Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XVII

The Eve of Battle

Although the Highlanders marched on very fast, the sun was declining when they arrived upon the brow of those high grounds which command an open and extensive plain stretching northward to the sea, on which are situated, but at a considerable distance from each other, the small villages of Seaton and Cockenzie, and the larger one of Preston. One of the low coastroads to Edinburgh passed through this plain, issuing upon it from the enclosures of Seaton House, and at the town or village of Preston again entering the denies of an enclosed country. By this way the English general had chosen to approach the metropolis, both as most commodious for his cavalry, and being probably of opinion that by doing so he would meet in front with the Highlanders advancing from Edinburgh in the opposite direction. In this he was mistaken; for the sound judgment of the Chevalier, or of those to whose advice he listened, left the direct passage free, but occupied the strong ground by which it was overlooked and commanded.

When the Highlanders reached the heights above the plain described, they were immediately formed in array of battle along the brow of the hill. Almost at the same instant the van of the English appeared issuing from among the trees and enclosures of Seaton, with the purpose of occupying the level plain between the high ground and the sea; the space which divided the armies being only about half a mile in breadth. Waverley could plainly see the squadrons of dragoons issue, one after another, from the defiles, with their videttes in front, and form upon the plain, with their front opposed to that of the Prince’s army. They were followed by a train of field-pieces, which, when they reached the flank of the dragoons, were also brought into line and pointed against the heights. The march was continued by three or four regiments of infantry marching in open column, their fixed bayonets showing like successive hedges of steel, and their arms glancing like lightning, as, at a signal given, they also at once wheeled up, and were placed in direct opposition to the Highlanders. A second train of artillery, with another regiment of horse, closed the long march, and formed on the left flank of the infantry, the whole line facing southward.

While the English army went through these evolutions, the Highlanders showed equal promptitude and zeal for battle. As fast as the clans came upon the ridge which fronted their enemy, they were formed into line, so that both armies got into complete order of battle at the same moment. When this was accomplished, the Highlanders set up a tremendous yell, which was re-echoed by the heights behind them. The regulars, who were in high spirits, returned a loud shout of defiance, and fired one or two of their cannon upon an advanced post of the Highlanders. The latter displayed great earnestness to proceed instantly to the attack, Evan Dhu urging to Fergus, by way of argument, that ‘the SIDIER ROY was tottering like an egg upon a staff, and that they had a’ the vantage of the onset, for even a haggis (God bless her!) could charge down hill.’

But the ground through which the mountaineers must have descended, although not of great extent, was impracticable in its character, being not only marshy but intersected with walls of dry stone, and traversed in its whole length by a very broad and deep ditch, circumstances which must have given the musketry of the regulars dreadful advantages before the mountaineers could have used their swords, on which they were taught to rely. The authority of the commanders was therefore interposed to curb the impetuosity of the Highlanders, and only a few marksmen were sent down the descent to skirmish with the enemy’s advanced posts and to reconnoitre the ground.

Here, then, was a military spectacle of no ordinary interest or usual occurrence. The two armies, so different in aspect and discipline, yet each admirably trained in its own peculiar mode of war, upon whose conflict the temporary fate at least of Scotland appeared to depend, now faced each other like two gladiators in the arena, each meditating upon the mode of attacking their enemy. The leading officers and the general’s staff of each army could be distinguished in front of their lines, busied with spy-glasses to watch each other’s motions, and occupied in despatching the orders and receiving the intelligence conveyed by the aides-de-camp and orderly men, who gave life to the scene by galloping along in different directions, as if the fate of the day depended upon the speed of their horses. The space between the armies was at times occupied by the partial and irregular contest of individual sharp-shooters, and a hat or bonnet was occasionally seen to fall, as a wounded man was borne off by his comrades. These, however, were but trifling skirmishes, for it suited the views of neither party to advance in that direction. From the neighbouring hamlets the peasantry cautiously showed themselves, as if watching the issue of the expected engagement; and at no great distance in the bay were two square-rigged vessels, bearing the English flag, whose tops and yards were crowded with less timid spectators.

When this awful pause had lasted for a short time, Fergus, with another chieftain, received orders to detach their clans towards the village of Preston, in order to threaten the right flank of Cope’s army and compel him to a change of position. To enable him to execute these orders, the Chief of Glennaquoich occupied the church-yard of Tranent, a commanding situation, and a convenient place, as Evan Dhu remarked, ‘for any gentleman who might have the misfortune to be killed, and chanced to be curious about Christian burial.’ To check or dislodge this party, the English general detached two guns, escorted by a strong party of cavalry. They approached so near that Waverley could plainly recognise the standard of the troop he had formerly commanded, and hear the trumpets and kettle-drums sound the signal of advance which he had so often obeyed. He could hear, too, the well-known word given in the English dialect by the equally well-distinguished voice of the commanding officer, for whom he had once felt so much respect. It was at that instant, that, looking around him, he saw the wild dress and appearance of his Highland associates, heard their whispers in an uncouth and unknown language, looked upon his own dress, so unlike that which he had worn from his infancy, and wished to awake from what seemed at the moment a dream, strange, horrible, and unnatural. ‘Good God!’ he muttered, ‘am I then a traitor to my country, a renegade to my standard, and a foe, as that poor dying wretch expressed himself, to my native England!’

Ere he could digest or smother the recollection, the tall military form of his late commander came full in view, for the purpose of reconnoitring. ‘I can hit him now,’ said Callum, cautiously raising his fusee over the wall under which he lay couched, at scarce sixty yards’ distance.

Edward felt as if he was about to see a parricide committed in his presence; for the venerable grey hair and striking countenance of the veteran recalled the almost paternal respect with which his officers universally regarded him. But ere he could say ‘Hold!’ an aged Highlander who lay beside Callum Beg stopped his arm. ‘Spare your shot,’ said the seer, ‘his hour is not yet come. But let him beware of to-morrow; I see his winding-sheet high upon his breast.’

Callum, flint to other considerations, was penetrable to superstition. He turned pale at the words of the taishatr, and recovered his piece. Colonel Gardiner, unconscious of the danger he had escaped, turned his horse round and rode slowly back to the front of his regiment.

By this time the regular army had assumed a new line, with one flank inclined towards the sea and the other resting upon the village of Preston; and, as similar difficulties occurred in attacking their new position, Fergus and the rest of the detachment were recalled to their former post. This alteration created the necessity of a corresponding change in General Cope’s army, which was again brought into a line parallel with that of the Highlanders. In these manoeuvres on both sides the daylight was nearly consumed, and both armies prepared to rest upon their arms for the night in the lines which they respectively occupied.

‘There will be nothing done to-night,’ said Fergus to his friend Waverley; ’ere we wrap ourselves in our plaids, let us go see what the Baron is doing in the rear of the line.’

When they approached his post, they found the good old careful officer, after having sent out his night patrols and posted his sentinels, engaged in reading the Evening Service of the Episcopal Church to the remainder of his troop. His voice was loud and sonorous, and though his spectacles upon his nose, and the appearance of Saunders Saunderson, in military array, performing the functions of clerk, had something ludicrous, yet the circumstances of danger in which they stood, the military costume of the audience, and the appearance of their horses saddled and picqueted behind them, gave an impressive and solemn effect to the office of devotion.

‘I have confessed to-day, ere you were awake,’ whispered Fergus to Waverley; ‘yet I am not so strict a Catholic as to refuse to join in this good man’s prayers.’

Edward assented, and they remained till the Baron had concluded the service.

As he shut the book, ‘Now, lads,’ said he, ‘have at them in the morning with heavy hands and light consciences.’ He then kindly greeted Mac-Ivor and Waverley, who requested to know his opinion of their situation. Why, you know Tacitus saith, “In rebus bellicis maxime dominalur Fortuna,” which is equiponderate with our vernacular adage, “Luck can maist in the mellee.” But credit me, gentlemen, yon man is not a deacon o’ his craft. He damps the spirits of the poor lads he commands by keeping them on the defensive, whilk of itself implies inferiority or fear. Now will they lie on their arms yonder as anxious and as ill at ease as a toad under a harrow, while our men will be quite fresh and blithe for action in the morning. Well, good-night. One thing troubles me, but if to-morrow goes well off, I will consult you about it, Glennaquoich.’

‘I could almost apply to Mr. Bradwardine the character which Henry gives of Fluellen,’ said Waverley, as his friend and he walked towards their bivouac:

‘Though it appears a little out of fashion,

There is much care and valour in this “Scotchman.”’

‘He has seen much service,’ answered Fergus, ‘and one is sometimes astonished to find how much nonsense and reason are mingled in his composition. I wonder what can be troubling his mind; probably something about Rose. Hark! the English are setting their watch.’

The roll of the drum and shrill accompaniment of the fifes swelled up the hill — died away — resumed its thunder — and was at length hushed. The trumpets and kettle-drums of the cavalry were next heard to perform the beautiful and wild point of war appropriated as a signal for that piece of nocturnal duty, and then finally sunk upon the wind with a shrill and mournful cadence.

The friends, who had now reached their post, stood and looked round them ere they lay down to rest. The western sky twinkled with stars, but a frost-mist, rising from the ocean, covered the eastern horizon, and rolled in white wreaths along the plain where the adverse army lay couched upon their arms. Their advanced posts were pushed as far as the side of the great ditch at the bottom of the descent, and had kindled large fires at different intervals, gleaming with obscure and hazy lustre through the heavy fog which encircled them with a doubtful halo.

The Highlanders,‘thick as leaves in Vallombrosa,’ lay stretched upon the ridge of the hill, buried (excepting their sentinels) in the most profound repose. ‘How many of these brave fellows will sleep more soundly before to-morrow night, Fergus!’ said Waverley, with an involuntary sigh.

‘You must not think of that,’ answered Fergus, whose ideas were entirely military. ‘You must only think of your sword, and by whom it was given. All other reflections are now TOO LATE.’

With the opiate contained in this undeniable remark Edward endeavoured to lull the tumult of his conflicting feelings. The Chieftain and he, combining their plaids, made a comfortable and warm couch. Callum, sitting down at their head (for it was his duty to watch upon the immediate person of the Chief), began a long mournful song in Gaelic, to a low and uniform tune, which, like the sound of the wind at a distance, soon lulled them to sleep.

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