And when he came to broken brigg, He bent his bow and swam; And when he came to grass growing, Set down his feet and ran. Gil Morrice.
The echoes of the rocks and ravines, on either side, now rang to the trumpets of the cavalry, which, forming themselves into two distinct bodies, began to move down the valley at a slow trot. That commanded by Major Galbraith soon took to the right hand, and crossed the Forth, for the purpose of taking up the quarters assigned them for the night, when they were to occupy, as I understood, an old castle in the vicinity. They formed a lively object while crossing the stream, but were soon lost in winding up the bank on the opposite side, which was clothed with wood.
We continued our march with considerable good order. To ensure the safe custody of the prisoner, the Duke had caused him to be placed on horseback behind one of his retainers, called, as I was informed, Ewan of Brigglands, one of the largest and strongest men who were present. A horse-belt, passed round the bodies of both, and buckled before the yeoman’s breast, rendered it impossible for Rob Roy to free himself from his keeper. I was directed to keep close beside them, and accommodated for the purpose with a troop-horse. We were as closely surrounded by the soldiers as the width of the road would permit, and had always at least one, if not two, on each side, with pistol in hand. Andrew Fairservice, furnished with a Highland pony, of which they had made prey somewhere or other, was permitted to ride among the other domestics, of whom a great number attended the line of march, though without falling into the ranks of the more regularly trained troopers.
In this manner we travelled for a certain distance, until we arrived at a place where we also were to cross the river. The Forth, as being the outlet of a lake, is of considerable depth, even where less important in point of width, and the descent to the ford was by a broken precipitous ravine, which only permitted one horseman to descend at once. The rear and centre of our small body halting on the bank while the front files passed down in succession, produced a considerable delay, as is usual on such occasions, and even some confusion; for a number of those riders, who made no proper part of the squadron, crowded to the ford without regularity, and made the militia cavalry, although tolerably well drilled, partake in some degree of their own disorder.
It was while we were thus huddled together on the bank that I heard Rob Roy whisper to the man behind whom he was placed on horseback, “Your father, Ewan, wadna hae carried an auld friend to the shambles, like a calf, for a’ the Dukes in Christendom.”
Ewan returned no answer, but shrugged, as one who would express by that sign that what he was doing was none of his own choice.
“And when the MacGregors come down the glen, and ye see toom faulds, a bluidy hearthstone, and the fire flashing out between the rafters o’ your house, ye may be thinking then, Ewan, that were your friend Rob to the fore, you would have had that safe which it will make your heart sair to lose.”
Ewan of Brigglands again shrugged and groaned, but remained silent.
“It’s a sair thing,” continued Rob, sliding his insinuations so gently into Ewan’s ear that they reached no other but mine, who certainly saw myself in no shape called upon to destroy his prospects of escape—“It’s a sair thing, that Ewan of Brigglands, whom Roy MacGregor has helped with hand, sword, and purse, suld mind a gloom from a great man mair than a friend’s life.”
Ewan seemed sorely agitated, but was silent.—We heard the Duke’s voice from the opposite bank call, “Bring over the prisoner.”
Ewan put his horse in motion, and just as I heard Roy say, “Never weigh a MacGregor’s bluid against a broken whang o’ leather, for there will be another accounting to gie for it baith here and hereafter,” they passed me hastily, and dashing forward rather precipitately, entered the water.
“Not yet, sir—not yet,” said some of the troopers to me, as I was about to follow, while others pressed forward into the stream.
I saw the Duke on the other side, by the waning light, engaged in commanding his people to get into order, as they landed dispersedly, some higher, some lower. Many had crossed, some were in the water, and the rest were preparing to follow, when a sudden splash warned me that MacGregor’s eloquence had prevailed on Ewan to give him freedom and a chance for life. The Duke also heard the sound, and instantly guessed its meaning. “Dog!” he exclaimed to Ewan as he landed, “where is your prisoner?” and, without waiting to hear the apology which the terrified vassal began to falter forth, he fired a pistol at his head, whether fatally I know not, and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, disperse and pursue the villain—An hundred guineas for him that secures Rob Roy!”
All became an instant scene of the most lively confusion. Rob Roy, disengaged from his bonds, doubtless by Ewan’s slipping the buckle of his belt, had dropped off at the horse’s tail, and instantly dived, passing under the belly of the troop-horse which was on his left hand. But as he was obliged to come to the surface an instant for air, the glimpse of his tartan plaid drew the attention of the troopers, some of whom plunged into the river, with a total disregard to their own safety, rushing, according to the expression of their country, through pool and stream, sometimes swimming their horses, sometimes losing them and struggling for their own lives. Others, less zealous or more prudent, broke off in different directions, and galloped up and down the banks, to watch the places at which the fugitive might possibly land. The hollowing, the whooping, the calls for aid at different points, where they saw, or conceived they saw, some vestige of him they were seeking,—the frequent report of pistols and carabines, fired at every object which excited the least suspicion,—the sight of so many horsemen riding about, in and out of the river, and striking with their long broadswords at whatever excited their attention, joined to the vain exertions used by their officers to restore order and regularity,—and all this in so wild a scene, and visible only by the imperfect twilight of an autumn evening, made the most extraordinary hubbub I had hitherto witnessed. I was indeed left alone to observe it, for our whole cavalcade had dispersed in pursuit, or at least to see the event of the search. Indeed, as I partly suspected at the time, and afterwards learned with certainty, many of those who seemed most active in their attempts to waylay and recover the fugitive, were, in actual truth, least desirous that he should be taken, and only joined in the cry to increase the general confusion, and to give Rob Roy a better opportunity of escaping.
Escape, indeed, was not difficult for a swimmer so expert as the freebooter, as soon as he had eluded the first burst of pursuit. At one time he was closely pressed, and several blows were made which flashed in the water around him; the scene much resembling one of the otter-hunts which I had seen at Osbaldistone Hall, where the animal is detected by the hounds from his being necessitated to put his nose above the stream to vent or breathe, while he is enabled to elude them by getting under water again so soon as he has refreshed himself by respiration. MacGregor, however, had a trick beyond the otter; for he contrived, when very closely pursued, to disengage himself unobserved from his plaid, and suffer it to float down the stream, where in its progress it quickly attracted general attention; many of the horsemen were thus put upon a false scent, and several shots or stabs were averted from the party for whom they were designed.
Once fairly out of view, the recovery of the prisoner became almost impossible, since, in so many places, the river was rendered inaccessible by the steepness of its banks, or the thickets of alders, poplars, and birch, which, overhanging its banks, prevented the approach of horsemen. Errors and accidents had also happened among the pursuers, whose task the approaching night rendered every moment more hopeless. Some got themselves involved in the eddies of the stream, and required the assistance of their companions to save them from drowning. Others, hurt by shots or blows in the confused mele’e, implored help or threatened vengeance, and in one or two instances such accidents led to actual strife. The trumpets, therefore, sounded the retreat, announcing that the commanding officer, with whatsoever unwillingness, had for the present relinquished hopes of the important prize which had thus unexpectedly escaped his grasp, and the troopers began slowly, reluctantly, and brawling with each other as they returned, again to assume their ranks. I could see them darkening, as they formed on the southern bank of the river,—whose murmurs, long drowned by the louder cries of vengeful pursuit, were now heard hoarsely mingling with the deep, discontented, and reproachful voices of the disappointed horsemen.
Hitherto I had been as it were a mere spectator, though far from an uninterested one, of the singular scene which had passed. But now I heard a voice suddenly exclaim, “Where is the English stranger?—It was he gave Rob Roy the knife to cut the belt.”
“Cleeve the pock-pudding to the chafts!” cried one voice.
“Weize a brace of balls through his harn-pan!” said a second.
“Drive three inches of cauld airn into his brisket!” shouted a third.
And I heard several horses galloping to and fro, with the kind purpose, doubtless, of executing these denunciations. I was immediately awakened to the sense of my situation, and to the certainty that armed men, having no restraint whatever on their irritated and inflamed passions, would probably begin by shooting or cutting me down, and afterwards investigate the justice of the action. Impressed by this belief, I leaped from my horse, and turning him loose, plunged into a bush of alder-trees, where, considering the advancing obscurity of the night, I thought there was little chance of my being discovered. Had I been near enough to the Duke to have invoked his personal protection, I would have done so; but he had already commenced his retreat, and I saw no officer on the left bank of the river, of authority sufficient to have afforded protection, in case of my surrendering myself. I thought there was no point of honour which could require, in such circumstances, an unnecessary exposure of my life. My first idea, when the tumult began to be appeased, and the clatter of the horses’ feet was heard less frequently in the immediate vicinity of my hiding-place, was to seek out the Duke’s quarters when all should be quiet, and give myself up to him, as a liege subject, who had nothing to fear from his justice, and a stranger, who had every right to expect protection and hospitality. With this purpose I crept out of my hiding-place, and looked around me.
The twilight had now melted nearly into darkness; a few or none of the troopers were left on my side of the Forth, and of those who were already across it, I only heard the distant trample of the horses’ feet, and the wailing and prolonged sound of their trumpets, which rung through the woods to recall stragglers. Here, therefore, I was left in a situation of considerable difficulty. I had no horse, and the deep and wheeling stream of the river, rendered turbid by the late tumult of which its channel had been the scene, and seeming yet more so under the doubtful influence of an imperfect moonlight, had no inviting influence for a pedestrian by no means accustomed to wade rivers, and who had lately seen horsemen weltering, in this dangerous passage, up to the very saddle-laps. At the same time, my prospect, if I remained on the side of the river on which I then stood, could be no other than of concluding the various fatigues of this day and the preceding night, by passing that which was now closing in, al fresco on the side of a Highland hill.
After a moment’s reflection, I began to consider that Fairservice, who had doubtless crossed the river with the other domestics, according to his forward and impertinent custom of putting himself always among the foremost, could not fail to satisfy the Duke, or the competent authorities, respecting my rank and situation; and that, therefore, my character did not require my immediate appearance, at the risk of being drowned in the river—of being unable to trace the march of the squadron in case of my reaching the other side in safety—or, finally, of being cut down, right or wrong, by some straggler, who might think such a piece of good service a convenient excuse for not sooner rejoining his ranks. I therefore resolved to measure my steps back to the little inn, where I had passed the preceding night. I had nothing to apprehend from Rob Roy. He was now at liberty, and I was certain, in case of my falling in with any of his people, the news of his escape would ensure me protection. I might thus also show, that I had no intention to desert Mr. Jarvie in the delicate situation in which he had engaged himself chiefly on my account. And lastly, it was only in this quarter that I could hope to learn tidings concerning Rashleigh and my father’s papers, which had been the original cause of an expedition so fraught with perilous adventure. I therefore abandoned all thoughts of crossing the Forth that evening; and, turning my back on the Fords of Frew, began to retrace my steps towards the little village of Aberfoil.
A sharp frost-wind, which made itself heard and felt from time to time, removed the clouds of mist which might otherwise have slumbered till morning on the valley; and, though it could not totally disperse the clouds of vapour, yet threw them in confused and changeful masses, now hovering round the heads of the mountains, now filling, as with a dense and voluminous stream of smoke, the various deep gullies where masses of the composite rock, or breccia, tumbling in fragments from the cliffs, have rushed to the valley, leaving each behind its course a rent and torn ravine resembling a deserted water-course. The moon, which was now high, and twinkled with all the vivacity of a frosty atmosphere, silvered the windings of the river and the peaks and precipices which the mist left visible, while her beams seemed as it were absorbed by the fleecy whiteness of the mist, where it lay thick and condensed; and gave to the more light and vapoury specks, which were elsewhere visible, a sort of filmy transparency resembling the lightest veil of silver gauze. Despite the uncertainty of my situation, a view so romantic, joined to the active and inspiring influence of the frosty atmosphere, elevated my spirits while it braced my nerves. I felt an inclination to cast care away, and bid defiance to danger, and involuntarily whistled, by way of cadence to my steps, which my feeling of the cold led me to accelerate, and I felt the pulse of existence beat prouder and higher in proportion as I felt confidence in my own strength, courage, and resources. I was so much lost in these thoughts, and in the feelings which they excited, that two horsemen came up behind me without my hearing their approach, until one was on each side of me, when the left-hand rider, pulling up his horse, addressed me in the English tongue—“So ho, friend! whither so late?”
“To my supper and bed at Aberfoil,” I replied.
“Are the passes open?” he inquired, with the same commanding tone of voice.
“I do not know,” I replied; “I shall learn when I get there. But,” I added, the fate of Morris recurring to my recollection, “if you are an English stranger, I advise you to turn back till daylight; there has been some disturbance in this neighbourhood, and I should hesitate to say it is perfectly safe for strangers.”
“The soldiers had the worst?—had they not?” was the reply.
“They had indeed; and an officer’s party were destroyed or made prisoners.”
“Are you sure of that?” replied the horseman.
“As sure as that I hear you speak,” I replied. “I was an unwilling spectator of the skirmish.”
“Unwilling!” continued the interrogator. “Were you not engaged in it then?”
“Certainly no,” I replied; “I was detained by the king’s officer.”
“On what suspicion? and who are you? or what is your name?” he continued.
“I really do not know, sir,” said I, “why I should answer so many questions to an unknown stranger. I have told you enough to convince you that you are going into a dangerous and distracted country. If you choose to proceed, it is your own affair; but as I ask you no questions respecting your name and business, you will oblige me by making no inquiries after mine.”
“Mr. Francis Osbaldistone,” said the other rider, in a voice the tones of which thrilled through every nerve of my body, “should not whistle his favourite airs when he wishes to remain undiscovered.”
And Diana Vernon—for she, wrapped in a horseman’s cloak, was the last speaker—whistled in playful mimicry the second part of the tune which was on my lips when they came up.
“Good God!” I exclaimed, like one thunderstruck, “can it be you, Miss Vernon, on such a spot—at such an hour—in such a lawless country—in such”—
“In such a masculine dress, you would say.—But what would you have? The philosophy of the excellent Corporal Nym is the best after all; things must be as they may—pauca verba.”
While she was thus speaking, I eagerly took advantage of an unusually bright gleam of moonshine, to study the appearance of her companion; for it may be easily supposed, that finding Miss Vernon in a place so solitary, engaged in a journey so dangerous, and under the protection of one gentleman only, were circumstances to excite every feeling of jealousy, as well as surprise. The rider did not speak with the deep melody of Rashleigh’s voice; his tones were more high and commanding; he was taller, moreover, as he sate on horseback, than that first-rate object of my hate and suspicion. Neither did the stranger’s address resemble that of any of my other cousins; it had that indescribable tone and manner by which we recognise a man of sense and breeding, even in the first few sentences he speaks.
The object of my anxiety seemed desirous to get rid of my investigation.
“Diana,” he said, in a tone of mingled kindness and authority, “give your cousin his property, and let us not spend time here.”
Miss Vernon had in the meantime taken out a small case, and leaning down from her horse towards me, she said, in a tone in which an effort at her usual quaint lightness of expression contended with a deeper and more grave tone of sentiment, “You see, my dear coz, I was born to be your better angel. Rashleigh has been compelled to yield up his spoil, and had we reached this same village of Aberfoil last night, as we purposed, I should have found some Highland sylph to have wafted to you all these representatives of commercial wealth. But there were giants and dragons in the way; and errant-knights and damsels of modern times, bold though they be, must not, as of yore, run into useless danger—Do not you do so either, my dear coz.”
“Diana,” said her companion, “let me once more warn you that the evening waxes late, and we are still distant from our home.”
“I am coming, sir, I am coming—Consider,” she added, with a sigh, “how lately I have been subjected to control—besides, I have not yet given my cousin the packet, and bid him fare-well—for ever. Yes, Frank,” she said, “for ever!—there is a gulf between us—a gulf of absolute perdition;—where we go, you must not follow—what we do, you must not share in—Farewell—be happy!”
In the attitude in which she bent from her horse, which was a Highland pony, her face, not perhaps altogether unwillingly, touched mine. She pressed my hand, while the tear that trembled in her eye found its way to my cheek instead of her own. It was a moment never to be forgotten—inexpressibly bitter, yet mixed with a sensation of pleasure so deeply soothing and affecting, as at once to unlock all the flood-gates of the heart. It was but a moment, however; for, instantly recovering from the feeling to which she had involuntarily given way, she intimated to her companion she was ready to attend him, and putting their horses to a brisk pace, they were soon far distant from the place where I stood.
Heaven knows, it was not apathy which loaded my frame and my tongue so much, that I could neither return Miss Vernon’s half embrace, nor even answer her farewell. The word, though it rose to my tongue, seemed to choke in my throat like the fatal guilty, which the delinquent who makes it his plea, knows must be followed by the doom of death. The surprise—the sorrow, almost stupified me. I remained motionless with the packet in my hand, gazing after them, as if endeavouring to count the sparkles which flew from the horses’ hoofs. I continued to look after even these had ceased to be visible, and to listen for their footsteps long after the last distant trampling had died in my ears. At length, tears rushed to my eyes, glazed as they were by the exertion of straining after what was no longer to be seen. I wiped them mechanically, and almost without being aware that they were flowing—but they came thicker and thicker; I felt the tightening of the throat and breast—the hysterica passio of poor Lear; and sitting down by the wayside, I shed a flood of the first and most bitter tears which had flowed from my eyes since childhood.