THROUGH DEATH'S DARK VALE
Now this Eskdale was the Johnstone's own country, and one in which I was noways at home—a country of wide green holms and deep blind ‘hopes’ or hollows among the mountains, where the cloud shadows bide and linger, and whence they come out again to scud swiftly over the hips of the hills. I had been trained to be pleasant and prudent in my conversation, and there was little to take me out of myself in the company I had perforce to keep. Yet I dared not withdraw myself from their train, lest the jealousy of our band, which was latent among the more scurril of them, should break out. So I rode mostly silent, but with a pleased countenance which belied my heart.
Indeed, had it not been for the good liking which everywhere pursued my cousin Lochinvar, I cannot tell what might have come out of the dislike for us ‘Glenkens Whiggies,’ which was their mildest word for us. Yet my man Hugh never said a word, for he was a prudent lad and slow of speech; while I, being no man of war, also looked well to my words, and let a wary tongue keep my head. As for John Meiklewood, honest man, he took suddenly one morning what he termed a ‘sair income in his wame,’ and leave being scantily asked, he hied him home to his wife and weans at the Mains of Earlstoun.
Now this was the manner of our march. Claverhouse sent his horse scouring up on the tops of the hills and along the higher grounds, while his foot quartered the lower districts, bringing all such as were in any way suspicious to the kirkyards to be examined. Old and young, men and women alike, were taken; and often—chiefly, it is true, behind Claverhouse's back—the soldiers were most cruel at the business, making my blood boil, till I thought that I must fly out and strike some of them. I wondered not any longer that my father had taken to the hill, sick to death of the black terror which Charles's men caused daily to fall upon all around them, wherever in Scotland men cared enough about their religion to suffer for it.
How my cousin Lochinvar stood it I cannot tell. Indeed I think that but for the teaching of his mother, and the presence of John Scarlet, who at this time was a great King's man and of much influence with Wat Gordon, he had been as much incensed as I.
One morning in especial I mind well. It was a Tuesday, and our company was under the command of this Johnstone of Westerha', who of all the clan, being a turncoat, was the cruellest and the worst. For the man was in his own country, and among his own kenned faces, his holders and cottiers—so that the slaughter of them was as easy as killing chickens reared by hand.
And even Claverhouse rather suffered, and shut his eyes to it, than took part in the hard driving.
‘Draw your reins here,’ the Johnstone would say, as we came to the loaning foot of some little white lime-washed house with a reeking lum. ‘There are some Bible folk here that wad be none the worse o' a bit ca'!’
So he rode up to the poor muirland housie sitting by itself all alone among the red heather. Mostly the folk had marked us come, and often there was no one to be seen, but, as it might be, a bairn or two playing about the green.
Then he would have these poor bits of things gathered up and begin to fear them, or contrariwise to offer them fair things if only they would tell where their parents were, and who were used to come about the house.
There is a place, Shieldhill by name, that sits blithely on the brae-face at the entering in of Annandale. The country thereabouts is not very wild, and there are many cotter houses set about the holms and dotted among the knowes. Westerha' enclosed the whole with a ring of his men, and came upon them as he thought unawares, for he said the place was like a conventicle, and rife with psalm-singers. But he was a wild man when he found the men and women all fled, and only the bairns, as before, feared mostly out of their lives, sitting cowering together by the ingle, or hiding about the byres.
‘I'll fear them waur,’ said Westerha', as he came to the third house and found as before only two-three weans, ‘or my name is no James Johnstone.’
So what did this ill-set Johnstone do, but gather them all up into a knot by a great thorn-tree that grows on the slope. This Tuesday morn was clear and sunny—not bright, but with a kind of diffused light, warm and without shadows, as if the whole arch of the lift were but one sun, yet not so bright as the sun we mostly have.
There were some thirty bairns by the tree, mostly of Westerha's own name, save those that were Jardines, Grahams, and Charterises, for those are the common names of that countryside. The children stood together, huddled in a cloud, too frightened to speak or even to cry aloud. And one thing I noticed, that the lassie bairns were stiller and grat not so much as the boys—all save one, who was a laddie of about ten years. He stood with his hands behind his back, and his face was very white; but he threw back his head and looked the dragoons and Annandale's wild riders fair in the face as one that has conquered fear.
Then Westerha' rode forward almost to the midst of the cloud of bairns, ‘gollering’ and roaring at the bit things to frighten them, as was his custom with such. They were mostly from six to ten years of their age; and when I saw them thus with their feared white faces, I wished that I had been six foot of my inches, and with twenty good men of the Glen at my back. But I minded that I was but a boy— ‘stay-at-home John,’ as Sandy called me—and worth nothing with my hands. So I could only fret and be silent. I looked for my cousin Lochinvar, but he was riding at the Graham's bridle rein, and that day I saw nothing of him. But I wondered how this matter of the bairns liked him.
So Westerha' rode nearer to them, shouting like a shepherd crying down the wind tempestuously, when his dogs are working sourly.
‘Hark ye,’ he cried, ‘ill bairns that ye are, ye are all to dee, and that quickly, unless ye answer me what I shall ask of you.’
Then I saw something that I had never seen but among the sheep, and it was a most pitiful and heart-wringing thing to see, though now in the telling it seems no great matter. There is a time of the year when it is fitting that the lambs should be separated from the ewes; and it ever touches me nearly to see the flock of poor lammies when first the dogs come near to them to begin the work, and wear them in the direction in which they are to depart. All their little lives the lambs had run to their mothers at the first hint of danger. Now they have no mothers to flee to, and you can see them huddle and pack in a frightened solid bunch, quivering with apprehension, all with their sweet little winsome faces turned one way. Then as the dogs run nearer to start them, there comes from them a little low broken-hearted bleating, as if terror were driving the cry out of them against their wills. Thus it is with the lambs on the hill, and so also it was with the bairns that clung together in a cluster on the brae-face.
A party of soldiers was now drawn out before them, and the young things were bid look into the black muzzles of the muskets. They were indeed loaded only with powder, but the children were not to know that.
‘Now,’ cried Westerha', ‘tell me who comes to your houses at night, and who goes away early in the morning!’
The children crept closer to one another, but none of them answered. Whereupon Westerha' indicated one with his finger—the lad who stood up so straightly and held his head back.
‘You, young Cock-of-the-heather, what might be your black Whig's name?’
‘Juist the same as your honour's—James Johnstone!’ replied the boy, in no way abashed.
Methought there ran a titter of laughter among the soldiers, for Westerha' was noways so well liked among the soldiers as Claverhouse or even roaring Grier of Lag.
‘And what is your father's name?’ continued Westerha', bending just one black look upon the lad.
‘James Johnstone!’ yet again replied the boy.
Back in the ranks someone laughed.
Westerhall flung an oath over his shoulder.
‘Who was the man who laughed? I shall teach you to laugh at the Johnstone in his own country!’
‘It was Jeems Johnstone of Wanphray that laughed, your honour,’ replied the calm voice of a troop-sergeant.
Then Westerha' set himself without another word to the work of examination, which suited him well.
‘You will not answer, young rebels,’ he cried, ‘ken you what they get that will not speak when the King bids them?’
‘Are you the King?’ said the lad of ten who had called himself James Johnstone.
At this Westerhall waxed perfectly furious, with a pale and shaking fury that I liked not to see. But indeed the whole was so distasteful to me that sometimes I could but turn my head away.
‘Now, ill bairns,’ said Westerha', ‘and you, my young rebel-namesake, hearken ye. The King's command is not to be made light of. And I tell you plainly that as you will not answer, I am resolved that you shall all be shot dead on the spot!’
With that he sent men to set them out in rows, and make them kneel down with kerchiefs over their eyes.
Now when the soldiers came near to the huddled cluster of bairns, that same little heart-broken bleating which I have heard the lambs make, broke again from them. It made my heart bleed and the nerves tingle in my palms. And this was King Charles Stuart making war! It had not been his father's way.
But the soldiers, though some few were smiling a little as at an excellent play, were mostly black ashamed. Nevertheless they took the bairns and made them kneel, for that was the order, and without mutiny they could not better it.
‘Sodger-man, wull ye let me tak' my wee brither by the hand and dee that way? I think he wad thole it better!’ said a little maid of eight, looking up.
And the soldier let go a great oath and looked at Westerha' as though he could have slain him.
‘Bonny wark,’ he cried, ‘deil burn me gin I listed for this!’
But the little lass had already taken her brother by the hand.
‘Bend doon bonny, Alec my man, doon on your knees!’ said she.
The boy glanced up at her. He had long yellow hair like Jean Hamilton's little Alec.
‘Wull it be sair?’ he asked. ‘Think ye, Maggie? I houp it'll no be awfu' sair!’
‘Na, Alec,’ his sister made answer, ‘it'll no be either lang or sair.’
But the boy of ten, whose name was James Johnstone, neither bent nor knelt.
‘I hae dune nae wrang. I'll juist dee this way,’ he said; and he stood up like one that straightens himself at drill.
Then Westerha' bid fire over the bairns' heads, which was cruel, cruel work, and only some of the soldiers did it. But even the few pieces that went off made a great noise in that lonely place. At the sound of the muskets some of the bairns fell forward on their faces as if they had been really shot. Some leapt in the air, but the most part knelt quietly and composedly.
The little boy Alec, whose sister had his hand clasped in hers, made as if he would rise.
‘Bide ye doon, Alec,’ she said, very quietly, ‘it's no oor turn yet!’
At this the heart within me gave way, and I roared out in my helpless pain a perfect ‘gowl’ of anger and grief.
‘Bonny Whigs ye are,’ cried Westerha', ‘to dee withoot even a prayer. Put up a prayer this minute, for ye shall all dee, every one of you.’
And the boy James Johnstone made answer to him:
‘Sir, we cannot pray, for we be too young to pray.’
‘You are not too young to rebel, nor yet to die for it!’ was the brute-beast's answer.
Then with that the little girl held up a hand as if she were answering a dominie in a class.
‘An’ it please ye, sir,’ she said, ‘me an' Alec canna pray, but we can sing 'The Lord's my Shepherd,' gin that wull do! My mither learned it us afore she gaed awa'.’
And before anyone could stop her, she stood up like one that leads the singing in a kirk. ‘Stan' up, Alec, my wee mannie,’ she said.
Then all the bairns stood up. I declare it minded me of Bethlehem and the night when Herod's troopers rode down to look for Mary's bonny Bairn.
Then from the lips of the babes and sucklings arose the quavering strains: ‘The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want. He makes me down to lie In pastures green; He leadeth me The quiet waters by.’
As they sang I gripped out my pistols and began to sort and prime them, hardly knowing what I did. For I was resolved to make a break for it, and, at the least, to blow a hole in James Johnstone of Westerha' that would mar him for life before I suffered any more of it.
But as they sang I saw trooper after trooper turn away his head, for, being Scots bairns, they had all learned that psalm. The ranks shook. Man after man fell out, and I saw the tears happing down their cheeks. But it was Douglas of Morton, that stark persecutor, who first broke down.
‘Curse it, Westerha',’ he cried, ‘I canna thole this langer. I'll war nae mair wi' bairns for a' the earldom i' the North.’
And at last even Westerha' turned his bridle rein, and rode away from off the bonny holms of Shieldhill, for the victory was to the bairns. I wonder what his thoughts were, for he too had learned that psalm at the knees of his mother. And as the troopers rode loosely up hill and down brae, broken and ashamed, the sound of these bairns' singing followed after them, and soughing across the fells came the words:
‘Yea, though I walk in Death's dark vale, Yet will I fear none ill: For Thou art with me; and Thy rod And staff me comfort still.’
Then Westerha' swore a great oath and put the spurs in his horse to get clear of the sweet singing.