THOMAS THE RHYMER
Before the day had quite gone down, a knight, richly armed and mounted upon an ambling hackney, rode slowly into the village. His attendants were a lady, apparently young and beautiful, who rode by his side upon a dappled palfrey; his squire, who carried his helmet and lance, and led his battlehorse, a noble steed, richly caparisoned. A page and four yeomen bearing bows and quivers, short swords, and targets of a span breadth, completed his equipage, which, though small, denoted him to be a man of high rank.
He stopped and addressed several of the inhabitants whom curiosity had withdrawn from their labour to gaze at him; but at the sound of his voice, and still more on perceiving the St. George’s Cross in the caps of his followers, they fled, with a loud cry, ‘that the Southrons were returned.’ The knight endeavoured to expostulate with the fugitives, who were chiefly aged men, women, and children; but their dread of the English name accelerated their flight, and in a few minutes, excepting the knight and his attendants, the place was deserted by all. He paced through the village to seek a shelter for the night, and, despairing to find one either in the inaccessible tower or the plundered huts of the peasantry, he directed his course to the left hand, where he spied a small decent habitation, apparently the abode of a man considerably above the common rank. After much knocking, the proprietor at length showed himself at the window, and speaking in the English dialect, with great signs of apprehension, demanded their business. The warrior replied that his quality was an English knight and baron, and that he was travelling to the court of the King of Scotland on affairs of consequence to both kingdoms.
‘Pardon my hesitation, noble Sir Knight,’ said the old man, as he unbolted and unbarred his doors—‘Pardon my hesitation, but we are here exposed to too many intrusions to admit of our exercising unlimited and unsuspicious hospitality. What I have is yours; and God send your mission may bring back peace and the good days of our old Queen Margaret!’
‘Amen, worthy Franklin,’ quoth the Knight—‘Did you know her?’
‘I came to this country in her train,’ said the Franklin; ‘and the care of some of her jointure lands which she devolved on me occasioned my settling here.’
‘And how do you, being an Englishman,’ said the Knight, ‘protect your life and property here, when one of your nation cannot obtain a single night’s lodging, or a draught of water were he thirsty?’
‘Marry, noble sir,’ answered the Franklin, ’use, as they say, will make a man live in a lion’s den; and as I settled here in a quiet time, and have never given cause of offence, I am respected by my neighbours, and even, as you see, by our forayers from England.’
‘I rejoice to hear it, and accept your hospitality. Isabella, my love, our worthy host will provide you a bed. My daughter, good Franklin, is ill at ease. We will occupy your house till the Scottish King shall return from his northern expedition; meanwhile call me Lord Lacy of Chester.’
The attendants of the Baron, assisted by the Franklin, were now busied in disposing of the horses, and arranging the table for some refreshment for Lord Lacy and his fair companion. While they sat down to it, they were attended by their host and his daughter, whom custom did not permit to eat in their presence, and who afterwards withdrew to an outer chamber, where the squire and page (both young men of noble birth) partook of supper, and were accommodated with beds. The yeomen, after doing honour to the rustic cheer of Queen Margaret’s bailiff, withdrew to the stable, and each, beside his favourite horse, snored away the fatigues of their journey.
Early on the following morning the travellers were roused by a thundering knocking at the door of the house, accompanied with many demands for instant admission in the roughest tone. The squire and page of Lord Lacy, after buckling on their arms, were about to sally out to chastise these intruders, when the old host, after looking out at a private casement, contrived for reconnoitring his visitors, entreated them, with great signs of terror, to be quiet, if they did not mean that all in the house should be murdered.
He then hastened to the apartment of Lord Lacy, whom he met dressed in a long furred gown and the knightly cap called a mortier, irritated at the noise, and demanding to know the cause which had disturbed the repose of the household.
‘Noble sir,’ said the Franklin, ‘one of the most formidable and bloody of the Scottish Border riders is at hand; he is never seen,’ added he, faltering with terror, ‘so far from the hills but with some bad purpose, and the power of accomplishing it; so hold yourself to your guard, for—’
A loud crash here announced that the door was broken down, and the knight just descended the stair in time to prevent bloodshed betwixt his attendants and the intruders. They were three in number; their chief was tall, bony, and athletic, his spare and muscular frame, as well as the hardness of his features, marked the course of his life to have been fatiguing and perilous. The effect of his appearance was aggravated by his dress, which consisted of a jack or jacket, composed of thick buff leather, on which small plates of iron of a lozenge form were stitched in such a manner as to overlap each other and form a coat of mail, which swayed with every motion of the wearer’s body. This defensive armour covered a doublet of coarse grey cloth, and the Borderer had a few half-rusted plates of steel on his shoulders, a two- edged sword, with a dagger hanging beside it, in a buff belt; a helmet, with a few iron bars, to cover the face instead of a visor, and a lance of tremendous and uncommon length, completed his appointments. The looks of the man were as wild and rude as his attire: his keen black eyes never rested one moment fixed upon a single object, but constantly traversed all around, as if they ever sought some danger to oppose, some plunder to seize, or some insult to revenge. The latter seemed to be his present object, for, regardless of the dignified presence of Lord Lacy, he uttered the most incoherent threats against the owner of the house and his guests.
‘We shall see—ay, marry shall we—if an English hound is to harbour and reset the Southrons here. Thank the Abbot of Melrose and the good Knight of Coldingnow that have so long kept me from your skirts. But those days are gone, by Saint Mary, and you shall find it!’
It is probable the enraged Borderer would not have long continued to vent his rage in empty menaces, had not the entrance of the four yeomen with their bows bent convinced him that the force was not at this moment on his own side.
Lord Lacy now advanced towards him. ‘You intrude upon my privacy, soldier; withdraw yourself and your followers. There is peace betwixt our nations, or my servants should chastise thy presumption.’
‘Such peace as ye give such shall ye have,’ answered the moss-trooper, first pointing with his lance towards the burned village and then almost instantly levelling it against Lord Lacy. The squire drew his sword and severed at one blow the steel head from the truncheon of the spear.
‘Arthur Fitzherbert,’ said the Baron, ‘that stroke has deferred thy knighthood for one year; never must that squire wear the spurs whose unbridled impetuosity can draw unbidden his sword in the presence of his master. Go hence and think on what I have said.’
The squire left the chamber abashed.
‘It were vain,’ continued Lord Lacy, ‘to expect that courtesy from a mountain churl which even my own followers can forget. Yet, before thou drawest thy brand (for the intruder laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword), thou wilt do well to reflect that I came with a safe-conduct from thy king, and have no time to waste in brawls with such as thou.’
‘From my king—from my king!’ re-echoed the mountaineer. ‘I care not that rotten truncheon (striking the shattered spear furiously on the ground) for the King of Fife and Lothian. But Habby of Cessford will be here belive; and we shall soon know if he will permit an English churl to occupy his hostelrie.’
Having uttered these words, accompanied with a lowering glance from under his shaggy black eyebrows, he turned on his heel and left the house with his two followers. They mounted their horses, which they had tied to an outer fence, and vanished in an instant.
‘Who is this discourteous ruffian?’ said Lord Lacy to the Franklin, who had stood in the most violent agitation during this whole scene.
‘His name, noble lord, is Adam Kerr of the Moat, but he is commonly called by his companions the Black Rider of Cheviot. I fear, I fear, he comes hither for no good; but if the Lord of Cessford be near, he will not dare offer any unprovoked outrage.’
‘I have heard of that chief,’ said the Baron. ‘Let me know when he approaches, and do thou, Rodulph (to the eldest yeoman), keep a strict watch. Adelbert (to the page), attend to arm me.’ The page bowed, and the Baron withdrew to the chamber of the Lady Isabella to explain the cause of the disturbance.
Now, it chanced many years since that there lived on the Borders a jolly, rattling horse-cowper, who was remarkable for a reckless and fearless temper, which made him much admired and a little dreaded amongst his neighbours. One moonlight night, as he rode over Bowden Moor, on the west side of the Eildon Hills, the scene of Thomas the Rhymer’s prophecies, and often mentioned in his story, having a brace of horses along with him which he had not been able to dispose of, he met a man of venerable appearance and singularly antique dress, who, to his great surprise, asked the price of his horses, and began to chaffer with him on the subject. To Canobie Dick, for so shall we call our Border dealer, a chap was a chap, and he would have sold a horse to the devil himself, without minding his cloven hoof, and would have probably cheated Old Nick into the bargain. The stranger paid the price they agreed on, and all that puzzled Dick in the transaction was, that the gold which he received was in unicorns, bonnet-pieces, and other ancient coins, which would have been invaluable to collectors, but were rather troublesome in modern currency. It was gold, however, and therefore Dick contrived to get better value for the coin than he perhaps gave to his customer. By the command of so good a merchant, he brought horses to the same spot more than once, the purchaser only stipulating that he should always come, by night, and alone. I do not know whether it was from mere curiosity, or whether some hope of gain mixed with it, but after Dick had sold several horses in this way, he began to complain that dry bargains were unlucky, and to hint that, since his chap must live in the neighbourhood, he ought, in the courtesy of dealing, to treat him to half a mutchkin.
‘You may see my dwelling if you will,’ said the stranger; ‘but if you lose courage at what you see there, you will rue it all your life.’
Dicken, however, laughed the warning to scorn, and, having alighted to secure his horse, he followed the stranger up a narrow foot-path, which led them up the hills to the singular eminence stuck betwixt the most southern and the centre peaks, and called from its resemblance to such an animal in its form the Lucken Hare. At the foot of this eminence, which is almost as famous for witch meetings as the neighbouring wind-mill of Kippilaw, Dick was somewhat startled to observe that his conductor entered the hillside by a passage or cavern, of which he himself, though well acquainted with the spot, had never seen or heard.
‘You may still return,’ said his guide, looking ominously back upon him; but Dick scorned to show the white feather, and on they went. They entered a very long range of stables; in every stall stood a coal-black horse; by every horse lay a knight in coal- black armour, with a drawn sword in his hand; but all were as silent, hoof and limb, as if they had been cut out of marble. A great number of torches lent a gloomy lustre to the hall, which, like those of the Caliph Vathek, was of large dimensions. At the upper end, however, they at length arrived, where a sword and horn lay on an antique table.
‘He that shall sound that horn and draw that sword,’ said the stranger, who now intimated that he was the famous Thomas of Hersildoune, ‘shall, if his heart fail him not, be king over all broad Britain. So speaks the tongue that cannot lie. But all depends on courage, and much on your taking the sword or the horn first.’
Dick was much disposed to take the sword, but his bold spirit was quailed by the supernatural terrors of the hall, and he thought to unsheath the sword first might be construed into defiance, and give offence to the powers of the Mountain. He took the bugle with a trembling hand, and a feeble note, but loud enough to produce a terrible answer. Thunder rolled in stunning peals through the immense hall; horses and men started to life; the steeds snorted, stamped, grinded their bits, and tossed on high their heads; the warriors sprung to their feet, clashed their armour, and brandished their swords. Dick’s terror was extreme at seeing the whole army, which had been so lately silent as the grave, in uproar, and about to rush on him. He dropped the horn, and made a feeble attempt to seize the enchanted sword; but at the same moment a voice pronounced aloud the mysterious words:
‘Woe to the coward, that ever he was born,
Who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn!’
At the same time a whirlwind of irresistible fury howled through the long hall, bore the unfortunate horse-jockey clear out of the mouth of the cavern, and precipitated him over a steep bank of loose stones, where the shepherds found him the next morning, with just breath sufficient to tell his fearful tale, after concluding which he expired.
This legend, with several variations, is found in many parts of Scotland and England; the scene is sometimes laid in some favourite glen of the Highlands, sometimes in the deep coal-mines of Northumberland and Cumberland, which run so far beneath the ocean. It is also to be found in Reginald Scott’s book on “Witchcraft,” which was written in the sixteenth century. It would be in vain to ask what was the original of the tradition. The choice between the horn and sword, may perhaps, include as a moral that it is foolhardy to awaken danger before we have arms in our hands to resist it.
Although admitting of much poetical ornament, it is clear that this legend would have formed but an unhappy foundation for a prose story, and must have degenerated into a mere fairy tale. Doctor John Leyden has beautifully introduced the tradition in his Scenes of Infancy:—
Mysterious Rhymer, doom’d by fate’s decree,
Still to revisit Eildon’s fated tree;
Where oft the swain, at dawn of Hallow-day,
Hears thy fleet barb with wild impatience neigh;
Say who is he, with summons long and high.
Shall bid the charmed sleep of ages fly,
Roll the long sound through Eildon’s caverns vast,
While each dark warrior kindles at the blast:
The horn, the falchion grasp with mighty hand,
And peal proud Arthur’s march from Fairy-land?
Scenes of Infancy, Part I.
In the same cabinet with the preceding fragment, the following occurred among other disjecta membra. It seems to be an attempt at a tale of a different description from the last, but was almost instantly abandoned. The introduction points out the time of the composition to have been about the end of the eighteenth century.
A FRAGMENT OF A LETTER FROM JOHN B——, ESQ., OF THAT ILK, TO WILLIAM G——, F.R.S.E.
‘FILL a bumper,’ said the Knight; ‘the ladies may spare us a little longer. Fill a bumper to the Archduke Charles.’
The company did due honour to the toast of their landlord.
‘The success of the Archduke,’ said the muddy Vicar, ‘will tend to further our negotiation at Paris; and if—’
‘Pardon the interruption, Doctor,’ quoth a thin emaciated figure, with somewhat of a foreign accent; ‘but why should you connect those events, unless to hope that the bravery and victories of our allies may supersede the necessity of a degrading treaty?’
‘We begin to feel, Monsieur L’Abbé,’ answered the Vicar, with some asperity, ‘that a Continental war entered into for the defence of an ally who was unwilling to defend himself, and for the restoration of a royal family, nobility, and priesthood who tamely abandoned their own rights, is a burden too much even for the resources of this country.’
‘And was the war then on the part of Great Britain,’ rejoined the Abbé, ‘a gratuitous exertion of generosity? Was there no fear of the wide-wasting spirit of innovation which had gone abroad? Did not the laity tremble for their property, the clergy for their religion, and every loyal heart for the Constitution? Was it not thought necessary to destroy the building which was on fire, ere the conflagration spread around the vicinity?’
‘Yet, if upon trial,’ said the Doctor, ‘the walls were found to resist our utmost efforts, I see no great prudence in persevering in our labour amid the smouldering ruins.’
‘What, Doctor,’ said the Baronet, ‘must I call to your recollection your own sermon on the late general fast? Did you not encourage us to hope that the Lord of Hosts would go forth with our armies, and that our enemies, who blasphemed him, should be put to shame?’
‘It may please a kind father to chasten even his beloved children,’ answered the Vicar.
‘I think,’ said a gentleman near the foot of the table, ‘that the Covenanters made some apology of the same kind for the failure of their prophecies at the battle of Dunbar, when their mutinous preachers compelled the prudent Lesley to go down against the Philistines in Gilgal.’
The Vicar fixed a scrutinizing and not a very complacent eye upon this intruder. He was a young man, of mean stature, and rather a reserved appearance. Early and severe study had quenched in his features the gaiety peculiar to his age, and impressed upon them a premature cast of thoughtfulness. His eye had, however, retained its fire, and his gesture its animation. Had he remained silent, he would have been long unnoticed; but when he spoke there was something in his manner which arrested attention.
‘Who is this young man?’ said the Vicar in a low voice to his neighbour.
‘A Scotchman called Maxwell, on a visit to Sir Henry,’ was the answer.
‘I thought so, from his accent and his manners,’ said the Vicar.
It may be here observed that the northern English retain rather more of the ancient hereditary aversion to their neighbours than their countrymen of the south. The interference of other disputants, each of whom urged his opinion with all the vehemence of wine and politics, rendered the summons to the drawing-room agreeable to the more sober part of the company.
The company dispersed by degrees, and at length the Vicar and the young Scotchman alone remained, besides the Baronet, his lady, daughters, and myself. The clergyman had not, it would seem, forgot the observation which ranked him with the false prophets of Dunbar, for he addressed Mr. Maxwell upon the first opportunity.
‘Hem! I think, sir, you mentioned something about the civil wars of last century? You must be deeply skilled in them, indeed, if you can draw any parallel betwixt those and the present evil days—days which I am ready to maintain are the most gloomy that ever darkened the prospects of Britain.’
‘God forbid, Doctor, that I should draw a comparison between the present times and those you mention. I am too sensible of the advantages we enjoy over our ancestors. Faction and ambition have introduced division among us; but we are still free from the guilt of civil bloodshed, and from all the evils which flow from it. Our foes, sir, are not those of our own household; and while we continue united and firm, from the attacks of a foreign enemy, however artful, or however inveterate, we have, I hope, little to dread.’
‘Have you found anything curious, Mr. Maxwell, among the dusty papers?’ said Sir Henry, who seemed to dread a revival of political discussion.
‘My investigation amongst them led to reflections at which I have just now hinted,’ said Maxwell; ‘and I think they are pretty strongly exemplified by a story which I have been endeavouring to arrange from some of your family manuscripts.’
‘You are welcome to make what use of them you please,’ said Sir Henry; ‘they have been undisturbed for many a day, and I have often wished for some person as well skilled as you in these old pot-hooks to tell me their meaning.’
‘Those I just mentioned,’ answered Maxwell, ‘relate to a piece of private history, savouring not a little of the marvellous, and intimately connected with your family; if it is agreeable, I can read to you the anecdotes in the modern shape into which I have been endeavouring to throw them, and you can then judge of the value of the originals.’
There was something in this proposal agreeable to all parties. Sir Henry had family pride, which prepared him to take an interest in whatever related to his ancestors. The ladies had dipped deeply into the fashionable reading of the present day. Lady Ratcliff and her fair daughters had climbed every pass, viewed every pine-shrouded ruin, heard every groan, and lifted every trap-door in company with the noted heroine of Udolpho. They had been heard, however, to observe that the famous incident of the Black Veil singularly resembled the ancient apologue of the mountain in labour, so that they were unquestionably critics as well as admirers. Besides all this, they had valorously mounted en croupe behind the ghostly horseman of Prague, through all his seven translators, and followed the footsteps of Moor through the forest of Bohemia. Moreover, it was even hinted (but this was a greater mystery than all the rest) that a certain performance called the ‘Monk,’ in three neat volumes, had been seen by a prying eye in the right hand drawer of the Indian cabinet of Lady Ratcliff’s dressing-room. Thus predisposed for wonders and signs, Lady Ratcliff and her nymphs drew their chairs round a large blazing wood-fire and arranged themselves to listen to the tale. To that fire I also approached, moved thereunto partly by the inclemency of the season, and partly that my deafness, which you know, cousin, I acquired during my campaign under Prince Charles Edward, might be no obstacle to the gratification of my curiosity, which was awakened by what had any reference to the fate of such faithful followers of royalty as you well know the house of Ratcliff have ever been. To this wood-fire the Vicar likewise drew near, and reclined himself conveniently in his chair, seemingly disposed to testify his disrespect for the narration and narrator by falling asleep as soon as he conveniently could. By the side of Maxwell (by the way, I cannot learn that he is in the least related to the Nithsdale family) was placed a small table and a couple of lights, by the assistance of which he read as follows:—
‘On the 6th November 1645, I, Jan Van Eulen, merchant in Rotterdam, embarked with my only daughter on board of the good vessel Vryheid of Amsterdam, in order to pass into the unhappy and disturbed kingdom of England. 7th November—a brisk gale—daughter sea-sick—myself unable to complete the calculation which I have begun of the inheritance left by Jane Lansache of Carlisle, my late dear wife’s sister, the collection of which is the object of my voyage. 8th November—wind still stormy and adverse—a horrid disaster nearly happened—my dear child washed overboard as the vessel lurched to leeward. Memorandum—to reward the young sailor who saved her out of the first moneys which I can recover from the inheritance of her aunt Lansache. 9th November—calm—P.M. light breezes from N. N. W. I talked with the captain about the inheritance of my sister-in-law, Jane Lansache. He says he knows the principal subject, which will not exceed £1000 in value. N. B. He is a cousin to a family of Petersons, which was the name of the husband of my sister-in-law; so there is room to hope it may be worth more than he reports. 10th November, 10 A.M. May God pardon all our sins!—An English frigate, bearing the Parliament flag, has appeared in the offing, and gives chase.—11 A.M. She nears us every moment, and the captain of our vessel prepares to clear for action.—May God again have mercy upon us!’
‘I am glad of it,’ said Lady Ratcliff.
‘But, Mr. Maxwell,’ said young Frank, Sir Henry’s grandchild, ‘shall we not hear how the battle ended?’
I do not know, cousin, whether I have not formerly made you acquainted with the abilities of Frank Ratcliff. There is not a battle fought between the troops of the Prince and of the Government during the years 1745-46, of which he is not able to give an account. It is true, I have taken particular pains to fix the events of this important period upon his memory by frequent repetition.
‘No, my dear,’ said Maxwell, in answer to young Frank Ratcliff—‘No, my dear, I cannot tell you the exact particulars of the engagement, but its consequences appear from the following letter, despatched by Garbonete Von Eulen, daughter of our journalist, to a relation in England, from whom she implored assistance. After some general account of the purpose of the voyage and of the engagement her narrative proceeds thus:—
‘The noise of the cannon had hardly ceased before the sounds of a language to me but half known, and the confusion on board our vessel, informed me that the captors had boarded us and taken possession of our vessel. I went on deck, where the first spectacle that met my eyes was a young man, mate of our vessel, who, though disfigured and covered with blood, was loaded with irons, and whom they were forcing over the side of the vessel into a boat. The two principal persons among our enemies appeared to be a man of a tall thin figure, with a high-crowned hat and long neckband, and short-cropped head of hair, accompanied by a bluff, open-looking elderly man in a naval uniform. “Yarely! yarely! pull away, my hearts,” said the latter, and the boat bearing the unlucky young man soon carried him on board the frigate. Perhaps you will blame me for mentioning this circumstance; but consider, my dear cousin, this man saved my life, and his fate, even when my own and my father’s were in the balance, could not but affect me nearly.
‘“In the name of Him who is jealous, even to slaying,” said the first—’
1. It is not to be supposed that these fragments are given in possessing any intrinsic value of themselves; but there may be some curiosity attached to them, as to the first etchings of a plate, which are accounted interesting by those who have, in any degree, been interested in the more finished works of the artist. [back]