Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 41

Where’s the jolly host

You told me of? ‘T has been my custom ever

To parley with mine host.

Lover’s Progress.

Morton reached the borough town without meeting with any remarkable adventure, and alighted at the little inn. It had occurred to him more than once, while upon his journey, that his resumption of the dress which he had worn while a youth, although favourable to his views in other respects, might render it more difficult for him to remain incognito. But a few years of campaigns and wandering had so changed his appearance that he had great confidence that in the grown man, whose brows exhibited the traces of resolution and considerate thought, none would recognise the raw and bashful stripling who won the game of the popinjay. The only chance was that here and there some Whig, whom he had led to battle, might remember the Captain of the Milnwood Marksmen; but the risk, if there was any, could not be guarded against.

The Howff seemed full and frequented as if possessed of all its old celebrity. The person and demeanour of Niel Blane, more fat and less civil than of yore, intimated that he had increased as well in purse as in corpulence; for in Scotland a landlord’s complaisance for his guests decreases in exact proportion to his rise in the world. His daughter had acquired the air of a dexterous barmaid, undisturbed by the circumstances of love and war, so apt to perplex her in the exercise of her vocation. Both showed Morton the degree of attention which could have been expected by a stranger travelling without attendants, at a time when they were particularly the badges of distinction. He took upon himself exactly the character his appearance presented, went to the stable and saw his horse accommodated, then returned to the house, and seating himself in the public room (for to request one to himself would, in those days, have been thought an overweening degree of conceit), he found himself in the very apartment in which he had some years before celebrated his victory at the game of the popinjay — a jocular preferment which led to so many serious consequences.

He felt himself, as may well be supposed, a much changed man since that festivity; and yet, to look around him, the groups assembled in the Howff seemed not dissimilar to those which the same scene had formerly presented. Two or three burghers husbanded their “dribbles o’ brandy;” two or three dragoons lounged over their muddy ale, and cursed the inactive times that allowed them no better cheer. Their cornet did not, indeed, play at backgammon with the curate in his cassock, but he drank a little modicum of aqua mirabilis with the grey-cloaked Presbyterian minister. The scene was another, and yet the same, differing only in persons, but corresponding in general character.

Let the tide of the world wax or wane as it will, Morton thought as he looked around him, enough will be found to fill the places which chance renders vacant; and in the usual occupations and amusements of life, human beings will succeed each other as leaves upon the same tree, with the same individual difference and the same general resemblance.

After pausing a few minutes, Morton, whose experience had taught him the readiest mode of securing attention, ordered a pint of claret; and as the smiling landlord appeared with the pewter measure foaming fresh from the tap (for bottling wine was not then in fashion), he asked him to sit down and take a share of the good cheer. This invitation was peculiarly acceptable to Niel Blane, who, if he did not positively expect it from every guest not provided with better company, yet received it from many, and was not a whit abashed or surprised at the summons. He sat down, along with his guest, in a secluded nook near the chimney; and while he received encouragement to drink by far the greater share of the liquor before them, he entered at length, as a part of his expected functions, upon the news of the country — the births, deaths, and marriages; the change of property; the downfall of old families, and the rise of new. But politics, now the fertile source of eloquence, mine host did not care to mingle in his theme; and it was only in answer to a question of Morton that he replied, with an air of indifference, “Um! ay! we aye hae sodgers amang us, mair or less. There’s a wheen German horse down at Glasgow yonder; they ca’ their commander Wittybody, or some sic name, though he’s as grave and grewsome an auld Dutchman as e’er I saw.”

“Wittenbold, perhaps?” said Morton — “an old man, with grey hair and short black moustaches; speaks seldom?”

“And smokes for ever,” replied Niel Blane. “I see your honour kens the man. He may be a very gude man too, for aught I see — that is, considering he is a sodger and a Dutchman; but if he were ten generals, and as mony Wittybodies, he has nae skill in the pipes; he gar’d me stop in the middle of Torphichen’s Rant — the best piece o’ music that ever bag gae wind to.”

“But these fellows,” said Morton, glancing his eye towards the soldiers that were in the apartment, are not of his corps?”

“Na, na, these are Scotch dragoons,” said mine host — “our ain auld caterpillars; these were Claver’se’s lads a while syne, and wad be again, maybe, if he had the lang ten in his hand.”

“Is there not a report of his death?” inquired Morton.

“Troth is there,” said the landlord; “your honour is right — there is sic a fleeing rumour; but, in my puir opinion, it’s lang or the deil die. I wad hae the folks here look to themsells. If he makes an outbreak, he’ll be doun frae the Hielands or I could drink this glass — and whare are they then? A’ thae hell-rakers o’ dragoons wad be at his whistle in a moment. Nae doubt they’re Willie’s men e’en now, as they were James’s a while syne; and reason good — they fight for their pay; what else hae they to fight for? They hae neither lands nor houses, I trow. There’s ae gude thing o’ the change, or the Revolution, as they ca’ it — folks may speak out afore thae birkies now, and nae fear o’ being hauled awa to the guard-house, or having the thumikins screwed on your finger-ends, just as I wad drive the screw through a cork.”

There was a little pause, when Morton, feeling confident in the progress he had made in mine host’s familiarity, asked, though with the hesitation proper to one who puts a question on the answer to which rests something of importance, “Whether Blane knew a woman in that neighbourhood called Elizabeth Maclure?”

“Whether I ken Bessie Maclure?” answered the landlord, with a landlord’s laugh — “How can I but ken my ain wife’s (haly be her rest!)— my ain wife’s first gudeman’s sister, Bessie Maclure? An honest wife she is, but sair she’s been trysted wi’ misfortunes — the loss o’ twa decent lads o’ sons, in the time o’ the persecution, as they ca’ it nowadays; and doucely and decently she has borne her burden, blaming nane and condemning nane. If there’s an honest woman in the world, it’s Bessie Maclure. And to lose her twa sons, as I was saying, and to hae dragoons clinked down on her for a month bypast — for, be Whig or Tory uppermost, they aye quarter thae loons on victuallers — to lose, as I was saying —”

“This woman keeps an inn, then?” interrupted Morton.

“A public, in a puir way,” replied Blane, looking round at his own superior accommodations — “a sour browst o’ sma’ ale that she sells to folk that are over drouthy wi’ travel to be nice; but naething to ca’ a stirring trade or a thriving changehouse.”

“Can you get me a guide there?” said Morton.

“Your honour will rest here a’ the night? Ye’ll hardly get accommodation at Bessie’s,” said Niel, whose regard for his deceased wife’s relative by no means extended to sending company from his own house to hers.

“There is a friend,” answered Morton, “whom I am to meet with there, and I only called here to take a stirrup-cup and inquire the way.”

“Your honour had better,” answerd the landlord, with the perseverance of his calling, “send some ane to warn your friend to come on here.”

“I tell you, landlord,” answered Morton, impatiently, “that will not serve my purpose; I must go straight to this woman Maclure’s house, and I desire you to find me a guide.”

“Aweel, sir, ye’ll choose for yoursell, to be sure,” said Niel Blane, somewhat disconcerted; “but deil a guide ye’ll need if ye gae doun the water for twa mile or sae, as gin ye were bound for Milnwoodhouse, and then tak the first broken disjasked-looking road that makes for the hills — ye’ll ken ‘t by a broken ash-tree that stands at the side o’ a burn just where the roads meet; and then travel out the path — ye canna miss Widow Maclure’s public, for deil another house or hauld is on the road for ten lang Scots miles, and that’s worth twenty English. I am sorry your honour would think o’ gaun out o’ my house the night. But my wife’s gude-sister is a decent woman, and it’s no lost that a friend gets.”

Morton accordingly paid his reckoning and departed. The sunset of the summer day placed him at the ash-tree, where the path led up towards the moors.

“Here,” he said to himself, “my misfortunes commenced; for just here, when Burley and I were about to separate on the first night we ever met, he was alarmed by the intelligence that the passes were secured by soldiers lying in wait for him. Beneath that very ash sate the old woman who apprised him of his danger. How strange that my whole fortunes should have become inseparably interwoven with that man’s, without anything more on my part than the discharge of an ordinary duty of humanity! Would to Heaven it were possible I could find my humble quiet and tranquillity of mind upon the spot where I lost them!”

Thus arranging his reflections betwixt speech and thought, he turned his horse’s head up the path.

Evening lowered around him as he advanced up the narrow dell which had once been a wood, but was now a ravine divested of trees, unless where a few, from their inaccessible situation on the edge of precipitous banks, or clinging among rocks and huge stones, defied the invasion of men and of cattle, like the scattered tribes of a conquered country, driven to take refuge in the barren strength of its mountains. These too, wasted and decayed, seemed rather to exist than to flourish, and only served to indicate what the landscape had once been. But the stream brawled down among them in all its freshness and vivacity, giving the life and animation which a mountain rivulet alone can confer on the barest and most savage scenes, and which the inhabitants of such a country miss when gazing even upon the tranquil winding of a majestic stream through plains of fertility, and beside palaces of splendour. The track of the road followed the course of the brook, which was now visible, and now only to be distinguished by its brawling heard among the stones or in the clefts of the rock that occasionally interrupted its course.

“Murmurer that thou art,” said Morton, in the enthusiasm of his reverie, “why chafe with the rocks that stop thy course for a moment? There is a sea to receive thee in its bosom; and there is an eternity for man when his fretful and hasty course through the vale of time shall be ceased and over. What thy petty fuming is to the deep and vast billows of a shoreless ocean, are our cares, hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows to the objects which must occupy us through the awful and boundless succession of ages!”

Thus moralizing, our traveller passed on till the dell opened, and the banks, receding from the brook, left a little green vale, exhibiting a croft, or small field, on which some corn was growing, and a cottage, whose walls were not above five feet high, and whose thatched roof, green with moisture, age, houseleek, and grass, had in some places suffered damage from the encroachment of two cows, whose appetite this appearance of verdure had diverted from their more legitimate pasture. An ill-spelt and worse-written inscription intimated to the traveller that he might here find refreshment for man and horse — no unacceptable intimation, rude as the hut appeared to be, considering the wild path he had trod in approaching it, and the high and waste mountains which rose in desolate dignity behind this humble asylum.

It must indeed have been, thought Morton, in some such spot as this that Burley was likely to find a congenial confident.

As he approached, he observed the good dame of the house herself, seated by the door; she had hitherto been concealed from him by a huge alder-bush.

“Good evening, Mother,” said the traveller. “Your name is Mistress Maclure?”

“Elizabeth Maclure, sir, a poor widow,” was the reply.

“Can you lodge a stranger for a night?”

“I can, sir, if he will be pleased with the widow’s cake and the widow’s cruse.”

“I have been a soldier, good dame,” answered Morton, “and nothing can come amiss to me in the way of entertainment.”

“A sodger, sir?” said the old woman, with a sigh — “God send ye a better trade!”

“It is believed to be an honourable profession, my good dame; I hope you do not think the worse of me for having belonged to it?”

“I judge no one, sir,” replied the woman, “and your voice sounds like that of a civil gentleman; but I hae witnessed sae muckle ill wi’ sodgering in this puir land that I am e’en content that I can see nae mair o’t wi’ these sightless organs.”

As she spoke thus, Morton observed that she was blind.

“Shall I not be troublesome to you, my good dame?” said he, compassionately; “your infirmity seems ill calculated for your profession.”

“Na, sir,” answered the old woman, “I can gang about the house readily eneugh; and I hae a bit lassie to help me, and the dragoon lads will look after your horse when they come hame frae their patrol, for a sma’ matter; they are civiller now than lang syne.”

Upon these assurances, Morton alighted.

“Peggy, my bonny bird,” continued the hostess, addressing a little girl of twelve years old, who had by this time appeared, “tak the gentleman’s horse to the stable, and slack his girths, and tak aff the bridle, and shake down a lock o’ hay before him, till the dragoons come back. — Come this way, sir,” she continued; “ye’ll find my house clean, though it’s a puir ane.”

Morton followed her into the cottage accordingly.

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