So the red Indian, by Ontario’s side,|
Nursed hardy on the brindled panther’s hide,
As fades his swarthy race, with anguish sees
The white man’s cottage rise beneath the trees;
He leaves the shelter of his native wood,
He leaves the murmur of Ohio’s flood,
And forward rushing in indignant grief,
Where never foot has trod the fallen leaf,
He bends his course where twilight reigns sublime.
O’er forests silent since the birth of time.
Scenes of Infancy.
On these occasions he was generally brought back by Meg Merrilies, who, though she could not be prevailed upon to enter the Place of Ellangowan after her nephew had been given up to the press-gang, did not apparently extend her resentment to the child. On the contrary, she often contrived to waylay him in his walks, sing him a gipsy song, give him a ride upon her jackass, and thrust into his pocket a piece of gingerbread or a red-cheeked apple. This woman’s ancient attachment to the family, repelled and checked in every other direction, seemed to rejoice in having some object on which it could yet repose and expand itself. She prophesied a hundred times, ‘that young Mr. Harry would be the pride o’ the family, and there hadna been sic a sprout frae the auld aik since the death of Arthur Mac-Dingawaie, that was killed in the battle o’ the Bloody Bay; as for the present stick, it was good for nothing but fire-wood.’ On one occasion, when the child was ill, she lay all night below the window, chanting a rhyme which she believed sovereign as a febrifuge, and could neither be prevailed upon to enter the house nor to leave the station she had chosen till she was informed that the crisis was over.
The affection of this woman became matter of suspicion, not indeed to the Laird, who was never hasty in suspecting evil, but to his wife, who had indifferent health and poor spirits. She was now far advanced in a second pregnancy, and, as she could not walk abroad herself, and the woman who attended upon Harry was young and thoughtless, she prayed Dominie Sampson to undertake the task of watching the boy in his rambles, when he should not be otherwise accompanied. The Dominie loved his young charge, and was enraptured with his own success in having already brought him so far in his learning as to spell words of three syllables. The idea of this early prodigy of erudition being carried off by the gipsies, like a second Adam Smith,1 was not to be tolerated; and accordingly, though the charge was contrary to all his habits of life, he readily undertook it, and might be seen stalking about with a mathematical problem in his head, and his eye upon a child of five years old, whose rambles led him into a hundred awkward situations. Twice was the Dominie chased by a cross-grained cow, once he fell into the brook crossing at the stepping-stones, and another time was bogged up to the middle in the slough of Lochend, in attempting to gather a water-lily for the young Laird. It was the opinion of the village matrons who relieved Sampson on the latter occasion, ‘that the Laird might as weel trust the care o’ his bairn to a potatoe bogle’; but the good Dominie bore all his disasters with gravity and serenity equally imperturbable. ‘Pro-di-gi-ous!’ was the only ejaculation they ever extorted from the much-enduring man.
The Laird had by this time determined to make root-and-branch work with the Maroons of Derncleugh. The old servants shook their heads at his proposal, and even Dominie Sampson ventured upon an indirect remonstrance. As, however, it was couched in the oracular phrase, ‘Ne moveas Camerinam,’ neither the allusion, nor the language in which it was expressed, were calculated for Mr. Bertram’s edification, and matters proceeded against the gipsies in form of law. Every door in the hamlet was chalked by the ground-officer, in token of a formal warning to remove at next term. Still, however, they showed no symptoms either of submission or of compliance. At length the term-day, the fatal Martinmas, arrived, and violent measures of ejection were resorted to. A strong posse of peace-officers, sufficient to render all resistance vain, charged the inhabitants to depart by noon; and, as they did not obey, the officers, in terms of their warrant, proceeded to unroof the cottages, and pull down the wretched doors and windows—a summary and effectual mode of ejection still practised in some remote parts of Scotland when a tenant proves refractory. The gipsies for a time beheld the work of destruction in sullen silence and inactivity; then set about saddling and loading their asses, and making preparations for their departure. These were soon accomplished, where all had the habits of wandering Tartars; and they set forth on their journey to seek new settlements, where their patrons should neither be of the quorum nor custos rotulorum.
Certain qualms of feeling had deterred Ellangowan from attending in person to see his tenants expelled. He left the executive part of the business to the officers of the law, under the immediate direction of Frank Kennedy, a supervisor, or riding-officer, belonging to the excise, who had of late become intimate at the Place, and of whom we shall have more to say in the next chapter. Mr. Bertram himself chose that day to make a visit to a friend at some distance. But it so happened, notwithstanding his precautions, that he could not avoid meeting his late tenants during their retreat from his property.
It was in a hollow way, near the top of a steep ascent, upon the verge of the Ellangowan estate, that Mr. Bertram met the gipsy procession. Four or five men formed the advanced guard, wrapped in long loose great-coats that hid their tall slender figures, as the large slouched hats, drawn over their brows, concealed their wild features, dark eyes, and swarthy faces. Two of them carried long fowling-pieces, one wore a broadsword without a sheath, and all had the Highland dirk, though they did not wear that weapon openly or ostentatiously. Behind them followed the train of laden asses, and small carts or tumblers, as they were called in that country, on which were laid the decrepit and the helpless, the aged and infant part of the exiled community. The women in their red cloaks and straw hats, the elder children with bare heads and bare feet, and almost naked bodies, had the immediate care of the little caravan. The road was narrow, running between two broken banks of sand, and Mr. Bertram’s servant rode forward, smacking his whip with an air of authority, and motioning to the drivers to allow free passage to their betters. His signal was unattended to. He then called to the men who lounged idly on before, ‘Stand to your beasts’ heads, and make room for the Laird to pass.’
‘He shall have his share of the road,’ answered a male gipsy from under his slouched and large-brimmed hat, and without raising his face, ‘and he shall have nae mair; the highway is as free to our cuddies as to his gelding.’
The tone of the man being sulky, and even menacing, Mr. Bertram thought it best to put his dignity in his pocket, and pass by the procession quietly, on such space as they chose to leave for his accommodation, which was narrow enough. To cover with an appearance of indifference his feeling of the want of respect with which he was treated, he addressed one of the men, as he passed him without any show of greeting, salute, or recognition—‘Giles Baillie,’ he said, ‘have you heard that your son Gabriel is well?’ (The question respected the young man who had been pressed.)
‘If I had heard otherwise,’ said the old man, looking up with a stern and menacing countenance, ‘you should have heard of it too.’ And he plodded on his way, tarrying no further question.2 When the Laird had pressed on with difficulty among a crowd of familiar faces, which had on all former occasions marked his approach with the reverence due to that of a superior being, but in which he now only read hatred and contempt, and had got clear of the throng, he could not help turning his horse, and looking back to mark the progress of their march. The group would have been an excellent subject for the pencil of Calotte. The van had already reached a small and stunted thicket, which was at the bottom of the hill, and which gradually hid the line of march until the last stragglers disappeared.
His sensations were bitter enough. The race, it is true, which he had thus summarily dismissed from their ancient place of refuge, was idle and vicious; but had he endeavoured to render them otherwise? They were not more irregular characters now than they had been while they were admitted to consider themselves as a sort of subordinate dependents of his family; and ought the mere circumstance of his becoming a magistrate to have made at once such a change in his conduct towards them? Some means of reformation ought at least to have been tried before sending seven families at once upon the wide world, and depriving them of a degree of countenance which withheld them at least from atrocious guilt. There was also a natural yearning of heart on parting with so many known and familiar faces; and to this feeling Godfrey Bertram was peculiarly accessible, from the limited qualities of his mind, which sought its principal amusements among the petty objects around him. As he was about to turn his horse’s head to pursue his journey, Meg Merrilies, who had lagged behind the troop, unexpectedly presented herself.
She was standing upon one of those high precipitous banks which, as we before noticed, overhung the road, so that she was placed considerably higher than Ellangowan, even though he was on horseback; and her tall figure, relieved against the clear blue sky, seemed almost of supernatural stature. We have noticed that there was in her general attire, or rather in her mode of adjusting it, somewhat of a foreign costume, artfully adopted perhaps for the purpose of adding to the effect of her spells and predictions, or perhaps from some traditional notions respecting the dress of her ancestors. On this occasion she had a large piece of red cotton cloth rolled about her head in the form of a turban, from beneath which her dark eyes flashed with uncommon lustre. Her long and tangled black hair fell in elf-locks from the folds of this singular head-gear. Her attitude was that of a sibyl in frenzy, and she stretched out in her right hand a sapling bough which seemed just pulled.
‘I’ll be d—d,’ said the groom, ‘if she has not been cutting the young ashes in the dukit park!’ The Laird made no answer, but continued to look at the figure which was thus perched above his path.
‘Ride your ways,’ said the gipsy, ‘ride your ways, Laird of Ellangowan; ride your ways, Godfrey Bertram! This day have ye quenched seven smoking hearths; see if the fire in your ain parlour burn the blyther for that. Ye have riven the thack off seven cottar houses; look if your ain roof-tree stand the faster. Ye may stable your stirks in the shealings at Derncleugh; see that the hare does not couch on the hearthstane at Ellangowan. Ride your ways, Godfrey Bertram; what do ye glower after our folk for? There’s thirty hearts there that wad hae wanted bread ere ye had wanted sunkets, and spent their life-blood ere ye had scratched your finger. Yes; there’s thirty yonder, from the auld wife of an hundred to the babe that was born last week, that ye have turned out o’ their bits o’ bields, to sleep with the tod and the blackcock in the muirs! Ride your ways, Ellangowan. Our bairns are hinging at our weary backs; look that your braw cradle at hame be the fairer spread up; not that I am wishing ill to little Harry, or to the babe that’s yet to be born—God forbid—and make them kind to the poor, and better folk than their father! And now, ride e’en your ways; for these are the last words ye’ll ever hear Meg Merrilies speak, and this is the last reise that I’ll ever cut in the bonny woods of Ellangowan.’
So saying, she broke the sapling she held in her hand, and flung it into the road. Margaret of Anjou, bestowing on her triumphant foes her keen-edged malediction, could not have turned from them with a gesture more proudly contemptuous. The Laird was clearing his voice to speak, and thrusting his hand in his pocket to find a half-crown; the gipsy waited neither for his reply nor his donation, but strode down the hill to overtake the caravan.
Ellangowan rode pensively home; and it was remarkable that he did not mention this interview to any of his family. The groom was not so reserved; he told the story at great length to a full audience in the kitchen, and concluded by swearing, that ‘if ever the devil spoke by the mouth of a woman, he had spoken by that of Meg Merrilies that blessed day.’
1. The father of Economical Philosophy was, when a child, actually carried off by gipsies, and remained some hours in their possession. [back]