The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 19

To man, in this his trial state,

    The privilege is given,

When tost by tides of human fate,

    To anchor fast on heaven.

Watts’s Hymns.

It was with a firm step that Deans sought his daughter’s apartment, determined to leave her to the light of her own conscience in the dubious point of casuistry in which he supposed her to be placed.

The little room had been the sleeping apartment of both sisters, and there still stood there a small occasional bed which had been made for Effie’s accommodation, when, complaining of illness, she had declined to share, as in happier times, her sister’s pillow. The eyes of Deans rested involuntarily, on entering the room, upon this little couch, with its dark-green coarse curtains, and the ideas connected with it rose so thick upon his soul as almost to incapacitate him from opening his errand to his daughter. Her occupation broke the ice. He found her gazing on a slip of paper, which contained a citation to her to appear as a witness upon her sister’s trial in behalf of the accused. For the worthy magistrate, determined to omit no chance of doing Effie justice, and to leave her sister no apology for not giving the evidence which she was supposed to possess, had caused the ordinary citation, or subpoena, of the Scottish criminal court, to be served upon her by an officer during his conference with David.

This precaution was so far favourable to Deans, that it saved him the pain of entering upon a formal explanation with his daughter; he only said, with a hollow and tremulous voice, “I perceive ye are aware of the matter.”

“O father, we are cruelly sted between God’s laws and man’s laws — What shall we do? — What can we do?”

Jeanie, it must be observed, had no hesitation whatever about the mere act of appearing in a court of justice. She might have heard the point discussed by her father more than once; but we have already noticed that she was accustomed to listen with reverence to much which she was incapable of understanding, and that subtle arguments of casuistry found her a patient, but unedified hearer. Upon receiving the citation, therefore, her thoughts did not turn upon the chimerical scruples which alarmed her father’s mind, but to the language which had been held to her by the stranger at Muschat’s Cairn. In a word, she never doubted but she was to be dragged forward into the court of justice, in order to place her in the cruel position of either sacrificing her sister by telling the truth, or committing perjury in order to save her life. And so strongly did her thoughts run in this channel, that she applied her father’s words, “Ye are aware of the matter,” to his acquaintance with the advice that had been so fearfully enforced upon her. She looked up with anxious surprise, not unmingled with a cast of horror, which his next words, as she interpreted and applied them, were not qualified to remove.

“Daughter,” said David, “it has ever been my mind, that in things of ane doubtful and controversial nature, ilk Christian’s conscience suld be his ain guide — Wherefore descend into yourself, try your ain mind with sufficiency of soul exercise, and as you sall finally find yourself clear to do in this matter — even so be it.”

“But, father,” said Jeanie, whose mind revolted at the construction which she naturally put upon his language, “can this-this be a doubtful or controversial matter? — Mind, father, the ninth command —‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’”

David Deans paused; for, still applying her speech to his preconceived difficulties, it seemed to him as if she, a woman, and a sister, was scarce entitled to be scrupulous upon this occasion, where he, a man, exercised in the testimonies of that testifying period, had given indirect countenance to her following what must have been the natural dictates of her own feelings. But he kept firm his purpose, until his eyes involuntarily rested upon the little settle-bed, and recalled the form of the child of his old age, as she sate upon it, pale, emaciated, and broken-hearted. His mind, as the picture arose before him, involuntarily conceived, and his tongue involuntarily uttered — but in a tone how different from his usual dogmatical precision! — arguments for the course of conduct likely to ensure his child’s safety.

“Daughter,” he said, “I did not say that your path was free from stumbling — and, questionless, this act may be in the opinion of some a transgression, since he who beareth witness unlawfully, and against his conscience, doth in some sort bear false witness against his neighbour. Yet in matters of compliance, the guilt lieth not in the compliance sae muckle, as in the mind and conscience of him that doth comply; and, therefore, although my testimony hath not been spared upon public defections, I haena felt freedom to separate mysell from the communion of many who have been clear to hear those ministers who have taken the fatal indulgence because they might get good of them, though I could not.”

When David had proceeded thus far, his conscience reproved him, that he might be indirectly undermining the purity of his daughter’s faith, and smoothing the way for her falling off from strictness of principle. He, therefore, suddenly stopped, and changed his tone:—“Jeanie, I perceive that our vile affections — so I call them in respect of doing the will of our Father — cling too heavily to me in this hour of trying sorrow, to permit me to keep sight of my ain duty, or to airt you to yours. I will speak nae mair anent this overtrying matter — Jeanie, if ye can, wi’ God and gude conscience, speak in favour of this puir unhappy”—(here his voice faltered)—“She is your sister in the flesh — worthless and castaway as she is, she is the daughter of a saint in heaven, that was a mother to you, Jeanie, in place of your ain — but if ye arena free in conscience to speak for her in the court of judicature, follow your conscience, Jeanie, and let God’s will be done.” After this adjuration he left the apartment, and his daughter remained in a state of great distress and perplexity.

It would have been no small addition to the sorrows of David Deans, even in this extremity of suffering, had he known that his daughter was applying the casuistical arguments which he had been using, not in the sense of a permission to follow her own opinion on a dubious and disputed point of controversy, but rather as an encouragement to transgress one of those divine commandments which Christians of all sects and denominations unite in holding most sacred.

“Can this be?” said Jeanie, as the door closed on her father —“Can these be his words that I have heard, or has the Enemy taken his voice and features to give weight unto the counsel which causeth to perish? — a sister’s life, and a father pointing out how to save it! — O God, deliver me! — this is a fearfu’ temptation.”

Roaming from thought to thought, she at one time imagined her father understood the ninth commandment literally, as prohibiting false witness against our neighbour, without extending the denunciation against falsehood uttered in favour of the criminal. But her clear and unsophisticated power of discriminating between good and evil, instantly rejected an interpretation so limited, and so unworthy of the Author of the law. She remained in a state of the most agitating terror and uncertainty — afraid to communicate her thoughts freely to her father, lest she should draw forth an opinion with which she could not comply — wrung with distress on her sister’s account, rendered the more acute by reflecting that the means of saving her were in her power, but were such as her conscience prohibited her from using — tossed, in short, like a vessel in an open roadstead during a storm, and, like that vessel, resting on one only sure cable and anchor — faith in Providence, and a resolution to discharge her duty.

Butler’s affection and strong sense of religion would have been her principal support in these distressing circumstances, but he was still under restraint, which did not permit him to come to St. Leonard’s Crags; and her distresses were of a nature, which, with her indifferent habits of scholarship, she found it impossible to express in writing. She was therefore compelled to trust for guidance to her own unassisted sense of what was right or wrong. It was not the least of Jeanie’s distresses, that, although she hoped and believed her sister to be innocent, she had not the means of receiving that assurance from her own mouth.

The double-dealing of Ratcliffe in the matter of Robertson had not prevented his being rewarded, as double-dealers frequently have been, with favour and preferment. Sharpitlaw, who found in him something of a kindred genius, had been intercessor in his behalf with the magistrates, and the circumstance of his having voluntarily remained in the prison, when the doors were forced by the mob, would have made it a hard measure to take the life which he had such easy means of saving. He received a full pardon; and soon afterwards, James Ratcliffe, the greatest thief and housebreaker in Scotland, was, upon the faith, perhaps, of an ancient proverb, selected as a person to be entrusted with the custody of other delinquents.

When Ratcliffe was thus placed in a confidential situation, he was repeatedly applied to by the sapient Saddletree and others, who took some interest in the Deans family, to procure an interview between the sisters; but the magistrates, who were extremely anxious for the apprehension of Robertson, had given strict orders to the contrary, hoping that, by keeping them separate, they might, from the one or the other, extract some information respecting that fugitive. On this subject Jeanie had nothing to tell them. She informed Mr. Middleburgh, that she knew nothing of Robertson, except having met him that night by appointment to give her some advice respecting her sister’s concern, the purport of which, she said, was betwixt God and her conscience. Of his motions, purposes, or plans, past, present, or future, she knew nothing, and so had nothing to communicate.

Effie was equally silent, though from a different cause. It was in vain that they offered a commutation and alleviation of her punishment, and even a free pardon, if she would confess what she knew of her lover. She answered only with tears; unless, when at times driven into pettish sulkiness by the persecution of the interrogators, she made them abrupt and disrespectful answers.

At length, after her trial had been delayed for many weeks, in hopes she might be induced to speak out on a subject infinitely more interesting to the magistracy than her own guilt or innocence, their patience was worn out, and even Mr. Middleburgh finding no ear lent to farther intercession in her behalf, the day was fixed for the trial to proceed.

It was now, and not sooner, that Sharpitlaw, recollecting his promise to Effie Deans, or rather being dinned into compliance by the unceasing remonstrances of Mrs. Saddletree, who was his next-door neighbour, and who declared it was heathen cruelty to keep the twa brokenhearted creatures separate, issued the important mandate, permitting them to see each other.

On the evening which preceded the eventful day of trial, Jeanie was permitted to see her sister — an awful interview, and occurring at a most distressing crisis. This, however, formed a part of the bitter cup which she was doomed to drink, to atone for crimes and follies to which she had no accession; and at twelve o’clock noon, being the time appointed for admission to the jail, she went to meet, for the first time for several months, her guilty, erring, and most miserable sister, in that abode of guilt, error, and utter misery.

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