Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 21

Ananias. I do not like the man: He is a heathen,

And speaks the language of Canaan truly.

Tribulation. You must await his calling, and the coming

Of the good spirit. You did ill to upbraid him.

The Alchemist.

We return to Henry Morton, whom we left on the field of battle. He was eating, by one of the watch-fires, his portion of the provisions which had been distributed to the army, and musing deeply on the path which he was next to pursue, when Burley suddenly came up to him, accompanied by the young minister, whose exhortation after the victory had produced such a powerful effect.

“Henry Morton,” said Balfour abruptly, “the council of the army of the Covenant, confiding that the son of Silas Morton can never prove a lukewarm Laodicean, or an indifferent Gallio, in this great day, have nominated you to be a captain of their host, with the right of a vote in their council, and all authority fitting for an officer who is to command Christian men.”

“Mr Balfour,” replied Morton, without hesitation, “I feel this mark of confidence, and it is not surprising that a natural sense of the injuries of my country, not to mention those I have sustained in my own person, should make me sufficiently willing to draw my sword for liberty and freedom of conscience. But I will own to you, that I must be better satisfied concerning the principles on which you bottom your cause ere I can agree to take a command amongst you.”

“And can you doubt of our principles,” answered Burley, “since we have stated them to be the reformation both of church and state, the rebuilding of the decayed sanctuary, the gathering of the dispersed saints, and the destruction of the man of sin?”

“I will own frankly, Mr Balfour,” replied Morton, “much of this sort of language, which, I observe, is so powerful with others, is entirely lost on me. It is proper you should be aware of this before we commune further together.” (The young clergyman here groaned deeply.) “I distress you, sir,” said Morton; “but, perhaps, it is because you will not hear me out. I revere the Scriptures as deeply as you or any Christian can do. I look into them with humble hope of extracting a rule of conduct and a law of salvation. But I expect to find this by an examination of their general tenor, and of the spirit which they uniformly breathe, and not by wresting particular passages from their context, or by the application of Scriptural phrases to circumstances and events with which they have often very slender relation.”

The young divine seemed shocked and thunderstruck with this declaration, and was about to remonstrate.

“Hush, Ephraim!” said Burley, “remember he is but as a babe in swaddling clothes. — Listen to me, Morton. I will speak to thee in the worldly language of that carnal reason, which is, for the present, thy blind and imperfect guide. What is the object for which thou art content to draw thy sword? Is it not that the church and state should be reformed by the free voice of a free parliament, with such laws as shall hereafter prevent the executive government from spilling the blood, torturing and imprisoning the persons, exhausting the estates, and trampling upon the consciences of men, at their own wicked pleasure?”

“Most certainly,” said Morton; “such I esteem legitimate causes of warfare, and for such I will fight while I can wield a sword.”

“Nay, but,” said Macbriar, “ye handle this matter too tenderly; nor will my conscience permit me to fard or daub over the causes of divine wrath.”

“Peace, Ephraim Macbriar!” again interrupted Burley.

“I will not peace,” said the young man. “Is it not the cause of my Master who hath sent me? Is it not a profane and Erastian destroying of his authority, usurpation of his power, denial of his name, to place either King or Parliament in his place as the master and governor of his household, the adulterous husband of his spouse?”

“You speak well,” said Burley, dragging him aside, “but not wisely; your own ears have heard this night in council how this scattered remnant are broken and divided, and would ye now make a veil of separation between them? Would ye build a wall with unslaked mortar? — if a fox go up, it will breach it.”

“I know,” said the young clergyman, in reply, “that thou art faithful, honest, and zealous, even unto slaying; but, believe me, this worldly craft, this temporizing with sin and with infirmity, is in itself a falling away; and I fear me Heaven will not honour us to do much more for His glory, when we seek to carnal cunning and to a fleshly arm. The sanctified end must be wrought by sanctified means.”

“I tell thee,” answered Balfour, “thy zeal is too rigid in this matter; we cannot yet do without the help of the Laodiceans and the Erastians; we must endure for a space the indulged in the midst of the council — the sons of Zeruiah are yet too strong for us.”

“I tell thee I like it not,” said Macbriar; “God can work deliverance by a few as well as by a multitude. The host of the faithful that was broken upon Pentland-hills, paid but the fitting penalty of acknowledging the carnal interest of that tyrant and oppressor, Charles Stewart.”

“Well, then,” said Balfour, “thou knowest the healing resolution that the council have adopted — to make a comprehending declaration, that may suit the tender consciences of all who groan under the yoke of our present oppressors. Return to the council if thou wilt, and get them to recall it, and send forth one upon narrower grounds. But abide not here to hinder my gaining over this youth, whom my soul travails for; his name alone will call forth hundreds to our banners.”

“Do as thou wilt, then,” said Macbriar; “but I will not assist to mislead the youth, nor bring him into jeopardy of life, unless upon such grounds as will ensure his eternal reward.”

The more artful Balfour then dismissed the impatient preacher, and returned to his proselyte.

That we may be enabled to dispense with detailing at length the arguments by which he urged Morton to join the insurgents, we shall take this opportunity to give a brief sketch of the person by whom they were used, and the motives which he had for interesting himself so deeply in the conversion of young Morton to his cause.

John Balfour of Kinloch, or Burley, for he is designated both ways in the histories and proclamations of that melancholy period, was a gentleman of some fortune, and of good family, in the county of Fife, and had been a soldier from his youth upwards. In the younger part of his life he had been wild and licentious, but had early laid aside open profligacy, and embraced the strictest tenets of Calvinism. Unfortunately, habits of excess and intemperance were more easily rooted out of his dark, saturnine, and enterprising spirit, than the vices of revenge and ambition, which continued, notwithstanding his religious professions, to exercise no small sway over his mind. Daring in design, precipitate and violent in execution, and going to the very extremity of the most rigid recusancy, it was his ambition to place himself at the head of the presbyterian interest.

To attain this eminence among the whigs, he had been active in attending their conventicles, and more than once had commanded them when they appeared in arms, and beaten off the forces sent to disperse them. At length, the gratification of his own fierce enthusiasm, joined, as some say, with motives of private revenge, placed him at the head of that party who assassinated the Primate of Scotland, as the author of the sufferings of the presbyterians. The violent measures adopted by government to revenge this deed, not on the perpetrators only, but on the whole professors of the religion to which they belonged, together with long previous sufferings, without any prospect of deliverance, except by force of arms, occasioned the insurrection, which, as we have already seen, commenced by the defeat of Claverhouse in the bloody skirmish of Loudon-hill.

But Burley, notwithstanding the share he had in the victory, was far from finding himself at the summit which his ambition aimed at. This was partly owing to the various opinions entertained among the insurgents concerning the murder of Archbishop Sharpe. The more violent among them did, indeed, approve of this act as a deed of justice, executed upon a persecutor of God’s church through the immediate inspiration of the Deity; but the greater part of the presbyterians disowned the deed as a crime highly culpable, although they admitted, that the Archbishop’s punishment had by no means exceeded his deserts. The insurgents differed in another main point, which has been already touched upon. The more warm and extravagant fanatics condemned, as guilty of a pusillanimous abandonment of the rights of the church, those preachers and congregations who were contented, in any manner, to exercise their religion through the permission of the ruling government. This, they said, was absolute Erastianism, or subjection of the church of God to the regulations of an earthly government, and therefore but one degree better than prelacy or popery. — Again, the more moderate party were content to allow the king’s title to the throne, and in secular affairs to acknowledge his authority, so long as it was exercised with due regard to the liberties of the subject, and in conformity to the laws of the realm. But the tenets of the wilder sect, called, from their leader Richard Cameron, by the name of Cameronians, went the length of disowning the reigning monarch, and every one of his successors, who should not acknowledge the Solemn League and Covenant. The seeds of disunion were, therefore, thickly sown in this ill-fated party; and Balfour, however enthusiastic, and however much attached to the most violent of those tenets which we have noticed, saw nothing but ruin to the general cause, if they were insisted on during this crisis, when unity was of so much consequence. Hence he disapproved, as we have seen, of the honest, downright, and ardent zeal of Macbriar, and was extremely desirous to receive the assistance of the moderate party of presbyterians in the immediate overthrow of the government, with the hope of being hereafter able to dictate to them what should be substituted in its place.

He was, on this account, particularly anxious to secure the accession of Henry Morton to the cause of the insurgents. The memory of his father was generally esteemed among the presbyterians; and as few persons of any decent quality had joined the insurgents, this young man’s family and prospects were such as almost ensured his being chosen a leader. Through Morton’s means, as being the son of his ancient comrade, Burley conceived he might exercise some influence over the more liberal part of the army, and ultimately, perhaps, ingratiate himself so far with them, as to be chosen commander-inchief, which was the mark at which his ambition aimed. He had, therefore, without waiting till any other person took up the subject, exalted to the council the talents and disposition of Morton, and easily obtained his elevation to the painful rank of a leader in this disunited and undisciplined army.

The arguments by which Balfour pressed Morton to accept of this dangerous promotion, as soon as he had gotten rid of his less wary and uncompromising companion, Macbriar, were sufficiently artful and urgent. He did not affect either to deny or to disguise that the sentiments which he himself entertained concerning church government, went as far as those of the preacher who had just left them; but he argued, that when the affairs of the nation were at such a desperate crisis, minute difference of opinion should not prevent those who, in general, wished well to their oppressed country, from drawing their swords in its behalf. Many of the subjects of division, as, for example, that concerning the Indulgence itself, arose, he observed, out of circumstances which would cease to exist, provided their attempt to free the country should be successful, seeing that the presbytery, being in that case triumphant, would need to make no such compromise with the government, and, consequently, with the abolition of the Indulgence all discussion of its legality would be at once ended. He insisted much and strongly upon the necessity of taking advantage of this favourable crisis, upon the certainty of their being joined by the force of the whole western shires, and upon the gross guilt which those would incur, who, seeing the distress of the country, and the increasing tyranny with which it was governed, should, from fear or indifference, withhold their active aid from the good cause.

Morton wanted not these arguments to induce him to join in any insurrection, which might appear to have a feasible prospect of freedom to the country. He doubted, indeed, greatly, whether the present attempt was likely to be supported by the strength sufficient to ensure success, or by the wisdom and liberality of spirit necessary to make a good use of the advantages that might be gained. Upon the whole, however, considering the wrongs he had personally endured, and those which he had seen daily inflicted on his fellow-subjects; meditating also upon the precarious and dangerous situation in which he already stood with relation to the government, he conceived himself, in every point of view, called upon to join the body of presbyterians already in arms.

But while he expressed to Burley his acquiescence in the vote which had named him a leader among the insurgents, and a member of their council of war, it was not without a qualification.

“I am willing,” he said, “to contribute every thing within my limited power to effect the emancipation of my country. But do not mistake me. I disapprove, in the utmost degree, of the action in which this rising seems to have originated; and no arguments should induce me to join it, if it is to be carried on by such measures as that with which it has commenced.”

Burley’s blood rushed to his face, giving a ruddy and dark glow to his swarthy brow.

“You mean,” he said, in a voice which he designed should not betray any emotion —“You mean the death of James Sharpe?”

“Frankly,” answered Morton, “such is my meaning.”

“You imagine, then,” said Burley, “that the Almighty, in times of difficulty, does not raise up instruments to deliver his church from her oppressors? You are of opinion that the justice of an execution consists, not in the extent of the sufferer’s crime, or in his having merited punishment, or in the wholesome and salutary effect which that example is likely to produce upon other evil-doers, but hold that it rests solely in the robe of the judge, the height of the bench, and the voice of the doomster? Is not just punishment justly inflicted, whether on the scaffold or the moor? And where constituted judges, from cowardice, or from having cast in their lot with transgressors, suffer them not only to pass at liberty through the land, but to sit in the high places, and dye their garments in the blood of the saints, is it not well done in any brave spirits who shall draw their private swords in the public cause?”

“I have no wish to judge this individual action,” replied Morton, “further than is necessary to make you fully aware of my principles. I therefore repeat, that the case you have supposed does not satisfy my judgment. That the Almighty, in his mysterious providence, may bring a bloody man to an end deservedly bloody, does not vindicate those who, without authority of any kind, take upon themselves to be the instruments of execution, and presume to call them the executors of divine vengeance.”

“And were we not so?” said Burley, in a tone of fierce enthusiasm. “Were not we — was not every one who owned the interest of the Covenanted Church of Scotland, bound by that covenant to cut off the Judas who had sold the cause of God for fifty thousand merks a-year? Had we met him by the way as he came down from London, and there smitten him with the edge of the sword, we had done but the duty of men faithful to our cause, and to our oaths recorded in heaven. Was not the execution itself a proof of our warrant? Did not the Lord deliver him into our hands, when we looked out but for one of his inferior tools of persecution? Did we not pray to be resolved how we should act, and was it not borne in on our hearts as if it had been written on them with the point of a diamond, ‘Ye shall surely take him and slay him?’— Was not the tragedy full half an hour in acting ere the sacrifice was completed, and that in an open heath, and within the patrols of their garrisons — and yet who interrupted the great work? — What dog so much as bayed us during the pursuit, the taking, the slaying, and the dispersing? Then, who will say — who dare say, that a mightier arm than ours was not herein revealed?”

“You deceive yourself, Mr Balfour,” said Morton; “such circumstances of facility of execution and escape have often attended the commission of the most enormous crimes. — But it is not mine to judge you. I have not forgotten that the way was opened to the former liberation of Scotland by an act of violence which no man can justify — the slaughter of Cumming by the hand of Robert Bruce; and, therefore, condemning this action, as I do and must, I am not unwilling to suppose that you may have motives vindicating it in your own eyes, though not in mine, or in those of sober reason. I only now mention it, because I desire you to understand, that I join a cause supported by men engaged in open war, which it is proposed to carry on according to the rules of civilized nations, without, in any respect, approving of the act of violence which gave immediate rise to it.”

Balfour bit his lip, and with difficulty suppressed a violent answer. He perceived, with disappointment, that, upon points of principle, his young brother-inarms possessed a clearness of judgment, and a firmness of mind, which afforded but little hope of his being able to exert that degree of influence over him which he had expected to possess. After a moment’s pause, however, he said, with coolness, “My conduct is open to men and angels. The deed was not done in a corner; I am here in arms to avow it, and care not where, or by whom, I am called on to do so; whether in the council, the field of battle, the place of execution, or the day of the last great trial. I will not now discuss it further with one who is yet on the other side of the veil. But if you will cast in your lot with us as a brother, come with me to the council, who are still sitting, to arrange the future march of the army, and the means of improving our victory.”

Morton arose and followed him in silence; not greatly delighted with his associate, and better satisfied with the general justice of the cause which he had espoused, than either with the measures or the motives of many of those who were embarked in it.

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