“The storms of ruthless dispensation
Have struck my flowery garland numb,
I live in lonely desolation
And wonder when my end will come.
Thus on a naked tree-limb, blasted
By tardy winter’s whistling chill,
A single leaf which has outlasted
Its season will be trembling still.”
It was an unusually cold April even for Scotland and I shuddered at the chill passing of the wind as I crept in the shadows alongside the roads and byways that led from Stanehyve to the outlying moors. At the sound of every passing carriage or horse, I stayed my steps and waited until the sound of it died away, my heart and breath almost stopping with terror. I was aware of what a ghastly sight I would have made to some poor, passing traveller, covered in the blood of my jailer, shivering and pale, more monstrous than pitiful. Even my pathetic attempts to explain and vouch for myself might have incriminated rather than redeemed me – I was not even certain that I could have spoken a word of coherent English in my state.
So, sensing myself loathed and execrated by my own species, forever separated from the only society that I had known since childhood, I wandered in the darkness for what seemed an eternity. But desperation soon gave way to a kind of weary, breathless despair; my body began to rebel against my spirit and my knees buckled, forcing me to collapse into the shadowy earth. I breathed in deep gasping breaths, struggling to regain my spent energy; alas, my weariness only seemed to redouble, as my vision blurred and darkened, sinking me into a swoon-like sleep.
They say that for the suffering soul, there is no deeper agony than the poignant recollection of a past joy forever lost – a golden ray of blessed remembrance that, rather than revealing hope, only serves to mock the damned spirit. But when I closed my eyes and when my spirit unwillingly descended into the arms of Morpheus, what joyous memories could rise to torment me? Alas, since childhood, even my dearest joys had been tinctured with a frisson of darkness and terror; in my sleep, I murmured “cursed, cursed” as I leaned in the arms of my mistress the Lady Rebecca Claremont or dropped my head upon the breast of Judge Complin himself, for in every dreamt, remembered embrace I felt the very fleetingness of my momentary security. For what true haven had my memories recourse to fly to? Were not all the havens that I had sought and sheltered in – were they not all fashioned by my torturers? Was not the hand that comforted me also the very hand that scourged me? Eventually, even my dreams ceased, and my very consciousness sank under the weight of a heavy, almost breathless repose.
I awoke a little before dawn, my clothes and hair drenched in dew, my muscles stiff and sore from incessant shivering – but at liberty, with the open sky above me and the delicious thrill of having thwarted my persecutor now coursing through me for the first time. The disquiet and guilt that I had felt before still lingered but had thawed substantially, warmed and dispelled by my increased awareness of the freedom that had so long been stolen from me and that was now restored. I rose shakily to my feet, and murmured: “O, Complin, here at last do I no longer feel thy awful grip upon my fate!”
No sooner had these words passed my lips than I felt the earth tremble beneath me and I heard the thunderous approach of horses. Guessing that it was this that had awakened me from my slumber, I took to my heels and fled deeper into the forest, farther from the reaches of Stanehyve.
The approaching dawn filled the dense woodland with a grey light and I knew that my chances of being spied were, alas, much greater. Casting my eye frantically about for some shelter, I caught sight of a ruined little cottage and with all haste made for it. This was, in hindsight, not a particularly wise course of action – but what else could be done? Were I to maintain my flight within the forest, I would assuredly be caught in an instant, for I had no way to conceal myself from my pursuers. I made for a tall woodpile that stood by one wall of the cottage and, though with some difficulty and pain, managed to force my bruised body between those splintering logs and the cottage wall, effectively placing myself out of the immediate sight of whomsoever approached.
Nor was I long in discovering who I fled, for almost as soon as I had sheltered myself, a group of seven horsemen emerged from the forest; moreover, I saw with a sinking heart that rather than passing by the cottage, they were making straight for it. I could not see too clearly through the gap in between the woodpile and the wall, but from what little I could make out, the aspect of the horsemen seemed to suggest that they were not members of the town militia. They did not have the look of a motley group of assembled tradesmen with orders to search for an escaped convict. Rather, there was a peculiarly lazy, detached look about them that put me more in mind of a group of mercenaries or practiced legionnaires – hardly a crew of civilians more accustomed to holding quills or ploughshares rather than swords and muskets.
One of these horsemen rapped upon the cottage door with his riding crop, remarking to his smiling comrades that “whatever wench dwells in this ill-favoured little habitation, she will surely feel a nasty shock at the sight of us, whether she is harbouring the young murderer or not.” I turned cold at these words as my worst fears were confirmed, but I had little time to dwell on my own dreading convictions, for my attention was soon drawn to the stooped old woman who answered the door to this band of ruffians.
“How can I help you, my children?” she asked. “You come to me as though to an armed foe. For what purpose are you here?”
“Captain James Baillie at your service, good mother,” said their leader, bowing his head with an air of merry good-humor. “We would only ask a few questions touching upon the recent escape of a prisoner, a young Mr. Alan Williams, who lately made away from Stanehyve jail.”
Now that he stood at less a distance from where I was hidden, I had a clearer sight of the kind of man that this Captain Baillie was. The grey that faintly touched his hair put him closer to Judge Complin’s age than the age of the young men who made up the rest of that formidable gathering, but the Highland accent in his voice was far more pronounced than the Judge’s. Moreover, in spite of the friendly, easy air with which he addressed the old dame, there was an uprightness in his bearing, a certain careful, speculative air with which he appraised the forest line, that betrayed a martial training. Why in God’s name, I wondered, was a military man like this involving himself in such a petty search?
“I have seen no one, Captain Baillie,” the old woman replied. “But will hasten to the village and inform the militia if I spy anything in these woods that might be of aid—”
“Oh, you’ll do nothing of the sort, my good woman,” Captain Baillie interrupted. “You see, your local militia are comprised of a motley group of well-meaning lads, to be sure, but a little lacking in the wit necessary, I think, to keep this particular prisoner. Indeed, Judge Complin is so put out with your local Stanehyve guards and their incompetence that he has put the entire job of finding this young whelp in my hands. I would have found the creature already, had the Judge not forbade the use of his hounds – apparently he wants the boy whole.” After a smiling pause, he added, “Should this day pass without the unearthing of our prey, however, I do have faith that by nightfall I can easily bring the Judge around to my way of thinking.”
He said this last remark with such chilling confidence that the very air of that forest glade seemed to turn cold with an appalled horror, as even some of his own men glanced at one another with uneasy smiles. At last, the old woman broke the silence, murmuring, “Then where should I go…sir?”
“I have left men at Judge Complin’s residence,” Captain Baillie replied. “You will travel thence and report to them.”
The old woman bowed and assented to this. Baillie motioned for his men to withdraw, but before turning his steed away from the cottage door, he added, “Good mother, pray, do not take it into your head to give shelter to the young scoundrel that we are after. I assure you that in his present mood, the Judge would happily lay the same sentence on your head as he has placed on the head of this fugitive. You might call it Christian charity, but he would call it treason.”
I must admit that, hearing this, I felt my blood boil in spite of my own predicament. How, I wondered, did this wretch dare threaten a granddame with hanging and not fear that word of his despicable cruelty would blemish his name irreparably? How, if not because the Judge for some inscrutable reason had made this contemptuous brute his right hand and given him that grace and distinction that accompanies such an honor? I realized as well that I dare not importune any man or woman of Stanehyve with my presence – to do so would doubtless render me a double-murderer as my discovery would ensure their death as well as my own.
As soon as the horsemen were out of sight, I crept onwards into the forest, directing my steps away from all broad paths and highways that a troop of riders might travel upon. That I was utterly banished from Stanehyve was resolutely clear. My remaining choices were grimly clear: either perish of starvation in the forest or find my way to the city of Dumfries or Melrose and thence to Edinburgh.
There was, of course, a third option, but I did my best to expel it from my thoughts: to be captured and to find myself at the mercy of Judge Complin once again. Again – but with a difference. He had sent his own private band of men after me, rather than the militia; that meant that he wished me taken secretly rather than publicly.
I knew not what reason motivated this, but I could assume that it did not redound to my good. There was more mercy in all the wolves of Scotland’s forests than in it that awful heart that sought me so implacably.
I spent the better part of the day wandering the forest, trying to gain a sense of my bearings so that I could journey in a northerly direction. The sky was so overcast with a dense sheet of clouded mist, however, that I could barely make out the sun’s rays and, alas, more than likely wasted my efforts in losing myself further in the forest without really drawing any closer to my intended destinations. By the time twilight had descended, I was too exhausted to pursue my unsure path and, making myself a blanket of fallen leaves, I sheltered myself within the hollow trunk of a fallen oak and soon fell asleep.
I was awakened – I know not how many hours later – again by the soft thunder of horse’s hooves somewhere close by. It was now utterly night, with only the moon’s faint silver serving to brighten the chill, misty air. I lay there, listening, and presently I heard the voice of someone singing, the singer’s voice clearing the stillness and causing the sleeping birds to flutter their wings restlessly in the branches above:
“A boy to me was bound apprentice,
Because of his being fatherless;
I took him out of St. James’ Workhouse,
His mother being in deep distress.”
The singer paused and in that pause I heard a sound that told me too well of the grave danger that I was in. Even as I heard their baying and panting, I saw thick plumes of heated air rise from the mouths of at least thirty of them, their maws gaping wide and their dripping slaver falling in thick, ropey drops in the moonlight. It was my scent that irresistibly wetted their mouths, my scent that excited them so that they stumbled and snapped at each other in anticipation, loping ever and ever nearer to where I lay. What, I wondered, worked them into such a state? – what predator’s dream filled them with such energy for me that they braved that chill April midnight air and the cutting, thorny underbrush, all for the hope of me? And could I expect more mercy from them than I had from my fellow man? I almost laughed at my own inner questions – these creatures had, as pups, been obliged to feast upon young foxes and hunger after the flesh that followed the hunt. Their first lesson had been to equate piteous restraint with hunger and cruelty with satisfaction. Again, I heard the clear, singing voice of the master of the hounds:
“One day this poor boy unto me offended,
But nothing to him I did say;
Up to the main-mast shroud I sent him,
And there I kept him all that long day.”
The singer paused and exclaimed, “Our hounds have scented something, my lads. Come, I think we have at last found our prey.” The merry voice was none other than Captain Baillie’s. At length, he added, “Alan! Alan, if you can hear me, call out to me! I can assure you that it will go better for you if you let us take you in the hounds’ stead.” After a long pause: “But, of course, you won’t, will you? They never do. Is it because you are curious to feel their teeth, perhaps?”
I was scrambling out of my refuge and casting my gaze about frantically, trying to find something to fend off the approaching hounds. As I seized a fallen branch, I heard Captain Baillie resume his joyous, lusty singing:
“All with my gasket I misused him,
So shamefully I can’t deny;
All with my marling-spike I gagged him
Because I could not bear his cry.”
The pack of beasts had drawn much closer; a few of them had even begun to turn their gleaming eyes upon me before lifting their heads and throatily baying. I gripped my makeshift weapon and awaited their approach – I would stun, perhaps even kill a few of the creatures, and then make my escape. Or die in the attempt. Alas, I had little choice in the matter save my own reaction – and I was resolved that I should not be taken alive.
“Oh, angels and ministers of Heaven,” I breathed. “O ye powers and principalities that daily witness man’s cruelty to man! Wing to me now, I pray – either to rescue me, or bear my soul away!”
TO BE CONTINUED…