The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 15

    The spirit I have seen

May be the devil. And the devil has power

To assume a pleasing shape.

Hamlet.

Witchcraft and demonology, as we have already had occasion to remark, were at this period believed in by almost all ranks, but more especially among the stricter classes of Presbyterians, whose government, when their party were at the head of the state, had been much sullied by their eagerness to inquire into and persecute these imaginary crimes. Now, in this point of view, also, Saint Leonard’s Crags and the adjacent Chase were a dreaded and ill-reputed district. Not only had witches held their meetings there, but even of very late years the enthusiast or impostor, mentioned in the Pandaemonium of Richard Bovet, Gentleman,1 had, among the recesses of these romantic cliffs, found his way into the hidden retreats where the fairies revel in the bowels of the earth.

With all these legends Jeanie Deans was too well acquainted to escape that strong impression which they usually make on the imagination. Indeed, relations of this ghostly kind had been familiar to her from her infancy, for they were the only relief which her father’s conversation afforded from controversial argument, or the gloomy history of the strivings and testimonies, escapes, captures, tortures, and executions of those martyrs of the Covenant, with whom it was his chiefest boast to say he had been acquainted. In the recesses of mountains, in caverns, and in morasses, to which these persecuted enthusiasts were so ruthlessly pursued, they conceived they had often to contend with the visible assaults of the Enemy of mankind, as in the cities, and in the cultivated fields, they were exposed to those of the tyrannical government and their soldiery. Such were the terrors which made one of their gifted seers exclaim, when his companion returned to him, after having left him alone in a haunted cavern in Sorn in Galloway, “It is hard living in this world-incarnate devils above the earth, and devils under the earth! Satan has been here since ye went away, but I have dismissed him by resistance; we will be no more troubled with him this night.” David Deans believed this, and many other such ghostly encounters and victories, on the faith of the Ansars, or auxiliaries of the banished prophets. This event was beyond David’s remembrance. But he used to tell with great awe, yet not without a feeling of proud superiority to his auditors, how he himself had been present at a field-meeting at Crochmade, when the duty of the day was interrupted by the apparition of a tall black man, who, in the act of crossing a ford to join the congregation, lost ground, and was carried down apparently by the force of the stream. All were instantly at work to assist him, but with so little success, that ten or twelve stout men, who had hold of the rope which they had cast in to his aid, were rather in danger to be dragged into the stream, and lose their own lives, than likely to save that of the supposed perishing man. “But famous John Semple of Carspharn,” David Deans used to say with exultation, “saw the whaup in the rape. —‘Quit the rope,’ he cried to us (for I that was but a callant had a hand o’ the rape mysell), ‘it is the Great Enemy! he will burn, but not drown; his design is to disturb the good wark, by raising wonder and confusion in your minds; to put off from your spirits all that ye hae heard and felt.’— Sae we let go the rape,” said David, “and he went adown the water screeching and bullering like a Bull of Bashan, as he’s ca’d in Scripture.”2

Trained in these and similar legends, it was no wonder that Jeanie began to feel an ill-defined apprehension, not merely of the phantoms which might beset her way, but of the quality, nature, and purpose of the being who had thus appointed her a meeting, at a place and hour of horror, and at a time when her mind must be necessarily full of those tempting and ensnaring thoughts of grief and despair, which were supposed to lay sufferers particularly open to the temptations of the Evil One. If such an idea had crossed even Butler’s well-informed mind, it was calculated to make a much stronger impression upon hers. Yet firmly believing the possibility of an encounter so terrible to flesh and blood, Jeanie, with a degree of resolution of which we cannot sufficiently estimate the merit, because the incredulity of the age has rendered us strangers to the nature and extent of her feelings, persevered in her determination not to omit an opportunity of doing something towards saving her sister, although, in the attempt to avail herself of it, she might be exposed to dangers so dreadful to her imagination. So, like Christiana in the Pilgrim’s Progress, when traversing with a timid yet resolved step the terrors of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, she glided on by rock and stone, “now in glimmer and now in gloom,” as her path lay through moonlight or shadow, and endeavoured to overpower the suggestions of fear, sometimes by fixing her mind upon the distressed condition of her sister, and the duty she lay under to afford her aid, should that be in her power; and more frequently by recurring in mental prayer to the protection of that Being to whom night is as noon-day.

Thus drowning at one time her fears by fixing her mind on a subject of overpowering interest, and arguing them down at others by referring herself to the protection of the Deity, she at length approached the place assigned for this mysterious conference.

It was situated in the depth of the valley behind Salisbury Crags, which has for a background the north-western shoulder of the mountain called Arthur’s Seat, on whose descent still remain the ruins of what was once a chapel, or hermitage, dedicated to St. Anthony the Eremite. A better site for such a building could hardly have been selected; for the chapel, situated among the rude and pathless cliffs, lies in a desert, even in the immediate vicinity of a rich, populous, and tumultuous capital: and the hum of the city might mingle with the orisons of the recluses, conveying as little of worldly interest as if it had been the roar of the distant ocean. Beneath the steep ascent on which these ruins are still visible, was, and perhaps is still pointed out, the place where the wretch Nichol Muschat, who has been already mentioned in these pages, had closed a long scene of cruelty towards his unfortunate wife, by murdering her, with circumstances of uncommon barbarity.3

The execration in which the man’s crime was held extended itself to the place where it was perpetrated, which was marked by a small cairn, or heap of stones, composed of those which each chance passenger had thrown there in testimony of abhorrence, and on the principle, it would seem, of the ancient British malediction, “May you have a cairn for your burial-place!”


Muschat’s Cairn

As our heroine approached this ominous and unhallowed spot, she paused and looked to the moon, now rising broad in the north-west, and shedding a more distinct light than it had afforded during her walk thither. Eyeing the planet for a moment, she then slowly and fearfully turned her head towards the cairn, from which it was at first averted. She was at first disappointed. Nothing was visible beside the little pile of stones, which shone grey in the moonlight. A multitude of confused suggestions rushed on her mind. Had her correspondent deceived her, and broken his appointment? — was he too tardy at the appointment he had made? — or had some strange turn of fate prevented him from appearing as he proposed? — or, if he were an unearthly being, as her secret apprehensions suggested, was it his object merely to delude her with false hopes, and put her to unnecessary toil and terror, according to the nature, as she had heard, of those wandering demons? — or did he purpose to blast her with the sudden horrors of his presence when she had come close to the place of rendezvous? These anxious reflections did not prevent her approaching to the cairn with a pace that, though slow, was determined.

When she was within two yards of the heap of stones, a figure rose suddenly up from behind it, and Jeanie scarce forbore to scream aloud at what seemed the realisation of the most frightful of her anticipations. She constrained herself to silence, however, and, making a dead pause, suffered the figure to open the conversation, which he did, by asking, in a voice which agitation rendered tremulous and hollow, “Are you the sister of that ill-fated young woman?”

“I am — I am the sister of Effie Deans!” exclaimed Jeanie. “And as ever you hope God will hear you at your need, tell me, if you can tell, what can be done to save her!”

“I do not hope God will hear me at my need,” was the singular answer. “I do not deserve — I do not expect he will.” This desperate language he uttered in a tone calmer than that with which he had at first spoken, probably because the shook of first addressing her was what he felt most difficult to overcome. Jeanie remained mute with horror to hear language expressed so utterly foreign to all which she had ever been acquainted with, that it sounded in her ears rather like that of a fiend than of a human being. The stranger pursued his address to her, without seeming to notice her surprise. “You see before you a wretch, predestined to evil here and hereafter.”

“For the sake of Heaven, that hears and sees us,” said Jeanie, “dinna speak in this desperate fashion! The gospel is sent to the chief of sinners — to the most miserable among the miserable.”

“Then should I have my own share therein,” said the stranger, “if you call it sinful to have been the destruction of the mother that bore me — of the friend that loved me — of the woman that trusted me — of the innocent child that was born to me. If to have done all this is to be a sinner, and survive it is to be miserable, then am I most guilty and most miserable indeed.”

“Then you are the wicked cause of my sister’s ruin?” said Jeanie, with a natural touch of indignation expressed in her tone of voice.

“Curse me for it, if you will,” said the stranger; “I have well deserved it at your hand.”

“It is fitter for me,” said Jeanie, “to pray to God to forgive you.”

“Do as you will, how you will, or what you will,” he replied, with vehemence; “only promise to obey my directions, and save your sister’s life.”

“I must first know,” said Jeanie, “the means you would have me use in her behalf.”

“No! — you must first swear — solemnly swear, that you will employ them when I make them known to you.”

“Surely, it is needless to swear that I will do all that is lawful to a Christian to save the life of my sister?”

“I will have no reservation!” thundered the stranger; “lawful or unlawful, Christian or heathen, you shall swear to do my hest, and act by my counsel, or — you little know whose wrath you provoke!”

“I will think on what you have said,” said Jeanie, who began to get much alarmed at the frantic vehemence of his manner, and disputed in her own mind, whether she spoke to a maniac, or an apostate spirit incarnate —“I will think on what you say, and let you ken tomorrow.”

“To-morrow!” exclaimed the man with a laugh of scorn —“And where will I be tomorrow? — or, where will you be to-night, unless you swear to walk by my counsel? — there was one accursed deed done at this spot before now; and there shall be another to match it, unless you yield up to my guidance body and soul.”

As he spoke, he offered a pistol at the unfortunate young woman. She neither fled nor fainted, but sunk on her knees, and asked him to spare her life.

“Is that all you have to say?” said the unmoved ruffian.

“Do not dip your hands in the blood of a defenceless creature that has trusted to you,” said Jeanie, still on her knees.

“Is that all you can say for your life? — Have you no promise to give? — Will you destroy your sister, and compel me to shed more blood?”

“I can promise nothing,” said Jeanie, “which is unlawful for a Christian.”

He cocked the weapon, and held it towards her.

“May God forgive you!” she said, pressing her hands forcibly against her eyes.

“D— n!” muttered the man; and, turning aside from her, he uncocked the pistol, and replaced it in his pocket —“I am a villain,” he said, “steeped in guilt and wretchedness, but not wicked enough to do you any harm! I only wished to terrify you into my measures — She hears me not — she is gone! — Great God! what a wretch am I become!”

As he spoke, she recovered herself from an agony which partook of the bitterness of death; and, in a minute or two, through the strong exertion of her natural sense and courage, collected herself sufficiently to understand he intended her no personal injury.

“No!” he repeated; “I would not add to the murder of your sister, and of her child, that of any one belonging to her! — Mad, frantic, as I am, and unrestrained by either fear or mercy, given up to the possession of an evil being, and forsaken by all that is good, I would not hurt you, were the world offered me for a bribe! But, for the sake of all that is dear to you, swear you will follow my counsel. Take this weapon, shoot me through the head, and with your own hand revenge your sister’s wrong, only follow the course — the only course, by which her life can be saved.”

“Alas! is she innocent or guilty?”

“She is guiltless — guiltless of every thing, but of having trusted a villain! — Yet, had it not been for those that were worse than I am — yes, worse than I am, though I am bad indeed — this misery had not befallen.”

“And my sister’s child — does it live?” said Jeanie.

“No; it was murdered — the new-born infant was barbarously murdered,” he uttered in a low, yet stern and sustained voice. —“but,” he added hastily, “not by her knowledge or consent.”

“Then, why cannot the guilty be brought to justice, and the innocent freed?”

“Torment me not with questions which can serve no purpose,” he sternly replied —“The deed was done by those who are far enough from pursuit, and safe enough from discovery! — No one can save Effie but yourself.”

“Woe’s me! how is it in my power?” asked Jeanie, in despondency.

“Hearken to me! — You have sense — you can apprehend my meaning — I will trust you. Your sister is innocent of the crime charged against her.”

“Thank God for that!” said Jeanie.

“Be still and hearken! — The person who assisted her in her illness murdered the child; but it was without the mother’s knowledge or consent — She is therefore guiltless, as guiltless as the unhappy innocent, that but gasped a few minutes in this unhappy world — the better was its hap, to be so soon at rest. She is innocent as that infant, and yet she must die — it is impossible to clear her of the law!”

“Cannot the wretches be discovered, and given up to punishment?” said Jeanie.

“Do you think you will persuade those who are hardened in guilt to die to save another? — Is that the reed you would lean to?”

“But you said there was a remedy,” again gasped out the terrified young woman.

“There is,” answered the stranger, “and it is in your own hands. The blow which the law aims cannot be broken by directly encountering it, but it may be turned aside. You saw your sister during the period preceding the birth of her child — what is so natural as that she should have mentioned her condition to you? The doing so would, as their cant goes, take the case from under the statute, for it removes the quality of concealment. I know their jargon, and have had sad cause to know it; and the quality of concealment is essential to this statutory offence.4

Nothing is so natural as that Effie should have mentioned her condition to you — think — reflect — I am positive that she did.”

“Woe’s me!” said Jeanie, “she never spoke to me on the subject, but grat sorely when I spoke to her about her altered looks, and the change on her spirits.”

“You asked her questions on the subject?” he said eagerly. “You must remember her answer was, a confession that she had been ruined by a villain — yes, lay a strong emphasis on that — a cruel false villain call it — any other name is unnecessary; and that she bore under her bosom the consequences of his guilt and her folly; and that he had assured her he would provide safely for her approaching illness. — Well he kept his word!” These last words he spoke as if it were to himself, and with a violent gesture of self-accusation, and then calmly proceeded, “You will remember all this? — That is all that is necessary to be said.”

“But I cannot remember,” answered Jeanie, with simplicity, “that which Effie never told me.”

“Are you so dull — so very dull of apprehension?” he exclaimed, suddenly grasping her arm, and holding it firm in his hand. “I tell you” (speaking between his teeth, and under his breath, but with great energy), “you must remember that she told you all this, whether she ever said a syllable of it or no. You must repeat this tale, in which there is no falsehood, except in so far as it was not told to you, before these Justices — Justiciary — whatever they call their bloodthirsty court, and save your sister from being murdered, and them from becoming murderers. Do not hesitate — I pledge life and salvation, that in saying what I have said, you will only speak the simple truth.”

“But,” replied Jeanie, whose judgment was too accurate not to see the sophistry of this argument, “I shall be man-sworn in the very thing in which my testimony is wanted, for it is the concealment for which poor Effie is blamed, and you would make me tell a falsehood anent it.”

“I see,” he said, “my first suspicions of you were right, and that you will let your sister, innocent, fair, and guiltless, except in trusting a villain, die the death of a murderess, rather than bestow the breath of your mouth and the sound of your voice to save her.”

“I wad ware the best blood in my body to keep her skaithless,” said Jeanie, weeping in bitter agony, “but I canna change right into wrang, or make that true which is false.”

“Foolish, hardhearted girl,” said the stranger, “are you afraid of what they may do to you? I tell you, even the retainers of the law, who course life as greyhounds do hares, will rejoice at the escape of a creature so young — so beautiful, that they will not suspect your tale; that, if they did suspect it, they would consider you as deserving, not only of forgiveness, but of praise for your natural affection.”

“It is not man I fear,” said Jeanie, looking upward; “the God, whose name I must call on to witness the truth of what I say, he will know the falsehood.”

“And he will know the motive,” said the stranger, eagerly; “he will know that you are doing this — not for lucre of gain, but to save the life of the innocent, and prevent the commission of a worse crime than that which the law seeks to avenge.”

“He has given us a law,” said Jeanie, “for the lamp of our path; if we stray from it we err against knowledge — I may not do evil, even that good may come out of it. But you — you that ken all this to be true, which I must take on your word — you that, if I understood what you said e’en now, promised her shelter and protection in her travail, why do not you step forward, and bear leal and soothfast evidence in her behalf, as ye may with a clear conscience?”

“To whom do you talk of a clear conscience, woman?” said he, with a sudden fierceness which renewed her terrors — “to me? — I have not known one for many a year. Bear witness in her behalf? — a proper witness, that even to speak these few words to a woman of so little consequence as yourself, must choose such an hour and such a place as this. When you see owls and bats fly abroad, like larks, in the sunshine, you may expect to see such as I am in the assemblies of men. — Hush — listen to that.”

A voice was heard to sing one of those wild and monotonous strains so common in Scotland, and to which the natives of that country chant their old ballads. The sound ceased — then came nearer, and was renewed; the stranger listened attentively, still holding Jeanie by the arm (as she stood by him in motionless terror), as if to prevent her interrupting the strain by speaking or stirring. When the sounds were renewed, the words were distinctly audible:

“When the glede’s in the blue cloud,

    The lavrock lies still;

When the hound’s in’ the green-wood,

    The hind keeps the hill.”

The person who sung kept a strained and powerful voice at its highest pitch, so that it could be heard at a very considerable distance. As the song ceased, they might hear a stifled sound, as of steps and whispers of persons approaching them. The song was again raised, but the tune was changed:

“O sleep ye sound, Sir James, she said,

    When ye suld rise and ride;

There’s twenty men, wi’ bow and blade,

    Are seeking where ye hide.”

“I dare stay no longer,” said the stranger; “return home, or remain till they come up — you have nothing to fear — but do not tell you saw me — your sister’s fate is in your hands.” So saying, he turned from her, and with a swift, yet cautiously noiseless step, plunged into the darkness on the side most remote from the sounds which they heard approaching, and was soon lost to her sight. Jeanie remained by the cairn terrified beyond expression, and uncertain whether she ought to fly homeward with all the speed she could exert, or wait the approach of those who were advancing towards her. This uncertainty detained her so long, that she now distinctly saw two or three figures already so near to her, that a precipitate flight would have been equally fruitless and impolitic.

1 The Fairy Boy of Leith.

This legend was in former editions inaccurately said to exist in Baxter’s “World of Spirits;” but is, in fact, to be found, in “Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster; being a further blow to Modern Sadduceism,” by Richard Bovet, Gentleman, 12mo, 1684. The work is inscribed to Dr. Henry More. The story is entitled, “A remarkable passage of one named the Fairy Boy of Leith, in Scotland, given me by my worthy friend, Captain George Burton, and attested under his hand;” and is as follows:—

“About fifteen years since, having business that detained me for some time in Leith, which is near Edenborough, in the kingdom of Scotland, I often met some of my acquaintance at a certain house there, where we used to drink a glass of wine for our refection. The woman which kept the house was of honest reputation amongst the neighbours, which made me give the more attention to what she told me one day about a Fairy Boy (as they called him) who lived about that town. She had given me so strange an account of him, that I desired her I might see him the first opportunity, which she promised; and not long after, passing that way, she told me there was the Fairy Boy but a little before I came by; and casting her eye into the street, said, ‘Look you, sir, yonder he is at play with those other boys,’ and designing him to me. I went, and by smooth words, and a piece of money, got him to come into the house with me; where, in the presence of divers people, I demanded of him several astrological questions, which he answered with great subtility, and through all his discourse carried it with a cunning much beyond his years, which seemed not to exceed ten or eleven. He seemed to make a motion like drumming upon the table with his fingers, upon which I asked him, whether he could beat a drum, to which he replied, ‘Yes, sir, as well as any man in Scotland; for every Thursday night I beat all points to a sort of people that use to meet under yon hill” (pointing to the great hill between Edenborough and Leith). ‘How, boy,’ quoth I; ‘what company have you there?’—‘There are, sir,’ said he, ‘a great company both of men and women, and they are entertained with many sorts of music besides my drum; they have, besides, plenty variety of meats and wine; and many times we are carried into France or Holland in a night, and return again; and whilst we are there, we enjoy all the pleasures the country doth afford.’ I demanded of him, how they got under that hill? To which he replied, ‘that there were a great pair of gates that opened to them, though they were invisible to others, and that within there were brave large rooms, as well accommodated as most in Scotland.’ I then asked him, how I should know what he said to be true? upon which he told me he would read my fortune, saying I should have two wives, and that he saw the forms of them sitting on my shoulders; that both would be very handsome women.

“As he was thus speaking, a woman of the neighbourhood, coming into the room, demanded of him what her fortune should be? He told her that she had two bastards before she was married; which put her in such a rage, that she desired not to hear the rest. The woman of the house told me that all the people in Scotland could not keep him from the rendezvous on Thursday night; upon which, by promising him some more money, I got a promise of him to meet me at the same place, in the afternoon of the Thursday following, and so dismissed him at that time. The boy came again at the place and time appointed, and I had prevailed with some friends to continue with me, if possible, to prevent his moving that night; he was placed between us, and answered many questions, without offering to go from us, until about eleven of the clock, he was got away unperceived of the company; but I suddenly missing him, hasted to the door, and took hold of him, and so returned him into the same room; we all watched him, and on a sudden he was again out of the doors. I followed him close, and he made a noise in the street as if he had been set upon; but from that time I could never see him.

“GEORGE BURTON.”

[A copy of this rare little volume is in the library at Abbotsford.]

2 Intercourse of the Covenanters with the invisible world.

The gloomy, dangerous, and constant wanderings of the persecuted sect of Cameronians, naturally led to their entertaining with peculiar credulity the belief that they were sometimes persecuted, not only by the wrath of men, but by the secret wiles and open terrors of Satan. In fact, a flood could not happen, a horse cast a shoe, or any other the most ordinary interruption thwart a minister’s wish to perform service at a particular spot, than the accident was imputed to the immediate agency of fiends. The encounter of Alexander Peden with the Devil in the cave, and that of John Sample with the demon in the ford, are given by Peter Walker almost in the language of the text.

3 See Muschat’s Cairn.

4 Child Murder.

The Scottish Statute Book, anno 1690, CHAPTER 21, in consequence of the great increase of the crime of child-murder, both from the temptations to commit the offence and the difficulty of discovery enacted a certain set of presumptions, which, in the absence of direct proof, the jury were directed to receive as evidence of the crime having actually been committed. The circumstances selected for this purpose were, that the woman should have concealed her situation during the whole period of pregnancy; that she should not have called for help at her delivery; and that, combined with these grounds of suspicion, the child should be either found dead or be altogether missing. Many persons suffered death during the last century under this severe act. But during the author’s memory a more lenient course was followed, and the female accused under the act, and conscious of no competent defence, usually lodged a petition to the Court of Justiciary, denying, for form’s sake, the tenor of the indictment, but stating, that as her good name had been destroyed by the charge, she was willing to submit to sentence of banishment, to which the crown counsel usually consented. This lenity in practice, and the comparative infrequency of the crime since the doom of public ecclesiastical penance has been generally dispensed with, have led to the abolition of the Statute of William, and Mary, which is now replaced by another, imposing banishment in those circumstances in which the crime was formerly capital. This alteration took place in 1803.

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