CHAPTER FIFTY SIX
THE MAID ON THE WHITE HORSE
Then slowly a rim about my neck grew icy cold till it ached with the pain—as when, on a hot day, one holds one's wrists over-long in a running stream. Nevertheless, my southland pride and the grace of God kept me from vulgarly showing my fear.
Yet even the Earl, who came of a family that ought by this time to have grown accustomed to losing their heads, was shaken somewhat by the sight of the Maiden. And, indeed, such present and visible death will daunton the most resolute courage. Therefore he caused bind the napkin upon his face, ere he approached nearer, and so was led upon the scaffold first. I went next, schooling myself to go firmly and saying only, ‘It will soon be over! It will soon be over!’ Then I would fall to my twenty-third Psalm again, and specially to the verse about ‘death's dark vale,’ which did indeed strengthen me so that I feared none ill, or at least not so very much. But at such times one goes on, winning through unshamed, more by the mechanical action of one's body and the instinct of silence, than by the actual thing which men call courage.
But when at last we stood upon the scaffold, and looked about us at the great concourse of people, all silent and all waiting to see us die, more than everything else I wished that they had thought to put a rail about the edge. For the platform being so high, and the time so early in morning, I walked a little as though my legs had been the legs of another and not mine own. But in time this also passed off.
Then they read Cantyre's warrant, and asked him if he had aught to say. He had a long paper prepared, which, standing between his two friends, who held him by either arm, he gave to the Dean. And very courteously he bade us who were to die with him farewell, and also those that were with him. He was a most gallant gentleman, though a Highlandman. They made us stand with our backs to the Maiden, and rolled the drums, while they set him in his place. But for all that I heard louder than thunder the horrible crunch as of one that shaws frosty cabbages with a blunt knife. Methought I had fainted away, when I heard the answering splash, and the loud universal ‘Ah!’ which swept across the multitudes of people.
Yet as they turned me about, because my time had come, I saw quite clearly beneath me the populace fighting fiercely one with another beneath the scaffold, for the blood that drippled through the boards, dipping their kerchiefs and other linen fabrics in it for keepsakes. Also I perceived the collapsed body, most like a sack that falls sideways; and the tall masked headsman holding up the poor dripping head. For the napkin had fallen away from the staring eyne, and I shuddered at the rasping echo of his words.
‘This is the head of a traitor!’ he cried, as the custom is.
Again the people cried, ‘Ah!’—They cried it through their clenched teeth. But it was more like a wild beast's growl than a human cry.
Then I was bidden speak if I had aught to say before I died.
So I took off my hat, and though for a moment I stood without strength, suddenly my voice was given back to me, and that with such surprising power that I never knew that I had so great an utterance.
‘I die (so they recorded my words) in the faith my father taught me, and for which my father died; neither for King nor bishop will I change it. Neither for love nor lands will I recreant or swear falsely. I am a Gordon of Earlstoun. I die for the freedom of this land. God do so to me and more also, if ever I gave my back to a foe, or my shoulder to a friend all the days of my life! That is all my testimony. God have mercy on my sinful soul, for Christ's sake. Amen!’
‘Lord, that is no Whig word!’ cried one from the crowd—a soldier, as I think.
‘Tis a pity he is a rebel,’ said another. I heard them as though they had spoken of another, and not of myself. And all the time I had been speaking, I was watching the headsman wiping his broad sliding blade with a fragment of fine old linen, daintily as one may caress a sweetheart or other beloved possession.
Then the Dean began the praying, for because I had played with him upon the Links of Leith at our diversion, I could not reject his ministrations. And also, as I said, he was a pleasant, well-spoken man. But he had hardly said many words, or indeed gotten fairly into the matter of his prayer—which being an Episcopalian, it took him a long time to do—when his voice seemed to be drowned in the surging murmur which rose from the people far down the spaces of the Grassmarket. The sound we heard was as that of a mighty multitude crying aloud; but whether for joy or hate, I could not tell. The Dean went on praying with his book open. But none, I think, minded him, or indeed could have heard him if they had. For every eye in all that mighty throng was turned to the distance, whence came the cheering of the myriad throats.
The soldiers looked one to the other, and the officers drew together and conferred. They thought, doubtless, that it was the messenger of death with the other warrant of execution, that for Anton Lennox. Yet they marvelled why in that case the people shouted.
The commander bade the drums beat, for the voices of those about the scaffold-foot began to take up the shouting, and he feared a tumult. So the kettle drums brayed out their angry waspish whirr, and the great basses boomed dull and hollow over all.
But in spite of all, the crying of the whole people waxed louder and louder, and the rejoicing came nearer and nearer, so that they could in no wise drown it with all their instruments of music.
Then, in the narrow Gut of the West Port I saw a white horse and a rider upon it, driving fiercely through the black press of the throng. And ever the people tossed their bonnets in the air, flecking the red sunrise with them. And the crowd fell back before the rider as the foam surges from the prow of a swift boat on Solway tide.
And lo! among the shouting throng I looked and saw, and knew. It was my own lass that rode and came to save me, even while the headsman was wiping the crimson from the bloody shearing knife to make it ready for me. In either hand she waved a parchment of pardon, and the people shouted: ‘A pardon! a pardon! God save the King!’
Without rein she rode, and the people opened a lane for her weary horse. Very pale was her face, the sweetest that ever the sun shone on. Very weary were the lids of her eyes, that were the truest and the bravest which ever God gave to woman. But when they were lifted up to look at me on the scaffold of death, I saw that through the anxiety, which drew dark rings about them, they were joyful with a great joy!
And this is what my Maisie Lennox did for me.
The conclusion of the author to the reader
But our perils were not yet wholly over. We were in fear that at any hour the messenger might arrive, having gotten another horse, even in that lonely place where Maisie left him. But having pardons in the King's hand, our foes themselves were eager to be rid of us. They knew that Roger McGhie had been busy on our behalfs, so that the Council showed no surprise that he had prevailed, knowing how great he was with John Graham, and also with the Duke of York. But they ordered us all, Maisie Lennox, her father, and I, forth of the kingdom upon the instant. So within an hour we went, right well content, along with the officers on board a ship at Leith, that waited with anchor weighed and sails backed in the Roads for the Council's permit to proceed. Which being obtained by the same boat that brought us, they drew away with us on board upon the instant. And it was as well, for, as our friends afterwards advised us, the plundered messenger came in during the night; and with the earliest break of morn there was a swift vessel on our track. But by that time we were well-nigh half over, with a good ship and a following wind. So that there was no vessel in Scotland that could catch us.
In due time we landed at Rotterdam with great joy and rejoicing. Now, there remains many a story that I might tell concerning our life there—how I took service in the Scots regiments of the Prince, how poor we were and how happy. Indeed, if I be spared and keep my wits, I may write it one day. For, to my thinking, it is a good tale, and infinitely more mirthful than this of the killing time, which presently it has been my lot to tell, though Sandy had no part in it, seeing that he abode until the coming of the Prince in the stony castle of Blackness, yet not greatly ill-done to, being tended there by his wife.
Also in it there should be commemorated how my mother came to us, and concerning Wat and Kate, and all that sped between them. Also, for a greater theme, how we went back and helped Renwick and Cleland to raise again the Seven Thousand, and how we stood in the breach when the Stuarts were swept away. Especially I would joy to tell of the glorious Leaguer of Dunkeld. That were a tale to attempt, indeed, with Maisie Lennox at that tale's ending, even as she has been the beginning and middle and end of this. Only by that time she was no more Maisie Lennox.
Concluded in my study at Afton, December 2, 1702.
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men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.