Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 6

Yea, this man’s brow, like to a tragic leaf,

Foretells the nature of a tragic volume.


Being at length rid of the housekeeper’s presence, Morton made a collection of what he had reserved from the provisions set before him, and prepared to carry them to his concealed guest. He did not think it necessary to take a light, being perfectly acquainted with every turn of the road; and it was lucky he did not do so, for he had hardly stepped beyond the threshold ere a heavy trampling of horses announced, that the body of cavalry, whose kettle-drums 8 they had before heard, were in the act of passing along the high-road which winds round the foot of the bank on which the house of Milnwood was placed. He heard the commanding officer distinctly give the word halt. A pause of silence followed, interrupted only by the occasional neighing or pawing of an impatient charger.

“Whose house is this?” said a voice, in a tone of authority and command.

“Milnwood, if it like your honour,” was the reply.

“Is the owner well affected?” said the enquirer.

“He complies with the orders of government, and frequents an indulged minister,” was the response.

“Hum! ay! indulged? a mere mask for treason, very impolitically allowed to those who are too great cowards to wear their principles barefaced. — Had we not better send up a party and search the house, in case some of the bloody villains concerned in this heathenish butchery may be concealed in it?”

Ere Morton could recover from the alarm into which this proposal had thrown him, a third speaker rejoined, “I cannot think it at all necessary; Milnwood is an infirm, hypochondriac old man, who never meddles with politics, and loves his moneybags and bonds better than any thing else in the world. His nephew, I hear, was at the wappenschaw today, and gained the popinjay, which does not look like a fanatic. I should think they are all gone to bed long since, and an alarm at this time of night might kill the poor old man.”

“Well,” rejoined the leader, “if that be so, to search the house would be lost time, of which we have but little to throw away. Gentlemen of the Life-Guards, forward — March!”

A few notes on the trumpet, mingled with the occasional boom of the kettle-drum, to mark the cadence, joined with the tramp of hoofs and the clash of arms, announced that the troop had resumed its march. The moon broke out as the leading files of the column attained a hill up which the road winded, and showed indistinctly the glittering of the steel-caps; and the dark figures of the horses and riders might be imperfectly traced through the gloom. They continued to advance up the hill, and sweep over the top of it in such long succession, as intimated a considerable numerical force.

When the last of them had disappeared, young Morton resumed his purpose of visiting his guest. Upon entering the place of refuge, he found him seated on his humble couch with a pocket Bible open in his hand, which he seemed to study with intense meditation. His broadsword, which he had unsheathed in the first alarm at the arrival of the dragoons, lay naked across his knees, and the little taper that stood beside him upon the old chest, which served the purpose of a table, threw a partial and imperfect light upon those stern and harsh features, in which ferocity was rendered more solemn and dignified by a wild cast of tragic enthusiasm. His brow was that of one in whom some strong o’ermastering principle has overwhelmed all other passions and feelings, like the swell of a high spring-tide, when the usual cliffs and breakers vanish from the eye, and their existence is only indicated by the chasing foam of the waves that burst and wheel over them. He raised his head, after Morton had contemplated him for about a minute.

“I perceive,” said Morton, looking at his sword, “that you heard the horsemen ride by; their passage delayed me for some minutes.”

“I scarcely heeded them,” said Balfour; “my hour is not yet come. That I shall one day fall into their hands, and be honourably associated with the saints whom they have slaughtered, I am full well aware. And I would, young man, that the hour were come; it should be as welcome to me as ever wedding to bridegroom. But if my Master has more work for me on earth, I must not do his labour grudgingly.”

“Eat and refresh yourself,” said Morton; “tomorrow your safety requires you should leave this place, in order to gain the hills, so soon as you can see to distinguish the track through the morasses.”

“Young man,” returned Balfour, “you are already weary of me, and would be yet more so, perchance, did you know the task upon which I have been lately put. And I wonder not that it should be so, for there are times when I am weary of myself. Think you not it is a sore trial for flesh and blood, to be called upon to execute the righteous judgments of Heaven while we are yet in the body, and continue to retain that blinded sense and sympathy for carnal suffering, which makes our own flesh thrill when we strike a gash upon the body of another? And think you, that when some prime tyrant has been removed from his place, that the instruments of his punishment can at all times look back on their share in his downfall with firm and unshaken nerves? Must they not sometimes even question the truth of that inspiration which they have felt and acted under? Must they not sometimes doubt the origin of that strong impulse with which their prayers for heavenly direction under difficulties have been inwardly answered and confirmed, and confuse, in their disturbed apprehensions, the responses of Truth itself with some strong delusion of the enemy?”

“These are subjects, Mr Balfour, on which I am ill qualified to converse with you,” answered Morton; “but I own I should strongly doubt the origin of any inspiration which seemed to dictate a line of conduct contrary to those feelings of natural humanity, which Heaven has assigned to us as the general law of our conduct.”

Balfour seemed somewhat disturbed, and drew himself hastily up, but immediately composed himself, and answered coolly, “It is natural you should think so; you are yet in the dungeon-house of the law, a pit darker than that into which Jeremiah was plunged, even the dungeon of Malcaiah the son of Hamelmelech, where there was no water but mire. Yet is the seal of the covenant upon your forehead, and the son of the righteous, who resisted to blood where the banner was spread on the mountains, shall not be utterly lost, as one of the children of darkness. Trow ye, that in this day of bitterness and calamity, nothing is required at our hands but to keep the moral law as far as our carnal frailty will permit? Think ye our conquests must be only over our corrupt and evil affections and passions? No; we are called upon, when we have girded up our loins, to run the race boldly, and when we have drawn the sword, we are enjoined to smite the ungodly, though he be our neighbour, and the man of power and cruelty, though he were of our own kindred, and the friend of our own bosom.”

“These are the sentiments,” said Morton, “that your enemies impute to you, and which palliate, if they do not vindicate, the cruel measures which the council have directed against you. They affirm, that you pretend to derive your rule of action from what you call an inward light, rejecting the restraints of legal magistracy, of national law, and even of common humanity, when in opposition to what you call the spirit within you.”

“They do us wrong,” answered the Covenanter; “it is they, perjured as they are, who have rejected all law, both divine and civil, and who now persecute us for adherence to the Solemn League and Covenant between God and the kingdom of Scotland, to which all of them, save a few popish malignants, have sworn in former days, and which they now burn in the market-places, and tread under foot in derision. When this Charles Stewart returned to these kingdoms, did the malignants bring him back? They had tried it with strong hand, but they failed, I trow. Could James Grahame of Montrose, and his Highland caterans, have put him again in the place of his father? I think their heads on the Westport told another tale for many a long day. It was the workers of the glorious work — the reformers of the beauty of the tabernacle, that called him again to the high place from which his father fell. And what has been our reward? In the words of the prophet, ‘We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble — The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land and all that is in it.’”

“Mr Balfour,” answered Morton, “I neither undertake to subscribe to or refute your complaints against the government. I have endeavoured to repay a debt due to the comrade of my father, by giving you shelter in your distress, but you will excuse me from engaging myself either in your cause, or in controversy. I will leave you to repose, and heartily wish it were in my power to render your condition more comfortable.”

“But I shall see you, I trust, in the morning, ere I depart? — I am not a man whose bowels yearn after kindred and friends of this world. When I put my hand to the plough, I entered into a covenant with my worldly affections that I should not look back on the things I left behind me. Yet the son of mine ancient comrade is to me as mine own, and I cannot behold him without the deep and firm belief, that I shall one day see him gird on his sword in the dear and precious cause for which his father fought and bled.”

With a promise on Morton’s part that he would call the refugee when it was time for him to pursue his journey, they parted for the night.

Morton retired to a few hours’ rest; but his imagination, disturbed by the events of the day, did not permit him to enjoy sound repose. There was a blended vision of horror before him, in which his new friend seemed to be a principal actor. The fair form of Edith Bellenden also mingled in his dream, weeping, and with dishevelled hair, and appearing to call on him for comfort and assistance, which he had not in his power to render. He awoke from these unrefreshing slumbers with a feverish impulse, and a heart which foreboded disaster. There was already a tinge of dazzling lustre on the verge of the distant hills, and the dawn was abroad in all the freshness of a summer morning.

“I have slept too long,” he exclaimed to himself, “and must now hasten to forward the journey of this unfortunate fugitive.”

He dressed himself as fast as possible, opened the door of the house with as little noise as he could, and hastened to the place of refuge occupied by the Covenanter. Morton entered on tiptoe, for the determined tone and manner, as well as the unusual language and sentiments of this singular individual, had struck him with a sensation approaching to awe. Balfour was still asleep. A ray of light streamed on his uncurtained couch, and showed to Morton the working of his harsh features, which seemed agitated by some strong internal cause of disturbance. He had not undressed. Both his arms were above the bed-cover, the right hand strongly clenched, and occasionally making that abortive attempt to strike which usually attends dreams of violence; the left was extended, and agitated, from time to time, by a movement as if repulsing some one. The perspiration stood on his brow, “like bubbles in a late disturbed stream,” and these marks of emotion were accompanied with broken words which escaped from him at intervals —“Thou art taken, Judas — thou art taken — Cling not to my knees — cling not to my knees — hew him down! — A priest? Ay, a priest of Baal, to be bound and slain, even at the brook Kishon. — Fire arms will not prevail against him — Strike — thrust with the cold iron — put him out of pain — put him out of pain, were it but for the sake of his grey hairs.”

Much alarmed at the import of these expressions, which seemed to burst from him even in sleep with the stern energy accompanying the perpetration of some act of violence, Morton shook his guest by the shoulder in order to awake him. The first words he uttered were, “Bear me where ye will, I will avouch the deed!”

His glance around having then fully awakened him, he at once assumed all the stern and gloomy composure of his ordinary manner, and throwing himself on his knees, before speaking to Morton, poured forth an ejaculatory prayer for the suffering Church of Scotland, entreating that the blood of her murdered saints and martyrs might be precious in the sight of Heaven, and that the shield of the Almighty might be spread over the scattered remnant, who, for His name’s sake, were abiders in the wilderness. Vengeance — speedy and ample vengeance on the oppressors, was the concluding petition of his devotions, which he expressed aloud in strong and emphatic language, rendered more impressive by the Orientalism of Scripture.

When he had finished his prayer he arose, and, taking Morton by the arm, they descended together to the stable, where the Wanderer (to give Burley a title which was often conferred on his sect) began to make his horse ready to pursue his journey. When the animal was saddled and bridled, Burley requested Morton to walk with him a gun-shot into the wood, and direct him to the right road for gaining the moors. Morton readily complied, and they walked for some time in silence under the shade of some fine old trees, pursuing a sort of natural path, which, after passing through woodland for about half a mile, led into the bare and wild country which extends to the foot of the hills.

There was little conversation between them, until at length Burley suddenly asked Morton, “Whether the words he had spoken over-night had borne fruit in his mind?”

Morton answered, “That he remained of the same opinion which he had formerly held, and was determined, at least as far and as long as possible, to unite the duties of a good Christian with those of a peaceful subject.”

“In other words,” replied Burley, “you are desirous to serve both God and Mammon — to be one day professing the truth with your lips, and the next day in arms, at the command of carnal and tyrannic authority, to shed the blood of those who for the truth have forsaken all things? Think ye,” he continued, “to touch pitch and remain undefiled? to mix in the ranks of malignants, papists, papa-prelatists, latitudinarians, and scoffers; to partake of their sports, which are like the meat offered unto idols; to hold intercourse, perchance, with their daughters, as the sons of God with the daughters of men in the world before the flood — Think you, I say, to do all these things, and yet remain free from pollution? I say unto you, that all communication with the enemies of the Church is the accursed thing which God hateth! Touch not — taste not — handle not! And grieve not, young man, as if you alone were called upon to subdue your carnal affections, and renounce the pleasures which are a snare to your feet — I say to you, that the Son of David hath denounced no better lot on the whole generation of mankind.”

He then mounted his horse, and, turning to Morton, repeated the text of Scripture, “An heavy yoke was ordained for the sons of Adam from the day they go out of their mother’s womb, till the day that they return to the mother of all things; from him who is clothed in blue silk and weareth a crown, even to him who weareth simple linen — wrath, envy, trouble, and unquietness, rigour, strife, and fear of death in the time of rest.”

Having uttered these words he set his horse in motion, and soon disappeared among the boughs of the forest.

“Farewell, stern enthusiast,” said Morton, looking after him; “in some moods of my mind, how dangerous would be the society of such a companion! If I am unmoved by his zeal for abstract doctrines of faith, or rather for a peculiar mode of worship, (such was the purport of his reflections,) can I be a man, and a Scotchman, and look with indifference on that persecution which has made wise men mad? Was not the cause of freedom, civil and religious, that for which my father fought; and shall I do well to remain inactive, or to take the part of an oppressive government, if there should appear any rational prospect of redressing the insufferable wrongs to which my miserable countrymen are subjected? — And yet, who shall warrant me that these people, rendered wild by persecution, would not, in the hour of victory, be as cruel and as intolerant as those by whom they are now hunted down? What degree of moderation, or of mercy, can be expected from this Burley, so distinguished as one of their principal champions, and who seems even now to be reeking from some recent deed of violence, and to feel stings of remorse, which even his enthusiasm cannot altogether stifle? I am weary of seeing nothing but violence and fury around me — now assuming the mask of lawful authority, now taking that of religious zeal. I am sick of my country — of myself — of my dependent situation — of my repressed feelings — of these woods — of that river — of that house — of all but — Edith, and she can never be mine! Why should I haunt her walks? — Why encourage my own delusion, and perhaps hers? — She can never be mine. Her grandmother’s pride — the opposite principles of our families — my wretched state of dependence — a poor miserable slave, for I have not even the wages of a servant — all circumstances give the lie to the vain hope that we can ever be united. Why then protract a delusion so painful?

“But I am no slave,” he said aloud, and drawing himself up to his full stature —“no slave, in one respect, surely. I can change my abode — my father’s sword is mine, and Europe lies open before me, as before him and hundreds besides of my countrymen, who have filled it with the fame of their exploits. Perhaps some lucky chance may raise me to a rank with our Ruthvens, our Lesleys, our Monroes, the chosen leaders of the famous Protestant champion, Gustavus Adolphus, or, if not, a soldier’s life or a soldier’s grave.”

When he had formed this determination, he found himself near the door of his uncle’s house, and resolved to lose no time in making him acquainted with it.

“Another glance of Edith’s eye, another walk by Edith’s side, and my resolution would melt away. I will take an irrevocable step, therefore, and then see her for the last time.”

In this mood he entered the wainscotted parlour, in which his uncle was already placed at his morning’s refreshment, a huge plate of oatmeal porridge, with a corresponding allowance of butter-milk. The favourite housekeeper was in attendance, half standing, half resting on the back of a chair, in a posture betwixt freedom and respect. The old gentleman had been remarkably tall in his earlier days, an advantage which he now lost by stooping to such a degree, that at a meeting, where there was some dispute concerning the sort of arch which should be thrown over a considerable brook, a facetious neighbour proposed to offer Milnwood a handsome sum for his curved backbone, alleging that he would sell any thing that belonged to him. Splay feet of unusual size, long thin hands, garnished with nails which seldom felt the steel, a wrinkled and puckered visage, the length of which corresponded with that of his person, together with a pair of little sharp bargain-making grey eyes, that seemed eternally looking out for their advantage, completed the highly unpromising exterior of Mr Morton of Milnwood. As it would have been very injudicious to have lodged a liberal or benevolent disposition in such an unworthy cabinet, nature had suited his person with a mind exactly in conformity with it, that is to say, mean, selfish, and covetous.

When this amiable personage was aware of the presence of his nephew, he hastened, before addressing him, to swallow the spoonful of porridge which he was in the act of conveying to his mouth, and, as it chanced to be scalding hot, the pain occasioned by its descent down his throat and into his stomach, inflamed the ill-humour with which he was already prepared to meet his kinsman.

“The deil take them that made them!” was his first ejaculation, apostrophizing his mess of porridge.

“They’re gude parritch eneugh,” said Mrs Wilson, “if ye wad but take time to sup them. I made them mysell; but if folk winna hae patience, they should get their thrapples causewayed.”

“Haud your peace, Alison! I was speaking to my nevoy. — How is this, sir? And what sort o’ scampering gates are these o’ going on? Ye were not at hame last night till near midnight.”

“Thereabouts, sir, I believe,” answered Morton, in an indifferent tone.

“Thereabouts, sir? — What sort of an answer is that, sir? Why came ye na hame when other folk left the grund?”

“I suppose you know the reason very well, sir,” said Morton; “I had the fortune to be the best marksman of the day, and remained, as is usual, to give some little entertainment to the other young men.”

“The deevil ye did, sir! And ye come to tell me that to my face? You pretend to gie entertainments, that canna come by a dinner except by sorning on a carefu’ man like me? But if ye put me to charges, I’se work it out o’ye. I seena why ye shouldna haud the pleugh, now that the pleughman has left us; it wad set ye better than wearing thae green duds, and wasting your siller on powther and lead; it wad put ye in an honest calling, and wad keep ye in bread without being behadden to ony ane.”

“I am very ambitious of learning such a calling, sir, but I don’t understand driving the plough.”

“And what for no? It’s easier than your gunning and archery that ye like sae weel. Auld Davie is ca’ing it e’en now, and ye may be goadsman for the first twa or three days, and tak tent ye dinna o’erdrive the owsen, and then ye will be fit to gang betweeu the stilts. Ye’ll ne’er learn younger, I’ll be your caution. Haggie-holm is heavy land, and Davie is ower auld to keep the coulter down now.”

“I beg pardon for interrupting you, sir, but I have formed a scheme for myself, which will have the same effect of relieving you of the burden and charge attending my company.”

“Ay? Indeed? a scheme o’ yours? that must be a denty ane!” said the uncle, with a very peculiar sneer; “let’s hear about it, lad.”

“It is said in two words, sir. I intend to leave this country, and serve abroad, as my father did before these unhappy troubles broke out at home. His name will not be so entirely forgotten in the countries where he served, but that it will procure his son at least the opportunity of trying his fortune as a soldier.”

“Gude be gracious to us!” exclaimed the housekeeper; “our young Mr Harry gang abroad? na, na! eh, na! that maun never be.”

Milnwood, entertaining no thought or purpose of parting with his nephew, who was, moreover, very useful to him in many respects, was thunderstruck at this abrupt declaration of independence from a person whose deference to him had hitherto been unlimited. He recovered himself, however, immediately.

“And wha do you think is to give you the means, young man, for such a wild-goose chase? Not I, I am sure. I can hardly support you at hame. And ye wad be marrying, I’se warrant, as your father did afore ye, too, and sending your uncle hame a pack o’ weans to be fighting and skirling through the house in my auld days, and to take wing and flee aff like yoursell, whenever they were asked to serve a turn about the town?”

“I have no thoughts of ever marrying,” answered Henry.

“Hear till him now!” said the housekeeper. “It’s a shame to hear a douce young lad speak in that way, since a’ the warld kens that they maun either marry or do waur.”

“Haud your peace, Alison,” said her master; “and you, Harry,” (he added more mildly,) “put this nonsense out o’ your head — this comes o’ letting ye gang a-sodgering for a day — mind ye hae nae siller, lad, for ony sic nonsense plans.”

“I beg your pardon, sir, my wants shall be very few; and would you please to give me the gold chain, which the Margrave gave to my father after the battle of Lutzen”—“Mercy on us! the gowd chain?” exclaimed his uncle.

“The chain of gowd!” re-echoed the housekeeper, both aghast with astonishment at the audacity of the proposal.

—“I will keep a few links,” continued the young man, “to remind me of him by whom it was won, and the place where he won it,” continued Morton; “the rest shall furnish me the means of following the same career in which my father obtained that mark of distinction.”

“Mercifu’ powers!” exclaimed the governante, “my master wears it every Sunday!”

“Sunday and Saturday,” added old Milnwood, “whenever I put on my black velvet coat; and Wylie Mactrickit is partly of opinion it’s a kind of heir-loom, that rather belangs to the head of the house than to the immediate descendant. It has three thousand links; I have counted them a thousand times. It’s worth three hundred pounds sterling.”

“That is more than I want, sir; if you choose to give me the third part of the money, and five links of the chain, it will amply serve my purpose, and the rest will be some slight atonement for the expense and trouble I have put you to.”

“The laddie’s in a creel!” exclaimed his uncle. “O, sirs, what will become o’ the rigs o’ Milnwood when I am dead and gane! He would fling the crown of Scotland awa, if he had it.”

“Hout, sir,” said the old housekeeper, “I maun e’en say it’s partly your ain faut. Ye maunna curb his head ower sair in neither; and, to be sure, since he has gane doun to the Howff, ye maun just e’en pay the lawing.”

“If it be not abune twa dollars, Alison,” said the old gentleman, very reluctantly.

“I’ll settle it myself wi’Niel Blane, the first time I gang down to the clachan,” said Alison, “cheaper than your honour or Mr Harry can do;” and then whispered to Henry, “Dinna vex him onymair; I’ll pay the lave out o’ the butter siller, and nae mair words about it.” Then proceeding aloud, “And ye maunna speak o’ the young gentleman hauding the pleugh; there’s puir distressed whigs enow about the country will be glad to do that for a bite and a soup — it sets them far better than the like o’ him.”

“And then we’ll hae the dragoons on us,” said Milnwood, “for comforting and entertaining intercommuned rebels; a bonny strait ye wad put us in! — But take your breakfast, Harry, and then lay by your new green coat, and put on your Raploch grey; it’s a mair mensfu’ and thrifty dress, and a mair seemly sight, than thae dangling slops and ribbands.”

Morton left the room, perceiving plainly that he had at present no chance of gaining his purpose, and, perhaps, not altogether displeased at the obstacles which seemed to present themselves to his leaving the neighbourhood of Tillietudlem. The housekeeper followed him into the next room, patting him on the back, and bidding him “be a gude bairn, and pit by his braw things.”

“And I’ll loop doun your hat, and lay by the band and ribband,” said the officious dame; “and ye maun never, at no hand, speak o’ leaving the land, or of selling the gowd chain, for your uncle has an unco pleasure in looking on you, and in counting the links of the chainzie; and ye ken auld folk canna last for ever; sae the chain, and the lands, and a’ will be your ain ae day; and ye may marry ony leddy in the country-side ye like, and keep a braw house at Milnwood, for there’s enow o’ means; and is not that worth waiting for, my dow?”

There was something in the latter part of the prognostic which sounded so agreeably in the ears of Morton, that he shook the old dame cordially by the hand, and assured her he was much obliged by her good advice, and would weigh it carefully before he proceeded to act upon his former resolution.

8 Regimental music is never played at night. But who can assure us that such was not the custom in Charles the Second’s time? Till I am well informed on this point, the kettle-drums shall clash on, as adding something to the picturesque effect of the night march.


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