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Wilson's Border Tales
The Chase


The ChaseMany of the Maxwells of Galloway were out in the forty five, and, after the disaster which put an end to the Stuart cause for ever, few felt more severely the royal displeasure than the catholics of the stewartry. The last of the Maxwells of Orchardtown, in that district, having fought with desperate courage in the ranks of the Pretender, was pursued by the king’s troops with the sanguinary spirit of the blood-hounds. His activity and the knowledge of the country afforded him, however, advantages which set for a long time at defiance all the efforts of his pursuers; but the hardships he encountered, and the privations he suffered, purchased, at a high price, the short respite his ingenuity gained from a melancholy fate.

Maxwell observed that his companions in misfortune generally fled as far as possible from their respective counties, conceiving that the investigations of the soldiers would be directed, in the first instance, to the places of their abode. This, it is well known, was a great error; for the seizures of the fugitives that took place were much more frequently the consequence of the unfriendly character of the persons who concealed them, and who had little interest in their security, than any suspicions of the soldiers directed to localities. Taking advantage of that error, Maxwell went direct to the parish of Urr, where he knew there were many catholics who would lay down their lives for his salvation.

Clothed in the garb of a common labourer, the proprietor of the large estates of Orchardtown hastened his progress to the place of his hope. It was late at night when he arrived at the little, but beautiful village of Dalbeatie situated on the banks of the angry Urr. He was in a state of great exhaustion as well as of solicitude—fear he knew not—for he had heard, at several periods, behind him, the tread of horses, which his heated imagination at once converted into those of troopers. Taking no time to select the dwelling of a catholic, he ran up to the nearest door that presented itself; and, lifting the latch, stood before an old woman, who sat at a clear crackling fire, smoking a short cutty pipe, as black as the cat that sat on her knee, and reading her Bible. There was nothing for it but to dash at once into the question whether she was catholic or protestant.

"A very odd question that, in these strange times," answered the old woman, "and ane I’m no inclined to answer, till I am informed what use ye intend to mak o’t."

"I am a fugitive from the king’s troops," said Maxwell, "and claim the protection of a christian, whether of the one persuasion or the other."

"And that ye shall hae," answered the woman with briskness, "but only upon ae condition."

"What is that?" said Maxwell.

"It is just that ye dinna ask me to deny you," answered the old woman; "ye hae my house at your command, everything in it that may assist ye in concealing frae Geordie’s hounds, except my conscience."

At this moment, Maxwell thought he heard the sound of the troopers, and taking advantage of the qualified consent of the old woman, stept forward, with a view to explore the recesses of the humble apartment. His first resolution was to get beneath the bed; but that was objected to by the old woman as unwise, for, as she remarked, that was the very first place his pursuers would likely search. The quickness of the woman vindicated the superiority of her sex in devising expedients.

"Tak that ladder and mount up to the skylight," she cried; "open it, and try if it is big enough toyou’re your body out. The roof o’ the house is the safest place in it. Ye can lie there and crack to me through the window, and maybe I may hand ye up something to cheer your sorrowfu’ heart."

The idea was excellent. Maxwell immediately mounted got out at the skylight, and, laying his body along the thatched roof, looked down upon his conditional protectress with gratitude.

"Now," said the old woman, "I can safely say ye’re no in my house. Dinna ye see how meikle ye women hae improved, sin’ the days o’ our common mither, wha, if she had but a tenth pairt o’ the wit o’ her dochters, might easily hae saved us frae the burden o’ our original sin. Dinna ye see, that I can, by denying your being in my house, save ane o’ my ain faith and my conscience, at the same time."

Maxwell saw the importance of the judicial construction which the woman was inclined to put upon her answer, and it cheered his drooping spirits;--but he suspected the possibility of the soldiers putting such a question as would place the old woman’s conscience, whose sensibility might out strip the ingenuity of her mind as well as himself, in jeopardy; and he therefore endeavoured to prevail upon her to give up all her scruples, and deny him out and out. Putting his hands to the sides of his mouth to prevent the sound from escaping outwardly, and direct it down into the house, he said—

"I suppose you are well acquainted with your Bible; and. no doubt it is from that precious volume that you draw your reasons for not denying me to the soldiers. But, if I recollect rightly, there is no express commandment against telling a white lie to save a friend; for the ninth only forbids the bearing of false witness against our neighbour, and I am only asking you to say a word against truth for a friend."

"And a guid friend, in troth," replied the woman, "ye are to come and. sit on my roof and try to persuade me that a lee is no forbidden in the Bible. Did ye never read that Ananias, and Sapphira his wife, were both, by the vengeance of the Almighty, struck dead for telling a lee, far whiter in its complexion than what ye sae cunningly would ha me to tell."

Caught by the biblical lore of the woman, Maxwell changed his tactics, and endeavoured to maintain, that, although lies were forbidden, there were some instances where they were permitted.

"You are right, my good lady," rejoined Maxwell, "but you must admit that, in some cases, even on Bible authority, the end justifies the means, and untruths have, for certain purposes, been permitted. It is, moreover, very remarkable that you women have been selected, in preference to us men as the agents in those instances where lies are permitted in Scripture."

"I dinna like flattery," interrupted the woman, with a quaint coquettish tone.

"For you are aware," continued Maxwell, "that Rahab received and concealed the two spies sent from Shittim, and denied that she had seen them; and Rachel sat upon the images, and said to her father, who searched for the same, that she could not rise up, and therefore denied that she had taken them."

"Ay, and there is anither instance ye micht hae mentioned," said the woman; "but I’m no sic a fule as tell ye what it is; for I think it is mair against my sex than the cases that hae enabled ye to pour down sae meikle abuse on us, wha are the very fountains o’ mankind. But a’ thae lees werena justified, freend, nae mair than were those tauld by Peter and Abraham."

This opposition on the part of the woman, disconcerted Maxwell greatly; for at that very moment the whole village was disturbed by the noise of the soldiers, who had arrived and were searching every house in it. He, therefore, clung to the concession already made by the woman, reminded her that he was not in her house, and suggested the improbability of any question being put as to his being on it.

In a little time the door opened, and Maxwell could see, without being discovered, the men who were thirsting for his blood, at least for the reward which the spilling of it would yield them, enter the house, and search every corner of it for himself. They repeatedly asked the woman if she had any person secreted in it. To this she uniformly answered "No."

"Art thou sure, old lady," said the Lieutenant of the company, "that thou hast no man secreted in thy house?"

"Sure am I o’ that," replied she; "and for the truth o’ what I say, I can appeal to a’ abune," giving a wink to Maxwell, who trembled at her bold indiscretion.

"But hast thou not this day seen Maxwell of Orchardtown, the king’s outlaw, or heard of him, or suspect where he is, or has been?"

"I hae seen nae man wham I kenned to be Maxwell o’ Orchardtown," replied the close-sailing casuist.

After searching the house, the men departed, but the noise in the village, still continued. Maxwell felicitated himself on his escape; and the good woman proposed to give her guest some porridge, provided she could devise any means of getting it up to him, being unable to mount the ladder. This difficulty was overcome by throwing a string up to Maxwell, who held the one end of it, while the old woman tied the other to the dish. A good warm supper of our national meal assuaged the pangs of a two day’s hunger, and the dauntless feaster enjoyed, in the very midst of an uproar produced by the baying of the bloodhounds tracking his course, that humble dish, with all the relish of a professor of gourmandize picking the bones of an ortolan.

While the noise in the village continued, Maxwell could not move. The fatigues of the day had produced a lassitude which soon lulled him to sleep. As he was gently falling into the arms of the drowsy god, he heard the old woman offering up, with the greatest devotion, a prayer for his safety. Never did religion appear to him so fascinating. The Castle of Orchardtown, with all its grandeur, never presented to him a scene so full of picturesque beauty, as this poor old woman in her little mud hut, addressing the Almighty in her own simple terms, speaking the language of the heart, and breathing the uncontaminated aspirations of a contrite spirit. Far less did ever anything occur there to fill his heart with so engrossing an interest. A stranger, unseen by her before, unknown to her, and liable to be suspected by her, formed the subject of her devotional thanks and her humble petitions—and that person was in the lion’s mouth—an outlaw—proscribed by his king, and in the power of a poor old woman--exposed to every privation, lying on a house top, and denied a vision of the faintest ray of the rainbow of hope. In the devotional contemplation of this subject, and with such feelings of satisfaction, the persecuted owner of thousands lay down and slept on a roof of thatch.

A little before dawn, Maxwell awoke. The sounds of the horsemen had ceased, and as yet the inhabitants were asleep. He cried down to the old woman that it was time he was off to the woods, where he knew a cave which would afford him secure shelter during the day. His protectress requested him to remain until he got something to eat; and, with all the expedition in her power, proceeded to get something prepared for him. While engaged in this occupation, the door opened, and a neighbour entered, requesting a light wherewith to kindle her fire. Ignorant of the ingress of this visitor, Maxwell asked, through the sky-light, if his breakfast was yet ready; and the woman, who was in the act of lighting her peat, alarmed and terrified at the supernatural voice coming from above, flew out of the house, with the burning torch in her hand, exclaiming that the devil was in the house of Betty Gordon, who was busy making his porridge. It was yet dark, and the woman’s high tones—for she was truly alarmed—with the unusual appearance of a lighted torch flaming in the street, roused the troopers, who had taken up their quarters in the village for the night.

The sounds of the collecting soldiers commenced—the supposed devil was sagaciously thought to be the object of their search; and they hurried to the house. Maxwell, however, had seen his danger, and coming down from his hiding place by the back part of the house, crossed the Urr, and flew with the greatest speed down to the Solway. The soldiers repeated their search. Everything was examined, and one of them taking up the dish out of which Maxwell had taken his supper, and to which the string was still attached, held it up to his companions, as an evidence that the object of their search had been on the roof of the house. As he held up the dish, something fell out of it, which, on being examined, was found to be a diamond ring, which the gratitude of the unhappy outlaw had induced him to give, in this delicate manner, to his protectress. The valuable trinket was immediately laid hold of by the officer of the company, who, placing it on his finger, held it up, and asked how an outlaw’s ring looked on a loyal hand. Betty vindicated her right to the ring, with all her powers of oratory, but to no purpose. The only reply she got was, that, if she did not remain quiet, she would be removed to Dumfries, and punished for harbouring a traitor. The critical accuracy of this charge appearing to Betty to be exceedingly doubtful, she defied the officer to his proof, arguing, with considerable show of reason, and in her own particular style, that as, even by his own allegation, the fugitive had lain on the top of her house, she could not be said to have harboured him, any more than she did the rooks, who often selected her roof to sit on, and caw their omens over the village. She would not go the length of denying that he had been there; for she found her conscience had now taken up the case, and casuistry had little effect on that sturdy champion of the cause of truth.

Being able to procure no trace from Betty, of the direction the fugitive had taken, the soldiers betook themselves to a chance pursuit, which turned out to be well scented; for Maxwell soon heard his relentless pursuers at his heels. It was now grey dawn, and he had got to the water’s edge. The sounds approached nearer and nearer to him, and his choice seemed to lie between fire and water. Impelled by the keen spur of the fellest necessity, he sprung into the water; and just as he had waded as far as to cover all his body excepting his head which, in the dawn, could not be distinguished, he saw the company of troopers dash at full speed along the edge of the bank. So near were they, that he heard them mention his name, and could easily learn, from their conversation, that they had secured the ring which he had meant as a reward to the poor old woman who had treated him so kindly.

Maxwell now took his course by Castle Gower, running at the top of his now diminished speed, and producing, in the intensity of his struggles for life, such a degree of heat throughout his body, that his wet clothes reeked. He presented thus an extraordinary appearance, and attracted attention. Though he avoided houses and sought the woods, he did not escape several people, who struck with the figure of a man smoking like a kiln—out of breath and gasping, yet still toiling on—running and stopping, and running again, and his blood-shot eyes staring about him, as he expected every moment that death was at his heels—concluded at once that he was a Jacobite flying for life. The circumstance went from mouth to mouth, till it reached the soldiers, who, making sure of the intelligence, turned and tracked their victim through every evolution which his knowledge of the country enabled him to make.

The race was unequal, so long as Maxwell was obliged to keep even ground: but he soon got to the thickets, and the troopers were obliged to dismount, and follow him through the trees. He got now among the old woods of Munshes, striking up to the high ground as his best refuge. He was now, however, in the view of his pursuers, who, coming from off their horses, were comparatively fresh and able for the pursuit. With drawn swords in their hands, which glittered with a fearful brightness amidst the dark green leaves of the old oaks, they dashed on, and poor Maxwell saw, with dismay, that his career was finished.

Providence, how strange are thy ways! At the very moment when Maxwell thought himself about to resign his life he fell headlong into a cleft of an old quarry, which had been opened, on the lands of Barchan, by the old Maxwell of Munshes, who married the heiress of Tinwald. There he lay senseless and motionless, as much beyond the fear of his foes as if he had got a free pardon; but his relief was the insensibility of a swoon; and when he recovered his senses, he heard the whoop of the soldiers dying away in the distance. They had passed over him, continuing their course, in the belief that he had doubled a corner of the rock, and proceeded in the direction of the river.

In this situation, Maxwell considered what course he should now take. He conceived himself unsafe where he lay, for he knew that the moment the soldiers cleared the woods and saw no trace of him beyond, they would return and search for the place where he lay, and, in all probability find him. The thought of dying in a cave, without room for the play of his arms, like a badger baited by terriers, suited not the taste of Maxwell, who was determined to sell his life at a dear price. Climbing out of the cave, he made again for the Solway, in the expectation of getting into a boat, which, as he passed before, he saw lying on its banks. This expectation did not fail him—the boat was still there—in he vaulted, and, taking the oars into his hands, pulled away with all his strength.

In a short time he had got a considerable distance from shore and conceiving himself now safe, at least, for a time, the energies which the instinctive love of life had called up, suddenly failed, and he lay down in the bottom of the boat, in a state of exhaustion approaching to inanity. The novelty, if not the danger of his situation, had no power sufficient to rouse his torpid faculties—a cataleptic influence seized every fibre of his body, and an incubus of fearful weight pressed upon him, while his imagination wandered, and dreams of battles and blood came over him, producing convulsive starts and deep groans.

A dawning sense of the danger of his situation at length beamed on his reviving imagination, but, even after he was aware of the true nature of his condition—at sea in an open boat—his exhausted limbs denied their office, and he remained for some time in that situation, which is so often experienced in dreams, when the mind is awake to a supposed danger, but the energies of safety are asleep. When he fully recovered his faculties, and looked up and around him, he discovered that he had drifted, with a receding tide, far down the Solway, and that an easterly wind was beginning to ruffle the waves, and impel the boat faster in its course. A new danger now threatened him. The wind was fast increasing in intensity, the boat was clearly in full speed for the ocean, and he perceived, with dismay, that he had escaped from a death on land, to be swallowed up in the waves of the Atlantic.

The horrors of this apprehension did not, however, prevent Maxwell from using the powers the Almighty had still left him, with a view to save his life; but all his energies did not suffice to enable him to dispute space with the dire enemies he had now to contend with. He was now beyond the sight of land—a deep fog surrounded him on all sides— the wind howled, and the waves lashed round the small boat, as if they demanded the craft to resign their victim. Maxwell continued to pull with his utmost power, but his efforts only made more evident the insurmountable strength of the angry spirit of the incipient storm; yet still he toiled, determined to die at the oar rather than resign the last flickering hope, that gilded, with its faint beam, the verge of his imagination.

Some hours passed in this dreadful struggle, and nature was again exhausted. His arms became weak and palsied, and the oars fell from his grasp into the sea, carrying with them the last hope of life. Resigned, at last, to a fate which he had so often and so narrowly escaped—death, so terrible even in its mildest aspect; but, when marshalled in, and surrounded by the dread furies that wait on the angry spirit of the storm, how indescribably awful!—Maxwell looked silently and sadly over the boiling waters, and waited his doom. So certain, so near, seemed to him that consummation of his woes, that he already conceived himself as no longer belonging to the living. The death of hope was the dissolution of his powers of perception; and his eye was already fixed on the ghastly forms which despair throws round its victim, as if in preparation for the final onset of the mighty king.

"Hallo!" thundered a stentorian voice in the ear of the entranced and already half-dead victim. Maxwell started to his feet, and beheld a boat alongside, with people endeavouring to throw grappling irons, to bind the boat in which he was, to the welcome stranger. In a short time he was removed into the other boat; which, being supplied with sails, was, in a moment, in full flight for the land. Having recovered himself, he looked round, and saw sitting in the stern two of the king’s troops, who had been sent off to secure him. "Again saved, and again consigned to death," he muttered to himself: and, folding his arms in his breasts he looked sternly at his foes.

The boat soon approached the land. Maxwell had been allowed to remain without manacles, for the violent motion of the boat rendered it impossible for the soldiers to fix them, and they reserved that duty till they should get into smooth water. The surf on the shore, however, rendered that operation more difficult than in the open sea; and a greater obstacle still remained in the sickness of the soldiers who, unaccustomed to such rough sailing, hung over the gunwale, and vomited into the sea. On reaching the land, the boat struck violently on the beach, approaching and receding alternately, and producing great annoyance to the sick men, who, Maxwell observed, were totally unable to bind or guard him, while the sailors seemed to concern themselves very little as to whether he remained or escaped. Taking advantage of this favourable state of matters, he plunged into the sea, and in a few minutes was on dry land.

On looking round him, he saw that he was landed near to the place from whence he had sailed; but no rest was yet in reserve for him. The remainder of the soldiers were on their way to the beach to meet their companions. He resolved to proceed again to the cave, and hastened with all the quickness in his power, that he might secrete himself before they came up. The beagles were, however, again at his heels, and the race was again for life. He soon reached the woods, and as darkness was fast closing in, he began to entertain a slight hope of ultimate escape. All was quiet save the flutter of a few small birds. The wind had fallen, and the contrast which the scene now before him presented, to that he had witnessed so shortly before, was so remarkable, that he stood for a moment to contemplate it, and wept for the cause which had banished him from his domains, and filled his cup with such bitterness of sorrow. As he dashed the tears from his eyes, on resuming his race, the sounds of the soldiers were again recognised by him; and, on turning round, he saw them at no great distance, while he was yet a considerable way from the cave. The advantage they had over him, by being fresh and vigorous, soon became manifest. They gained upon him at every step, and he was now in the same danger as when formerly Providence snatched him from his enemies and hurried him under the ground. It was now impossible to reach the quarry. The eyes of the soldiers were fixed upon him, as if determined that he should not again escape, and he now finally resolved to take his stand. Determined to die rather than yield, he placed his back against an oak, and waited the coming of his foes. The sergeant of the company had been considerably a-head of his companions during the chase, and came up to the desperate man alone. He fell in an instant, shot by a concealed pistol which Maxwell drew from his pocket; and his sword was immediately seized, to enable his victor to barter his life for as many of the lives of his persecutors as he could secure. The conflict was short but terrible. Three men fell by the hand of Maxwell, and he resigned his life, covered with many wounds.

The body of the unfortunate but brave heir of Orchardtown was taken first to Dalbeatie. Betty Gordon requested that, till it was otherwise disposed of, it might lie in her house. The request was not denied; and many people having heard of the brave manner in which he had met his fate, assembled to see the remains of a man who exhibited on his person no fewer than fifteen sabre cuts. The Spartan mothers would in vain have augured, from the position of his wounds, that he died with his back to his foes. A safer construction would have been, that his death was doubly glorious; for he gave his breast to his enemies, and his defenceless back received only those wounds which that could not contain.

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