The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 16

    She speaks things in doubt,

That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

The hearers to collection; they aim at it,

And botch the words up to fit their own thoughts.

Hamlet.

Like the digressive poet Ariosto, I find myself under the necessity of connecting the branches of my story, by taking up the adventures of another of the characters, and bringing them down to the point at which we have left those of Jeanie Deans. It is not, perhaps, the most artificial way of telling a story, but it has the advantage of sparing the necessity of resuming what a knitter (if stocking-looms have left such a person in the land) might call our “dropped stitches;” a labour in which the author generally toils much, without getting credit for his pains.

“I could risk a sma’ wad,” said the clerk to the magistrate, “that this rascal Ratcliffe, if he were insured of his neck’s safety, could do more than ony ten of our police-people and constables to help us to get out of this scrape of Porteous’s. He is weel acquent wi’ a’ the smugglers, thieves, and banditti about Edinburgh; and, indeed, he may be called the father of a’ the misdoers in Scotland, for he has passed amang them for these twenty years by the name of Daddie Rat.”

“A bonny sort of a scoundrel,” replied the magistrate, “to expect a place under the city!”

“Begging your honour’s pardon,” said the city’s procurator-fiscal, upon whom the duties of superintendent of police devolved, “Mr. Fairscrieve is perfectly in the right. It is just sic as Ratcliffe that the town needs in my department; an’ if sae be that he’s disposed to turn his knowledge to the city service, yell no find a better man. — Ye’ll get nae saints to be searchers for uncustomed goods, or for thieves and sic like — and your decent sort of men, religious professors, and broken tradesmen, that are put into the like o’ sic trust, can do nae gude ava. They are feared for this, and they are scrupulous about that, and they arena free to tell a lie, though it may be for the benefit of the city; and they dinna like to be out at irregular hours, and in a dark cauld night, and they like a clout ower the crown far waur; and sae between the fear o’ God, and the fear o’ man, and the fear o’ getting a sair throat, or sair banes, there’s a dozen o’ our city-folk, baith waiters, and officers, and constables, that can find out naething but a wee bit skulduddery for the benefit of the Kirk treasurer. Jock Porteous, that’s stiff and stark, puir fallow, was worth a dozen o’ them; for he never had ony fears, or scruples, or doubts, or conscience, about onything your honours bade him.”

“He was a gude servant o’ the town,” said the Bailie, “though he was an ower free-living man. But if you really think this rascal Ratcliffe could do us ony service in discovering these malefactors, I would insure him life, reward, and promotion. It’s an awsome thing this mischance for the city, Mr. Fairscrieve. It will be very ill taen wi’ abune stairs. Queen Caroline, God bless her! is a woman — at least I judge sae, and it’s nae treason to speak my mind sae far — and ye maybe ken as weel as I do, for ye hae a housekeeper, though ye arena a married man, that women are wilfu’, and downa bide a slight. And it will sound ill in her ears, that sic a confused mistake suld come to pass, and naebody sae muckle as to be put into the Tolbooth about it.”

“If ye thought that, sir,” said the procurator-fiscal, “we could easily clap into the prison a few blackguards upon suspicion. It will have a gude active look, and I hae aye plenty on my list, that wadna be a hair the waur of a week or twa’s imprisonment; and if ye thought it no strictly just, ye could be just the easier wi’ them the neist time they did onything to deserve it; they arena the sort to be lang o’ gieing ye an opportunity to clear scores wi’ them on that account.”

“I doubt that will hardly do in this case, Mr. Sharpitlaw,” returned the town-clerk; “they’ll run their letters,1 and be adrift again, before ye ken where ye are.”

“I will speak to the Lord Provost,” said the magistrate, “about Ratcliffe’s business. Mr. Sharpitlaw, you will go with me, and receive instructions — something may be made too out of this story of Butler’s and his unknown gentleman — I know no business any man has to swagger about in the King’s Park, and call himself the devil, to the terror of honest folks, who dinna care to hear mair about the devil than is said from the pulpit on the Sabbath. I cannot think the preacher himsell wad be heading the mob, though the time has been, they hae been as forward in a bruilzie as their neighbours.”

“But these times are lang by,” said Mr. Sharpitlaw. “In my father’s time, there was mair search for silenced ministers about the Bow-head and the Covenant Close, and all the tents of Kedar, as they ca’d the dwellings o’ the godly in those days, than there’s now for thieves and vagabonds in the Laigh Calton and the back o’ the Canongate. But that time’s weel by, an it bide. And if the Bailie will get me directions and authority from the Provost, I’ll speak wi’ Daddie Rat mysell; for I’m thinking I’ll make mair out o’ him than ye’ll do.”

Mr. Sharpitlaw, being necessarily a man of high trust, was accordingly empowered, in the course of the day, to make such arrangements as might seem in the emergency most advantageous for the Good Town. He went to the jail accordingly, and saw Ratcliffe in private.

The relative positions of a police-officer and a professed thief bear a different complexion, according to circumstances. The most obvious simile of a hawk pouncing upon his prey is often least applicable. Sometimes the guardian of justice has the air of a cat watching a mouse, and, while he suspends his purpose of springing upon the pilferer, takes care so to calculate his motions that he shall not get beyond his power. Sometimes, more passive still, he uses the art of fascination ascribed to the rattlesnake, and contents himself with glaring on the victim, through all his devious flutterings; certain that his terror, confusion, and disorder of ideas, will bring him into his jaws at last. The interview between Ratcliffe and Sharpitlaw had an aspect different from all these. They sat for five minutes silent, on opposite sides of a small table, and looked fixedly at each other, with a sharp, knowing, and alert cast of countenance, not unmingled with an inclination to laugh, and resembled more than anything else, two dogs, who, preparing for a game at romps, are seen to couch down, and remain in that posture for a little time, watching each other’s movements, and waiting which shall begin the game.

“So, Mr. Ratcliffe,” said the officer, conceiving it suited his dignity to speak first, “you give up business, I find?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Ratcliffe; “I shall be on that lay nae mair — and I think that will save your folk some trouble, Mr. Sharpitlaw?”

“Which Jock Daigleish” (then finisher of the law2 in the Scottish metropolis) “wad save them as easily,” returned the procurator-fiscal.

“Ay; if I waited in the Tolbooth here to have him fit my cravat — but that’s an idle way o’ speaking, Mr. Sharpitlaw.”

“Why, I suppose you know you are under sentence of death, Mr. Ratcliffe?” replied Mr. Sharpitlaw.

“Aye, so are a’, as that worthy minister said in the Tolbooth Kirk the day Robertson wan off; but naebody kens when it will be executed. Gude faith, he had better reason to say sae than he dreamed off, before the play was played out that morning!”

“This Robertson,” said Sharpitlaw, in a lower and something like a confidential tone, “d’ye ken, Rat — that is, can ye gie us ony inkling where he is to be heard tell o’?”

“Troth, Mr. Sharpitlaw, I’ll be frank wi’ ye; Robertson is rather a cut abune me — a wild deevil he was, and mony a daft prank he played; but except the Collector’s job that Wilson led him into, and some tuilzies about run goods wi’ the gaugers and the waiters, he never did onything that came near our line o’ business.”

“Umph! that’s singular, considering the company he kept.”

“Fact, upon my honour and credit,” said Ratcliffe, gravely. “He keepit out o’ our little bits of affairs, and that’s mair than Wilson did; I hae dune business wi’ Wilson afore now. But the lad will come on in time; there’s nae fear o’ him; naebody will live the life he has led, but what he’ll come to sooner or later.”

“Who or what is he, Ratcliffe? you know, I suppose?” said Sharpitlaw.

“He’s better born, I judge, than he cares to let on; he’s been a soldier, and he has been a play-actor, and I watna what he has been or hasna been, for as young as he is, sae that it had daffing and nonsense about it.”

“Pretty pranks he has played in his time, I suppose?”

“Ye may say that,” said Ratcliffe, with a sardonic smile; “and” (touching his nose) “a deevil amang the lasses.”

“Like enough,” said Sharpitlaw. “Weel, Ratcliffe, I’ll no stand niffering wi’ ye; ye ken the way that favour’s gotten in my office; ye maun be usefu’.”

“Certainly, sir, to the best of my power — naething for naething — I ken the rule of the office,” said the ex-depredator.

“Now the principal thing in hand e’en now,” said the official person, “is the job of Porteous’s; an ye can gie us a lift — why, the inner turnkey’s office to begin wi’, and the captainship in time — ye understand my meaning?”

“Ay, troth do I, sir; a wink’s as gude as a nod to a blind horse; but Jock Porteous’s job — Lord help ye! — I was under sentence the haill time. God! but I couldna help laughing when I heard Jock skirting for mercy in the lads’ hands. Mony a het skin ye hae gien me, neighbour, thought I, tak ye what’s gaun: time about’s fair play; ye’ll ken now what hanging’s gude for.”

“Come, come, this is all nonsense, Rat,” said the procurator. “Ye canna creep out at that hole, lad; you must speak to the point — you understand me — if you want favour; gif-gaf makes gude friends, ye ken.”

“But how can I speak to the point, as your honour ca’s it,” said Ratcliffe, demurely, and with an air of great simplicity, “when ye ken I was under sentence and in the strong room a’ the while the job was going on?”

“And how can we turn ye loose on the public again, Daddie Rat, unless ye do or say something to deserve it?”

“Well, then, d — n it!” answered the criminal, “since it maun be sae, I saw Geordie Robertson among the boys that brake the jail; I suppose that will do me some gude?”

“That’s speaking to the purpose, indeed,” said the office-bearer; “and now, Rat, where think ye we’ll find him?”

“Deil haet o’ me kens,” said Ratcliffe; “he’ll no likely gang back to ony o’ his auld howffs; he’ll be off the country by this time. He has gude friends some gate or other, for a’ the life he’s led; he’s been weel educate.”

“He’ll grace the gallows the better,” said Mr. Sharpitlaw; “a desperate dog, to murder an officer of the city for doing his duty! Wha kens wha’s turn it might be next? — But you saw him plainly?”

“As plainly as I see you.”

“How was he dressed?” said Sharpitlaw.

“I couldna weel see; something of a woman’s bit mutch on his head; but ye never saw sic a ca’-throw. Ane couldna hae een to a’ thing.”

“But did he speak to no one?” said Sharpitlaw.

“They were a’ speaking and gabbling through other,” said Ratcliffe, who was obviously unwilling to carry his evidence farther than he could possibly help.

“This will not do, Ratcliffe,” said the procurator; “you must speak out — out — out,” tapping the table emphatically, as he repeated that impressive monosyllable.

“It’s very hard, sir,” said the prisoner; “and but for the under-turnkey’s place —”

“And the reversion of the captaincy — the captaincy of the Tolbooth, man — that is, in case of gude behaviour.”

“Ay, ay,” said Ratcliffe, “gude behaviour! — there’s the deevil. And then it’s waiting for dead folk’s shoon into the bargain.”

“But Robertson’s head will weigh something,” said Sharpitlaw; “something gey and heavy, Rat; the town maun show cause — that’s right and reason — and then ye’ll hae freedom to enjoy your gear honestly.”

“I dinna ken,” said Ratcliffe; “it’s a queer way of beginning the trade of honesty — but deil ma care. Weel, then, I heard and saw him speak to the wench Effie Deans, that’s up there for child-murder.”

“The deil ye did? Rat, this is finding a mare’s nest wi’ a witness. — And the man that spoke to Butler in the Park, and that was to meet wi’ Jeanie Deans at Muschat’s Cairn — whew! lay that and that together? As sure as I live he’s been the father of the lassie’s wean.”

“There hae been waur guesses than that, I’m thinking,” observed Ratcliffe, turning his quid of tobacco in his cheek, and squirting out the juice. “I heard something a while syne about his drawing up wi’ a bonny quean about the Pleasaunts, and that it was a’ Wilson could do to keep him frae marrying her.”

Here a city officer entered, and told Sharpitlaw that they had the woman in custody whom he had directed them to bring before him.

“It’s little matter now,” said he, “the thing is taking another turn; however, George, ye may bring her in.”

The officer retired, and introduced, upon his return, a tall, strapping wench of eighteen or twenty, dressed, fantastically, in a sort of blue riding-jacket, with tarnished lace, her hair clubbed like that of a man, a Highland bonnet, and a bunch of broken feathers, a riding-skirt (or petticoat) of scarlet camlet, embroidered with tarnished flowers. Her features were coarse and masculine, yet at a little distance, by dint of very bright wild-looking black eyes, an aquiline nose, and a commanding profile, appeared rather handsome. She flourished the switch she held in her hand, dropped a courtesy as low as a lady at a birth-night introduction, recovered herself seemingly according to Touchstone’s directions to Audrey, and opened the conversation without waiting till any questions were asked.

“God gie your honour gude-e’en, and mony o’ them, bonny Mr. Sharpitlaw! — Gude-e’en to ye, Daddie Ratton — they tauld me ye were hanged, man; or did ye get out o’ John Dalgleish’s hands like half-hangit Maggie Dickson?”

“Whisht, ye daft jaud,” said Ratcliffe, “and hear what’s said to ye.”

“Wi’ a’ my heart, Ratton. Great preferment for poor Madge to be brought up the street wi’ a grand man, wi’ a coat a’ passemented wi’ worset-lace, to speak wi’ provosts, and bailies, and town-clerks, and prokitors, at this time o’ day — and the haill town looking at me too — This is honour on earth for ance!”

“Ay, Madge,” said Mr. Sharpitlaw, in a coaxing tone; “and ye’re dressed out in your braws, I see; these are not your every-days’ claiths ye have on.”

“Deil be in my fingers, then!” said Madge —“Eh, sirs!” (observing Butler come into the apartment), “there’s a minister in the Tolbooth — wha will ca’ it a graceless place now? — I’se warrant he’s in for the gude auld cause — but it’s be nae cause o’ mine,” and off she went into a song —

“Hey for cavaliers, ho for cavaliers, Dub a dub, dub a dub, Have at old Beelzebub — Oliver’s squeaking for fear.”

“Did you ever see that mad woman before?” said Sharpitlaw to Butler.

“Not to my knowledge, sir,” replied Butler.

“I thought as much,” said the procurator-fiscal, looking towards Ratcliffe, who answered his glance with a nod of acquiescence and intelligence. —

“But that is Madge Wildfire, as she calls herself,” said the man of law to Butler.

“Ay, that I am,” said Madge, “and that I have been ever since I was something better — Heigh ho”—(and something like melancholy dwelt on her features for a minute)—“But I canna mind when that was — it was lang syne, at ony rate, and I’ll ne’er fash my thumb about it. —

I glance like the wildfire through country and town;

    I’m seen on the causeway — I’m seen on the down;

The lightning that flashes so bright and so free,

    Is scarcely so blithe or so bonny as me.”

“Hand your tongue, ye skirling limmer!” said the officer who had acted as master of the ceremonies to this extraordinary performer, and who was rather scandalised at the freedom of her demeanour before a person of Mr. Sharpitlaw’s importance —“haud your tongue, or I’se gie ye something to skirl for!”

“Let her alone, George,” said Sharpitlaw, “dinna put her out o’ tune; I hae some questions to ask her — But first, Mr. Butler, take another look of her.”

“Do sae, minister — do sae,” cried Madge; “I am as weel worth looking at as ony book in your aught. — And I can say the single carritch, and the double carritch, and justification, and effectual calling, and the assembly of divines at Westminster, that is” (she added in a low tone), “I could say them ance — but it’s lang syne — and ane forgets, ye ken.” And poor Madge heaved another deep sigh.

“Weel, sir,” said Mr. Sharpitlaw to Butler, “what think ye now?”

“As I did before,” said Butler; “that I never saw the poor demented creature in my life before.”

“Then she is not the person whom you said the rioters last night described as Madge Wildfire?”

“Certainly not,” said Butler. “They may be near the same height, for they are both tall, but I see little other resemblance.”

“Their dress, then, is not alike?” said Sharpitlaw.

“Not in the least,” said Butler.

“Madge, my bonny woman,” said Sharpitlaw, in the same coaxing manner, “what did ye do wi’ your ilka-day’s claise yesterday?”

“I dinna mind,” said Madge.

“Where was ye yesterday at e’en, Madge?”

“I dinna mind ony thing about yesterday,” answered Madge; “ae day is eneugh for ony body to wun ower wi’ at a time, and ower muckle sometimes.”

“But maybe, Madge, ye wad mind something about it, if I was to gie ye this half-crown?” said Sharpitlaw, taking out the piece of money.

“That might gar me laugh, but it couldna gar me mind.”

“But, Madge,” continued Sharpitlaw, “were I to send you to the workhouse in Leith Wynd, and gar Jock Daigleish lay the tawse on your back —”

“That wad gar me greet,” said Madge, sobbing, “but it couldna gar me mind, ye ken.”

“She is ower far past reasonable folks’ motives, sir,” said Ratcliffe, “to mind siller, or John Dalgleish, or the cat-and-nine-tails either; but I think I could gar her tell us something.”

“Try her, then, Ratcliffe,” said Sharpitlaw, “for I am tired of her crazy pate, and be d — d to her.”

“Madge,” said Ratcliffe, “hae ye ony joes now?”

“An ony body ask ye, say ye dinna ken. — Set him to be speaking of my joes, auld Daddie Ratton!”

“I dare say, ye hae deil ane?”

“See if I haena then,” said Madge, with the toss of the head of affronted beauty —“there’s Rob the Ranter, and Will Fleming, and then there’s Geordie Robertson, lad — that’s Gentleman Geordie — what think ye o’ that?”

Ratcliffe laughed, and, winking to the procurator-fiscal, pursued the inquiry in his own way. “But, Madge, the lads only like ye when ye hae on your braws — they wadna touch you wi’ a pair o’ tangs when you are in your auld ilka-day rags.”

“Ye’re a leeing auld sorrow then,” replied the fair one; “for Gentle Geordie Robertson put my ilka-day’s claise on his ain bonny sell yestreen, and gaed a’ through the town wi’ them; and gawsie and grand he lookit, like ony queen in the land.”

“I dinna believe a word o’t,” said Ratcliffe, with another wink to the procurator. “Thae duds were a’ o’ the colour o’ moonshine in the water, I’m thinking, Madge — The gown wad be a sky-blue scarlet, I’se warrant ye?”

“It was nae sic thing,” said Madge, whose unretentive memory let out, in the eagerness of contradiction, all that she would have most wished to keep concealed, had her judgment been equal to her inclination. “It was neither scarlet nor sky-blue, but my ain auld brown threshie-coat of a short-gown, and my mother’s auld mutch, and my red rokelay — and he gied me a croun and a kiss for the use o’ them, blessing on his bonny face — though it’s been a dear ane to me.”

“And where did he change his clothes again, hinnie?” said Sharpitlaw, in his most conciliatory manner.

“The procurator’s spoiled a’,” observed Ratcliffe, drily. And it was even so; for the question, put in so direct a shape, immediately awakened Madge to the propriety of being reserved upon those very topics on which Ratcliffe had indirectly seduced her to become communicative.

“What was’t ye were speering at us, sir?” she resumed, with an appearance of stolidity so speedily assumed, as showed there was a good deal of knavery mixed with her folly.

“I asked you,” said the procurator, “at what hour, and to what place, Robertson brought back your clothes.”

“Robertson? — Lord hand a care o’ us! what Robertson?”

“Why, the fellow we were speaking of, Gentle Geordie, as you call him.”

“Geordie Gentle!” answered Madge, with well-feigned amazement —“I dinna ken naebody they ca’ Geordie Gentle.”

“Come, my jo,” said Sharpitlaw, “this will not do; you must tell us what you did with these clothes of yours.”

Madge Wildfire made no answer, unless the question may seem connected with the snatch of a song with which she indulged the embarrassed investigator:—

“What did ye wi’ the bridal ring — bridal ring — bridal ring?

What did ye wi’ your wedding ring, ye little cutty quean, O?

        I gied it till a sodger, a sodger, a sodger,

    I gied it till a sodger, an auld true love o’ mine, O.”

Of all the madwomen who have sung and said, since the days of Hamlet the Dane, if Ophelia be the most affecting, Madge Wildfire was the most provoking.

The procurator-fiscal was in despair. “I’ll take some measures with this d — d Bess of Bedlam,” said he, “that shall make her find her tongue.”

“Wi’ your favour, sir,” said Ratcliffe, “better let her mind settle a little — Ye have aye made out something.”

“True,” said the official person; “a brown short-gown, mutch, red rokelay — that agrees with your Madge Wildfire, Mr. Butler?” Butler agreed that it did so. “Yes, there was a sufficient motive for taking this crazy creature’s dress and name, while he was about such a job.”

“And I am free to say now,” said Ratcliffe

“When you see it has come out without you,” interrupted Sharpitlaw.

“Just sae, sir,” reiterated Ratcliffe. “I am free to say now, since it’s come out otherwise, that these were the clothes I saw Robertson wearing last night in the jail, when he was at the head of the rioters.”

“That’s direct evidence,” said Sharpitlaw; “stick to that, Rat — I will report favourably of you to the provost, for I have business for you to-night. It wears late; I must home and get a snack, and I’ll be back in the evening. Keep Madge with you, Ratcliffe, and try to get her into a good tune again.” So saying he left the prison.

1 A Scottish form of procedure, answering, in some respects, to the English Habeas Corpus.

2 [Among the flying leaves of the period, there is one called “Sutherland’s Lament for the loss of his post — with his advice, to John Daglees his successor.” He was whipped and banished 25th July 1722. There is another, called the Speech and dying words of John Dalgleish, lockman alias hangman of Edinburgh, containing these lines:—

Death, I’ve a Favour for to beg,

That ye wad only gie a Fleg,

    And spare my Life;

As I did to ill-hanged Megg,

    The Webster’s Wife.”]

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/heart/chapter16.html

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