Home Life Works Articles Contact

Anna Jane Vardill

Extracts from a Lawyer’s Portfolio

Part 6


There was a period, not perhaps beyond the recollection of my elder contemporaries, when the cattle-fairs of the North were governed by a few wealthy landholders, who made them objects of their personal attention. One of this class set out from . . . . . . , on his way to Carlisle, towards the twilight of a dull October evening, on horseback and alone, with no arms except a sturdy oaken staff, according to the fashion of those days. Some tales of the Freebooters which the tumults of the year forty-five had left in that neighbourhood, induced him to pour the contents of a large canvas bag into his boots before his horse entered a deep and dark dell, midway between . . . . . . and Carlisle. The road suddenly sunk between two steeps, whose overhanging brows were grim with wild and thick copsewood, which nearly excluded the last gleam of a sickly sun. Even this gleam soon disappeared, and the traveller saw the danger of his darkening way encreased by its sudden ascent up another steep, shrouded by loftier trees. As he wound along the narrow road which led to this toilsome height, he rather heard than saw the feet of a passenger beside him, sometimes, as it seemed, almost under his horse’s head, or when the road narrowed, a shadow rose on the high causeway formed among crags and bushes, which nearly touched the traveller’s shoulder. But as the ascent grew wider, and the light of a rising moon shewed itself between the clouds, our horseman saw his companion walking two or three paces before him, and recognized in him a Highland youth who had once attended his droves, and had been dismissed for too much familiarity with his silver spoons at his hall in Yorkshire. Whether this unwelcome attendant chose such a slow and silent pace for the purpose of safety in companionship or of sinister revenge would be soon discovered, and ought not to appear suspected. Therefore he said, in the tone which suited a Highlander’s ear, “It’s well for the nowts ye drive, lad, if ye never walk faster.”

“I didna think I was walking aside a nowt, but your honour kens best.” answered Sandy Fraser, in a knavish tone of mock simplicity. His master saw a broad moonlight opening before him and urged his horse to speed; but Fraser suddenly stepping forward, laid his hand gently, yet firmly, on the bridle, and taking off his bonnet with great respect, placed a crumpled paper with some reddish stains in the Yorkshire traveller’s hand, who eyed him sternly, and answered his gesture with the instinctive boldness of his former authority—“Ye’ve chosen an ill time, ye daft loon!—ye may mend your letter at the Duke’s-head.”—“It’s no frae a puir lad like mysell,” returned Sandy, replacing his bonnet on one side of his brow with a mixture of archness and audacity—“ye’re son Willie’s fa’un into dour hands.”—“Some of your Highland drovers have cheated him, I suppose?” said the father, in a tone which implied it must have been no easy task.—“Ou:” answered Sandy, very gravely—“no so bad as thae drovers, only awheen north country thieves.”—His master opened the soiled paper hastily, and saw his eldest son’s hand writing—“I am in danger—money will save me—you may trust the bearer”—“Dog!” he exclaimed, losing his provincial humour in the agony of a Father,” you have joined in robbing my son!”—The Highlander stepped back, and his elf-like smile changed to the slyness of gratified revenge struggling with sudden anger—“If Maister Willie had ca'd me dog, the corbies wad ha’ known where to find him: but he’s a pretty lad forbye his mither was a McGregor, whilk is mair than ye can say o’ yoursell—And I wad na ha’ come this gate for him an ye had na been Sandy Fraser’s maister; but I winna gie the cauld steel where I ha’ sat at the oaken board.”—As he spoke, with a quick and dexterous manœuvre he seized the loaded end of his master’s staff, and wrested it from his grasp. Thus disarmed, the traveller saw no means of resistance, unless he opposed the strength left him by sixty years to a young and desperate mountaineer’s. But a thought occurred which seemed to include the care of a father with the caution of his couutry, and he replied, “I have no gold, Alexander Fraser; but if ye’re an honest lad and love my son, come with me to the Duke’s-head at Carlisle, and ye shall have whate’er ye want on the faith of my word, and ye know the word of John Barharror of Birkthistle.”

“Na, na!” said Sandy, widening his long face with an indescribable laugh, while his eyes gleamed through his shaggy hair like a wild cat’s among yellow furze—“Na, maister!” then ye’ll be steering where your son is; but I’se no tell o’ them that trusted me. The peat winna burn the flow-moss, and the dirk has na tongue to tell where the handle bides. . . . .”—Then pausing with an irresolute yet menacing gesture, as he half-raised the staff and looked towards the sharp brow of the cliff, he added, “If it flytes ye to gie me the siller, I can tak it—its hard the young birdie should be torn when the auld one might spare his feathers——But I’se no do that neither—Ye’r heart will be sair enangh, John o’ Birkthistle, when ye wail for your son; but ye’ll no be richer ere ye get back to Craven.”

Barharror understood the double threat; and opening his large pocket-book with an undaunted look, as he still sat firmly on his horse, replied, “Search me if ye dare, Fraser, ye will find no gold; but here is paper as good at Glasgow or Dumbarton. Take what you will, or take all.” The mountaineer scanned the negociable notes with a quick and crafty eye glancing at his master, as the red deer eyes the hunter when preparing to escape—“Fourscore broad pieces will be enow for the thieves—they’ll free a Yorkshire lad easy for the fellowship’s sake. An’ if ye dinna see him safe at ye’re ain hearthstane ere the reek gangs owr it on Hallow-e’en, ca’ me a fause loon and a dog again.”—So saying, and burying the largest note payable at sight among the folds of his tartan, where a sudden moonshine shewed the flash of his dirk, he threw his master’s staff on the ground, and disappeared.

Full of dismay for his son’s sake, and of vexation at the probable fraud, Barharror alighted to seek his only defensive weapon, and was busied in the search, when another horseman appeared on the road, and courteously enquired the cause. This traveller wore the riding-dress in those days peculiar to gentlemen, and his accent could hardly be called provincial, except in a degree sufficient to shew him a polished native of the North. Perhaps this last particular increased the frankness which agitation usually produces, and Barharror related without reserve how outrageously his quondam servant had practised on him. Habitual shrewdness, and the uncertain character of his new companion, induced him to supress the exact amount of his loss, and of the gold he had preserved. As the road now emerged into an open plain, intersected only by rude walls of uncemented stone, and lighted by a clear moon, they pursued their way together till a few straggling houses promised protection. The adventure afforded a subject of discourse, which the unknown gentleman canvassed to the language of a lawyer, and offered his aid to Barharror in procuring a warrant to search for or arrest any suspected person, according to statute. He named the nearest justice of peace, spoke familiarly of the municipal officers of Carlisle, strongly advising his new acquaintance to despatch a trusty messenger, or hasten himself to provide for the detention of his lost bill, and the bearer, if they appeared in Glasgow. But Barharror’s solicitude for his favourite son’s safety rendered him almost indifferent to this advice, or its subject. He thought and talked only of the letter, and endeavoured to believe it a counterfeit: a belief which the stranger strenuously encouraged, urging him to take instant measures for the mountaineer’s arrest. The beginning of another desolate tract, and the sound of other feet behind them, induced Barharror to spur his horse, which emulated his new friend’s mettled animal with such success, that an hour brought them to Carlisle. As they turned under its walls, another traveller, mounted on a poney as lean, rough, and dwarfish as its rider, overtook and passed them. The unknown gentleman called after him to ask if he had seen a Highland youth, whose person he described according to Barharror’s statement, and was answered in a strong voice with a harsh accent, “There’s na muckle distance atween an honest man and a knave now, and I canna tell what I ha’ seen before.”—This churlish jest was half lost in the trampling of his steed’s rugged hoofs, and the two travellers, secretly rejoicing in what they deemed a second escape, made a social entry into the yard of the old Duke’s-head. The land-lady, a brisk dark eyed widow, in all the attractions of grey stockings, silver-buckled shoes, laced mob-cap, and a curiously stiff chintz, received Mr. Barharror with the gleeful hospitality of ancient days, and his companion with very respectful courtesy, which implied acquaintance. The latter, in the course of conversation on the road, had shewn a perfect knowledge of Barharror’s name and connections; and he, on his part, found no difficulty in recalling a general remembrance of his new friend’s person and handsome features. An hour passed by the bright fire and large silver tankard of this good old inn, gave such success to the young man’s eloquence, and such new vigour to Barharror’s spirits, that he agreed to travel onwards with all speed. It was yet no more than the eighth hour of a brilliant night, and the next stage or town only eleven miles distant. Their horses were brought out, Barharror’s foot was in the stirrup, when his son’s billet fell from his bosom to the ground. He stooped to take it up, and the bright spots of blood upon it catching his eye, a deadly coldness and a strange agony came over his heart. He grew faint, and stepped back on the threshold of the inn.—“Will you not ride on, Birkthistle?” said the young man, gaily addressing him by his well-known appellation, “this air is reviving, and your affair bears no delay.”—“t must bear some thought, however,” he replied—“I will neither stop payment to that boy, nor raise a hue and cry against him—My son’s blood is on my hands already:” and, with a shudder in which even his heart partook, the father returned to occupy his room again, while the young horseman pursued his journey.

Midnight had scarcely arrived, when a great tumult was heard in the inn- yard, caused by some travellers whose dog had led them to the body of a man still warm, but mortally wounded. It seemed, they said, the body of a fair and well-shaped youth; and the father, haunted with frightful doubts of his son’s fate, dared not encounter what might realize his terrors. He receded from the spectacle in an agony which might have been misconstrued, had circumstances permitted suspicion. But he was soon informed that every traveller, whether suspicious or not, would be required to appear before the dying man, whose senses remained sufficiently to identify his murderer. Public-houses and bye-roads were searched, and every straggler hurried into his presence. Barharror gathered up his soul enough to enter among the rest, and hazard a look—that look discovered not his son, but the unhappy boy who had come, as he said, to procure his ransom. If indeed he was his son’s true emissary, the rifled and torn state of his apparel proved that his mission had been baffled: if not, his imposture had been fatally punished and defeated. Fraser’s eyes gleamed for an instant as he entered, and his gestures seemed to indicate how desperately he had defended the ransom-money entrusted to him. “My son!—where is my son?” said the father, in agonizing dismay at the doom which might await his offspring if Fraser’s return with the required sum was expected in vain. But the Highlander was speechless, and could only fix his eyes on a man brought into the room after the entrance of Barharror, who instantly recognized the sullen traveller seen under Carlisle walls. Fraser seemed strongly agitated as he looked on him, and made fruitless efforts to articulate. The spectators believed they understood the purpose of his eager struggles, and of his traveller’s shrinking reluctance to approach him. But presently that reluctant air changed into stern and menacing aspect, of which the whole force was turned upon the dying man, who fainted with excess of effort.—“Gentlemen,” said the stranger, whose person had the robust breadth and plain attire of a west-country drover, “if ye have a baillie or town-clerk, it is best to be judicially examínate; but delays are fasheous to a puir man; and I have a tryst to keep wi’ John o’- Birkthistle’s son. I wot ye’ll think John Barharror sponsible bail eneugh.”

He fixed his dark eyes steadily and sternly on Barharror, who stood confounded at this daring appeal, and at his implied knowledge of his son’s condition. The silence of confusion was probably mistaken for assent, and one of the by-standers officiously interposed a comment on the laws against acceptance of bail in cases of felony like this. But as no precise suspicion existed, the debate was ended by requesting him to remain in his apartment in a kind of curteous custody till morning: and Barharror was spared the embarrassment of answering queries respecting him by the crowd’s eagerness in canvassing each other’s opinions, and the clamorous entrance of another groupe, announcing that Clanroy, a notorious thief and plunderer among cattle, had been lately seen in Carlisle. The whole assembly rushed with one accord into the strange traveller’s room, and found it empty. He had escaped from the window, probably with the assistance of his plaid; and when his scarred forehead and red eye-brows were described, the new-comers unanimously recognized the robber. Little as Barharror’s benevolence and sagacity inclined him to trust circumstantial evidence, he instantly ascribed the deed of darkness to this man, and was withheld from joining in pursuit only by the distracting thought that his son’s life might depend on his forbearance. His agony of doubt and fear urged him back into the chamber of the wounded man, from whom he still expected to gain information. But Fraser continued speechless, and the last spasms of life changed his features, while the miserable father watched them in despairing anxiety. Meantime the hue and cry sp.read rapidly through Carlisle and its neighbourhood; every traveller was questioned, and brought, with or without probability of guilt, into the victim’s presence. A vigorous party, stimulated by hope of the reward proffered for the Border-robber, arrived before day-break at Longtown, where a few remained to search the inns, while the rest pursued their scrutiny among the dreary mosses or swamps then between Gretna-green and this place. Without considering the improbability of a proclaimed felon’s open stay at a distinguished inn, the pursuivants entend the Widow Black’s, and made an inquisition among her guests. Several were found who heard the tale of Clanroy’s murderous exploit with seeming surprise and horror. Among them was the young English traveller, whose company had relieved Barharror from the dangerous solitude of his evening journey. He expressed his readiness to return with the messengers to Carlisle; “though,” he added, “I have only slept three hours since Widow Black told me it was nine o’clock.”—“I remember,” she replied, “that you compared your watch with mine, and it was just two minutes later.”—On farther enquiry, the fact of his arrival at that hour, scarcely more than one after he had parted from Barharror, was distinctly proved, and he remounted his horse composedly to revisit Carlisle, accompanied by only one peace-officer and two or three travellers, with whom he conversed familiarly, for he was well respected and often seen in Cumberland. When they reached the ford which it was necessary to cross, one of his companions mounted behind his horse, and before they plunged in, he exclaimed, “John Barharror charged me with a packet to his Glasgow banker to stop payment of the bill he lost. The post-boy yonder will carry it forward, lest it should fail.”—The person he addressed took a paper folded as a letter from his hand, and would have given it to the officer of justice, but he had already crossed the stream. When they reached the opposite shore, the English horseman’s companion refused to quit his seat on the crupper, and they entered Carlisle thus linked together.—“I am sair for these gude people’s trouble,” said the mistress of the inn—“we have lit the yule candle, and opened the puir lad’s door that the spirit may pass out easily, but he will never see or say ony thing mair in this world”—And she walked before them into the death-chamber. Her anxious and eager face as she held the watchlight over a bed surrounded with the wild figures of Highlanders and Lowlanders in every attitude of curiosity and expectation, was touchingly contrasted by the still and pale countenance of the sufferer. But when that light fell on the young English traveller, his eyes flashed fire, he raised himself half-erect, uttered shrilly, “It is he!” and expired.

These three words stupified the witnesses with wonder and consternation; but when the officer of justice displayed the pretended letter containing Barharror’s bill of exchange, his guilt permitted no doubt. He was, he confessed, an adventurer, whose family-pride and expenses had far surpassed his means; and the templation offered by his meeting on the road, between Longtown and Carlisle, with the young mountaineer who had possessed himself of so rich a prize, overcame his slight conscience, which he soothed by imagining that he robbed only a robher. But Fraser had been a faithful messenger, not a daring impostor; and he sacrificed his life in striving to defend the paper by which he hoped to ransom his young master. Clanroy himself, whom chance rendered a spectator of his fate at Carlisle, was touched, though an outlaw and a ruffian, by such noble self-devotion, and caused the release of young Barharror from his associates, into whose desperate hands he had fallen.

Old John of Birkthistle received his son, and congratulated himself on his own escape from death with the solemn gladness claimed by the invisible hand of Providence. And his descendants have often seen him shed tears on the spot where the fair-seeming Englishman suffered public execution, and on the mountain road where the sycamore still lives which he planted in memory of Sandy Fraser.


(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 73, May 1818, pp. 385-389