The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 30

Bind her quickly; or, by this steel,

I’ll tell, although I truss for company.

Fletcher.

The imperfect light which shone into the window enabled Jeanie to see that there was scarcely any chance of making her escape in that direction; for the aperture was high in the wall, and so narrow, that, could she have climbed up to it, she might well doubt whether it would have permitted her to pass her body through it. An unsuccessful attempt to escape would be sure to draw down worse treatment than she now received, and she, therefore, resolved to watch her opportunity carefully ere making such a perilous effort. For this purpose she applied herself to the ruinous clay partition, which divided the hovel in which she now was from the rest of the waste barn. It was decayed and full of cracks and chinks, one of which she enlarged with her fingers, cautiously and without noise, until she could obtain a plain view of the old hag and the taller ruffian, whom they called Levitt, seated together beside the decayed fire of charcoal, and apparently engaged in close conference. She was at first terrified by the sight; for the features of the old woman had a hideous cast of hardened and inveterate malice and ill-humour, and those of the man, though naturally less unfavourable, were such as corresponded well with licentious habits, and a lawless profession.

“But I remembered,” said Jeanie, “my worthy fathers tales of a winter evening, how he was confined with the blessed martyr, Mr. James Renwick, who lifted up the fallen standard of the true reformed Kirk of Scotland, after the worthy and renowned Daniel Cameron, our last blessed banner-man, had fallen among the swords of the wicked at Airsmoss, and how the very hearts of the wicked malefactors and murderers, whom they were confined withal, were melted like wax at the sound of their doctrine: and I bethought mysell, that the same help that was wi’ them in their strait, wad be wi’ me in mine, an I could but watch the Lord’s time and opportunity for delivering my feet from their snare; and I minded the Scripture of the blessed Psalmist, whilk he insisteth on, as weel in the forty-second as in the forty-third psalm —‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.’”

Strengthened in a mind naturally calm, sedate, and firm, by the influence of religious confidence, this poor captive was enabled to attend to, and comprehend, a great part of an interesting conversation which passed betwixt those into whose hands she had fallen, notwithstanding that their meaning was partly disguised by the occasional use of cant terms, of which Jeanie knew not the import, by the low tone in which they spoke, and by their mode of supplying their broken phrases by shrugs and signs, as is usual amongst those of their disorderly profession.

The man opened the conversation by saying, “Now, dame, you see I am true to my friend. I have not forgot that you planked a chury,1 which helped me through the bars of the Castle of York, and I came to do your work without asking questions; for one good turn deserves another.

But now that Madge, who is as loud as Tom of Lincoln, is somewhat still, and this same Tyburn Neddie is shaking his heels after the old nag, why, you must tell me what all this is about, and what’s to be done — for d — n me if I touch the girl, or let her be touched, and she with Jim Rat’s pass, too.”

“Thou art an honest lad, Frank,” answered the old woman, “but e’en too good for thy trade; thy tender heart will get thee into trouble. I will see ye gang up Holborn Hill backward, and a’ on the word of some silly loon that could never hae rapped to ye had ye drawn your knife across his weasand.”

“You may be balked there, old one,” answered the robber; “I have known many a pretty lad cut short in his first summer upon the road, because he was something hasty with his flats and sharps. Besides, a man would fain live out his two years with a good conscience. So, tell me what all this is about, and what’s to be done for you that one can do decently?”

“Why, you must know, Frank — but first taste a snap of right Hollands.” She drew a flask from her pocket, and filled the fellow a large bumper, which he pronounced to be the right thing. —“You must know, then, Frank — wunna ye mend your hand?” again offering the flask.

“No, no — when a woman wants mischief from you, she always begins by filling you drunk. D— n all Dutch courage. What I do I will do soberly — I’ll last the longer for that too.”

“Well, then, you must know,” resumed the old woman, without any further attempts at propitiation, “that this girl is going to London.”

Here Jeanie could only distinguish the word sister.

The robber answered in a louder tone, “Fair enough that; and what the devil is your business with it?”

“Business enough, I think. If the b — queers the noose, that silly cull will marry her.”

“And who cares if he does?” said the man.

“Who cares, ye donnard Neddie! I care; and I will strangle her with my own hands, rather than she should come to Madge’s preferment.”

“Madge’s preferment! Does your old blind eyes see no farther than that? If he is as you say, dye think he’ll ever marry a moon-calf like Madge? Ecod, that’s a good one — Marry Madge Wildfire! — Ha! ha! ha!”

“Hark ye, ye crack-rope padder, born beggar, and bred thief!” replied the hag, “suppose he never marries the wench, is that a reason he should marry another, and that other to hold my daughter’s place, and she crazed, and I a beggar, and all along of him? But I know that of him will hang him — I know that of him will hang him, if he had a thousand lives — I know that of him will hang — hang — hang him!”

She grinned as she repeated and dwelt upon the fatal monosyllable, with the emphasis of a vindictive fiend.

“Then why don’t you hang — hang — hang him?” said Frank, repeating her words contemptuously. “There would be more sense in that, than in wreaking yourself here upon two wenches that have done you and your daughter no ill.”

“No ill?” answered the old woman —“and he to marry this jail-bird, if ever she gets her foot loose!”

“But as there is no chance of his marrying a bird of your brood, I cannot, for my soul, see what you have to do with all this,” again replied the robber, shrugging his shoulders. “Where there is aught to be got, I’ll go as far as my neighbours, but I hate mischief for mischiefs sake.”

“And would you go nae length for revenge?” said the hag —“for revenge — the sweetest morsel to the mouth that over was cooked in hell!”

“The devil may keep it for his own eating, then,” said the robber; “for hang me if I like the sauce he dresses it with.”

“Revenge!” continued the old woman; “why, it is the best reward the devil gives us for our time here and hereafter. I have wrought hard for it — I have suffered for it — and I have sinned for it — and I will have it — or there is neither justice in heaven or in hell!”

Levitt had by this time lighted a pipe, and was listening with great composure to the frantic and vindictive ravings of the old hag. He was too much, hardened by his course of life to be shocked with them — too indifferent, and probably too stupid, to catch any part of their animation or energy. “But, mother,” he said, after a pause, “still I say, that if revenge is your wish, you should take it on the young fellow himself.”

“I wish I could,” she said, drawing in her breath, with the eagerness of a thirsty person while mimicking the action of drinking —“I wish I could — but no — I cannot — I cannot.”

“And why not? — You would think little of peaching and hanging him for this Scotch affair. — Rat me, one might have milled the Bank of England, and less noise about it.”

“I have nursed him at this withered breast,” answered the old woman, folding her hands on her bosom, as if pressing an infant to it, “and, though he has proved an adder to me — though he has been the destruction of me and mine — though he has made me company for the devil, if there be a devil, and food for hell, if there be such a place, yet I cannot take his life. — No, I cannot,” she continued, with an appearance of rage against herself; “I have thought of it — I have tried it — but, Francis Levitt, I canna gang through wi’t — Na, na — he was the first bairn I ever nurst — ill I had been — and man can never ken what woman feels for the bairn she has held first to her bosom!”

“To be sure,” said Levitt, “we have no experience; but, mother, they say you ha’n’t been so kind to other bairns, as you call them, that have come in your way. — Nay, d — n me, never lay your hand on the whittle, for I am captain and leader here, and I will have no rebellion.”

The hag, whose first motion had been, upon hearing the question, to grasp the haft of a large knife, now unclosed her hand, stole it away from the weapon, and suffered it to fall by her side, while she proceeded with a sort of smile —“Bairns! ye are joking, lad — wha wad touch bairns? Madge, puir thing, had a misfortune wi’ ane — and the t’other”— Here her voice sunk so much, that Jeanie, though anxiously upon the watch, could not catch a word she said, until she raised her tone at the conclusion of the sentence —“So Madge, in her daffin’, threw it into the Nor’-lock, I trow.”

Madge, whose slumbers, like those of most who labour under mental malady, had been short, and were easily broken, now made herself heard from her place of repose.

“Indeed, mother, that’s a great lie, for I did nae sic thing.”

“Hush, thou hellicat devil,” said her mother —“By Heaven! the other wench will be waking too.”

“That may be dangerous,” said Frank; and he rose, and followed Meg Murdockson across the floor.

“Rise,” said the hag to her daughter, “or I sall drive the knife between the planks into the Bedlam back of thee!”

Apparently she at the same time seconded her threat by pricking her with the point of a knife, for Madge, with a faint scream, changed her place, and the door opened.


Jennie in the Outlaws Hut

The old woman held a candle in one hand, and a knife in the other. Levitt appeared behind her, whether with a view of preventing, or assisting her in any violence she might meditate, could not be well guessed. Jeanie’s presence of mind stood her friend in this dreadful crisis. She had resolution enough to maintain the attitude and manner of one who sleeps profoundly, and to regulate even her breathing, notwithstanding the agitation of instant terror, so as to correspond with her attitude.

The old woman passed the light across her eyes; and although Jeanie’s fears were so powerfully awakened by this movement, that she often declared afterwards, that she thought she saw the figures of her destined murderers through her closed eyelids, she had still the resolution to maintain the feint, on which her safety perhaps depended.

Levitt looked at her with fixed attention; he then turned the old woman out of the place, and followed her himself. Having regained the outward apartment, and seated themselves, Jeanie heard the highwayman say, to her no small relief, “She’s as fast as if she were in Bedfordshire. — Now, old Meg, d — n me if I can understand a glim of this story of yours, or what good it will do you to hang the one wench and torment the other; but, rat me, I will be true to my friend, and serve ye the way ye like it. I see it will be a bad job; but I do think I could get her down to Surfleet on the Wash, and so on board Tom Moonshine’s neat lugger, and keep her out of the way three or four weeks, if that will please ye — But d — n me if any one shall harm her, unless they have a mind to choke on a brace of blue plums. — It’s a cruel, bad job, and I wish you and it, Meg, were both at the devil.”

“Never mind, hinny Levitt,” said the old woman; “you are a ruffler, and will have a’ your ain gate — She shanna gang to heaven an hour sooner for me; I carena whether she live or die — it’s her sister — ay, her sister!”

“Well, we’ll say no more about it; I hear Tom coming in. We’ll couch a hogshead,2 and so better had you.”

They retired to repose accordingly, and all was silent in this asylum of iniquity.

Jeanie lay for a long time awake. At break of day she heard the two ruffians leave the barn, after whispering to the old woman for some time. The sense that she was now guarded by persons of her own sex gave her some confidence, and irresistible lassitude at length threw her into slumber.

When the captive awakened, the sun was high in heaven, and the morning considerably advanced. Madge Wildfire was still in the hovel which had served them for the night, and immediately bid her good-morning, with her usual air of insane glee. “And dye ken, lass,” said Madge, “there’s queer things chanced since ye hae been in the land of Nod. The constables hae been here, woman, and they met wi’ my minnie at the door, and they whirl’d her awa to the Justice’s about the man’s wheat. — Dear! thae English churls think as muckle about a blade of wheat or grass, as a Scotch laird does about his maukins and his muir-poots. Now, lass, if ye like, we’ll play them a fine jink; we will awa out and take a walk — they will mak unco wark when they miss us, but we can easily be back by dinner time, or before dark night at ony rate, and it will be some frolic and fresh air. — But maybe ye wad like to take some breakfast, and then lie down again? I ken by mysell, there’s whiles I can sit wi’ my head in my hand the haill day, and havena a word to cast at a dog — and other whiles, that I canna sit still a moment. That’s when the folk think me warst, but I am aye canny eneugh — ye needna be feared to walk wi’ me.”

Had Madge Wildfire been the most raging lunatic, instead of possessing a doubtful, uncertain, and twilight sort of rationality, varying, probably, from the influence of the most trivial causes, Jeanie would hardly have objected to leave a place of captivity, where she had so much to apprehend. She eagerly assured Madge that she had no occasion for further sleep, no desire whatever for eating; and, hoping internally that she was not guilty of sin in doing so, she flattered her keeper’s crazy humour for walking in the woods.

“It’s no a’thegither for that neither,” said poor Madge; “but I am judging ye will wun the better out o’ thae folk’s hands; no that they are a’thegither bad folk neither, but they have queer ways wi’ them, and I whiles dinna think it has ever been weel wi’ my mother and me since we kept sic-like company.”

With the haste, the joy, the fear, and the hope of a liberated captive, Jeanie snatched up her little bundle, followed Madge into the free air, and eagerly looked round her for a human habitation; but none was to be seen. The ground was partly cultivated, and partly left in its natural state, according as the fancy of the slovenly agriculturists had decided. In its natural state it was waste, in some places covered with dwarf trees and bushes, in others swamp, and elsewhere firm and dry downs or pasture grounds.

Jeanie’s active mind next led her to conjecture which way the high-road lay, whence she had been forced. If she regained that public road, she imagined she must soon meet some person, or arrive at some house, where she might tell her story, and request protection. But, after a glance around her, she saw with regret that she had no means whatever of directing her course with any degree of certainty, and that she was still in dependence upon her crazy companion. “Shall we not walk upon the high-road?” said she to Madge, in such a tone as a nurse uses to coax a child. “It’s brawer walking on the road than amang thae wild bushes and whins.”

Madge, who was walking very fast, stopped at this question, and looked at Jeanie with a sudden and scrutinising glance, that seemed to indicate complete acquaintance with her purpose. “Aha, lass!” she exclaimed, “are ye gaun to guide us that gate? — Ye’ll be for making your heels save your head, I am judging.”

Jeanie hesitated for a moment, on hearing her companion thus express herself, whether she had not better take the hint, and try to outstrip and get rid of her. But she knew not in which direction to fly; she was by no means sure that she would prove the swiftest, and perfectly conscious that in the event of her being pursued and overtaken, she would be inferior to the madwoman in strength. She therefore gave up thoughts for the present of attempting to escape in that manner, and, saying a few words to allay Madge’s suspicions, she followed in anxious apprehension the wayward path by which her guide thought proper to lead her. Madge, infirm of purpose, and easily reconciled to the present scene, whatever it was, began soon to talk with her usual diffuseness of ideas.

“It’s a dainty thing to be in the woods on a fine morning like this! I like it far better than the town, for there isna a wheen duddie bairns to be crying after ane, as if ane were a warld’s wonder, just because ane maybe is a thought bonnier and better put-on than their neighbours — though, Jeanie, ye suld never be proud o’ braw claiths, or beauty neither — wae’s me! they’re but a snare — I ance thought better o’them, and what came o’t?”

“Are ye sure ye ken the way ye are taking us?” said Jeanie, who began to imagine that she was getting deeper into the woods and more remote from the high-road.

“Do I ken the road? — Wasna I mony a day living here, and what for shouldna I ken the road? I might hae forgotten, too, for it was afore my accident; but there are some things ane can never forget, let them try it as muckle as they like.”

By this time they had gained the deepest part of a patch of woodland. The trees were a little separated from each other, and at the foot of one of them, a beautiful poplar, was a hillock of moss, such as the poet of Grasmere has described. So soon as she arrived at this spot, Madge Wildfire, joining her hands above her head with a loud scream that resembled laughter, flung herself all at once upon the spot, and remained lying there motionless.

Jeanie’s first idea was to take the opportunity of flight; but her desire to escape yielded for a moment to apprehension for the poor insane being, who, she thought, might perish for want of relief. With an effort, which in her circumstances, might be termed heroic, she stooped down, spoke in a soothing tone, and endeavoured to raise up the forlorn creature. She effected this with difficulty, and as she placed her against the tree in a sitting posture, she observed with surprise, that her complexion, usually florid, was now deadly pale, and that her face was bathed in tears. Notwithstanding her own extreme danger, Jeanie was affected by the situation of her companion; and the rather, that, through the whole train of her wavering and inconsistent state of mind and line of conduct, she discerned a general colour of kindness towards herself, for which she felt gratitude.

“Let me alane! — let me alane!” said the poor young woman, as her paroxysm of sorrow began to abate —“Let me alane — it does me good to weep. I canna shed tears but maybe ance or twice a year, and I aye come to wet this turf with them, that the flowers may grow fair, and the grass may be green.”

“But what is the matter with you?” said Jeanie —“Why do you weep so bitterly?”

“There’s matter enow,” replied the lunatic — “mair than ae puir mind can bear, I trow. Stay a bit, and I’ll tell you a’ about it; for I like ye, Jeanie Deans — a’body spoke weel about ye when we lived in the Pleasaunts — And I mind aye the drink o’ milk ye gae me yon day, when I had been on Arthur’s Seat for four-and-twenty hours, looking for the ship that somebody was sailing in.”

These words recalled to Jeanie’s recollection, that, in fact, she had been one morning much frightened by meeting a crazy young woman near her father’s house at an early hour, and that, as she appeared to be harmless, her apprehension had been changed into pity, and she had relieved the unhappy wanderer with some food, which she devoured with the haste of a famished person. The incident, trifling in itself, was at present of great importance, if it should be found to have made a favourable and permanent impression in her favour on the mind of the object of her charity.

“Yes,” said Madge, “I’ll tell ye a’ about it, for ye are a decent man’s daughter — Douce Davie Deans, ye ken — and maybe ye’ll can teach me to find out the narrow way, and the straight path, for I have been burning bricks in Egypt, and walking through the weary wilderness of Sinai, for lang and mony a day. But whenever I think about mine errors, I am like to cover my lips for shame.”— Here she looked up and smiled. —“It’s a strange thing now — I hae spoke mair gude words to you in ten minutes, than I wad speak to my mother in as mony years — it’s no that I dinna think on them — and whiles they are just at my tongue’s end, but then comes the devil, and brushes my lips with his black wing, and lays his broad black loof on my mouth — for a black loof it is, Jeanie — and sweeps away a’ my gude thoughts, and dits up my gude words, and pits a wheen fule sangs and idle vanities in their place.”

“Try, Madge,” said Jeanie — “try to settle your mind and make your breast clean, and you’ll find your heart easier. — Just resist the devil, and he will flee from you — and mind that, as my worthy father tells me, there is nae devil sae deceitfu’ as our ain wandering thoughts.”

“And that’s true too, lass,” said Madge, starting up; “and I’ll gang a gate where the devil daurna follow me; and it’s a gate that you will like dearly to gang — but I’ll keep a fast haud o’ your arm, for fear Apollyon should stride across the path, as he did in the Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Accordingly she got up, and, taking Jeanie by the arm, began to walk forward at a great pace; and soon, to her companion’s no small joy, came into a marked path, with the meanders of which she seemed perfectly acquainted. Jeanie endeavoured to bring her back to the confessional, but the fancy was gone by. In fact, the mind of this deranged being resembled nothing so much as a quantity of dry leaves, which may for a few minutes remain still, but are instantly discomposed and put in motion by the first casual breath of air. She had now got John Bunyan’s parable into her head, to the exclusion of everything else, and on she went with great volubility.

“Did ye never read the Pilgrim’s Progress? And you shall be the woman, Christiana, and I will be the maiden, Mercy — for ye ken Mercy was of the fairer countenance, and the more alluring than her companion — and if I had my little messan dog here, it would be Great-heart, their guide, ye ken, for he was e’en as bauld, that he wad bark at ony thing twenty times his size; and that was e’en the death of him, for he bit Corporal MacAlpine’s heels ae morning when they were hauling me to the guard-house, and Corporal MacAlpine killed the bit faithfu’ thing wi’ his Lochaber axe — deil pike the Highland banes o’ him.”

“O fie! Madge,” said Jeanie, “ye should not speak such words.”

“It’s very true,” said Madge, shaking her head; “but then I maunna think o’ my puir bit doggie, Snap, when I saw it lying dying in the gutter. But it’s just as weel, for it suffered baith cauld and hunger when it was living, and in the grave there is rest for a’ things — rest for the doggie, and my puir bairn, and me.”

“Your bairn?” said Jeanie, conceiving that by speaking on such a topic, supposing it to be a real one, she could not fail to bring her companion to a more composed temper.

She was mistaken, however, for Madge coloured, and replied with some anger, “My bairn? ay, to be sure, my bairn. Whatfor shouldna I hae a bairn and lose a bairn too, as weel as your bonnie tittie, the Lily of St. Leonard’s?”

The answer struck Jeanie with some alarm, and she was anxious to soothe the irritation she had unwittingly given occasion to. “I am very sorry for your misfortune.”

“Sorry! what wad ye be sorry for?” answered Madge. “The bairn was a blessing — that is, Jeanie, it wad hae been a blessing if it hadna been for my mother; but my mother’s a queer woman. — Ye see, there was an auld carle wi’ a bit land, and a gude clat o’ siller besides, just the very picture of old Mr. Feeblemind or Mr. Ready-to-halt, that Great-heart delivered from Slaygood the giant, when he was rifling him and about to pick his bones, for Slaygood was of the nature of the flesh-eaters — and Great-heart killed Giant Despair too — but I am doubting Giant Despair’s come alive again, for a’ the story book — I find him busy at my heart whiles.”

“Weel, and so the auld carle,” said Jeanie, for she was painfully interested in getting to the truth of Madge’s history, which she could not but suspect was in some extraordinary way linked and entwined with the fate of her sister. She was also desirous, if possible, to engage her companion in some narrative which might be carried on in a lower tone of voice, for she was in great apprehension lest the elevated notes of Madge’s conversation should direct her mother or the robbers in search of them.

“And so the auld carle,” said Madge, repeating her words —“I wish ye had seen him stoiting about, aff ae leg on to the other, wi’ a kind o’ dot-and-go-one sort o’ motion, as if ilk ane o’ his twa legs had belanged to sindry folk — but Gentle George could take him aff brawly — Eh, as I used to laugh to see George gang hip-hop like him! — I dinna ken, I think I laughed heartier then than what I do now, though maybe no just sae muckle.”

“And who was Gentle George?” said Jeanie, endeavouring to bring her back to her story.

“O, he was Geordie Robertson, ye ken, when he was in Edinburgh; but that’s no his right name neither — His name is — But what is your business wi’ his name?” said she, as if upon sudden recollection, “What have ye to do asking for folk’s names? — Have ye a mind I should scour my knife between your ribs, as my mother says?”

As this was spoken with a menacing tone and gesture, Jeanie hastened to protest her total innocence of purpose in the accidental question which she had asked, and Madge Wildfire went on somewhat pacified.

“Never ask folk’s names, Jeanie — it’s no civil — I hae seen half-a-dozen o’ folk in my mother’s at ance, and ne’er ane a’ them ca’d the ither by his name; and Daddie Ratton says, it is the most uncivil thing may be, because the bailie bodies are aye asking fashions questions, when ye saw sic a man, or sic a man; and if ye dinna ken their names, ye ken there can be nae mair speerd about it.”

“In what strange school,” thought Jeanie to herself, “has this poor creature been bred up, where such remote precautions are taken against the pursuits of justice? What would my father or Reuben Butler think if I were to tell them there are sic folk in the world? And to abuse the simplicity of this demented creature! Oh, that I were but safe at hame amang mine ain leal and true people! and I’ll bless God, while I have breath, that placed me amongst those who live in His fear, and under the shadow of His wing.”

She was interrupted by the insane laugh of Madge Wildfire, as she saw a magpie hop across the path.

“See there! — that was the gate my auld joe used to cross the country, but no just sae lightly — he hadna wings to help his auld legs, I trow; but I behoved to have married him for a’ that, Jeanie, or my mother wad hae been the dead o’ me. But then came in the story of my poor bairn, and my mother thought he wad be deaved wi’ it’s skirling, and she pat it away in below the bit bourock of turf yonder, just to be out o’ the gate; and I think she buried my best wits with it, for I have never been just mysell since. And only think, Jeanie, after my mother had been at a’ these pains, the auld doited body Johnny Drottle turned up his nose, and wadna hae aught to say to me! But it’s little I care for him, for I have led a merry life ever since, and ne’er a braw gentleman looks at me but ye wad think he was gaun to drop off his horse for mere love of me. I have ken’d some o’ them put their hand in their pocket, and gie me as muckle as sixpence at a time, just for my weel-faured face.”

This speech gave Jeanie a dark insight into Madge’s history. She had been courted by a wealthy suitor, whose addresses her mother had favoured, notwithstanding the objection of old age and deformity. She had been seduced by some profligate, and, to conceal her shame and promote the advantageous match she had planned, her mother had not hesitated to destroy the offspring of their intrigue. That the consequence should be the total derangement of amind which was constitutionally unsettled by giddiness and vanity, was extremely natural; and such was, in fact, the history of Madge Wildfire’s insanity.

1 Concealed a knife.

2 Lay ourselves down to sleep.

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