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Anna Jane Vardill

Extracts from a Lawyer’s Portfolio

Part 2


Some years ago, my curiosity to examine the Manx laws relating to debtor and creditor, combined with some family affairs, to determine me on a visit to the Isle of Man. I had been informed that these laws subject a native to no personal imprisonment, but expose his whole property to the claims of his creditors. In regard to strangers, as settlers from England, Scotland, or Ireland, are termed, the principle of Manx law is singularly reversed. A mere affidavit of debt empowers a constable to seize the person of a stranger, arrest all his property, and hold it till the question of right is decided: then to sell, not to the amount of the debt only, but the whole effects; and “first paying a year’s rent, if due, and the servants’ wages for the same time, he is to satisfy the creditors with all costs and charges, and afterwards to deliver the overplus to the right owner.” These are the words of the statute, and at the period of my visit, the brief but benevolent act which released an insolvent prisoner after one year’s confinement and a complete surrender of his effects, had not been introduced to the House of Keys, or Manx legislators.—The hard fate of an honest man of my acquaintance, who had given Manx bail for a friend, and by that means rendered himself liable to a heavy debt, though the debtor’s person had been surrendered to gaol, stimulated my enquiries respecting the peculiar government of this island.

I reached the pier of Douglas on a propitious day, when the fine semicircular harbour, the Duke of Athol’s free-stone palace in the centre, and a cultivated hill behind it, seen without the usual canopy of mist, gave a pleasant idea of old Mona. My poor friend, whose bail in the Manx fashion threatened his ruin, was an innkeeper, who received me with great hospitality, and wearied a lean horse by driving me in a kind of cart-carriage to Castle Rushen, where the courts of law are held. They are sufficiently tedious, therefore I had leisure to see all the castles, barrows, heath, and gorse, to be found in the island. The simplicity which still prevailed there rendered the resources of an idle stranger very few in female society; and after a month’s stay, I was driven to seek amusement in the Calf of Man. This islet is still tenanted by one solitary farmer, whose sheep occupy the wild and treeless domain, disturbed only by groups of white sea-fowl which cluster in the galleries of rocks that overhang the sea. On one of these galleries I saw a man walking, whose appearance did not resemble any inmate of the farmer’s house at which I was a temporary guest. He was busy in a sketch of the Eye, or lonely rock, said to be a hermit’s grave. It was easy to begin a conversation respecting the traditions of the isle; and my new acquaintance shewed me another drawing of Thomas Bushel’s house, now in ruins, and the interior of his tomb. Then he described the beautiful valley of Glenmoi, and the height of Snowfield, from whence the romantic coast of Kircudbright and its neighbourhood are visible. I told him, that I had seen the Giant’s Quoiting-stones, the holy village of Kirkmichael, and especially the Tynwald Mount, celebrated as the seat of the Legislative Assembly. From thence we naturally digressed into a discussion of the laws and their founders, during which my companion spoke of the great Earl of Derby, and the patriarchal Bishop Wilson, with so much historic accuracy and moral feeling, that I felt tempted to regret the transient nature of our acquaintance when we parted. Evening had advanced, and after a farther ramble alone, I returned to my hospitable farmer’s house, the only one in the islet, and was surprised to find my new friend already there, with the air of a well-known inmate. I considered him an artist in quest of local scenery, and his presence seemed no restraint on my host, who appeared an intelligent and civil man, though the simplicity of his household reminded me of those days when a pan and a blanket were heirlooms in a Manxman’s family. After telling me of the benefit his farm derived from an earth-pot, as he called a limekiln, he began to deviate into the usual fire-side-tales of Lady Derby’s ghost, the spectre-hound, and the submarine gardens discovered by a diving-bell. The supposed artist intimated his doubts, whether the sentence of the insular court on the reputed traitor Christian, accused of basely betraying the Earl of Derby’s widow, could be justified. Our host, after listening patiently to a long argument, asked leave to tell one of many anecdotes relating to the misjudgements of this court, and the probable abuse of its laws. All my professional curiosity was awake, and the farmer’s story began.

“I was very young, gentlemen, when the eldest son of the south deemster unfortunately shot a favourite horse while hunting the wren on New Year’s Day. This sport, as you may know, comes from our belief, that a lovely fairy of most mischievous power appears in the wren’s shape every year. Guttrid Lonan, the owner of the horse, had once been aggrieved by what he thought the deemster’s unjust summons; and this accident became the pretence of the longest and most bitter litigation ever remembered in our island, though it has been called the paradise of lawyers. The deemster in revenge tormented his adversary with fodder-juries to estimate his cattle, and carried a disputed grave-digger’s bill for two shillings and sixpence into half a dozen courts. But his enemy found a heavier mode of expressing his resentment. The deemster’s son gave Manx bail for an unfortunate Englishman, and half his property became a forfeit. He died of grief and agitation; but his second brother reconciled himself to his family’s antagonist by acts of singular condescension, and their friendship grew even more remarkable than their former enmity.

Last summer, a young Englishwoman landed at Douglas, and enquired for a cheap and solitary lodging. She appeared to he one of those numerous refugees whose misfortunes or indiscretions bring them to this asylum. Considering her mild and gracious manners, it was thought strange when she fixed her residence with Guttrid Lonan, a farmer of such mean and dishonest habits, that his neighbours styled him the Manthè Doog, or black hound, of the heath where he lived. He had a wife as old and penurious as himself, and their admission of a stranger who seemed poor was a matter of surprise to all the villagers of Kirkmichael. Our island, gentlemen, is said to be the kingdom of fairies and witchcraft, therefore no one was surprised when the stranger came to the coroner of that district to relate a very singular dream and its effects. At midnight, in her solitary room near the roof of Guttrid Lonan’s house, she had seen what seemed the apparition of a meagre child at the foot of her bed. To her question, whence and for what purpose it came, the spectre replied, “I am in prison”—and she beheld it no more. But its impression on her fancy did not pass away. She considered all the circumstances of her entertainer’s family, and recollected the mystery always preserved respecting a loft or chamber above  . Lonan and his wife slept in the kitchen; the hour was safe; and having contrived a ladder of some chairs, she found a chasm in the rafters, by which she could introduce her hand, and unbolt the loft’s trap-door. Within, on a chaff-bed, she discovered a female child, as lean, pale, and deadly as the spectre she had seen. “Miserable creature!” said the Englishwoman—“why did you not remain in my room when you had found it?”—”I have not walked for a long time”—it answered in a dying voice—“Have you brought me any thing to eat?” A strong iron chain, firmly fixed to a staple in the wall, convinced its visitor that its escape was not possible without aid, and that food was now more easily supplied than liberty. She returned in a few minutes with bread and wine, and moistened its lips while it lay in the torpor of extreme weakness. To remove it from its desolate prison was impracticable then, for day was fast approaching, and Lonan always rose with the dawn. But after preserving, during breakfast, a degree of calmness, sufficient, as she hoped, to prevent suspicion, she quitted the house on the heath, and hastened to the coroner with this narrative. Having a power both executive and inquisitorial, the coroner immediately entered the black-hound’s den with proper officers, but his wife, himself, and the unhappy child, were removed. The chaff-bed, the dried herring, and oatmeal, which the English-woman had observed in the loft, in short every trace of this mysterious scene, had vanished; and, except the flight of Guttrid and dame Lonan, nothing remained to prove the truth of her assertion.

The new deemster, or judge of the district, made zealous enquiry; but before the motive or method of this flight could be ascertained, a fisherman’s boat was driven back by violent gales into Ramsey-bay, and the bodies of Guttrid and his wife were cast ashore. The latter had been evidently dead some hours, but art restored her husband; and when conveyed before the deemster, his courage and composure seemed unshaken. When confronted by his accuser, he stated, that she was the mother of the child, and had given him a large sum to secrete its body. She had misrepresented its age, he added, as it was, in fact, a still-born infant, which he had deposited at her request under the low-water mark of Ramsey-bay. The owner of the fishing-boat had perished, and no one remained to disprove or confirm this tale, except the fisher’s wife, who confessed that Lonan’s wife, with a small basket in her hand, had hired the boat, though it was Sunday-eve, and they had no burnt gorse or wren’s feathers to secure it from “the evil eye.”—I was one of the sixty-four men from whom a jury was impannelled; Guttrid Lonan’s guilt was certain in my mind; but on the day appointed for a hearing of the cause, the Englishwoman escaped by some unknown artifice, and Lonan was acquited. The deemster, it was said, had reason to fear a man who had been so formidable to his father and elder brother; but as the hunting of the wren caused Guttrid Lonan’s pretence to ruin an honourable man, a wren’s feather may ruin Guttrid Lonan.”

My host ended his tale with a shrewd and forcible emphasis, which induced me to reply—“I have heard something of this, and the spectre-child is as tremendous in a winter’s night as the spectre-hound of Peel Castle. But what are the grounds of this decisive prejudice against Lonan? The pretended dream, or the divination of some witch in wren’s feathers?”

“You speak, Sir,” said the artist, who had been silent till now, “as if there were no well attested instances of a singular connexion between dreams and events.”

“Not so,” I answered, “for many such are upon record. Governor F—, the American philosopher’s venerable son, who was once designed to ornament my profession, has often told me of the singular vision which visited him while imprisoned during the rebellion of the colonies, and was singularly verified by the circumstances of his first wife’s death. The dove which an eminent sculptor has lately place on the moment of a lovely lady, alludes to her repeated assertion that she expected the messenger of a deceased friend in the form of a dove to announce her own last moment. This beautiful apparition visited her mind’s eye in the instant of death; but both these new facts may be explained without supernatural agency. The loyal governor and the gentle and pious woman were naturally apt in their slumbers to associate the images which their imaginations were accustomed to consider probable and pleasing. In such cases, an event is sometimes caused by our determination to expect it, or at least receives the colouring we are predisposed to bestow.”

“However,” rejoined the artist, eying me attentively, “you perceive no reason to doubt that this supposed Englishwoman spoke truth?”

“None at this moment—I admit the possibility of her dream, though I consider it the effect, and not the cause, of some suspicion respecting a concealed child; and her flight appears to me no absolute proof of her guilt!”

“I have not told you all yet, Sir, that was said about her!” added my historian, eagerly—“We people of this island suspect she was no—no more than an apparition herself, for it is very certain, and hundreds will attest it, that no woman left the prison when she was missing, and nobody like her was seen in the vessel which brought her to Douglas till half an hour before she landed.”

“And who,” said I, “will attest that you have heard the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?—It is fortunately in my power to give you some farther intelligence. A day or two before I left the main-isle, a piece of blue slate, with two letters scratched on it, was found in the hut of the fisherman’s widow. She, a doting and distressed woman, believed it still what it once was in Mona, a judge’s token or summons. She uttered such strange and terrible things in the confusion of fear and guilt, that Guttrid was examined again, and after another hearing the jury agreed in their verdict. While I remained in court, the foreman was asked by the deemster, if the ministers of the church might remain, and he answered—”

“Yes or no?” exclaimed the artist, rising eagerly—“The Bishop and his clergy retired from court, and I followed them.”

“Then the sentence was death!” said the farmer, striking his hands together above his head, and casting a glance of subdued congratulation on the artist.

“Sentence of death was passed certainly,” I replied, “but on the Englishwoman also. She was convicted of aiding Guttrid Lonan in his confederacy with the younger brother of the unhappy man who gave Manx bail for an English debtor. I need not tell you that this unhappy man was the son of his father’s first wife, and his brother, therefore could claim, by virtue of your Manx laws, only a fourth part of their inheritance. His death without offspring seemingly entitled the younger brother to possess all at their father’s death; and Guttrid found an abundant source of profit in keeping his reputed daughter, a child legitimated by its parents’ private marriage three years after its birth, according to Manx law, concealed at his lonely house on the moor. The treacherous uncle paid largely for the iniquitous secretion of his brother’s heiress, whose existence was never suspected till the Englishwoman revealed it.”

“Has it perished—certainly perished?” asked my unknown acquaintance, with a tremor of tone and eye which justified a new suspicion.

“Our host’s prediction is fulfilled,” I answered—“the wren which began this tragic romance assisted the catastrophe. When Guttrid Lonan conveyed the infant heiress into the fishing boat, he paid homage to the superstition of his island, by placing around her neck a circle of wren’s feathers as a talisman against the evil eye. These feathers found with the dead body of a female child have identified and fixed his guilt, thus pursued by an Eye he could not deceive.”

“But by what proof,” interrupted the farmer, anxiously stealing a glance at his strange guest, “do they condemn the Englishwoman?”

“By circumstantial evidence at least—She gave no clear account of the reasons for her stay in Lonan’s house, and her flight was incomprehensible, unless she had been a spy or an accomplice there. That they disagreed in dividing their employer’s pay, is his own statement, and sufficient reason for her conduct. Or as she was not an ungentle female, she might be influenced by some attachment to a man whose vices were not distinguished by outward deformity. These are the opinions I adopt, and with such opinions the court pronounced her condemnation.”

“Then they erred!” exclaimed my host’s strange guest; “and their sentence will add another to the unnumbered failures of human tribunals.”—Approaching me, and removing with his large hat a tuft of coarse red hair and broad mustachioies, he added, “Did no none remember the Englishman for whom the unfortunate Manxman gave such fatal bail?—His personal property was sacrificed, and his heart broken by my ruin; but though I obtained my release from unmerciful creditors too late to save him, I made one effort to save his child, whose fate I suspected. Woman’s attire alone sufficed to deceive Guttrid Lonan, who never guessed my motive; and it has proved sufficient to deceive experienced judges. As an insolvent debtor, I am liable to perpetual imprisonment in this island, therefore I dared not reveal my sex and name, and am now compelled to hide myself in this privileged house. But justice has overtaken the guilty, and the innocent will not suffer, unless I have trusted rashly to a lawyer’s honour.”

My profession’s spirit was challenged by this appeal, and I felt all that such absolute trust demanded from me. A powerful magistrate obtained his indemnity and complete acquittal, which opened a path for his return to ease and liberty in England. There he still lives among my best friends, to whom I am not ashamed to confess the lesson taught me by false appearances, and the distrust of human judgment, which always connects itself with my remembrance of Manx Bail.”


(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 73, January 1818, pp. 9-12