Look round thee, young Astolpho: Here’s the place
Which men (for being poor) are sent to starve in;
Rude remedy, I trow, for sore disease.
Within these walls, stifled by damp and stench,
Doth Hope’s fair torch expire; and at the snuff,
Ere yet ’tis quite extinct, rude, wild, and way-ward,
The desperate revelries of wild despair,
Kindling their hell-born cressets, light to deeds
That the poor captive would have died ere practised,
Till bondage sunk his soul to his condition.
The Prison, Scene III. Act I.
At my first entrance I turned an eager glance towards my conductor; but the lamp in the vestibule was too low in flame to give my curiosity any satisfaction by affording a distinct perusal of his features. As the turnkey held the light in his hand, the beams fell more full on his own scarce less interesting figure. He was a wild shock-headed looking animal, whose profusion of red hair covered and obscured his features, which were otherwise only characterised by the extravagant joy that affected him at the sight of my guide. In my experience I have met nothing so absolutely resembling my idea of a very uncouth, wild, and ugly savage, adoring the idol of his tribe. He grinned, he shivered, he laughed, he was near crying, if he did not actually cry. He had a “Where shall I go? — What can I do for you?” expression of face; the complete, surrendered, and anxious subservience and devotion of which it is difficult to describe, otherwise than by the awkward combination which I have attempted. The fellow’s voice seemed choking in his ecstasy, and only could express itself in such interjections as “Oigh! oigh! — Ay! ay! — it’s lang since she’s seen ye!” and other exclamations equally brief, expressed in the same unknown tongue in which he had communicated with my conductor while we were on the outside of the jail door. My guide received all this excess of joyful gratulation much like a prince too early accustomed to the homage of those around him to be much moved by it, yet willing to requite it by the usual forms of royal courtesy. He extended his hand graciously towards the turnkey, with a civil inquiry of “How’s a’ wi’ you, Dougal?”
“Oigh! oigh!” exclaimed Dougal, softening the sharp exclamations of his surprise as he looked around with an eye of watchful alarm —“Oigh! to see you here — to see you here! — Oigh! — what will come o’ ye gin the bailies suld come to get witting — ta filthy, gutty hallions, tat they are?”
My guide placed his finger on his lip, and said, “Fear nothing, Dougal; your hands shall never draw a bolt on me.”
“Tat sall they no,” said Dougal; “she suld — she wad — that is, she wishes them hacked aff by the elbows first — But when are ye gaun yonder again? and ye’ll no forget to let her ken — she’s your puir cousin, God kens, only seven times removed.”
“I will let you ken, Dougal, as soon as my plans are settled.”
“And, by her sooth, when you do, an it were twal o’ the Sunday at e’en, she’ll fling her keys at the provost’s head or she gie them anither turn, and that or ever Monday morning begins — see if she winna.”
My mysterious stranger cut his acquaintance’s ecstasies short by again addressing him, in what I afterwards understood to be the Irish, Earse, or Gaelic, explaining, probably, the services which he required at his hand. The answer, “Wi’ a’ her heart — wi’ a’ her soul,” with a good deal of indistinct muttering in a similar tone, intimated the turnkey’s acquiescence in what he proposed. The fellow trimmed his dying lamp, and made a sign to me to follow him.
“Do you not go with us?” said I, looking to my conductor.
“It is unnecessary,” he replied; “my company may be inconvenient for you, and I had better remain to secure our retreat.”
“I do not suppose you mean to betray me to danger,” said I.
“To none but what I partake in doubly,” answered the stranger, with a voice of assurance which it was impossible to mistrust.
I followed the turnkey, who, leaving the inner wicket unlocked behind him, led me up a turnpike (so the Scotch call a winding stair), then along a narrow gallery — then opening one of several doors which led into the passage, he ushered me into a small apartment, and casting his eye on the pallet-bed which occupied one corner, said with an under voice, as he placed the lamp on a little deal table, “She’s sleeping.”
“She! — who? — can it be Diana Vernon in this abode of misery?”
I turned my eye to the bed, and it was with a mixture of disappointment oddly mingled with pleasure, that I saw my first suspicion had deceived me. I saw a head neither young nor beautiful, garnished with a grey beard of two days’ growth, and accommodated with a red nightcap. The first glance put me at ease on the score of Diana Vernon; the second, as the slumberer awoke from a heavy sleep, yawned, and rubbed his eyes, presented me with features very different indeed — even those of my poor friend Owen. I drew back out of view an instant, that he might have time to recover himself; fortunately recollecting that I was but an intruder on these cells of sorrow, and that any alarm might be attended with unhappy consequences.
Meantime, the unfortunate formalist, raising himself from the pallet-bed with the assistance of one hand, and scratching his cap with the other, exclaimed in a voice in which as much peevishness as he was capable of feeling, contended with drowsiness, “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Dug-well, or whatever your name may be, the sum-total of the matter is, that if my natural rest is to be broken in this manner, I must complain to the lord mayor.”
“Shentlemans to speak wi’ her,” replied Dougal, resuming the true dogged sullen tone of a turnkey, in exchange for the shrill clang of Highland congratulation with which he had welcomed my mysterious guide; and, turning on his heel, he left the apartment.
It was some time before I could prevail upon the unfortunate sleeper awakening to recognise me; and when he did so, the distress of the worthy creature was extreme, at supposing, which he naturally did, that I had been sent thither as a partner of his captivity.
“O, Mr. Frank, what have you brought yourself and the house to? — I think nothing of myself, that am a mere cipher, so to speak; but you, that was your father’s sum-total — his omnium — you that might have been the first man in the first house in the first city, to be shut up in a nasty Scotch jail, where one cannot even get the dirt brushed off their clothes!”
He rubbed, with an air of peevish irritation, the once stainless brown coat, which had now shared some of the impurities of the floor of his prison-house — his habits of extreme punctilious neatness acting mechanically to increase his distress. —“O Heaven be gracious to us!” he continued. “What news this will be on ‘Change! There has not the like come there since the battle of Almanza, where the total of the British loss was summed up to five thousand men killed and wounded, besides a floating balance of missing — but what will that be to the news that Osbaldistone and Tresham have stopped!”
I broke in on his lamentations to acquaint him that I was no prisoner, though scarce able to account for my being in that place at such an hour. I could only silence his inquiries by persisting in those which his own situation suggested; and at length obtained from him such information as he was able to give me. It was none of the most distinct; for, however clear-headed in his own routine of commercial business, Owen, you are well aware, was not very acute in comprehending what lay beyond that sphere.
The sum of his information was, that of two correspondents of my father’s firm at Glasgow, where, owing to engagements in Scotland formerly alluded to, he transacted a great deal of business, both my father and Owen had found the house of MacVittie, MacFin, and Company, the most obliging and accommodating. They had deferred to the great English house on every possible occasion; and in their bargains and transactions acted, without repining, the part of the jackall, who only claims what the lion is pleased to leave him. However small the share of profit allotted to them, it was always, as they expressed it, “enough for the like of them;” however large the portion of trouble, “they were sensible they could not do too much to deserve the continued patronage and good opinion of their honoured friends in Crane Alley.”
The dictates of my father were to MacVittie and MacFin the laws of the Medes and Persians, not to be altered, innovated, or even discussed; and the punctilios exacted by Owen in their business transactions, for he was a great lover of form, more especially when he could dictate it ex cathedra, seemed scarce less sanctimonious in their eyes. This tone of deep and respectful observance went all currently down with Owen; but my father looked a little closer into men’s bosoms, and whether suspicious of this excess of deference, or, as a lover of brevity and simplicity in business, tired with these gentlemen’s long-winded professions of regard, he had uniformly resisted their desire to become his sole agents in Scotland. On the contrary, he transacted many affairs through a correspondent of a character perfectly different — a man whose good opinion of himself amounted to self-conceit, and who, disliking the English in general as much as my father did the Scotch, would hold no communication but on a footing of absolute equality; jealous, moreover; captious occasionally; as tenacious of his own opinions in point of form as Owen could be of his; and totally indifferent though the authority of all Lombard Street had stood against his own private opinion.
As these peculiarities of temper rendered it difficult to transact business with Mr. Nicol Jarvie — as they occasioned at times disputes and coldness between the English house and their correspondent, which were only got over by a sense of mutual interest — as, moreover, Owen’s personal vanity sometimes suffered a little in the discussions to which they gave rise, you cannot be surprised, Tresham, that our old friend threw at all times the weight of his influence in favour of the civil, discreet, accommodating concern of MacVittie and MacFin, and spoke of Jarvie as a petulant, conceited Scotch pedlar, with whom there was no dealing.
It was also not surprising, that in these circumstances, which I only learned in detail some time afterwards, Owen, in the difficulties to which the house was reduced by the absence of my father, and the disappearance of Rashleigh, should, on his arrival in Scotland, which took place two days before mine, have recourse to the friendship of those correspondents, who had always professed themselves obliged, gratified, and devoted to the service of his principal. He was received at Messrs. MacVittie and MacFin’s counting-house in the Gallowgate, with something like the devotion a Catholic would pay to his tutelar saint. But, alas! this sunshine was soon overclouded, when, encouraged by the fair hopes which it inspired, he opened the difficulties of the house to his friendly correspondents, and requested their counsel and assistance. MacVittie was almost stunned by the communication; and MacFin, ere it was completed, was already at the ledger of their firm, and deeply engaged in the very bowels of the multitudinous accounts between their house and that of Osbaldistone and Tresham, for the purpose of discovering on which side the balance lay. Alas! the scale depressed considerably against the English firm; and the faces of MacVittie and MacFin, hitherto only blank and doubtful, became now ominous, grim, and lowering. They met Mr. Owen’s request of countenance and assistance with a counter-demand of instant security against imminent hazard of eventual loss; and at length, speaking more plainly, required that a deposit of assets, destined for other purposes, should be placed in their hands for that purpose. Owen repelled this demand with great indignation, as dishonourable to his constituents, unjust to the other creditors of Osbaldistone and Tresham, and very ungrateful on the part of those by whom it was made.
The Scotch partners gained, in the course of this controversy, what is very convenient to persons who are in the wrong, an opportunity and pretext for putting themselves in a violent passion, and for taking, under the pretext of the provocation they had received, measures to which some sense of decency, if not of conscience, might otherwise have deterred them from resorting.
Owen had a small share, as I believe is usual, in the house to which he acted as head-clerk, and was therefore personally liable for all its obligations. This was known to Messrs. MacVittie and MacFin; and, with a view of making him feel their power, or rather in order to force him, at this emergency, into those measures in their favour, to which he had expressed himself so repugnant, they had recourse to a summary process of arrest and imprisonment — which it seems the law of Scotland (therein surely liable to much abuse) allows to a creditor, who finds his conscience at liberty to make oath that the debtor meditates departing from the realm. Under such a warrant had poor Owen been confined to durance on the day preceding that when I was so strangely guided to his prison-house.
Thus possessed of the alarming outline of facts, the question remained, what was to be done and it was not of easy determination. I plainly perceived the perils with which we were surrounded, but it was more difficult to suggest any remedy. The warning which I had already received seemed to intimate, that my own personal liberty might be endangered by an open appearance in Owen’s behalf. Owen entertained the same apprehension, and, in the exaggeration of his terror, assured me that a Scotchman, rather than run the risk of losing a farthing by an Englishman, would find law for arresting his wife, children, man-servant, maidservant, and stranger within his household. The laws concerning debt, in most countries, are so unmercifully severe, that I could not altogether disbelieve his statement; and my arrest, in the present circumstances, would have been a coup-de-grace to my father’s affairs. In this dilemma, I asked Owen if he had not thought of having recourse to my father’s other correspondent in Glasgow, Mr. Nicol Jarvie?
“He had sent him a letter,” he replied, “that morning; but if the smooth-tongued and civil house in the Gallowgate42 had used him thus, what was to be expected from the cross-grained crab-stock in the Salt-Market?
You might as well ask a broker to give up his percentage, as expect a favour from him without the per contra. He had not even,” Owen said, “answered his letter though it was put into his hand that morning as he went to church.” And here the despairing man-of-figures threw himself down on his pallet, exclaiming — “My poor dear master! My poor dear master! O Mr. Frank, Mr. Frank, this is all your obstinacy! — But God forgive me for saying so to you in your distress! It’s God’s disposing, and man must submit.”
My philosophy, Tresham, could not prevent my sharing in the honest creature’s distress, and we mingled our tears — the more bitter on my part, as the perverse opposition to my father’s will, with which the kind-hearted Owen forbore to upbraid me, rose up to my conscience as the cause of all this affliction.
In the midst of our mingled sorrow, we were disturbed and surprised by a loud knocking at the outward door of the prison. I ran to the top of the staircase to listen, but could only hear the voice of the turnkey, alternately in a high tone, answering to some person without, and in a whisper, addressed to the person who had guided me hither —“She’s coming — she’s coming,” aloud; then in a low key, “O hon-a-ri! O hon-a-ri! what’ll she do now? — Gang up ta stair, and hide yourself ahint ta Sassenach shentleman’s ped. — She’s coming as fast as she can. — Ahellanay! it’s my lord provosts, and ta pailies, and ta guard — and ta captain’s coming toon stairs too — Got press her! gang up or he meets her. — She’s coming — she’s coming — ta lock’s sair roosted.”
While Dougal, unwillingly, and with as much delay as possible, undid the various fastenings to give admittance to those without, whose impatience became clamorous, my guide ascended the winding stair, and sprang into Owen’s apartment, into which I followed him. He cast his eyes hastily round, as if looking for a place of concealment; then said to me, “Lend me your pistols — yet it’s no matter, I can do without them — Whatever you see, take no heed, and do not mix your hand in another man’s feud — This gear’s mine, and I must manage it as I dow; but I have been as hard bested, and worse, than I am even now.”
As the stranger spoke these words, he stripped from his person the cumbrous upper coat in which he was wrapt, confronted the door of the apartment, on which he fixed a keen and determined glance, drawing his person a little back to concentrate his force, like a fine horse brought up to the leaping-bar. I had not a moment’s doubt that he meant to extricate himself from his embarrassment, whatever might be the cause of it, by springing full upon those who should appear when the doors opened, and forcing his way through all opposition into the street; — and such was the appearance of strength and agility displayed in his frame, and of determination in his look and manner, that I did not doubt a moment but that he might get clear through his opponents, unless they employed fatal means to stop his purpose. It was a period of awful suspense betwixt the opening of the outward gate and that of the door of the apartment, when there appeared — no guard with bayonets fixed, or watch with clubs, bills, or partisans, but a good-looking young woman, with grogram petticoats, tucked up for trudging through the streets, and holding a lantern in her hand. This female ushered in a more important personage, in form, stout, short, and somewhat corpulent; and by dignity, as it soon appeared, a magistrate, bob-wigged, bustling, and breathless with peevish impatience. My conductor, at his appearance, drew back as if to escape observation; but he could not elude the penetrating twinkle with which this dignitary reconnoitered the whole apartment.
“A bonny thing it is, and a beseeming, that I should be kept at the door half an hour, Captain Stanchells,” said he, addressing the principal jailor, who now showed himself at the door as if in attendance on the great man, “knocking as hard to get into the tolbooth as onybody else wad to get out of it, could that avail them, poor fallen creatures! — And how’s this? — how’s this? — strangers in the jail after lock-up hours, and on the Sabbath evening! — I shall look after this, Stanchells, you may depend on’t — Keep the door locked, and I’ll speak to these gentlemen in a gliffing — But first I maun hae a crack wi’ an auld acquaintance here. — Mr. Owen, Mr. Owen, how’s a’ wi’ ye, man?”
“Pretty well in body, I thank you, Mr. Jarvie,” drawled out poor Owen, “but sore afflicted in spirit.”
“Nae doubt, nae doubt — ay, ay — it’s an awfu’ whummle — and for ane that held his head sae high too — human nature, human nature — Ay ay, we’re a’ subject to a downcome. Mr. Osbaldistone is a gude honest gentleman; but I aye said he was ane o’ them wad make a spune or spoil a horn, as my father the worthy deacon used to say. The deacon used to say to me, ‘Nick — young Nick’ (his name was Nicol as weel as mine; sae folk ca’d us in their daffin’, young Nick and auld Nick)—‘Nick,’ said he, ‘never put out your arm farther than ye can draw it easily back again.’ I hae said sae to Mr. Osbaldistone, and he didna seem to take it a’thegither sae kind as I wished — but it was weel meant — weel meant.”
This discourse, delivered with prodigious volubility, and a great appearance of self-complacency, as he recollected his own advice and predictions, gave little promise of assistance at the hands of Mr. Jarvie. Yet it soon appeared rather to proceed from a total want of delicacy than any deficiency of real kindness; for when Owen expressed himself somewhat hurt that these things should be recalled to memory in his present situation, the Glaswegian took him by the hand, and bade him “Cheer up a gliff! D’ye think I wad hae comed out at twal o’clock at night, and amaist broken the Lord’s day, just to tell a fa’en man o’ his backslidings? Na, na, that’s no Bailie Jarvie’s gate, nor was’t his worthy father’s the deacon afore him. Why, man! it’s my rule never to think on warldly business on the Sabbath, and though I did a’ I could to keep your note that I gat this morning out o’ my head, yet I thought mair on it a’ day, than on the preaching — And it’s my rule to gang to my bed wi’ the yellow curtains preceesely at ten o’clock — unless I were eating a haddock wi’ a neighbour, or a neighbour wi’ me — ask the lass-quean there, if it isna a fundamental rule in my household; and here hae I sitten up reading gude books, and gaping as if I wad swallow St. Enox Kirk, till it chappit twal, whilk was a lawfu’ hour to gie a look at my ledger, just to see how things stood between us; and then, as time and tide wait for no man, I made the lass get the lantern, and came slipping my ways here to see what can be dune anent your affairs. Bailie Jarvie can command entrance into the tolbooth at ony hour, day or night; — sae could my father the deacon in his time, honest man, praise to his memory.”
Although Owen groaned at the mention of the ledger, leading me grievously to fear that here also the balance stood in the wrong column; and although the worthy magistrate’s speech expressed much self-complacency, and some ominous triumph in his own superior judgment, yet it was blended with a sort of frank and blunt good-nature, from which I could not help deriving some hopes. He requested to see some papers he mentioned, snatched them hastily from Owen’s hand, and sitting on the bed, to “rest his shanks,” as he was pleased to express the accommodation which that posture afforded him, his servant girl held up the lantern to him, while, pshawing, muttering, and sputtering, now at the imperfect light, now at the contents of the packet, he ran over the writings it contained.
Seeing him fairly engaged in this course of study, the guide who had brought me hither seemed disposed to take an unceremonious leave. He made a sign to me to say nothing, and intimated, by his change of posture, an intention to glide towards the door in such a manner as to attract the least possible observation. But the alert magistrate (very different from my old acquaintance, Mr. Justice Inglewood) instantly detected and interrupted his purposes. “I say, look to the door, Stanchells — shut and lock it, and keep watch on the outside.”
The stranger’s brow darkened, and he seemed for an instant again to meditate the effecting his retreat by violence; but ere he had determined, the door closed, and the ponderous bolt revolved. He muttered an exclamation in Gaelic, strode across the floor, and then, with an air of dogged resolution, as if fixed and prepared to see the scene to an end, sate himself down on the oak table, and whistled a strathspey.
Mr. Jarvie, who seemed very alert and expeditious in going through business, soon showed himself master of that which he had been considering, and addressed himself to Mr. Owen in the following strain:— “Weel, Mr. Owen, weel — your house are awin’ certain sums to Messrs. MacVittie and MacFin (shame fa’ their souple snouts! they made that and mair out o’ a bargain about the aik-woods at Glen-Cailziechat, that they took out atween my teeth — wi’ help o’ your gude word, I maun needs say, Mr. Owen — but that makes nae odds now)— Weel, sir, your house awes them this siller; and for this, and relief of other engagements they stand in for you, they hae putten a double turn o’ Stanchells’ muckle key on ye. — Weel, sir, ye awe this siller — and maybe ye awe some mair to some other body too — maybe ye awe some to myself, Bailie Nicol Jarvie.”
“I cannot deny, sir, but the balance may of this date be brought out against us, Mr. Jarvie,” said Owen; “but you’ll please to consider”—
“I hae nae time to consider e’enow, Mr. Owen — Sae near Sabbath at e’en, and out o’ ane’s warm bed at this time o’ night, and a sort o’ drow in the air besides — there’s nae time for considering — But, sir, as I was saying, ye awe me money — it winna deny — ye awe me money, less or mair, I’ll stand by it. But then, Mr. Owen, I canna see how you, an active man that understands business, can redd out the business ye’re come down about, and clear us a’ aff — as I have gritt hope ye will — if ye’re keepit lying here in the tolbooth of Glasgow. Now, sir, if you can find caution judicio sisti, — that is, that ye winna flee the country, but appear and relieve your caution when ca’d for in our legal courts, ye may be set at liberty this very morning.”
“Mr. Jarvie,” said Owen, “if any friend would become surety for me to that effect, my liberty might be usefully employed, doubtless, both for the house and all connected with it.”
“Aweel, sir,” continued Jarvie, “and doubtless such a friend wad expect ye to appear when ca’d on, and relieve him o’ his engagement.”
“And I should do so as certainly, bating sickness or death, as that two and two make four.”
“Aweel, Mr. Owen,” resumed the citizen of Glasgow, “I dinna misdoubt ye, and I’ll prove it, sir — I’ll prove it. I am a carefu’ man, as is weel ken’d, and industrious, as the hale town can testify; and I can win my crowns, and keep my crowns, and count my crowns, wi’ onybody in the Saut Market, or it may be in the Gallowgate. And I’m a prudent man, as my father the deacon was before me; — but rather than an honest civil gentleman, that understands business, and is willing to do justice to all men, should lie by the heels this gate, unable to help himsell or onybody else — why, conscience, man! I’ll be your bail myself — But ye’ll mind it’s a bail judicio sisti, as our town-clerk says, not judicatum solvi; ye’ll mind that, for there’s muckle difference.”
Mr. Owen assured him, that as matters then stood, he could not expect any one to become surety for the actual payment of the debt, but that there was not the most distant cause for apprehending loss from his failing to present himself when lawfully called upon.
“I believe ye — I believe ye. Eneugh said — eneugh said. We’se hae your legs loose by breakfast-time. — And now let’s hear what thir chamber chiels o’ yours hae to say for themselves, or how, in the name of unrule, they got here at this time o’ night.”
Rob Roy in Prison
42 [A street in the old town of Glasgow.]
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13