OUR traveller hired a post-chaise at the place where he separated from Dinmont, with the purpose of proceeding to Kippletringan, there to inquire into the state of the family at Woodbourne, before he should venture to make his presence in the country known to Miss Mannering. The stage was a long one of eighteen or twenty miles, and the road lay across the country. To add to the inconveniences of the journey, the snow began to fall pretty quickly. The postilion, however, proceeded on his journey for a good many miles, without expressing doubt or hesitation. It was not until the night was completely set in, that he intimated his apprehensions whether he was in the right road. The increasing snow rendered this intimation rather alarming, for as it drove full in the lads face, and lay whitening all around him, it served in two different ways to confuse his knowledge of the country, and to diminish the chance of his recovering the right track. Brown then himself got out and looked round, not, it may well be imagined, from any better hope than that of seeing some house at which he might make inquiry. But none appearedhe could therefore only tell the lad to drive steadily on. The road on which they were ran through plantations of considerable extent and depth, and the traveller therefore conjectured that there must be a gentlemans house at no great distance. At length, after struggling wearily on for about a mile, the post-boy stopped, and protested his horses would not budge a foot farther; but he saw, he said, a light among the trees, which must proceed from a house; the only way was to inquire the road there. Accordingly, he dismounted, heavily encumbered with a long great-coat and a pair of boots which might have rivalled in thickness the sevenfold shield of Ajax. As in this guise he was plodding forth upon his voyage of discovery, Browns impatience prevailed, and, jumping out of the carriage, he desired the lad to stop where he was by the horses, and he would himself go to the housea command which the driver most joyfully obeyed.
Our traveller groped along the side of the enclosure from which the light glimmered, in order to find some mode of approaching in that direction, and after proceeding for some space, at length found a stile in the hedge, and a pathway leading into the plantation, which in that place was of great extent. This promised to lead to the light which was the object of his search, and accordingly Brown proceeded in that direction, but soon totally lost sight of it among the trees. The path, which at first seemed broad and well marked by the opening of the wood through which it winded, was now less easily distinguishable, although the whiteness of the snow afforded some reflected light to assist his search. Directing himself as much as possible through the more open parts of the wood, he proceeded almost a mile without either recovering a view of the light, or seeing anything resembling a habitation. Still, however, he thought it best to persevere in that direction. It must surely have been a light in the hut of a forester, for it shone too steadily to be the glimmer of an ignis fatuus. The ground at length became broken, and declined rapidly; and although Brown conceived he still moved along what had once at least been a pathway, it was now very unequal, and the snow concealing those breaches and inequalities, the traveller had one or two falls in consequence. He began now to think of turning back, especially as the falling snow, which his impatience had hitherto prevented his attending to, was coming on thicker and faster.
Willing, however, to make a last effort, he still advanced a little way, when, to his great delight, he beheld the light opposite at no great distance, and apparently upon a level with him. He quickly found that this last appearance was deception, for the ground continued so rapidly to sink, as made it obvious there was a deep dell, or ravine of some kind, between him and the object of his search. Taking every precaution to preserve his footing, he continued to descend until he reached the bottom of a very steep and narrow glen, through which winded a small rivulet, whose course was then almost choked with snow. He now found himself embarrassed among the ruins of cottages, whose black gables, rendered more distinguishable by the contrast with the whitened surface from which they rose, were still standing; the side walls had long since given way to time, and, piled in shapeless heaps, and covered with snow, offered frequent and embarrassing obstacles to our travellers progress. Still, however, he perseveredcrossed the rivulet, not without some trouble, and at length, by exertions which became more painful and perilous, ascended its opposite and very rugged bank, until he came on a level with the building from which the gleam proceeded.
It was difficult, especially by so imperfect a light, to discover the nature of this edifice; but it seemed a square building of small size, the upper part of which was totally ruinous. It had, perhaps, been the abode, in former times, of some lesser proprietor, or a place of strength and concealment in case of need for one of greater importance. But only the lower vault remained, the arch of which formed the roof in the present state of the building. Brown first approached the place from whence the light proceeded, which was a long narrow slit or loophole, such as usually are to be found in old castles. Impelled by curiosity to reconnoitre the interior of this strange place before he entered, Brown gazed in at this aperture. A scene of greater desolation could not well be imagined. There was a fire upon the floor, the smoke of which, after circling through the apartment, escaped by a hole broken in the arch above. The walls, seen by this smoky light, had the rude and waste appearance of a ruin of three centuries old at least. A cask or two, with some broken boxes and packages, lay about the place in confusion. But the inmates chiefly occupied Browns attention. Upon a lair composed of straw, with a blanket stretched over it, lay a figure, so still, that, except that it was not dressed in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Brown would have concluded it to be a corpse. On a steadier view he perceived it was only on the point of becoming so, for he heard one or two of those low, deep, and hard-drawn sighs, that precede dissolution when the frame is tenacious of life. A female figure, dressed in a long cloak, sat on a stone by this miserable couch; her elbows rested upon her knees, and her face, averted from the light of an iron lamp beside her, was bent upon that of the dying person. She moistened his mouth from time to time with some liquid, and between whiles sung, in a low, monotonous cadence, one of those prayers, or rather spells, which, in some parts of Scotland and the north of England, are used by the vulgar and ignorant to speed the passage of a parting spirit, like the tolling of the bell in Catholic days. She accompanied this dismal sound with a slow rocking motion of her body to and fro, as if to keep time with her song. The words ran nearly thus:
The songstress paused, and was answered by one or two deep and hollow groans, that seemed to proceed from the very agony of the mortal strife. It will not be, she muttered to herself; he cannot pass away with that on his mindit tethers him here
Heaven cannot abide it,
Earth refuses to hide it.
I must open the door; and rising, she faced towards the door of the apartment, observing heedfully not to turn back her head, and, withdrawing a bolt or two (for, notwithstanding the miserable appearance of the place, the door was cautiously secured) she lifted the latch, saying,
Open lockend strife,
Come death, and pass life.
Brown, who had by this time moved from his post, stood before her as she opened the door. She stepped back a pace, and he entered, instantly recognizing, but with no comfortable sensation, the same gipsy woman whom he had met in Bewcastle. She also knew him at once, and her attitude, figure, and the anxiety of her countenance, assumed the appearance of the well-disposed ogress of a fairy tale, warning a stranger not to enter the dangerous castle of her husband. The first words she spoke (holding up her hands in a reproving manner) were, Said I not to ye, Make not, meddle not?Beware of the redding straik!1 you are come to no house o fair-strae death. So saying, she raised the lamp, and turned its light on the dying man, whose rude and harsh features were now convulsed with the last agony. A roll of linen about his head was stained with blood, which had soaked also through the blankets and the straw. It was, indeed, under no natural disease that the wretch was suffering. Brown started back from this horrible object, and turning to the gipsy exclaimed, Wretched woman, who has done this?
They that were permitted, answered Meg Merrilies, while she scanned with a close and keen glance the features of the expiring man.He has had a sair strugglebut it s passing: I kennd he would pass when you came in.That was the death-rucklehes dead.
Sounds were now heard at a distance, as of voices. They are coming, said she to Brown; you are a dead man, if ye had as mony lives as hairs. Brown eagerly looked round for some weapon of defence. There was none near. He then rushed to the door with the intention of plunging among the trees, and making his escape by flight, from what he now esteemed a den of murderers, but Merrilies held him with a masculine grasp. Here, she said, herebe still, and you are safestir not, whatever you see or hear, and nothing shall befall you.
Brown, in these desperate circumstances, remembered this womans intimation formerly, and thought he had no chance of safety but in obeying her. She caused him to couch down among a parcel of straw on the opposite side of the apartment from the corpse, covered him carefully, and flung over him two or three old sacks which lay about the place. Anxious to observe what was to happen, Brown arranged, as softly as he could, the means of peeping from under the coverings by which he was hidden, and awaited with a throbbing heart the issue of this strange and most unpleasant adventure. The old gipsy in the meantime, set about arranging the dead body, composing its limbs, and straightening the arms by its side. Best to do this, she muttered, ere he stiffen. She placed on the dead mans breast a trencher, with salt sprinkled upon it, set one candle at the head, and another at the feet of the body, and lighted both. Then she resumed her song, and awaited the approach of those whose voices had been heard without.
Brown was a soldier, and a brave one; but he was also a man, and at this moment his fears mastered his courage so completely, that the cold drops burst out from every pore. The idea of being dragged out of his miserable concealment by wretches whose trade was that of midnight murder, without weapons or the slightest means of defence, except entreaties which would be only their sport, and cries for help which could never reach other ear than their ownhis safety entrusted to the precarious compassion of a being associated with these felons, and whose trade of rapine and imposture must have hardened her against every human feelingthe bitterness of his emotions almost choked him. He endeavoured to read in her withered and dark countenance, as the lamp threw its light upon her features something that promised those feelings of compassion, which females, even in their most degraded state, can seldom altogether smother. There was no such touch of humanity about this woman. The interest, whatever it was, that determined her in his favour, arose not from the impulse of compassion, but from some internal, and probably capricious, association of feelings to which he had no clue. It rested, perhaps, on a fancied likeness, such as Lady Macbeth found to her father in the sleeping monarch. Such were the reflections that passed in rapid succession through Browns mind as he gazed from his hiding-place upon this extraordinary personage. Meantime the gang did not yet approach, and he was almost prompted to resume his original intention of attempting an escape from the hut, and cursed internally his own irresolution which had consented to his being cooped up where he had neither room for resistance nor flight.
Meg Merrilies seemed equally on the watch. She bent her ear to every sound that whistled round the old walls. Then she turned again to the dead body, and found something new to arrange or alter in its position. Hes a bonny corpse, she muttered to herself, and weel worth the streaking.And in this dismal occupation she appeared to feel a sort of professional pleasure, entering slowly into all the minutiæ as if with the skill and feelings of a connoisseur. A long dark-coloured sea-cloak, which she dragged out of a corner, was disposed for a pall. The face she left bare, after closing the mouth and eyes, and arranged the capes of the cloak so as to hide the bloody bandages, and give the body, as she muttered, a mair decent appearance.
Aye, ayedead enough, said anotherbut heres what shall give him a rousing lykewake. So saying, he fetched a keg of spirits from a corner, while Meg hastened to display play pipes and tobacco. From the activity with which she undertook the task, Brown conceived good hope of her fidelity towards her guest. It was obvious that she wished to engage the ruffians in their debauch, to prevent the discovery which might take place, if, by accident, any of them should approach too nearly the place of Browns concealment.
Note 1. The redding straik, namely, a blow received by a peacemaker who interferes betwixt two combatants to red or separate them, is proverbially said to be the most dangerous blow a man can receive. [back]