Home  »  Guy Mannering, or the Astrologer  »  Chapter XXIII

Sir Walter Scott. (1771–1832). Guy Mannering.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter XXIII

  • Gallows and knock are too powerful on the highway.
  • Winter’s Tale.

  • THE HINT of the hospitable farmer was not lost on Brown. But, while he paid his reckoning, he could not avoid repeatedly fixing his eyes on Meg Merrilies. She was, in all respects, the same witch-like figure as when we first introduced her at Ellangowan-Place. Time had grizzled her raven locks, and added wrinkles to her wild features, but her height remained erect and her activity was unimpaired. It was remarked of this woman, as of others of the same description, that a life of action, though not of labour, gave her the perfect command of her limbs and figure, so that the attitudes into which she most naturally threw herself, were free, unconstrained, and picturesque. At present, she stood by the window of the cottage, her person drawn up so as to show to full advantage her masculine stature, and her head somewhat thrown back, that the large bonnet with which her face was shrouded might not interrupt her steady gaze at Brown. At every gesture he made, and every tone he uttered, she seemed to give an almost imperceptible start. On his part, he was surprised to find that he could not look upon this singular figure without some emotion. ‘Have I dreamed of such a figure?’ he said to himself, ‘or does this wild and singular-looking woman recall to my recollection some of the strange figures I have seen in our Indian pagodas?’

    While he embarrassed himself with these discussions, and the hostess was engaged in rummaging out silver in change of half a guinea, the gipsy suddenly made two strides and seized Brown’s hand. He expected, of course, a display of her skill in palmistry, but she seemed agitated by other feelings.

    ‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘tell me, in the name of God, young man, what is your name, and whence you came?’

    ‘My name is Brown, mother, and I come from the East Indies.’

    ‘From the East Indies!’ dropping his hand with a sigh; ‘it cannot be, then—I am such an auld fool, that everything I look on seems the thing I want maist to see. But the East Indies; that cannot be.—Weel, be what ye will, ye hae a face and a tongue that puts me in mind of auld times. Good-day—make haste on your road, and if ye see ony of our folk, meddle not and make not, and they’ll do you nae harm.’

    Brown, who had by this time received his change, put a shilling into her hand, bade his hostess farewell, and taking the route which the farmer had gone before, walked briskly on, with the advantage of being guided by the fresh hoof-prints of his horse. Meg Merrilies looked after him for some time, and then muttered to herself, ‘I maun see that lad again—and I maun gang back to Ellangowan too. The Laird’s dead—Aweel, death pays a’ scores—he was a kind man ance.—The Sheriff’s flitted, and I can keep canny in the bush—so there’s no muckle hazard o’ scouring the cramp-ring.—I would like to see bonny Ellangowan again or I die.’

    Brown, meanwhile, proceeded northward at a round pace along the moorish tract called the Waste of Cumberland. He passed a solitary house, towards which the horseman who preceded him had apparently turned up, for his horse’s tread was evident in that direction. A little farther, he seemed to have returned again into the road. Mr. Dinmont had probably made a visit there either of business or pleasure.—I wish, thought Brown, the good farmer had stayed till I came up; I should not have been sorry to ask him a few questions about the road, which seems to grow wilder and wilder.

    In truth, nature, as if she had designed this tract of country to be the barrier between two hostile nations, has stamped upon it a character of wildness and desolation. The hills are neither high nor rocky, but the land is all heath and morass; the huts poor and mean, and at a great distance from each other. Immediately around them there is generally some little attempt at cultivation; but a half-bred foal or two, straggling about with shackles on their hind legs, to save the trouble of enclosures, intimate the farmer’s chief resource to be the breeding of horses. The people, too, are of a ruder and more inhospitable class than elsewhere to be found in Cumberland, arising partly from their own habits, partly from their intermixture with vagrants and criminals who make this wild country a refuge from justice. So much were the men of these districts in early times the objects of suspicion and dislike to their more polished neighbours, that there was, and perhaps still exists, a by-law of the corporation of Newcastle, prohibiting any freeman of that city to take for apprentice a native of certain of these dales. It is pithily said, ‘Give a dog an ill name and hang him;’ and it may be added, if you give a man or race of men an ill name, they are very likely to do something that deserves hanging. Of this Brown had heard something, and suspected more from the discourse between the landlady, Dinmont, and the gipsy; but he was naturally of a fearless disposition, had nothing about him that could tempt the spoiler, and trusted to get through the Waste with daylight. In this last particular, however, he was likely to be disappointed. The way proved longer than he had anticipated, and the horizon began to grow gloomy, just as he entered upon an extensive morass.

    Choosing his steps with care and deliberation, the young officer proceeded along a path that sometimes sunk between two broken black banks of moss earth, sometimes crossed narrow but deep ravines filled with a consistence between mud and water, and sometimes along heaps of gravel and stones, which had been swept together when some torrent or water-spout from the neighbouring hills overflowed the marshy ground below. He began to ponder how a horseman could make his way through such broken ground; the traces of hoofs, however, were still visible; he even thought he heard their sound at some distance, and, convinced that Mr. Dinmont’s progress through the morass must be still slower than his own, he resolved to push on, in hopes to overtake him and have the benefit of his knowledge of the country. At this moment his little terrier sprung forward, barking most furiously.

    Brown quickened his pace, and, attaining the summit of a small rising ground, saw the subject of the dog’s alarm. In a hollow, about a gunshot below him, a man, whom he easily recognized to be Dinmont, was engaged with two others in a desperate struggle. He was dismounted, and defending himself as he best could with the butt of his heavy whip. Our traveller hastened on to his assistance; but, ere he could get up, a stroke had levelled the farmer with the earth, and one of the robbers, improving his victory, struck him some merciless blows on the head. The other villain, hastening to meet Brown, called to his companion to come along, ‘for that one’s content;—meaning, probably, past resistance or complaint. One ruffian was armed with a cutlass, the other with a bludgeon; but as the road was pretty narrow, ‘bar fire-arms,’ thought Brown, ‘and I may manage them well enough.’—They met accordingly, with the most murderous threats on the parts of the ruffians.

    They soon found, however, that their new opponent was equally stout and resolute; and, after exchanging two or three blows, one of them told him to ‘follow his nose over the heath, in the devil’s name, for they had nothing to say to him.’

    Brown rejected this composition, as leaving to their mercy the unfortunate man whom they were about to pillage, if not to murder outright; and the skirmish had just recommenced, when Dinmont unexpectedly recovered his senses, his feet, and his weapon, and hasted to the scene of action. As he had been no easy antagonist, even when surprised and alone, the villains did not choose to wait his joining forces with a man who had singly proved a match for them both, but fled across the bog as fast as their feet could carry them, pursued by Wasp, who had acted gloriously during the skirmish, annoying the heels of the enemy, and repeatedly effecting a moment’s diversion in his master’s favour.

    ‘Deil, but your dog’s weel entered wi’ the vermin now, sir!’ were the first words uttered by the jolly farmer, as he came up, his head streaming with blood, and recognized his deliverer and his little attendant.

    ‘I hope, sir, you are not hurt dangerously?’

    ‘Oh, deil a bit—my head can stand a gay clour—nae thanks to them, though, and mony to you. But now, hinney, ye maun help me to catch the beast, and ye maun get on behind me, for we maun off like whittrets before the whole clanjamfray be doun upon us—the rest o’ them will no be far off.’ The galloway was, by good fortune, easily caught, and Brown made some apology for overloading the animal.

    ‘Deil a fear, man,’ answered the proprietor; ‘Dumple could carry six folk, if his back was lang eneugh. But God’s sake, haste ye, get on, for I see some folk coming through the slack yonder, that it may be just as weel no to wait for.’

    Brown was of opinion that this apparition of five or six men, with whom the other villains seemed to join company, coming across the moss towards them, should abridge ceremony; he therefore mounted Dumple en croupe, and the little spirited nag cantered away with two men of great size and strength, as if they had been children of six years old. The rider, to whom the paths of these wilds seemed intimately known, pushed on at a rapid pace, managing, with much dexterity, to choose the safest route, in which he was aided by the sagacity of the galloway, who never failed to take the difficult passes exactly at the particular spot, and in the special manner by which they could be most safely crossed. Yet, even with these advantages, the road was so broken, and they were so often thrown out of the direct course by various impediments, that they did not gain much upon their pursuers. ‘Never mind,’ said the undaunted Scotchman to his companion, ‘if ye were ance by Withershin’s latch, the road’s no near sae saft, and we’ll show them fair play for’t.’

    They soon came to the place he named, a narrow channel, through which soaked, rather than flowed, a small stagnant stream, mantled over with bright green mosses. Dinmont directed his steed towards a pass where the water appeared to flow with more freedom over a harder bottom; but Dumple backed from the proposed crossing-place, put his head down as if to reconnoitre the swamp more nearly, stretching forward his fore-feet, and stood as fast as if he had been cut out of stone.

    ‘Had we not better,’ said Brown, ‘dismount, and leave him to his fate?—or can you not urge him through the swamp?’

    ‘Na, na,’ said his pilot, ‘we maun cross Dumple at no rate—he has mair sense than mony a Christian.’ So saying, he relaxed the reins, and shook them loosely. ‘Come now, lad, take your ain way o’t—let’s see where ye’ll take us through’

    Dumple, left to the freedom of his own will, trotted briskly to another part of the latch, less promising, as Brown thought, in appearance, but which the animal’s sagacity or experience recommended as the safer of the two, and where, plunging in, he attained the other side with little difficulty.

    ‘I’m glad we’re out o’ that moss,’ said Dinmont, ‘where there’s mair stables for horses than change-houses for men—we have the Maiden-way to help us now, at ony rate.’ Accordingly, they speedily gained a sort of rugged causeway so called, being the remains of an old Roman road, which traverses these wild regions in a due northerly direction. Here they got on at the rate of nine or ten miles an hour, Dumple seeking no other respite than what arose from changing his pace from canter to trot. ‘I could gar him show mair action,’ said his master, ‘but we are twa lang-legged chields after a’, and it would be a pity to distress Dumple—there wasna the like o’ him at Staneshiebank fair the day.’

    Brown readily assented to the propriety of sparing the horse, and added that, as they were now far out of the reach of the rogues, he thought Mr. Dinmont had better tie a handkerchief round his head, for fear of the cold frosty air aggravating the wound.

    ‘What would I do that for?’ answered the hardy farmer; ‘the best way’s to let the blood barken upon the cut—that saves plasters, hinney.’

    Brown, who in his military profession had seen a great many hard blows pass, could not help remarking, ‘he had never known such severe strokes received with so much apparent indifference.’

    ‘Hout tout, man—I would never be making a humdudgeon about a scart on the pow—but we’ll be in Scotland in five minutes now, and ye maun gang up to Charlies-hope wi’ me, that’s a clear case.’

    Brown readily accepted the offered hospitality. Night was now falling, when they came in sight of a pretty river winding its way through a pastoral country. The hills were greener and more abrupt than those which Brown had lately passed, sinking their grassy sides at once upon the river. They had no pretensions to magnificence of height, or to romantic shapes, nor did their smooth swelling slopes exhibit either rocks or woods. Yet the view was wild, solitary, and pleasingly rural. No enclosures, no roads, almost no tillage—it seemed a land which a patriarch would have chosen to feed his flocks and herds. The remains of here and there a dismantled and ruined tower showed that it had once harboured beings of a very different description from its present inhabitants; namely, those freebooters to whose exploits the wars between England and Scotland bear witness.

    Descending by a path towards a well-known ford, Dumple crossed the small river, and then quickening his pace, trotted about a mile briskly up its banks, and approached two or three low thatched houses, placed with their angles to each other, with a great contempt of regularity. This was the farm-steading of Charlies-hope, or, in the language of the country, ‘the Town.’ A most furious barking was set up at their approach, by the whole three generations of Mustard and Pepper, and a number of allies, names unknown. The farmer made his well-known voice lustily heard to restore order; the door opened, and a halfdressed ewe-milker, who had done that good office, shut it in their faces, in order that she might run ben the house, to cry ‘Mistress, mistress, it’s the master, and another man wi’ him.’ Dumple, turned loose, walked to his own stable-door, and there pawed and whinnied for admission, in strains which were answered by his acquaintances from the interior. Amid this bustle, Brown was fain to secure Wasp from the other dogs, who, with ardour corresponding more to their own names than to the hospitable temper of their owner, were much disposed to use the intruder roughly.

    In about a minute a stout labourer was patting Dumple, and introducing him into the stable, while Mrs. Dinmont, a well-favoured buxom dame, welcomed her husband with unfeigned rapture. ‘Eh, sirs! gudeman, ye hae been a weary while away.’