His hair upreared, his nostrils stretched with struggling,
His hands abroad displayed, as one that gasped.
And tugged for life, and was by strength subdued.
Henry IV, Part First.
THE SHERIFF-DEPUTE of the county arrived at Ellangowan next morning by daybreak. To this provincial magistrate the law of Scotland assigns judicial powers of considerable extent, and the task of inquiring into all crimes committed within his jurisdiction, the apprehension and commitment of suspected persons, and so forth.1
The gentleman who held the office in the shire of at the time of this catastrophe, was well born and well educated; and though somewhat pedantic and professional in his habits, he enjoyed general respect as an active and intelligent magistrate. His first employment was to examine all witnesses whose evidence could throw light upon this mysterious event, and make up the written report, procés verbal, or precognition, as it is technically called, which the practice of Scotland has substituted for a coroners inquest. Under the Sheriffs minute and skilful inquiry, many circumstances appeared which seemed incompatible with the original opinion that Kennedy had accidentally fallen from the cliff. We shall briefly detail some of these.
The body had been deposited in a neighbouring fisherhut, but without altering the condition in which it was found. This was the first object of the Sheriffs examination. Though fearfully crushed and mangled by the fall from such a height, the corpse was found to exhibit a deep cut in the head, which, in the opinion of a skilful surgeon, must have been inflicted by a broadsword, or cutlass. The experience of this gentleman discovered other suspicious indications. The face was much blackened, the eyes distorted, and the veins of the neck swelled. A coloured handkerchief, which the unfortunate man wore round his neck, did not present the usual appearance, but was much loosened and the knot displaced and dragged extremely tight: the folds were also compressed, as if it had been used as a means of grappling the deceased, and dragging him perhaps to the precipice.
On the other hand, poor Kennedys purse was found untouched; and, what seemed yet more extraordinary, the pistols which he usually carried when about to encounter any hazardous adventure, were found in his pockets loaded. This appeared particularly strange, for he was known and dreaded by the contraband traders as a man equally fearless and dexterous in the use of his weapons, of which he had given many signal proofs. The Sheriff inquired whether Kennedy was not in the practice of carrying any other arms? Most of Mr. Bertrams servants recollected that he generally had a couteau de chasse, or short hanger, but none such was found upon the dead body; nor could those who had seen him on the morning of the fatal day, take it upon them to assert whether he then carried that weapon or not.
The corpse afforded no other indicia respecting the fate of Kennedy; for though the clothes were much displaced, and the limbs dreadfully fractured, the one seemed the probable, the other the certain, consequences of such a fall. The hands of the deceased were clenched fast, and full of turf and earth; but this also seemed equivocal.
The magistrate then proceeded to the place where the corpse was first discovered, and made those who had found it give, upon the spot, a particular and detailed account of the manner in which it was lying. A large fragment of the rock appeared to have accompanied, or followed the fall of the victim from the cliff above. It was of so solid and compact a substance, that it had fallen, without any great diminution by splintering, so that the Sheriff was enabled, first to estimate the weight by measurement, and then to calculate, from the appearance of the fragment, what portion of it had been bedded into the cliff from which it had descended. This was easily detected by the raw appearance of the stone where it had not been exposed to the atmosphere: they then ascended the cliff and surveyed the place from whence the stony fragment had fallen. It seemed plain, from the appearance of the bed, that the mere weight of one man standing upon the projecting part of the fragment, supposing it in its original situation, could not have destroyed its balance, and percipitated it, with himself, from the cliff. At the same time, it appeared to have lain so loose, that the use of a lever, or the combined strength of three or four men, might easily have hurled it from its position. The short turf about the brink of the precipice was much trampled, as if stamped by the heels of men in a mortal struggle, or in the act of some violent exertion. Traces of the same kind, less visibly marked, guided the sagacious investigator to the verge of the copsewood, which in that place crept high up the bank towards the top of the precipice.
With patience and perserverance, they traced these marks into the thickest part of the copse, a route which no person would have voluntarily adopted, unless for the purpose of concealment. Here they found plain vestiges of violence and struggling, from space to space. Small boughs were torn down, as if grasped by some resisting wretch, who was dragged forcibly along; the ground, where in the least degree soft or marshy, showed the print of many feet; there were vestiges also which might be those of human blood. At any rate, it was certain that several persons must have forced their passage among the oaks, hazels, and underwood, with which they were mingled; and in some places appeared traces, as if a sack full of grain, a dead body, or something of that heavy and solid description, had been dragged along the ground. In one part of the thicket there was a small swamp, the clay of which was whitish, being probably mixed with marl. The back of Kennedys coat appeared besmeared with stains of the same colour.
At length, about a quarter of a mile from the brink of the fatal precipice, the traces conducted them to a small open space of ground, very much trampled, and plainly stained with blood, although withered leaves had been strewed upon the spot and other means hastily taken to efface the marks, which seemed obviously to have been derived from a desperate affray. On one side of this patch of open ground was found the sufferers naked hanger, which seemed to have been thrown into the thicket; on the other, the belt and sheath, which appeared to have been hidden with more leisurely care and precaution.
The magistrate caused the footprints which marked this spot to be carefully measured and examined. Some corresponded to the foot of the unhappy victim; some were larger, some less; indicating that at least four or five men had been busy around him. Above all, here and here only, were observed the vestiges of a childs foot; and as it could be seen nowhere else, and the hard horse-track which traversed the wood of Warroch was contiguous to the spot, it was natural to think that the boy might have escaped in that direction during the confusion. But as he was never heard of, the Sheriff, who made a careful entry of all these memoranda, did not suppress his opinion that the deceased had met with foul play, and that the murderers, whoever they were, had possessed themselves of the person of the child Harry Bertram.
Every exertion was now made to discover the criminals. Suspicion hesitated between the smugglers and the gipsies. The fate of Dirk Hatteraicks vessel was certain. Two men from the opposite side of Warroch Bay (so the inlet on the southern side of the Point of Warroch is called) had seen, though at a great distance, the lugger drive eastward after doubling the headland, and, as they judged from her manuvres, in a disabled state. Shortly after, they perceived that she grounded, smoked, and finally took fire. She was, as one of them expressed himself, in a light low (bright flame) when they observed a kings ship, with her colours up, heave in sight from behind the cape. The guns of the burning vessel discharged themselves as the fire reached them; and they saw her at length blow up with a great explosion. The sloop of war kept aloof for her own safety; and after hovering till the other exploded, stood away southward under a press of sail. The Sheriff anxiously interrogated these men whether any boats had left the vessel. They could not saythey had seen nonebut they might have put off in such a direction as placed the burning vessel, and the thick smoke which floated landward from it, between their course and the witnesses observation.
That the ship destroyed was Dirk Hatteraicks, no one doubted. His lugger was well known on the coast, and had been expected just at this time. A letter from the commander of the kings sloop, to whom the Sheriff made application, put the matter beyond doubt; he sent also an extract from his log-book of the transactions of the day, which intimated their being on the outlook for a smuggling lugger, Dirk Hatteraick master, upon the information and requisition of Francis Kennedy, of his Majestys excise service; and that Kennedy was to be upon the outlook on the shore, in case Hatteraick, who was known to be a desperate fellow and had been repeatedly outlawed, should attempt to run his sloop aground. About nine oclock a.m. they discovered a sail, which answered the description of Hatteraicks vessel, chased her, and after repeated signals to her to show colours and bring to, fired upon her. The chase then showed Hamburgh colours, and returned the fire; and a running fight was maintained for three hours, when, just as the lugger was doubling the Point of Warroch, they observed that the mainyard was shot in the slings, and that the vessel was disabled. It was not in the power of the man-of-wars men for some time to profit by the circumstance, owing to their having kept too much in short for doubling the headland. After two tacks, they accomplished this, and observed the chase on fire, and apparently deserted. The fire having reached some casks of spirits, which were placed on the deck, with other combustibles, probably on the vessel, especially as her shotted guns were discharging, one after another, by the heat. The captain had no doubt whatever that the crew had set the vessel on fire, and escaped in their boats. After watching the conflagration till the ship blew up, his Majestys sloop, the Shark, stood towards the Isle of Man, with the purpose of intercepting the retreat of the smugglers, who, though they might conceal themselves in the woods for a day or two, would probably take the first opportunity of endeavouring to make for this asylum. But they never saw more of them than is above narrated.
Such was the account given by William Pritchard, master and commander of his Majestys sloop of war Shark, who concluded by regretting deeply that he had not had the happiness to fall in with the scoundrels, who had had the impudence to fire on his Majestys flag, and with an assurance that, should he meet Mr. Dirk Hatteraick in any future cruise, he would not fail to bring him into port under his stern, to answer whatever might be alleged against him.
As, therefore, it seemed tolerably certain that the men on board the lugger had escaped, the death of Kennedy, if he fell in with them in the woods, when irritated by the loss of their vessel and by the share he had in it, was easily to be accounted for. And it was not improbable, that to such brutal tempers, rendered desperate by their own circumstances, even the murder of the child, against whose father, as having become suddenly active in the prosecution of smugglers, Hatteraick was known to have uttered deep threats, would not appear a very heinous crime.
Against this hypothesis it was urged, that a crew of fifteen or twenty men could not have lain hidden upon the coast when so close a search took place immediately after the destruction of their vessel; or, at least, that if they had hid themselves in the woods, their boats must have been seen on the beach;that in such precarious circumstances, and when all retreat must have seemed difficult, if not impossible, it was not to be thought that they would have all united to commit a useless murder for the mere sake of revenge. Those who held this opinion supposed, either that the boats of the lugger had stood out to sea without being observed by those who were intent upon gazing at the burning vessel, and so gained safe distance before the sloop got round the headland; or else that, the boats being staved or destroyed by the fire of the shot during the chase, the crew had obstinately determined to perish with the vessel. What gave some countenance to this supposed act of desperation was, that neither Dirk Hatteraick nor any of his sailors, all well-known men in the fairtrade, were again seen upon that coast, or heard of in the Isle of Man, where strict inquiry was made. On the other hand, only one dead body, apparently that of a seaman killed by a cannon-shot, drifted ashore. So all that could be done was to register the names, description, and appearance of the individuals belonging to the ships company, and offer a reward for the apprehension of them, or any one of them; extending also to any person, not the actual murderer, who should give evidence tending to convict those who had murthered Francis Kennedy.
Another opinion, which was also plausibly supported, went to charge this horrid crime upon the late tenants of Derncleugh. They were known to have resented highly the conduct of the Laird of Ellangowan towards them, and to have used threatening expressions, which every one supposed them capable of carrying into effect. The kidnapping the child was a crime much more consistent with their habits than with those of smugglers, and his temporary guardian might have fallen in an attempt to protect him. Besides, it was remembered that Kennedy had been an active agent, two or three days before, in the forcible expulsion of these people from Derncleugh, and that harsh and menacing language had been exchanged between him and some of the Egyptian patriarchs on that memorable occasion.
The sheriff received also the depositions of the unfortunate father and his servant, concerning what had passed at their meeting the caravan of gipsies, as they left the estate of Ellangowan. The speech of Meg Merrilies seemed particularly suspicious. There was, as the magistrate observed in his law language, damnum minatuma damage, or evil turn, threatened, and malum secutuman evil of the very kind predicted, shortly afterwards following. A young woman, who had been gathering nuts in Warroch wood upon the fatal day, was also strongly of opinion, though she declined to make positive oath, that she had seen Meg Merrilies, at least a woman of her remarkable size and appearance, start suddenly out of a thicketshe said she had called to her by name, but, as the figure turned from her and made no answer, she was uncertain if it were the gipsy or her wraith, and was afraid to go nearer to one who was always reckoned, in the vulgar phrase, no canny. This vague story received some corroboration from the circumstance of a fire being that evening found in the gipsys deserted cottage. To this fact Ellangowan and his gardener bore evidence. Yet it seemed extravagant to suppose, that, had this woman been accessory to such a dreadful crime, she would have returned that very evening on which it was committed, to the place of all others where she was most likely to be sought after.
Meg Merrilies was, however, apprehended and examined. She denied strongly having been either at Derncleugh or in the wood of Warroch upon the day of Kennedys death; and several of her tribe made oath in her behalf, that she had never quitted their encampment, which was in a glen about ten miles distant from Ellangowan. Their oaths were indeed little to be trusted to;but what other evidence could be had in the circumstances? There was one remarkable fact, and only one, which arose from her examination. Her arm appeared to be slightly wounded by the cut of a sharp weapon, and was tied up with a handkerchief of Harry Bertrams. But the chief of the horde acknowledged he had corrected her that day with his whingershe herself, and others, gave the same account of her hurt; and, for the handkerchief, the quantity of linen stolen from Ellangowan during the last months of their residence on the estate, easily accounted for it, without charging Meg with a more heinous crime.
It was observed, upon her examination, that she treated the questions respecting the death of Kennedy, or the gauger, as she called him, with indifference; but expressed great and emphatic scorn and indignation at being supposed capable of injuring little Harry Bertram. She was long confined in jail under the hope that something might yet be discovered to throw light upon this dark and bloody transaction. Nothing, however, occurred; and Meg was at length liberated, but under sentence of banishment from the county as a vagrant, common thief, and disorderly person. No traces of the boy could ever be discovered; and, at length, the story, after making much noise, was, gradually given up as altogether inexplicable, and only perpetuated by the name of The Gaugers Loop, which was generally bestowed on the cliff from which the unfortunate man had fallen or been percipitated.