Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Circumstantial Evidence

When the skipper of some small coastal trading craft is able to retire from leading a sea-faring life, it is usually within close range of the briny, tarry whiffs that with every breeze come puffing from the harbour of some little port out of which he has formerly traded that he sets up his shore-going abode. There, when he has paid off for the last time, and everything, so to speak, is coiled down and made ship-shape, he settles within easy hail of old cronies like himself; and if he should chance to be one of those who have lived all their days with only their ship for wife, then he not unnaturally falls easily into the habit of dropping, of an evening, into the snug, well-lit bar-parlour of the "Goat and Compasses" or the "Mariner's Friend," or some such house of entertainment, with its glowing fire and warm, seductive, tobacco-and grog-scented atmosphere, there to wile away the time swopping yarns with old friends. Sometimes, if opportunity offer, he is not averse from a mild game of cards for moderate points; and usually he takes, or at least in old days he used to take, his liquor hot—and strong.

Captain Alexander Craes was one of those retired merchant skippers; but he had not, like the majority of his fellows, settled near the sea-coast. It was Kelso that had drawn him like a loadstone. An inland-bred man, in his boyhood he had run away to sea, and the sea, that had irresistibly woed his youthful fancy, had no whit fulfilled his boyish dreams. It was not always blue, he found; the ship was not always running before a spanking breeze; more kicks than ha'pence, more rope's-endings than blessings, came his way during the first few years of his sailor life. Perhaps it was because he had been ashamed to go back and own himself beaten, or perhaps it was his native Border dourness that had caused him to stick to it; but at any rate he did stick to it—though, like most sailors, he growled, and even swore sometimes, that he hated the life. And now, in the winter of 1784-5, here he was in Kelso, stout, weather-beaten, grey-headed, over fifty, living within earshot of the deep voice of flooded Tweed roaring and fretting over the barrier with which the devil, at bidding of Michael Scott the Wizard, long syne dammed its course. Many a time when the captain's little vessel, close hauled, had been threshing through leaden-grey seas under hurrying, leaden-grey skies and bitter snow squalls, with a foul wind persistently pounding at her day after day, he had thought, as some more than ordinarily angry puff whitened the water to windward and broke him off his course, with the weather leech of his close-reefed topsail shivering, how pleasant it must be to be a landsman, to go where he pleased in spite of wind or weather. Ah! they were the happy ones, those lucky landsmen, who could always do as they chose, blow high, blow low.

Well, here he was at last, drinking in all a landsman's pleasures, enjoying his privileges—and not too old yet, he told himself with self-conscious chuckle, to raise a pleasant flutter of expectation in the hearts of Kelso's widows and maidens. Not that he was a marrying man, he would sometimes protest; far from it, indeed. Yet they did say that the landlord of a rival inn was heard to remark that "the cauptain gaed ower aften to Lucky G——'s howf. It wasna hardlys decent, an' her man no deid a twalmonth." Maybe, however, the good widow's brand of whisky was more grateful to the captain's palate, or the company assembled in her snug parlour lightsomer, or at least less dour, than was to be found at the rival inn, where the landlord was an elder of the kirk and most stern opponent of all lightness and frivolity. Whatever the cause, however, it is certain that the captain did acquire the habit of dropping in very frequently at the widow's, where he was always a welcome guest. And it was from a merry evening there that, with a "tumbler" or two inside his ample waistcoat, he set out for home one black February night when a gusty wind drove thin sleety rain rattling against the window panes of the quiet little town, and emptied the silent, moss-grown streets very effectively.

An hour or two later, it might be, two men, Adam Hislop and William Wallace, were noisily steering a somewhat devious and uncertain course homeward, when one of them tripped over a bulky object huddled on the ground, and with an astonished curse fell heavily.

"What the de'il's that? Guide us, it's a man! Some puir body the waur o' his drink, ah'm thinkin'. Haud up, maister! Losh! it's the cauptain," he cried, as with the not very efficient aid of his friend he tried to raise the prostrate man. But there was more than drink the matter here.

"There's bluid on him!" cried one who had been vainly essaying to clap a battered hat on to the head of the form that lay unconscious in the mud. A hard task it was presently, when his senses began to return, to get the wounded sailor unsteadily on his legs; a harder to get him home. The captain could give but a poor account of how he came to be lying there; thickly and indistinctly he tried to explain that he had laid a course for his own moorings, and had been keeping a bright look-out, when suddenly he had been brought up all standing, and he thought he must have run bows on into some other craft, for he remembered no more than getting a crack over his figurehead. Morning was treading on the heels of night before Hislop and Wallace had got the damaged man home and had left him safely stowed in bed, and themselves were peacefully snoring, unconscious of coming trouble.

A day or two passed quietly, and the damaged man already was little the worse of his adventure. Then, however, the rumour quickly spread that not only had the Captain been assaulted, but that he had been robbed. Gossip flew from tongue to tongue, and folk began to look askance on Wallace and Hislop, muttering that "they aye kenned what was to be the outcome"; for who, thought they, but Wallace and Hislop could have been the robbers? They had found him lying, the worse of liquor, having damaged his head in falling, and they had robbed him, either then or when they undressed him in his room, believing that he would have no recollection of what money he had carried that night, nor, indeed, much of the events of the entire evening. It was all quite plain, said those amateur detectives. They wondered what the fiscal was thinking of that he had not clapped the two in jail lang syne. So it fell out that, almost before they realised their danger, the two men were at Jedburgh, being tried on a capital charge.

The evidence brought against them was for the most part of no great account, and the old sea captain was unable to say that either man had assaulted him, or, indeed, that he had any clear recollection of anything that had happened after he left the inn. They might have got off—indeed they would  have got off—but for one unfortunate circumstance, which in the eyes of the jury completely damned them. In possession of one of them was found a guinea, which the captain had no hesitation in identifying as a peculiarly-marked coin which he had carried about with him for many years. That was enough for the jury. They and counsel for the prosecution would credit no explanation.

The story told by Hislop and Wallace was that on the night of the assault they had been drinking and playing cards in a public-house in Kelso; that late in the evening a soldier had come in and had joined in the game, losing a considerable sum; that in consequence of his losses he had produced a guinea, and had asked if any of the company could change it. Hislop had given change, and the guinea found in his possession was that which he had got from the soldier. "A story that would not for a moment hold water," said counsel, when the unfortunate men failed to produce evidence in support of their story; and the judge, in his summing up, agreeing with the opinion of counsel for the prosecution, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and both men were condemned to be hanged.

On May 17, 1785, this sentence was carried out. But here arose circumstances which caused the credulous—and in those days most people were credulous—first to doubt, and finally to believe implicitly in the innocence of the convicted men. From first to last Wallace and Hislop had both most strongly protested that they were entirely guiltless. That, of course, went for nothing. But when, on the day of execution, the ropes which were used to hang the poor creatures both broke; when the man who ran to fetch sounder hemp fell as he hurried, and broke his leg, then the credulous and fickle public began to imagine that Providence was intervening to save men falsely convicted. Then, too, the tale spread abroad among a simple-minded people how a girl, sick unto death, had said to her mother that when Hislop's time came she would be in heaven with him; and it was told that as Hislop's body, after execution, was carried into that same tenement, in a room of which the sick girl lay, her spirit fled. Judgment, also, was said to have fallen on a woman who occupied a room in that house, and who had violently and excitedly objected to the body of a hanged man being brought to defile any abode which sheltered her. That same evening the body of her own son, found drowned in Tweed, was carried over that threshold across which she had tried to prevent them from bringing the corpse of Hislop. All these events tended to swing round public opinion, and those who formerly had been most satisfied of their guilt, now most strenuously protested their entire belief in the innocence of the hanged men. The years slipped away, however, and there had arisen nothing either to confirm or to dissipate this belief; only the story remained fresh in the minds of Border folk, and the horror of the last scene grew rather than lessened with repeated telling.

But there is a belief—not always borne out by facts—that "murder will out"; a faith that, "though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small." Ten years had passed, and the spring of 1795 was at hand, when it chanced one day that a citizen of Newcastle, homeward bound from Morpeth, had reached a point on the road near Gosforth; here, without word or challenge, a footpad, springing on to the road, fired a pistol at the postillion of the postchaise, knocking off the man's cap and injuring his face. The frightened horses plunged, and dashed off madly with the vehicle, leaving in the footpad's possession no booty of greater value, however, than the postillion's cap.

Later in the same day the same footpad fired, without effect, on two mounted men, who galloped off and gave the alarm, and a well-armed band setting out from Gosforth soon captured the robber, still with the incriminating postillion's cap in his possession. He was a man named Hall, a soldier belonging to the 6th Regiment of Foot, of which a detachment was then stationed in the district. And he was in uniform, though, as a measure of precaution, and not to make himself too conspicuous, he wore his tunic turned inside out—a disguise that one would pronounce to be something of the simplest.

There was, of course, no possible defence—indeed, he owned up, and at the next assizes was condemned to death. And here the link with the fate of Wallace and Hislop came in. As he lay awaiting execution, Hall confessed that it was he, that February night in 1785, who had stunned and robbed Captain Craes. He had seen the old sailor making his not very steady way homewards, and had followed him, and at the loneliest part of the street, where no house showed a light, he came up behind and tripped him; and as the captain essayed to get again on his feet, Hall had struck him a violent blow on the head with a cudgel, stunning him. The man told, too, how a little later he had gone into a public-house to get a drink, and that there he found some men playing at cards; he had joined them, and had lost money, and one of the men (Hislop, as he afterwards understood) had changed for him a guinea which he had a little time before taken from the pocket of the man he had stunned.

Thus were Wallace and Hislop added to the long list of the victims of circumstantial evidence.