The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 52

    I did send for thee,

That Talbot’s name might be in thee revived,

    When sapless age and weak, unable limbs,

Should bring thy father to his drooping chair.

    But — O malignant and ill-boding stars! —

First part of Henry the Sixth.

Duncan and his party had not proceeded very far in the direction of the Caird’s Cove before they heard a shot, which was quickly followed by one or two others. “Some tamn’d villains among the roe-deer,” said Duncan; “look sharp out, lads.”

The clash of swords was next heard, and Duncan and his myrmidons, hastening to the spot, found Butler and Sir George Staunton’s servant in the hands of four ruffians. Sir George himself lay stretched on the ground, with his drawn sword in his hand. Duncan, who was as brave as a lion, instantly fired his pistol at the leader of the band, unsheathed his sword, cried out to his men, Claymore! and run his weapon through the body of the fellow whom he had previously wounded, who was no other thau Donacha dhu na Dunaigh himself. The other banditti were speedily overpowered, excepting one young lad, who made wonderful resistance for his years, and was at length secured with difficulty.

Death of Sir George Staunton

Butler, so soon as he was liberated from the ruffians, ran to raise Sir George Staunton, but life had wholly left him.

“A creat misfortune,” said Duncan; “I think it will pe pest that I go forward to intimate it to the coot lady. — Tavie, my dear, you hae smelled pouther for the first time this day — take my sword and hack off Donacha’s head, whilk will pe coot practice for you against the time you may wish to do the same kindness to a living shentleman — or hould! as your father does not approve, you may leave it alone, as he will pe a greater object of satisfaction to Leddy Staunton to see him entire; and I hope she will do me the credit to pelieve that I can afenge a shentleman’s plood fery speedily and well.”

Such was the observation of a man too much accustomed to the ancient state of manners in the Highlands, to look upon the issue of such a skirmish as anything worthy of wonder or emotion.

We will not attempt to describe the very contrary effect which the unexpected disaster produced upon Lady Staunton, when the bloody corpse of her husband was brought to the house, where she expected to meet him alive and well. All was forgotten, but that he was the lover of her youth; and whatever were his faults to the world, that he had towards her exhibited only those that arose from the inequality of spirits and temper, incident to a situation of unparalleled difficulty. In the vivacity of her grief she gave way to all the natural irritability of her temper; shriek followed shriek, and swoon succeeded to swoon. It required all Jeanie’s watchful affection to prevent her from making known, in these paroxysms of affliction, much which it was of the highest importance that she should keep secret.

At length silence and exhaustion succeeded to frenzy, and Jeanie stole out to take counsel with her husband, and to exhort him to anticipate the Captain’s interference, by taking possession, in Lady Staunton’s name, of the private papers of her deceased husband. To the utter astonishment of Butler, she now, for the first time, explained the relation betwixt herself and Lady Staunton, which authorised, nay, demanded, that he should prevent any stranger from being unnecessarily made acquainted with her family affairs. It was in such a crisis that Jeanie’s active and undaunted habits of virtuous exertion were most conspicuous. While the Captain’s attention was still engaged by a prolonged refreshment, and a very tedious examination, in Gaelic and English, of all the prisoners, and every other witness of the fatal transaction, she had the body of her brother-inlaw undressed and properly disposed. It then appeared, from the crucifix, the beads, and the shirt of hair which he wore next his person, that his sense of guilt had induced him to receive the dogmata of a religion, which pretends, by the maceration of the body, to expiate the crimes of the soul. In the packet of papers which the express had brought to Sir George Staunton from Edinburgh, and which Butler, authorised by his connection with the deceased, did not scruple to examine, he found new and astonishing intelligence, which gave him reason to thank God he had taken that measure.

Ratcliffe, to whom all sorts of misdeeds and misdoers were familiar, instigated by the promised reward, soon found himself in a condition to trace the infant of these unhappy parents. The woman to whom Meg Murdockson had sold that most unfortunate child, had made it the companion of her wanderings and her beggary, until he was about seven or eight years old, when, as Ratcliffe learned from a companion of hers, then in the Correction House of Edinburgh, she sold him in her turn to Donacha dhu na Dunaigh. This man, to whom no act of mischief was unknown, was occasionally an agent in a horrible trade then carried on betwixt Scotland and America, for supplying the plantations with servants, by means of kidnapping, as it was termed, both men and women, but especially children under age. Here Ratcliffe lost sight of the boy, but had no doubt but Donacha Dhu could give an account of him. The gentleman of the law, so often mentioned, despatched therefore an express, with a letter to Sir George Staunton, and another covering a warrant for apprehension of Donacha, with instructions to the Captain of Knockdunder to exert his utmost energy for that purpose.

Possessed of this information, and with a mind agitated by the most gloomy apprehensions, Butler now joined the Captain, and obtained from him with some difficulty a sight of the examinations. These, with a few questions to the elder of the prisoners, soon confirmed the most dreadful of Butler’s anticipations. We give the heads of the information, without descending into minute details.

Donacha Dhu had indeed purchased Effie’s unhappy child, with the purpose of selling it to the American traders, whom he had been in the habit of supplying with human flesh. But no opportunity occurred for some time; and the boy, who was known by the name of “The Whistler,” made some impression on the heart and affections even of this rude savage, perhaps because he saw in him flashes of a spirit as fierce and vindictive as his own. When Donacha struck or threatened him — a very common occurrence — he did not answer with complaints and entreaties like other children, but with oaths and efforts at revenge — he had all the wild merit, too, by which Woggarwolfe’s arrow-bearing page won the hard heart of his master:

Like a wild cub, rear’d at the ruffian’s feet,

He could say biting jests, bold ditties sing,

And quaff his foaming bumper at the board,

    With all the mockery of a little man.1

In short, as Donacha Dhu said, the Whistler was a born imp of Satan, and therefore he should never leave him. Accordingly, from his eleventh year forward, he was one of the band, and often engaged in acts of violence. The last of these was more immediately occasioned by the researches which the Whistler’s real father made after him whom he had been taught to consider as such. Donacha Dhu’s fears had been for some time excited by the strength of the means which began now to be employed against persons of his description. He was sensible he existed only by the precarious indulgence of his namesake, Duncan of Knockdunder, who was used to boast that he could put him down or string him up when he had a mind. He resolved to leave the kingdom by means of one of those sloops which were engaged in the traffic of his old kidnapping friends, and which was about to sail for America; but he was desirous first to strike a bold stroke.

The ruffian’s cupidity was excited by the intelligence, that a wealthy Englishman was coming to the Manse — he had neither forgotten the Whistler’s report of the gold he had seen in Lady Staunton’s purse, nor his old vow of revenge against the minister; and, to bring the whole to a point, he conceived the hope of appropriating the money, which, according to the general report of the country, the minister was to bring from Edinburgh to pay for his pew purchase. While he was considering how he might best accomplish his purpose, he received the intelligence from one quarter, that the vessel in which he proposed to sail was to sail immediately from Greenock; from another, that the minister and a rich English lord, with a great many thousand pounds, were expected the next evening at the Manse; and from a third, that he must consult his safety by leaving his ordinary haunts as soon as possible, for that the Captain had ordered out a party to scour the glens for him at break of day. Donacha laid his plans with promptitude and decision. He embarked with the Whistler and two others of his band (whom, by the by, he meant to sell to the kidnappers), and set sail for the Caird’s Cove. He intended to lurk till nightfall in the wood adjoining to this place, which he thought was too near the habitation of men to excite the suspicion of Duncan Knock, then break into Butler’s peaceful habitation, and flesh at once his appetite for plunder and revenge. When his villany was accomplished, his boat was to convey him to the vessel, which, according to previous agreement with the master, was instantly to set sail.

This desperate design would probably have succeeded, but for the ruffians being discovered in their lurking-place by Sir George Staunton and Butler, in their accidental walk from the Caird’s Cove towards the Manse. Finding himself detected, and at the same time observing that the servant carried a casket, or strong-box, Donacha conceived that both his prize and his victims were within his power, and attacked the travellers without hesitation. Shots were fired and swords drawn on both sides; Sir George Staunton offered the bravest resistance till he fell, as there was too much reason to believe, by the hand of a son, so long sought, and now at length so unhappily met.

While Butler was half-stunned with this intelligence, the hoarse voice of Knockdunder added to his consternation.

“I will take the liperty to take down the pell-ropes, Mr. Putler, as I must pe taking order to hang these idle people up tomorrow morning, to teach them more consideration in their doings in future.”

Butler entreated him to remember the act abolishing the heritable jurisdictions, and that he ought to send them to Glasgow or Inverary, to be tried by the Circuit. Duncan scorned the proposal.

“The Jurisdiction Act,” he said, “had nothing to do put with the rebels, and specially not with Argyle’s country; and he would hang the men up all three in one row before coot Leddy Staunton’s windows, which would be a great comfort to her in the morning to see that the coot gentleman, her husband, had been suitably afenged.”

And the utmost length that Butler’s most earnest entreaties could prevail was, that he would, reserve “the twa pig carles for the Circuit, but as for him they ca’d the Fustler, he should try how he could fustle in a swinging tow, for it suldna be said that a shentleman, friend to the Duke, was killed in his country, and his people didna take at least twa lives for ane.”

Butler entreated him to spare the victim for his soul’s sake. But Knockdunder answered, “that the soul of such a scum had been long the tefil’s property, and that, Cot tam! he was determined to gif the tefil his due.”

All persuasion was in vain, and Duncan issued his mandate for execution on the succeeding morning. The child of guilt and misery was separated from his companions, strongly pinioned, and committed to a separate room, of which the Captain kept the key.

In the silence of the night, however, Mrs. Butler arose, resolved, if possible, to avert, at least to delay, the fate which hung over her nephew, especially if, upon conversing with him, she should see any hope of his being brought to better temper. She had a master-key that opened every lock in the house; and at midnight, when all was still, she stood before the eyes of the astonished young savage, as, hard bound with cords, he lay, like a sheep designed for slaughter, upon a quantity of the refuse of flax which filled a corner in the apartment. Amid features sunburnt, tawny, grimed with dirt, and obscured by his shaggy hair of a rusted black colour, Jeanie tried in vain to trace the likeness of either of his very handsome parents. Yet how could she refuse compassion to a creature so young and so wretched — so much more wretched than even he himself could be aware of, since the murder he had too probably committed with his own hand, but in which he had at any rate participated, was in fact a parricide? She placed food on a table near him, raised him, and slacked the cords on his arms, so as to permit him to feed himself. He stretched out his hands, still smeared with blood perhaps that of his father, and he ate voraciously and in silence.

“What is your first name?” said Jeanie, by way of opening the conversation.

“The Whistler.”

“But your Christian name, by which you were baptized?”

“I never was baptized that I know of — I have no other name than the Whistler.”

“Poor unhappy abandoned lad!” said Jeanie. “What would ye do if you could escape from this place, and the death you are to die tomorrow morning?”

“Join wi’ Rob Roy, or wi’ Sergeant More Cameron” (noted freebooters at that time), “and revenge Donacha’s death on all and sundry.”

“O ye unhappy boy,” said Jeanie, “do ye ken what will come o’ ye when ye die?”

“I shall neither feel cauld nor hunger more,” said the youth doggedly.

“To let him be execute in this dreadful state of mind would be to destroy baith body and soul — and to let him gang I dare not — what will be done? — But he is my sister’s son — my own nephew — our flesh and blood — and his hands and feet are yerked as tight as cords can be drawn. — Whistler, do the cords hurt you?”

“Very much.”

“But, if I were to slacken them, you would harm me?”

“No, I would not — you never harmed me or mine.”

There may be good in him yet, thought Jeanie; I will try fair play with him.

She cut his bonds — he stood upright, looked round with a laugh of wild exultation, clapped his hands together, and sprung from the ground, as if in transport on finding himself at liberty. He looked so wild, that Jeanie trembled at what she had done.

“Let me out,” said the young savage.

“I wunna, unless you promise”

“Then I’ll make you glad to let us both out.”

He seized the lighted candle and threw it among the flax, which was instantly in a flame. Jeanie screamed, and ran out of the room; the prisoner rushed past her, threw open a window in the passage, jumped into the garden, sprung over its enclosure, bounded through the woods like a deer, and gained the seashore. Meantime, the fire was extinguished, but the prisoner was sought in vain. As Jeanie kept her own secret, the share she had in his escape was not discovered: but they learned his fate some time afterwards — it was as wild as his life had hitherto been.

The anxious inquiries of Butler at length learned, that the youth had gained the ship in which his master, Donacha, had designed to embark. But the avaricious shipmaster, inured by his evil trade to every species of treachery, and disappointed of the rich booty which Donacha had proposed to bring aboard, secured the person of the fugitive, and having transported him to America, sold him as a slave, or indented servant, to a Virginian planter, far up the country. When these tidings reached Butler, he sent over to America a sufficient sum to redeem the lad from slavery, with instructions that measures should be taken for improving his mind, restraining his evil propensities, and encouraging whatever good might appear in his character. But this aid came too late. The young man had headed a conspiracy in which his inhuman master was put to death, and had then fled to the next tribe of wild Indians. He was never more heard of; and it may therefore be presumed that he lived and died after the manner of that savage people, with whom his previous habits had well fitted him to associate.

All hopes of the young man’s reformation being now ended, Mr. and Mrs. Butler thought it could serve no purpose to explain to Lady Staunton a history so full of horror. She remained their guest more than a year, during the greater part of which period her grief was excessive. In the latter months, it assumed the appearance of listlessness and low spirits, which the monotony of her sister’s quiet establishment afforded no means of dissipating. Effie, from her earliest youth, was never formed for a quiet low content. Far different from her sister, she required the dissipation of society to divert her sorrow, or enhance her joy. She left the seclusion of Knocktarlitie with tears of sincere affection, and after heaping its inmates with all she could think of that might be valuable in their eyes. But she did leave it; and, when the anguish of the parting was over, her departure was a relief to both sisters.

The family at the Manse of Knocktarlitie, in their own quiet happiness, heard of the well-dowered and beautiful Lady Staunton resuming her place in the fashionable world. They learned it by more substantial proofs, for David received a commission; and as the military spirit of Bible Butler seemed to have revived in him, his good behaviour qualified the envy of five hundred young Highland cadets, “come of good houses,” who were astonished at the rapidity of his promotion. Reuben followed the law, and rose more slowly, yet surely. Euphemia Butler, whose fortune, augmented by her aunt’s generosity, and added to her own beauty, rendered her no small prize, married a Highland laird, who never asked the name of her grand-father, and was loaded on the occasion with presents from Lady Staunton, which made her the envy of all the beauties in Dumbarton and Argyle shires.

After blazing nearly ten years in the fashionable world, and hiding, like many of her compeers, an aching heart with a gay demeanour — after declining repeated offers of the most respectable kind for a second matrimonial engagement, Lady Staunton betrayed the inward wound by retiring to the Continent, and taking up her abode in the convent where she had received her education. She never took the veil, but lived and died in severe seclusion, and in the practice of the Roman Catholic religion, in all its formal observances, vigils, and austerities.

Jeanie had so much of her father’s spirit as to sorrow bitterly for this apostasy, and Butler joined in her regret. “Yet any religion, however imperfect,” he said, “was better than cold scepticism, or the hurrying din of dissipation, which fills the ears of worldlings, until they care for none of these things.”

Meanwhile, happy in each other, in the prosperity of their family, and the love and honour of all who knew them, this simple pair lived beloved, and died lamented.

Jeanie Dean’s Cottage


This tale will not be told in vain, if it shall be found to illustrate the Great Truth, that guilt, though it may attain temporal splendour, can never confer real happiness; that the evil consequences of our crimes long survive their commission, and, like the ghosts of the murdered, for ever haunt the steps of the malefactor; and that the paths of virtue, though seldom those of worldly greatness, are always those of pleasantness and peace.

1 Ethwald.

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