Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 13

O, my Lord, beware of jealousy!

Othello.

To explain the deep effect which the few broken passages of the conversation we have detailed made upon the unfortunate prisoner by whom they were overheard, it is necessary to say something of his previous state of mind, and of the origin of his acquaintance with Edith.

Henry Morton was one of those gifted characters, which possess a force of talent unsuspected by the owner himself. He had inherited from his father an undaunted courage, and a firm and uncompromising detestation of oppression, whether in politics or religion. But his enthusiasm was unsullied by fanatic zeal, and unleavened by the sourness of the puritanical spirit. From these his mind had been freed, partly by the active exertions of his own excellent understanding, partly by frequent and long visits at Major Bellenden’s, where he had an opportunity of meeting with many guests whose conversation taught him, that goodness and worth were not limited to those of any single form of religious observance.

The base parsimony of his uncle had thrown many obstacles in the way of his education; but he had so far improved the opportunities which offered themselves, that his instructors as well as his friends were surprised at his progress under such disadvantages. Still, however, the current of his soul was frozen by a sense of dependence, of poverty, above all, of an imperfect and limited education. These feelings impressed him with a diffidence and reserve which effectually concealed from all but very intimate friends, the extent of talent and the firmness of character, which we have stated him to be possessed of. The circumstances of the times had added to this reserve an air of indecision and of indifference; for, being attached to neither of the factions which divided the kingdom, he passed for dull, insensible, and uninfluenced by the feeling of religion or of patriotism. No conclusion, however, could be more unjust; and the reasons of the neutrality which he had hitherto professed had root in very different and most praiseworthy motives. He had formed few congenial ties with those who were the objects of persecution, and was disgusted alike by their narrow-minded and selfish party-spirit, their gloomy fanaticism, their abhorrent condemnation of all elegant studies or innocent exercises, and the envenomed rancour of their political hatred. But his mind was still more revolted by the tyrannical and oppressive conduct of the government, the misrule, license, and brutality of the soldiery, the executions on the scaffold, the slaughters in the open field, the free quarters and exactions imposed by military law, which placed the lives and fortunes of a free people on a level with Asiatic slaves. Condemning, therefore, each party as its excesses fell under his eyes, disgusted with the sight of evils which he had no means of alleviating, and hearing alternate complaints and exultations with which he could not sympathize, he would long ere this have left Scotland, had it not been for his attachment to Edith Bellenden.

The earlier meetings of these young people had been at Charnwood, when Major Bellenden, who was as free from suspicion on such occasions as Uncle Toby himself, had encouraged their keeping each other constant company, without entertaining any apprehension of the natural consequences. Love, as usual in such cases, borrowed the name of friendship, used her language, and claimed her privileges. When Edith Bellenden was recalled to her mother’s castle, it was astonishing by what singular and recurring accidents she often met young Morton in her sequestered walks, especially considering the distance of their places of abode. Yet it somehow happened that she never expressed the surprise which the frequency of these rencontres ought naturally to have excited, and that their intercourse assumed gradually a more delicate character, and their meetings began to wear the air of appointments. Books, drawings, letters, were exchanged between them, and every trifling commission, given or executed, gave rise to a new correspondence. Love indeed was not yet mentioned between them by name, but each knew the situation of their own bosom, and could not but guess at that of the other. Unable to desist from an intercourse which possessed such charms for both, yet trembling for its too probable consequences, it had been continued without specific explanation until now, when fate appeared to have taken the conclusion into its own hands.

It followed, as a consequence of this state of things, as well as of the diffidence of Morton’s disposition at this period, that his confidence in Edith’s return of his affection had its occasional cold fits. Her situations was in every respect so superior to his own, her worth so eminent, her accomplishments so many, her face so beautiful, and her manners so bewitching, that he could not but entertain fears that some suitor more favoured than himself by fortune, and more acceptable to Edith’s family than he durst hope to be, might step in between him and the object of his affections. Common rumour had raised up such a rival in Lord Evandale, whom birth, fortune, connexions, and political principles, as well as his frequent visits at Tillietudlem, and his attendance upon Lady Bellenden and her niece at all public places, naturally pointed out as a candidate for her favour. It frequently and inevitably happened, that engagements to which Lord Evandale was a party, interfered with the meeting of the lovers, and Henry could not but mark that Edith either studiously avoided speaking of the young nobleman, or did so with obvious reserve and hesitation.

These symptoms, which, in fact, arose from the delicacy of her own feelings towards Morton himself, were misconstrued by his diffident temper, and the jealousy which they excited was fermented by the occasional observations of Jenny Dennison. This true-bred serving-damsel was, in her own person, a complete country coquette, and when she had no opportunity of teasing her own lovers, used to take some occasional opportunity to torment her young lady’s. This arose from no ill-will to Henry Morton, who, both on her mistress’s account and his own handsome form and countenance, stood high in her esteem. But then Lord Evandale was also handsome; he was liberal far beyond what Morton’s means could afford, and he was a lord, moreover, and, if Miss Edith Bellenden should accept his hand, she would become a baron’s lady, and, what was more, little Jenny Dennison, whom the awful housekeeper at Tillietudlem huffed about at her pleasure, would be then Mrs Dennison, Lady Evandale’s own woman, or perhaps her ladyship’s lady-inwaiting. The impartiality of Jenny Dennison, therefore, did not, like that of Mrs Quickly, extend to a wish that both the handsome suitors could wed her young lady; for it must be owned that the scale of her regard was depressed in favour of Lord Evandale, and her wishes in his favour took many shapes extremely tormenting to Morton; being now expressed as a friendly caution, now as an article of intelligence, and anon as a merry jest, but always tending to confirm the idea, that, sooner or later, his romantic intercourse with her young mistress must have a close, and that Edith Bellenden would, in spite of summer walks beneath the greenwood tree, exchange of verses, of drawings, and of books, end in becoming Lady Evandale.

These hints coincided so exactly with the very point of his own suspicions and fears, that Morton was not long of feeling that jealousy which every one has felt who has truly loved, but to which those are most liable whose love is crossed by the want of friends’ consent, or some other envious impediment of fortune. Edith herself, unwittingly, and in the generosity of her own frank nature, contributed to the error into which her lover was in danger of falling. Their conversation once chanced to turn upon some late excesses committed by the soldiery on an occasion when it was said (inaccurately however) that the party was commanded by Lord Evandale. Edith, as true in friendship as in love, was somewhat hurt at the severe strictures which escaped from Morton on this occasion, and which, perhaps, were not the less strongly expressed on account of their supposed rivalry. She entered into Lord Evandale’s defence with such spirit as hurt Morton to the very soul, and afforded no small delight to Jenny Dennison, the usual companion of their walks. Edith perceived her error, and endeavoured to remedy it; but the impression was not so easily erased, and it had no small effect in inducing her lover to form that resolution of going abroad, which was disappointed in the manner we have already mentioned.

The visit which he received from Edith during his confinement, the deep and devoted interest which she had expressed in his fate, ought of themselves to have dispelled his suspicions; yet, ingenious in tormenting himself, even this he thought might be imputed to anxious friendship, or, at most, to a temporary partiality, which would probably soon give way to circumstances, the entreaties of her friends, the authority of Lady Margaret, and the assiduities of Lord Evandale.

“And to what do I owe it,” he said, “that I cannot stand up like a man, and plead my interest in her ere I am thus cheated out of it? — to what, but to the all-pervading and accursed tyranny, which afflicts at once our bodies, souls, estates, and affections! And is it to one of the pensioned cut-throats of this oppressive government that I must yield my pretensions to Edith Bellenden? — I will not, by Heaven! — It is a just punishment on me for being dead to public wrongs, that they have visited me with their injuries in a point where they can be least brooked or borne.”

As these stormy resolutions boiled in his bosom, and while he ran over the various kinds of insult and injury which he had sustained in his own cause and in that of his country, Bothwell entered the tower, followed by two dragoons, one of whom carried handcuffs.

“You must follow me, young man,” said he, “but first we must put you in trim.”

“In trim!” said Morton. “What do you mean?”

“Why, we must put on these rough bracelets. I durst not — nay, d — n it, I durst do any thing — but I would not for three hours’ plunder of a stormed town bring a whig before my Colonel without his being ironed. Come, come, young man, don’t look sulky about it.”

He advanced to put on the irons; but, seizing the oaken-seat upon which he had rested, Morton threatened to dash out the brains of the first who should approach him.

“I could manage you in a moment, my youngster,” said Bothwell, “but I had rather you would strike sail quietly.”

Here indeed he spoke the truth, not from either fear or reluctance to adopt force, but because he dreaded the consequences of a noisy scuffle, through which it might probably be discovered that he had, contrary to express orders, suffered his prisoner to pass the night without being properly secured.

“You had better be prudent,” he continued, in a tone which he meant to be conciliatory, “and don’t spoil your own sport. They say here in the castle that Lady Margaret’s niece is immediately to marry our young Captain, Lord Evandale. I saw them close together in the hall yonder, and I heard her ask him to intercede for your pardon. She looked so devilish handsome and kind upon him, that on my soul — But what the devil’s the matter with you? — You are as pale as a sheet — Will you have some brandy?”

“Miss Bellenden ask my life of Lord Evandale?” said the prisoner, faintly.

“Ay, ay; there’s no friend like the women — their interest carries all in court and camp. — Come, you are reasonable now — Ay, I thought you would come round.”

Here he employed himself in putting on the fetters, against which, Morton, thunderstruck by this intelligence, no longer offered the least resistance.

“My life begged of him, and by her! — ay — ay — put on the irons — my limbs shall not refuse to bear what has entered into my very soul — My life begged by Edith, and begged of Evandale!”

“Ay, and he has power to grant it too,” said Bothwell —“He can do more with the Colonel than any man in the regiment.”

And as he spoke, he and his party led their prisoner towards the hall. In passing behind the seat of Edith, the unfortunate prisoner heard enough, as he conceived, of the broken expressions which passed between Edith and Lord Evandale, to confirm all that the soldier had told him. That moment made a singular and instantaneous revolution in his character. The depth of despair to which his love and fortunes were reduced, the peril in which his life appeared to stand, the transference of Edith’s affections, her intercession in his favour, which rendered her fickleness yet more galling, seemed to destroy every feeling for which he had hitherto lived, but, at the same time, awakened those which had hitherto been smothered by passions more gentle though more selfish. Desperate himself, he determined to support the rights of his country, insulted in his person. His character was for the moment as effectually changed as the appearance of a villa, which, from being the abode of domestic quiet and happiness, is, by the sudden intrusion of an armed force, converted into a formidable post of defence.

We have already said that he cast upon Edith one glance in which reproach was mingled with sorrow, as if to bid her farewell for ever; his next motion was to walk firmly to the table at which Colonel Grahame was seated.

“By what right is it, sir,” said he firmly, and without waiting till he was questioned — “By what right is it that these soldiers have dragged me from my family, and put fetters on the limbs of a free man?”

“By my commands,” answered Claverhouse; “and I now lay my commands on you to be silent and hear my questions.”

“I will not,” replied Morton, in a determined tone, while his boldness seemed to electrify all around him. “I will know whether I am in lawful custody, and before a civil magistrate, ere the charter of my country shall be forfeited in my person.”

“A pretty springald this, upon my honour!” said Claverhouse.

“Are you mad?” said Major Bellenden to his young friend. “For God’s sake, Henry Morton,” he continued, in a tone between rebuke and entreaty, “remember you are speaking to one of his majesty’s officers high in the service.”

“It is for that very reason, sir,” returned Henry, firmly, “that I desire to know what right he has to detain me without a legal warrant. Were he a civil officer of the law I should know my duty was submission.”

“Your friend, here,” said Claverhouse to the veteran, coolly, “is one of those scrupulous gentlemen, who, like the madman in the play, will not tie his cravat without the warrant of Mr Justice Overdo; but I will let him see, before we part, that my shoulder-knot is as legal a badge of authority as the mace of the Justiciary. So, waving this discussion, you will be pleased, young man, to tell me directly when you saw Balfour of Burley.”

“As I know no right you have to ask such a question,” replied Morton, “I decline replying to it.”

“You confessed to my sergeant,” said Claverhouse, “that you saw and entertained him, knowing him to be an intercommuned traitor; why are you not so frank with me?”

“Because,” replied the prisoner, “I presume you are, from education, taught to understand the rights upon which you seem disposed to trample; and I am willing you should be aware there are yet Scotsmen who can assert the liberties of Scotland.”

“And these supposed rights you would vindicate with your sword, I presume?” said Colonel Grahame.

“Were I armed as you are, and we were alone upon a hill-side, you should not ask me the question twice.”

“It is quite enough,” answered Claverhouse, calmly; “your language corresponds with all I have heard of you; — but you are the son of a soldier, though a rebellious one, and you shall not die the death of a dog; I will save you that indignity.”

“Die in what manner I may,” replied Morton, “I will die like the son of a brave man; and the ignominy you mention shall remain with those who shed innocent blood.”

“Make your peace, then, with Heaven, in five minutes’ space. — Bothwell, lead him down to the court-yard, and draw up your party.”

The appalling nature of this conversation, and of its result, struck the silence of horror into all but the speakers. But now those who stood round broke forth into clamour and expostulation. Old Lady Margaret, who, with all the prejudices of rank and party, had not laid aside the feelings of her sex, was loud in her intercession.

“O, Colonel Grahame,” she exclaimed, “spare his young blood! Leave him to the law — do not repay my hospitality by shedding men’s blood on the threshold of my doors!”

“Colonel Grahame,” said Major Bellenden, “you must answer this violence. Don’t think, though I am old and feckless, that my friend’s son shall be murdered before my eyes with impunity. I can find friends that shall make you answer it.”

“Be satisfied, Major Bellenden, I will answer it,” replied Claverhouse, totally unmoved; “and you, madam, might spare me the pain the resisting this passionate intercession for a traitor, when you consider the noble blood your own house has lost by such as he is.”

“Colonel Grahame,” answered the lady, her aged frame trembling with anxiety, “I leave vengeance to God, who calls it his own. The shedding of this young man’s blood will not call back the lives that were dear to me; and how can it comfort me to think that there has maybe been another widowed mother made childless, like mysell, by a deed done at my very door-stane!”

“This is stark madness,” said Claverhouse; “I must do my duty to church and state. Here are a thousand villains hard by in open rebellion, and you ask me to pardon a young fanatic who is enough of himself to set a whole kingdom in a blaze! It cannot be — Remove him, Bothwell.”

She who was most interested in this dreadful decision, had twice strove to speak, but her voice had totally failed her; her mind refused to suggest words, and her tongue to utter them. She now sprung up and attempted to rush forward, but her strength gave way, and she would have fallen flat upon the pavement had she not been caught by her attendant.

“Help!” cried Jenny — “Help, for God’s sake! my young lady is dying.”

At this exclamation, Evandale, who, during the preceding part of the scene, had stood motionless, leaning upon his sword, now stepped forward, and said to his commanding-officer, “Colonel Grahame, before proceeding in this matter, will you speak a word with me in private?”

Claverhouse looked surprised, but instantly rose and withdrew with the young nobleman into a recess, where the following brief dialogue passed between them:

“I think I need not remind you, Colonel, that when our family interest was of service to you last year in that affair in the privy-council, you considered yourself as laid under some obligation to us?”

“Certainly, my dear Evandale,” answered Claverhouse, “I am not a man who forgets such debts; you will delight me by showing how I can evince my gratitude.”

“I will hold the debt cancelled,” said Lord Evandale, “if you will spare this young man’s life.”

“Evandale,” replied Grahame, in great surprise, “you are mad — absolutely mad — what interest can you have in this young spawn of an old roundhead? — His father was positively the most dangerous man in all Scotland, cool, resolute, soliderly, and inflexible in his cursed principles. His son seems his very model; you cannot conceive the mischief he may do. I know mankind, Evandale — were he an insignificant, fanatical, country booby, do you think I would have refused such a trifle as his life to Lady Margaret and this family? But this is a lad of fire, zeal, and education — and these knaves want but such a leader to direct their blind enthusiastic hardiness. I mention this, not as refusing your request, but to make you fully aware of the possible consequences — I will never evade a promise, or refuse to return an obligation — if you ask his life, he shall have it.”

“Keep him close prisoner,” answered Evandale, “but do not be surprised if I persist in requesting you will not put him to death. I have most urgent reasons for what I ask.”

“Be it so then,” replied Grahame; —“but, young man, should you wish in your future life to rise to eminence in the service of your king and country, let it be your first task to subject to the public interest, and to the discharge of your duty, your private passions, affections, and feelings. These are not times to sacrifice to the dotage of greybeards, or the tears of silly women, the measures of salutary severity which the dangers around compel us to adopt. And remember, that if I now yield this point, in compliance with your urgency, my present concession must exempt me from future solicitations of the same nature.”

He then stepped forward to the table, and bent his eyes keenly on Morton, as if to observe what effect the pause of awful suspense between death and life, which seemed to freeze the bystanders with horror, would produce upon the prisoner himself. Morton maintained a degree of firmness, which nothing but a mind that had nothing left upon earth to love or to hope, could have supported at such a crisis.

“You see him?” said Claverhouse, in a half whisper to Lord Evandale; “he is tottering on the verge between time and eternity, a situation more appalling than the most hideous certainty; yet his is the only cheek unblenched, the only eye that is calm, the only heart that keeps its usual time, the only nerves that are not quivering. Look at him well, Evandale — If that man shall ever come to head an army of rebels, you will have much to answer for on account of this morning’s work.” He then said aloud, “Young man, your life is for the present safe, through the intercession of your friends — Remove him, Bothwell, and let him be properly guarded, and brought along with the other prisoners.”

“If my life,” said Morton, stung with the idea that he owed his respite to the intercession of a favoured rival, “if my life be granted at Lord Evandale’s request”—

“Take the prisoner away, Bothwell,” said Colonel Grahame, interrupting him; “I have neither time to make nor to hear fine speeches.”

Bothwell forced off Morton, saying, as he conducted him into the court-yard, “Have you three lives in your pocket, besides the one in your body, my lad, that you can afford to let your tongue run away with them at this rate? Come, come, I’ll take care to keep you out of the Colonel’s way; for, egad, you will not be five minutes with him before the next tree or the next ditch will be the word. So, come along to your companions in bondage.”

Thus speaking, the sergeant, who, in his rude manner, did not altogether want sympathy for a gallant young man, hurried Morton down to the courtyard, where three other prisoners, (two men and a woman,) who had been taken by Lord Evandale, remained under an escort of dragoons.

Meantime, Claverhouse took his leave of Lady Margaret. But it was difficult for the good lady to forgive his neglect of her intercession.

“I have thought till now,” she said, “that the Tower of Tillietudlem might have been a place of succour to those that are ready to perish, even if they werena sae deserving as they should have been — but I see auld fruit has little savour — our suffering and our services have been of an ancient date.”

“They are never to be forgotten by me, let me assure your ladyship,” said Claverhouse. “Nothing but what seemed my sacred duty could make me hesitate to grant a favour requested by you and the Major. Come, my good lady, let me hear you say you have forgiven me, and, as I return to-night, I will bring a drove of two hundred whigs with me, and pardon fifty head of them for your sake.”

“I shall be happy to hear of your success, Colonel,” said Major Bellenden; “but take an old soldier’s advice, and spare blood when battle’s over — and once more let me request to enter bail for young Morton.”

“We will settle that when I return,” said Claverhouse. “Meanwhile, be assured his life shall be safe.”

During this conversation, Evandale looked anxiously around for Edith; but the precaution of Jenny Dennison had occasioned her mistress being transported to her own apartment.

Slowly and heavily he obeyed the impatient summons of Claverhouse, who, after taking a courteous leave of Lady Margaret and the Major, had hastened to the court-yard. The prisoners with their guard were already on their march, and the officers with their escort mounted and followed. All pressed forward to overtake the main body, as it was supposed they would come in sight of the enemy in little more than two hours.

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