Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 33

They require

Of Heaven the hearts of lions, breath of tigers,

Yea and the fierceness too.

Fletcher.

Evening had fallen; and, for the last two hours, they had seen none of their ill-fated companions, when Morton and his faithful attendant gained the moorland, and approached a large and solitary farmhouse, situated in the entrance of a wild glen, far remote from any other habitation.

“Our horses,” said Morton, “will carry us no farther without rest or food, and we must try to obtain them here, if possible.”

So speaking, he led the way to the house. The place had every appearance of being inhabited. There was smoke issuing from the chimney in a considerable volume, and the marks of recent hoofs were visible around the door. They could even hear the murmuring of human voices within the house. But all the lower windows were closely secured; and when they knocked at the door, no answer was returned. After vainly calling and entreating admittance, they withdrew to the stable, or shed, in order to accommodate their horses, ere they used farther means of gaining admission. In this place they found ten or twelve horses, whose state of fatigue, as well as the military yet disordered appearance of their saddles and accoutrements, plainly indicated that their owners were fugitive insurgents in their own circumstances.

“This meeting bodes luck,” said Cuddie; “and they hae walth o’ beef, that’s ae thing certain, for here’s a raw hide that has been about the hurdies o’ a stot not half an hour syne — it’s warm yet.”

Encouraged by these appearances, they returned again to the house, and, announcing themselves as men in the same predicament with the inmates, clamoured loudly for admittance.

“Whoever ye be,” answered a stern voice from the window, after a long and obdurate silence, “disturb not those who mourn for the desolation and captivity of the land, and search out the causes of wrath and of defection, that the stumbling-blocks may be removed over which we have stumbled.”

“They are wild western whigs,” said Cuddie, in a whisper to his master, “I ken by their language. Fiend hae me, if I like to venture on them!”

Morton, however, again called to the party within, and insisted on admittance; but, finding his entreaties still disregarded, he opened one of the lower windows, and pushing asunder the shutters, which were but slightly secured, stepped into the large kitchen from which the voice had issued. Cuddie followed him, muttering betwixt his teeth, as he put his head within the window, “That he hoped there was nae scalding brose on the fire;” and master and servant both found themselves in the company of ten or twelve armed men, seated around the fire, on which refreshments were preparing, and busied apparently in their devotions.

In the gloomy countenances, illuminated by the fire-light, Morton had no difficulty in recognising several of those zealots who had most distinguished themselves by their intemperate opposition to all moderate measures, together with their noted pastor, the fanatical Ephraim Macbriar, and the maniac, Habakkuk Mucklewrath. The Cameronians neither stirred tongue nor hand to welcome their brethren in misfortune, but continued to listen to the low murmured exercise of Macbriar, as he prayed that the Almighty would lift up his hand from his people, and not make an end in the day of his anger. That they were conscious of the presence of the intruders only appeared from the sullen and indignant glances which they shot at them, from time to time, as their eyes encountered.

Morton, finding into what unfriendly society he had unwittingly intruded, began to think of retreating; but, on turning his head, observed with some alarm, that two strong men had silently placed themselves beside the window, through which they had entered. One of these ominous sentinels whispered to Cuddie, “Son of that precious woman, Mause Headrigg, do not cast thy lot farther with this child of treachery and perdition — Pass on thy way, and tarry not, for the avenger of blood is behind thee.”

With this he pointed to the window, out of which Cuddie jumped without hesitation; for the intimation he had received plainly implied the personal danger he would otherwise incur.

“Winnocks are no lucky wi’ me,” was his first reflection when he was in the open air; his next was upon the probable fate of his master. “They’ll kill him, the murdering loons, and think they’re doing a gude turn! but I’se tak the back road for Hamilton, and see if I canna get some o’ our ain folk to bring help in time of needcessity.”

So saying, Cuddie hastened to the stable, and taking the best horse he could find instead of his own tired animal, he galloped off in the direction he proposed.

The noise of his horse’s tread alarmed for an instant the devotion of the fanatics. As it died in the distance, Macbriar brought his exercise to a conclusion, and his audience raised themselves from the stooping posture, and louring downward look, with which they had listened to it, and all fixed their eyes sternly on Henry Morton.

“You bend strange countenances on me, gentlemen,” said he, addressing them. “I am totally ignorant in what manner I can have deserved them.”

“Out upon thee! out upon thee!” exclaimed Mucklewrath, starting up: “the word that thou hast spurned shall become a rock to crush and to bruise thee; the spear which thou wouldst have broken shall pierce thy side; we have prayed, and wrestled, and petitioned for an offering to atone the sins of the congregation, and lo! the very head of the offence is delivered into our hand. He hath burst in like a thief through the window; he is a ram caught in the thicket, whose blood shall be a drink-offering to redeem vengeance from the church, and the place shall from henceforth be called Jehovah-Jireh, for the sacrifice is provided. Up then, and bind the victim with cords to the horns of the altar!”

There was a movement among the party; and deeply did Morton regret at that moment the incautious haste with which he had ventured into their company. He was armed only with his sword, for he had left his pistols at the bow of his saddle; and, as the whigs were all provided with fire-arms, there was little or no chance of escaping from them by resistance. The interposition, however, of Macbriar protected him for the moment.

“Tarry yet a while, brethren — let us not use the sword rashly, lest the load of innocent blood lie heavy on us. — Come,” he said, addressing himself to Morton, “we will reckon with thee ere we avenge the cause thou hast betrayed. — Hast thou not,” he continued, “made thy face as hard as flint against the truth in all the assemblies of the host?”

“He has — he has,” murmured the deep voices of the assistants.

“He hath ever urged peace with the malignants,” said one.

“And pleaded for the dark and dismal guilt of the Indulgence,” said another.

“And would have surrendered the host into the hands of Monmouth,” echoed a third; “and was the first to desert the honest and manly Burley, while he yet resisted at the pass. I saw him on the moor, with his horse bloody with spurring, long ere the firing had ceased at the bridge.”

“Gentlemen,” said Morton, “if you mean to bear me down by clamour, and take my life without hearing me, it is perhaps a thing in your power; but you will sin before God and man by the commission of such a murder.”

“I say, hear the youth,” said Macbriar; “for Heaven knows our bowels have yearned for him, that he might be brought to see the truth, and exert his gifts in its defence. But he is blinded by his carnal knowledge, and has spurned the light when it blazed before him.”

Silence being obtained, Morton proceeded to assert the good faith which he had displayed in the treaty with Monmouth, and the active part he had borne in the subsequent action.

“I may not, gentlemen,” he said, “be fully able to go the lengths you desire, in assigning to those of my own religion the means of tyrannizing over others; but none shall go farther in asserting our own lawful freedom. And I must needs aver, that had others been of my mind in counsel, or disposed to stand by my side in battle, we should this evening, instead of being a defeated and discordant remnant, have sheathed our weapons in an useful and honourable peace, or brandished them triumphantly after a decisive victory.”

“He hath spoken the word,” said one of the assembly —“he hath avowed his carnal self-seeking and Erastianism; let him die the death!”

“Peace yet again,” said Macbriar, “for I will try him further. — Was it not by thy means that the malignant Evandale twice escaped from death and captivity? Was it not through thee that Miles Bellenden and his garrison of cut-throats were saved from the edge of the sword?”

“I am proud to say, that you have spoken the truth in both instances,” replied Morton.

“Lo! you see,” said Macbriar, “again hath his mouth spoken it. — And didst thou not do this for the sake of a Midianitish woman, one of the spawn of prelacy, a toy with which the arch-enemy’s trap is baited? Didst thou not do all this for the sake of Edith Bellenden?”

“You are incapable,” answered Morton, boldly, “of appreciating my feelings towards that young lady; but all that I have done I would have done had she never existed.”

“Thou art a hardy rebel to the truth,” said another dark-brow’d man; “and didst thou not so act, that, by conveying away the aged woman, Margaret Bellenden, and her grand-daughter, thou mightest thwart the wise and godly project of John Balfour of Burley for bringing forth to battle Basil Olifant, who had agreed to take the field if he were insured possession of these women’s worldly endowments?”

“I never heard of such a scheme,” said Morton, “and therefore I could not thwart it. — But does your religion permit you to take such uncreditable and immoral modes of recruiting?”

“Peace,” said Macbriar, somewhat disconcerted; “it is not for thee to instruct tender professors, or to construe Covenant obligations. For the rest, you have acknowledged enough of sin and sorrowful defection, to draw down defeat on a host, were it as numerous as the sands on the sea-shore. And it is our judgment, that we are not free to let you pass from us safe and in life, since Providence hath given you into our hands at the moment that we prayed with godly Joshua, saying, ‘What shall we say when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies?’— Then camest thou, delivered to us as it were by lot, that thou mightest sustain the punishment of one that hath wrought folly in Israel. Therefore, mark my words. This is the Sabbath, and our hand shall not be on thee to spill thy blood upon this day; but, when the twelfth hour shall strike, it is a token that thy time on earth hath run! Wherefore improve thy span, for it flitteth fast away. — Seize on the prisoner, brethren, and take his weapon.”

The command was so unexpectedly given, and so suddenly executed by those of the party who had gradually closed behind and around Morton, that he was overpowered, disarmed, and a horse-girth passed round his arms, before he could offer any effectual resistance. When this was accomplished, a dead and stern silence took place. The fanatics ranged themselves around a large oaken table, placing Morton amongst them bound and helpless, in such a manner as to be opposite to the clock which was to strike his knell. Food was placed before them, of which they offered their intended victim a share; but, it will readily be believed, he had little appetite. When this was removed, the party resumed their devotions. Macbriar, whose fierce zeal did not perhaps exclude some feelings of doubt and compunction, began to expostulate in prayer, as if to wring from the Deity a signal that the bloody sacrifice they proposed was an acceptable service. The eyes and ears of his hearers were anxiously strained, as if to gain some sight or sound which might be converted or wrested into a type of approbation, and ever and anon dark looks were turned on the dial-plate of the time-piece, to watch its progress towards the moment of execution.

Morton’s eye frequently took the same course, with the sad reflection, that there appeared no posibility of his life being expanded beyond the narrow segment which the index had yet to travel on the circle until it arrived at the fatal hour. Faith in his religion, with a constant unyielding principle of honour, and the sense of conscious innocence, enabled him to pass through this dreadful interval with less agitation than he himself could have expected, had the situation been prophesied to him. Yet there was a want of that eager and animating sense of right which supported him in similar circumstances, when in the power of Claverhouse. Then he was conscious, that, amid the spectators, were many who were lamenting his condition, and some who applauded his conduct. But now, among these pale-eyed and ferocious zealots, whose hardened brows were soon to be bent, not merely with indifference, but with triumph, upon his execution — without a friend to speak a kindly word, or give a look either of sympathy or encouragement — awaiting till the sword destined to slay him crept out of the scabbard gradually, and as it were by strawbreadths, and condemned to drink the bitterness of death drop by drop — it is no wonder that his feelings were less composed than they had been on any former occasion of danger. His destined executioners, as he gazed around them, seemed to alter their forms and features, like spectres in a feverish dream; their figures became larger, and their faces more disturbed; and, as an excited imagination predominated over the realities which his eyes received, he could have thought himself surrounded rather by a band of demons than of human beings; the walls seemed to drop with blood, and the light tick of the clock thrilled on his ear with such loud, painful distinctness, as if each sound were the prick of a bodkin inflicted on the naked nerve of the organ.

Morton Awaiting Death
Morton Awaiting Death

It was with pain that he felt his mind wavering, while on the brink between this and the future world. He made a strong effort to compose himself to devotional exercises, and unequal, during that fearful strife of nature, to arrange his own thoughts into suitable expressions, he had, instinctively, recourse to the petition for deliverance and for composure of spirit which is to be found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Macbriar, whose family were of that persuasion, instantly recognised the words, which the unfortunate prisoner pronounced half aloud.

“There lacked but this,” he said, his pale cheek kindling with resentment, “to root out my carnal reluctance to see his blood spilt. He is a prelatist, who has sought the camp under the disguise of an Erastian, and all, and more than all, that has been said of him must needs be verity. His blood be on his head, the deceiver! — let him go down to Tophet, with the ill-mumbled mass which he calls a prayer-book, in his right hand!”

“I take up my song against him!” exclaimed the maniac. “As the sun went back on the dial ten degrees for intimating the recovery of holy Hezekiah, so shall it now go forward, that the wicked may be taken away from among the people, and the Covenant established in its purity.”

He sprang to a chair with an attitude of frenzy, in order to anticipate the fatal moment by putting the index forward; and several of the party began to make ready their slaughter-weapons for immediate execution, when Mucklewrath’s hand was arrested by one of his companions.

“Hist!” he said —“I hear a distant noise.”

“It is the rushing of the brook over the pebbles,” said one.

“It is the sough of the wind among the bracken,” said another.

“It is the galloping of horse,” said Morton to himself, his sense of hearing rendered acute by the dreadful situation in which he stood; “God grant they may come as my deliverers!”

The noise approached rapidly, and became more and more distinct.

“It is horse,” cried Macbriar. “Look out and descry who they are.”

“The enemy are upon us!” cried one who had opened the window, in obedience to his order.

A thick trampling and loud voices were heard immediately round the house. Some rose to resist, and some to escape; the doors and windows were forced at once, and the red coats of the troopers appeared in the apartment.

“Have at the bloody rebels! — Remember Cornet Grahame!” was shouted on every side.

The lights were struck down, but the dubious glare of the fire enabled them to continue the fray. Several pistol-shots were fired; the whig who stood next to Morton received a shot as he was rising, stumbled against the prisoner, whom he bore down with his weight, and lay stretched above him a dying man. This accident probably saved Morton from the damage he might otherwise have received in so close a struggle, where fire-arms were discharged and sword-blows given for upwards of five minutes.

“Is the prisoner safe?” exclaimed the well-known voice of Claverhouse; “look about for him, and dispatch the whig dog who is groaning there.”

Both orders were executed. The groans of the wounded man were silenced by a thrust with a rapier, and Morton, disencumbered of his weight, was speedily raised and in the arms of the faithful Cuddie, who blubbered for joy when he found that the blood with which his master was covered had not flowed from his own veins. A whisper in Morton’s ear, while his trusty follower relieved him from his bonds, explained the secret of the very timely appearance of the soldiers.

“I fell into Claverhouse’s party when I was seeking for some o’ our ain folk to help ye out o’ the hands of the whigs, sae being atween the deil and the deep sea, I e’en thought it best to bring him on wi’ me, for he’ll be wearied wi’ felling folk the night, and the morn’s a new day, and Lord Evandale awes ye a day in ha’arst; and Monmouth gies quarter, the dragoons tell me, for the asking. Sae haud up your heart, an’ I’se warrant we’ll do a’ weel eneugh yet.” 32

32 NOTE TO CHAPTER XII: The principal incident of the foregoing Chapter was suggested by an occurrence of a similar kind, told me by a gentleman, now deceased, who held an important situation in the Excise, to which he had been raised by active and resolute exertions in an inferior department. When employed as a supervisor on the coast of Galloway, at a time when the immunities of the Isle of Man rendered smuggling almost universal in that district, this gentleman had the fortune to offend highly several of the leaders in the contraband trade, by his zeal in serving the revenue.

This rendered his situation a dangerous one, and, on more than one occasion, placed his life in jeopardy. At one time in particular, as he was riding after sunset on a summer evening, he came suddenly upon a gang of the most desperate smugglers in that part of the country. They surrounded him, without violence, but in such a manner as to show that it would be resorted to if he offered resistance, and gave him to understand he must spend the evening with them, since they had met so happily. The officer did not attempt opposition, but only asked leave to send a country lad to tell his wife and family that he should be detained later than he expected. As he had to charge the boy with this message in the presence of the smugglers, he could found no hope of deliverance from it, save what might arise from the sharpness of the lad’s observation, and the natural anxiety and affection of his wife. But if his errand should be delivered and received literally, as he was conscious the smugglers expected, it was likely that it might, by suspending alarm about his absence from home, postpone all search after him till it might be useless. Making a merit of necessity, therefore, he instructed and dispatched his messenger, and went with the contraband traders, with seeming willingness, to one of their ordinary haunts. He sat down at table with them, and they began to drink and indulge themselves in gross jokes, while, like Mirabel in the “Inconstant,” their prisoner had the heavy task of receiving their insolence as wit, answering their insults with good-humour, and withholding from them the opportunity which they sought of engaging him in a quarrel, that they might have a pretence for misusing him. He succeeded for some time, but soon became satisfied it was their purpose to murder him out-right, or else to beat him in such a manner as scarce to leave him with life. A regard for the sanctity of the Sabbath evening, which still oddly subsisted among these ferocious men, amidst their habitual violation of divine and social law, prevented their commencing their intended cruelty until the Sabbath should be terminated. They were sitting around their anxious prisoner, muttering to each other words of terrible import, and watching the index of a clock, which was shortly to strike the hour at which, in their apprehension, murder would become lawful, when their intended victim heard a distant rustling like the wind among withered leaves. It came nearer, and resembled the sound of a brook in flood chafing within its banks; it came nearer yet, and was plainly distinguished as the galloping of a party of horse. The absence of her husband, and the account given by the boy of the suspicious appearance of those with whom he had remained, had induced Mrs — to apply to the neighbouring town for a party of dragoons, who thus providentially arrived in time to save him from extreme violence, if not from actual destruction.

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