THE RED MAIDEN
The great day which we had been expecting dawned, and lo! it was even as any other day. The air was shrewdly cold when I awoke very early in the morning, just as I had awaked from sleep every morning since I can remember. It was my custom to begin to say the little prayer which my mother had taught me before I was fairly awake. This I did when I was but a boy, for the economising of time; and I continued the practice when I put away most other childish things. I declare solemnly that I was past the middle of the prayer, before the thought came to me that this was the morn of the day on which I was to die. Even then, by God's extreme mercy, fear did not take me utterly by the throat.
I had dreamed of the day often, and shivered to think of that awaking. But now that it was here, it seemed to me like any morn in the years, when I used to awake in the little sunlit tourelle at Earlstoun to the noise of the singing of birds, and turn my thoughts upon riding to the Duchrae by the Grenoch side to see Maisie Lennox—little Maisie May, whom now I should see no more.
So by the strengthening mercy of God I was enabled to finish my mother's prayer with some composure. And also to remember her and Maisie, commending them both to the gracious care of One who is able to keep.
Then came the Chancellor's Commissioner to tell us that by the high favour of his master, we were to be headed in the early morn. And that, too, in the company of the great Earl of Cantyre, who, after lying long in prison, was that day, for rebellion in the Highlands and the Isles, condemned to lose his head. No higher favour could be granted, though it seemed not so much to me as doubtless to some, that I should lay my head beside an Earl's on the block of the Maiden, instead of setting my neck in a rope at the hands of the common executioner in the Grassmarket.
But there is no doubt that all Scotland, and especially all the clan Gordon, would think differently of the matter—ay, even my mother. And to Wat such a death would seem almost like an accolade.
They read me my warrant in my death dungeon by the light of a dim rushlight. But that of Anton Lennox they read not, for a reason that has already appeared, though they told us not of it at the time. Yet because the messenger was expected to arrive every moment with it, Anton, who shared my favour of execution, was to accompany us to the scaffold.
When they ushered us forth it was yet starlight, but the day was coming over the Forth. And the hum and confused noise of rustling and speech told us of the presence of a great multitude of people about us. They had indeed come from far, even from the wild Highlands, for such a heading had not been known for years. Our keepers gave us a good room, and an excellent breakfast was ready for us in a house contiguous to the scaffold. When we came in, the Earl was at the head of the table, and the gentlemen of his name about him, Anton and I standing apart by ourselves. Then the Dean of Edinburgh, Mr. Annand, came and asked us to be seated. Anton would not, but went to the window and stood commending himself to the God in whose presence he was so soon to appear. However, since it seemed to be expected of a gentleman to command his spirit before death, for the honour of his party and cause, I sat me down with the others, and ate more heartily than I could have expected, though the viands tasted strange, dry, and savourless. They gave us also wine to wash them down withal, which went not amiss.
When they saw that it was growing lighter, they put out the candles, and we were brought down the stairs. When I came to the outside and heard the murmur of the crowd, suddenly and strangely I seemed to be breathing, not sweet morning air, but water chilled with ice. And I had to breathe many breaths for one. There seemed no sustenance in them.
Now Cantyre, being a very great man, was allowed his chief friends to be with him. Eight of them attended him in full mourning to the scaffold, chiefly Montgomeries of Skelmorly and Campbells of Skepnish and Dunstaffnage—all noble and well-set men. And Anton Lennox and I were permitted to walk with him without any disgrace, but with our hats on our heads and in our own best attire, which the Chancellor had allowed to be provided for us. At least so it was with me. For Anton Lennox would have none of these gauds, but was in an ordinary blue bonnet and hodden grey. But for me, though I was to die for the faith, I saw no reason why I should not die like a gentleman.
As we went by the way, the people hushed themselves as we came, and many of them sank on their knees to give us a parting prayer to speed us on our far journey. The Dean and other Divinity men of the ruling party approached, to give us what ghostly counsel they could. But, as I expected, Anton would have none of the Dean or indeed of any other of them. But I was not averse to speak with him, at least as far as the natural agitation of my spirits would permit.
As for prayers, I leant on none of them, except my mother's, which I had repeated that morning. But I kept saying over and over to myself the Scots version of the twenty-third Psalm, ‘The Lord's my Shepherd,’ and from it gat wondrous comfort.
The Dean asked me if I had my ‘testimony’ ready written. I told him that testimonies were not for me.
‘What,’ he said, ‘do you not hold the covenants?’
‘I held a sword for them so long as I could. Now, when I cannot, I can at least hold my tongue!’
Even with the scaffold looming out down the vennel, it pleased me to say this to him, for such is the vanity of Galloway, and especially of a Galloway Gordon. Besides, I had once played with the Dean at golf upon Leith Links, and he had beaten me foully. Not twice would he outface me, even though it were my death day.
Mr. Annand was a very pleasant-spoken man, and I think a little grateful that I should speak complacently to him. For he was abashed that Cantyre would have nothing to say to him—no, nor for that matter, Anton Lennox either.
He asked me what affair had brought me there, which vexed me, for I had supposed the whole city ringing with my braving of the Council, and the Chancellor's shaking hands with me.
‘I have done God's will,’ I made him answer, ‘at least as I saw it, in fighting against Charles Stuart, for his usage of my country and my house. Were I to escape, I should but do the same thing again. It is his day, and Charles Stuart has me on the edge of the iron. But not so long ago it was his father's turn, and so, in due time, it may be his.’
‘God forbid!’ said the Dean piously, thinking no doubt, poor man, that if the King went that way, certain others might also.
‘God send him as honourable a death. 'Twere better than lolling with madams on Whitehall couches, that he should honourably step forth from the window of the banqueting hall as his father did!’ I made him answer.
‘You are a strange Whig, Mr. William Gordon,’ he said; ‘do you even give that testimony to them from the scaffold. It will be a change from their general tenor.’
I said, ‘You mistake me. I believe as much and as well as any of them, and I am about to die for it, but testimonies are not in my way. Besides, somewhere my mother is praying for me.’
‘I would the King could have spared you,’ he said. ‘There is need of some like you in this town of Edinburgh.’
‘When I was in Edinburgh,’ I replied, ‘I had not the spirit of a pooked hen, but holding the banner at Sanquhar hath wondrously brisked me.’
All this while I could see the lips of Anton Lennox moving. And I knew right well that if I had little to say at the last bitter pinch, he would deliver his soul for the two of us—ay, and for the Earl, too, if he were permitted.
It was just at this moment that we came in sight of the Maiden, which was set high on a platform of black wood. There was much scaffolding, and also a tall ladder leading thereto. But what took and held my eye, was the evil leaden glitter of the broad knife, which would presently shear away my life.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.