Die, prophet! in thy speech;|
For this, among the rest, was I ordained.
Henry VI. Part III.
These words were uttered in a very low voice, but they produced sound enough to startle Meg Merrilies, who led the van, and who, having already gained the place where the cavern expanded, had risen upon her feet. She began, as if to confound any listening ear, to growl, to mutter, and to sing aloud, and at the same time to make a bustle among some brushwood which was now heaped in the cave.
‘Here, beldam, deyvil’s kind,’ growled the harsh voice of Dirk Hatteraick from the inside of his den, ‘what makest thou there?’
‘Laying the roughies to keep the cauld wind frae you, ye desperate do-nae-good. Ye’re e’en ower weel off, and wotsna; it will be otherwise soon.’
‘Have you brought me the brandy, and any news of my people?’ said Dirk Hatteraick.
‘There’s the flask for ye. Your people—dispersed, broken, gone, or cut to ribbands by the redcoats.’
‘Der deyvil! this coast is fatal to me.’
‘Ye may hae mair reason to say sae.’
While this dialogue went forward, Bertram and Dinmont had both gained the interior of the cave and assumed an erect position. The only light which illuminated its rugged and sable precincts was a quantity of wood burnt to charcoal in an iron grate, such as they use in spearing salmon by night. On these red embers Hatteraick from time to time threw a handful of twigs or splintered wood; but these, even when they blazed up, afforded a light much disproportioned to the extent of the cavern; and, as its principal inhabitant lay upon the side of the grate most remote from the entrance, it was not easy for him to discover distinctly objects which lay in that direction. The intruders, therefore, whose number was now augmented unexpectedly to three, stood behind the loosely-piled branches with little risk of discovery. Dinmont had the sense to keep back Hazlewood with one hand till he whispered to Bertram, ‘A friend—young Hazlewood.’
It was no time for following up the introduction, and they all stood as still as the rocks around them, obscured behind the pile of brushwood, which had been probably placed there to break the cold wind from the sea, without totally intercepting the supply of air. The branches were laid so loosely above each other that, looking through them towards the light of the fire-grate, they could easily discover what passed in its vicinity, although a much stronger degree of illumination than it afforded would not have enabled the persons placed near the bottom of the cave to have descried them in the position which they occupied.
The scene, independent of the peculiar moral interest and personal danger which attended it, had, from the effect of the light and shade on the uncommon objects which it exhibited, an appearance emphatically dismal. The light in the fire-grate was the dark-red glare of charcoal in a state of ignition, relieved from time to time by a transient flame of a more vivid or duskier light, as the fuel with which Dirk Hatteraick fed his fire was better or worse fitted for his purpose. Now a dark cloud of stifling smoke rose up to the roof of the cavern, and then lighted into a reluctant and sullen blaze, which flashed wavering up the pillar of smoke, and was suddenly rendered brighter and more lively by some drier fuel, or perhaps some splintered fir-timber, which at once converted the smoke into flame. By such fitful irradiation they could see, more or less distinctly, the form of Hatteraick, whose savage and rugged cast of features, now rendered yet more ferocious by the circumstances of his situation and the deep gloom of his mind, assorted well with the rugged and broken vault, which rose in a rude arch over and around him. The form of Meg Merrilies, which stalked about him, sometimes in the light, sometimes partially obscured in the smoke or darkness, contrasted strongly with the sitting figure of Hatteraick as he bent over the flame, and from his stationary posture was constantly visible to the spectator, while that of the female flitted around, appearing or disappearing like a spectre.
Bertram felt his blood boil at the sight of Hatteraick. He remembered him well under the name of Jansen, which the smuggler had adopted after the death of Kennedy; and he remembered also that this Jansen, and his mate Brown, the same who was shot at Woodbourne, had been the brutal tyrants of his infancy. Bertram knew farther, from piecing his own imperfect recollections with the narratives of Mannering and Pleydell, that this man was the prime agent in the act of violence which tore him from his family and country, and had exposed him to so many distresses and dangers. A thousand exasperating reflections rose within his bosom; and he could hardly refrain from rushing upon Hatteraick and blowing his brains out.
At the same time this would have been no safe adventure. The flame, as it rose and fell, while it displayed the strong, muscular, and broad-chested frame of the ruffian, glanced also upon two brace of pistols in his belt, and upon the hilt of his cutlass: it was not to be doubted that his desperation was commensurate with his personal strength and means of resistance. Both, indeed, were inadequate to encounter the combined power of two such men as Bertram himself and his friend Dinmont, without reckoning their unexpected assistant Hazlewood, who was unarmed, and of a slighter make; but Bertram felt, on a moment’s reflection, that there would be neither sense nor valour in anticipating the hangman’s office, and he considered the importance of making Hatteraick prisoner alive. He therefore repressed his indignation, and awaited what should pass between the ruffian and his gipsy guide.
‘And how are ye now?’ said the harsh and discordant tones of his female attendant. ‘Said I not, it would come upon you—ay, and in this very cave, where ye harboured after the deed?’
‘Wetter and sturm, ye hag!’ replied Hatteraick, ‘keep your deyvil’s matins till they’re wanted. Have you seen Glossin?’
‘No,’ replied Meg Merrilies; ‘you’ve missed your blow, ye blood-spiller! and ye have nothing to expect from the tempter.’
‘Hagel!’ exclaimed the ruffian, ‘if I had him but by the throat! And what am I to do then?’
‘Do?’ answered the gipsy; ‘die like a man, or be hanged like a dog!’
‘Hanged, ye hag of Satan! The hemp’s not sown that shall hang me.’
‘It’s sown, and it’s grown, and it’s heckled, and it’s twisted. Did I not tell ye, when ye wad take away the boy Harry Bertram, in spite of my prayers,—did I not say he would come back when he had dree’d his weird in foreign land till his twenty-first year? Did I not say the auld fire would burn down to a spark, but wad kindle again?’
‘Well, mother, you did say so,’ said Hatteraick, in a tone that had something of despair in its accents; ‘and, donner and blitzen! I believe you spoke the truth. That younker of Ellangowan has been a rock ahead to me all my life! And now, with Glossin’s cursed contrivance, my crew have been cut off, my boats destroyed, and I daresay the lugger’s taken; there were not men enough left on board to work her, far less to fight her—a dredge-boat might have taken her. And what will the owners say? Hagel and sturm! I shall never dare go back again to Flushing.’
‘You’ll never need,’ said the gipsy.
‘What are you doing there,’ said her companion; ‘and what makes you say that?’
During this dialogue Meg was heaping some flax loosely together. Before answer to this question she dropped a firebrand upon the flax, which had been previously steeped in some spirituous liquor, for it instantly caught fire and rose in a vivid pyramid of the most brilliant light up to the very top of the vault. As it ascended Meg answered the ruffian’s question in a firm and steady voice: ‘Because the hour’s come, and the man.’
At the appointed signal Bertram and Dinmont sprung over the brushwood and rushed upon Hatteraick. Hazlewood, unacquainted with their plan of assault, was a moment later. The ruffian, who instantly saw he was betrayed, turned his first vengeance on Meg Merrilies, at whom he discharged a pistol. She fell with a piercing and dreadful cry between the shriek of pain and the sound of laughter when at its highest and most suffocating height. ‘I kenn’d it would be this way,’ she said.
Bertram, in his haste, slipped his foot upon the uneven rock which floored the cave—a fortunate stumble, for Hatteraick’s second bullet whistled over him with so true and steady an aim that, had he been standing upright, it must have lodged in his brain. Ere the smuggler could draw another pistol, Dinmont closed with him, and endeavoured by main force to pinion down his arms. Such, however, was the wretch’s personal strength, joined to the efforts of his despair, that, in spite of the gigantic force with which the Borderer grappled him, he dragged Dinmont through the blazing flax, and had almost succeeded in drawing a third pistol, which might have proved fatal to the honest farmer, had not Bertram, as well as Hazlewood, come to his assistance, when, by main force, and no ordinary exertion of it, they threw Hatteraick on the ground, disarmed him, and bound him. This scuffle, though it takes up some time in the narrative, passed in less than a single minute. When he was fairly mastered, after one or two desperate and almost convulsionary struggles, the ruffian lay perfectly still and silent. ‘He’s gaun to die game ony how,’ said Dinmont; ‘weel, I like him na the waur for that.’
This observation honest Dandie made while he was shaking the blazing flax from his rough coat and shaggy black hair, some of which had been singed in the scuffle. ‘He is quiet now,’ said Bertram; ‘stay by him and do not permit him to stir till I see whether the poor woman be alive or dead.’ With Hazlewood’s assistance he raised Meg Merrilies.
‘I kenn’d it would be this way,’ she muttered, ‘and it’s e’en this way that it should be.’
The ball had penetrated the breast below the throat. It did not bleed much externally; but Bertram, accustomed to see gunshot wounds, thought it the more alarming. ‘Good God! what shall we do for this poor woman?’ said he to Hazlewood, the circumstances superseding the necessity of previous explanation or introduction to each other.
‘My horse stands tied above in the wood,’ said Hazlewood. ‘I have been watching you these two hours. I will ride off for some assistants that may be trusted. Meanwhile, you had better defend the mouth of the cavern against every one until I return.’ He hastened away. Bertram, after binding Meg Merrilies’s wound as well as he could, took station near the mouth of the cave with a cocked pistol in his hand; Dinmont continued to watch Hatteraick, keeping a grasp like that of Hercules on his breast. There was a dead silence in the cavern, only interrupted by the low and suppressed moaning of the wounded female and by the hard breathing of the prisoner.