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   Chapter 14 A REPRIEVE!

A Daughter of Raasay By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 18118

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"My Lord of March, is Arthur Lord Balmerino guilty of High Treason?"

Lord March, youngest peer of the realm, profligate and scoundrel, laid his hand on the place where his heart ought to have been and passed judgment unctuously.

"Guilty, upon my honour."

The Lord High Steward repeated the same question to each of the peers in order of their age and received from each the same answer. As it became plain that the prisoner at the bar was to be convicted the gentleman-gaoler gradually turned the edge of his axe toward Balmerino, whose manner was nonchalant and scornful. When the vote had been polled my Lord bowed to the judges with dignity and remarked, "I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time without avail, my lords. If I pleaded 'not guilty' my principal reason was that the ladies might not miss their show." Shortly afterward he was ushered out of Westminster Hall to his carriage.

From the view-point of the whigs Balmerino was undoubtedly guilty as Lucifer and not all the fair play in the world could have saved him from Tower Hill. He was twice a rebel, having been pardoned for his part in "the '15," and 'twas not to be expected that so hardened an offender would again receive mercy. But at the least he might have been given courtesy, and that neither he nor his two fellows, Kilmarnock and Cromartie, did at all receive. The crown lawyers to the contrary took an unmanly delight in girding and snapping at the captives whom the fortune of war had put in their power. Monstrous charges were trumped up that could not be substantiated, even the Lord High Steward descending to vituperation.

Horry Walpole admitted Balmerino to be the bravest man he had ever seen. Throughout the trial his demeanour had been characteristic of the man, bold and intrepid even to the point of bravado. The stout old lord conversed with the official axe-bearer and felt the edge of the ominous instrument with the unconcern of any chance spectator. There was present a little boy who could see nothing for the crowd and Balmerino alone was unselfish enough to think of him. He made a seat for the child beside himself and took care that he missed nothing of the ceremony. When the Solicitor-General, whose brother, Secretary Murray, had saved his own life by turning evidence against Balmerino, went up to the Scotch Lord and asked him insolently how he dared give the peers so much trouble, Balmerino drew himself up with dignity and asked, "Who is this person?" Being told that it was Mr. Murray, "Oh!" he answered smiling, "Mr. Murray! I am glad to see you. I have been with several of your relations; the good lady your mother was of great use to us at Perth."

Through the crowd I elbowed my way and waited for the three condemned Scotch lords to pass into their carriages. Balmerino, bluff and soldierly, led the way; next came the tall and elegant Kilmarnock; Lord Cromartie, plainly nervous and depressed, brought up the rear. Balmerino recognized me, nodded almost imperceptibly, but of course gave no other sign of knowing the gawky apprentice who gaped at him along with a thousand others. Some one in the crowd cried out, "Which is Balmerino?" The old lord turned courteously, and said with a bow, "I am Balmerino." At the door of the coach he stopped to shake hands with his fellow-sufferers.

"I am sorry that I alone cannot pay the debt, gentlemen. But after all 'tis but what we owe to nature sooner or later, the common debt of all. I bear in mind what Sir Walter Raleigh wrote the night before his head paid forfeit.

"'Cowards fear to die; but courage stout,

Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.'

"Poor Murray drags out a miserable life despised by all, but we go to our God with clean hands. By St. Andrew, the better lot is ours."

"I think of my poor wife and eight fatherless bairns," said Cromartie sadly.

Rough Arthur Elphinstone's comforting hand fell on his shoulder.

"A driech outlook, my friend. You must commend them to the God of orphans if the worst befalls. As for us- Well, in the next world we will not be tried by a whig jury."

Balmerino stepped into the coach which was waiting to convey him to the Tower. The gentleman-gaoler followed with the official axe, the edge of which still pointed toward its victim. He must have handled it carelessly in getting into the carriage, for I heard Balmerino bark out,

"Take care, man, or you'll break my shins with that d--d axe."

They were the last words I ever heard from his lips. The door slammed and the coach drove away to the prison, from which my Lord came forth only to meet the headsman and his block.

Sadly I made my way towards the city through the jostling crowds of sightseers. Another batch of captives from the North was to pass through the town that day on their way to prison, and a fleering rabble surged to and fro about the streets of London in gala dress, boisterous, jovial, pitiless. From high to low by common consent the town made holiday. Above the common ruck, in windows hired for the occasion, the fashionable world, exuding patronage and perfume, sat waiting for the dreary procession to pass. In the windows opposite where I found standing room a party from the West End made much talk and laughter. In the group I recognized Antoinette Westerleigh, Sir James Craven, and Topham Beauclerc.

"Slitterkins! I couldn't get a seat at Westminster Hall this morning for love or money," pouted Mistress Westerleigh. "'Tis pity you men can't find room for a poor girl to see the show."

"Egad, there might as well have been no rebellion at all," said Beauclerc dryly. "Still, you can go to see their heads chopped off. 'Twill be some compensation."

"I suppose you'll go, Selwyn," said Craven to that gentleman, who with Volney had just joined the group.

"I suppose so, and to make amends I'll go to see them sewn on again," returned Selwyn.

"I hear you want the High Steward's wand for a memento," said Beauclerc.

"Not I," returned Selwyn. "I did, but egad! he behaved so like an attorney the first day and so like a pettifogger the second that I wouldn't take the wand to light my fire with."

"Here they come, sink me!" cried Craven, and craned forward to get a first glimpse of the wretched prisoners.

First came four wagon-loads of the wounded, huddled together thick as shrimps, their pallid faces and forlorn appearance a mute cry for sympathy. The mob roared like wild beasts, poured out maledictions on their unkempt heads, hurled stones and sticks at them amid furious din and clamour. At times it seemed as if the prisoners would be torn from the hands of their guard by the excited mob. Scarce any name was found too vile with which to execrate these unfortunate gentlemen who had been guilty of no crime but excessive loyalty.

Some of the captives were destined for the New Prison in Southwark, others for Newgate, and a few for the Marshalsea. Those of the prisoners who were able to walk were handcuffed together in couples, with the exception of a few of the officers who rode on horseback bound hand and foot. Among the horsemen I easily recognized Malcolm Macleod, who sat erect, dour, scornful, his strong face set like a vise, looking neither to the right nor the left. Another batch of foot prisoners followed. Several of the poor fellows were known to me, including Leath, Chadwick, and the lawyer Morgan. My roving eye fell on Creagh and Captain Roy shackled together.

From the window above a piercing cry of agony rang out.

"Tony! Tony!"

Creagh slewed round his head and threw up his free hand.

"'Toinette!" he cried.

But Miss Westerleigh had fainted, and Volney was already carrying her from the window with the flicker of a grim smile on his face. I noticed with relief that Craven had disappeared from sight.

My relief was temporary. When I turned to leave I found my limbs clogged with impedimenta. To each arm hung a bailiff, and a third clung like a leech to my legs. Some paces distant Sir James Craven stood hulloing them to the sport with malign pleasure.

"To it, fustian breeches! Yoho, yoho! There's ten guineas in it for each of you and two hundred for me. 'Slife, down with him, you red-haired fellow! Throw him hard. Ecod, I'll teach you to be rough with Craven, my cockerel Montagu!" And the bully kicked me twice where I lay.

They dragged me to my feet, and Craven began to sharpen his dull wit on me.

"Two hundred guineas I get out of this, you cursed rebel highwayman, besides the pleasure of seeing you wear hemp-and that's worth a hundred more, sink my soul to hell if it isn't."

"Your soul is sunk there long ago, and this blackguard job sends you one circle lower in the Inferno, Catchpoll Craven," said a sneering voice behind him.

Craven swung on his heel in a fury, but Volney's easy manner-and perhaps the reputation of his small sword too-damped the mettle of his courage. He drew back with a curse, whispered a word into the ear of the nearest bailiff, and shouldered his way into the crowd,

from the midst of which he watched us with a sneer.

"And what mad folly, may I ask, brought you back to London a-courting the gallows?" inquired Volney of me.

"Haven't you heard that Malcolm Macleod is taken?" I asked.

"And did you come to exchange places with him? On my soul you're madder than I thought. Couldn't you trust me to see that my future brother-in-law comes to no harm without ramming your own head down the lion's throat? Faith, I think Craven has the right of it: the hempen noose is yawning for such fools as you."

The bailiffs took me to the New Prison and thrust me into an underground cell about the walls of which moisture hung in beads. Like the rest of the prisoners I was heavily ironed by day and fastened down to the floor by a staple at night. One hour in the day we were suffered to go into the yard for exercise and to be inspected and commented upon by the great number of visitors who were allowed access to the prison. On the second day of my arrival I stood blinking in the strong sunlight, having just come up from my dark cell, when two prisoners shuffled across the open to me, their fetters dragging on the ground. Conceive my great joy at finding Creagh and Donald Roy fellow inmates of New Prison with me. Indeed Captain Roy occupied the very next cell to mine.

I shall not weary you with any account of our captivity except to state that the long confinement in my foul cell sapped my health. I fell victim to agues and fevers. Day by day I grew worse until I began to think that 'twas a race between disease and the gallows. Came at last my trial, and prison attendants haled me away to the courts. Poor Leath, white to the lips, was being hustled out of the room just as I entered.

"By Heaven, Montagu, these whigs treat us like dogs," he cried passionately to me. "They are not content with our lives, but must heap foul names and infamy upon us."

The guards hurried us apart before I could answer. I asked one of them what the verdict had been in Leath's case, and the fellow with an evil laugh made a horrid gesture with his hands that confirmed my worst fears.

In the court room I found a frowning judge, a smug-faced yawning jury, and row upon row of eager curious spectators come to see the show. Besides these there were some half-score of my friends attending in the vain hope of lending me countenance. My shifting glance fell on Charles, Cloe, and Aileen, all three with faces like the corpse for colour and despairing eyes which spoke of a hopeless misery. They had fought desperately for my life, but they knew I was doomed. I smiled sadly on them, then turned to shake hands with George Selwyn.

He hoped, in his gentle drawl, that I would win clear. My face lit up at his kindly interest. I was like a drowning man clutching at straws. Even the good-will of a turnkey was of value to me.

"Thanks, Selwyn," I said, a little brokenly. "I'm afraid there's no chance for me, but it's good hearing that you are on my side."

He appeared embarrassed at my eagerness. Not quite good form he thought it, I dare say. His next words damped the glow at my heart.

"'Gad, yes! Of course. I ought to be; bet five ponies with Craven that you would cheat the gallows yet. He gave me odds of three to one, and I thought it a pretty good risk."

It occurred to me fantastically that he was looking me over with the eye of an underwriter who has insured at a heavy premium a rotten hulk bound for stormy seas. I laughed bitterly.

"You may win yet," I said. "This cursed prison fever is eating me up;" and with that I turned my back on him.

I do not intend to go into my trial with any particularity. From first to last I had no chance and everybody in the room understood it. There were a dozen witnesses to prove that I had been in the thick of the rebellion. Among the rest was Volney, in a vile temper at being called on to give testimony. He was one of your reluctant witnesses, showed a decided acrimony toward the prosecution, and had to have the facts drawn out of him as with a forceps. Such a witness, of high social standing and evidently anxious to shield me, was worth to the State more than all the other paltry witnesses combined. The jury voted guilty without leaving the court-room, after which the judge donned his black cap and pronounced the horrible judgment which was the doom of traitors. I was gash with fear, but I looked him in the face and took it smilingly. It was Volney who led the murmur of approval which greeted my audacity, a murmur which broke frankly into applause when Aileen, white to the lips, came fearlessly up to bid me be of good cheer, that she would save me yet if the importunity of a woman would avail aught.

Wearily the days dragged themselves into weeks, and still no word of hope came to cheer me. There was, however, one incident that gave me much pleasure. On the afternoon before the day set for our execution Donald Roy made his escape. Some one had given him a file and he had been tinkering at his irons for days. We were in the yard for our period of exercise, and half a dozen of us, pretending to be in earnest conversation together, surrounded him while he snapped the irons. Some days before this time he had asked permission to wear the English dress, and he now coolly sauntered out of the prison with some of the visitors quite unnoticed by the guard.

The morning dawned on which nine of us were to be executed. Our coffee was served to us in the room off the yard, and we drank it in silence. I noticed gladly that Macdonald was not with us, and from that argued that he had not been recaptured.

"Here's wishing him a safe escape from the country," said Creagh.

"Lucky dog!" murmured Leath, "I hope they won't nail him again."

Brandy was served. Creagh named the toast and we drank it standing.

"King James!"

The governor of the prison bustled in just as the broken glasses shivered behind us.

"Now gentlemen, if you are quite ready."

Three sledges waited for us in the yard to draw us to the gallows tree. There was no cowardly feeling, but perhaps a little dilatoriness in getting into the first sledge. Five minutes might bring a reprieve for any of us, and to be in the first sledge might mean the difference between life and death.

"Come, gentlemen! If you please! Let us have no more halting," said the governor, irritably.

Creagh laughed hardily and vaulted into the sledge. "Egad, you're right! We'll try a little haltering for a change."

Morgan followed him, and I took the third place.

A rider dismounted at the prison gate.

"Is there any news for me?" asked one poor fellow eagerly.

"Yes, the sheriff has just come and is waiting for you," jeered one of the guards with brutal frankness.

The poor fellow stiffened at once. "Very well. I am ready."

A heavy rain was falling, but the crowd between the prison and Kennington Common was immense. At the time of our trials the mob had treated us in ruffianly fashion, but now we found a respectful silence. The lawyer Morgan was in an extremely irritable mood. All the way to the Common he poured into our inattentive ears a tale of woe about how his coffee had been cold that morning. Over and over again he recited to us the legal procedure for bringing the matter into the courts with sufficient effect to have the prison governor removed from his position.

A messenger with an official document was waiting for us at the gallows. The sheriff tore it open. We had all been bearing ourselves boldly enough I dare say, but at sight of that paper our lips parched, our throats choked, and our eyes burned. Some one was to be pardoned or reprieved. But who? What a moment! How the horror of it lives in one's mind! Leisurely the sheriff read the document through, then deliberately went over it again while nine hearts stood still. Creagh found the hardihood at that moment of intense anxiety to complain of the rope about his neck.

"I wish the gossoon who made this halter was to be hanged in it. 'Slife, the thing doesn't fit by a mile," he said jauntily.

"Mr. Anthony Creagh pardoned, Mr. Kenneth Montagu reprieved," said the sheriff without a trace of feeling in his voice.

For an instant the world swam dizzily before me. I closed my eyes, partly from faintness, partly to hide from the other poor fellows the joy that leaped to them. One by one the brave lads came up and shook hands with Creagh and me in congratulation. Their good-will took me by the throat, and I could only wring their hands in silence.

On our way back to the prison Creagh turned to me with streaming eyes. "Do you know whom I have to thank for this, Kenneth?"

"No. Whom?"

"Antoinette Westerleigh, God bless her dear heart!"

And that set me wondering. It might be that Charles and Aileen alone had won my reprieve for me, but I suspected Volney's fine hand in the matter. Whether he had stirred himself in my affairs or not, I knew that I too owed my life none the less to the leal heart of a girl.

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