The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 20

    Sweet sister, let me live!

What sin you do to save a brother’s life,

Nature dispenses with the deed so far,

    That it becomes a virtue.

Measure for Measure.

Jeanie Deans was admitted into the jail by Ratcliffe. This fellow, as void of shame as of honesty, as he opened the now trebly secured door, asked her, with a leer which made her shudder, “whether she remembered him?”

A half-pronounced and timid “No,” was her answer.

“What! not remember moonlight, and Muschat’s Cairn, and Rob and Rat?” said he, with the same sneer — “Your memory needs redding up, my jo.”

If Jeanie’s distresses had admitted of aggravation, it must have been to find her sister under the charge of such a profligate as this man. He was not, indeed, without something of good to balance so much that was evil in his character and habits. In his misdemeanours he had never been bloodthirsty or cruel; and in his present occupation, he had shown himself, in a certain degree, accessible to touches of humanity. But these good qualities were unknown to Jeanie, who, remembering the scene at Muschat’s Cairn, could scarce find voice to acquaint him, that she had an order from Bailie Middleburgh, permitting her to see her sister.

“I ken that fa’ weel, my bonny doo; mair by token, I have a special charge to stay in the ward with you a’ the time ye are thegither.”

“Must that be sae?” asked Jeanie, with an imploring voice.

“Hout, ay, hinny,” replied the turnkey; “and what the waur will you and your tittie be of Jim Ratcliffe hearing what ye hae to say to ilk other? — Deil a word ye’ll say that will gar him ken your kittle sex better than he kens them already; and another thing is, that if ye dinna speak o’ breaking the Tolbooth, deil a word will I tell ower, either to do ye good or ill.”

Thus saying, Ratcliffe marshalled her the way to the apartment where Effie was confined.

Shame, fear, and grief, had contended for mastery in the poor prisoner’s bosom during the whole morning, while she had looked forward to this meeting; but when the door opened, all gave way to a confused and strange feeling that had a tinge of joy in it, as, throwing herself on her sister’s neck, she ejaculated, “My dear Jeanie! — my dear Jeanie! it’s lang since I hae seen ye.” Jeanie returned the embrace with an earnestness that partook almost of rapture, but it was only a flitting emotion, like a sunbeam unexpectedly penetrating betwixt the clouds of a tempest, and obscured almost as soon as visible. The sisters walked together to the side of the pallet bed, and sate down side by side, took hold of each other’s hands, and looked each other in the face, but without speaking a word. In this posture they remained for a minute, while the gleam of joy gradually faded from their features, and gave way to the most intense expression, first of melancholy, and then of agony, till, throwing themselves again into each other’s arms, they, to use the language of Scripture, lifted up their voices, and wept bitterly.

Even the hardhearted turnkey, who had spent his life in scenes calculated to stifle both conscience and feeling, could not witness this scene without a touch of human sympathy. It was shown in a trifling action, but which had more delicacy in it than seemed to belong to Ratcliffe’s character and station. The unglazed window of the miserable chamber was open, and the beams of a bright sun fell right upon the bed where the sufferers were seated. With a gentleness that had something of reverence in it, Ratcliffe partly closed the shutter, and seemed thus to throw a veil over a scene so sorrowful.

“Ye are ill, Effie,” were the first words Jeanie could utter; “ye are very ill.”

“O, what wad I gie to be ten times waur, Jeanie!” was the reply —“what wad I gie to be cauld dead afore the ten o’clock bell the morn! And our father — but I am his bairn nae langer now — O, I hae nae friend left in the warld! — O, that I were lying dead at my mother’s side, in Newbattle kirkyard!”

“Hout, lassie,” said Ratcliffe, willing to show the interest which he absolutely felt, “dinna be sae dooms doon-hearted as a’ that; there’s mony a tod hunted that’s no killed. Advocate Langtale has brought folk through waur snappers than a’ this, and there’s no a cleverer agent than Nichil Novit e’er drew a bill of suspension. Hanged or unhanged, they are weel aff has sic an agent and counsel; ane’s sure o’ fair play. Ye are a bonny lass, too, an ye wad busk up your cockernony a bit; and a bonny lass will find favour wi’ judge and jury, when they would strap up a grewsome carle like me for the fifteenth part of a flea’s hide and tallow, d — n them.”

To this homely strain of consolation the mourners returned no answer; indeed, they were so much lost in their own sorrows as to have become insensible of Ratcliffe’s presence. “O Effie,” said her elder sister, “how could you conceal your situation from me? O woman, had I deserved this at your hand? — had ye spoke but ae word — sorry we might hae been, and shamed we might hae been, but this awfu’ dispensation had never come ower us.”

“And what gude wad that hae dune?” answered the prisoner. “Na, na, Jeanie, a’ was ower when ance I forgot what I promised when I faulded down the leaf of my Bible. See,” she said, producing the sacred volume, “the book opens aye at the place o’ itsell. O see, Jeanie, what a fearfu’ Scripture!”

Jeanie took her sister’s Bible, and found that the fatal mark was made at this impressive text in the book of Job: “He hath stripped me of my glory, and taken the crown from my head. He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone. And mine hope hath he removed like a tree.”

“Isna that ower true a doctrine?” said the prisoner “Isna my crown, my honour, removed? And what am I but a poor, wasted, wan-thriven tree, dug up by the roots, and flung out to waste in the highway, that man and beast may tread it under foot? I thought o’ the bonny bit them that our father rooted out o’ the yard last May, when it had a’ the flush o’ blossoms on it; and then it lay in the court till the beasts had trod them a’ to pieces wi’ their feet. I little thought, when I was wae for the bit silly green bush and its flowers, that I was to gang the same gate mysell.”

“O, if ye had spoken ae word,” again sobbed Jeanie — “if I were free to swear that ye had said but ae word of how it stude wi’ ye, they couldna hae touched your life this day.”

“Could they na?” said Effie, with something like awakened interest — for life is dear even to those who feel it is a burden —“Wha tauld ye that, Jeanie?”

“It was ane that kend what he was saying weel eneugh,” replied Jeanie, who had a natural reluctance at mentioning even the name of her sister’s seducer.

“Wha was it? — I conjure you to tell me,” said Effie, seating herself upright. —“Wha could tak interest in sic a cast-by as I am now? — Was it — was it him?

“Hout,” said Ratcliffe, “what signifies keeping the poor lassie in a swither? I’se uphaud it’s been Robertson that learned ye that doctrine when ye saw him at Muschat’s Cairn.”

“Was it him?” said Effie, catching eagerly at his words —“was it him, Jeanie, indeed? — O, I see it was him — poor lad, and I was thinking his heart was as hard as the nether millstane — and him in sic danger on his ain part — poor George!”

Somewhat indignant at this burst of tender feeling towards the author of her misery, Jeanie could not help exclaiming —“O Effie, how can ye speak that gate of sic a man as that?”

“We maun forgie our enemies, ye ken,” said poor Effie, with a timid look and a subdued voice; for her conscience told her what a different character the feelings with which she regarded her seducer bore, compared with the Christian charity under which she attempted to veil it.

“And ye hae suffered a’ this for him, and ye can think of loving him still?” said her sister, in a voice betwixt pity and blame.

“Love him!” answered Effie —“If I hadna loved as woman seldom loves, I hadna been within these wa’s this day; and trow ye, that love sic as mine is lightly forgotten? — Na, na — ye may hew down the tree, but ye canna change its bend — And, O Jeanie, if ye wad do good to me at this moment, tell me every word that he said, and whether he was sorry for poor Effie or no!”

“What needs I tell ye onything about it?” said Jeanie. “Ye may be sure he had ower muckle to do to save himsell, to speak lang or muckle about ony body beside.”


Jeanie and Effie

“That’s no true, Jeanie, though a saunt had said it,” replied Effie, with a sparkle of her former lively and irritable temper. “But ye dinna ken, though I do, how far he pat his life in venture to save mine.” And looking at Ratcliffe, she checked herself and was silent.

“I fancy,” said Ratcliffe, with one of his familiar sneers, “the lassie thinks that naebody has een but hersell — Didna I see when Gentle Geordie was seeking to get other folk out of the Tolbooth forby Jock Porteous? — but ye are of my mind, hinny — better sit and rue, than flit and rue — ye needna look in my face sae amazed. I ken mair things than that, maybe.”

“O my God! my God!” said Effie, springing up and throwing herself down on her knees before him —“D’ye ken where they hae putten my bairn? — O my bairn! my bairn! the poor sackless innocent new-born wee ane — bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh! — O man, if ye wad e’er deserve a portion in Heaven, or a brokenhearted creature’s blessing upon earth, tell me where they hae put my bairn — the sign of my shame, and the partner of my suffering! tell me wha has taen’t away, or what they hae dune wi’t?”

“Hout tout,” said the turnkey, endeavouring to extricate himself from the firm grasp with which she held him, “that’s taking me at my word wi’ a witness — Bairn, quo’ she? How the deil suld I ken onything of your bairn, huzzy? Ye maun ask that of auld Meg Murdockson, if ye dinna ken ower muckle about it yoursell.”

As his answer destroyed the wild and vague hope which had suddenly gleamed upon her, the unhappy prisoner let go her hold of his coat, and fell with her face on the pavement of the apartment in a strong convulsion fit.

Jeanie Deans possessed, with her excellently clear understanding, the concomitant advantage of promptitude of spirit, even in the extremity of distress.

She did not suffer herself to be overcome by her own feelings of exquisite sorrow, but instantly applied herself to her sister’s relief, with the readiest remedies which circumstances afforded; and which, to do Ratcliffe justice, he showed himself anxious to suggest, and alert in procuring. He had even the delicacy to withdraw to the farthest corner of the room, so as to render his official attendance upon them as little intrusive as possible, when Effie was composed enough again to resume her conference with her sister.

The prisoner once more, in the most earnest and broken tones, conjured Jeanie to tell her the particulars of the conference with Robertson, and Jeanie felt it was impossible to refuse her this gratification.

“Do ye mind,” she said, “Effie, when ye were in the fever before we left Woodend, and how angry your mother, that’s now in a better place, was wi’ me for gieing ye milk and water to drink, because ye grat for it? Ye were a bairn then, and ye are a woman now, and should ken better than ask what canna but hurt you — But come weal or woe, I canna refuse ye onything that ye ask me wi’ the tear in your ee.”

Again Effie threw herself into her arms, and kissed her cheek and forehead, murmuring, “O, if ye kend how lang it is since I heard his name mentioned? — if ye but kend how muckle good it does me but to ken onything o’ him, that’s like goodness or kindness, ye wadna wonder that I wish to hear o’ him!”

Jeanie sighed, and commenced her narrative of all that had passed betwixt Robertson and her, making it as brief as possible. Effie listened in breathless anxiety, holding her sister’s hand in hers, and keeping her eye fixed upon her face, as if devouring every word she uttered. The interjections of “Poor fellow,”—“Poor George,” which escaped in whispers, and betwixt sighs, were the only sounds with which she interrupted the story. When it was finished she made a long pause.

“And this was his advice?” were the first words she uttered.

“Just sic as I hae tell’d ye,” replied her sister.

“And he wanted you to say something to yon folks, that wad save my young life?”

“He wanted,” answered Jeanie, “that I suld be man-sworn.”

“And you tauld him,” said Effie, “that ye wadna hear o’ coming between me and the death that I am to die, and me no aughten year auld yet?”

“I told him,” replied Jeanie, who now trembled at the turn which her sister’s reflection seemed about to take, “that I daured na swear to an untruth.”

“And what d’ye ca’ an untruth?” said Effie, again showing a touch of her former spirit —“Ye are muckle to blame, lass, if ye think a mother would, or could, murder her ain bairn — Murder! — I wad hae laid down my life just to see a blink o’ its ee!”

“I do believe,” said Jeanie, “that ye are as innocent of sic a purpose as the new-born babe itsell.”

“I am glad ye do me that justice,” said Effie, haughtily; “ifs whiles the faut of very good folk like you, Jeanie, that, they think a’ the rest of the warld are as bad as the warst temptations can make them.”

“I didna deserve this frae ye, Effie,” said her sister, sobbing, and feeling at once the injustice of the reproach, and compassion for the state of mind which dictated it.

“Maybe no, sister,” said Effie. “But ye are angry because I love Robertson — How can I help loving him, that loves me better than body and soul baith? — Here he put his life in a niffer, to break the prison to let me out; and sure am I, had it stude wi’ him as it stands wi’ you”— Here she paused and was silent.

“O, if it stude wi’ me to save ye wi’ risk of my life!” said Jeanie.

“Ay, lass,” said her sister, “that’s lightly said, but no sae lightly credited, frae ane that winna ware a word for me; and if it be a wrang word, ye’ll hae time eneugh to repent o’t.”

“But that word is a grievous sin, and it’s a deeper offence when it’s a sin wilfully and presumptuously committed.”

“Weel, weel, Jeanie,” said Effie, “I mind a’ about the sins o’ presumption in the questions — we’ll speak nae mair about this matter, and ye may save your breath to say your carritch and for me, I’ll soon hae nae breath to waste on onybody.”

“I must needs say,” interposed Ratcliffe, “that it’s d — d hard, when three words of your mouth would give the girl the chance to nick Moll Blood,1 that you make such scrupling about rapping2 to them. D— n me, if they would take me, if I would not rap to all what d’ye callums — Hyssop’s Fables, for her life — I am us’d to’t, b — t me, for less matters. Why, I have smacked calf-skin3 fifty times in England for a keg of brandy.”

“Never speak mair o’t,” said the prisoner. “It’s just as weel as it is — and gude-day, sister; ye keep Mr. Ratcliffe waiting on — Ye’ll come back and see me, I reckon, before”— here she stopped and became deadly pale.

“And are we to part in this way,” said Jeanie, “and you in sic deadly peril? O Effie, look but up, and say what ye wad hae me to do, and I could find in my heart amaist to say that I wad do’t.”

“No, Jeanie,” replied her sister after an effort, “I am better minded now. At my best, I was never half sae gude as ye were, and what for suld you begin to mak yoursell waur to save me, now that I am no worth saving? God knows, that in my sober mind, I wadna wuss ony living creature to do a wrang thing to save my life. I might have fled frae this Tolbooth on that awfu’ night wi’ ane wad hae carried me through the warld, and friended me, and fended for me. But I said to them, let life gang when gude fame is gane before it. But this lang imprisonment has broken my spirit, and I am whiles sair left to mysell, and then I wad gie the Indian mines of gold and diamonds, just for life and breath — for I think, Jeanie, I have such roving fits as I used to hae in the fever; but, instead of the fiery een and wolves, and Widow Butler’s bullseg, that I used to see spieling upon my bed, I am thinking now about a high, black gibbet, and me standing up, and such seas of faces all looking up at poor Effie Deans, and asking if it be her that George Robertson used to call the Lily of St. Leonard’s. And then they stretch out their faces, and make mouths, and girn at me, and whichever way I look, I see a face laughing like Meg Murdockson, when she tauld me I had seen the last of my wean. God preserve us, Jeanie, that carline has a fearsome face!”

She clapped her hands before her eyes as she uttered this exclamation, as if to secure herself against seeing the fearful object she had alluded to.

Jeanie Deans remained with her sister for two hours, during which she endeavoured, if possible, to extract something from her that might be serviceable in her exculpation. But she had nothing to say beyond what she had declared on her first examination, with the purport of which the reader will be made acquainted in proper time and place. “They wadna believe her,” she said, “and she had naething mair to tell them.”

At length, Ratcliffe, though reluctantly, informed the sisters that there was a necessity that they should part. “Mr. Novit,” he said, “was to see the prisoner, and maybe Mr. Langtale too. Langtale likes to look at a bonny lass, whether in prison or out o’ prison.”

Reluctantly, therefore, and slowly, after many a tear, and many an embrace, Jeanie retired from the apartment, and heard its jarring bolts turned upon the dear being from whom she was separated. Somewhat familiarised now even with her rude conductor, she offered him a small present in money, with a request he would do what he could for her sister’s accommodation. To her surprise, Ratcliffe declined the fee. “I wasna bloody when I was on the pad,” he said, “and I winna be greedy — that is, beyond what’s right and reasonable — now that I am in the lock. — Keep the siller; and for civility, your sister sall hae sic as I can bestow; but I hope you’ll think better on it, and rap an oath for her — deil a hair ill there is in it, if ye are rapping again the crown. I kend a worthy minister, as gude a man, bating the deed they deposed him for, as ever ye heard claver in a pu’pit, that rapped to a hogshead of pigtail tobacco, just for as muckle as filled his spleuchan.4

But maybe ye are keeping your ain counsel — weel, weel, there’s nae harm in that. As for your sister, I’se see that she gets her meat clean and warm, and I’ll try to gar her lie down and take a sleep after dinner, for deil a ee she’ll close the night. I hae gude experience of these matters. The first night is aye the warst o’t. I hae never heard o’ ane that sleepit the night afore trial, but of mony a ane that sleepit as sound as a tap the night before their necks were straughted. And it’s nae wonder — the warst may be tholed when it’s kend — Better a finger aff as aye wagging.”

1 The gallows.

2 Swearing.

3 Kissed the book.

4 Tobacco-pouch.

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