Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 36

My native land, good night!

Lord Byron.

The Privy Council of Scotland, in whom the practice since the union of the crowns vested great judicial powers, as well as the general superintendence of the executive department, was met in the ancient dark Gothic room, adjoining to the House of Parliament in Edinburgh, when General Grahame entered and took his place amongst the members at the council table.

“You have brought us a leash of game today, General,” said a nobleman of high place amongst them. “Here is a craven to confess — a cock of the game to stand at bay — and what shall I call the third, General?”

“Without further metaphor, I will entreat your Grace to call him a person in whom I am specially interested,” replied Claverhouse.

“And a whig into the bargain?” said the nobleman, lolling out a tongue which was at all times too big for his mouth, and accommodating his coarse features to a sneer, to which they seemed to be familiar.

“Yes, please your Grace, a whig; as your Grace was in 1641,” replied Claverhouse, with his usual appearance of imperturbable civility.

“He has you there, I think, my Lord Duke,” said one of the Privy Councillors.

“Ay, ay,” returned the Duke, laughing, “there’s no speaking to him since Drumclog — but come, bring in the prisoners — and do you, Mr Clerk, read the record.”

The clerk read forth a bond, in which General Grahame of Claverhouse and Lord Evandale entered themselves securities, that Henry Morton, younger of Milnwood, should go abroad and remain in foreign parts, until his Majesty’s pleasure was further known, in respect of the said Henry Morton’s accession to the late rebellion, and that under penalty of life and limb to the said Henry Morton, and of ten thousand marks to each of his securities.

“Do you accept of the King’s mercy upon these terms, Mr Morton?” said the Duke of Lauderdale, who presided in the Council.

“I have no other choice, my lord,” replied Morton.

“Then subscribe your name in the record.”

Morton did so without reply, conscious that, in the circumstances of his case, it was impossible for him to have escaped more easily. Macbriar, who was at the same instant brought to the foot of the council-table, bound upon a chair, for his weakness prevented him from standing, beheld Morton in the act of what he accounted apostasy.

“He hath summed his defection by owning the carnal power of the tyrant!” he exclaimed, with a deep groan —“A fallen star! — a fallen star!”

“Hold your peace, sir,” said the Duke, “and keep your ain breath to cool your ain porridge — ye’ll find them scalding hot, I promise you. — Call in the other fellow, who has some common sense. One sheep will leap the ditch when another goes first.”

Cuddie was introduced unbound, but under the guard of two halberdiers, and placed beside Macbriar at the foot of the table. The poor fellow cast a piteous look around him, in which were mingled awe for the great men in whose presence he stood, and compassion for his fellow-sufferers, with no small fear of the personal consequences which impended over himself. He made his clownish obeisances with a double portion of reverence, and then awaited the opening of the awful scene.

“Were you at the battle of Bothwell Brigg?” was the first question which was thundered in his ears.

Cuddie meditated a denial, but had sense enough, upon reflection, to discover that the truth would be too strong for him; so he replied, with true Caledonian indirectness of response, “I’ll no say but it may be possible that I might hae been there.”

“Answer directly, you knave — yes, or no? — You know you were there.”

“It’s no for me to contradict your Lordship’s Grace’s honour,” said Cuddie.

“Once more, sir, were you there? — yes, or no?” said the Duke, impatiently.

“Dear stir,” again replied Cuddie, “how can ane mind preceesely where they hae been a’ the days o’ their life?”

“Speak out, you scoundrel,” said General Dalzell, “or I’ll dash your teeth out with my dudgeonhaft! — Do you think we can stand here all day to be turning and dodging with you, like greyhounds after a hare?” 36

“Aweel, then,” said Cuddie, “since naething else will please ye, write down that I cannot deny but I was there.”

“Well, sir,” said the Duke, “and do you think that the rising upon that occasion was rebellion or not?”

“I’m no just free to gie my opinion, stir,” said the cautious captive, “on what might cost my neck; but I doubt it will be very little better.”

“Better than what?”

“Just than rebellion, as your honour ca’s it,” replied Cuddie.

“Well, sir, that’s speaking to the purpose,” replied his Grace. “And are you content to accept of the King’s pardon for your guilt as a rebel, and to keep the church, and pray for the King?”

“Blithely, stir,” answered the unscrupulous Cuddie; “and drink his health into the bargain, when the ale’s gude.”

“Egad,” said the Duke, “this is a hearty cock. — What brought you into such a scrape, mine honest friend?”

“Just ill example, stir,” replied the prisoner, “and a daft auld jaud of a mither, wi’ reverence to your Grace’s honour.”

“Why, God-a-mercy, my friend,” replied the Duke, “take care of bad advice another time; I think you are not likely to commit treason on your own score. — Make out his free pardon, and bring forward the rogue in the chair.”

Macbriar was then moved forward to the post of examination.

“Were you at the battle of Bothwell Bridge?” was, in like manner, demanded of him.

“I was,” answered the prisoner, in a bold and resolute tone.

“Were you armed?”

“I was not — I went in my calling as a preacher of God’s word, to encourage them that drew the sword in His cause.”

“In other words, to aid and abet the rebels?” said the Duke.

“Thou hast spoken it,” replied the prisoner.

“Well, then,” continued the interrogator, “let us know if you saw John Balfour of Burley among the party? — I presume you know him?”

“I bless God that I do know him,” replied Macbriar; “he is a zealous and a sincere Christian.”

“And when and where did you last see this pious personage?” was the query which immediately followed.

“I am here to answer for myself,” said Macbriar, in the same dauntless manner, “and not to endanger others.”

“We shall know,” said Dalzell, “how to make you find your tongue.”

“If you can make him fancy himself in a conventicle,” answered Lauderdale, “he will find it without you. — Come, laddie, speak while the play is good — you’re too young to bear the burden will be laid on you else.”

“I defy you,” retorted Macbriar. “This has not been the first of my imprisonments or of my sufferings; and, young as I may be, I have lived long enough to know how to die when I am called upon.”

“Ay, but there are some things which must go before an easy death, if you continue obstinate,” said Lauderdale, and rung a small silver bell which was placed before him on the table.

A dark crimson curtain, which covered a sort of niche, or Gothic recess in the wall, rose at the signal, and displayed the public executioner, a tall, grim, and hideous man, having an oaken table before him, on which lay thumb-screws, and an iron case, called the Scottish boot, used in those tyrannical days to torture accused persons. Morton, who was unprepared for this ghastly apparition, started when the curtain arose, but Macbriar’s nerves were more firm. He gazed upon the horrible apparatus with much composure; and if a touch of nature called the blood from his cheek for a second, resolution sent it back to his brow with greater energy.

“Do you know who that man is?” said Lauderdale, in a low, stern voice, almost sinking into a whisper.

“He is, I suppose,” replied Macbriar, “the infamous executioner of your bloodthirsty commands upon the persons of God’s people. He and you are equally beneath my regard; and, I bless God, I no more fear what he can inflict than what you can command. Flesh and blood may shrink under the sufferings you can doom me to, and poor frail nature may shed tears, or send forth cries; but I trust my soul is anchored firmly on the rock of ages.”

“Do your duty,” said the Duke to the executioner.

The fellow advanced, and asked, with a harsh and discordant voice, upon which of the prisoner’s limbs he should first employ his engine.

“Let him choose for himself,” said the Duke; “I should like to oblige him in any thing that is reasonable.”

“Since you leave it to me,” said the prisoner, stretching forth his right leg, “take the best — I willingly bestow it in the cause for which I suffer.” 37

The executioner, with the help of his assistants, enclosed the leg and knee within the tight iron boot, or case, and then placing a wedge of the same metal between the knee and the edge of the machine, took a mallet in his hand, and stood waiting for farther orders. A well-dressed man, by profession a surgeon, placed himself by the other side of the prisoner’s chair, bared the prisoner’s arm, and applied his thumb to the pulse in order to regulate the torture according to the strength of the patient. When these preparations were made, the President of the Council repeated with the same stern voice the question, “When and where did you last see John Balfour of Burley?”

The prisoner, instead of replying to him, turned his eyes to heaven as if imploring Divine strength, and muttered a few words, of which the last were distinctly audible, “Thou hast said thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power!”

The Duke of Lauderdale glanced his eye around the council as if to collect their suffrages, and, judging from their mute signs, gave on his own part a nod to the executioner, whose mallet instantly descended on the wedge, and, forcing it between the knee and the iron boot, occasioned the most exquisite pain, as was evident from the flush which instantly took place on the brow and on the cheeks of the sufferer. The fellow then again raised his weapon, and stood prepared to give a second blow.

“Will you yet say,” repeated the Duke of Lauderdale, “where and when you last parted from Balfour of Burley?”

“You have my answer,” said the sufferer resolutely, and the second blow fell. The third and fourth succeeded; but at the fifth, when a larger wedge had been introduced, the prisoner set up a scream of agony.

Morton, whose blood boiled within him at witnessing such cruelty, could bear no longer, and, although unarmed and himself in great danger, was springing forward, when Claverhouse, who observed his emotion, withheld him by force, laying one hand on his arm and the other on his mouth, while he whispered, “For God’s sake, think where you are!”

This movement, fortunately for him, was observed by no other of the councillors, whose attention was engaged with the dreadful scene before them.

“He is gone,” said the surgeon —“he has fainted, my Lords, and human nature can endure no more.”

“Release him,” said the Duke; and added, turning to Dalzell, “He will make an old proverb good, for he’ll scarce ride today, though he has had his boots on. I suppose we must finish with him?”

“Ay, dispatch his sentence, and have done with him; we have plenty of drudgery behind.”

Strong waters and essences were busily employed to recall the senses of the unfortunate captive; and, when his first faint gasps intimated a return of sensation, the Duke pronounced sentence of death upon him, as a traitor taken in the act of open rebellion, and adjudged him to be carried from the bar to the common place of execution, and there hanged by the neck; his head and hands to be stricken off after death, and disposed of according to the pleasure of the Council, 38 and all and sundry his movable goods and gear escheat and inbrought to his Majesty’s use.

“Doomster,” he continued, “repeat the sentence to the prisoner.”

The office of Doomster was in those days, and till a much later period, held by the executioner in commendam, with his ordinary functions. 39 The duty consisted in reciting to the unhappy criminal the sentence of the law as pronounced by the judge, which acquired an additional and horrid emphasis from the recollection, that the hateful personage by whom it was uttered was to be the agent of the cruelties he denounced. Macbriar had scarce understood the purport of the words as first pronounced by the Lord President of the Council; but he was sufficiently recovered to listen and to reply to the sentence when uttered by the harsh and odious voice of the ruffian who was to execute it, and at the last awful words, “And this I pronounce for doom,” he answered boldly —” My Lords, I thank you for the only favour I looked for, or would accept at your hands, namely, that you have sent the crushed and maimed carcass, which has this day sustained your cruelty, to this hasty end. It were indeed little to me whether I perish on the gallows or in the prison-house; but if death, following close on what I have this day suffered, had found me in my cell of darkness and bondage, many might have lost the sight how a Christian man can suffer in the good cause. For the rest, I forgive you, my Lords, for what you have appointed and I have sustained — And why should I not? — Ye send me to a happy exchange — to the company of angels and the spirits of the just, for that of frail dust and ashes — Ye send me from darkness into day — from mortality to immortality — and, in a word, from earth to heaven! — If the thanks, therefore, and pardon of a dying man can do you good, take them at my hand, and may your last moments be as happy as mine!”

As he spoke thus, with a countenance radiant with joy and triumph, he was withdrawn by those who had brought him into the apartment, and executed within half an hour, dying with the same enthusiastic firmness which his whole life had evinced.

The Council broke up, and Morton found himself again in the carriage with General Grahame.

“Marvellous firmness and gallantry!” said Morton, as he reflected upon Macbriar’s conduct; “what a pity it is that with such self-devotion and heroism should have been mingled the fiercer features of his sect!”

“You mean,” said Claverhouse, “his resolution to condemn you to death? — To that he would have reconciled himself by a single text; for example, ‘And Phinehas arose and executed judgment,’ or something to the same purpose. — But wot ye where you are now bound, Mr Morton?”

“We are on the road to Leith, I observe,” answered Morton. “Can I not be permitted to see my friends ere I leave my native land?”

“Your uncle,” replied Grahame, “has been spoken to, and declines visiting you. The good gentleman is terrified, and not without some reason, that the crime of your treason may extend itself over his lands and tenements — he sends you, however, his blessing, and a small sum of money. Lord Evandale continues extremely indisposed. Major Bellenden is at Tillietudlem putting matters in order. The scoundrels have made great havoc there with Lady Margaret’s muniments of antiquity, and have desecrated and destroyed what the good lady called the Throne of his most Sacred Majesty. Is there any one else whom you would wish to see?”

Morton sighed deeply as he answered, “No — it would avail nothing. — But my preparations — small as they are, some must be necessary.”

“They are all ready for you,” said the General. “Lord Evandale has anticipated all you wish. Here is a packet from him with letters of recommendation for the court of the Stadtholder Prince of Orange, to which I have added one or two. I made my first campaigns under him, and first saw fire at the battle of Seneff. 40 There are also bills of exchange for your immediate wants, and more will be sent when you require it.”

Morton heard all this and received the parcel with an astounded and confused look, so sudden was the execution of the sentence of banishment.

“And my servant?” he said.

“He shall be taken care of, and replaced, if it be practicable, in the service of Lady Margaret Bellenden; I think he will hardly neglect the parade of the feudal retainers, or go a-whigging a second time. — But here we are upon the quay, and the boat waits you.”

It was even as Claverhouse said. A boat waited for Captain Morton, with the trunks and baggage belonging to his rank. Claverhouse shook him by the hand, and wished him good fortune, and a happy return to Scotland in quieter times.

“I shall never forget,” he said, “the gallantry of your behaviour to my friend Evandale, in circumstances when many men would have sought to rid him out of their way.”

Another friendly pressure, and they parted. As Morton descended the pier to get into the boat, a hand placed in his a letter folded up in very small space. He looked round. The person who gave it seemed much muffled up; he pressed his finger upon his lip, and then disappeared among the crowd. The incident awakened Morton’s curiosity; and when he found himself on board of a vessel bound for Rotterdam, and saw all his companions of the voyage busy making their own arrangements, he took an opportunity to open the billet thus mysteriously thrust upon him. It ran thus:—“Thy courage on the fatal day when Israel fled before his enemies, hath, in some measure, atoned for thy unhappy owning of the Erastian interest. These are not days for Ephraim to strive with Israel. — I know thy heart is with the daughter of the stranger. But turn from that folly; for in exile, and in flight, and even in death itself, shall my hand be heavy against that bloody and malignant house, and Providence hath given me the means of meting unto them with their own measure of ruin and confiscation. The resistance of their stronghold was the main cause of our being scattered at Bothwell Bridge, and I have bound it upon my soul to visit it upon them. Wherefore, think of her no more, but join with our brethren in banishment, whose hearts are still towards this miserable land to save and to relieve her. There is an honest remnant in Holland whose eyes are looking out for deliverance. Join thyself unto them like the true son of the stout and worthy Silas Morton, and thou wilt have good acceptance among them for his sake and for thine own working. Shouldst thou be found worthy again to labour in the vineyard, thou wilt at all times hear of my incomings and out-goings, by enquiring after Quintin Mackell of Irongray, at the house of that singular Christian woman, Bessie Maclure, near to the place called the Howff, where Niel Blane entertaineth guests. So much from him who hopes to hear again from thee in brotherhood, resisting unto blood, and striving against sin. Meanwhile, possess thyself in patience. Keep thy sword girded, and thy lamp burning, as one that wakes in the night; for He who shall judge the Mount of Esau, and shall make false professors as straw, and malignants as stubble, will come in the fourth watch with garments dyed in blood, and the house of Jacob shall be for spoil, and the house of Joseph for fire. I am he that hath written it, whose hand hath been on the mighty in the waste field.”

This extraordinary letter was subscribed J. B. of B.; but the signature of these initials was not necessary for pointing out to Morton that it could come from no other than Burley. It gave him new occasion to admire the indomitable spirit of this man, who, with art equal to his courage and obstinacy, was even now endeavouring to re-establish the web of conspiracy which had been so lately torn to pieces. But he felt no sort of desire, in the present moment, to sustain a correspondence which must be perilous, or to renew an association, which, in so many ways, had been nearly fatal to him. The threats which Burley held out against the family of Bellenden, he considered as a mere expression of his spleen on account of their defence of Tillietudlem; and nothing seemed less likely than that, at the very moment of their party being victorious, their fugitive and distressed adversary could exercise the least influence over their fortunes.

Morton, however, hesitated for an instant, whether he should not send the Major or Lord Evandale intimation of Burley’s threats. Upon consideration, he thought he could not do so without betraying his confidential correspondence; for to warn them of his menaces would have served little purpose, unless he had given them a clew to prevent them, by apprehending his person; while, by doing so, he deemed he should commit an ungenerous breach of trust to remedy an evil which seemed almost imaginary. Upon mature consideration, therefore, he tore the letter, having first made a memorandum of the name and place where the writer was to be heard of, and threw the fragments into the sea.

While Morton was thus employed the vessel was unmoored, and the white sails swelled out before a favourable north-west wind. The ship leaned her side to the gale, and went roaring through the waves, leaving a long and rippling furrow to track her course. The city and port from which he had sailed became undistinguishable in the distance; the hills by which they were surrounded melted finally into the blue sky, and Morton was separated for several years from the land of his nativity.

36 The General is said to have struck one of the captive whigs, when under examination, with the hilt of his sabre, so that the blood gushed out. The provocation for this unmanly violence was, that the prisoner had called the fierce veteran “a Muscovy beast, who used to roast men.” Dalzell had been long in the Russian service, which in those days was no school of humanity.

37 This was the reply actually made by James Mitchell when subjected to the torture of the boot, for an attempt to assassinate Archbishop Sharpe.

38 The pleasure of the Council respecting the relics of their victims was often as savage as the rest of their conduct. The heads of the preachers were frequently exposed on pikes between their two hands, the palms displayed as in the attitude of prayer. When the celebrated Richard Cameron’s head was exposed in this manner, a spectator bore testimony to it as that of one who lived praying and preaching, and died praying and fighting.

39 See a note on the subject of this office in the Heart of Mid-Lothian.

40 August 1674. Claverhouse greatly distinguished himself in this action, and was made Captain.


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