ROBBERY ON THE KING'S HIGHWAY
Now that which follows concerns not myself, but Maisie Lennox and others that were at this time forth of the Tolbooth. Yet, because the story properly comes in here, I pray the reader to suffer it gladly, for without it I cannot came to my tale's ending, as I must speedily do. How I came to know it, is no matter now, but shall without doubt afterwards appear.
While Anton Lennox and I lay in the Tolbooth, those that loved us were not idle. Wat moved Kate and Kate moved Roger McGhie of Balmaghie. So that he set off to London to see the King, in order to get remission for me, and if need be to pay my fine, because there was nothing he would not do to pleasure his daughter. But though his intercession did good in delaying the warrant, yet my owning of the raising the flag at Sanquhar was too much for the King, and in due course my warrant sped; of which the bruit came north with a servant of Balmaghie's who rode like the wings of the wind. But indeed I was not greatly disappointed, for since my declaration to the Privy Council, I never expected any other end.
As soon, however, as the news came to the house of Balmaghie, Maisie Lennox betook herself to the woodside to think. There she stayed for the better part of an hour, pacing up and down more like an aged man than a young maiden. Then, as my informant tells me, she came in again with a face wonderfully assured.
‘Give me a horse and suit of lad's clothes,’ she said to her who kept the drapery closets and wardrobes at the house of Balmaghie.
‘Preserve us, lass, for what wad ye hae lad's claes?’ said the ancient housekeeper. But without waiting to reply, Maisie Lennox went and got them.
‘The lassie's gane wud! There's nae reason in her,’ she cried out in amazement.
But indeed it was a time when men and women were not inclined to stand upon reasons. For each being supposed to have his neck deep in the tow, he had no doubt his own good logic for whatever he proposed.
So Mistress Crombie, housekeeper to the Laird of Balmaghie, without further question, fitted Maisie Lennox with a suit of lad's clothes, which (having taken off and again suitably attired herself) she strapped in a roll on her saddle bow and covered with a plaid. Then, dressed like a maid that goes to her first place and rides a borrowed horse, she took her way eastward. Now at that time, so important were the proclamations and Privy Council matters, that every week there rode a post who carried naught but reprieves and sentences.
It had been the custom of late, ever since the numerous affrays near the border of Berwick, that this messenger of life and death should ride by Carlisle and Moffat to Edinburgh.
Now this young maid, contrary to the wont of women folk, had all her life said little and done much. So when Maisie Lennox came to the side of the Little Queensberry Hill, having ridden all the way sedately, as a sober maiden ought, she went aside into a thicket and changed her woman's appearance to that of a smart birkie who rides to college. It was about the time when the regents call up such to the beginning of their classes. So it was a most feasible-like thing, and indeed there were a good many upon the roads. But Maisie Lennox kept out of their company, for these wandering students are ever inclined to be goatish, and full of impish pranks, whether as I saw them at Groningen or in Edinburgh town.
So she (that was for the time being he) came riding into the town of Moffat, just when the London state messenger was expected. There my lass entered the hostelry of the White Hart, which was kept by a decent woman named Catherine Cranstoun. As a ruffling young gallant, she strode in, with her chest well out and one hand on the hilt of the rapier, which she held modishly thrust forward. But Maisie, when she found herself within, was a little daunted to see a great pair of pistols, a sword, and other furniture of a King's rider lie upon the table. While from within a little chamber, the door of which stood ajar, she heard the sound as of one who sleeps, and snores sonorously in his sleep.
‘A good day to ye, Mistress Cranstoun,’ said Maisie boldly, and most like a clerkish student. ‘Will ye get me a drink of good caller water?’
‘That,’ said the good wife shrewishly, turning her eyes scorningly across her nose, ‘is not good asking at a change-house. I warrant we do not live and pay our winter's oats by sellin' caller water to student birkies!’
‘So, good madam,’ said our Maisie again; ‘but if you will get me a drink from your famous medicinal spring—a good fresh quart—most gladly I will pay for it—aye, as if it had been claret wine of the best bin in your cellar.’
At hearing of which the landlady pricked up her ears.
‘I will e'en gae bring it mysel',’ she said in a changed voice, for such orders came not every day. ‘It is for a wager,’ she thought. ‘The loons are ever after some daft ploy.’
As she went to the door she had a thought.
‘Mind ye,’ she said, ‘meddle not wi' the pistols, for they belong to one on the King's service.’
So she set out to bring the water in a wooden cogie with a handle.
As soon as she was fairly gone, Maisie stole on tiptoe to the door of the room whence the snoring proceeded. She peeped circumspectly within, and there on a rough bed with the neck of his buff riding-coat thrown open, lay the King's rider, a great clean shaven fellow with a cropped head, and ear-rings in his ears. The edge of the mail bag peeped from under the pillow, and the ribbons of seals showed beneath the flaps.
Maisie laid her hand on her heart to still its painful beating. Clearly there was no chance of drawing the bag from under the rider's head, for his hand was twisted firmly in the strap. It was with mighty grief in her heart that Maisie Lennox stepped back. But at sight of the pistols on the table, a thought and a hope sprang up together within her. She hasted to take them up and draw the charges, leaving only a sprinkling of powder in the pan of each.
And as she rode off, she bore with her the landlady's benediction, for the good wife had never been so paid for caller spring water before.
It was at the entrance to the wild place known as the Devil's Beef Tub, near the last wood on the upward way over the hills, that Maisie waited for the King's rider. There were, no doubt, many thoughts in her heart, but she did not dwell upon them—save it might be upon this one, that if the rider discovered that the charges had been drawn, it would certainly go ill with her and worse with those whom she had come out to save.
What wonder then if her maid's heart flew faster even than Gay Garland had done when he fled before the gypsy clan.
At last, after long waiting, she heard far off the clatter of a horse's feet on the road, and her courage returned to her. As the King's messenger came trotting easily down an incline, she rode as quietly out of a byway into the road and let him range alongside.
With a polite toss of the reins, as was then the modish fashion, she bade him good day.
‘Ye are a bonny birkie. Hae ye ony sisters?’ said the man in the Lothian tongue.
Maisie answered him no—an only bairn and riding to the college at Edinburgh.
‘Ye'll be a braw student no doubt.’
She told him so-so.
‘I'se warrant ye!’ said he, for he was jovial by nature, and warmed with Mistress Cranstoun's wine.
So they rode on in friendly enough talk till they were nearing the wood, when Maisie, knowing that the time had come, wheeled about and bade him ‘Stand!’ At the same time she pointed a pistol at his head.
‘Deliver me your mails,’ she said, ‘or I shall take your life!’
The man laughed as at a pleasant jest.
‘Gae wa' wi' ye, birkie. Nane o' your college tricks wi' me, or ye may aiblins come to a mishap. I am no' a man to tak' offence, but this somewhat passes merrymaking!’
But when Maisie pulled the other pistol and levelled it also at his head, the rider hesitated no longer, but pulled out his own and took aim at her heart.
‘Your blood be on your own head, then! I never missed yet!’ he cried, and pulled the trigger.
But the powder only flashed in the pan. With an oath he pulled the other and did likewise with it, but quite as fruitlessly.
Then he leaped down and tried to grip Maisie's horse by the bridle, for he was a stark carle and no coward.
But her horse obeyed the guiding hand. With a swing to the left she swept out of his reach, so as to catch the bridle of the horse which carried the mails and which, fresh from the stable, was inclined to crop the herbage. Then she rode away leaving the man standing amazed and speechless in the middle of the road. He started to run after his assailant, but Maisie sent a bullet back, which halted him. For by chance it struck a stone among the red dust at his feet, and went through between his legs buzzing like a bumblebee. And this is indeed a thing which would have halted most folk.
It was with a fearful heart that Maisie Lennox, in the deepest shades of the wood, ripped open the bags. Almost the first paper she came upon was her father's death warrant. With trembling hand she turned over the papers to find mine also. But there were only Privy Council letters and documents in cypher. Over and over she turned them, her heart, I doubt not, hammering loudly. But there was not another warrant anywhere. It must have been sent forward by another hand. It might even be in Edinburgh already, she thought. Almost she had returned the letters to the bag and left them at the tree foot, when she noted a little bulge in the thickness of the leather near the clasp. In a moment she had her knife within, and there, enclosed in a cypher letter to the President of the Council, was a free pardon, signed and sealed, wanting only the name inserted. Without doubt it was intended for some of the private friends of Duke Queensberry. But at sight of it Maisie's heart gave a still greater stound, and without a moment for consideration she galloped off towards Edinburgh, upon the fresh horse of his Majesty's post rider. When she came to the first woods over the crown of the dreary hill road, she put off the lad's apparel and dressed again as the quiet maid upon her travels, whom none would suspect of bold robbery of his Majesty's despatches upon his own highway.
Then as she took the road to Edinburgh, consider what a turmoil and battle there was in her heart. She says that she saw not the road all the way for thinking, and I doubt it not. ‘My father or my lad——’ she argued with herself. ‘Which name shall I put in? It may not serve them long, but it will save them at least this day from death.’
And in the clatter of her horse's feet she found no answer to her question.
Then she told over to herself all that her father had done for her since she remembered—the afternoons when it was the Sabbath on the pleasant green bank at the Duchrae loaning end, the words of wise counsel spoken there, the struggle at the cave when the cruel Mardrochat was sent to his account. She did not forget one. Other things also she owns that she thought of. ‘Whatever may happen to me, I must—I shall save my father!’ she concluded.
She was on a lonely place on the moors, with deep moss-hags and holes in the turf where men had cut peat. These were now filled with black water. She stopped, took out the warrant for her father's execution, tore it into a thousand pieces, and sunk it carefully in the deep hag. The white horse of the King's rider meanwhile stood patiently by till she mounted again—I warrant as swiftly as she used to do in the old days at the Duchrae.
But the tearing of the warrant would only delay and not prevent her father's death. She saw that clearly. There came to her the thought of the free pardon. To inscribe a name in the blank space meant a release from prison and the chance of escape. She resolved to write it when she came to the next change-house.
But as she rode she fell to the thinking, and the question that surged to and fro in her heart, like the tide in a sea-cave, was—which name would be found written on that pardon when she rode to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh to deliver it into the hands of the Captain of the Guard.
As she thought she urged her horse the faster, so that the sooner she might come to the change-house and settle the question.
‘He is my father,’ she said over and over, dwelling on all that her father had been to her. ‘I cannot—I will not think of others before him. It is my father's name I will write in the pardon—I must, yes I must!’
And the name of another did she not mention at all, as I have been informed. At last she came to the door of the change-house, and, throwing her reins over the tieing post at the gate, she went in boldly.
‘Bring me an inkhorn and a goose-quill!’ she cried to the dame of the inn, forgetting that she had donned her maid's clothes again, and speaking in the hectoring voice of the birkie student. She threw a silver coin on the table with a princely air that suited but indifferently with the sober fashion of her maiden's dress. And among the mutchkins on the ribbed and rimmed deal table, she squared herself to write in the name upon her free pardon.
She set her pen to the parchment bravely. Then she stopped, took a long breath and held it, as though it were the dying breath of one well-beloved which she had in her keeping. With sudden access of resolve she began a bold initial. She changed it. Then she wrote again hastily with a set face, but holding her hand over the writing, as though to shield the words from sight. Which being done, she looked at what she had written with a blanched and terror-stricken countenance.
No sooner was the ink dry, than bending again to the paper, she began eagerly to scrape at it with her finger-nail, as though she would even yet change her thought.
But as she rubbed the parchment, which was very fine and soft, part of it curled up at the edge into a tiny roll like a shaving of bark when one cuts a white birch. Instantly Maisie discerned that there were two parchments instead of one.
With a light and cunning hand she separated them carefully. They had been secretly attached so as to look like one. Casting her eyes rapidly over the second parchment, her heart leaped within her to find that it was another pardon, the duplicate of the first, and, like it, duly signed and sealed. It was a moment's work to write in the other name upon this great discovery. Then throwing, in her joy, a gold piece upon the table beside the shilling, she mounted at the stance, and rode away in the direction of the capital.
‘My word!’ said the good wife of the change-house, gazing after her, ‘but that madam doesna want confidence. I doot she will be after no good!’
‘She doesna want siller,’ quoth her husband, gathering up the money, ‘and that's a deal more to the point in a change-house!’
But Maisie Lennox has never told to any—not even to me, who have some right to know her secrets—that name which she first wrote when she had to choose between her father's life and her lover's.
She only says, ‘Let every maid answer in her own heart which name she would have written, being in my place, that day in the change-house!’
And even so may I leave it to all the maidens that may read my history to let their hearts answer which. For they also will not tell.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.