Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 43

The darksome cave they enter, where they found

The accursed man low sitting on the ground,

Musing full sadly in his sullen mind.


As the morning began to appear on the mountains, a gentle knock was heard at the door of the humble apartment in which Morton slept, and a girlish treble voice asked him, from without, “If he wad please gang to the Linn or the folk raise?”

He arose upon the invitation, and, dressing himself hastily, went forth and joined his little guide. The mountain maid tript lightly before him, through the grey haze, over hill and moor. It was a wild and varied walk, unmarked by any regular or distinguishable track, and keeping, upon the whole, the direction of the ascent of the brook, though without tracing its windings. The landscape, as they advanced, became waster and more wild, until nothing but heath and rock encumbered the side of the valley.

“Is the place still distant?” said Morton. “Nearly a mile off,” answered the girl. “We’ll be there belive.”

“And do you often go this wild journey, my little maid?”

“When grannie sends me wi’ milk and meal to the Linn,” answered the child.

“And are you not afraid to travel so wild a road alone?”

“Hout na, sir,” replied the guide; “nae living creature wad touch sic a bit thing as I am, and grannie says we need never fear onything else when we are doing a gude turn.”

“Strong in innocence as in triple mail!” said Morton to himself, and followed her steps in silence.

They soon came to a decayed thicket, where brambles and thorns supplied the room of the oak and birches of which it had once consisted. Here the guide turned short off the open heath, and, by a sheep-track, conducted Morton to the brook. A hoarse and sullen roar had in part prepared him for the scene which presented itself, yet it was not to be viewed without surprise and even terror. When he emerged from the devious path which conducted him through the thicket, he found himself placed on a ledge of flat rock projecting over one side of a chasm not less than a hundred feet deep, where the dark mountain-stream made a decided and rapid shoot over the precipice, and was swallowed up by a deep, black, yawning gulf. The eye in vain strove to see the bottom of the fall; it could catch but one sheet of foaming uproar and sheer descent, until the view was obstructed by the proecting crags which enclosed the bottom of the waterfall, and hid from sight the dark pool which received its tortured waters; far beneath, at the distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile, the eye caught the winding of the stream as it emerged into a more open course. But, for that distance, they were lost to sight as much as if a cavern had been arched over them; and indeed the steep and projecting ledges of rock through which they wound their way in darkness were very nearly closing and over-roofing their course.

While Morton gazed at this scene of tumult, which seemed, by the surrounding thickets and the clefts into which the waters descended, to seek to hide itself from every eye, his little attendant as she stood beside him on the platform of rock which commanded the best view of the fall, pulled him by the sleeve, and said, in a tone which he could not hear without stooping his ear near the speaker, “Hear till him! Eh! hear till him!”

Morton listened more attentively; and out of the very abyss into which the brook fell, and amidst the turnultuary sounds of the cataract, thought he could distinguish shouts, screams, and even articulate words, as if the tortured demon of the stream had been mingling his complaints with the roar of his broken waters.

“This is the way,” said the little girl; “follow me, gin ye please, sir, but tak tent to your feet;” and, with the daring agility which custom had rendered easy, she vanished from the platform on which she stood, and, by notches and slight projections in the rock, scrambled down its face into the chasm which it overhung. Steady, bold, and active, Morton hesitated not to follow her; but the necessary attention to secure his hold and footing in a descent where both foot and hand were needful for security, prevented him from looking around him, till, having descended nigh twenty feet, and being sixty or seventy above the pool which received the fall, his guide made a pause, and he again found himself by her side in a situation that appeared equally romantic and precarious. They were nearly opposite to the waterfall, and in point of level situated at about one-quarter’s depth from the point of the cliff over which it thundered, and three-fourths of the height above the dark, deep, and restless pool which received its fall. Both these tremendous points — the first shoot, namely, of the yet unbroken stream, and the deep and sombre abyss into which it was emptied — were full before him, as well as the whole continuous stream of billowy froth, which, dashing from the one, was eddying and boiling in the other. They were so near this grand phenomenon that they were covered with its spray, and well-nigh deafened by the incessant roar. But crossing in the very front of the fall, and at scarce three yards distance from the cataract, an old oak-tree, flung across the chasm in a manner that seemed accidental, formed a bridge of fearfully narrow dimensions and uncertain footing. The upper end of the tree rested on the platform on which they stood; the lower or uprooted extremity extended behind a projection on the opposite side, and was secured, Morton’s eye could not discover where. From behind the same projection glimmered a strong red light, which, glancing in the waves of the falling water, and tinging them partially with crimson, had a strange preternatural and sinister effect when contrasted with the beams of the rising sun, which glanced on the first broken waves of the fall, though even its meridian splendour could not gain the third of its full depth. When he had looked around him for a moment, the girl again pulled his sleeve, and, pointing to the oak and the projecting point beyond it (for hearing speech was now out of the question), indicated that there lay his farther passage.

Morton gazed at her with surprise; for although he well knew that the persecuted Presbyterians had in the preceding reigns sought refuge among dells and thickets, caves and cataracts, in spots the most extraordinary and secluded; although he had heard of the champions of the Covenant, who had long abidden beside Dobs-lien on the wild heights of Polmoodie, and others who had been concealed in the yet more terrific cavern called Creehope-linn, in the parish of Closeburn — yet his imagination had never exactly figured out the horrors of such a residence, and he was surprised how the strange and romantic scene which he now saw had remained concealed from him, while a curious investigator of such natural phenomena. But he readily conceived that, lying in a remote and wild district, and being destined as a place of concealment to the persecuted preachers and professors of nonconformity, the secret of its existence was carefully preserved by the few shepherds to whom it might be known. As, breaking from these meditations, he began to consider how he should traverse the doubtful and terrific bridge, which, skirted by the cascade, and rendered wet and slippery by its constant drizzle, traversed the chasm above sixty feet from the bottom of the fall, his guide, as if to give him courage, tript over and back without the least hesitation. Envying for a moment the little bare feet which caught a safer hold of the rugged side of the oak than he could pretend to with his heavy boots, Morton nevertheless resolved to attempt the passage, and, fixing his eye firm on a stationary object on the other side, without allowing his head to become giddy, or his attention to be distracted by the flash, the foam, and the roar of the waters around him, he strode steadily and safely along the uncertain bridge, and reached the mouth of a small cavern on the farther side of the torrent. Here he paused; for a light, proceeding from a fire of red-hot charcoal, permitted him to see the interior of the cave, and enabled him to contemplate the appearance of its inhabitant, by whom he himself could not be so readily distinguished, being concealed by the shadow of the rock. What he observed would by no means have encouraged a less determined man to proceed with the task which he had undertaken.

Burley, only altered from what he had been formerly by the addition of a grisly beard, stood in the midst of the cave, with his clasped Bible in one hand, and his drawn sword in the other. His figure, dimly ruddied by the light of the red charcoal, seemed that of a fiend in the lurid atmosphere of Pandemonium, and his gestures and words, as far as they could be heard, seemed equally violent and irregular. All alone, and in a place of almost unapproachable seclusion, his demeanour was that of a man who strives for life and death with a mortal enemy. “Ha! ha! — there — there!” he exclaimed, accompanying each word with a thrust, urged with his whole force against the impassible and empty air, “Did I not tell thee so? — I have resisted, and thou fleest from me! — Coward as thou art, come in all thy terrors; come with mine own evil deeds, which render thee most terrible of all — there is enough betwixt the boards of this book to rescue me! — What mutterest thou of grey hairs? It was well done to slay him — the more ripe the corn, the readier for the sickle. — Art gone? Art gone? — I have ever known thee but a coward — ha! ha! ha!”

With these wild exclamations he sunk the point of his sword, and remained standing still in the same posture, like a maniac whose fit is over.

“The dangerous time is by now,” said the little girl who had followed; “it seldom lasts beyond the time that the sun’s ower the hill; ye may gang in and speak wi’ him now. I’ll wait for you at the other side of the linn; he canna bide to see twa folk at anes.”

Slowly and cautiously, and keeping constantly upon his guard, Morton presented himself to the view of his old associate in command.

“What! comest thou again when thine hour is over?” was his first exclamation; and flourishing his sword aloft, his countenance assumed an expression in which ghastly terror seemed mingled with the rage of a demoniac.

“I am come, Mr. Balfour,” said Morton, in a steady and composed tone, “to renew an acquaintance which has been broken off since the fight of Bothwell Bridge.”

As soon as Burley became aware that Morton was before him in person — an idea which he caught with marvellous celerity — he at once exerted that mastership over his heated and enthusiastic imagination, the power of enforcing which was a most striking part of his extraordinary character. He sunk his sword-point at once, and as he stole it composedly into the scabbard, he muttered something of the damp and cold which sent an old soldier to his fencing exercise, to prevent his blood from chilling. This done, he proceeded in the cold, determined manner which was peculiar to his ordinary discourse:—

“Thou hast tarried long, Henry Morton, and hast not come to the vintage before the twelfth hour has struck. Art thou yet willing to take the right hand of fellowship, and be one with those who look not to thrones or dynasties, but to the rule of Scripture, for their directions?”

Morton and Black Linn
Morton and Black Linn

“I am surprised,” said Morton, evading the direct answer to his question, “that you should have known me after so many years.”

“The features of those who ought to act with me are engraved on my heart,” answered Burley; “and few but Silas Morton’s son durst have followed me into this my castle of retreat. Seest thou that drawbridge of Nature’s own construction?” he added, pointing to the prostrate oak-tree — “one spurn of my foot, and it is overwhelmed in the abyss below, bidding foeman on the farther side stand at defiance, and leaving enemies on this at the mercy of one who never yet met his equal in single fight.”

“Of such defences,” said Morton, “I should have thought you would now have had little need.”

“Little need?” said Burley impatiently. “What little need, when incarnate fiends are combined against me on earth, and Sathan himself — But it matters not,” added he, checking himself. “Enough that I like my place of refuge, my cave of Adullam, and would not change its rude ribs of limestone rock for the fair chambers of the castle of the earls of Torwood, with their broad bounds and barony. Thou, unless the foolish fever-fit be over, mayst think differently.”

“It was of those very possessions I came to speak,” said Morton; “and I doubt not to find Mr. Balfour the same rational and reflecting person which I knew him to be in times when zeal disunited brethren.”

“Ay?” said Burley; “indeed? Is such truly your hope? Wilt thou express it more plainly?”

“In a word, then,” said Morton, “you have exercised, by means at which I can guess, a secret, but most prejudicial, influence over the fortunes of Lady Margaret Bellenden and her granddaughter, and in favour of that base, oppressive apostate, Basil Olifant, whom the law, deceived by thy operations, has placed in possession of their lawful property.”

“Sayest thou?” said Balfour.

“I do say so,” replied Morton; “and face to face you will not deny what you have vouched by your handwriting.”

“And suppose I deny it not,” said Balfour; “and suppose that thy — eloquence were found equal to persuade me to retrace the steps I have taken on matured resolve — what will be thy meed? Dost thou still hope to possess the fair-haired girl, with her wide and rich inheritance?”

“I have no such hope,” answered Morton, calmly.

“And for whom, then, hast thou ventured to do this great thing — to seek to rend the prey from the valiant, to bring forth food from the den of the lion, and to extract sweetness from the maw of the devourer? For whose sake hast thou undertaken to read this riddle, more hard than Samson’s?”

“For Lord Evandale’s and that of his bride,” replied Morton, firmly. “Think better of mankind, Mr. Balfour, and believe there are some who are willing to sacrifice their happiness to that of others.”

“Then, as my soul liveth,” replied Balfour, “thou art, to wear beard and back a horse and draw a sword, the tamest and most gall-less puppet that ever sustained injury unavenged. What! thou wouldst help that accursed Evandale to the arms of the woman that thou lovest; thou wouldst endow them with wealth and with heritages, and thou think’st that there lives another man, offended even more deeply than thou, yet equally cold-livered and mean-spirited, crawling upon the face of the earth, and hast dared to suppose that one other to be John Balfour?”

“For my own feelings,” said Morton, composedly, “I am answerable to none but Heaven; to you, Mr. Balfour, I should suppose it of little consequence whether Basil Olifant or Lord Evandale possess these estates.”

“Thou art deceived,” said Burley; “both are indeed in outer darkness, and strangers to the light, as he whose eyes have never been opened to the day. But this Basil Olifant is a Nabal, a Demas, a base churl whose wealth and power are at the disposal of him who can threaten to deprive him of them. He became a professor because he was deprived of these lands of Tillietudlem; he turned a papist to obtain possession of them; he called himself an Erastian, that he might not again lose them; and he will become what I list while I have in my power the document that may deprive him of them. These lands are a bit between his jaws and a hook in his nostrils, and the rein and the line are in my hands to guide them as I think meet; and his they shall therefore be, unless I had assurance of bestowing them on a sure and sincere friend. But Lord Evandale is a malignant, of heart like flint, and brow like adamant; the goods of the world fall on him like leaves on the frost-bound earth, and unmoved he will see them whirled off by the first wind. The heathen virtues of such as he are more dangerous to us than the sordid cupidity of those who, governed by their interest, must follow where it leads, and who, therefore, themselves the slaves of avarice, may be compelled to work in the vineyard, were it but to earn the wages of sin.”

“This might have been all well some years since,” replied Morton, “and I could understand your argument, although I could never acquiesce in its justice. But at this crisis it seems useless to you to persevere in keeping up an influence which can no longer be directed to an useful purpose. The land has peace, liberty, and freedom of conscience — and what would you more?”

“More!” exclaimed Burley, again unsheathing his sword, with a vivacity which nearly made Morton start. “Look at the notches upon that weapon they are three in number, are they not?”

“It seems so,” answered Morton; “but what of that?”

“The fragment of steel that parted from this first gap rested on the skull of the perjured traitor who first introduced Episcopacy into Scotland; this second notch was made in the rib-bone of an impious villain, the boldest and best soldier that upheld the prelatic cause at Drumclog; this third was broken on the steel head-piece of the captain who defended the Chapel of Holyrood when the people rose at the Revolution. I cleft him to the teeth, through steel and bone. It has done great deeds, this little weapon, and each of these blows was a deliverance to the Church. This sword,” he said, again sheathing it, “has yet more to do — to weed out this base and pestilential heresy of Erastianism; to vindicate the true liberty of the Kirk in her purity; to restore the Covenant in its glory — then let it moulder and rust beside the bones of its master.”

“You have neither men nor means, Mr. Balfour, to disturb the Government as now settled,” argued Morton; “the people are in general satisfied, excepting only the gentlemen of the Jacobite interest; and surely you would not join with those who would only use you for their own purposes?”

“It is they,” answered Burley, “that should serve ours. I went to the camp of the malignant Claver’se, as the future King of Israel sought the land of the Philistines; I arranged with him a rising; and but for the villain Evandale, the Erastians ere now had been driven from the West. — I could slay him,” he added, with a vindictive scowl, “were he grasping the horns of the altar!” He then proceeded in a calmer tone: “If thou, son of mine ancient comrade, were suitor for thyself to this Edith Bellenden, and wert willing to put thy hand to the great work with zeal equal to thy courage, think not I would prefer the friendship of Basil Olifant to thine; thou shouldst then have the means that this document [he produced a parchment] affords to place her in possession of the lands of her fathers. This have I longed to say to thee ever since I saw thee fight the good fight so strongly at the fatal Bridge. The maiden loved thee, and thou her.”

Morton replied firmly, “I will not dissemble with you, Mr. Balfour, even to gain a good end. I came in hopes to persuade you to do a deed of justice to others, not to gain any selfish end of my own. I have failed; I grieve for your sake more than for the loss which others will sustain by your injustice.”

“You refuse my proffer, then?” said Burley, with kindling eyes.

“I do,” said Morton. “Would you be really, as you are desirous to be thought, a man of honour and conscience, you would, regardless of all other considerations, restore that parchment to Lord Evandale, to be used for the advantage of the lawful heir.”

“Sooner shall it perish!” said Balfour; and, casting the deed into the heap of red charcoal beside him, pressed it down with the heel of his boot.

While it smoked, shrivelled, and crackled in the flames, Morton sprung forward to snatch it, and Burley catching hold of him, a struggle ensued. Both were strong men; but although Morton was much the more active and younger of the two, yet Balfour was the most powerful, and effectually prevented him from rescuing the deed until it was fairly reduced to a cinder. They then quitted hold of each other, and the enthusiast, rendered fiercer by the contest, glared on Morton with an eye expressive of frantic revenge.

“Thou hast my secret,” he exclaimed; “thou must be mine, or die!”

“I contemn your threats,” said Morton; “I pity you, and leave you.” But as he turned to retire, Burley stept before him, pushed the oak-trunk from its resting place, and as it fell thundering and crashing into the abyss beneath, drew his sword, and cried out, with a voice that rivalled the roar of the cataract and the thunder of the falling oak, “Now thou art at bay! Fight — yield, or die!” and standing in the mouth of the cavern, he flourished his naked sword.

“I will not fight with the man that preserved my father’s life,” said Morton. “I have not yet learned to say the words, ‘I yield;’ and my life I will rescue as I best can.”

So speaking, and ere Balfour was aware of his purpose, he sprung past him, and exerting that youthful agility of which he possessed an uncommon share, leaped clear across the fearful chasm which divided the mouth of the cave from the projecting rock on the opposite side, and stood there safe and free from his incensed enemy. He immediately ascended the ravine, and, as he turned, saw Burley stand for an instant aghast with astonishment, and then, with the frenzy of disappointed rage, rush into the interior of his cavern.

It was not difficult for him to perceive that this unhappy man’s mind had been so long agitated by desperate schemes and sudden disappointments that it had lost its equipoise, and that there was now in his conduct a shade of lunacy, not the less striking, from the vigour and craft with which he pursued his wild designs. Morton soon joined his guide, who had been terrified by the fall of the oak. This he represented as accidental; and she assured him, in return, that the inhabitant of the cave would experience no inconvenience from it, being always provided with materials to construct another bridge.

The adventures of the morning were not yet ended. As they approached the hut, the little girl made an exclamation of surprise at seeing her grandmother groping her way towards them, at a greater distance from her home than she could have been supposed capable of travelling.

“Oh, sir, sir!” said the old woman, when she heard them approach, “gin e’er ye loved Lord Evandale, help now, or never! God be praised that left my hearing when he took my poor eyesight! Come this way — this way. And oh, tread lightly. Peggy, hinny, gang saddle the gentleman’s horse, and lead him cannily ahint the thorny shaw, and bide him there.”

She conducted him to a small window, through which, himself unobserved, he could see two dragoons seated at their morning draught of ale, and conversing earnestly together.

“The more I think of it,” said the one, “the less I like it, Inglis; Evandale was a good officer and the soldier’s friend; and though we were punished for the mutiny at Tillietudlem, yet, by —-, Frank, you must own we deserved it.”

“D— n seize me if I forgive him for it, though!” replied the other; “and I think I can sit in his skirts now.”

“Why, man, you should forget and forgive. Better take the start with him along with the rest, and join the ranting Highlanders. We have all eat King James’s bread.”

“Thou art an ass; the start, as you call it, will never happen — the day’s put off. Halliday’s seen a ghost, or Miss Bellenden’s fallen sick of the pip, or some blasted nonsense or another; the thing will never keep two days longer, and the first bird that sings out will get the reward.”

“That’s true too,” answered his comrade; “and will this fellow — this Basil Olifant — pay handsomely?”

“Like a prince, man,” said Inglis. “Evandale is the man on earth whom he hates worst, and he fears him, besides, about some law business; and were he once rubbed out of the way, all, he thinks, will be his own.”

“But shall we have warrants and force enough?” said the other fellow. “Few people here will stir against my lord, and we may find him with some of our own fellows at his back.”

“Thou ‘rt a cowardly fool, Dick,” returned Inglis; he is living quietly down at Fairy Knowe to avoid suspicion. Olifant is a magistrate, and will have some of his own people that he can trust along with him. There are us two, and the laird says he can get a desperate fighting Whig fellow, called Quintin Mackell, that has an old grudge at Evandale.”

“Well, well, you are my officer, you know,” said the private, with true military conscience, “and if anything is wrong —”

“I’ll take the blame,” said Inglis. “Come, another pot of ale, and let us to Tillietudlem. — Here, blind Bess! — Why, where the devil has the old hag crept to?”

“Delay them as long as you can,” whispered Morton, as he thrust his purse into the hostess’s hand; “all depends on gaining time.”

Then, walking swiftly to the place where the girl held his horse ready, “To Fairy Knowe? No; alone I could not protect them. I must instantly to Glasgow. Wittenbold, the commandant there, will readily give me the support of a troop, and procure me the countenance of the civil power. I must drop a caution as I pass. — Come, Moorkopf,” he said, addressing his horse as he mounted him, “this day must try your breath and speed.”


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