Copyright
Elizabeth Wilson Grierson.

Tales From Scottish Ballads online

. (page 3 of 17)
Online LibraryElizabeth Wilson GriersonTales From Scottish Ballads → online text (page 3 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


I followed in the rear with a heavy heart. I could easily have escaped
had I wanted to do so, for no one paid any attention to me; but I felt
that, as long as I could, I must stay near my father, whose massive head
and proud set face I could see towering above the surrounding soldiers,
for he was many inches taller than any of them.

The spring evening was fast drawing to a close as we came to the banks
of the Liddle, and splashed down a stony track to a place where there
was a ford. As we paused for a moment or two to give the horses a drink,
my father's voice rang out above the careless jesting of the troopers.

"Let me say good-bye to my eldest son, Sakelde, and send him home; or do
the English war with bairns?"

I saw the blood rise to the English leader's thin sallow face at the
taunt, but he answered quietly enough, "Let the boy speak to him and
then go back," and a way was opened up for me to where my father sat, a
bound and helpless prisoner, on his huge white horse.

One trooper, kinder than the rest, took my pony's rein as I slid off its
back and ran to him. Many a time when I was little, had I had a ride on
White Charlie, and I needed no help to scramble up to my old place on
the big horse's neck.

My father could not move, but he looked down at me with all the anger
and defiance gone out of his face, and a look on it which I had only
seen there once before, and that was when he lifted me up on his knee
after my mother died and told me that I must do my best to help him, and
try to look after the little ones.

That look upset me altogether, and, forgetting the many eyes that
watched us, and the fact that I was eleven years old, and almost a man,
I threw my arms round his neck and kissed him again and again, sobbing
and greeting as any bairn might have done, all the time.

"Ride home, laddie, and God be with ye. Remember if I fall that thou art
the head of the house, and see that thou do honour to the name," he said
aloud. Then he signed to me to go, and, just as I was clambering down,
resting a toe in his stirrup, he made a tremendous effort and bent down
over me. "If thou could'st but get word to the Lord of Buccleuch,
laddie, 'tis my only chance. They dare not touch me for two days yet.
Tell him I was ta'en by treachery at the time o' truce."

The whisper was so low I could hardly hear it, and yet in a moment I
understood all it was meant to convey, and my heart beat until I thought
that the whole of Sakelde's troopers must read my secret in my face as I
passed through them to where my pony stood.

With a word of thanks I took the rein from the kindly man who had held
it, and then stood watching the body of riders as they splashed through
the ford, and disappeared in the twilight, leaving me alone.

But I felt there was work for me to do, and a ray of hope stole into my
heart. True, it was more than twenty miles, as the crow flies, to
Branksome Tower in Teviotdale, where my Lord of Buccleuch lived, and I
did not know the road, which lay over some of the wildest hills of the
Border country, but I knew that he was a great man, holding King James'
commission as Warden of the Scottish Marches, and at his bidding the
whole countryside would rise to a man. 'Twas well known that he bore no
love to the English, and when he knew that my father had been taken in
time of truce...! The fierce anger rose in my heart at the thought,
and, burying my face in my pony's rough coat, I vowed a vow, boy as I
was, to be at Branksome by the morning, or die in the attempt. I knew
that it was no use going home to Kinmont for a man to ride with me, for
it was out of my way, and would only be a waste of time.

It was almost dark now, but I knew that the moon would rise in three or
four hours, and then there would be light enough for me to try to thread
my way over the hills that lay between the valleys of the Teviot and
Liddle. In the meantime, there was no special need to hurry, so I
loosened my pony's rein, and let him nibble away at the short sweet
grass which was just beginning to spring, while I unbuckled the bag of
cakes which I had put up so gaily in the morning, and, taking one out,
along with a bit of cheese, did my best to make a hearty meal. But I was
not very successful, for when the heart is heavy, food goes down but
slowly, and Janet's oatcake and the good ewe cheese, which at other
times I found so toothsome, seemed fairly to stick in my throat, so at
last I gave it up, and, taking the pony by the head, I began to lead him
up the valley.

Although I had been down the Liddle as far as the ford once or twice
before, it had always been in daylight, and my father had been with me;
but I knew that as long as I kept close to the river I was all right for
the first few miles, until the valley narrowed in, and then I must
strike off among the high hills on my left.

It was slow work, for it was too dark to ride, and I dare not leave the
water in case I lost my way, and by the time we had gone mayhap four or
five miles, I had almost lost heart, for I was both tired and cold, and
it seemed to me that half the night at least must be gone, and at this
rate we would never reach Branksome at all.

At last, just when the tears were getting very near my eyes - for I was
but a little chap to be set on such a desperate errand - I struck on a
narrow road which led up a brae to my left, and going along it for a
hundred yards or so, I saw a light which seemed to come from a cottage
window. I stopped and looked at it, wondering if I dare go boldly up and
knock.

In those lawless days one had to be cautious about going up to strange
houses, for one never knew whether one would find a friend or an enemy
within, so I determined to tie my pony to a tree, and steal noiselessly
up to the building, and see what sort of place it was.

I did so, and found that the light came from a tiny thatched cottage
standing by itself, sheltered by some fir trees. There appeared to be no
dogs about, so I crept quite close to the little window, and peered in
through a hole in the shutter. I could see the inside of the room quite
plainly; it was poorly furnished, but beautifully clean. In a corner
opposite the window stood a rough settle, while on a three-legged stool
by the peat fire sat an old woman knitting busily, a collie dog at her
feet.

There could be nothing to fear from her, so I knocked boldly at the
door. The collie flew to the back of it barking furiously, but I heard
the old woman calling him back, and presently she peeped out, asking who
was there.

"'Tis I, Jock Armstrong of Kinmont," I said, "and I fain would be guided
as to the quickest road to Branksome Tower."

The old woman peered over my head into the darkness, evidently expecting
to see someone standing behind me.

"I ken Willie o' Kinmont; but he's a grown man," she said suspiciously,
making as though she would shut the door.

"He's my father," I cried, vainly endeavouring to keep my voice steady,
"and - and - I have a message to carry from him to the Lord of Buccleuch
at Branksome." I would fain have told the whole story, but I knew it was
better to be cautious. I was still no distance from the English Border,
and it would take away the last chance of saving my father's life, were
Sakelde to get to know that word of his doings were like to reach the
Scottish Warden's ears.

"Loshsake, laddie!" exclaimed the old dame in astonishment, setting the
door wide open so that the light might fall full on me, "'tis full
twenty miles tae Branksome, an' it's a bad road ower the hills."

"But I have a pony," I said. "'Tis tied up down the roadway there, and
the moon will rise."

"That it will in an hour or two, but all the same I misdoubt me that
you'll lose your road. What's the matter wi' Kinmont Willie, that he has
tae send a bairn like you his messages? Ye needna' be feared to speak
out," she added as I hesitated; "Kinmont Willie is a friend of mine - at
least, he did my goodman and me a good turn once - and I would like to
pay it back again if I could."

I needed no second bidding; it was such a relief to have someone to
share the burden, and I felt better as soon as I had told her, even
although the telling brought the tears to my eyes.

The old woman listened attentively, and then shook her fist in the
direction which the English had taken.

"He's a fause loon that Sakelde," she said, "and I'd walk to Carlisle
any day to see him hanged. 'Twas he who stole our sheep, two years past
at Martinmas, and 'twas your father brought them back again. But keep up
your heart, my man; if you can get to the Bold Buccleuch he'll put
things right, I'll warrant, and I'll do all I can for you. Go inbye, and
sit down by the fire, and I'll go down the road and fetch the nag.
You'll both be the better for a rest, and a bite o' something to eat,
and when the moon is risen I'll take you up the hill, and show you the
track. My goodman is away at Hawick market, or he would ha'e ridden a
bit of the road wi' ye."

When I was a little fellow, before my mother died, she used to read me
lessons out of her great Bible with the silver clasps, and of all the
stories she read to me, I liked the lesson of the Good Samaritan best,
and, looking back, now that I am a grown man, it seems to me that I met
the Good Samaritan that night, only he was a woman.

After Allison Elliot, for that was her name, had brought my pony into
her cow-house, and seen that he was supplied with both hay and water,
she returned to the cottage, and with her own hands took off my coarse
woollen hose and heavy shoon, and spread them on the hearth to dry, then
she made me lie down on the settle, and, covering me up with a plaid,
she bade me go to sleep, promising to wake me the moment the moon rose.

It was nearly eleven o'clock when she shook me gently, bidding me get up
and put on my shoon, as it was time to be going, and, sitting up, I
found a supper of wheaten bread and hot milk on the table, which she
told me to eat, while she wrapped herself in a plaid and went out for
the nag.

What with the sleep, and the dry clothes, and the warm food, I promise
you I felt twice the man I had done a few hours earlier, and I chattered
quite gaily to her as she led my pony up a steep hillside behind the
cottage, for the moon was only beginning to rise, and there was still
but little light. After we had gone some two miles, we struck a bridle
track, well trodden by horses' hoofs, which wound upwards between two
high hills.

Here Allison paused and looked keenly at the ground.

"This is the path," she said; "you can hardly lose it, for there have
been riders over it yesterday or the day before. Scott o' Haining and
his men, most likely, going home from their meeting at the Kershope
Burn. This will lead you over by Priesthaugh Swire, and down the Allan
into Teviotdale. Beware of a bog which you will pass some two miles on
this side of Priesthaugh. 'Tis the mire Queen Mary stuck in when she
rode to visit her lover when he lay sick at Hermitage. May the Lord be
good to you, laddie, and grant you a safe convoy, for ye carry a brave
heart in that little body o' yours!"

I thanked her with all my might, promising to go back and see her if my
errand were successful; then I turned my pony's head to the hills, and
spurred him into a brisk canter. He was a willing little beast, and
mightily refreshed by Allison Elliot's hay, and, as the moon was now
shining clearly, we made steady progress; but it was a long lonely ride
for a boy of my age, and once or twice my courage nearly failed me: once
when my pony put his foot into a sheep drain, and stumbled, throwing me
clean over his head, and again when I missed the track, and rode
straight into the bog Allison had warned me about, and in which the
little beast was near sticking altogether, and I lost a good hour
getting him to firm land and finding the track again.

The bright morning sun was showing above the Eastern horizon before I
left the weary hills behind me, but it was easy work to ride down the
sloping banks of the Allan, and soon I came to the wooded valley of the
Teviot.

Urging on my tired pony, I cantered down the level haughs which lay by
the river side, and it was not long before Branksome came in sight, a
high square house, with many rows of windows, flanked by a massive
square tower at each corner.

I rode up to the great doorway through an avenue of beeches and knocked
timidly on the wrought-iron knocker, for I had never been to such a big
house in my life before, and I felt that I made but a sorry figure,
splashed as I was with mud from head to foot.

The old seneschal who came to the door seemed to think so too, for he
looked me up and down with a broad grin on his face before he asked who
I was, and on what business I had come.

"To see my Lord of Buccleuch, and carry a message to him from William
Armstrong of Kinmont," I replied, with as much dignity as I could
muster, for the fellow's smile angered me, and I feared that he might
not think it worth his while to tell the Warden of my arrival.

"Then thou shalt see Sir Walter at once, young sir, if thou wilt walk
this way," said the man, mimicking my voice good-naturedly, and,
hitching my pony's bridle to an iron ring in the door-post, he led me
along a stone passage, straight into a great vaulted hall, in the centre
of which stood a long wooden table, with a smaller one standing
crossways on a dais at its head.

A crowd of squires and men-at-arms stood round the lower table, laughing
and jesting as they helped themselves with their hunting knives to
slices from the huge joints, or quaffed great tankards of ale, while up
at the top sat my Lord of Buccleuch himself, surrounded by his knights,
and waited on by smart pages in livery, boys about my own age.

As the old seneschal appeared in the doorway there was a sudden silence,
while he announced in a loud voice that a messenger had arrived from
William Armstrong of Kinmont; but when he stepped aside, and everyone
saw that the messenger was only a little eleven-years-old lad, a loud
laugh went round the hall, and the smart pages whispered together and
pointed to my muddy clothes.

When the old seneschal saw this, he gave me a kindly nudge.

"Yonder is my Lord of Buccleuch at the top of the table," he whispered;
"go right up to him, and speak out thy message boldly."

I did as I was bid, though I felt my cheeks burn as I walked up the
great hall, among staring men and whispering pages, and when I reached
the dais where the Warden sat, I knelt at his feet, cap in hand, as my
father had taught me to do before my betters.

Sir Walter Scott, Lord of Buccleuch, of whom I had heard so much, was a
young, stern-looking man, with curly brown hair and keen blue eyes. His
word was law on the Borders, and people said that even the King, in
far-off Edinburgh, stood in awe of him; but he leant forward and spoke
kindly enough to me.

"So thou comest from Armstrong of Kinmont, boy; and had Kinmont Willie
no better messenger at hand, that he had to fall back on a smatchet like
thee?"

"There were plenty of men at Kinmont, an' it please your lordship," I
answered, "had I had time to seek them; but a man called Sakelde hath
ta'en my father prisoner, and carried him to Carlisle, and I have ridden
all night to tell thee of it, for he is like to be hanged the day after
to-morrow, if thou canst not save him."

Here my voice gave way, and I could only cling to the great man's knee,
for my quivering lips refused to say any more.

Buccleuch put his arm round me, and spoke slowly, as one would speak to
a bairn.

"And who is thy father, little man?"

"Kinmont Willie," I gasped, "and he was ta'en last night, in truce
time."

I felt the arm that was round me stiffen, and there was silence for a
moment, then my lord swore a great oath, and let his clenched fist fall
so heavily on the table, that the red French wine which stood before him
splashed right out of the beaker, a foot or two in the air.

"My Lord of Scroope shall answer for this," he cried. "Hath he forgotten
that men name me the Bold Buccleuch, and that I am Keeper o' the
Scottish Marches, to see that justice is done to high and low, gentle
and simple?"

Then he gave some quick, sharp orders, and ten or twelve men left the
room, and a minute later I saw them, through a casement, throw
themselves astride their horses, and gallop out of the courtyard. At the
sight my heart lightened, for I knew that whatever could be done for my
father would be done, for these men had gone to "warn the waters," or,
in other words, to carry the tidings far and wide, and bid all the men
of the Western Border be ready to meet their chief at some given
trysting-place, and ride with him to the rescue.

Meanwhile the Warden lifted me on his knee, and began asking me
questions, while the pages gathered round, no longer jeering, but with
wide-open eyes.

"Thou art a brave lad," he said at last, after I had told him the whole
story, "and, with thy father's permission, I would fain have thee for
one of my pages. We must tell him how well thou hast carried the
message, and ask him if he can spare thee for a year or two."

At any other time my heart would have leapt at this unheard-of good
fortune, for to be a page in the Warden's household was the ambition of
every well-born lad on the Border; but at that moment I felt as if
Buccleuch hardly realised my father's danger.

"But he is lodged in Carlisle Castle, and men say the walls are thick,"
I said anxiously, "and it is garrisoned by my Lord Scroope's soldiers."

The Warden laughed.

"We will teach my Lord Scroope that there is no bird's nest that the
Bold Buccleuch dare not harry," he said, and, seeing the look on his
face, I was content.

Then, noticing how weary I was, he called one of the older pages, and
bade him see that I had food and rest, and the boy, who had been one of
the first to laugh before, but who now treated me with great respect,
took me away to a little turret room which he shared with some of his
fellows, and brought me a piece of venison pie, and then left me to go
to sleep on his low pallet, promising to wake me when there were signs
of the Warden and his men setting out.

I must have slept the whole day, for the little room was almost dark
again, and the rain was beating wildly on the casement, when the boy
came back. "My lord hath given orders for the horses to be saddled," he
said, "and the trysting-place is Woodhouselee. I heard one squire tell
another in the hall, for as a rule we pages know nothing, and are only
expected to do as we are bid. I know not if my lord means thee to ride
with him, but I was sent up to fetch thee."

It did not take me long to spring up and fasten my doublet, and follow
my guide down to the great hall. Here all was bustle and confusion; men
were standing about ready armed, making a hasty meal at the long table,
which never seemed to be empty of its load of food, while outside in the
courtyard some fifty or sixty horses were standing, ready saddled, with
bags of fodder thrown over their necks.

Every few minutes a handful of men would ride up in the dusk, and,
leaving their rough mountain ponies outside, would stride into the hall,
and begin to eat as hard as they could, exchanging greetings between the
mouthfuls. These were men from the neighbourhood, my friend informed me,
mostly kinsmen of Buccleuch, and lairds in their own right, who had
ridden to Branksome with their men to start with their chief.

There was Scott of Harden, and Scott of Goldilands, Scott of Commonside,
and Scott of Allanhaugh, and many more whom I do not now remember, and
they drank their ale, and laughed and joked, as if they were riding to a
wedding, instead of on an errand which might cost them their lives.

Buccleuch himself was in the midst of them, booted and spurred, and
presently his eye fell on me.

"Ha! my young cocksparrow," he cried. "Wilt ride with us to greet thy
father, or are thy bones too weary? Small shame 'twould be to thee if
they were."

"Oh, if it please thee, sire, let me ride," I said; "I am not too weary,
if my pony is not," at which reply everyone laughed.

"I hear thy pony can scarce hirple on three legs," answered my lord,
clapping me on my shoulder, "but I like a lad of spirit, and go thou
shalt. Here, Red Rowan, take him up in front of thee, and see that a
horse be led for Kinmont to ride home on."

I was about to protest that I was not a bairn to ride in front of any
man, but Buccleuch turned away as if the matter were settled, and the
big trooper who came up and took me in charge persuaded me to do as I
was bid. "'Tis a dark night, laddie, and we ride fast," he said, "and my
lord would be angered didst thou lose thy way, or fall behind," and
although my pride was nettled at first, I was soon fain to confess that
he was right, for the horses swung out into the wind and rain, and took
to the hills at a steady trot, keeping together in the darkness in a way
that astonished me. Red Rowan had a plaid on his shoulders which he
twisted round me, and which sheltered me a little from the driving rain,
and I think I must have dozed at intervals, for it seemed no time until
we were over the hills, and down at Woodhouselee in Canonbie, where a
great band of men were waiting for us, who had gathered from Liddesdale
and Hermitage Water.

With scarcely a word they joined our ranks, and we rode silently and
swiftly on, across the Esk, and the Graeme's country, until we reached
the banks of the Eden.

Here we came to a standstill, for the river was so swollen with the
recent rains that it seemed madness for any man to venture into the
rushing torrent; but men who had ridden so far, and on such an errand,
were not to be easily daunted.

"This way, lads, and keep your horses' heads to the stream," shouted a
voice, and with a scramble we were down the bank, and the nags were
swimming for dear life. I confess now, that at that moment I thought my
last hour had come, for the swirling water was within an inch of my
toes, and I clung to Red Rowan's coat with all the strength I had, and
shut my eyes, and tried to think of my prayers. But it was soon over,
and on the other side we waited a minute to see if any man were missing.
Everyone was safe, however, and on we went till we were close on
Carlisle, and could see the lights of the Castle rising up above the
city wall.

Then Buccleuch called a halt, and everyone dismounted, and some forty
men, throwing their bridle reins to their comrades, stepped to the
front. Red Rowan was one of them, and I kept close to his side.

Everything must have been arranged beforehand, for not a word was
spoken, but by the light of a single torch the little band arranged
themselves in order, while I watched with wide-open eyes. They were not
all armed, but they all had their hands full.

In the very front were ten men carrying hunting-horns and bugles; then
came ten carrying three or four long ladders, which must have been
brought with us on ponies' backs. Then came other ten, armed with great
iron bars and forehammers; and only the last ten, among whom was the
Warden himself and Red Rowan, were prepared as if for fighting.

At the word of command they set out, with long steady strides, and as no
one noticed me, I went too, running all the time in order to keep up
with them.

The Castle stood to the north side of the little city, close to the city
wall, and the courtyard lay just below it. We stole up like cats in the
darkness, fearful lest someone might hear us and give the alarm.
Everyone seemed to be asleep, however, or else the roaring of the wind
deadened the noise of our footsteps. In any case we reached the wall in
safety, and as we stood at the bottom of it waiting till the men tied
the ladders together, we could hear the sentries in the courtyard
challenge as they went their rounds.

At last the ladders were ready, and Buccleuch gave his whispered orders
before they were raised.

No man was to be killed, he said, if it could possibly be helped, as the
two countries were at peace with each other, and he had no mind to stir
up strife. All he wanted was the rescue of my father.

Then the ladders were raised, and bitter was the disappointment when it
was found that they were too short. For a moment it seemed as if we had
come all the weary way for nothing.

"It matters not, lads," said the Warden cheerily; "there be more ways of
robbing a corbie's nest than one. Bide you here by the little postern,
and Wat Scott and Red Rowan and I will prowl round, and see what we can


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryElizabeth Wilson GriersonTales From Scottish Ballads → online text (page 3 of 17)