Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 22

And look how many Grecian tents do stand

Hollow upon this plain — so many hollow factions.

Troilus and Cressida.

In a hollow of the hill, about a quarter of a mile from the field of battle, was a shepherd’s hut; a miserable cottage, which, as the only enclosed spot within a moderate distance, the leaders of the presbyterian army had chosen for their council-house. Towards this spot Burley guided Morton, who was surprised, as he approached it, at the multifarious confusion of sounds which issued from its precincts. The calm and anxious gravity which it might be supposed would have presided in councils held on such important subjects, and at a period so critical, seemed to have given place to discord wild, and loud uproar, which fell on the ear of their new ally as an evil augury of their future measures. As they approached the door, they found it open indeed, but choked up with the bodies and heads of countrymen, who, though no members of the council, felt no scruple in intruding themselves upon deliberations in which they were so deeply interested. By expostulation, by threats, and even by some degree of violence, Burley, the sternness of whose character maintained a sort of superiority over these disorderly forces, compelled the intruders to retire, and, introducing Morton into the cottage, secured the door behind them against impertinent curiosity. At a less agitating moment, the young man might have been entertained with the singular scene of which he now found himself an auditor and a spectator.

The precincts of the gloomy and ruinous hut were enlightened partly by some furze which blazed on the hearth, the smoke whereof, having no legal vent, eddied around, and formed over the heads of the assembled council a clouded canopy, as opake as their metaphysical theology, through which, like stars through mist, were dimly seen to twinkle a few blinking candles, or rather rushes dipped in tallow, the property of the poor owner of the cottage, which were stuck to the walls by patches of wet clay. This broken and dusky light showed many a countenance elated with spiritual pride, or rendered dark by fierce enthusiasm; and some whose anxious, wandering, and uncertain looks, showed they felt themselves rashly embarked in a cause which they had neither courage nor conduct to bring to a good issue, yet knew not how to abandon, for very shame. They were, indeed, a doubtful and disunited body. The most active of their number were those concerned with Burley in the death of the Primate, four or five of whom had found their way to Loudon-hill, together with other men of the same relentless and uncompromising zeal, who had, in various ways, given desperate and unpardonable offence to the government.

With them were mingled their preachers, men who had spurned at the indulgence offered by government, and preferred assembling their flocks in the wilderness, to worshipping in temples built by human hands, if their doing the latter should be construed to admit any right on the part of their rulers to interfere with the supremacy of the Kirk. The other class of counsellors were such gentlemen of small fortune, and substantial farmers, as a sense of intolerable oppression had induced to take arms and join the insurgents. These also had their clergymen with them, and such divines, having many of them taken advantage of the indulgence, were prepared to resist the measures of their more violent brethren, who proposed a declaration in which they should give testimony against the warrants and instructions for indulgence as sinful and unlawful acts. This delicate question had been passed over in silence in the first draught of the manifestos which they intended to publish, of the reasons of their gathering in arms; but it had been stirred anew during Balfour’s absence, and, to his great vexation, he now found that both parties had opened upon it in full cry, Macbriar, Kettledrummle, and other teachers of the wanderers, being at the very spring-tide of polemical discussion with Peter Poundtext, the indulged pastor of Milnwood’s parish, who, it seems, had e’en girded himself with a broadsword, but, ere he was called upon to fight for the good cause of presbytery in the field, was manfully defending his own dogmata in the council. It was the din of this conflict, maintained chiefly between Poundtext and Kettledrummle, together with the clamour of their adherents, which had saluted Morton’s ears upon approaching the cottage. Indeed, as both the divines were men well gifted with words and lungs, and each fierce, ardent, and intolerant in defence of his own doctrine, prompt in the recollection of texts wherewith they battered each other without mercy, and deeply impressed with the importance of the subject of discussion, the noise of the debate betwixt them fell little short of that which might have attended an actual bodily conflict.

Burley, scandalized at the disunion implied in this virulent strife of tongues, interposed between the disputants, and, by some general remarks on the unseasonableness of discord, a soothing address to the vanity of each party, and the exertion of the authority which his services in that day’s victory entitled him to assume, at length succeeded in prevailing upon them to adjourn farther discussion of the controversy. But although Kettledrummle and Poundtext were thus for the time silenced, they continued to eye each other like two dogs, who, having been separated by the authority of their masters while fighting, have retreated, each beneath the chair of his owner, still watching each other’s motions, and indicating, by occasional growls, by the erected bristles of the back and ears, and by the red glance of the eye, that their discord is unappeased, and that they only wait the first opportunity afforded by any general movement or commotion in the company, to fly once more at each other’s throats.

Balfour took advantage of the momentary pause to present to the council Mr Henry Morton of Milnwood, as one touched with a sense of the evils of the times, and willing to peril goods and life in the precious cause for which his father, the renowned Silas Morton, had given in his time a soul-stirring testimony. Morton was instantly received with the right hand of fellowship by his ancient pastor, Poundtext, and by those among the insurgents who supported the more moderate principles. The others muttered something about Erastianism, and reminded each other in whispers, that Silas Morton, once a stout and worthy servant of the Covenant, had been a backslider in the day when the resolutioners had led the way in owning the authority of Charles Stewart, thereby making a gap whereat the present tyrant was afterwards brought in, to the oppression both of Kirk and country. They added, however, that, on this great day of calling, they would not refuse society with any who should put hand to the plough; and so Morton was installed in his office of leader and counsellor, if not with the full approbation of his colleagues, at least without any formal or avowed dissent. They proceeded, on Burley’s motion, to divide among themselves the command of the men who had assembled, and whose numbers were daily increasing. In this partition, the insurgents of Poundtext’s parish and congregation were naturally placed under the command of Morton; an arrangement mutually agreeable to both parties, as he was recommended to their confidence, as well by his personal qualities as his having been born among them.

When this task was accomplished, it became necessary to determine what use was to be made of their victory. Morton’s heart throbbed high when he heard the Tower of Tillietudlem named as one of the most important positions to be seized upon. It commanded, as we have often noticed, the pass between the more wild and the more fertile country, and must furnish, it was plausibly urged, a stronghold and place of rendezvous to the cavaliers and malignants of the district, supposing the insurgents were to march onward and leave it uninvested. This measure was particularly urged as necessary by Poundtext and those of his immediate followers, whose habitations and families might be exposed to great severities, if this strong place were permitted to remain in possession of the royalists.

“I opine,” said Poundtext — for, like the other divines of the period, he had no hesitation in offering his advice upon military matters of which he was profoundly ignorant — “I opine, that we should take in and raze that stronghold of the woman Lady Margaret Bellenden, even though we should build a fort and raise a mount against it; for the race is a rebellious and a bloody race, and their hand has been heavy on the children of the Covenant, both in the former and the latter times. Their hook hath been in our noses, and their bridle betwixt our jaws.”

“What are their means and men of defence?” said Burley. “The place is strong; but I cannot conceive that two women can make it good against a host.”

“There is also,” said Poundtext, “Harrison the steward, and John Gudyill, even the lady’s chief butler, who boasteth himself a man of war from his youth upward, and who spread the banner against the good cause with that man of Belial, James Grahame of Montrose.”

“Pshaw!” returned Burley, scornfully, “a butler!”

“Also, there is that ancient malignant,” replied Poundtext, “Miles Bellenden of Charnwood, whose hands have been dipped in the blood of the saints.”

“If that,” said Burley, “be Miles Bellenden, the brother of Sir Arthur, he is one whose sword will not turn back from battle; but he must now be stricken in years.”

“There was word in the country as I rode along,” said another of the council, “that so soon as they heard of the victory which has been given to us, they caused shut the gates of the tower, and called in men, and collected ammunition. They were ever a fierce and a malignant house.”

“We will not, with my consent,” said Burley, “engage in a siege which may consume time. We must rush forward, and follow our advantage by occupying Glasgow; for I do not fear that the troops we have this day beaten, even with the assistance of my Lord Ross’s regiment, will judge it safe to await our coming.”

“Howbeit,” said Poundtext, “we may display a banner before the Tower, and blow a trumpet, and summon them to come forth. It may be that they will give over the place into our mercy, though they be a rebellious people. And we will summon the women to come forth of their stronghold, that is, Lady Margaret Bellenden and her grand-daughter, and Jenny Dennison, which is a girl of an ensnaring eye, and the other maids, and we will give them a safe conduct, and send them in peace to the city, even to the town of Edinburgh. But John Gudyill, and Hugh Harrison, and Miles Bellenden, we will restrain with fetters of iron, even as they, in times bypast, have done to the martyred saints.”

“Who talks of safe conduct and of peace?” said a shrill, broken, and overstrained voice, from the crowd.

“Peace, brother Habakkuk,” said Macbriar, in a soothing tone, to the speaker.

“I will not hold my peace,” reiterated the strange and unnatural voice; “is this a time to speak of peace, when the earth quakes, and the mountains are rent, and the rivers are changed into blood, and the two-edged sword is drawn from the sheath to drink gore as if it were water, and devour flesh as the fire devours dry stubble?”

While he spoke thus, the orator struggled forward to the inner part of the circle, and presented to Morton’s wondering eyes a figure worthy of such a voice and such language. The rags of a dress which had once been black, added to the tattered fragments of a shepherd’s plaid, composed a covering scarce fit for the purposes of decency, much less for those of warmth or comfort. A long beard, as white as snow, hung down on his breast, and mingled with bushy, uncombed, grizzled hair, which hung in elf-locks around his wild and staring visage. The features seemed to be extenuated by penury and famine, until they hardly retained the likeness of a human aspect. The eyes, grey, wild, and wandering, evidently betokened a bewildered imagination. He held in his hand a rusty sword, clotted with blood, as were his long lean hands, which were garnished at the extremity with nails like eagle’s claws.

“In the name of Heaven! who is he?” said Morton, in a whisper to Poundtext, surprised, shocked, and even startled, at this ghastly apparition, which looked more like the resurrection of some cannibal priest, or druid red from his human sacrifice, than like an earthly mortal.

“It is Habakkuk Mucklewrath,” answered Poundtext, in the same tone, “whom the enemy have long detained in captivity in forts and castles, until his understanding hath departed from him, and, as I fear, an evil demon hath possessed him. Nevertheless, our violent brethren will have it, that he speaketh of the spirit, and that they fructify by his pouring forth.”

Here he was interrupted by Mucklewrath, who cried in a voice that made the very beams of the roof quiver —“Who talks of peace and safe conduct? who speaks of mercy to the bloody house of the malignants? I say take the infants and dash them against the stones; take the daughters and the mothers of the house and hurl them from the battlements of their trust, that the dogs may fatten on their blood as they did on that of Jezabel, the spouse of Ahab, and that their carcasses may be dung to the face of the field even in the portion of their fathers!”

“He speaks right,” said more than one sullen voice from behind; “we will be honoured with little service in the great cause, if we already make fair weather with Heaven’s enemies.”

“This is utter abomination and daring impiety,” said Morton, unable to contain his indignation.

“What blessing can you expect in a cause, in which you listen to the mingled ravings of madness and atrocity?”

“Hush, young man!” said Kettledrummle, “and reserve thy censure for that for which thou canst render a reason. It is not for thee to judge into what vessels the spirit may be poured.”

“We judge of the tree by the fruit,” said Poundtext, “and allow not that to be of divine inspiration that contradicts the divine laws.”

“You forget, brother Poundtext,” said Macbriar, “that these are the latter days, when signs and wonders shall be multiplied.”

Poundtext stood forward to reply; but, ere he could articulate a word, the insane preacher broke in with a scream that drowned all competition.

“Who talks of signs and wonders? Am not I Habakkuk Mucklewrath, whose name is changed to Magor-Missabib, because I am made a terror unto myself and unto all that are around me? — I heard it — When did I hear it? — Was it not in the Tower of the Bass, that overhangeth the wide wild sea? — And it howled in the winds, and it roared in the billows, and it screamed, and it whistled, and it clanged, with the screams and the clang and the whistle of the sea-birds, as they floated, and flew, and dropped, and dived, on the bosom of the waters. I saw it — Where did I see it? — Was it not from the high peaks of Dunbarton, when I looked westward upon the fertile land, and northward on the wild Highland hills; when the clouds gathered and the tempest came, and the lightnings of heaven flashed in sheets as wide as the banners of an host? — What did I see? — Dead corpses and wounded horses, the rushing together of battle, and garments rolled in blood. — What heard I? — The voice that cried, Slay, slay — smite — slay utterly — let not your eye have pity! slay utterly, old and young, the maiden, the child, and the woman whose head is grey — Defile the house and fill the courts with the slain!”

“We receive the command,” exclaimed more than one of the company. “Six days he hath not spoken nor broken bread, and now his tongue is unloosed:— We receive the command; as he hath said, so will we do.”

Astonished, disgusted, and horror-struck, at what he had seen and heard, Morton turned away from the circle and left the cottage. He was followed by Burley, who had his eye on his motions.

“Whither are you going?” said the latter, taking him by the arm.

“Any where — I care not whither; but here I will abide no longer.”

“Art thou so soon weary, young man?” answered Burley. “Thy hand is but now put to the plough, and wouldst thou already abandon it? Is this thy adherence to the cause of thy father?”

“No cause,” replied Morton, indignantly —“no cause can prosper, so conducted. One party declares for the ravings of a bloodthirsty madman; another leader is an old scholastic pedant; a third”— he stopped, and his companion continued the sentence —“Is a desperate homicide, thou wouldst say, like John Balfour of Burley? — I can bear thy misconstruction without resentment. Thou dost not consider, that it is not men of sober and self-seeking minds, who arise in these days of wrath to execute judgment and to accomplish deliverance. Hadst thou but seen the armies of England, during her Parliament of 1640, whose ranks were filled with sectaries and enthusiasts, wilder than the anabaptists of Munster, thou wouldst have had more cause to marvel; and yet these men were unconquered on the field, and their hands wrought marvellous things for the liberties of the land.”

“But their affairs,” replied Morton, “were wisely conducted, and the violence of their zeal expended itself in their exhortations and sermons, without bringing divisions into their counsels, or cruelty into their conduct. I have often heard my father say so, and protest, that he wondered at nothing so much as the contrast between the extravagance of their religious tenets, and the wisdom and moderation with which they conducted their civil and military affairs. But our councils seem all one wild chaos of confusion.”

“Thou must have patience, Henry Morton,” answered Balfour; “thou must not leave the cause of thy religion and country either for one wild word, or one extravagant action. Hear me. I have already persuaded the wiser of our friends, that the counsellors are too numerous, and that we cannot expect that the Midianites shall, by so large a number, be delivered into our hands. They have hearkened to my voice, and our assemblies will be shortly reduced within such a number as can consult and act together; and in them thou shalt have a free voice, as well as in ordering our affairs of war, and protecting those to whom mercy should be shown — Art thou now satisfied?”

“It will give me pleasure, doubtless,” answered Morton, “to be the means of softening the horrors of civil war; and I will not leave the post I have taken, unless I see measures adopted at which my conscience revolts. But to no bloody executions after quarter asked, or slaughter without trial, will I lend countenance or sanction; and you may depend on my opposing them, with both heart and hand, as constantly and resolutely, if attempted by our own followers, as when they are the work of the enemy.”

Balfour waved his hand impatiently.

“Thou wilt find,” he said, “that the stubborn and hard-hearted generation with whom we deal, must be chastised with scorpions ere their hearts be humbled, and ere they accept the punishment of their iniquity. The word is gone forth against them, ‘I will bring a sword upon you that shall avenge the quarrel of my Covenant.’ But what is done shall be done gravely, and with discretion, like that of the worthy James Melvin, who executed judgment on the tyrant and oppressor, Cardinal Beaton.”

“I own to you,” replied Morton, “that I feel still more abhorrent at cold-blooded and premeditated cruelty, than at that which is practised in the heat of zeal and resentment.”

“Thou art yet but a youth,” replied Balfour, “and hast not learned how light in the balance are a few drops of blood in comparison to the weight and importance of this great national testimony. But be not afraid; thyself shall vote and judge in these matters; it may be we shall see little cause to strive together anent them.”

With this concession Morton was compelled to be satisfied for the present; and Burley left him, advising him to lie down and get some rest, as the host would probably move in the morning.

“And you,” answered Morton, “do not you go to rest also?”

“No,” said Burley; “my eyes must not yet know slumber. This is no work to be done lightly; I have yet to perfect the choosing of the committee of leaders, and I will call you by times in the morning to be present at their consultation.”

He turned away, and left Morton to his repose.

The place in which he found himself was not ill adapted for the purpose, being a sheltered nook, beneath a large rock, well protected from the prevailing wind. A quantity of moss with which the ground was overspread, made a couch soft enough for one who had suffered so much hardship and anxiety. Morton wrapped himself in the horse-man’s cloak which he had still retained, stretched himself on the ground, and had not long indulged in melancholy reflections on the state of the country, and upon his own condition, ere he was relieved from them by deep and sound slumber.

The rest of the army slept on the ground, dispersed in groups, which chose their beds on the fields as they could best find shelter and convenience. A few of the principal leaders held wakeful conference with Burley on the state of their affairs, and some watchmen were appointed who kept themselves on the alert by chanting psalms, or listening to the exercises of the more gifted of their number.

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