Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 19

Why, then, say an old man can do somewhat.

Henry IV. Part II.

We must now return to the tower of Tillietudlem, which the march of the Life-Guards, on the morning of this eventful day, had left to silence and anxiety. The assurances of Lord Evandale had not succeeded in quelling the apprehensions of Edith. She knew him generous, and faithful to his word; but it seemed too plain that he suspected the object of her intercession to be a successful rival; and was it not expecting from him an effort above human nature, to suppose that he was to watch over Morton’s safety, and rescue him from all the dangers to which his state of imprisonment, and the suspicions which he had incurred, must repeatedly expose him? She therefore resigned herself to the most heart-rending apprehensions, without admitting, and indeed almost without listening to, the multifarious grounds of consolation which Jenny Dennison brought forward, one after another, like a skilful general who charges with the several divisions of his troops in regular succession.

First, Jenny was morally positive that young Milnwood would come to no harm — then, if he did, there was consolation in the reflection, that Lord Evandale was the better and more appropriate match of the two — then, there was every chance of a battle, in which the said Lord Evandale might be killed, and there wad be nae mair fash about that job — then, if the whigs gat the better, Milnwood and Cuddie might come to the Castle, and carry off the beloved of their hearts by the strong hand.

“For I forgot to tell ye, madam,” continued the damsel, putting her handkerchief to her eyes, “that puir Cuddie’s in the hands of the Philistines as weel as young Milnwood, and he was brought here a prisoner this morning, and I was fain to speak Tam Halliday fair, and fleech him to let me near the puir creature; but Cuddie wasna sae thankfu’ as he needed till hae been neither,” she added, and at the same time changed her tone, and briskly withdrew the handkerchief from her face; “so I will ne’er waste my een wi’ greeting about the matter. There wad be aye enow o’ young men left, if they were to hang the tae half o’ them.”

The other inhabitants of the Castle were also in a state of dissatisfaction and anxiety. Lady Margaret thought that Colonel Grahame, in commanding an execution at the door of her house, and refusing to grant a reprieve at her request, had fallen short of the deference due to her rank, and had even encroached on her seignorial rights.

“The Colonel,” she said, “ought to have remembered, brother, that the barony of Tillietudlem has the baronial privilege of pit and gallows; and therefore, if the lad was to be executed on my estate, (which I consider as an unhandsome thing, seeing it is in the possession of females, to whom such tragedies cannot be acceptable,) he ought, at common law, to have been delivered up to my bailie, and justified at his sight.”

“Martial law, sister,” answered Major Bellenden, “supersedes every other. But I must own I think Colonel Grahame rather deficient in attention to you; and I am not over and above pre-eminently flattered by his granting to young Evandale (I suppose because he is a lord, and has interest with the privy-council) a request which he refused to so old a servant of the king as I am. But so long as the poor young fellow’s life is saved, I can comfort myself with the fag-end of a ditty as old as myself.” And therewithal, he hummed a stanza:

‘And what though winter will pinch severe Through locks of grey and a cloak that’s old? Yet keep up thy heart, bold cavalier, For a cup of sack shall fence the cold.’

“I must be your guest here today, sister. I wish to hear the issue of this gathering on Loudon-hill, though I cannot conceive their standing a body of horse appointed like our guests this morning. — Woe’s me, the time has been that I would have liked ill to have sate in biggit wa’s waiting for the news of a skirmish to be fought within ten miles of me! But, as the old song goes,

‘For time will rust the brightest blade,

And years will break the strongest bow;

Was ever wight so starkly made,

But time and years would overthrow?’”

“We are well pleased you will stay, brother,” said Lady Margaret; “I will take my old privilege to look after my household, whom this collation has thrown into some disorder, although it is uncivil to leave you alone.”

“O, I hate ceremony as I hate a stumbling horse,” replied the Major. “Besides, your person would be with me, and your mind with the cold meat and reversionary pasties. — Where is Edith?”

“Gone to her room a little evil-disposed, I am informed, and laid down in her bed for a gliff,” said her grandmother; “as soon as she wakes, she shall take some drops.”

“Pooh! pooh! she’s only sick of the soldiers,” answered Major Bellenden. “She’s not accustomed to see one acquaintance led out to be shot, and another marching off to actual service, with some chance of not finding his way back again. She would soon be used to it, if the civil war were to break out again.”

“God forbid, brother!” said Lady Margaret.

“Ay, Heaven forbid, as you say — and, in the meantime, I’ll take a hit at trick-track with Harrison.”

“He has ridden out, sir,” said Gudyill, “to try if he can hear any tidings of the battle.”

“D— n the battle,” said the Major; “it puts this family as much out of order as if there had never been such a thing in the country before — and yet there was such a place as Kilsythe, John.”

“Ay, and as Tippermuir, your honour,” replied Gudyill, “where I was his honour my late master’s rear-rank man.”

“And Alford, John,” pursued the Major, “where I commanded the horse; and Innerlochy, where I was the Great Marquis’s aid-de-camp; and Auld Earn, and Brig o’ Dee.”

“And Philiphaugh, your honour,” said John.

“Umph!” replied the Major; “the less, John, we say about that matter, the better.”

However, being once fairly embarked on the subject of Montrose’s campaigns, the Major and John Gudyill carried on the war so stoutly, as for a considerable time to keep at bay the formidable enemy called Time, with whom retired veterans, during the quiet close of a bustling life, usually wage an unceasing hostility.

It has been frequently remarked, that the tidings of important events fly with a celerity almost beyond the power of credibility, and that reports, correct in the general point, though inaccurate in details, precede the certain intelligence, as if carried by the birds of the air. Such rumours anticipate the reality, not unlike to the “shadows of coming events,” which occupy the imagination of the Highland Seer. Harrison, in his ride, encountered some such report concerning the event of the battle, and turned his horse back to Tillietudlem in great dismay. He made it his first business to seek out the Major, and interrupted him in the midst of a prolix account of the siege and storm of Dundee, with the ejaculation, “Heaven send, Major, that we do not see a siege of Tillietudlem before we are many days older!”

“How is that, Harrison? — what the devil do you mean?” exclaimed the astonished veteran.

“Troth, sir, there is strong and increasing belief that Claver’se is clean broken, some say killed; that the soldiers are all dispersed, and that the rebels are hastening this way, threatening death and devastation to a’ that will not take the Covenant.”

“I will never believe that,” said the Major, starting on his feet —“I will never believe that the Life-Guards would retreat before rebels; — and yet why need I say that,” he continued, checking himself, “when I have seen such sights myself? — Send out Pike, and one or two of the servants, for intelligence, and let all the men in the Castle and in the village that can be trusted take up arms. This old tower may hold them play a bit, if it were but victualled and garrisoned, and it commands the pass between the high and low countries. — It’s lucky I chanced to be here. — Go, muster men, Harrison. — You, Gudyill, look what provisions you have, or can get brought in, and be ready, if the news be confirmed, to knock down as many bullocks as you have salt for. — The well never goes dry. — There are some old-fashioned guns on the battlements; if we had but ammunition, we should do well enough.”

“The soldiers left some casks of ammunition at the Grange this morning, to bide their return,” said Harrison.

“Hasten, then,” said the Major, “and bring it into the Castle, with every pike, sword, pistol, or gun, that is within our reach; don’t leave so much as a bodkin — Lucky that I was here! — I will speak to my sister instantly.”

Lady Margaret Bellenden was astounded at intelligence so unexpected and so alarming. It had seemed to her that the imposing force which had that morning left her walls, was sufficient to have routed all the disaffected in Scotland, if collected in a body; and now her first reflection was upon the inadequacy of their own means of resistance, to an army strong enough to have defeated Claverhouse and such select troops. “Woe’s me! woe’s me!” said she; “what will all that we can do avail us, brother? — What will resistance do but bring sure destruction on the house, and on the bairn Edith! for, God knows, I thinkna on my ain auld life.”

“Come, sister,” said the Major, “you must not be cast down; the place is strong, the rebels ignorant and ill-provided: my brother’s house shall not be made a den of thieves and rebels while old Miles Bellenden is in it. My hand is weaker than it was, but I thank my old grey hairs that I have some knowledge of war yet. Here comes Pike with intelligence. — What news, Pike? Another Philiphaugh job, eh?”

“Ay, ay,” said Pike, composedly; “a total scattering. — I thought this morning little gude would come of their newfangled gate of slinging their carabines.”

“Whom did you see? — Who gave you the news?” asked the Major.

“O, mair than half-a-dozen dragoon fellows that are a’ on the spur whilk to get first to Hamilton. They’ll win the race, I warrant them, win the battle wha like.”

“Continue your preparations, Harrison,” said the alert veteran; “get your ammunition in, and the cattle killed. Send down to the borough-town for what meal you can gather. We must not lose an instant. — Had not Edith and you, sister, better return to Charnwood, while we have the means of sending you there?”

“No, brother,” said Lady Margaret, looking very pale, but speaking with the greatest composure; “since the auld house is to be held out, I will take my chance in it. I have fled twice from it in my days, and I have aye found it desolate of its bravest and its bonniest when I returned; sae that I will e’en abide now, and end my pilgrimage in it.”

“It may, on the whole, be the safest course both for Edith and you,” said the Major; “for the whigs will rise all the way between this and Glasgow, and make your travelling there, or your dwelling at Charnwood, very unsafe.”

“So be it then,” said Lady Margaret; “and, dear brother, as the nearest blood-relation of my deceased husband, I deliver to you, by this symbol,”—(here she gave into his hand the venerable goldheaded staff of the deceased Earl of Torwood,)—“the keeping and government and seneschalship of my Tower of Tillietudlem, and the appurtenances thereof, with full power to kill, slay, and damage those who shall assail the same, as freely as I might do myself. And I trust you will so defend it, as becomes a house in which his most sacred majesty has not disdained”—

“Pshaw! sister,” interrupted the Major, “we have no time to speak about the king and his breakfast just now.”

And, hastily leaving the room, he hurried, with all the alertness of a young man of twenty-five, to examine the state of his garrison, and superintend the measures which were necessary for defending the place.

The Tower of Tillietudlem, having very thick walls, and very narrow windows, having also a very strong court-yard wall, with flanking turrets on the only accessible side, and rising on the other from the very verge of a precipice, was fully capable of defence against any thing but a train of heavy artillery.

Famine or escalade was what the garrison had chiefly to fear. For artillery, the top of the Tower was mounted with some antiquated wall-pieces, and small cannons, which bore the old-fashioned names of culverins, sakers, demi-sakers, falcons, and falconets. These, the Major, with the assistance of John Gudyill, caused to be scaled and loaded, and pointed them so as to command the road over the brow of the opposite hill by which the rebels must advance, causing, at the same time, two or three trees to be cut down, which would have impeded the effect of the artillery when it should be necessary to use it. With the trunks of these trees, and other materials, he directed barricades to be constructed upon the winding avenue which rose to the Tower along the high-road, taking care that each should command the other. The large gate of the court-yard he barricadoed yet more strongly, leaving only a wicket open for the convenience of passage. What he had most to apprehend, was the slenderness of his garrison; for all the efforts of the steward were unable to get more than nine men under arms, himself and Gudyill included, so much more popular was the cause of the insurgents than that of the government Major Bellenden, and his trusty servant Pike, made the garrison eleven in number, of whom one-half were old men. The round dozen might indeed have been made up, would Lady Margaret have consented that Goose Gibbie should again take up arms. But she recoiled from the proposal, when moved by Gudyill, with such abhorrent recollection of the former achievements of that luckless cavalier, that she declared she would rather the Castle were lost than that he were to be enrolled in the defence of it. With eleven men, however, himself included, Major Bellenden determined to hold out the place to the uttermost.

The arrangements for defence were not made without the degree of fracas incidental to such occasions. Women shrieked, cattle bellowed, dogs howled, men ran to and fro, cursing and swearing without intermission, the lumbering of the old guns backwards and forwards shook the battlements, the court resounded with the hasty gallop of messengers who went and returned upon errands of importance, and the din of warlike preparation was mingled with the sound of female laments.

Such a Babel of discord might have awakened the slumbers of the very dead, and, therefore, was not long ere it dispelled the abstracted reveries of Edith Bellenden. She sent out Jenny to bring her the cause of the tumult which shook the castle to its very basis; but Jenny, once engaged in the bustling tide, found so much to ask and to hear, that she forgot the state of anxious uncertainty in which she had left her young mistress. Having no pigeon to dismiss in pursuit of information when her raven messenger had failed to return with it, Edith was compelled to venture in quest of it out of the ark of her own chamber into the deluge of confusion which overflowed the rest of the Castle. Six voices speaking at once, informed her, in reply to her first enquiry, that Claver’se and all his men were killed, and that ten thousand whigs were marching to besiege the castle, headed by John Balfour of Burley, young Milnwood, and Cuddie Headrigg. This strange association of persons seemed to infer the falsehood of the whole story, and yet the general bustle in the Castle intimated that danger was certainly apprehended.

“Where is Lady Margaret?” was Edith’s second question.

“In her oratory,” was the reply: a cell adjoining to the chapel, in which the good old lady was wont to spend the greater part of the days destined by the rules of the Episcopal Church to devotional observances, as also the anniversaries of those on which she had lost her husband and her children, and, finally, those hours, in which a deeper and more solemn address to Heaven was called for, by national or domestic calamity.

“Where, then,” said Edith, much alarmed, “is Major Bellenden?”

“On the battlements of the Tower, madam, pointing the cannon,” was the reply.

To the battlements, therefore, she made her way, impeded by a thousand obstacles, and found the old gentleman in the midst of his natural military element, commanding, rebuking, encouraging, instructing, and exercising all the numerous duties of a good governor.

“In the name of God, what is the matter, uncle?” exclaimed Edith.

“The matter, my love?” answered the Major coolly, as, with spectacles on his nose, he examined the position of a gun —“The matter? Why — raise her breech a thought more, John Gudyill — the matter? Why, Claver’se is routed, my dear, and the whigs are coming down upon us in force, that’s all the matter.”

“Gracious powers!” said Edith, whose eye at that instant caught a glance of the road which ran up the river, “and yonder they come!”

“Yonder? where?” said the veteran; and, his eyes taking the same direction, he beheld a large body of horsemen coming down the path. “Stand to your guns, my lads!” was the first exclamation; “we’ll make them pay toll as they pass the heugh. — But stay, stay, these are certainly the Life-Guards.”

“O no, uncle, no,” replied Edith; “see how disorderly they ride, and how ill they keep their ranks; these cannot be the fine soldiers who left us this morning.”

“Ah, my dear girl!” answered the Major, “you do not know the difference between men before a battle and after a defeat; but the Life-Guards it is, for I see the red and blue and the King’s colours. I am glad they have brought them off, however.”

His opinion was confirmed as the troopers approached nearer, and finally halted on the road beneath the Tower; while their commanding officer, leaving them to breathe and refresh their horses, hastily rode up the hill.

“It is Claverhouse, sure enough,” said the Major; “I am glad he has escaped, but he has lost his famous black horse. Let Lady Margaret know, John Gudyill; order some refreshments; get oats for the soldiers’ horses; and let us to the hall, Edith, to meet him. I surmise we shall hear but indifferent news.”

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