The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 17

And some they whistled — and some they sang,

    And some did loudly say,

Whenever Lord Barnard’s horn it blew,

    “Away, Musgrave away!”

Ballad of Little Musgrave.

When the man of office returned to the Heart of Mid-Lothian, he resumed his conference with Ratcliffe, of whose experience and assistance he now held himself secure. “You must speak with this wench, Rat — this Effie Deans — you must sift her a wee bit; for as sure as a tether she will ken Robertson’s haunts — till her, Rat — till her without delay.”

“Craving your pardon, Mr. Sharpitlaw,” said the turnkey elect, “that’s what I am not free to do.”

“Free to do, man? what the deil ails ye now? — I thought we had settled a’ that?”

“I dinna ken, sir,” said Ratcliffe; “I hae spoken to this Effie — she’s strange to this place and to its ways, and to a’ our ways, Mr. Sharpitlaw; and she greets, the silly tawpie, and she’s breaking her heart already about this wild chield; and were she the mean’s o’ taking him, she wad break it outright.”

“She wunna hae time, lad,” said Sharpitlaw; “the woodie will hae it’s ain o’ her before that — a woman’s heart takes a lang time o’ breaking.”

“That’s according to the stuff they are made o’ sir,” replied Ratcliffe —“But to make a lang tale short, I canna undertake the job. It gangs against my conscience.”

Your conscience, Rat?” said Sharpitlaw, with a sneer, which the reader will probably think very natural upon the occasion.

“Ou ay, sir,” answered Ratcliffe, calmly, “just my conscience; a’body has a conscience, though it may be ill wunnin at it. I think mine’s as weel out o’ the gate as maist folk’s are; and yet it’s just like the noop of my elbow, it whiles gets a bit dirl on a corner.”

“Weel, Rat,” replied Sharpitlaw, “since ye are nice, I’ll speak to the hussy mysell.”

Sharpitlaw, accordingly, caused himself to be introduced into the little dark apartment tenanted by the unfortunate Effie Deans. The poor girl was seated on her little flock-bed, plunged in a deep reverie. Some food stood on the table, of a quality better than is usually supplied to prisoners, but it was untouched. The person under whose care she was more particularly placed, said, “that sometimes she tasted naething from the tae end of the four-and-twenty hours to the t’other, except a drink of water.”

Sharpitlaw took a chair, and, commanding the turnkey to retire, he opened the conversation, endeavouring to throw into his tone and countenance as much commiseration as they were capable of expressing, for the one was sharp and harsh, the other sly, acute, and selfish.

“How’s a’ wi’ ye, Effie? — How d’ye find yoursell, hinny?”

A deep sigh was the only answer.

“Are the folk civil to ye, Effie? — it’s my duty to inquire.”

“Very civil, sir,” said Effie, compelling herself to answer, yet hardly knowing what she said.

“And your victuals,” continued Sharpitlaw, in the same condoling tone — “do you get what you like? — or is there onything you would particularly fancy, as your health seems but silly?”

“It’s a’ very weel, sir, I thank ye,” said the poor prisoner, in a tone how different from the sportive vivacity of those of the Lily of St. Leonard’s! —“it’s a’ very gude — ower gude for me.”

“He must have been a great villain, Effie, who brought you to this pass,” said Sharpitlaw.

The remark was dictated partly by a natural feeling, of which even he could not divest himself, though accustomed to practise on the passions of others, and keep a most heedful guard over his own, and partly by his wish to introduce the sort of conversation which might, best serve his immediate purpose. Indeed, upon the present occasion, these mixed motives of feeling and cunning harmonised together wonderfully; for, said Sharpitlaw to himself, the greater rogue Robertson is, the more will be the merit of bringing him to justice. “He must have been a great villain, indeed,” he again reiterated; “and I wish I had the skelping o’ him.”

“I may blame mysell mair than him,” said Effie; “I was bred up to ken better; but he, poor fellow,”—(she stopped).

“Was a thorough blackguard a’ his life, I dare say,” said Sharpitlaw. “A stranger he was in this country, and a companion of that lawless vagabond, Wilson, I think, Effie?”

“It wad hae been dearly telling him that he had ne’er seen Wilson’s face.”

“That’s very true that you are saying, Effie,” said Sharpitlaw. “Where was’t that Robertson and you were used to howff thegither? Somegate about the Laigh Calton, I am thinking.”

The simple and dispirited girl had thus far followed Mr. Sharpitlaw’s lead, because he had artfully adjusted his observations to the thoughts he was pretty certain must be passing through her own mind, so that her answers became a kind of thinking aloud, a mood into which those who are either constitutionally absent in mind, or are rendered so by the temporary pressure of misfortune, may be easily led by a skilful train of suggestions. But the last observation of the procurator-fiscal was too much of the nature of a direct interrogatory, and it broke the charm accordingly.

“What was it that I was saying?” said Effie, starting up from her reclining posture, seating herself upright, and hastily shading her dishevelled hair back from her wasted but still beautiful countenance. She fixed her eyes boldly and keenly upon Sharpitlaw —“You are too much of a gentleman, sir — too much of an honest man, to take any notice of what a poor creature like me says, that can hardly ca’ my senses my ain — God help me!”

“Advantage! — I would be of some advantage to you if I could,” said Sharpitlaw, in a soothing tone; “and I ken naething sae likely to serve ye, Effie, as gripping this rascal, Robertson.”

“O dinna misca’ him, sir, that never misca’d you! — Robertson? — I am sure I had naething to say against ony man o’ the name, and naething will I say.”

“But if you do not heed your own misfortune, Effie, you should mind what distress he has brought on your family,” said the man of law.

“O, Heaven help me!” exclaimed poor Effie —“My poor father — my dear Jeanie — O, that’s sairest to bide of a’! O, sir, if you hae ony kindness — if ye hae ony touch of compassion — for a’ the folk I see here are as hard as the wa’-stanes — If ye wad but bid them let my sister Jeanie in the next time she ca’s! for when I hear them put her awa frae the door, and canna climb up to that high window to see sae muckle as her gown-tail, it’s like to pit me out o’ my judgment.” And she looked on him with a face of entreaty, so earnest, yet so humble, that she fairly shook the steadfast purpose of his mind.

“You shall see your sister,” he began, “if you’ll tell me,”— then interrupting himself, he added, in a more hurried tone — “no, d — n it, you shall see your sister whether you tell me anything or no.” So saying, he rose up and left the apartment.

When he had rejoined Ratcliffe, he observed, “You are right, Ratton; there’s no making much of that lassie. But ae thing I have cleared — that is, that Robertson has been the father of the bairn, and so I will wager a boddle it will be he that’s to meet wi’ Jeanie Deans this night at Muschat’s Cairn, and there we’ll nail him, Rat, or my name is not Gideon Sharpitlaw.”

“But,” said Ratcliffe, perhaps because he was in no hurry to see anything which was like to be connected with the discovery and apprehension of Robertson, “an that were the case, Mr. Butler wad hae kend the man in the King’s Park to be the same person wi’ him in Madge Wildfire’s claise, that headed the mob.”

“That makes nae difference, man,” replied Sharpitlaw —“the dress, the light, the confusion, and maybe a touch o’ a blackit cork, or a slake o’ paint-hout, Ratton, I have seen ye dress your ainsell, that the deevil ye belang to durstna hae made oath t’ye.”

“And that’s true, too,” said Ratcliffe.

“And besides, ye donnard carle,” continued Sharpitlaw, triumphantly, “the minister did say that he thought he knew something of the features of the birkie that spoke to him in the Park, though he could not charge his memory where or when he had seen them.”

“It’s evident, then, your honour will be right,” said Ratcliffe.

“Then, Rat, you and I will go with the party oursells this night, and see him in grips or we are done wi’ him.”

“I seena muckle use I can be o’ to your honour,” said Ratcliffe, reluctantly.

“Use?” answered Sharpitlaw —“You can guide the party — you ken the ground. Besides, I do not intend to quit sight o’ you, my good friend, till I have him in hand.”

“Weel, sir,” said Ratcliffe, but in no joyful tone of acquiescence; “Ye maun hae it your ain way — but mind he’s a desperate man.”

“We shall have that with us,” answered Sharpitlaw, “that will settle him, if it is necessary.”

“But, sir,” answered Ratcliffe, “I am sure I couldna undertake to guide you to Muschat’s Cairn in the night-time; I ken the place as mony does, in fair day-light, but how to find it by moonshine, amang sae mony crags and stanes, as like to each other as the collier to the deil, is mair than I can tell. I might as soon seek moonshine in water.”

“What’s the meaning o’ this, Ratcliffe?” said Sharpitlaw, while he fixed his eye on the recusant, with a fatal and ominous expression — “Have you forgotten that you are still under sentence of death?”

“No, sir,” said Ratcliffe, “that’s a thing no easily put out o’ memory; and if my presence be judged necessary, nae doubt I maun gang wi’ your honour. But I was gaun to tell your honour of ane that has mair skeel o’ the gate than me, and that’s e’en Madge Wildfire.”

“The devil she has! — Do you think me as mad as she, is, to trust to her guidance on such an occasion?”

“Your honour is the best judge,” answered Ratcliffe; “but I ken I can keep her in tune, and garr her haud the straight path — she often sleeps out, or rambles about amang thae hills the haill simmer night, the daft limmer.”

“Weel, Ratcliffe,” replied the procurator-fiscal, “if you think she can guide us the right way — but take heed to what you are about — your life depends on your behaviour.”

“It’s a sair judgment on a man,” said Ratcliffe, “when he has ance gane sae far wrang as I hae done, that deil a bit he can be honest, try’t whilk way he will.”

Such was the reflection of Ratcliffe, when he was left for a few minutes to himself, while the retainer of justice went to procure a proper warrant, and give the necessary directions.

The rising moon saw the whole party free from the walls of the city, and entering upon the open ground. Arthur’s Seat, like a couchant lion of immense size — Salisbury Crags, like a huge belt or girdle of granite, were dimly visible. Holding their path along the southern side of the Canongate, they gained the Abbey of Holyrood House, and from thence found their way by step and stile into the King’s Park. They were at first four in number — an officer of justice and Sharpitlaw, who were well armed with pistols and cutlasses; Ratcliffe, who was not trusted with weapons, lest, he might, peradventure, have used them on the wrong side; and the female. But at the last stile, when they entered the Chase, they were joined by other two officers, whom Sharpitlaw, desirous to secure sufficient force for his purpose, and at the same time to avoid observation, had directed to wait for him at this place. Ratcliffe saw this accession of strength with some disquietude, for he had hitherto thought it likely that Robertson, who was a bold, stout, and active young fellow, might have made his escape from Sharpitlaw and the single officer, by force or agility, without his being implicated in the matter. But the present strength of the followers of justice was overpowering, and the only mode of saving Robertson (which the old sinner was well disposed to do, providing always he could accomplish his purpose without compromising his own safety), must be by contriving that he should have some signal of their approach. It was probably with this view that Ratcliffe had requested the addition of Madge to the party, having considerable confidence in her propensity to exert her lungs. Indeed, she had already given them so many specimens of her clamorous loquacity, that Sharpitlaw half determined to send her back with one of the officers, rather than carry forward in his company a person so extremely ill qualified to be a guide in a secret expedition. It seemed, too, as if the open air, the approach to the hills, and the ascent of the moon, supposed to be so portentous over those whose brain is infirm, made her spirits rise in a degree tenfold more loquacious than she had hitherto exhibited. To silence her by fair means seemed impossible; authoritative commands and coaxing entreaties she set alike at defiance, and threats only made her sulky and altogether intractable.

“Is there no one of you,” said Sharpitlaw, impatiently, “that knows the way to this accursed place — this Nichol Muschat’s Cairn — excepting this mad clavering idiot?”

“Deil ane o’ them kens it except mysell,” exclaimed Madge; “how suld they, the puir fule cowards! But I hae sat on the grave frae batfleeing time till cook-crow, and had mony a fine crack wi’ Muschat and Ailie Muschat, that are lying sleeping below.”

“The devil take your crazy brain,” said Sharpitlaw; “will you not allow the men to answer a question?”

The officers obtaining a moment’s audience while Ratcliffe diverted Madge’s attention, declared that, though they had a general knowledge of the spot, they could not undertake to guide the party to it by the uncertain light of the moon, with such accuracy as to insure success to their expedition.

“What shall we do, Ratcliffe?” said Sharpitlaw, “if he sees us before we see him — and that’s what he is certain to do, if we go strolling about, without keeping the straight road — we may bid gude day to the job, and I would rather lose one hundred pounds, baith for the credit of the police, and because the provost says somebody maun be hanged for this job o’ Porteous, come o’t what likes.”

“I think,” said Ratcliffe, “we maun just try Madge; and I’ll see if I can get her keepit in ony better order. And at ony rate, if he suld hear her skirting her auld ends o’ sangs, he’s no to ken for that that there’s onybody wi’ her.”

“That’s true,” said Sharpitlaw; “and if he thinks her alone, he’s as like to come towards her as to rin frae her. So set forward — we hae lost ower muckle time already — see to get her to keep the right road.”

“And what sort o’ house does Nichol Muschat and his wife keep now?” said Ratcliffe to the mad woman, by way of humouring her vein of folly; “they were but thrawn folk lang syne, an a’ tales be true.”

“Ou, ay, ay, ay — but a’s forgotten now,” replied Madge, in the confidential tone of a gossip giving the history of her next-door neighbour —“Ye see, I spoke to them mysell, and tauld them byganes suld be byganes — her throat’s sair misguggled and mashackered though; she wears her corpse-sheet drawn weel up to hide it, but that canna hinder the bluid seiping through, ye ken. I wussed her to wash it in St. Anthony’s Well, and that will cleanse if onything can — But they say bluid never bleaches out o’ linen claith — Deacon Sanders’s new cleansing draps winna do’t — I tried them mysell on a bit rag we hae at hame that was mailed wi’ the bluid of a bit skirting wean that was hurt some gate, but out it winna come — Weel, yell say that’s queer; but I will bring it out to St. Anthony’s blessed Well some braw night just like this, and I’ll cry up Ailie Muschat, and she and I will hae a grand bouking-washing, and bleach our claes in the beams of the bonny Lady Moon, that’s far pleasanter to me than the sun — the sun’s ower het, and ken ye, cummers, my brains are het eneugh already. But the moon, and the dew, and the night-wind, they are just like a caller kail-blade laid on my brow; and whiles I think the moon just shines on purpose to pleasure me, when naebody sees her but mysell.”

This raving discourse she continued with prodigious volubility, walking on at a great pace, and dragging Ratcliffe along with her, while he endeavoured, in appearance at least, if not in reality, to induce her to moderate her voice.

All at once she stopped short upon the top of a little hillock, gazed upward fixedly, and said not one word for the space of five minutes. “What the devil is the matter with her now?” said Sharpitlaw to Ratcliffe —“Can you not get her forward?”

“Ye maun just take a grain o’ patience wi’ her, sir,” said Ratcliffe. “She’ll no gae a foot faster than she likes herself.”

“D— n her,” said Sharpitlaw, “I’ll take care she has her time in Bedlam or Bridewell, or both, for she’s both mad and mischievous.”

In the meanwhile, Madge, who had looked very pensive when she first stopped, suddenly burst into a vehement fit of laughter, then paused and sighed bitterly — then was seized with a second fit of laughter — then, fixing her eyes on the moon, lifted up her voice and sung —

“Good even, good fair moon, good even to thee;

    I prithee, dear moon, now show to me

The form and the features, the speech and degree,

    Of the man that true lover of mine shall be.

But I need not ask that of the bonny Lady Moon — I ken that weel eneugh mysell — true-love though he wasna — But naebody shall sae that I ever tauld a word about the matter — But whiles I wish the bairn had lived — Weel, God guide us, there’s a heaven aboon us a’,”—(here she sighed bitterly), “and a bonny moon, and sterns in it forby” (and here she laughed once more).

“Are we to stand, here all night!” said Sharpitlaw, very impatiently. “Drag her forward.”

“Ay, sir,” said Ratcliffe, “if we kend whilk way to drag her, that would settle it at ance. — Come, Madge, hinny,” addressing her, “we’ll no be in time to see Nichol and his wife, unless ye show us the road.”

“In troth and that I will, Ratton,” said she, seizing him by the arm, and resuming her route with huge strides, considering it was a female who took them. “And I’ll tell ye, Ratton, blithe will Nichol Muschat be to see ye, for he says he kens weel there isna sic a villain out o’ hell as ye are, and he wad be ravished to hae a crack wi’ you — like to like ye ken — it’s a proverb never fails — and ye are baith a pair o’ the deevil’s peats I trow — hard to ken whilk deserves the hettest corner o’ his ingle-side.”

Ratcliffe was conscience-struck, and could not forbear making an involuntary protest against this classification. “I never shed blood,” he replied.

“But ye hae sauld it, Ratton — ye hae sauld blood mony a time. Folk kill wi’ the tongue as weel as wi’ the hand — wi’ the word as weel as wi’ the gulley! —

It is the ‘bonny butcher lad,

That wears the sleeves of blue,

He sells the flesh on Saturday,

    On Friday that he slew.”

“And what is that I ain doing now?” thought Ratcliffe. “But I’ll hae nae wyte of Robertson’s young bluid, if I can help it;” then speaking apart to Madge, he asked her, “Whether she did not remember ony o’ her auld Sangs?”

“Mony a dainty ane,” said Madge; “and blithely can I sing them, for lightsome sangs make merry gate.” And she sang —

“When the glede’s in the blue cloud,

    The lavrock lies still;

When the hound’s in the greenwood.

    The hind keeps the hill.”

“Silence her cursed noise, if you should throttle her,” said Sharpitlaw; “I see somebody yonder. — Keep close, my boys, and creep round the shoulder of the height. George Poinder, stay you with Ratcliffe and tha mad yelling bitch; and you other two, come with me round under the shadow of the brae.”

And he crept forward with the stealthy pace of an Indian savage, who leads his band to surprise an unsuspecting party of some hostile tribe. Ratcliffe saw them glide of, avoiding the moonlight, and keeping as much in: the shade as possible.

“Robertson’s done up,” said he to himself; “thae young lads are aye sae thoughtless. What deevil could he hae to say to Jeanie Deans, or to ony woman on earth, that he suld gang awa and get his neck raxed for her? And this mad quean, after cracking like a pen-gun, and skirling like a pea-hen for the haill night, behoves just to hae hadden her tongue when her clavers might have dune some gude! But it’s aye the way wi’ women; if they ever hand their tongues ava’, ye may swear it’s for mischief. I wish I could set her on again without this blood-sucker kenning what I am doing. But he’s as gleg as MacKeachan’s elshin,1 that ran through sax plies of bendleather and half-an-inch into the king’s heel.”

He then began to hum, but in a very low and suppressed tone, the first stanza of a favourite ballad of Wildfire’s, the words of which bore some distant analogy with the situation of Robertson, trusting that the power of association would not fail to bring the rest to her mind:—

“There’s a bloodhound ranging Tinwald wood,

    There’s harness glancing sheen:

There’s a maiden sits on Tinwald brae,

    And she sings loud between.”

Madge had no sooner received the catch-word, than she vindicated Ratcliffe’s sagacity by setting off at score with the song:—

“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.”

Though Ratcliffe was at a considerable distance from the spot called Muschat’s Cairn, yet his eyes, practised like those of a cat to penetrate darkness, could mark that Robertson had caught the alarm. George Poinder, less keen of sight, or less attentive, was not aware of his flight any more than Sharpitlaw and his assistants, whose view, though they were considerably nearer to the cairn, was intercepted by the broken nature of the ground under which they were screening themselves. At length, however, after the interval of five or six minutes, they also perceived that Robertson had fled, and rushed hastily towards the place, while Sharpitlaw called out aloud, in the harshest tones of a voice which resembled a saw-mill at work, “Chase, lads — chase — haud the brae — I see him on the edge of the hill!” Then hollowing back to the rear-guard of his detachment, he issued his farther orders: “Ratcliffe, come here, and detain the woman — George, run and kepp the stile at the Duke’s Walk — Ratcliffe, come here directly — but first knock out that mad bitch’s brains!”

“Ye had better rin for it, Madge,” said Ratcliffe, “for it’s ill dealing wi’ an angry man.”

Madge Wildfire was not so absolutely void of common sense as not to understand this innuendo; and while Ratcliffe, in seemingly anxious haste of obedience, hastened to the spot where Sharpitlaw waited to deliver up Jeanie Deans to his custody, she fled with all the despatch she could exert in an opposite direction. Thus the whole party were separated, and in rapid motion of flight or pursuit, excepting Ratcliffe and Jeanie, whom, although making no attempt to escape, he held fast by the cloak, and who remained standing by Muschat’s Cairn.

1 [Elshin, a shoemaker’s awl.]

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/heart/chapter17.html

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