THE THING THAT FELL FROM TRAITOR'S GATE
The Lady Lochinvar stood a moment still by the fire, listening, her hand raised as if to command silence. Then she ran to the door like a young lass, with a light foot and her hand on her heart. The steps came fainter up the stair, and in another moment we heard the clang of the outer door.
My lady turned to me.
‘Have you your pistols by you?’ she whispered in a hoarse and angry voice, clutching me by the lapels of my coat. ‘Go, man! Go, follow him! He rushes to his death. And he is all that I have. Go and save him!’
She that had fleeched with her son, like a dove succouring its young, laid harshly her commands upon me.
‘I am no fighter, aunt,’ I said. ‘What protection can I be to Walter Gordon, the best sworder in Edinburgh town this night from Holyrood to the Castle?’
My lady looked about her as one that sees a stealthy enemy approach. Her hand trembled as she laid it on my arm.
‘What avails good swordsmanship, when one comes behind and one before, as in my dream I saw them do upon my Walter, out of the house of my Lord Wellwood. They came upon him and left him lying on the snow.—Ah, go, dear cousin William!’ she said, breaking into a sharp cry of entreaty lest I should fail her. ‘It is you that can save him. But let him not see you follow, or it will make him more bitter against me. For if you cannot play with the sword, you can shoot with the pistol; so I have heard, and they tell me that no one can shoot so truly as thou. They would not let thee shoot at Kirkcudbright for the Siller Gun though thou art a burgess, because it were no fair game. Is it not true?’
And so she stroked and cuitled me with flattery till I declare I purred like our Gib cat. I had begun there and then to tell her of my prowess, but that she interrupted me.
‘He goes toward the High Street. Hasten up the South Wynd, and you will overtake him yet ere he comes out upon the open road.’
She thrust two pistols into my belt, which I laid aside again, having mine own more carefully primed with me, to the firing of which my hand was more accustomed—and that to a marksman is more than half the battle.
When I reached the street the wildness of the night justified my prophecy. The snow was falling athwart the town in broad wet flakes, driving flat against the face with a splash, before a gusty westerly wind that roared among the tall lums of the steep-gabled houses—a most uncomfortable night to run the risk of getting a dirk in one's ribs.
I saw my cousin before me, linking on carelessly through the snow with his cloak about his ears and his black-scabbard rapier swinging at his heels.
But I had to slink behind backs like a Holyrood dyvour—a bankrupt going to the Sanctuary, jooking and cowering craftily in the lee-side shadow of the houses. For though so wild a night, it was not very dark. There was a moon up there somewhere among the smother, though she could not get so much as her nose through the wrack of banked snow-cloud which was driving up from the west. Yet Wat could have seen me very black on the narrow strip of snow, had he ever once thought of looking over his shoulder.
But Wat the Wullcat of Lochinvar was not the one to look behind him when he strode on to keep tryst. I minded his bitter reckless words to his mother, ‘Heaven and hell shall not make me break my tryst tonight!’ Now Heaven was shut out by the storm and the tall close-built houses, and Walter Gordon had an excellent chance of standing a bout with the other place.
No doubt my Lady Wellwood bided at the window and looked out for him to come to her through the snow. And I that had for common no thought of lass or lady, cannot say that I was without my own envying that the love of woman was not for me. Or so at least I thought at that time, even as I shielded my eyes under my bonnet and drave through the snow with the pistols loose in my belt. But Wat of Lochinvar walked defiantly through the black storm with a saucy swing in his carriage, light and careless, which I vouch drew my heart to him as if I had been a young girl. I had given ten years of my life if just so I could have taken the eyes of women.
As clear as if I had listened to the words, I could hear him saying over within himself the last sentence he had used in the controversy with his mother— ‘Heaven and hell shall not cause me to break my tryst tonight!’
Alack! poor lad, little understood he the resources of either. For he had yet to pass beneath Traitor's' Gate.
For once the narrow High Street of Edinburgh was clean and white—sheeted down in the clinging snow that would neither melt nor freeze, but only clung to every joint, jut, stoop, and step of the house-fronts, and clogged in lumps on the crockets of the roof. The wind wrestled and roared in great gusts overhead in the black, uncertain, tumultuous night. Then a calm would come, sudden as a curtain-drop in the play-house, and in the hush you could hear the snow sliddering down off the high-pitched roofs of tile. The light of the moon also came in varying wafts and flickers, as the wind blew the clouds alternately thicker and thinner across her face.
Now I felt both traitor and spy as I tracked my cousin down the brae. Hardly a soul was to be seen, for none loves comfort more than an Edinburgh burgher. And none understands his own weather better. The snow had swept ill-doer and well-doer off the street, cleaner than ever did the city guard—who, by the way, were no doubt warming their frozen toes by the cheerful fireside in some convenient house-of-call.
So meditating, for a moment I had almost forgotten whither we were going.
Before us, ere I was aware, loomed up the battlements and turrets of the Netherbow. 'Twas with a sudden stound of the heart, that I remembered what it was that ten months and more ago had been set up there. But I am sure that, sharp-set on his love matter, like a beast that hunts nose-down on a hot trail, Wat Gordon had no memory for the decorations of the Netherbow. For he whistled as he went, and stuck his hand deeper into the breast of his coat. The moon came out as I looked, and for a moment, dark and grisly against the upper brightness, I saw that row of traitors' heads which the city folk regarded no more in their coming and going, than the stone gargoyles set in the roof-niches of St. Giles.
But as soon as Wat went under the blackness of the arch, there came so fierce a gust that it fairly lifted me off my feet and dashed me against the wall. Overhead yelled all the mocking fiends of hell, riding slack-rein to a new perdition. The snow swirled tormented, and wrapped us both in its grey smother. Hands seemed to pull at me out of the darkness, lifted me up, and flung me down again on my face in the smoor of the snow. A great access of fear fell on me. As the gust overpassed, I rose, choked and gasping. Overhead I could hear the mighty blast go roaring and howling away among the crags and rocks of Arthur's Seat.
Then I arose, shook the snow from my dress, glanced at the barrels and cocks of my pistols to see that they were not stopped with snow, and stepped out of the angle of the Bow to look after my cousin. To my utter astonishment, he was standing within four feet of me. He held some dark thing in his hand, and stared open-mouthed at it, as one demented. Without remembering that I had come out at my lady's bidding to follow Wat Gordon secretly, I stepped up to him till I could look over his shoulder.
‘Walter!’ I said, putting my hand on his arm.
But he never minded me in the least, nor yet appeared surprised to find me there. Only a black and bitter horror sat brooding on his soul.
He continued to gaze, fascinated, at the dark thing in his hand.
‘God—God—God!’ he sobbed, the horror taking him short in the throat. ‘Will, do you see THIS?’
Such abject terror never have I heard before nor since in the utterance of any living man.
‘Do you see This?’ he said. ‘See what fell at my feet as I came through the arch of the Bow upon mine errand! The wind brought it down.’
Above the moon pushed her way upwards, fighting hard, breasting the cloud wrack like a labouring ship.
Her beams fell on the dark Thing in Wat Gordon's hand.
‘Great God!’ he shouted again, his eyes starting from their sockets, ‘IT IS MINE OWN FATHER'S HEAD!’
And above us the fitful, flying winds nichered and laughed like mocking fiends.
It was true. I that write, saw it plain. I held it in this very hand. It was the head of Sir John of Lochinvar, against whom, in the last fray, his own son had donned the war-gear. Grizzled, black, the snow cleaving ghastly about the empty eye-holes, the thin beard still straggling snow-clogged upon the chin—it was his own father's head that had fallen at Walter Gordon's feet, and which he now held in his hand.
Then I remembered, with a shudder of apprehension, his own words so lately spoken—‘Heaven and hell shall not cause me to break my tryst tonight.’
Walter Gordon stood rooted there, dazed and dumb-foundered, with the Thing in his hand. His fine lace ruffles touched it as the wind blew them.
I plucked at him.
‘Come,’ I said, ‘haste you! Let us bury it in the Holyrood ere the moon goes down.’
Thus he who boasted himself free of heaven and hell, had his tryst broken by the Thing that fell from the ghastly gate on which the traitors' heads are set in a row. And that Thing was the head of the father that begat him.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.