The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 24

Let gallows gape for dogs, let men go free.

Henry V.

The incidents of a narrative of this kind must be adapted to each other, as the wards of a key must tally accurately with those of the lock to which it belongs. The reader, however gentle, will not hold himself obliged to rest satisfied with the mere fact that such and such occurrences took place, which is, generally speaking, all that in ordinary life he can know of what is passing around him; but he is desirous, while reading for amusement, of knowing the interior movements occasioning the course of events. This is a legitimate and reasonable curiosity; for every man hath a right to open and examine the mechanism of his own watch, put together for his proper use, although he is not permitted to pry into the interior of the timepiece which, for general information, is displayed on the town steeple.

It would be, therefore, uncourteous to leave my readers under any doubt concerning the agency which removed the assassin Bonthron from the gallows — an event which some of the Perth citizens ascribed to the foul fiend himself, while others were content to lay it upon the natural dislike of Bonthron’s countrymen of Fife to see him hanging on the river side, as a spectacle dishonourable to their province.

About midnight succeeding the day when the execution had taken place, and while the inhabitants of Perth were deeply buried in slumber, three men muffled in their cloaks, and bearing a dark lantern, descended the alleys of a garden which led from the house occupied by Sir John Ramorny to the banks of the Tay, where a small boat lay moored to a landing place, or little projecting pier. The wind howled in a low and melancholy manner through the leafless shrubs and bushes; and a pale moon “waded,” as it is termed in Scotland, amongst drifting clouds, which seemed to threaten rain. The three individuals entered the boat with great precaution to escape observation. One of them was a tall, powerful man; another short and bent downwards; the third middle sized, and apparently younger than his companions, well made, and active. Thus much the imperfect light could discover. They seated themselves in the boat and unmoored it from the pier.

“We must let her drift with the current till we pass the bridge, where the burghers still keep guard; and you know the proverb, ‘A Perth arrow hath a perfect flight,’” said the most youthful of the party, who assumed the office of helmsman, and pushed the boat off from the pier; whilst the others took the oars, which were muffled, and rowed with all precaution till they attained the middle of the river; they then ceased their efforts, lay upon their oars, and trusted to the steersman for keeping her in mid channel.

In this manner they passed unnoticed or disregarded beneath the stately Gothic arches of the old bridge, erected by the magnificent patronage of Robert Bruce in 1329, and carried away by an inundation in 1621. Although they heard the voices of a civic watch, which, since these disturbances commenced, had been nightly maintained in that important pass, no challenge was given; and when they were so far down the stream as to be out of hearing of these guardians of the night, they began to row, but still with precaution, and to converse, though in a low tone.

“You have found a new trade, comrade, since I left you,” said one of the rowers to the other. “I left you engaged in tending a sick knight, and I find you employed in purloining a dead body from the gallows.”

“A living body, so please your squirehood, Master Buncle, or else my craft hath failed of its purpose.”

“So I am told, Master Pottercarrier; but, saving your clerkship, unless you tell me your trick, I will take leave to doubt of its success.”

“A simple toy, Master Buncle, not likely to please a genius so acute as that of your valiancie. Marry, thus it is. This suspension of the human body, which the vulgar call hanging, operates death by apoplexia — that is, the blood being unable to return to the heart by the compression of the veins, it rushes to the brain, and the man dies. Also, and as an additional cause of dissolution, the lungs no longer receive the needful supply of the vital air, owing to the ligature of the cord around the thorax; and hence the patient perishes.”

“I understand that well enough. But how is such a revulsion of blood to the brain to be prevented, sir mediciner?” said the third person, who was no other than Ramorny’s page, Eviot.

“Marry, then,” replied Dwining, “hang me the patient up in such fashion that the carotid arteries shall not be compressed, and the blood will not determine to the brain, and apoplexia will not take place; and again, if there be no ligature around the thorax, the lungs will be supplied with air, whether the man be hanging in the middle heaven or standing on the firm earth.”

“All this I conceive,” said Eviot; “but how these precautions can be reconciled with the execution of the sentence of hanging is what my dull brain cannot comprehend.”

“Ah! good youth, thy valiancie hath spoiled a fair wit. Hadst thou studied with me, thou shouldst have learned things more difficult than this. But here is my trick. I get me certain bandages, made of the same substance with your young valiancie’s horse girths, having especial care that they are of a kind which will not shrink on being strained, since that would spoil my experiment. One loop of this substance is drawn under each foot, and returns up either side of the leg to a cincture, with which it is united; these cinctures are connected by divers straps down the breast and back, in order to divide the weight. And there are sundry other conveniences for easing the patient, but the chief is this: the straps, or ligatures, are attached to a broad steel collar, curving outwards, and having a hook or two, for the better security of the halter, which the friendly executioner passes around that part of the machine, instead of applying it to the bare throat of the patient. Thus, when thrown off from the ladder, the sufferer will find himself suspended, not by his neck, if it please you, but by the steel circle, which supports the loops in which his feet are placed, and on which his weight really rests, diminished a little by similar supports under each arm. Thus, neither vein nor windpipe being compressed, the man will breathe as free, and his blood, saving from fright and novelty of situation, will flow as temperately as your valiancie’s when you stand up in your stirrups to view a field of battle.”

“By my faith, a quaint and rare device!” quoth Buncle.

“Is it not?” pursued the leech, “and well worth being known to such mounting spirits as your valiancies, since there is no knowing to what height Sir John Ramorny’s pupils may arrive; and if these be such that it is necessary to descend from them by a rope, you may find my mode of management more convenient than the common practice. Marry, but you must be provided with a high collared doublet, to conceal the ring of steel, and, above all, such a bonus socius as Smother well to adjust the noose.”

“Base poison vender,” said Eviot, “men of our calling die on the field of battle.”

“I will save the lesson, however,” replied Buncle, “in case of some pinching occasion. But what a night the bloody hangdog Bonthron must have had of it, dancing a pavise in mid air to the music of his own shackles, as the night wind swings him that way and this!”

“It were an alms deed to leave him there,” said Eviot; “for his descent from the gibbet will but encourage him to new murders. He knows but two elements — drunkenness and bloodshed.”

“Perhaps Sir John Ramorny might have been of your opinion,” said Dwining; “but it would first have been necessary to cut out the rogue’s tongue, lest he had told strange tales from his airy height. And there are other reasons that it concerns not your valiancies to know. In truth, I myself have been generous in serving him, for the fellow is built as strong as Edinburgh Castle, and his anatomy would have matched any that is in the chirurgical hall of Padua. But tell me, Master Buncle, what news bring you from the doughty Douglas?”

“They may tell that know,” said Buncle. “I am the dull ass that bears the message, and kens nought of its purport. The safer for myself, perhaps. I carried letters from the Duke of Albany and from Sir John Ramorny to the Douglas, and he looked black as a northern tempest when he opened them. I brought them answers from the Earl, at which they smiled like the sun when the harvest storm is closing over him. Go to your ephemerides, leech, and conjure the meaning out of that.”

“Methinks I can do so without much cost of wit,” said the chirurgeon; “but yonder I see in the pale moonlight our dead alive. Should he have screamed out to any chance passenger, it were a curious interruption to a night journey to be hailed from the top of such a gallows as that. Hark, methinks I do hear his groans amid the whistling of the wind and the creaking of the chains. So — fair and softly; make fast the boat with the grappling, and get out the casket with my matters, we would be better for a little fire, but the light might bring observation on us. Come on, my men of valour, march warily, for we are bound for the gallows foot. Follow with the lantern; I trust the ladder has been left.

“Sing, three merry men, and three merry men,

And three merry men are we,

Thou on the land, and I on the sand,

And Jack on the gallows tree.”

As they advanced to the gibbet, they could plainly hear groans, though uttered in a low tone. Dwining ventured to give a low cough once or twice, by way of signal; but receiving no answer, “We had best make haste,” said he to his companions, “for our friend must be in extremis, as he gives no answer to the signal which announces the arrival of help. Come, let us to the gear. I will go up the ladder first and cut the rope. Do you two follow, one after another, and take fast hold of the body, so that he fall not when the halter is unloosed. Keep sure gripe, for which the bandages will afford you convenience. Bethink you that, though he plays an owl’s part tonight, he hath no wings, and to fall out of a halter may be as dangerous as to fall into one.”

While he spoke thus with sneer and gibe, he ascended the ladder, and having ascertained that the men at arms who followed him had the body in their hold, he cut the rope, and then gave his aid to support the almost lifeless form of the criminal.

By a skilful exertion of strength and address, the body of Bonthron was placed safely on the ground; and the faint yet certain existence of life having been ascertained, it was thence transported to the river side, where, shrouded by the bank, the party might be best concealed from observation, while the leech employed himself in the necessary means of recalling animation, with which he had taken care to provide himself.

For this purpose he first freed the recovered person from his shackles, which the executioner had left unlocked on purpose, and at the same time disengaged the complicated envelopes and bandages by which he had been suspended. It was some time ere Dwining’s efforts succeeded; for, in despite of the skill with which his machine had been constructed, the straps designed to support the body had stretched so considerably as to occasion the sense of suffocation becoming extremely overpowering. But the address of the surgeon triumphed over all obstacles; and, after sneezing and stretching himself, with one or two brief convulsions, Bonthron gave decided proofs of reanimation, by arresting the hand of the operator as it was in the act of dropping strong waters on his breast and throat, and, directing the bottle which contained them to his lips, he took, almost perforce, a considerable gulp of the contents,

“It is spiritual essence double distilled,” said the astonished operator, “and would blister the throat and burn the stomach of any other man. But this extraordinary beast is so unlike all other human creatures, that I should not wonder if it brought him to the complete possession of his faculties.”

Bonthron seemed to confirm this: he started with a strong convulsion, sat up, stared around, and indicated some consciousness of existence.

“Wine — wine,” were the first words which he articulated.

The leech gave him a draught of medicated wine, mixed with water. He rejected it, under the dishonourable epithet of “kennel washings,” and again uttered the words, “Wine — wine.”

“Nay, take it to thee, i’ the devil’s name,” said the leech, “since none but he can judge of thy constitution.”

A draught, long and deep enough to have discomposed the intellects of any other person, was found effectual in recalling those of Bonthron to a more perfect state; though he betrayed no recollection of where he was or what had befallen him, and in his brief and sullen manner asked why he was brought to the river side at this time of night.

“Another frolic of the wild Prince, for drenching me as he did before. Nails and blood, but I would —”

“Hold thy peace,” interrupted Eviot, “and be thankful, I pray you, if you have any thankfulness in you, that thy body is not crow’s meat and thy soul in a place where water is too scarce to duck thee.”

“I begin to bethink me,” said the ruffian; and raising the flask to his mouth, which he saluted with a long and hearty kiss, he set the empty bottle on the earth, dropped his head on his bosom, and seemed to muse for the purpose of arranging his confused recollections.

“We can abide the issue of his meditations no longer,” said Dwining; “he will be better after he has slept. Up, sir! you have been riding the air these some hours; try if the water be not an easier mode of conveyance. Your valours must lend me a hand. I can no more lift this mass than I could raise in my arms a slaughtered bull.”

“Stand upright on thine own feet, Bonthron, now we have placed thee upon them,” said Eviot.

“I cannot,” answered the patient. “Every drop of blood tingles in my veins as if it had pinpoints, and my knees refuse to bear their burden. What can be the meaning of all this? This is some practice of thine, thou dog leech!”

“Ay — ay, so it is, honest Bonthron,” said Dwining —“a practice thou shalt thank me for when thou comest to learn it. In the mean while, stretch down in the stern of that boat, and let me wrap this cloak about thee.”

Assisted into the boat accordingly, Bonthron was deposited there as conveniently as things admitted of. He answered their attentions with one or two snorts resembling the grunt of a boar who has got some food particularly agreeable to him.

“And now, Buncle,” said the chirurgeon, “your valiant squireship knows your charge. You are to carry this lively cargo by the river to Newburgh, where you are to dispose of him as you wot of; meantime, here are his shackles and bandages, the marks of his confinement and liberation. Bind them up together, and fling them into the deepest pool you pass over; for, found in your possession, they might tell tales against us all. This low, light breath of wind from the west will permit you to use a sail as soon as the light comes in and you are tired of rowing. Your other valiancie, Master Page Eviot, must be content to return to Perth with me afoot, for here severs our fair company. Take with thee the lantern, Buncle, for thou wilt require it more than we, and see thou send me back my flasket.”

As the pedestrians returned to Perth, Eviot expressed his belief that Bonthron’s understanding would never recover the shock which terror had inflicted upon it, and which appeared to him to have disturbed all the faculties of his mind, and in particular his memory.

“It is not so, an it please your pagehood,” said the leech. “Bonthron’s intellect, such as it is, hath a solid character: it Will but vacillate to and fro like a pendulum which hath been put in motion, and then will rest in its proper point of gravity. Our memory is, of all our powers of mind, that which is peculiarly liable to be suspended. Deep intoxication or sound sleep alike destroy it, and yet it returns when the drunkard becomes sober or the sleeper is awakened. Terror sometimes produces the same effect. I knew at Paris a criminal condemned to die by the halter, who suffered the sentence accordingly, showing no particular degree of timidity upon the scaffold, and behaving and expressing himself as men in the same condition are wont to do. Accident did for him what a little ingenious practice hath done for our amiable friend from whom we but now parted. He was cut down and given to his friends before life was extinct, and I had the good fortune to restore him. But, though he recovered in other particulars, he remembered but little of his trial and sentence. Of his confession on the morning of his execution — he! he! he! (in his usual chuckling manner)— he remembered him not a word. Neither of leaving the prison, nor of his passage to the Greve, where he suffered, nor of the devout speeches with which he — he! he! he! — edified — he! he! he! — so many good Christians, nor of ascending the fatal tree, nor of taking the fatal leap, had my revenant the slightest recollection.’ But here we reach the point where we must separate; for it were unfit, should we meet any of the watch, that we be found together, and it were also prudent that we enter the city by different gates. My profession forms an excuse for my going and coming at all times. Your valiant pagehood will make such explanation as may seem sufficing.”

“I shall make my will a sufficient excuse if I am interrogated,” said the haughty young man. “Yet I will avoid interruption, if possible. The moon is quite obscured, and the road as black as a wolf’s mouth.”

“Tut,” said the physicianer, “let not your valour care for that: we shall tread darker paths ere it be long.”

Without inquiring into the meaning of these evil boding sentences, and indeed hardly listening to them in the pride and recklessness of his nature, the page of Ramorny parted from his ingenious and dangerous companion, and each took his own way.

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