If thou hast any love of mercy in thee,|
Turn me upon my face that I may die.
Our traveller groped along the side of the inclosure from which the light glimmered, in order to find some mode of approaching in that direction, and, after proceeding for some space, at length found a stile in the hedge, and a pathway leading into the plantation, which in that place was of great extent. This promised to lead to the light which was the object of his search, and accordingly Brown proceeded in that direction, but soon totally lost sight of it among the trees. The path, which at first seemed broad and well marked by the opening of the wood through which it winded, was now less easily distinguishable, although the whiteness of the snow afforded some reflected light to assist his search. Directing himself as much as possible through the more open parts of the wood, he proceeded almost a mile without either recovering a view of the light or seeing anything resembling a habitation. Still, however, he thought it best to persevere in that direction. It must surely have been a light in the hut of a forester, for it shone too steadily to be the glimmer of an ignis fatuus. The ground at length became broken and declined rapidly, and, although Brown conceived he still moved along what had once at least been a pathway, it was now very unequal, and the snow concealing those breaches and inequalities, the traveller had one or two falls in consequence. He began now to think of turning back, especially as the falling snow, which his impatience had hitherto prevented his attending to, was coming on thicker and faster.
Willing, however, to make a last effort, he still advanced a little way, when to his great delight he beheld the light opposite at no great distance, and apparently upon a level with him. He quickly found that this last appearance was deception, for the ground continued so rapidly to sink as made it obvious there was a deep dell, or ravine of some kind, between him and the object of his search. Taking every precaution to preserve his footing, he continued to descend until he reached the bottom of a very steep and narrow glen, through which winded a small rivulet, whose course was then almost choked with snow. He now found himself embarrassed among the ruins of cottages, whose black gables, rendered more distinguishable by the contrast with the whitened surface from which they rose, were still standing; the side-walls had long since given way to time, and, piled in shapeless heaps and covered with snow, offered frequent and embarrassing obstacles to our traveller’s progress. Still, however, he persevered, crossed the rivulet, not without some trouble, and at length, by exertions which became both painful and perilous, ascended its opposite and very rugged bank, until he came on a level with the building from which the gleam proceeded.
It was difficult, especially by so imperfect a light, to discover the nature of this edifice; but it seemed a square building of small size, the upper part of which was totally ruinous. It had, perhaps, been the abode in former times of some lesser proprietor, or a place of strength and concealment, in case of need, for one of greater importance. But only the lower vault remained, the arch of which formed the roof in the present state of the building. Brown first approached the place from whence the light proceeded, which was a long narrow slit or loop-hole, such as usually are to be found in old castles. Impelled by curiosity to reconnoitre the interior of this strange place before he entered, Brown gazed in at this aperture. A scene of greater desolation could not well be imagined. There was a fire upon the floor, the smoke of which, after circling through the apartment, escaped by a hole broken in the arch above. The walls, seen by this smoky light, had the rude and waste appearance of a ruin of three centuries old at least. A cask or two, with some broken boxes and packages, lay about the place in confusion. But the inmates chiefly occupied Brown’s attention. Upon a lair composed of straw, with a blanket stretched over it, lay a figure, so still that, except that it was not dressed in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Brown would have concluded it to be a corpse. On a steadier view he perceived it was only on the point of becoming so, for he heard one or two of those low, deep, and hard-drawn sighs that precede dissolution when the frame is tenacious of life. A female figure, dressed in a long cloak, sate on a stone by this miserable couch; her elbows rested upon her knees, and her face, averted from the light of an iron lamp beside her, was bent upon that of the dying person. She moistened his mouth from time to time with some liquid, and between whiles sung, in a low monotonous cadence, one of those prayers, or rather spells, which, in some parts of Scotland and the north of England, are used by the vulgar and ignorant to speed the passage of a parting spirit, like the tolling of the bell in Catholic days. She accompanied this dismal sound with a slow rocking motion of her body to and fro, as if to keep time with her song. The words ran nearly thus:—
Wasted, weary, wherefore stay,|
Wrestling thus with earth and clay?
From the body pass away,—
Hark! the mass is singing.
From thee doff thy mortal weed,
Fear not snow-drift driving fast,
Haste thee, haste thee, to be gone,
The songstress paused, and was answered by one or two deep and hollow groans, that seemed to proceed from the very agony of the mortal strife. ‘It will not be,’ she muttered to herself; ‘he cannot pass away with that on his mind, it tethers him here—
Heaven cannot abide it,|
Earth refuses to hide it.1
I must open the door’; and, rising, she faced towards the door of the apartment, observing heedfully not to turn back her head, and, withdrawing a bolt or two (for, notwithstanding the miserable appearance of the place, the door was cautiously secured), she lifted the latch, saying,—
Open lock, end strife,|
Come death, and pass life.
Brown, who had by this time moved from his post, stood before her as she opened the door. She stepped back a pace, and he entered, instantly recognising, but with no comfortable sensation, the same gipsy woman whom he had met in Bewcastle. She also knew him at once, and her attitude, figure, and the anxiety of her countenance, assumed the appearance of the well-disposed ogress of a fairy tale, warning a stranger not to enter the dangerous castle of her husband. The first words she spoke (holding up her hands in a reproving manner) were, ‘Said I not to ye, Make not, meddle not? Beware of the redding straik!2 You are come to no house o’ fair-strae death.’ So saying, she raised the lamp and turned its light on the dying man, whose rude and harsh features were now convulsed with the last agony. A roll of linen about his head was stained with blood, which had soaked also through the blankets and the straw. It was, indeed, under no natural disease that the wretch was suffering. Brown started back from this horrible object, and, turning to the gipsy, exclaimed, ‘Wretched woman, who has done this?’
‘They that were permitted,’ answered Meg Merrilies, while she scanned with a close and keen glance the features of the expiring man. ‘He has had a sair struggle; but it’s passing. I kenn’d he would pass when you came in. That was the death-ruckle; he’s dead.’
Sounds were now heard at a distance, as of voices. ‘They are coming,’ said she to Brown; ‘you are a dead man if ye had as mony lives as hairs.’ Brown eagerly looked round for some weapon of defence. There was none near. He then rushed to the door with the intention of plunging among the trees, and making his escape by flight from what he now esteemed a den of murderers, but Merrilies held him with a masculine grasp. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘here, be still and you are safe; stir not, whatever you see or hear, and nothing shall befall you.’
Brown, in these desperate circumstances, remembered this woman’s intimation formerly, and thought he had no chance of safety but in obeying her. She caused him to couch down among a parcel of straw on the opposite side of the apartment from the corpse, covered him carefully, and flung over him two or three old sacks which lay about the place. Anxious to observe what was to happen, Brown arranged as softly as he could the means of peeping from under the coverings by which he was hidden, and awaited with a throbbing heart the issue of this strange and most unpleasant adventure. The old gipsy in the meantime set about arranging the dead body, composing its limbs, and straighting the arms by its side. ‘Best to do this,’ she muttered, ‘ere he stiffen.’ She placed on the dead man’s breast a trencher, with salt sprinkled upon it, set one candle at the head and another at the feet of the body, and lighted both. Then she resumed her song, and awaited the approach of those whose voices had been heard without.
Brown was a soldier, and a brave one; but he was also a man, and at this moment his fears mastered his courage so completely that the cold drops burst out from every pore. The idea of being dragged out of his miserable concealment by wretches whose trade was that of midnight murder, without weapons or the slightest means of defence, except entreaties, which would be only their sport, and cries for help, which could never reach other ear than their own; his safety entrusted to the precarious compassion of a being associated with these felons, and whose trade of rapine and imposture must have hardened her against every human feeling—the bitterness of his emotions almost choked him. He endeavoured to read in her withered and dark countenance, as the lamp threw its light upon her features, something that promised those feelings of compassion which females, even in their most degraded state, can seldom altogether smother. There was no such touch of humanity about this woman. The interest, whatever it was, that determined her in his favour arose not from the impulse of compassion, but from some internal, and probably capricious, association of feelings, to which he had no clue. It rested, perhaps, on a fancied likeness, such as Lady Macbeth found to her father in the sleeping monarch. Such were the reflections that passed in rapid succession through Brown’s mind as he gazed from his hiding-place upon this extraordinary personage. Meantime the gang did not yet approach, and he was almost prompted to resume his original intention of attempting an escape from the hut, and cursed internally his own irresolution, which had consented to his being cooped up where he had neither room for resistance nor flight.
Meg Merrilies seemed equally on the watch. She bent her ear to every sound that whistled round the old walls. Then she turned again to the dead body, and found something new to arrange or alter in its position. ‘He’s a bonny corpse,’ she muttered to herself, ‘and weel worth the streaking.’ And in this dismal occupation she appeared to feel a sort of professional pleasure, entering slowly into all the minutiae, as if with the skill and feelings of a connoisseur. A long, dark-coloured sea-cloak, which she dragged out of a corner, was disposed for a pall. The face she left bare, after closing the mouth and eyes, and arranged the capes of the cloak so as to hide the bloody bandages, and give the body, as she muttered, ‘a mair decent appearance.’
At once three or four men, equally ruffians in appearance and dress, rushed into the hut. ‘Meg, ye limb of Satan, how dare you leave the door open?’ was the first salutation of the party.
‘And wha ever heard of a door being barred when a man was in the dead-thraw? how d’ye think the spirit was to get awa through bolts and bars like thae?’
‘Is he dead, then?’ said one who went to the side of the couch to look at the body.
‘Ay, ay, dead enough,’ said another; ‘but here’s what shall give him a rousing lykewake.’ So saying, he fetched a keg of spirits from a corner, while Meg hastened to display pipes and tobacco. From the activity with which she undertook the task, Brown conceived good hope of her fidelity towards her guest. It was obvious that she wished to engage the ruffians in their debauch, to prevent the discovery which might take place if by accident any of them should approach too nearly the place of Brown’s concealment.
1. The mysterious rites in which Meg Merrilies is described as engaging belong to her character as a queen of her race. All know that gipsies in every country claim acquaintance with the gift of fortune-telling; but, as is often the case, they are liable to the superstitions of which they avail themselves in others. The correspondent of Blackwood, quoted in the Introduction to this Tale, gives us some information on the subject of their credulity.
‘I have ever understood,’ he says, speaking of the Yetholm gipsies, ‘that they are extremely superstitious, carefully noticing the formation of the clouds, the flight of particular birds, and the soughing of the winds, before attempting any enterprise. They have been known for several successive days to turn back with their loaded carts, asses, and children, upon meeting with persons whom they considered of unlucky aspect; nor do they ever proceed on their summer peregrinations without some propitious omen of their fortunate return. They also burn the clothes of their dead, not so much from any apprehension of infection being communicated by them, as the conviction that the very circumstance of wearing them would shorten the days of their living. They likewise carefully watch the corpse by night and day till the time of interment, and conceive that “the deil tinkles at the lyke-wake” of those who felt in their dead-thraw the agonies and terrors of remorse.’
These notions are not peculiar to the gipsies; but, having been once generally entertained among the Scottish common people, are now only found among those who are the most rude in their habits and most devoid of instruction. The popular idea, that the protracted struggle between life and death is painfully prolonged by keeping the door of the apartment shut, was received as certain by the superstitious eld of Scotland. But neither was it to be thrown wide open. To leave the door ajar was the plan adopted by the old crones who understood the mysteries of deathbeds and lykewakes. In that case there was room for the imprisoned spirit to escape; and yet an obstacle, we have been assured, was offered to the entrance of any frightful form which might otherwise intrude itself. The threshold of a habitation was in some sort a sacred limit, and the subject of much superstition. A bride, even to this day, is always lifted over it, a rule derived apparently from the Romans. [back]
2. The redding straik, namely, a blow received by a peacemaker who interferes betwixt two combatants, to red or separate them, is proverbially said to be the most dangerous blow a man can receive. [back]