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Wilson's Border Tales
The Empty Coffin

The truth of all the important incidents of the following tale will be recognised by the inhabitants of a certain district of Fife. Our other readers may, and likely will, repudiate the extraordinary story as pure fiction; and such is the fate of all narratives that do not record merely the every-day incidents of vulgar life; yet no fiction ever transcended the workings of nature.

At about three miles’ distance from the little village of L---, in the Kingdom of Fife, there lived a person of very great importance in his way, of the name of John M’Whannel. He rented a farm of the laird of Whinnygates, for which he paid a rent altogether inadequate to the high value of the land; but he was a favourite with the proprietor, as, indeed, he was with all the people of the county, and got his possession at a great undervalue. He lived in his farm-house, along with one maid-servant, who had been with him for many years, and bore the somewhat uncouth name of Jenny Gatherer. Two men assisted him with his farm, and lived in an outhouse at a little distance from that occupied by the farmer. He had been long in the possession of the Mains of Whinnygates, and was reputed to be very wealthy—a circumstance which had, perhaps, some share, in a certain great authority he exercised over the minds of his neighbours.

The most remarkable feature in the character of John M’Whannel was his moral power over mankind. His large unwieldy body, a deep hill-preaching species of voice, and confirmed Cameronian manners, might have produced their wonted effects in his intercourse with his friends, but never could have effected the extraordinary subjugation to his will, which existed in the minds of almost all his neighbours. To these personal attributes he added a strong masculine mind, entirely devoted to morals; and the clearness of his conceptions enabling him to express himself in a straightforward, unhesitating manner and lucid order, he exhibited great power in solving the subtle questions connected with the moral relations of man, as well as those more delicate matters connected with religion. These bodily and mental qualities he had the art of combining, and a stern and somewhat dictatorial manner gave a force to the union, which, perhaps, contained the great secret of his universal authority in that part of the country where he resided.

With all this explanation, however, and taking into account his great size of body and strong mind, his authority over the minds of the people was remarkable and extraordinary. He was made arbiter in all disputes and differences occurring for miles round; and what, perhaps, never before rewarded the labours of a judge, he was as much respected and beloved by the unfortunate submitters as he was by those in whose favour he decided the points referred to him. The authority of John M’Whannel was a guarantee and a passport for every opinion, whether sound or unsound; and, like many other great men, he was doomed to give an involuntary sanction and protection, to thousands of statements which never proceeded from his lips.

Remarkable as was this authority over the minds of his neighbours, thus exercised by the great man of wisdom, it is clear that it was utterly worthless to him in any view, save as contributing to his fame; and, altogether unlike ruling elders of the world, John cared no more for fame, qua fame, than he did for the breath that blew it through the clamorous trumpet of the noisy goddess. There was, however, a certain adjunct or appendage to this universal respect paid to his opinions, that pleased him much better than the empty sounds of empty adulation. The people had the most unbounded confidence in his honesty; and, as far as respected his pecuniary capabilities, the exchequer of the Emperor of China, the Capsula gemmaria of the King of Golconda, the Bank of England, or any other repository of immense wealth, might have given way, but the pecuniary affairs of John M’Whannel, regulated by a stern debit and credit, and confirmed by the holy religion of the Christian, never could become deranged. It very soon, therefore, became a practice in the parish where he resided, for poor people who had any money which they wished to preserve, or put beyond the power of their own temptation, to lodge the same in the iron chest of John M’Whannel. He told them all that he wanted it not, and that he had thousands he could not himself get disposed of, so as to yield him a return; but, struck to the heart with pity, as he saw improvident creatures spending heedlessly that which they ought to preserve for their old age, he consented, from a Christian principle, to become their savings’ bank. He paid them a small modicum of interest, merely to induce them to follow their own good. Every penny he paid them was, as he himself often told them, almost a dead loss; for he scarcely turned the capital to any account, in case he might lose the poor people’s money. It was all placed (at least it was supposed so) in the great iron chest that lay in his bedroom, and the key of which he laid every night beneath his pillow, for the sake of the security of the poor creatures, whose all thus depended upon his fatherly care.

This small banking concern, or rather depository, was very far from being limited to a few individuals. Almost all the poor people in the county who had anything to deposit resorted to the guidman of Whinnygates, and got it deposited in "the big iron kist." In a large arm-chair, standing beside the strong repository, sat the venerable banker; there he received and counted the money, and paid at a stated period all the trifles of interest. It was a fair and creditable sight. His large senatorial-like figure, his gray locks, falling a little way down his shoulders, his sincere devout visage, his deep Cameronian voice, and, above all, the prayer he uniformly delivered for the conservation of the cash and the prosperity of the proprietor, invested the living picture with attributes that could not pass from the minds of those who witnessed it, but with life itself.

It would not be easy to condescend on the number of individuals who thus lodged all they had in the world in the hands of the good and godly man; nor would it be of any use. The father who provided for his rising children, the son who accumulated something for his aged parent, the widow who wished to retain, unbroken, the little residue of her husband’s means, all confided in the saintly John, treasured up their miniature fortunes in the redoubted iron chest, and drew, with pride and gratitude, their items of interest. The want of the useful institutions of savings’ banks in these days may be supposed to have contributed greatly to the extent of this confidence in a private individual; yet it may fairly be affirmed, that John M’Whannel would, with fair play, have beat any public institution of the kind that chose to rear its head within the circle of his power. The directors of a public institution could not have been known to the people; but who, within ten miles, did not know John M’Whannel? Directors of banks might fail—it was impossible that John M’Whannel ever could; they might be dishonest—he was beyond suspicion; they might die, and where would the money be found?—he might also die, but the iron chest was impenetrable.

This pleasant intercourse between the good man and his creditors went on for a long period. John continued as wise as ever; and his prayers on the occasion of the visits of his friends, when they received their interest, were as sincere and godly as ever. Stronger and stronger waxed his high character for all the eight cardinal virtues enumerated in the old books on Ethics; and, such was the mighty accumulation of his praises, that there never lived a man in the Kingdom of Fife who possessed even one tithe of the exquisite perfections of John M’Whannel. If he had lived in Thibet, he would have been the great Lama; if in China, another mighty Fo; and if in Egypt, the sacred bull Apis himself. But human perfections do not save the possessors from the common fate of humanity. The inhabitants of the three adjoining parishes were suddenly thrown into a state of great alarm by a report that John M’Whannel was taken ill, and that Gilbert M’Whannel, his brother, a writer or attorney from the neighbouring town, and possessing all those cardinal virtues for which writers are generally remarkable, had been kindly paying him attention. It was even said that none but the writer was admitted; and, extraordinary announcement! it was surmised that the man of the law had been actually seen sitting upon the iron chest in which the wealth of one half of the people of the parish was deposited.

That such a statement as that last mentioned should rouse the parish, no one who has felt the effects of a writer’s virtues could be surprised at. Many of the poor people accordingly called at the house of their banker; but, what was still more surprising, no one was allowed to enter. Some attempted to peep in at the window, to see whether the writer’s incubation was continued, and whether it was likely to end, as incubations generally do, in the flight of that which undergoes the process. These efforts were also unavailing, and the news spread that there was a determination, on the part of the writer, to exclude every one from the house and presence of their sick idol. Suspicion began to grow apace; whispers grew louder and louder; and a kind of hue and cry was got up, and spread like wildfire throughout the parish, producing intense fears and anxieties in the breasts of all those whose money was deposited in the said iron chest, which was thus supposed to be in such imminent danger.

Several meetings were held by the terrified creditors, and it was resolved that a deputation of them should proceed and demand an entrance to the presence of the sick man; and, upon receiving admission, cast their eyes about, and see if the chest was really in a state of safety.

The deputation accordingly proceeded toward the house, but they were met by a stranger, whom they had never seen before, who informed them that John M’Whannel had just died, and that it would be exceedingly unbecoming in them to desecrate the house of the dead by executing the purpose they had in view. The statement seemed reasonable, and the party separated, upon condition, however, that they should severally visit the house, and look at the dead body of their old friend, as well as at the iron chest where their fortunes were deposited.

This purpose was accordingly acted upon. Two or three of the creditors called, and wished to be shown "ben the house," for the double object already mentioned; but they were again defeated. Jenny Gatherer would allow no one to enter the bedroom where the corpse and the chest both lay. She proffered every kindness to the visitors usual on such occasions — showed them into a parlour, gave them something to eat and to drink, and despatched them with the intelligence that, after the funeral, they would find everything to their utmost satisfaction. This conduct was as extraordinary as the rest; the people knew not what to think; no one could say he had seen John M’Whannel in his sickness, and far less could any one say that he had seen his corpse. Speculation began to foster strong suspicions; but no one could conjure up a case sufficient to satisfy all the conditions of the story; and it was at last resolved that they should suspend all their acts and inquiries till after the funeral.

The day of the funeral arrived, and invitations were sent to a great number of the inhabitants of the parish. Many attended, and not a few who had got no invitation at all. They remarked the extraordinary circumstance that no one was invited into the house, as is usual on such occasions. The coffin was brought out, glittering with its silver facing, and exhibiting a large plate on the top, which bore the words—"John M’Whannel, aged 65 years." It was laid upon the spokes, and covered with the black pall, in the usual way, and the bearers, followed by the mourners, proceeded to the churchyard, where John M’Whannel was regularly consigned to his fathers.

At the funeral there were about twenty of those whose money lay consigned in the iron chest in John M’Whannel’s bedroom. Actuated by the suspicions which had already pervaded so many of the people of the parish, these individuals were determined not to be baulked by further denials and excuses, and accordingly proceeded, along with Gilbert M’Whannel, the writer, to the house of the deceased. Arriving at the door, they asked no permission to enter; but, without ceremony and without fear, rushed in en masse, and never stopped till they arrived at the side of the iron chest, where lay enshrined all their hopes of future happiness on earth. Every eye was fixed upon it; and he who took upon him the character of spokesman—a person of the name of John Hamilton—demanded the key, that they might satisfy themselves of the safety of their property.

"As my brother’s heir and executor," said Gilbert, "I might resist this request; but I am anxious to satisfy people in so very peculiar a position as that in which you stand; and, therefore, I will lay open the contents of this chest to you, upon the condition, however, that you refrain from laying violent hands upon what you may erroneously conceive to be your property. A division of my brother’s effects will afterwards be made, according to law, and every one will procure the most ample satisfaction."

The proposition was reasonable, and at once agreed to. The key was produced and applied to the lock; the lid was lifted up; and, in place of the money which they conceived to be there deposited, their eyes met nothing but empty space! Every one started back in amazement. The writer alone seemed to be unmoved. After many exclamations of wonder, some one proposed to call ben Jenny Gatherer, to ascertain if she could tell where the contents of the box had been placed. John Hamilton proceeded to the kitchen; but Jenny was not to be seen. She had left the house suddenly, some short time before, carrying in her hands a bundle, and apparently equipped for a long journey. This intelligence added to the mystery, and the wonder waxed greater and greater, as their search for the money was continued without success. Every drawer was opened, and every repository exposed. There was no money to be found; and, what was still more extraordinary, there was no document discovered to show that it was deposited in a bank, or vested in security, or given in loan. The writer declared, upon his honour, that he knew nothing of his brother’s affairs, and could not tell them whether he had left any effects or not. The house, he added, was open to them, and they might satisfy themselves on every proper subject of curiosity or inquiry, if they considered the search they had already made in any way incomplete. The creditors, after continuing their search for some time longer, left the house in despair; and, in a short time, the additional facts now stated flew on the wings of fame throughout the whole county — producing staring eyes, open mouths, and ejaculations, wherever they struck the ears of the wondering inhabitants.

A day or two passed over without any light being thrown on the mystery. The brother had retired to the town, and Jenny Gatherer was beyond the knowledge of any one. Speculation, hitherto so unfruitful, began to show some signs of fruit. The creditors met, and compared notes; and the most striking circumstance of the whole affair seemed to be the fact that no neighbour had seen John M’Whannel, either on his sick-bed or in his coffin. The visitors had been all refused admittance. The undertaker—a cousin-german of the deceased’s—was the only person who said he saw the body. He made the coffin with an inner case of lead, laid in the body, and performed the operation of nailing up. No other person could speak to these facts. The cousin’s statements were not believed; and there arose a suspicion, which was destined soon to become a conviction, that John M’Whannel was still alive, and that the ceremony of the funeral was a hoax, resorted to for some nefarious purpose. This suspicion gained ground every hour after it was elicited, and obtained so many proselytes that it was resolved to put it to the test, by opening the grave and examining the coffin. This purpose was almost immediately put into execution. A large party repaired to the burying-ground; the grave was opened; the coffin taken out and examined. There was no John M’Whannel there! As the iron chest had been found empty, so the coffin contained nothing but a leaden case!

The affair seemed now as clear as the sun at twelve o’clock. John M’Whannel had eloped, and Jenny Gatherer, with the baggage, had gone after him. The funeral had been got up for the purpose of screening the perpetrators from the vengeance of a host of ruined creditors. All the facts quadrated with this opinion; and it became so general that there was scarcely one in the parish that doubted of it. Lawyers were consulted, and the general opinion seemed to be, that Gilbert M’Whannel had made himself liable to a prosecution for aiding and abetting his brother in accomplishing his scheme of deception. Even the writers were almost cheated into the belief that old John M’Whannel had run the country with a young woman, and taken with him all the poor people’s money in the parish.

It never occurred to the quick-sighted money-lenders that there were such individuals as resurrectionists. The coffin had, in fact, been spoiled of its contents, and John M’Whannel was at that very time lying quietly, honest man, on the dissecting table of a surgeon in Edinburgh. Neither did it ever occur to them that all the circumstances of the supposed secresy connected with John’s sickness and death, together with the flight of Jenny Gatherer, might have been accounted for, by the simple fact that the writer had resolved upon emptying the iron chest, and had actually done so. Jenny had been bribed to take herself out of the way, and the people were excluded, for fear they might lay violent hands on the precious repository. The belief that John M’Whannel was not dead, still remained, and William Steedman, a writer, was requested to call upon Gilbert M’Whannel, for satisfaction.

"I am sorry to think, Mr M’Whannel," said he, "that you have made yourself responsible for the debts of your brother."

"I beg your pardon, Mr Steedman," replied Gilbert. "I am his heir; but I never intromitted with his effects. Everything remains in his house as it was left by him."

"The creditors conceive," said Mr Steedman, "that the alleged death and funeral of your brother was a mere device to cover his flight from the country."

"Indeed!" replied Gilbert, in apparent wonder; "how do you arrive at that extraordinary conclusion?"

"The coffin has been examined," answered Mr Steedman, "and no body has been found in it; the servant has eloped; and the only man who says he saw the body is your cousin, the undertaker."

Gilbert paused, and meditated.

"I’ll tell ye what, Mr Steedman," said he at last, in his simplest style of speech, "prove ye that my brother has fled; and that the funeral was a hoax, and I’ll pay his debts."

"I must frankly own that I cannot," replied the other. "No one has seen his body alive."

"Weel, weel, I’ll tell ye what, Mr Steedman," said Gilbert again, with great simplicity, "prove ye that my brother is dead, and that I took his siller, and I’ll pay his debts."

"Neither can I do that, I fear," replied the other; "for no one, (save your cousin, who will not be believed,) has seen his dead body."

"Very weel, then," rejoined Gilbert, laughing, and twinkling his cunning gray eye, "if ye can prove neither that he’s fled nor that he’s dead, I see nae richt ye has to wear the brass knocker o’ my door on sae fruitless an errand as that which brocht ye here this day."

The poor people still adhered to the opinion that old John M’Whannel would one day cast up—and thus were they cheated. The writer took advantage of the coffin being found as empty as the kist; and, out of the two negatives, made a very good positive.

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