Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 31

But, hark! the tent has changed its voice,

There’s peace and rest nae langer.

Burns.

The Lowdien Mallisha they

Came with their coats of blew;

Five hundred men from London came,

Claid in a reddish hue.

Bothwell Lines.

When Morton had left the well-ordered outposts of the regular army, and arrived at those which were maintained by his own party, he could not but be peculiarly sensible of the difference of discipline, and entertain a proportional degree of fear for the consequences. The same discords which agitated the counsels of the insurgents, raged even among their meanest followers; and their picquets and patrols were more interested and occupied in disputing the true occasion and causes of wrath, and defining the limits of Erastian heresy, than in looking out for and observing the motions of their enemies, though within hearing of the royal drums and trumpets.

There was a guard, however, of the insurgent army, posted at the long and narrow bridge of Bothwell, over which the enemy must necessarily advance to the attack; but, like the others, they were divided and disheartened; and, entertaining the idea that they were posted on a desperate service, they even meditated withdrawing themselves to the main body. This would have been utter ruin; for, on the defence or loss of this pass the fortune of the day was most likely to depend. All beyond the bridge was a plain open field, excepting a few thickets of no great depth, and, consequently, was ground on which the undisciplined forces of the insurgents, deficient as they were in cavalry, and totally unprovided with artillery, were altogether unlikely to withstand the shock of regular troops.

Morton, therefore, viewed the pass carefully, and formed the hope, that by occupying two or three houses on the left bank of the river, with the copse and thickets of alders and hazels that lined its side, and by blockading the passage itself, and shutting the gates of a portal, which, according to the old fashion, was built on the central arch of the bridge of Bothwell, it might be easily defended against a very superior force. He issued directions accordingly, and commanded the parapets of the bridge, on the farther side of the portal, to be thrown down, that they might afford no protection to the enemy when they should attempt the passage. Morton then conjured the party at this important post to be watchful and upon their guard, and promised them a speedy and strong reinforcement. He caused them to advance videttes beyond the river to watch the progress of the enemy, which outposts he directed should be withdrawn to the left bank as soon as they approached; finally, he charged them to send regular information to the main body of all that they should observe. Men under arms, and in a situation of danger, are usually sufficiently alert in appreciating the merit of their officers. Morton’s intelligence and activity gained the confidence of these men, and with better hope and heart than before, they began to fortify their position in the manner he recommended, and saw him depart with three loud cheers.

Morton now galloped hastily towards the main body of the insurgents, but was surprised and shocked at the scene of confusion and clamour which it exhibited, at the moment when good order and concord were of such essential consequence. Instead of being drawn up in line of battle, and listening to the commands of their officers, they were crowding together in a confused mass, that rolled and agitated itself like the waves of the sea, while a thousand tongues spoke, or rather vociferated, and not a single ear was found to listen. Scandalized at a scene so extraordinary, Morton endeavoured to make his way through the press to learn, and, if possible, to remove, the cause of this so untimely disorder. While he is thus engaged, we shall make the reader acquainted with that which he was some time in discovering.

The insurgents had proceeded to hold their day of humiliation, which, agreeably to the practice of the puritans during the earlier civil war, they considered as the most effectual mode of solving all difficulties, and waiving all discussions. It was usual to name an ordinary week-day for this purpose, but on this occasion the Sabbath itself was adopted, owing to the pressure of the time and the vicinity of the enemy. A temporary pulpit, or tent, was erected in the middle of the encampment; which, according to the fixed arrangement, was first to be occupied by the Reverend Peter Poundtext, to whom the post of honour was assigned, as the eldest clergyman present. But as the worthy divine, with slow and stately steps, was advancing towards the rostrum which had been prepared for him, he was prevented by the unexpected apparition of Habakkuk Mucklewrath, the insane preacher, whose appearance had so much startled Morton at the first council of the insurgents after their victory at Loudon-hill. It is not known whether he was acting under the influence and instigation of the Cameronians, or whether he was merely compelled by his own agitated imagination, and the temptation of a vacant pulpit before him, to seize the opportunity of exhorting so respectable a congregation. It is only certain that he took occasion by the forelock, sprung into the pulpit, cast his eyes wildly round him, and, undismayed by the murmurs of many of the audience, opened the Bible, read forth as his text from the thirteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, “Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, let us go and serve other gods, which you have not known;” and then rushed at once into the midst of his subject.

The harangue of Mucklewrath was as wild and extravagant as his intrusion was unauthorized and untimely; but it was provokingly coherent, in so far as it turned entirely upon the very subjects of discord, of which it had been agreed to adjourn the consideration until some more suitable opportunity. Not a single topic did he omit which had offence in it; and, after charging the moderate party with heresy, with crouching to tyranny, with seeking to be at peace with God’s enemies, he applied to Morton, by name, the charge that he had been one of those men of Belial, who, in the words of his text, had gone out from amongst them, to withdraw the inhabitants of his city, and to go astray after false gods. To him, and all who followed him, or approved of his conduct, Mucklewrath denounced fury and vengeance, and exhorted those who would hold themselves pure and undefiled to come up from the midst of them.

“Fear not,” he said, “because of the neighing of horses, or the glittering of breastplates. Seek not aid of the Egyptians, because of the enemy, though they may be numerous as locusts, and fierce as dragons. Their trust is not as our trust, nor their rock as our rock; how else shall a thousand fly before one, and two put ten thousand to the flight! I dreamed it in the visions of the night, and the voice said, ‘Habakkuk, take thy fan and purge the wheat from the chaff, that they be not both consumed with the fire of indignation and the lightning of fury.’ Wherefore, I say, take this Henry Morton — this wretched Achan, who hath brought the accursed thing among ye, and made himself brethren in the camp of the enemy — take him and stone him with stones, and thereafter burn him with fire, that the wrath may depart from the children of the Covenant. He hath not taken a Babylonish garment, but he hath sold the garment of righteousness to the woman of Babylon — he hath not taken two hundred shekels of fine silver, but he hath bartered the truth, which is more precious than shekels of silver or wedges of gold.”

At this furious charge, brought so unexpectedly against one of their most active commanders, the audience broke out into open tumult, some demanding that there should instantly be a new election of officers, into which office none should hereafter be admitted who had, in their phrase, touched of that which was accursed, or temporized more or less with the heresies and corruptions of the times. While such was the demand of the Cameronians, they vociferated loudly, that those who were not with them were against them — that it was no time to relinquish the substantial part of the covenanted testimony of the Church, if they expected a blessing on their arms and their cause; and that, in their eyes, a lukewarm Presbyterian was little better than a Prelatist, an Anti-Covenanter, and a Nullifidian.

The parties accused repelled the charge of criminal compliance and defection from the truth with scorn and indignation, and charged their accusers with breach of faith, as well as with wrong-headed and extravagant zeal in introducing such divisions into an army, the joint strength of which could not, by the most sanguine, be judged more than sufficient to face their enemies. Poundtext, and one or two others, made some faint efforts to stem the increasing fury of the factious, exclaiming to those of the other party, in the words of the Patriarch — “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between thy herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we be brethren.” No pacific overture could possibly obtain audience. It was in vain that even Burley himself, when he saw the dissension proceed to such ruinous lengths, exerted his stern and deep voice, commanding silence and obedience to discipline. The spirit of insubordination had gone forth, and it seemed as if the exhortation of Habakkuk Mucklewrath had communicated a part of his frenzy to all who heard him. The wiser, or more timid part of the assembly, were already withdrawing themselves from the field, and giving up their cause as lost. Others were moderating a harmonious call, as they somewhat improperly termed it, to new officers, and dismissing those formerly chosen, and that with a tumult and clamour worthy of the deficiency of good sense and good order implied in the whole transaction. It was at this moment when Morton arrived in the field and joined the army, in total confusion, and on the point of dissolving itself. His arrival occasioned loud exclamations of applause on the one side, and of imprecation on the other.

“What means this ruinous disorder at such a moment?” he exclaimed to Burley, who, exhausted with his vain exertions to restore order, was now leaning on his sword, and regarding the confusion with an eye of resolute despair.

“It means,” he replied, “that God has delivered us into the hands of our enemies.”

“Not so,” answered Morton, with a voice and gesture which compelled many to listen; “it is not God who deserts us, it is we who desert him, and dishonour ourselves by disgracing and betraying the cause of freedom and religion. — Hear me,” he exclaimed, springing to the pulpit which Mucklewrath had been compelled to evacuate by actual exhaustion —“I bring from the enemy an offer to treat, if you incline to lay down your arms. I can assure you the means of making an honourable defence, if you are of more manly tempers. The time flies fast on. Let us resolve either for peace or war; and let it not be said of us in future days, that six thousand Scottish men in arms had neither courage to stand their ground and fight it out, nor prudence to treat for peace, nor even the coward’s wisdom to retreat in good time and with safety. What signifies quarrelling on minute points of church-discipline, when the whole edifice is threatened with total destruction? O, remember, my brethren, that the last and worst evil which God brought upon the people whom he had once chosen — the last and worst punishment of their blindness and hardness of heart, was the bloody dissensions which rent asunder their city, even when the enemy were thundering at its gates!”

Some of the audience testified their feeling of this exhortation, by loud exclamations of applause; others by hooting, and exclaiming —“To your tents, O Israel!”

Morton, who beheld the columns of the enemy already beginning to appear on the right bank, and directing their march upon the bridge, raised his voice to its utmost pitch, and, pointing at the same time with his hand, exclaimed — “Silence your senseless clamours, yonder is the enemy! On maintaining the bridge against him depend our lives, as well as our hope to reclaim our laws and liberties. — There shall at least one Scottishman die in their defence. — Let any one who loves his country follow me!”

The multitude had turned their heads in the direction to which he pointed. The sight of the glittering files of the English Foot-Guards, supported by several squadrons of horse, of the cannon which the artillerymen were busily engaged in planting against the bridge, of the plaided clans who seemed to search for a ford, and of the long succession of troops which were destined to support the attack, silenced at once their clamorous uproar, and struck them with as much consternation as if it were an unexpected apparition, and not the very thing which they ought to have been looking out for. They gazed on each other, and on their leaders, with looks resembling those that indicate the weakness of a patient when exhausted by a fit of frenzy. Yet when Morton, springing from the rostrum, directed his steps towards the bridge, he was followed by about an hundred of the young men who were particularly attached to his command.

Burley turned to Macbriar —“Ephraim,” he said, “it is Providence points us the way, through the worldly wisdom of this latitudinarian youth. — He that loves the light, let him follow Burley!”

“Tarry,” replied Macbriar; “it is not by Henry Morton, or such as he, that our goings-out and our comings-in are to be meted; therefore tarry with us. I fear treachery to the host from this nullifidian Achan — Thou shalt not go with him. Thou art our chariots and our horsemen.”

“Hinder me not,” replied Burley; “he hath well said that all is lost, if the enemy win the bridge — therefore let me not. Shall the children of this generation be called wiser or braver than the children of the sanctuary? — Array yourselves under your leaders — let us not lack supplies of men and ammunition; and accursed be he who turneth back from the work on this great day!”

Having thus spoken, he hastily marched towards the bridge, and was followed by about two hundred of the most gallant and zealous of his party. There was a deep and disheartened pause when Morton and Burley departed. The commanders availed themselves of it to display their lines in some sort of order, and exhorted those who were most exposed to throw themselves upon their faces to avoid the cannonade which they might presently expect. The insurgents ceased to resist or to remonstrate; but the awe which had silenced their discords had dismayed their courage. They suffered themselves to be formed into ranks with the docility of a flock of sheep, but without possessing, for the time, more resolution or energy; for they experienced a sinking of the heart, imposed by the sudden and imminent approach of the danger which they had neglected to provide against while it was yet distant. They were, however, drawn out with some regularity; and as they still possessed the appearance of an army, their leaders had only to hope that some favourable circumstance would restore their spirits and courage.

Kettledrummle, Poundtext, Macbriar, and other preachers, busied themselves in their ranks, and prevailed on them to raise a psalm. But the superstitious among them observed, as an ill omen, that their song of praise and triumph sunk into “a quaver of consternation,” and resembled rather a penitentiary stave sung on the scaffold of a condemned criminal, than the bold strain which had resounded along the wild heath of Loudon-hill, in anticipation of that day’s victory. The melancholy melody soon received a rough accompaniment; the royal soldiers shouted, the Highlanders yelled, the cannon began to fire on one side, and the musketry on both, and the bridge of Bothwell, with the banks adjacent, were involved in wreaths of smoke.

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