Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 5

Arouse thee, youth! — it is no human call —

God’s church is leaguer’d — haste to man the wall;

Haste where the Redcross banners wave on high,

Signal of honour’d death, or victory!

James Duff.

Morton and his companion had attained some distance from the town before either of them addressed the other. There was something, as we have observed, repulsive in the manner of the stranger, which prevented Morton from opening the conversation, and he himself seemed to have no desire to talk, until, on a sudden, he abruptly demanded, “What has your father’s son to do with such profane mummeries as I find you this day engaged in?”

“I do my duty as a subject, and pursue my harmless recreations according to my own pleasure,” replied Morton, somewhat offended.

“Is it your duty, think you, or that of any Christian young man, to bear arms in their cause who have poured out the blood of God’s saints in the wilderness as if it had been water? or is it a lawful recreation to waste time in shooting at a bunch of feathers, and close your evening with winebibbing in public-houses and market-towns, when He that is mighty is come into the land with his fan in his hand, to purge the wheat from the chaff?”

“I suppose from your style of conversation,” said Morton, “that you are one of those who have thought proper to stand out against the government. I must remind you that you are unnecessarily using dangerous language in the presence of a mere stranger, and that the times do not render it safe for me to listen to it.”

“Thou canst not help it, Henry Morton,” said his companion; “thy Master has his uses for thee, and when he calls, thou must obey. Well wot I thou hast not heard the call of a true preacher, or thou hadst ere now been what thou wilt assuredly one day become.”

“We are of the presbyterian persuasion, like yourself,” said Morton; for his uncle’s family attended the ministry of one of those numerous presbyterian clergymen, who, complying with certain regulations, were licensed to preach without interruption from the government. This indulgence, as it was called, made a great schism among the presbyterians, and those who accepted of it were severely censured by the more rigid sectaries, who refused the proffered terms. The stranger, therefore, answered with great disdain to Morton’s profession of faith.

“That is but an equivocation — a poor equivocation. Ye listen on the Sabbath to a cold, worldly, time-serving discourse, from one who forgets his high commission so much as to hold his apostleship by the favour of the courtiers and the false prelates, and ye call that hearing the word! Of all the baits with which the devil has fished for souls in these days of blood and darkness, that Black Indulgence has been the most destructive. An awful dispensation it has been, a smiting of the shepherd and a scattering of the sheep upon the mountains — an uplifting of one Christian banner against another, and a fighting of the wars of darkness with the swords of the children of light!”

“My uncle,” said Morton, “is of opinion, that we enjoy a reasonable freedom of conscience under the indulged clergymen, and I must necessarily be guided by his sentiments respecting the choice of a place of worship for his family.”

“Your uncle,” said the horseman, “is one of those to whom the least lamb in his own folds at Milnwood is dearer than the whole Christian flock. He is one that could willingly bend down to the golden-calf of Bethel, and would have fished for the dust thereof when it was ground to powder and cast upon the waters. Thy father was a man of another stamp.”

“My father,” replied Morton, “was indeed a brave and gallant man. And you may have heard, sir, that he fought for that royal family in whose name I was this day carrying arms.”

“Ay; and had he lived to see these days, he would have cursed the hour he ever drew sword in their cause. But more of this hereafter — I promise thee full surely that thy hour will come, and then the words thou hast now heard will stick in thy bosom like barbed arrows. My road lies there.”

He pointed towards a pass leading up into a wild extent of dreary and desolate hills; but as he was about to turn his horse’s head into the rugged path, which led from the high-road in that direction, an old woman wrapped in a red cloak, who was sitting by the cross-way, arose, and approaching him, said, in a mysterious tone of voice, “If ye be of our ain folk, gangna up the pass the night for your lives. There is a lion in the path, that is there. The curate of Brotherstane and ten soldiers hae beset the pass, to hae the lives of ony of our puir wanderers that venture that gate to join wi’ Hamilton and Dingwall.”

“Have the persecuted folk drawn to any head among themselves?” demanded the stranger.

“About sixty or seventy horse and foot,” said the old dame; “but, ewhow! they are puirly armed, and warse fended wi’ victual.”

“God will help his own,” said the horseman. “Which way shall I take to join them?”

“It’s a mere impossibility this night,” said the woman, “the troopers keep sae strict a guard; and they say there’s strange news come frae the east, that makes them rage in their cruelty mair fierce than ever — Ye maun take shelter somegate for the night before ye get to the muirs, and keep yoursell in hiding till the grey o’ the morning, and then you may find your way through the Drake Moss. When I heard the awfu’ threatenings o’ the oppressors, I e’en took my cloak about me, and sate down by the wayside, to warn ony of our puir scattered remnant that chanced to come this gate, before they fell into the nets of the spoilers.”

“Have you a house near this?” said the stranger; “and can you give me hiding there?”

“I have,” said the old woman, “a hut by the way-side, it may be a mile from hence; but four men of Belial, called dragoons, are lodged therein, to spoil my household goods at their pleasure, because I will not wait upon the thowless, thriftless, fissenless ministry of that carnal man, John Halftext, the curate.”

“Good night, good woman, and thanks for thy counsel,” said the stranger, as he rode away.

“The blessings of the promise upon you,” returned the old dame; “may He keep you that can keep you.”

“Amen!” said the traveller; “for where to hide my head this night, mortal skill cannot direct me.”

“I am very sorry for your distress,” said Morton; “and had I a house or place of shelter that could be called my own, I almost think I would risk the utmost rigour of the law rather than leave you in such a strait. But my uncle is so alarmed at the pains and penalties denounced by the laws against such as comfort, receive, or consort with intercommuned persons, that he has strictly forbidden all of us to hold any intercourse with them.”

“It is no less than I expected,” said the stranger; “nevertheless, I might be received without his knowledge; — a barn, a hay-loft, a cart-shed — any place where I could stretch me down, would be to my habits like a tabernacle of silver set about with planks of cedar.”

“I assure you,” said Morton, much embarrassed, “that I have not the means of receiving you at Milnwood without my uncle’s consent and knowledge; nor, if I could do so, would I think myself justifiable in engaging him unconsciously in danger, which, most of all others, he fears and deprecates.”

“Well,” said the traveller, “I have but one word to say. Did you ever hear your father mention John Balfour of Burley?”

“His ancient friend and comrade, who saved his life, with almost the loss of his own, in the battle of Longmarston-Moor? — Often, very often.”

“I am that Balfour,” said his companion. “Yonder stands thy uncle’s house; I see the light among the trees. The avenger of blood is behind me, and my death certain unless I have refuge there. Now, make thy choice, young man; to shrink from the side of thy father’s friend, like a thief in the night, and to leave him exposed to the bloody death from which he rescued thy father, or to expose thine uncle’s wordly goods to such peril, as, in this perverse generation, attends those who give a morsel of bread or a draught of cold water to a Christian man, when perishing for lack of refreshment!”

A thousand recollections thronged on the mind of Morton at once. His father, whose memory he idolized, had often enlarged upon his obligations to this man, and regretted, that, after having been long comrades, they had parted in some unkindness at the time when the kingdom of Scotland was divided into Resolutioners and Protesters; the former of whom adhered to Charles II. after his father’s death upon the scaffold, while the Protesters inclined rather to a union with the triumphant republicans. The stern fanaticism of Burley had attached him to this latter party, and the comrades had parted in displeasure, never, as it happened, to meet again. These circumstances the deceased Colonel Morton had often mentioned to his son, and always with an expression of deep regret, that he had never, in any manner, been enabled to repay the assistance, which, on more than one occasion, he had received from Burley.

To hasten Morton’s decision, the night-wind, as it swept along, brought from a distance the sullen sound of a kettle-drum, which, seeming to approach nearer, intimated that a body of horse were upon their march towards them.

“It must be Claverhouse, with the rest of his regiment. What can have occasioned this night-march? If you go on, you fall into their hands — if you turn back towards the borough-town, you are in no less danger from Cornet Grahame’s party. — The path to the hill is beset. I must shelter you at Milnwood, or expose you to instant death; — but the punishment of the law shall fall upon myself, as in justice it should, not upon my uncle. — Follow me.”

Burley, who had awaited his resolution with great composure, now followed him in silence.

The house of Milnwood, built by the father of the present proprietor, was a decent mansion, suitable to the size of the estate, but, since the accession of this owner, it had been suffered to go considerably into disrepair. At some little distance from the house stood the court of offices. Here Morton paused.

“I must leave you here for a little while,” he whispered, “until I can provide a bed for you in the house.”

“I care little for such delicacy,” said Burley; “for thirty years this head has rested oftener on the turf, or on the next grey stone, than upon either wool or down. A draught of ale, a morsel of bread, to say my prayers, and to stretch me upon dry hay, were to me as good as a painted chamber and a prince’s table.”

It occurred to Morton at the same moment, that to attempt to introduce the fugitive within the house, would materially increase the danger of detection. Accordingly, having struck a light with implements left in the stable for that purpose, and having fastened up their horses, he assigned Burley, for his place of repose, a wooden bed, placed in a loft half-full of hay, which an out-of-door domestic had occupied until dismissed by his uncle in one of those fits of parsimony which became more rigid from day to day. In this untenanted loft Morton left his companion, with a caution so to shade his light that no reflection might be seen from the window, and a promise that he would presently return with such refreshments as he might be able to procure at that late hour. This last, indeed, was a subject on which he felt by no means confident, for the power of obtaining even the most ordinary provisions depended entirely upon the humour in which he might happen to find his uncle’s sole confidant, the old housekeeper. If she chanced to be a-bed, which was very likely, or out of humour, which was not less so, Morton well knew the case to be at least problematical.

Cursing in his heart the sordid parsimony which pervaded every part of his uncle’s establishment, he gave the usual gentle knock at the bolted door, by which he was accustomed to seek admittance, when accident had detained him abroad beyond the early and established hours of rest at the house of Milnwood. It was a sort of hesitating tap, which carried an acknowledgment of transgression in its very sound, and seemed rather to solicit than command attention. After it had been repeated again and again, the housekeeper, grumbling betwixt her teeth as she rose from the chimney corner in the hall, and wrapping her checked handkerchief round her head to secure her from the cold air, paced across the stone-passage, and repeated a careful “Wha’s there at this time o’ night?” more than once before she undid the bolts and bars, and cautiously opened the door.

“This is a fine time o’ night, Mr Henry,” said the old dame, with the tyrannic insolence of a spoilt and favourite domestic; —“a braw time o’ night and a bonny, to disturb a peaceful house in, and to keep quiet folk out o’ their beds waiting for you. Your uncle’s been in his maist three hours syne, and Robin’s ill o’ the rheumatize, and he’s to his bed too, and sae I had to sit up for ye mysell, for as sair a hoast as I hae.”

Here she coughed once or twice, in further evidence of the egregious inconvenience which she had sustained.

“Much obliged to you, Alison, and many kind thanks.”

“Hegh, sirs, sae fair-fashioned as we are! Mony folk ca’ me Mistress Wilson, and Milnwood himsell is the only ane about this town thinks o’ ca’ing me Alison, and indeed he as aften says Mrs Alison as ony other thing.”

“Well, then, Mistress Alison,” said Morton, “I really am sorry to have kept you up waiting till I came in.”

“And now that you are come in, Mr Henry,” said the cross old woman, “what for do you no tak up your candle and gang to your bed? and mind ye dinna let the candle sweal as ye gang alang the wainscot parlour, and haud a’ the house scouring to get out the grease again.”

“But, Alison, I really must have something to eat, and a draught of ale, before I go to bed.”

“Eat? — and ale, Mr Henry? — My certie, ye’re ill to serve! Do ye think we havena heard o’ your grand popinjay wark yonder, and how ye bleezed away as muckle pouther as wad hae shot a’ the wild-fowl that we’ll want atween and Candlemas — and then ganging majoring to the piper’s Howff wi’ a’ the idle loons in the country, and sitting there birling, at your poor uncle’s cost, nae doubt, wi’ a’ the scaff and raff o’ the water-side, till sun-down, and then coming hame and crying for ale, as if ye were maister and mair!”

Extremely vexed, yet anxious, on account of his guest, to procure refreshments if possible, Morton suppressed his resentment, and good-humouredly assured Mrs Wilson, that he was really both hungry and thirsty; “and as for the shooting at the popinjay, I have heard you say you have been there yourself, Mrs Wilson — I wish you had come to look at us.”

“Ah, Maister Henry,” said the old dame, “I wish ye binna beginning to learn the way of blawing in a woman’s lug wi’ a’ your whilly-wha’s! — Aweel, sae ye dinna practise them but on auld wives like me, the less matter. But tak heed o’ the young queans, lad. — Popinjay — ye think yoursell a braw fellow enow; and troth!” (surveying him with the candle,) “there’s nae fault to find wi’ the outside, if the inside be conforming. But I mind, when I was a gilpy of a lassock, seeing the Duke, that was him that lost his head at London — folk said it wasna a very gude ane, but it was aye a sair loss to him, puir gentleman — Aweel, he wan the popinjay, for few cared to win it ower his Grace’s head — weel, he had a comely presence, and when a’ the gentles mounted to show their capers, his Grace was as near to me as I am to you; and he said to me, ‘Tak tent o’ yoursell, my bonny lassie, (these were his very words,) for my horse is not very chancy.’— And now, as ye say ye had sae little to eat or drink, I’ll let you see that I havena been sae unmindfu’ o’ you; for I dinna think it’s safe for young folk to gang to their bed on an empty stamach.”

To do Mrs Wilson justice, her nocturnal harangues upon such occasions not unfrequently terminated with this sage apophthegm, which always prefaced the producing of some provision a little better than ordinary, such as she now placed before him. In fact, the principal object of her maundering was to display her consequence and love of power; for Mrs Wilson was not, at the bottom, an illtempered woman, and certainly loved her old and young master (both of whom she tormented extremely) better than any one else in the world. She now eyed Mr Henry, as she called him, with great complacency, as he partook of her good cheer.

“Muckle gude may it do ye, my bonny man. I trow ye dinna get sic a skirl-inthe-pan as that at Niel Blane’s. His wife was a canny body, and could dress things very weel for ane in her line o’ business, but no like a gentleman’s housekeeper, to be sure. But I doubt the daughter’s a silly thing — an unco cockernony she had busked on her head at the kirk last Sunday. I am doubting that there will be news o’ a’ thae braws. But my auld een’s drawing thegither — dinna hurry yoursell, my bonny man, tak mind about the putting out the candle, and there’s a horn of ale, and a glass of clow-gillie-flower water; I dinna gie ilka body that; I keep it for a pain I hae whiles in my ain stamach, and it’s better for your young blood than brandy. Sae, gude-night to ye, Mr Henry, and see that ye tak gude care o’ the candle.”

Morton promised to attend punctually to her caution, and requested her not to be alarmed if she heard the door opened, as she knew he must again, as usual, look to his horse, and arrange him for the night. Mrs Wilson then retreated, and Morton, folding up his provisions, was about to hasten to his guest, when the nodding head of the old housekeeper was again thrust in at the door, with an admonition, to remember to take an account of his ways before he laid himself down to rest, and to pray for protection during the hours of darkness.

Such were the manners of a certain class of domestics, once common in Scotland, and perhaps still to be found in some old manor-houses in its remote counties. They were fixtures in the family they belonged to; and as they never conceived the possibility of such a thing as dismissal to be within the chances of their lives, they were, of course, sincerely attached to every member of it. 7 On the other hand, when spoiled by the indulgence or indolence of their superiors, they were very apt to become ill-tempered, self-sufficient, and tyrannical; so much so, that a mistress or master would sometimes almost have wished to exchange their crossgrained fidelity for the smooth and accommodating duplicity of a modern menial.

7 A masculine retainer of this kind, having offended his master extremely, was commanded to leave his service instantly. “In troth and that will I not,” answered the domestic; “if your honour disna ken when ye hae a gude servant, I ken when I hae a gude master, and go away I will not.” On another occasion of the same nature, the master said, “John, you and I shall never sleep under the same roof again;” to which John replied, with much, “Whare the deil can your honour be ganging?”


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