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Wilson's Border Tales
The Black Hour

About the time of the great pestilence which committed such dreadful ravages in Scotland in the reign of James I. there lived in the town of Dunse an old woman of the name of Janet Fortune, who, in consequence of her spare appearance and peculiarly sharp style of countenance, joined to a strong religious enthusiasm, which burned with the fires scattered abroad at that early period by the Wickliffites, was generally considered to have that connection with the great Author of Evil which subjected her to the danger of the stake. There was, of course, no more witchcraft about Janet Fortune than might have been in those by whom it was imputed to her; and certainly (if the innocent nature of her avocations formed any test of judgment) there was greatly less connection between her and the Evil One than might have been proved to have existed in the case of the sorners, brennars, stouthrievers, and masterful beggars, with whom that part of the country abounded, and who conceived they had a right to shake their heads at the old woman in token of their disapprobation of her imputed compact.

Unfortunately, however, Janet Fortune was one of those wiseacres who concern themselves about the signs of the times; and though other people saw nothing more in the plague, which was then filling the kirkyards and raising there the only crops which the parched country yielded, than was observed in that of the prior century, (1348,) which carried off a third of the inhabitants, she could very easily perceive that it was a warning of the approaching end of all things. This opinion she was in the habit of expressing daily, as she sat at her window, and observed the melancholy progress of the almost hourly funerals which passed her house to the kirkyard. It was in vain that her daughter, a fine young woman, of about twenty-five years of age, called Magdaline, disputed with her on the absurdity of her belief, and proved, by reference to history, that many scourges of the same kind had passed over the earth, which notwithstanding still endured, and would, she hoped, endure as long at least as they were destined to remain on it. Janet was immovable. She could not conceive that one half of God’s creatures, among whom she enumerated many godly people, could be sent to their graves for no other ostensible purpose than to make the grass grow. They had committed no greater evil than those who lived before them; they had been removed while in the bud, in the blossom, in the fruit, and in the sere-leaf; and for what could all this be done, but to prepare them in some mysterious way for "the hour which corneth when no man listeth?"

Magdaline was interested in this controversy otherwise than as a speculative casuist, or even as a warm-hearted daughter, who wished to save her mother from public reproach. She had been upon the eve of being married to a young man called Murdoch Stewart, who, though poor and a tradesman, boasted of being a natural son of the unfortunate regent of that name. The match between him and Magdaline had been fixed, and the ceremony was only postponed in consequence of the negative which the old mother set against it; from the conviction which hourly increased with the increase of the general mortality, that her daughter was already destined to be death’s bride, and that the day was fast approaching when they would all meet in a place where there was no matches but those of eternal love and friendship. Magdaline was a most affectionate daughter, and sacrificed her own happiness to the peace of mind of her parent. She trusted to the cessation of the scourge, and waited patiently for the change which that happy circumstance would produce on the mind of her mother, and, by consequence, on her own maiden condition.

The great anxiety of the public mind, at that time, rendered it credulous of any nostrum in the shape of a prophecy, which religious enthusiasm, fear, or vanity, might promulgate. As soon as it was known that Janet Fortune, the wise woman of Dunse, had foretold the end of the world, from the premonitory signs of the times, and especially the existence of the frightful disease, which seemed by its own energies alone able, as it was apparently inclined, to put an end to all mankind, numbers of people visited her from all parts of the country, to consult her as to the time when the anticipated change would take place. The daughter saw, with fear and trembling, the danger to which her old parent was exposing herself by countenancing this unenviable fame. The old woman herself was not insensible to the terrors of imputed witchcraft; but the duty she owed to the Author of all things overcame her fears, and she continued to call her friends to a timely repentance, as a preparation for what would inevitably come upon them.

About this time, the famous Paul Crawer, the Prague doctor, was busy taking advantage of the state of men’s minds, produced by the incomprehensible and incurable nature of the pestilence, called, in consequence of the versatility of its vengeance, the pestilentia volatilis; and, in various places in Scotland, thundered with his peculiar eloquence against the imputed errors of the Catholic Church, which, he said, were the true cause of the divine visitation. He dwelt with great force upon the crime of withholding the Bible from the people, for whom its precepts and consolations were intended; argued against the immunities claimed by the ecclesiastics and prelates, from the temporal jurisdiction of the king’s law-officers, and laid open the sores which religious error had produced in the hearts of men. In promulgating these doctrines, Crawer visited various of the Scottish towns; and, among the rest, Dunse, which was already sufficiently inflamed by the prophetic warnings of Janet Fortune, aided by the awful state of the kingdom from the still increasing mortality which everywhere prevailed.

The appearance, in so small a town, of the Bohemian enthusiast, with his foreign aspect, dress, and accent—the promulgator of new doctrines, and, in the people’s apprehension, a person connected, in some mysterious way, with the public curse then prevailing—produced an excitement proportioned to the unusual cause and the susceptibility of the people’s feelings. He preached publicly in the open street, defying the great inquisitor of heresy and his agents. All that were still free from the grasp of the fell destroyer, collected round the enthusiast. Every face was marked with the sorrow produced by the loss of friends, and the anxiety still felt for their own fate. A predisposition to fear and apprehension reigned everywhere; slight circumstances were magnified into mysterious indications; and anything in the shape of a prophecy operated like the effect of magic on their excited minds. Among the crowd was Janet Fortune, on whom those eyes which were not spell-bound by the preacher, were eagerly, yet fearfully turned. Crawer did not fail to take advantage of the excitement he saw everywhere prevailing, and stated that, while he was bound to inform them that the awful visitation under which their friends had perished and they themselves stood in imminent danger, was sent as a punishment for the vices of the age, he felt himself under the obligation of intimating what heaven and earth were also busily and fearfully doing—that the time was fast approaching when the end of all mortal things would be revealed to man, and he would be called to account for the crimes he had committed and was still committing. When this announcement was made, every eye turned upon Janet Fortune; the unlooked for corroboration of her prediction sealed it with the stamp of truth; an involuntary shudder followed the conviction, and apprehension, producing its sympathetic effects, rose to a pitch of morbid terror seldom experienced in an entire community.

Fears of the kind thus entertained by the inhabitants of Dunse are generally short-lived; but, in the present instance, they were kept up, if not gradually increased, by the continuance of the pestilence, whose ravages were not in any degree abated; the number of the funerals was as great as ever, and all public functions were so completely obstructed, that the interference of the legislature was required to preserve that order and regularity in the public offices which fear had disturbed or put entirely to flight. The apprehensions of the people of Dunse were destined to assume a form of great certainty. Though neither Janet Fortune nor Paul Crawer had condescended on the particular period of the prophesied change, others did not observe a similar caution or honesty. An obscure hint, whose origin, it would, perhaps, have been vain to attempt to discover, served to fix the gnomon of the prevailing fear; and it was circulated with great rapidity, that the 17th day of June following (1432) was the ordained day on which an eternal finality was to be put to sublunary things. A general credence was willingly imparted to the flying intelligence, notwithstanding that neither the old woman nor the Bohemian would admit that there appeared to them any truth in the statement of the particular period of time at which the event would happen. The difficulty of accounting for the origin of the report only added to its greater certainty, on the principle always acted on by the vulgar, and often too much disregarded by the learned, that what has apparently no cause comes direct from heaven.

The week which intervened between the periods of the starting of the report, and the appointed day, was passed in great and ill-concealed apprehension. Some persons, who prided themselves in refusing credence to things which admitted of less doubt, attempted to disregard the subject of general concern; but the connection between it and a present and experienced evil, the still destroying pestilence, prevented them from indulging in a stoicism which had been renounced by all as a scepticism which was so much unsuited to the mysterious character of the times. The everyday concerns of ordinary life were disregarded by those inhabitants whose minds were considered to be entirely devoted to business; and even the peculiar affairs of the heart, and, in particular, the matrimonial thoughts and aspirations of Magdaline Fortune and Murdoch Stewart, were merged in the general absorbing subject of anxiety and fear. Meanwhile, the duties were still unremittingly paid to the dying—the dead continued in great numbers to be carried to the burying ground, which being now completely filled, recourse was had by the disconsolate and terror-smitten inhabitants to a part of the ground of a neighbouring monastery as a receptacle for the surplus of the victims of the relentless destroyer.

During this reign of terror, the most unremitting devotion was practised by the inhabitants. It is due to the character of the people of that part of the kingdom to state this historical testimony to their not having abandoned themselves absolutely to the force of their fears. It would not be fair to frail human nature to say that the religious feelings then displayed, and no doubt sincerely, were like the gods mentioned in the ancient aphorism—metas fecit deos— the children of apprehension. No doubt many then knelt in prayer to the Almighty who never before bended a knee at his footstool; their reward may be the less, but we have no authority for saying that it will be nothing. Wo at least to those—and there were even some such to be found among the people—who admitted the truth of the prediction, and yet amidst acknowledgments that sorrow for their dead and dying friends had become familiar to them, kept the knee unbended and the voice of supplication mute. We say not this in reference to the falsely predicted catastrophe but to the character of hearts which could remain unshaken and unawed amidst the dissolving elements of a condemned world.

The eventful day at last dawned upon Dunse. No shops were opened by the inhabitants, the most part of whom were either engaged in prayer or in performing the last offices to their dying friends. A very general wish seemed to prevail to enter places of public worship, which were accordingly soon filled. These demonstrations of preparation on the part of people gifted with strong powers of reason, overcame many who maintained hitherto a determined scepticism. The slight beam of hope that the prediction would prove false, which to some extent pervaded the minds of all, was not sufficient to qualify an apprehension justified by the surrounding evidences of the Almighty’s displeasure. As the day advanced, that beam became stronger; but it was destined immediately to suffer an almost entire annihilation. At the hour of two, a sudden darkness came over the face of the earth, and Dunse was unfortunately not excepted from the general gloom. The fate of the world and of Dunse was now on the eve of being decided; the prophetess stood on the market-cross, and cried peace and forgiveness to the sinner. Paul Crawer rejoiced in his power of divination, and in the downfall of Popery in a gulf which was to entomb himself. The fatal tidings, confirmed by a mid-day night, reached the ears of those dying of the pestilence. But disease was now no addition to the misery of the sinner. The remorseless destroyer, that had carried off thousands, was destined himself to be destroyed; and the grave lost its insignificant dimensions, as well as its terrors, amidst the universal tomb of Dunse and the world.

Having lasted a full hour, the darkness began to disappear about three o’clock; and, in a few minutes, the sun shone forth in all his glory. It now occurred to the wiser portion of the inhabitants, that they had been eclipsed; and, sure it was that they had at least mentally been exposed to an obumbration. The rest of the day proved clear and beautiful; and, at night, the moon brought her borrowed light, to make amends to the sorrowing inhabitants for the absence of her principal. On the morning of the 18th of June, Dunse was found still to be on the face of the earth; and what was of not much less importance, the earth herself still held her place among the planets.

The fears of the people, thus wrought out by a great paroxysm, never returned; but many acknowledged the benefits, in a religious point of view, which they experienced from the extraordinary phenomenon of "The Black Hour." The unfortunate Crawer did not, however, share in these. As a heretic and a disturber of the public peace, he was seized by the order of the grand inquisitor, the infamous Lawrence, and, after standing his trial, was condemned to die, and did accordingly resign his life at the stake, in the city of St Andrew’s, on the 23d day of July following.

It was with difficulty that Janet Fortune escaped the rage of the populace, who now treated her as a witch of the worst grade—viz, those that torment people with fears of evil which they are not yet far enough in with the Devil to be able to realize; but she was saved by the interference of her daughter Magdaline, who, from her beauty and character, was respected and beloved by all who knew her. No obstruction now existed to the celebration of her marriage with Murdoch Stewart, except the recent deaths of many relatives who had fallen victims to the general destroyer. Though all fears of a decay of universal nature were now banished, many still adhered to the idea that there was some connection between "The Black Hour" and the pestilence; but, happily, even that connection, if any such existed, was destined soon to cease. The mortality of the disease soon began to shew indications of decrease; and, as the summer advanced, its ravages diminished. In the autumn following, Scotland, and Dunse in particular, had recovered, in a great degree, from the effects of the mighty calamities under which she had for some time laboured; and, during the slow return of health, composure, and happiness, to the so long distressed inhabitants, Magdaline Fortune and Murdoch Stewart, whose fates were particularly connected with the misfortunes of Dunse, were no longer prevented by their mother, who now abjured all spaeing, from joining themselves in holy wedlock.

The eclipse of 1432 was long remembered in Scotland by the name we have already mentioned—"The Black Hour." The period of obscuration is understood to have lasted an hour, and to have been distinguished by unprecedented darkness. The pestilence which then also prevailed was, in an age prone to superstition, supposed to be the effect of the celestial phenomenon not then well understood; an opinion which, though it has been spurned by modern philosophers, receives some authority from the records of later history as well as our ancient chronicles.

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