The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 18

A purple land, where law secures not life.


The morning of Ash Wednesday arose pale and bleak, as usual at this season in Scotland, where the worst and most inclement weather often occurs in the early spring months. It was a severe day of frost, and the citizens had to sleep away the consequences of the preceding holiday’s debauchery. The sun had therefore risen for an hour above the horizon before there was any general appearance of life among the inhabitants of Perth, so that it was some time after daybreak when a citizen, going early to mass, saw the body of the luckless Oliver Proudfute lying on its face across the kennel in the manner in which he had fallen under the blow; as our readers will easily imagine, of Anthony Bonthron, the “boy of the belt”— that is the executioner of the pleasure — of John of Ramorny.

This early citizen was Allan Griffin, so termed because he was master of the Griffin Inn; and the alarm which he raised soon brought together first straggling neighbours, and by and by a concourse of citizens. At first from the circumstance of the well known buff coat and the crimson feather in the head piece, the noise arose that it was the stout smith that lay there slain. This false rumour continued for some time, for the host of the Griffin, who himself had been a magistrate, would not permit the body to be touched or stirred till Bailie Craigdallie arrived, so that the face was not seen..

“This concerns the Fair City, my friends,” he said, “and if it is the stout Smith of the Wynd who lies here, the man lives not in Perth who will not risk land and life to avenge him. Look you, the villains have struck him down behind his back, for there is not a man within ten Scotch miles of Perth, gentle or simple, Highland or Lowland, that would have met him face to face with such evil purpose. Oh, brave men of Perth! the flower of your manhood has been cut down, and that by a base and treacherous hand.”

A wild cry of fury arose from the people, who were fast assembling.

“We will take him on our shoulders,” said a strong butcher, “we will carry him to the King’s presence at the Dominican convent”

“Ay — ay,” answered a blacksmith, “neither bolt nor bar shall keep us from the King, neither monk nor mass shall break our purpose. A better armourer never laid hammer on anvil!”

“To the Dominicans — to the Dominicans!” shouted the assembled people.

“Bethink you, burghers,” said another citizen, “our king is a good king and loves us like his children. It is the Douglas and the Duke of Albany that will not let good King Robert hear the distresses of his people.”

“Are we to be slain in our own streets for the King’s softness of heart?” said the butcher. “The Bruce did otherwise. If the King will not keep us, we will keep ourselves. Ring the bells backward, every bell of them that is made of metal. Cry, and spare not, St. Johnston’s hunt is up!”

“Ay,” cried another citizen, “and let us to the holds of Albany and the Douglas, and burn them to the ground. Let the fires tell far and near that Perth knew how to avenge her stout Henry Gow. He has fought a score of times for the Fair City’s right; let us show we can once to avenge his wrong. Hally ho! brave citizens, St. Johnston’s hunt is up!”

This cry, the well known rallying word amongst the inhabitants of Perth, and seldom heard but on occasions of general uproar, was echoed from voice to voice; and one or two neighbouring steeples, of which the enraged citizens possessed themselves, either by consent of the priests or in spite of their opposition, began to ring out the ominous alarm notes, in which, as the ordinary succession of the chimes was reversed, the bells were said to be rung backward.

Still, as the crowd thickened, and the roar waxed more universal and louder, Allan Griffin, a burly man with a deep voice, and well respected among high and low, kept his station as he bestrode the corpse, and called loudly to the multitude to keep back and wait the arrival of the magistrates.

“We must proceed by order in this matter, my masters, we must have our magistrates at our head. They are duly chosen and elected in our town hall, good men and true every one; we will not be called rioters, or idle perturbators of the king’s peace. Stand you still, and make room, for yonder comes Bailie Craigdallie, ay, and honest Simon Glover, to whom the Fair City is so much bounden. Alas — alas! my kind townsmen, his beautiful daughter was a bride yesternight; this morning the Fair Maid of Perth is a widow before she has been a wife.”

This new theme of sympathy increased the rage and sorrow of the crowd the more, as many women now mingled with them, who echoed back the alarm cry to the men.

“Ay — ay, St. Johnston’s hunt is up! For the Fair Maid of Perth and the brave Henry Gow! Up — up, every one of you, spare not for your skin cutting! To the stables! — to the stables! When the horse is gone the man at arms is useless — cut off the grooms and yeomen; lame, maim, and stab the horses; kill the base squires and pages. Let these proud knights meet us on their feet if they dare!”

“They dare not — they dare not,” answered the men; “their strength is their horses and armour; and yet the haughty and ungrateful villains have slain a man whose skill as an armourer was never matched in Milan or Venice. To arms! — to arms, brave burghers! St. Johnston’s hunt is up!”

Amid this clamour, the magistrates and superior class of inhabitants with difficulty obtained room to examine the body, having with them the town clerk to take an official protocol, or, as it is still called, a precognition, of the condition in which it was found. To these delays the multitude submitted, with a patience and order which strongly marked the national character of a people whose resentment has always been the more deeply dangerous, that they will, without relaxing their determination of vengeance, submit with patience to all delays which are necessary to ensure its attainment. The multitude, therefore, received their magistrates with a loud cry, in which the thirst of revenge was announced, together with the deferential welcome to the patrons by whose direction they expected to obtain it in right and legal fashion.

While these accents of welcome still rung above the crowd, who now filled the whole adjacent streets, receiving and circulating a thousand varying reports, the fathers of the city caused the body to be raised and more closely examined; when it was instantly perceived, and the truth publicly announced, that not the armourer of the Wynd, so highly and, according to the esteemed qualities of the time, so justly popular among his fellow citizens, but a man of far less general estimation, though not without his own value in society, lay murdered before them — the brisk bonnet maker, Oliver Proudfute. The resentment of the people had so much turned upon the general opinion that their frank and brave champion, Henry Gow, was the slaughtered person, that the contradiction of the report served to cool the general fury, although, if poor Oliver had been recognised at first, there is little doubt that the cry of vengeance would have been as unanimous, though not probably so furious, as in the case of Henry Wynd. The first circulation of the unexpected intelligence even excited a smile among the crowd, so near are the confines of the ludicrous to those of the terrible.

“The murderers have without doubt taken him for Henry Smith,” said Griffin, “which must have been a great comfort to him in the circumstances.”

But the arrival of other persons on the scene soon restored its deeply tragic character.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00