Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 25

Once more into the breach — dear friends, once more!

Henry V.

On the evening of this day, all the information which they could procure led them to expect, that the insurgent army would be with early dawn on their march against Tillietudlem. Lord Evandale’s wounds had been examined by Pike, who reported them in a very promising state. They were numerous, but none of any consequence; and the loss of blood, as much perhaps as the boasted specific of Lady Margaret, had prevented any tendency to fever; so that, notwithstanding he felt some pain and great weakness, the patient maintained that he was able to creep about with the assistance of a stick. In these circumstances he refused to be confined to his apartment, both that he might encourage the soldiers by his presence, and suggest any necessary addition to the plan of defence, which the Major might be supposed to have arranged upon something of an antiquated fashion of warfare. Lord Evandale was well qualified to give advice on such subjects, having served, during his early youth, both in France and in the Low Countries. There was little or no occasion, however, for altering the preparations already made; and, excepting on the article of provisions, there seemed no reason to fear for the defence of so strong a place against such assailants as those by whom it was threatened.

With the peep of day, Lord Evandale and Major Bellenden were on the battlements again, viewing and re-viewing the state of their preparations, and anxiously expecting the approach of the enemy. I ought to observe, that the report of the spies had now been regularly made and received; but the Major treated the report that Morton was in arms against the government with the most scornful incredulity.

“I know the lad better,” was the only reply he deigned to make; “the fellows have not dared to venture near enough, and have been deceived by some fanciful resemblance, or have picked up some story.”

“I differ from you, Major,” answered Lord Evandale; “I think you will see that young gentleman at the head of the insurgents; and, though I shall be heartily sorry for it, I shall not be greatly surprised.”

“You are as bad as Claverhouse,” said the Major, “who contended yesterday morning down my very throat, that this young fellow, who is as high-spirited and gentleman-like a boy as I have ever known, wanted but an opportunity to place himself at the head of the rebels.”

“And considering the usage which he has received, and the suspicions under which he lies,” said Lord Evandale, “what other course is open to him? For my own part, I should hardly know whether he deserved most blame or pity.”

“Blame, my lord? — Pity!” echoed the Major, astonished at hearing such sentiments; “he would deserve to be hanged, that’s all; and, were he my own son, I should see him strung up with pleasure — Blame, indeed! But your lordship cannot think as you are pleased to speak?”

“I give you my honour, Major Bellenden, that I have been for some time of opinion, that our politicians and prelates have driven matters to a painful extremity in this country, and have alienated, by violence of various kinds, not only the lower classes, but all those in the upper ranks, whom strong party-feeling, or a desire of court-interest, does not attach to their standard.”

“I am no politician,” answered the Major, “and I do not understand nice distinctions. My sword is the King’s, and when he commands, I draw it in his cause.”

“I trust,” replied the young lord, “you will not find me more backward than yourself, though I heartily wish that the enemy were foreigners. It is, however, no time to debate that matter, for yonder they come, and we must defend ourselves as well as we can.”

As Lord Evandale spoke, the van of the insurgents began to make their appearance on the road which crossed the top of the hill, and thence descended opposite to the Tower. They did not, however, move downwards, as if aware that, in doing so, their columns would be exposed to the fire of the artillery of the place. But their numbers, which at first seemed few, appeared presently so to deepen and concentrate themselves, that, judging of the masses which occupied the road behind the hill from the closeness of the front which they presented on the top of it, their force appeared very considerable. There was a pause of anxiety on both sides; and, while the unsteady ranks of the Covenanters were agitated, as if by pressure behind, or uncertainty as to their next movement, their arms, picturesque from their variety, glanced in the morning sun, whose beams were reflected from a grove of pikes, muskets, halberds, and battle-axes. The armed mass occupied, for a few minutes, this fluctuating position, until three or four horsemen, who seemed to be leaders, advanced from the front, and occupied the height a little nearer to the Castle. John Gudyill, who was not without some skill as an artilleryman, brought a gun to bear on this detached group.

“I’ll flee the falcon,”—(so the small cannon was called,)—“I’ll flee the falcon whene’er your honour gies command; my certie, she’ll ruffle their feathers for them!”

The Major looked at Lord Evandale.

“Stay a moment,” said the young nobleman, “they send us a flag of truce.”

In fact, one of the horsemen at that moment dismounted, and, displaying a white cloth on a pike, moved forward towards the Tower, while the Major and Lord Evandale, descending from the battlement of the main fortress, advanced to meet him as far as the barricade, judging it unwise to admit him within the precincts which they designed to defend. At the same time that the ambassador set forth, the group of horsemen, as if they had anticipated the preparations of John Gudyill for their annoyance, withdrew from the advanced station which they had occupied, and fell back to the main body.

The envoy of the Covenanters, to judge by his mien and manner, seemed fully imbued with that spiritual pride which distinguished his sect. His features were drawn up to a contemptuous primness, and his half-shut eyes seemed to scorn to look upon the terrestial objects around, while, at every solemn stride, his toes were pointed outwards with an air that appeared to despise the ground on which they trode. Lord Evandale could not suppress a smile at this singular figure.

“Did you ever,” said he to Major Bellenden, “see such an absurd automaton? One would swear it moves upon springs — Can it speak, think you?”

“O, ay,” said the Major; “that seems to be one of my old acquaintance, a genuine puritan of the right pharisaical leaven. — Stay — he coughs and hems; he is about to summon the Castle with the but-end of a sermon, instead of a parley on the trumpet.”

The veteran, who in his day had had many an opportunity to become acquainted with the manners of these religionists, was not far mistaken in his conjecture; only that, instead of a prose exordium, the Laird of Langcale — for it was no less a personage — uplifted, with a Stentorian voice, a verse of the twenty-fourth Psalm:

“Ye gates lift up your heads! ye doors, Doors that do last for aye, Be lifted up”—

“I told you so,” said the Major to Evandale, and then presented himself at the entrance of the barricade, demanding to know for what purpose or intent he made that doleful noise, like a hog in a high wind, beneath the gates of the Castle.

“I come,” replied the ambassador, in a high and shrill voice, and without any of the usual salutations or deferences — “I come from the godly army of the Solemn League and Covenant, to speak with two carnal malignants, William Maxwell, called Lord Evandale, and Miles Bellenden of Charnwood.”

“And what have you to say to Miles Bellenden and Lord Evandale?” answered the Major.

“Are you the parties?” said the Laird of Langcale, in the same sharp, conceited, disrespectful tone of voice.

“Even so, for fault of better,” said the Major.

“Then there is the public summons,” said the envoy, putting a paper into Lord Evandale’s hand, “and there is a private letter for Miles Bellenden from a godly youth, who is honoured with leading a part of our host. Read them quickly, and God give you grace to fructify by the contents, though it is muckle to be doubted.”

The summons ran thus: “We, the named and constituted leaders of the gentlemen, ministers, and others, presently in arms for the cause of liberty and true religion, do warn and summon William Lord Evandale and Miles Bellenden of Charnwood, and others presently in arms, and keeping garrison in the Tower of Tillietudlem, to surrender the said Tower upon fair conditions of quarter, and license to depart with bag and baggage, otherwise to suffer such extremity of fire and sword as belong by the laws of war to those who hold out an untenable post. And so may God defend his own good cause!”

This summons was signed by John Balfour of Burley, as quarter-master general of the army of the Covenant, for himself, and in name of the other leaders.

The letter to Major Bellenden was from Henry Morton. It was couched in the following language:

“I have taken a step, my venerable friend, which, among many painful consequences, will, I am afraid, incur your very decided disapprobation. But I have taken my resolution in honour and good faith, and with the full approval of my own conscience. I can no longer submit to have my own rights and those of my fellow-subjects trampled upon, our freedom violated, our persons insulted, and our blood spilt, without just cause or legal trial. Providence, through the violence of the oppressors themselves, seems now to have opened a way of deliverance from this intolerable tyranny, and I do not hold him deserving of the name and rights of a freeman, who, thinking as I do, shall withold his arm from the cause of his country. But God, who knows my heart, be my witness, that I do not share the angry or violent passions of the oppressed and harassed sufferers with whom I am now acting. My most earnest and anxious desire is, to see this unnatural war brought to a speedy end, by the union of the good, wise, and moderate of all parties, and a peace restored, which, without injury to the King’s constitutional rights, may substitute the authority of equal laws to that of military violence, and, permitting to all men to worship God according to their own consciences, may subdue fanatical enthusiasm by reason and mildness, instead of driving it to frenzy by persecution and intolerance.

“With these sentiments, you may conceive with what pain I appear in arms before the house of your venerable relative, which we understand you propose to hold out against us. Permit me to press upon you the assurance, that such a measure will only lead to the effusion of blood — that, if repulsed in the assault, we are yet strong enough to invest the place, and reduce it by hunger, being aware of your indifferent preparations to sustain a protracted siege. It would grieve me to the heart to think what would be the sufferings in such a case, and upon whom they would chiefly fall.

“Do not suppose, my respected friend, that I would propose to you any terms which could compromise the high and honourable character which you have so deservedly won, and so long borne. If the regular soldiers (to whom I will ensure a safe retreat) are dismissed from the place, I trust no more will be required than your parole to remain neuter during this unhappy contest; and I will take care that Lady Margaret’s property, as well as yours, shall be duly respected, and no garrison intruded upon you. I could say much in favour of this proposal; but I fear, as I must in the present instance appear criminal in your eyes, good arguments would lose their influence when coming from an unwelcome quarter. I will, therefore, break off with assuring you, that whatever your sentiments may be hereafter towards me, my sense of gratitude to you can never be diminished or erased; and it would be the happiest moment of my life that should give me more effectual means than mere words to assure you of it. Therefore, although in the first moment of resentment you may reject the proposal I make to you, let not that prevent you from resuming the topic, if future events should render it more acceptable; for whenever, or howsoever, I can be of service to you, it will always afford the greatest satisfaction to

“Henry Morton.”

Having read this long letter with the most marked indignation, Major Bellenden put it into the hands of Lord Evandale.

“I would not have believed this,” he said, “of Henry Morton, if half mankind had sworn it! The ungrateful, rebellious traitor! rebellious in cold blood, and without even the pretext of enthusiasm, that warms the liver of such a crack-brained fop as our friend the envoy there. But I should have remembered he was a presbyterian — I ought to have been aware that I was nursing a wolf-cub, whose diabolical nature would make him tear and snatch at me on the first opportunity. Were Saint Paul on earth again, and a presbyterian, he would be a rebel in three months — it is in the very blood of them.”

“Well,” said Lord Evandale, “I will be the last to recommend surrender; but, if our provisions fail, and we receive no relief from Edinburgh or Glasgow, I think we ought to avail ourselves of this opening, to get the ladies, at least, safe out of the Castle.”

“They will endure all, ere they would accept the protection of such a smooth-tongued hypocrite,” answered the Major indignantly; “I would renounce them for relatives were it otherwise. But let us dismiss the worthy ambassador. — My friend,” he said, turning to Langcale, “tell your leaders, and the mob they have gathered yonder, that, if they have not a particular opinion of the hardness of their own skulls, I would advise them to beware how they knock them against these old walls. And let them send no more flags of truce, or we will hang up the messenger in retaliation of the murder of Cornet Grahame.”

With this answer the ambassador returned to those by whom he had been sent. He had no sooner reached the main body than a murmur was heard amongst the multitude, and there was raised in front of their ranks an ample red flag, the borders of which were edged with blue. As the signal of war and defiance spread out its large folds upon the morning wind, the ancient banner of Lady Margaret’s family, together with the royal ensign, were immediately hoisted on the walls of the Tower, and at the same time, a round of artillery was discharged against the foremost ranks of the insurgents, by which they sustained some loss. Their leaders instantly withdrew them to the shelter of the brow of the hill.

“I think,” said John Gudyill, while he busied himself in re-charging his guns, “they hae fund the falcon’s neb a bit ower hard for them — It’s no for nought that the hawk whistles.”

But as he uttered these words, the ridge was once more crowded with the ranks of the enemy. A general discharge of their fire-arms was directed against the defenders upon the battlements. Under cover of the smoke, a column of picked men rushed down the road with determined courage, and, sustaining with firmness a heavy fire from the garrison, they forced their way, in spite of opposition, to the first barricade by which the avenue was defended. They were led on by Balfour in person, who displayed courage equal to his enthusiasm; and, in spite of every opposition, forced the barricade, killing and wounding several of the defenders, and compelling the rest to retreat to their second position. The precautions, however, of Major Bellenden rendered this success unavailing; for no sooner were the Covenanters in possession of the post, than a close and destructive fire was poured into it from the Castle, and from those stations which commanded it in the rear. Having no means of protecting themselves from this fire, or of returning it with effect against men who were under cover of their barricades and defences, the Covenanters were obliged to retreat; but not until they had, with their axes, destroyed the stockade, so as to render it impossible for the defenders to re-occupy it.

Balfour was the last man that retired. He even remained for a short space almost alone, with an axe in his hand, labouring like a pioneer amid the storm of balls, many of which were specially aimed against him. The retreat of the party he commanded was not effected without heavy loss, and served as a severe lesson concerning the local advantages possessed by the garrison.

The next attack of the Covenanters was made with more caution. A strong party of marksmen, (many of them competitors at the game of the popinjay,) under the command of Henry Morton, glided through the woods where they afforded them the best shelter, and, avoiding the open road, endeavoured, by forcing their way through the bushes and trees, and up the rocks which surrounded it on either side, to gain a position, from which, without being exposed in an intolerable degree, they might annoy the flank of the second barricade, while it was menaced in front by a second attack from Burley. The besieged saw the danger of this movement, and endeavoured to impede the approach of the marksmen, by firing upon them at every point where they showed themselves. The assailants, on the other hand, displayed great coolness, spirit, and judgment, in the manner in which they approached the defences. This was, in a great measure, to be ascribed to the steady and adroit manner in which they were conducted by their youthful leader, who showed as much skill in protecting his own followers as spirit in annnoying the enemy.

He repeatedly enjoined his marksmen to direct their aim chiefly upon the red-coats, and to save the others engaged in the defence of the Castle; and, above all, to spare the life of the old Major, whose anxiety made him more than once expose himself in a manner, that, without such generosity on the part of the enemy, might have proved fatal. A dropping fire of musketry now glanced from every part of the precipitous mount on which the Castle was founded. From bush to bush — from crag to crag — from tree to tree, the marksmen continued to advance, availing themselves of branches and roots to assist their ascent, and contending at once with the disadvantages of the ground and the fire of the enemy. At length they got so high on the ascent, that several of them possessed an opportunity of firing into the barricade against the defenders, who then lay exposed to their aim, and Burley, profiting by the confusion of the moment, moved forward to the attack in front. His onset was made with the same desperation and fury as before, and met with less resistance, the defenders being alarmed at the progress which the sharp-shooters had made in turning the flank of their position. Determined to improve his advantage, Burley, with his axe in his hand, pursued the party whom he had dislodged even to the third and last barricade, and entered it along with them.

“Kill, kill — down with the enemies of God and his people! — No quarter — The Castle is ours!” were the cries by which he animated his friends; the most undaunted of whom followed him close, whilst the others, with axes, spades, and other implements, threw up earth, cut down trees, hastily labouring to establish such a defensive cover in the rear of the second barricade as might enable them to retain possession of it, in case the Castle was not carried by this coup-de-main.

Lord Evandale could no longer restrain his impatience. He charged with a few soldiers who had been kept in reserve in the court-yard of the Castle; and, although his arm was in a sling, encouraged them, by voice and gesture, to assist their companions who were engaged with Burley. The combat now assumed an air of desperation. The narrow road was crowded with the followers of Burley, who pressed forward to support their companions. The soldiers, animated by the voice and presence of Lord Evandale, fought with fury, their small numbers being in some measure compensated by their greater skill, and by their possessing the upper ground, which they defended desperately with pikes and halberds, as well as with the but of the carabines and their broadswords. Those within the Castle endeavoured to assist their companions, whenever they could so level their guns as to fire upon the enemy without endangering their friends. The sharp-shooters, dispersed around, were firing incessantly on each object that was exposed upon the battlement. The Castle was enveloped with smoke, and the rocks rang to the cries of the combatants. In the midst of this scene of confusion, a singular accident had nearly given the besiegers possession of the fortress.

Cuddie Headrigg, who had advanced among the marksmen, being well acquainted with every rock and bush in the vicinity of the Castle, where he had so often gathered nuts with Jenny Dennison, was enabled, by such local knowledge, to advance farther, and with less danger, than most of his companions, excepting some three or four who had followed him close. Now Cuddie, though a brave enough fellow upon the whole, was by no means fond of danger, either for its own sake, or for that of the glory which attends it. In his advance, therefore, he had not, as the phrase goes, taken the bull by the horns, or advanced in front of the enemy’s fire. On the contrary, he had edged gradually away from the scene of action, and, turning his line of ascent rather to the left, had pursued it until it brought him under a front of the Castle different from that before which the parties were engaged, and to which the defenders had given no attention, trusting to the steepness of the precipice. There was, however, on this point, a certain window belonging to a certain pantry, and communicating with a certain yew-tree, which grew out of a steep cleft of the rock, being the very pass through which Goose Gibbie was smuggled out of the Castle in order to carry Edith’s express to Charnwood, and which had probably, in its day, been used for other contraband purposes. Cuddie, resting upon the but of his gun, and looking up at this window, observed to one of his companions — “There’s a place I ken weel; mony a time I hae helped Jenny Dennison out o’ the winnock, forby creeping in whiles mysell to get some daffin, at e’en after the pleugh was loosed.”

“And what’s to hinder us to creep in just now?” said the other, who was a smart enterprising young fellow.

“There’s no muckle to hinder us, an that were a’,” answered Cuddie; “but what were we to do neist?”

“We’ll take the Castle,” cried the other; “here are five or six o’ us, and a’ the sodgers are engaged at the gate.”

“Come awa wi’ you, then,” said Cuddie; “but mind, deil a finger ye maun lay on Lady Margaret, or Miss Edith, or the auld Major, or, aboon a’, on Jenny Dennison, or ony body but the sodgers — cut and quarter amang them as ye like, I carena.”

“Ay, ay,” said the other, “let us once in, and we will make our ain terms with them a’.”

Gingerly, and as if treading upon eggs, Cuddie began to ascend the well-known pass, not very willingly; for, besides that he was something apprehensive of the reception he might meet with in the inside, his conscience insisted that he was making but a shabby requital for Lady Margaret’s former favours and protection. He got up, however, into the yew-tree, followed by his companions, one after another. The window was small, and had been secured by stancheons of iron; but these had been long worn away by time, or forced out by the domestics to possess a free passage for their own occasional convenience. Entrance was therefore easy, providing there was no one in the pantry, a point which Cuddie endeavoured to discover before he made the final and perilous step. While his companions, therefore, were urging and threatening him behind, and he was hesitating and stretching his neck to look into the apartment, his head became visible to Jenny Dennison, who had ensconced herself in said pantry as the safest place in which to wait the issue of the assault. So soon as this object of terror caught her eye, she set up a hysteric scream, flew to the adjacent kitchen, and, in the desperate agony of fear, seized on a pot of kailbrose which she herself had hung on the fire before the combat began, having promised to Tam Halliday to prepare his breakfast for him. Thus burdened, she returned to the window of the pantry, and still exclaiming, “Murder! murder! — we are a’ harried and ravished — the Castle’s taen — tak it amang ye!” she discharged the whole scalding contents of the pot, accompanied with a dismal yell, upon the person of the unfortunate Cuddie. However welcome the mess might have been, if Cuddie and it had become acquainted in a regular manner, the effects, as administered by Jenny, would probably have cured him of soldiering for ever, had he been looking upwards when it was thrown upon him. But, fortunately for our man of war, he had taken the alarm upon Jenny’s first scream, and was in the act of looking down, expostulating with his comrades, who impeded the retreat which he was anxious to commence; so that the steel cap and buff coat which formerly belonged to Sergeant Bothwell, being garments of an excellent endurance, protected his person against the greater part of the scalding brose. Enough, however, reached him to annoy him severely, so that in the pain and surprise he jumped hastily out of the tree, oversetting his followers, to the manifest danger of their limbs, and, without listening to arguments, entreaties, or authority, made the best of his way by the most safe road to the main body of the army whereunto he belonged, and could neither by threats nor persuasion be prevailed upon to return to the attack.

Jenny Dennison
Jenny Dennison

As for Jenny, when she had thus conferred upon one admirer’s outward man the viands which her fair hands had so lately been in the act of preparing for the stomach of another, she continued her song of alarm, running a screaming division upon all those crimes, which the lawyers call the four pleas of the crown, namely, murder, fire, rape, and robbery. These hideous exclamations gave so much alarm, and created such confusion within the Castle, that Major Bellenden and Lord Evandale judged it best to draw off from the conflict without the gates, and, abandoning to the enemy all the exterior defences of the avenue, confine themselves to the Castle itself, for fear of its being surprised on some unguarded point. Their retreat was unmolested; for the panic of Cuddie and his companions had occasioned nearly as much confusion on the side of the besiegers, as the screams of Jenny had caused to the defenders.

There was no attempt on either side to renew the action that day. The insurgents had suffered most severely; and, from the difficulty which they had experienced in carrying the barricadoed positions without the precincts of the Castle, they could have but little hope of storming the place itself. On the other hand, the situation of the besieged was dispiriting and gloomy. In the skirmishing they had lost two or three men, and had several wounded; and though their loss was in proportion greatly less than that of the enemy, who had left twenty men dead on the place, yet their small number could much worse spare it, while the desperate attacks of the opposite party plainly showed how serious the leaders were in the purpose of reducing the place, and how well seconded by the zeal of their followers. But, especially, the garrison had to fear for hunger, in case blockade should be resorted to as the means of reducing them. The Major’s directions had been imperfectly obeyed in regard to laying in provisions; and the dragoons, in spite of all warning and authority, were likely to be wasteful in using them. It was, therefore, with a heavy heart, that Major Bellenden gave directions for guarding the window through which the Castle had so nearly been surprised, as well as all others which offered the most remote facility for such an enterprise.


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