Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

A Legend of Norham

In the days, now happily remote, when folks, provided as for a picnic, laboriously travelled great distances in order to be present at the execution of some unhappy wretch; in the days when harmless old women, whose chief fault may probably have been that they were poor and friendless, and perhaps by age and privation rendered little better than half-witted, were baited, and dragged by an ignorant and credulous populace to a fiery or to a watery death, there survived in Scotland yet another barbarous custom not unworthy to take rank with witch-burning. It was a custom so pitiless and revolting that the mind shrinks from its contemplation, for if its victims were not necessarily frail old women, they were yet human beings guilty of no crime, innocent perhaps of all but misfortune.

The study of medicine in those days was in its infancy, and many were the strange virtues attributed to certain herbs, vast the powers claimed for certain things in nature. Aconitum (or wolf's-bane) for example, was reputed to "prevail mightily against the bitings of Scorpions, and is of such force that if the Scorpion pass by where it groweth, and touch the same, presently he becometh dull, heavy, and senseless, and if the same Scorpion by chance touch the White Hellebore, he is presently delivered from his drowiness." A certain root, too, was of sovereign efficacy in the prevention of rabies in human beings who had been bitten by a mad dog. In Gerard's Herbal, a medical work published in 1596—"Gathered by John Gerarde of London, Master in Chirurgerie"—it is laid down that "the root of the Briar-bush is a singular remedy found out by oracle against the biting of a mad dog." Then, as now, rabies was regarded with a sickening dread, but in that remote day there had arisen no Pasteur, and dread too frequently degenerated into panic, and panic, as it ever does, revealed itself in brutality.

In olden days the remedies generally administered to patients suffering from the bite of a dog were many and curious, and probably by the average patient they were regarded in reality rather as something in the nature of a charm than as medicines. Doubtless they gave confidence to the person who had been bitten, and, so far, were good. But in very many cases they got the credit of being infallible remedies solely because in most instances the dog which had given the bite was no more afflicted with rabies than was the person whom it bit; probably it was some poor, hunted, frightened beast which had lost its master, and against which some panic-stricken individual had raised the senseless cry of "mad dog."

One remedy prescribed by a famous physician who lived so late as mid-eighteenth century, was "ash-coloured ground liver-wort a half-ounce, black pepper a quarter-ounce," to be taken, fasting, in four doses, the patient having been bled prior to beginning the cure. Thereafter for a month, each morning he must plunge into a cold spring or river, in which he must be dipped all over, but must stay no longer than half a minute. Finally, to complete the cure, he must for a fortnight longer enter the river or spring three times a week. It is all eminently simple, and tends at least to show that our ancestors after all were not wholly ignorant of the virtues of cold water. Amongst other remedies, also, was a medicine composed of cinnabar and musk, an East Indian specific, and one of powdered Virginian snake-root, gum asafoetida, and gum camphire, mixed and taken as a bolus. So far, at least, if the various treatments did little good, they did no great harm. Brutality began where a person had been bitten by a dog that really was mad, and when undoubted symptoms of hydrophobia had shown themselves. Then it was no uncommon practice to deliberately bleed the unhappy patient to death, or, worse still, to smother him between mattresses or feather beds. Necessarily, a custom so monstrous opened wide the door to crimes of violence, and doubtless many a person whose presence was found to be inconvenient to relatives, or whose permanent absence would further certain desires or plans of those relatives, was opportunely found to be suffering from an attack of hydrophobia, and came to his end miserably in some such fashion as has been indicated. The popular mind was credulous to an extent inconceivable at the present day, and the mere accusation of madness was seized on and swallowed with an avidity that discouraged investigation of individual cases.

In the Border, if all tales are true, at least one crime of this nature was perpetrated.

Not far from Norham Castle, it is said that there stood till well on in the eighteenth century a large mansion, of which no trace now remains. As the story goes, the place once belonged to an old Border family, but the folly and extravagance of more than one generation had brought in their train what these failings ever must bring, and evil times fell on that house. Piece by piece, one after the other, the ancient possessions passed away from their former owners, sacrificed to gratify some passing whim or to pay some foolishly contracted debt, till, finally, the house itself and what land remained had also been flung into the melting-pot, and the last male heir of the old line, with his only child, a daughter, sat homeless in their old home, awaiting the hour which should bring with it the new owner, and to them the sorrow of for ever quitting scenes dear to them from infancy.

By the dying embers of a wood fire they two lingered one December night, wrapped in no pleasant thoughts, and idly listening to the shrill piping of a wind that dismally foretold the coming of snow. The father was a man well advanced in life, on whose good-looking, weak face dissipation had set its seal; the daughter, a woman of six or seven and twenty, who preserved more than all her father's good looks, but—as is so often the case in the females of a decadent family—who, in her expression, showed no trace of weakness. Indeed, if a fault could be found in face or figure, it was that the former for a woman told of too much firmness and resolution, qualities which circumstances might very readily develop into obstinacy, and even into cruelty. Her mother had died when Helen was but an infant, and thus it chanced that, as a child, her upbringing had been left pretty well to nature, aided (or perhaps hampered) only by the foolish indulgence of an ignorant and not very high-principled nurse, in whom fidelity was perhaps the only virtue, and who now, in her old age, almost alone of a once large staff of servants, still clung to "her bairn," and to the fallen fortunes of her master. Of education the child received but what little she chose to receive, and of discipline she knew nothing, for to the hopelessly weak father her will had too soon become law.

Naturally, Helen grew up headstrong and self-indulgent, recognising no rule but that of her own inclinations, and before her eighteenth birthday she had, without the knowledge of her father, engaged herself to a penniless youth of good family, the younger son of a neighbour. An entire lack of funds, however, seemed—at least to the lad—sufficient cause for delaying the marriage, and "to mak' the croon a pound," he went, not "to sea," but (as was then not uncommon with young Scotsmen) to the wars in High Germanie.

Since that date, no direct word had come from the young man, only the rumour grew that in the storming of some town he had fallen. Years had passed since then; years that came and went and brought neither confirmation nor denial of the rumour. In Helen's heart hope at last was killed, and with the death of hope seemed to die all that had ever been womanly or soft in her character. The one tender spot left was a kind of pitying affection for her weak old father.

Now, as they two sat here together this bitter winter evening, the old man grumbling, as ever, half to himself, half to his daughter, of the ill-luck that had steadily dogged him all his days, there came suddenly to them the sound of horses' feet on the stones of the courtyard outside, and presently one of the few remaining servants entered the room to say that a stranger was outside begging shelter for himself and for his groom. Nor did the stranger wait to be invited, for, brushing past the servant, and carelessly, as he entered, dusting from his riding-coat the light snow with which it was grimed, taking stock the while with pinched-up little grey eyes of the room and its occupants, he pulled in a chair towards the fire and coolly seated himself. He was a man considerably over fifty—probably nearer sixty than fifty—with a frame burly and coarse, and a face seared by tropical suns and disfigured by the ravages of small-pox; obviously a man of low origin whose mind probably lacked refinement or consideration for others as much as his body lacked grace.

Father and daughter for a minute gazed mutely at their uninvited guest, the girl at least in no very amiable mood. But whatever her father's faults might be, want of hospitality was not one of them, and what the house could supply of meat and drink was speedily set before the stranger. He was, as he made haste to inform them, the new owner of the property, come down to take possession. "And egad! sir," said he brusquely, "it strikes me it's not before it was time. There's a bit o' money wanted here, anybody can see with half an eye." And with choice criticisms of a similar nature he lightened the time in the intervals of shovelling food into his heavy-lipped mouth.

"Yes, I've bought it—and paid for it, too—lock, stock, and barrel," he resumed; "and we'll put things to rights in a brace of shakes. For what's the use o' having money, says I, if a man don't spend it on his whim! Ay! whether it's a fine lass, or what not, plank it down, and enjoy yourself while ye can. That's what I  say. What's the sense o' waiting till a man's too old? And I'm not so young as I was, thinks Missie, eh? But let me tell you, there's many a fine lass, yet, that would snap me up if she had the chance, if it was only for the sake of the ducats. Now, when I was in the Spanish Main—hey! that  was the place!—I mind. . . ."

But what he "minded" Helen had no wish to hear, and she retired, leaving her father and the stranger, both rapidly becoming somewhat over-loose of speech under the influence of brandy.

"A likely wench!" cried the stranger as the door closed. "A likely wench, sir. He'll be a lucky dog that get's her. Now . . . ah!. . . hum!. . . here's you, an old man, leaving this place—and not likely to get another, says you; and here's me, a bachelor, or anyways a widower, with plenty of cash and wanting a wife. Come I what's against our making a bargain? You give me your daughter, and I'll see that you don't want a home. Eh? What do you say to that, now?"

It was not very delicately put, but neither were the times very delicate, and the upshot was that Helen's father, weak and selfish, agreed to use his influence towards bringing the marriage about. The stranger did not tell—and perhaps it would have made little difference if he had told—his full history; how as a boy in London, the son of a petty tradesman, he had been kidnapped and sold to the Plantations (a common enough fate in those days); how in the West Indies, after a varied and not over reputable career, in which buccaneering played no small part, he had at length persuaded the wealthy old widow of a planter to marry him; and how, when she had suddenly ended her days, in a way which gave rise to more than a little talk in the island, he had sold the estate and the slaves without haggling much over the price, and had abruptly left for England, where—the talk ran—he meant to settle down and found a family.

Helen's scornful rejection of the proposal at first was scathing, and little less her scorn of a parent who could urge it. "It's to save me from want, and from worse than want," he whimpered. Finally, ere many days had passed, wearied by her father's importunity, she gave her consent.

A pair more ill-matched could not have been found; the man by nature coarse, brutal, and cowardly; the woman, insolent, fearless, and of ungoverned temper. From the first things went badly, and when, within a week of the wedding, Helen's father was drowned in attempting to ford the Tweed on horseback, she chose to consider that her part of the bargain was ended. Henceforward she was a wife only in name. Bluster and storm as he might, she was more than the master of her husband, and after one wild outburst he cringed before her. And as, before her marriage, the wife had insisted on reinstating the greater number of the old servants, who to fidelity to the old line added hostility to a master whom they looked on as an interloper, the husband soon found it to his advantage to conciliate the household by giving way to the whims of his wife. Thereafter, the two met, if at all, only at meals.

For something over a year things continued on this unpleasant footing. Then there came a day in spring, when Tweedside was tender with the bursting of buds and the lush green of young grass, when birds sang gaily from every thicket, and the hurrying brown water was dimpled into countless rings by the rising trout. To Helen, listless and indifferent even to Tweed's charm in springtime, came one of the younger servants saying that a gentleman, desiring to speak to her, waited below. A gentleman to see her? Nay, there must certainly be some mistake, thought Helen. It must assuredly be one of the useless hangers-on of her husband come to ask her to plead for him in regard to some trumpery loan. Well! anything for a novelty, and to take her thoughts away from herself. In this frame of mind she entered the lower room, where the visitor stood with his back to the door, gazing from the window, beside him a large deerhound.

"Well, sir," she exclaimed sharply, "what is there that I . . . My God! You! . . . Back from the dead! Back from the dead!" she wailed.

"Nay. Back from sickness and wounds; back from captivity. Many a message have I sent you, Helen, during the long years; little did I think to find you thus."

Apathy and listlessness no longer held her in bondage; the full horror of the irrevocable gripped her. Tied for ever to a brute whom she despised and hated, sacrificed to no purpose; whilst here, alive and well, stood the man to whom in ardent youth she had plighted her undisciplined heart. The thought maddened her. And as she struggled to choke back this overwhelming rush of feeling, her husband's unwelcome entrance broke the tension of a scene the strain of which was past bearing.

Surely it was in an evil moment for himself that her husband entered that room. In a clumsy effort to propitiate his wife's guest, the unfortunate man laid his hand on the head of the visitor's dog, and with vicious side-snap the animal bit his hand to the bone.

No consideration had the wife for her husband's sufferings, no trace of sympathy did she show, as, with an oath, he hurried from the room to bind up the ugly wound—her whole being was centred in the man before her. And her very heart stood still when her stunned ears realised that that man was now saying farewell. Lamentations and entreaties were of no avail. "There remained nothing else for a man of honour to do," he said. All these years he had been faithful to her; all these years no other woman had entered his thoughts. Had she been as true to him as he had ever been to her, the dearest wish of his heart would have been fulfilled. Nay, had he come home to find her a widow, even so all might yet perhaps have been well. But now, when, with his own eyes, he had seen what, manner of man she had preferred to him, the old love was killed—killed by her act.

The clatter of his departing horse's feet rang loud in her ears; and now, great as of old had been her detestation of the man to whom she was tied, it was but a feeble flame in comparison with the furnace of hate that began to rage in her heart. Daily and hourly the anguish of the "might have been" tormented her. Incessantly the words her lover had spoken seethed in her brain: "If even you had been a widow," he had said. "A widow?" . . . Ever to the same word her thoughts returned—"a widow." What if he were to die now? If only. . . ! Then she thought of the bitten hand. Was it not more than likely that the dog was mad when, unprovoked, it bit a man? And if it were  mad . . . But assuredly it was mad! She would ask old Elspeth. Who so wise as Elspeth, who so skilled as she in the treatment of wounds? And if she could cure  wounds, why . . . perhaps. . . ! Did not wounds sometimes refuse to heal, and did not the patient sometimes gradually sink and die without anybody being to blame?

But no comfort was found in Elspeth—no help. Surely the woman was in her dotage. Fool! Why did the feckless old idiot not know that the dog must  have been mad? The man was drinking heavily now, goaded by grim terror of that very thing, and sodden with drink. Body and soul the old nurse was hers, she believed. Then, what so easy to make as a mistake in her treatment of the wound—to dress it with an irritating salve instead of with a healing one? what so easy as to inflame a mind already stricken by fear and maddened by drink? Must  she speak more plainly the thing that had arisen in her mind?

Day followed day, and soon rumour spread and grew to certainty that of a surety the dog was mad that had bitten the master. From his room, they said, came the sound of ravings and of shouts. Folk spoke below their breath of how it was said he foamed at the mouth, and few dared venture near.

At last there came a night when Elspeth's son crept stealthily by the back stairs to aid his mother in holding down the sick man in the paroxysms of his madness; and the guilty wife, cowering alone in her room, stopped her ears lest awful sounds should reach them.

Summer was spent, and Tweed murmured seaward between banks ruddy and golden with autumn's foliage.

In a house in Edinburgh, not far removed from Holyrood, clad in deep black, there lingered restlessly a Border woman, for whom the months had dragged with halting foot since a certain spring night near Norham.

"Will he come?" to herself she whispered for the hundredth time. "Surely he must come."

And as she waited, a flush leapt to her cheek at the sound of a step nearing her door. A man entered, grave, almost stern, of face, and she sprang to her feet with a cry, and with outstretched arms, that sank slowly to her side, as her eyes questioned those of her visitor.

"You have come," she said unsteadily; "you have come. And you know . . . my husband . . . is dead?"

"Rumours had reached me," he answered coldly. "When did he die?"

"It was in the spring, five months since. He was bitten by a dog, and he died . . . raving mad."

"Bitten by a dog?" he queried.

"Do you not remember? The dog you brought with you bit him. He never recovered. And . . . and he died mad."

"It was my dog that bit him? And he died mad in consequence of that bite? I do not understand. My dog is alive and well; he was never mad."

Her eyes fell. What need to plead further! She knew now too well that his love for her was indeed dead and buried. Had a spark of it yet lived in his heart, suspicion could have found no place. Gone now was all pride, all control; at his feet she threw herself, clasping her knees.

"Have you no pity—no pity? He is dead, I tell you. I always cared only for you."

"Good God!" he cried hoarsely, and pushed her from him; and the horror in his eyes smote her as his bitterest words could not have done.

Alone once more in the room, she lay face downwards on the floor, and the echo of his footfall on the stair beat into her brain like the stroke of doom. Alone till the end of her days she lived a friendless, wretched woman, eating out her heart with the canker of "the might have been."