Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 42

Then out and spake the auld mother,

And fast her tears did fa

“Ye wadna be warn’d, my son Johnie,

Frae the hunting to bide awa!”

Old Ballad.

When he entered the cottage, Morton perceived that the old hostess had spoken truth. The inside of the hut belied its outward appearance, and was neat, and even comfortable, especially the inner apartment, in which the hostess informed her guest that he was to sup and sleep. Refreshments were placed before him such as the little inn afforded; and though he had small occasion for them, he accepted the offer, as the means of maintaining some discourse with the landlady. Notwithstanding her blindness, she was assiduous in her attendance, and seemed, by a sort of instinct, to find her way to what she wanted.

“Have you no one but this pretty little girl to assist you in waiting on your guests?” was the natural question.

“None, sir,” replied his old hostess; “I dwell alone, like the widow of Zarephath. Few guests come to this puir place, and I haena custom eneugh to hire servants. I had anes twa fine sons that lookit after a’ thing. — But God gives and takes away — His name be praised!” she continued, turning her clouded eyes towards Heaven. —“I was anes better off, that is, waridly speaking, even since I lost them; but that was before this last change.”

“Indeed!” said Morton; “and yet you are a Presbyterian, my good mother?”

“I am, sir; praised be the light that showed me the right way,” replied the landlady.

“Then I should have thought,” continued the guest, the Revolution would have brought you nothing but good.”

“If,” said the old woman, “it has brought the land gude, and freedom of worship to tender consciences, it’s little matter what it has brought to a puir blind worm like me.”

“Still,” replied Morton, “I cannot see how it could possibly injure you.”

“It’s a lang story, sir,” answered his hostess, with a sigh. “But ae night, sax weeks or thereby afore Bothwell Brigg, a young gentleman stopped at this puir cottage, stiff and bloody with wounds, pale and dune out wi’ riding, and his horse sae weary he couldna drag ae foot after the other, and his foes were close ahint him, and he was ane o’ our enemies. What could I do, sir? You that’s a sodger will think me but a silly auld wife; but I fed him, and relieved him, and keepit him hidden till the pursuit was ower.”

“And who,” said Morton, “dares disapprove of your having done so?”

“I kenna,” answered the blind woman; “I gat ill-will about it amang some o’ our ain folk. They said I should hae been to him what Jael was to Sisera. But weel I wot I had nae divine command to shed blood, and to save it was baith like a woman and a Christian. And then they said I wanted natural affection, to relieve ane that belanged to the band that murdered my twa sons.”

“That murdered your two sons?”

“Ay, sir; though maybe ye’ll gie their deaths another name. The tane fell wi’ sword in hand, fighting for a broken national Covenant; the tother — oh, they took him and shot him dead on the green before his mother’s face! My auld een dazzled when the shots were looten off, and, to my thought, they waxed weaker and weaker ever since that weary day; and sorrow, and heart-break, and tears that would not be dried, might help on the disorder. But, alas! betraying Lord Evandale’s young blood to his enemies’ sword wad ne’er hae brought my Ninian and Johnie alive again.”

“Lord Evandale?” said Morton, in surprise. “Was it Lord Evandale whose life you saved?”

“In troth, even his,” she replied. “And kind he was to me after, and gae me a cow and calf, malt, meal, and siller, and nane durst steer me when he was in power. But we live on an outside bit of Tillietudlem land, and the estate was sair plea’d between Leddy Margaret Bellenden and the present laird, Basil Olifant, and Lord Evandale backed the auld leddy for love o’ her daughter Miss Edith, as the country said, ane o’ the best and bonniest lassies in Scotland. But they behuved to gie way, and Basil gat the Castle and land, and on the back o’ that came the Revolution, and wha to turn coat faster than the laird? for he said he had been a true Whig a’ the time, and turned papist only for fashion’s sake. And then he got favour, and Lord Evandale’s head was under water; for he was ower proud and manfu’ to bend to every blast o’ wind, though mony a ane may ken as weel as me that be his ain principles as they might, he was nae ill friend to our folk when he could protect us, and far kinder than Basil Olifant, that aye keepit the cobble head doun the stream. But he was set by and ill looked on, and his word ne’er asked; and then Basil, wha’s a revengefu’ man, set himsell to vex him in a’ shapes, and especially by oppressing and despoiling the auld blind widow, Bessie Maclure, that saved Lord Evandale’s life, and that he was sae kind to. But he’s mistaen if that’s his end; for it will be lang or Lord Evandale hears a word frae me about the selling my kye for rent or e’er it was due, or the putting the dragoons on me when the country’s quiet, or onything else that will vex him — I can bear my ain burden patiently, and warld’s loss is the least part o’t.”

Astonished and interested at this picture of patient, grateful, and high-minded resignation, Morton could not help bestowing an execration upon the poor-spirited rascal who had taken such a dastardly course of vengeance.

“Dinna curse him, sir,” said the old woman; “I have heard a good man say that a curse was like a stone flung up to the heavens, and maist like to return on the head that sent it. But if ye ken Lord Evandale, bid him look to himsell, for I hear strange words pass atween the sodgers that are lying here, and his name is often mentioned; and the tane o’ them has been twice up at Tillietudlem. He’s a kind of favourite wi’ the laird, though he was in former times ane o’ the maist cruel oppressors ever rade through a country (out-taken Sergeant Bothwell) — they ca’ him Inglis.”

“I have the deepest interest in Lord Evandale’s safety,” said Morton, “and you may depend on my finding some mode to apprise him of these suspicious circumstances. And, in return, my good friend, will you indulge me with another question? Do you know anything of Quintin Mackell of Irongray?”

“Do I know whom?” echoed the blind woman, in a tone of great surprise and alarm.

“Quintin Mackell of Irongray,” repeated Morton. “Is there anything so alarming in the sound of that name?”

“Na, na,” answered the woman, with hesitation; “but to hear him asked after by a stranger and a sodger — Gude protect us, what mischief is to come next!”

“None by my means, I assure you,” said Morton; “the subject of my inquiry has nothing to fear from me if, as I suppose, this Quintin Mackell is the same with John Bal ——-.”

“Do not mention his name,” said the widow, pressing his lips with her fingers. “I see you have his secret and his pass-word, and I’ll be free wi’ you. But, for God’s sake, speak lound and low. In the name of Heaven, I trust ye seek him not to his hurt! Ye said ye were a sodger?”

“I said truly; but one he has nothing to fear from. I commanded a party at Bothwell Bridge.”

“Indeed?” said the woman. “And verily there is something in your voice I can trust. Ye speak prompt and readily, and like an honest man.”

“I trust I am so,” said Morton.

“But nae displeasure to you, sir, in thae waefu’ times,” continued Mrs. Maclure, “the hand of brother is against brother, and he fears as mickle almaist frae this Government as e’er he did frae the auld persecutors.”

“Indeed?” said Morton, in a tone of inquiry; I was not aware of that. But I am only just now returned from abroad.”

“I’ll tell ye,” said the blind woman, first assuming an attitude of listening that showed how effectually her powers of collecting intelligence had been transferred from the eye to the ear; for, instead of casting a glance of circumspection around, she stooped her face, and turned her head slowly around, in such a manner as to insure that there was not the slightest sound stirring in the neighbourhood, and then continued — “I’ll tell ye. Ye ken how he has laboured to raise up again the Covenant, burned, broken, and buried in the hard hearts and selfish devices of this stubborn people. Now, when he went to Holland, far from the countenance and thanks of the great, and the comfortable fellowship of the godly, both whilk he was in right to expect, the Prince of Orange wad show him no favour, and the ministers no godly communion. This was hard to bide for ane that had suffered and done mickle — ower mickle, it may be; but why suld I be a judge? He came back to me and to the auld place o’ refuge that had often received him in his distresses, mair especially before the great day of victory at Drumclog, for I sail ne’er forget how he was bending hither of a’ nights in the year on that e’ening after the play when young Milnwood wan the popinjay; but I warned him off for that time.”

“What!” exclaimed Morton, “it was you that sat in your red cloak by the high-road, and told him there was a lion in the path?”

“In the name of Heaven! wha are ye?” said the old woman, breaking off her narrative in astonishment. “But be wha ye may,” she continued, resuming it with tranquillity, “ye can ken naething waur o’ me than that I hae been willing to save the life o’ friend and foe.”

“I know no ill of you, Mrs. Maclure, and I mean no ill by you; I only wished to show you that I know so much of this person’s affairs that I might be safely intrusted with the rest. Proceed, if you please, in your narrative.”

“There is a strange command in your voice,” said the blind woman, “though its tones are sweet. I have little mair to say. The Stewarts hae been dethroned, and William and Mary reign in their stead; but nae mair word of the Covenant than if it were a dead letter. They hae taen the indulged clergy, and an Erastian General Assembly of the ante pure and triumphant Kirk of Scotland, even into their very arms and bosoms. Our faithfu’ champions o’ the testimony agree e’en waur wi’ this than wi’ the open tyranny and apostasy of the persecuting times, for souls are hardened and deadened, and the mouths of fasting multitudes are crammed wi’ fizenless bran instead of the sweet word in season; and mony an hungry, starving creature, when he sits down on a Sunday forenoon to get something that might warm him to the great work, has a dry clatter o’ morality driven about his lugs, and —”

“In short,” said Morton, desirous to stop a discussion which the good old woman, as enthusiastically attached to her religious profession as to the duties of humanity, might probably have indulged longer — “In short, you are not disposed to acquiesce in this new government, and Burley is of the same opinion?”

“Many of our brethren, sir, are of belief we fought for the Covenant, and fasted and prayed and suffered for that grand national league, and now we are like neither to see nor hear tell of that which we suffered and fought and fasted and prayed for. And anes it was thought something might be made by bringing back the auld family on a new bargain and a new bottom, as, after a’, when King James went awa, I understand the great quarrel of the English against him was in behalf of seven unhallowed prelates; and sae, though ae part of our people were free to join wi’ the present model, and levied an armed regiment under the Yerl of Angus, yet our honest friend, and others that stude up for purity of doctrine and freedom of conscience, were determined to hear the breath o’ the Jacobites before they took part again them, fearing to fa’ to the ground like a wall built with unslaked mortar, or from sitting between twa stools.”

“They chose an odd quarter,” said Morton, “from which to expect freedom of conscience and purity of doctrine.”

“Oh, dear sir!” said the landlady, “the natural day-spring rises in the east, but the spiritual dayspring may rise in the north, for what we blinded mortals ken.”

“And Burley went to the north to seek it?” replied the guest.

“Truly ay, sir; and he saw Claver’se himsell, that they ca’ Dundee now.”

“What!” exclaimed Morton, in amazement; “I would have sworn that meeting would have been the last of one of their lives.”

“Na, na, sir; in troubled times, as I understand,” said Mrs. Maclure, “there’s sudden changes — Montgomery and Ferguson and mony ane mair that were King James’s greatest faes are on his side now. Claver’se spake our friend fair, and sent him to consult with Lord Evandale. But then there was a break-off, for Lord Evandale wadna look at, hear, or speak wi’ him; and now he’s anes wud and aye waur, and roars for revenge again Lord Evandale, and will hear nought of onything but burn and slay. And oh, thae starts o’ passion! they unsettle his mind, and gie the Enemy sair advantages.”

“The enemy?” said Morton; “What enemy?”

“What enemy? Are ye acquainted familiarly wi’ John Balfour o’ Burley, and dinna ken that he has had sair and frequent combats to sustain against the Evil One? Did ye ever see him alone but the Bible was in his hand, and the drawn sword on his knee? Did ye never sleep in the same room wi’ him, and hear him strive in his dreams with the delusions of Satan? Oh, ye ken little o’ him if ye have seen him only in fair daylight; for nae man can put the face upon his doleful visits and strifes that he can do. I hae seen him, after sic a strife of agony, tremble that an infant might hae held him, while the hair on his brow was drapping as fast as ever my puir thatched roof did in a heavy rain.” As she spoke, Morton began to recollect the appearance of Burley during his sleep in the hay-loft at Milnwood, the report of Cuddie that his senses had become impaired, and some whispers current among the Cameronians, who boasted frequently of Burley’s soul-exercises and his strifes with the foul fiend — which several circumstances led him to conclude that this man himself was a victim to those delusions, though his mind, naturally acute and forcible, not only disguised his superstition from those in whose opinion it might have discredited his judgment, but by exerting such a force as is said to be proper to those afflicted with epilepsy, could postpone the fits which it occasioned until he was either freed from superintendence, or surrounded by such as held him more highly on account of these visitations. It was natural to suppose, and could easily be inferred from the narrative of Mrs. Maclure, that disappointed ambition, wrecked hopes, and the downfall of the party which he had served with such desperate fidelity, were likely to aggravate enthusiasm into temporary insanity. It was, indeed, no uncommon circumstance in those singular times that men like Sir Harry Vane, Harrison, Overton, and others, themselves slaves to the wildest and most enthusiastic dreams, could, when mingling with the world, conduct themselves not only with good sense in difficulties, and courage in dangers, but with the most acute sagacity and determined valour. The subsequent part of Mrs. Maclure’s information confirmed Morton in these impressions.

“In the grey of the morning,” she said, “my little Peggy sail show ye the gate to him before the sodgers are up. But ye maun let his hour of danger, as he ca’s it, be ower, afore ye venture on him in his place of refuge. Peggy will tell ye when to venture in. She kens his ways weel, for whiles she carries him some little helps that he canna do without to sustain life.”

“And in what retreat, then,” said Morton, “has this unfortunate person found refuge?”

“An awsome place,” answered the blind woman, “as ever living creature took refuge in; they ca it the Black Linn of Linklater. It’s a doleful place, but he loves it abune a’ others, because he has sae often been in safe hiding there; and it’s my belief he prefers it to a tapestried chamber and a down bed. But ye’ll see ‘t. I hae seen it mysell mony a day syne. I was a daft hempie lassie then, and little thought what was to come o’t. — Wad ye choose ony thing, sir, ere ye betake yoursell to your rest, for ye maun stir wi’ the first dawn o’ the grey light?”

“Nothing more, my good mother,” said Morton; and they parted for the evening.

Morton recommended himself to Heaven, threw himself on the bed, heard, between sleeping and waking, the trampling of the dragoon horses at the riders’ return from their patrol, and then slept soundly after such painful agitation.

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