance; and, at length, came to the circumstance of the mysterious stranger in the King’s Park. On this subject Butler would fain have remained silent, But the magistrate had no sooner got a slight hint concerning the incident, than he seemed bent to possess himself of the most minute particulars.

“Look ye, Mr. Butler,” said he, “you are a young man, and bear an excellent character; so much I will myself testify in your favour. But we are aware there has been, at times, a sort of bastard and fiery zeal in some of your order, and those, men irreproachable in other points, which has led them into doing and countenancing great irregularities, by which the peace of the country is liable to be shaken. — I will deal plainly with you. I am not at all satisfied with this story, of your setting out again and again to seek your dwelling by two several roads, which were both circuitous. And, to be frank, no one whom we have examined on this unhappy affair could trace in your appearance any thing like your acting under compulsion. Moreover, the waiters at the Cowgate Port observed something like the trepidation of guilt in your conduct, and declare that you were the first to command them to open the gate, in a tone of authority, as if still presiding over the guards and out-posts of the rabble, who had besieged them the whole night.”

“God forgive them!” said Butler; “I only asked free passage for myself; they must have much misunderstood, if they did not wilfully misrepresent me.”

“Well, Mr. Butler,” resumed the magistrate, “I am inclined to judge the best and hope the best, as I am sure I wish the best; but you must be frank with me, if you wish to secure my good opinion, and lessen the risk of inconvenience to yourself. You have allowed you saw another individual in your passage through the King’s Park to Saint Leonard’s Crags — I must know every word which passed betwixt you.”

Thus closely pressed, Butler, who had no reason for concealing what passed at that meeting, unless because Jeanie Deans was concerned in it, thought it best to tell the whole truth from beginning to end.

“Do you suppose,” said the magistrate, pausing, “that the young woman will accept an invitation so mysterious?”

“I fear she will,” replied Butler.

“Why do you use the word fear it?” said the magistrate.

“Because I am apprehensive for her safety, in meeting at such a time and place, one who had something of the manner of a desperado, and whose message was of a character so inexplicable.”

“Her safety shall be cared for,” said the magistrate. “Mr. Butler, I am concerned I cannot immediately discharge you from confinement, but I hope you will not be long detained. — Remove Mr. Butler, and let him be provided with decent accommodation in all respects.”

He was conducted back to the prison accordingly; but, in the food offered to him, as well as in the apartment in which he was lodged, the recommendation of the magistrate was strictly attended to.

1 Hangman, or Lockman.

Lockman, so called from the small quantity of meal (Scottice, lock) which he was entitled to take out of every boll exposed to market in the city. In Edinburgh, the duty has been very long commuted; but in Dumfries, the finisher of the law still exercises, or did lately exercise, his privilege, the quantity taken being regulated by a small iron ladle, which he uses as the measure of his perquisite. The expression lock, for a small quantity of any readily divisible dry substance, as corn, meal, flax, or the like, is still preserved, not only popularly, but in a legal description, as the lock and gowpen, or small quantity and handful, payable in thirlage cases, as in town multure.

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