It was ill work living in "the killing time"—as it was significantly called—for those whose consciences would not let them conform to the laws laid down by Charles II. and his advisers for the regulation of public worship in Scotland.
Religious toleration was no longer to be permitted. The Episcopal form of worship was to be made compulsory, and that amongst persons who hated and abhorred it, looked upon it as something emanating more or less directly from the Evil One, and who clung all the more closely to their own barer forms of worship and narrow purity of doctrine for the very opposition they had to encounter.
The Solemn League and Covenant had been formed for the protection of the Presbyterian form of worship, and Covenanters was the name given to those who continued to meet in the forbidden assemblies; and these were often held in the open air, in some wild and lonely spot, the men carrying weapons which were piled conveniently for instant use should an alarm be issued by the scouts set to watch, the women seated nearest to the preacher, and their horses picketed only a short distance off, so that flight should be quick and easy if there were danger of interruption from soldiers in the King's pay.
In those days it was no uncommon thing for houses and families to be strangely and pitifully split up and divided into hostile camps; but perhaps there were few instances so strange as that presented by the Wilson family, of Wigton.
Wilson was a prosperous farmer, a Presbyterian by tradition, though no theologian; but when the edicts went forth against the existing forms of worship, and attendance at the parish church was enjoined, both he and his wife made no trouble about conforming to the new regulations, though whether this conformity came from liberality of mind or from fear of consequences cannot now be determined.
But, to their great astonishment and dismay, their two little girls, Margaret and Agnes, at that time quite children, could not be induced to accompany their parents to the church. What they had heard against Episcopal forms in old days seemed to have sunk so deeply into their hearts and consciences that there was no way of eradicating it; and great fear fell upon the parents, for the thing became known somewhat far and wide, and began to excite comment and question.
"Where are the bairns?" asked the farmer, coming in one day, with a look of anxiety upon his face.
"Nay, I know not," answered his wife. "They did their tasks, and then they both slipped away. I have not seen them this two hours. Like enough they have gone across to see Margaret M'Lauchlan. They are for ever running in and out of her house, say and do what I will!"
"A pestilent woman! Covenanter to the backbone! She will bring herself and our bairns to ruin if something be not done! Why do you not keep them at home with you?"
"Why, husband, how can I be in three or four places at once? I give them their tasks, but they do them with a will, and are gone ere I have time to turn round."
"Ay, and are off to some Conventicle, I'll be bound. That woman M'Lauchlan is in the thick of all the Covenanters' secrets; and it's from her the bairns learn all those notions that will be their ruin one of these days. The Bible bids children obey their parents, but not a word will they hear from us! Or, rather, they listen, but will not heed."
"Alack!—and so said I to them but the other day! and Margaret turned upon me and answered: ''Ay, mither, children are bidden to obey their parents in the Lord; but the Lord bids us not to sully our conscience by doing what is wrong, or bowing the knee to Baal.' They get taught by those who are good folks enough, but terrible stubborn, and wae's me, but I can say nought, and so they get the last word every time;" and the mother shook her head, for in her secret heart she was in far more sympathy with her bairns than was the father, who was seriously disturbed and anxious.
"They shall either learn to obey, or they must be sent away out of reach of that pestilent woman!" he cried, storming up and down. "If they stay here they will bring themselves to prison and death, and us into, I know not what trouble! I'll be bound they are off to some preaching now! I hear there is to be one somewhere hard by. But this shall be the last. If they will not promise to attend church with us they must be sent elsewhere. All the town begins to talk of it. Soon it will come to the magistrate's ears, and then——"
The mother clasped her hands, and the tears started to her eyes.
"They are but bairns; they are not near sixteen yet—not even Margaret. What could they do to them?"
"They will make them feel the hand of the law; ay, and us too, as thou wilt plainly see! They talk about sixteen; but have not babes and sucklings been slaughtered ere this by the ruthless soldiers?"
The mother wept, and the father stormed; but the hours passed on, and the girls did not return. It was almost dark ere they entered the house; and upon the fair face of the elder was a strange wrapt expression, that her mother had noted there many times of late, and which always filled her with a sense of awe.
She stood quietly beneath the storm of her father's anger; her deep blue eyes seeming to see away beyond him. Agnes, a slighter dark-eyed child, shrank away towards her mother, who could not repulse her; but Margaret was calm and serene.
"Dear father, thou dost not understand," she said very softly at last, when the storm had well-nigh spent itself; "perchance some day thine eyes will be opened to see even as we do. But——"
The sentence was not destined to be finished; a breathless messenger burst into the house, white-faced and wild-eyed. It was a tall lad, well known to the Wilsons, and his name was Archie Scott.
"The magistrate is coming—fly!—fly!" he cried. "He is coming to seize Margaret and Agnes. It has been told him how that they never come to church; and to-day one brought word that they and others have been seen at a forbidden gathering. The soldiers and officers are already started forth to make a raid on all suspected houses. The girls must fly!—must fly at once! I have come to take them to a place where others are hiding for the moment. They have been preparing for this. They will not be taken altogether unawares. But there is not a moment to lose!"
The mother had clasped Agnes in her arms, and her tears were streaming down. The farmer was storming up and down in a tempest of fear and anger—anger at the girls, at the law, at the barbarity of punishing mere children—at everything and everybody. Margaret alone was calm; her countenance had not changed.
"Let them come," she answered quietly, "men can only hurt our bodies. None can touch our true selves. Why should we be afraid? Why should we fly?"
But the mother rose and thrust the trembling Agnes into her sister's arms.
"Save her! save her!" she sobbed. "It is thine example that hath led her to this. To thee do I look to save her from the peril which now besets her. If thou hast no thought or care for thine own life, save that of thy sister!"
Margaret looked down at the little white tearful, and yet courageous, face of her sister and companion, and the dreamy look passed from her eyes, whilst her mouth grew resolute.
"Yes, yes," she cried, in a low voice, "they shall not touch Agnes! She shall be saved. Lead on Archie, lead on! We will follow you to the hiding place of which you spoke."
The youth was only too ready to obey; his own agitation was great. Although not himself of the same way of thinking as the Covenanters, he had the greatest reverence for their firmness and strong faith, and for Margaret he entertained feelings which, as yet, were scarcely understood by him, only it somehow seemed as though were he to lose her, life would be changed for him.
Margaret was but fourteen years of age at this time, and Archie was not twenty; but the girl had that within her and in her aspect, which made it impossible to regard her as a child. When stories were told of the virgin saints and martyrs of old, it was always Margaret's calm, sweet, young face that rose up before the eyes of the lad, and her resolution and courage in face of a threatened and fearful danger intensified this impression.
As he hurried the girls along towards the place which he knew would be a safe shelter for them and for others, and enable them to join with a party of fugitives whose arrangements were all made, he strove to change the purpose of Margaret, and to seek to win her promise to conform to the laws of the land.
But she shook her head, and the glow in her eyes made them shine like stars in the dusk.
"Nay, Archie, thou must not seek to turn me from the straight and narrow way, even though it be a thorny one to tread! I ask not of thee to follow it. If thou canst serve God and the King too, with a free heart and conscience, then thank God for it, and dwell in peace and safety! For myself I cannot. The Spirit hath shown me a more excellent way, and I needs must follow at all cost. What are the trials and troubles and sufferings of this present life when an eternity of glory lies beyond? 'To him that overcometh will I give——'"
She did not finish the sentence; her mind seemed to travel too swiftly for words. Archie looked at her; and Agnes raised her white, tear-stained face, and both felt that they were looking upon the face of an angel.
The King was dead! The news had reached the north; and for a brief moment the hand of the law was stayed. Persecution of Covenanters was temporarily abandoned till the mind of the new monarch should be known. There were those who shrewdly suspected that where Charles had chastised with whips, James would chastise with scorpions; but for the moment the country breathed again, and many hunted exiles and wanderers crept back to their former homes, to visit their friends and see how they fared, even if they did not mean to remain long.
Archie Scott was returning home from his work one evening, when he met an acquaintance of his, a man for whom he entertained a feeling of deep dislike and distrust, one Patrick Stuart, who seemed always remarkably well informed as to what was in the wind, and to trim his sails accordingly.
"Have ye seen them?" he asked of Archie, with a look of mystery on his sly face.
"Seen whom, man?" asked the other impatiently.
"Why, those two girls of the Wilsons, who went into hiding four years back—just escaping by the skin of their teeth! I saw the pair of them not an hour since, down there with old Margaret M'Lauchlan! I peeped in at the window, and saw them plain. A rare, fine girl Margaret has grown too—such hair—such eyes! But she needn't think that her beauty will save her, once the bloodhounds get on her track!" and an evil light sprang into the man's shifty eyes, whilst Archie felt his fingers tingling to be at his throat!
Patrick passed on, and the other looked after him; his heart was beating high with excitement and a strange foreboding. He almost followed the retreating figure, yet he knew not what to say. He had a premonition that Patrick meant ill in some way, but he had nothing on which to base his suspicions. And his heart felt suddenly hungry for Margaret. He turned his back on the vanishing figure, and strode rapidly away towards the lonely little house on the outskirts of the town where the old woman lived.
The girl met him with the same calm sweetness of aspect. She had a sister-like greeting for him; but he could scarcely stammer out the words of welcome and greeting that he had been rehearsing so eloquently all the while. There was something in her beauty, her purity of expression, her deep dreamy eyes and steadfast glance that stirred his heart to its depths, and yet left him tongue-tied before her.
She asked him if he thought their parents would receive them, and could do so without peril to themselves. Archie replied that when their flight four years ago had been discovered, the officers had forbidden the parents upon pain of death ever to shelter or hold any communication with their children again, and had, moreover, warned them that they must instantly lodge information with the authorities, should they ever discover their whereabouts.
"Poor mother!" said Margaret gently, when she heard these words. "How she must have suffered! Now I understand why we never had news from her! She was afraid of learning where we might be. Yet I would fain look upon her face again!"
"Have a care, Margaret—have a care!" cried Archie entreatingly, "the laws are yet unrepealed. There is nothing changed, and this breathing space may not last long."
"I will not run into needless peril," answered Margaret; "yet why should I so greatly fear? Is not God strong enough to protect His own, if it be His will?—but if He desire to prove our love by something endured for Him, shall we shrink back in the hour of temptation?"
When Archie came again the next evening, Margaret was not in the cottage, and Agnes's face wore a frightened look.
"Archie, I am glad thou hast come! I have been so unhappy. Patrick Stuart has been here. Tell me, is he one that we may safely trust? He spoke like one full of sympathy with us and our sufferings and wanderings; but at the last he pledged Margaret, and bid her drink to the new King's health. When she would not, there crept an evil and crafty look into his eyes. I have been so frightened since!"
Archie was frightened too, and asked where Margaret was.
"She has slipped out to take one look at mother and the old home, and, perchance, to get speech of mother too. Old Margaret was to go and whisper something to her, and perhaps—perhaps; but they would not let me go; and something seems to tell me that danger is near. Oh, I wish Margaret had not gone away! I am never frightened when I am with her; but alone I am."
Archie was frightened himself. He felt perfectly certain that Patrick had set a trap for the girls, and that already he might be on his way to warn the authorities.
"Agnes," he said, "I would you had never come back. I would that you would fly the place again. Ye are too well known here. Anywhere else would be safer. I will remain with you till Margaret gets back; I will tell her my fears. Then I would beg her to lose no time, but to fly this very night to some place of greater safety."
But, alas!—already it was too late. Soon their straining ears caught the sound of measured tramping. Agnes gave a faint cry, Archie sprang to the door, and an oath leapt to his lips.
"They have got Margaret, and the old woman too! God in heaven have mercy!—they are coming hither for thee, Agnes. Fly!—fly by yonder door into the coppice behind! I will detain them by any story I can invent. Fly ere it be too late!"
But the news of her sister's capture seemed suddenly to brace the nerves of the younger girl. She darted out of the open door and flung herself upon Margaret's neck—Margaret, who was being led along by the officers, her hands bound behind her, though upon her beautiful face there was an expression of almost ecstatic exaltation of spirit.
"Here is the third of them!" cried the men, as Agnes appeared; and, ignoring Archie's indignant reproaches of cowardice and cruelty, they bound her hands, and set her beside her sister, and drove them on towards the Gaol of Wigton, as men drive cattle into market.
"Margaret! Margaret!" cried Archie, in an agony; but she turned and gave him one of her deep spiritual glances.
"Pray for us, Archie, that our faith fail not; and remember that we are bidden not to fear those who can hurt the body alone, but only him who can destroy the soul. Fare you well!"
When next Archie saw again the fair face of Margaret Wilson, it was when, after a very harsh and cruel captivity, that had left traces upon her body, though none upon her courageous spirit, she was brought, together with Agnes and the old woman, M'Lauchlan, before the magistrates to answer to the charges laid against her and them.
They had refused attendance at church, it was alleged, had attended forbidden meetings, had been amongst the rebels at the battle of Bothwell Bridge; and the old woman had harboured fugitive Covenanters.
A faint smile played over Margaret's face as she heard some of the indictment. She had been twelve years old and Agnes eight at the time of the battle. They had been staying with relatives in the vicinity at that date; but to be accounted as rebels!
For the rest she had nothing to say. She received instruction from those who preached the pure word of God, and had followed the example of the Lord, who, when threatened in one place, had quitted it for another, and had addressed His followers in the open air or in secret assemblies, as His followers of all centuries had been forced at times to do.
But there was no mercy in the faces of the men who sat in judgment, and in whose hands were such terrible powers. The three women were pronounced guilty, and were sentenced to death. And this was the doom allotted to them: "To be tied to stakes fixed within the floodmark in the water of Blednoch, near Wigton, where the sea flows at high water, there to be drowned."
Margaret heard these words with a strange smile upon her lips, and a great light came into her eyes. She stood for a moment as one who has a vision of some unspeakable glory, vouchsafed to no eyes but her own. In the dead hush of the court all glances were bent upon her, and suddenly a storm of sobbing arose from the women present.
Margaret started from her dream, and looked round at the faces, some of which had been familiar to her from childhood. Her lips moved, as though she would have spoken; but she was hurried away to the rigors of prison; whilst the whole town was thrown into a ferment of indignation and distress, though none dared to raise a protest.
No fear was in Margaret's heart as those bright days of May sped by; and she upheld the courage of her sister by her own tenderness and strength. But the poor old woman, alone and broken in spirit, was induced to promise that if her life were spared, she would abjure the principles of the Covenant and attend the parish church in future.
When Margaret was told this, and that, if she would join in a similar promise, her submission together with the strenuous efforts being made by her father and friends, might avail to save her life, her face took a grave and almost stern expression.
"Get thee behind me, Satan!" she exclaimed; and, clasping Agnes to her breast, she cried: "My sister and I will lay down our lives for the truth; but we will never, never consent to live by and for a lie!"
"Then your blood be upon your own heads!" cried the angry officer, as he banged the door behind him.
The morning of the appointed day arrived. The sisters were calm and strong in their resolution. Suddenly the door of their prison opened. Was it the men come to lead them to the stakes in the stream? Agnes gave a little cry of joy and amaze as she saw the white, worn face of her father.
"My child! my child!" he cried, clasping her in his arms. His emotion was so great that for a moment he could not speak. It was Archie Scott, with a face as white as death, who came and stood before Margaret.
"Agnes is saved," he said hoarsely; "she is not yet sixteen. She is to be released and set in her father's charge. And the Privy Council in Edinburgh, on receiving old Margaret's submission and the memorial sent by Wigton, promised a postponement of the sentence till the King's mind could be known. But the magistrates will not listen. They will hear nothing; they will go on their own way. Thou art to die to-day, Margaret; and I know not how to bear it!"
She laid her hand upon his arm. Her face was full of joy.
"Nay, if Agnes be spared, my prayers have indeed found their answer. For myself—Archie, Archie, do not look so—I have long thought that to depart and be with Christ is far better; where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest."
There was joy and peace in the girl's face as she was led forth from her prison, and old Margaret, too, repenting her former weakness, held her head high, and spoke with courage and resolution to her friends who had assembled to see the mournful procession pass by. All Wigton had come forth to see the martyrs go to their death; and Archie Scott walked near to Margaret, and kept his eyes fixed upon her face, as though to seek to learn something of her spirit.
"Thou wilt be a brother to my sweet Agnes and comfort her," said Margaret to him once. "I trow she will be loyal and true to her faith, even though she may be forced to some outward compliance. The Lord will not judge her harshly!"
It seems sad that such noble and courageous souls as those that animated the martyrs of the Covenant should regard it as a possible offence against God to attend a service to His honour and glory, and by consecrated servants set aside for His service. Perhaps as Margaret Wilson stood in the midst of the waters, bound to her stake, watching the rise of the flood which must soon overwhelm her—perhaps something of the wider and grander aspects of the One Church—Holy and Catholic—with the Lord for her Head was vouchsafed in vision to her spirit. For, suddenly, as she saw the last struggles of the aged woman who was tied on somewhat lower ground, and knew that a few minutes more would see the end of her own young life, she first broke into words of psalm and holy writ, and then suddenly exclaimed:
"The King! the King! the poor misguided King! May God bless and pardon him and open his eyes!"
"She recants! she recants!" cried a multitude of voices from the bank—the voices of those who believed that in this prayer for the monarch Margaret was making a recantation of faith.
"Bring her out! bring her out!" shouted the crowd, in frenzy; and the magistrates, not daring to withstand this public clamour, gave orders for Margaret to be loosed and carried ashore.
"Will you retract your errors, foolish girl, and renounce the Covenant?" they asked when, astonished, but calm and steadfast as ever, she was brought to them.
"I will not!" she answered, with quiet steadfastness. "As I have lived so let me die! I have nothing to recant. I am Christ's—let me go to Him."
"Throw her into the water, for a pestilent Covenanter" cried the magistrates; and in another moment the deep swirling waters closed over the slight heroic frame of Margaret Wilson. Another Christian martyr had gone fearlessly to her death.