THE OATH OF SWORDS
Well do I mind the first time that ever I was in the heartsome town of Ballantrae. My father seldom went thither, because it was a hold of the Bargany folk, and it argued therefore sounder sense to give it the go-by. But it came to pass upon a time that it was necessary for my father to adventure from Kirrieoch on the border of Galloway, where we dwelt high on the moors, to the seaside of Ayr.
My father’s sister had married a man named Hew Grier, an indweller in Maybole, who for gear’s sake had settled down to his trade of tanner in Ballantrae. It was to his burying that we went. We had seen him snugly happed up, and the burial supper was over. We were already in a mind to set about returning, when we heard the sound of a great rushing of people hither and thither. I went aloft and looked through a gable window upon the street. Arms were hastily being brought from beneath the thatch, to which the laws of the King had committed them under the late ordinance anent weapons of war. Leathern jackets were being donned, and many folk cried ‘Bargany!’ in the streets without knowing why.
My Aunt Grisel went out to ask what the stir might be, and came in again with her face as white as a clout.
‘It is the Cassillis folk that are besieging the Tower of Ardstinchar, and they have come near to the taking of it, they say. Oh, what will the folk of Ballantrae do to you, John, if they ken that you are here? They will hang you for a spy, and that without question.’
‘That,’ said my father, ‘is surely impossible. The Ballantrae folk never had any great haul of sense ever since Stinchar water ran; but yet they will hardly believe that Hew Grier, decent man—him that was your marrow and lies now in his resting grave, poor body—took on himself to die, just that I might come to Ballantrae to spy out the land!’
But my aunt, being easily flustered, would not hearken to him, thinking that all terrible things were possible, and so hid the two of us in the barn-loft till it should be the hour of the gloaming.
Then so soon as the darkening came, putting a flask of milk into my pocket and giving a noble satchel of cakes to my father, she almost pushed us out of her back door. To this day I remember how the unsteady glare of a red burning filled all the street. And we could see burghers’ wives standing at their doors, all looking intently in the direction of the Castle of Ardstinchar upon its lofty rock. Others set their heads out of the little round ‘jaw-holes’ that opened in each gable wall, and gossiped shrilly with their neighbours.
My father and I went cannily down by the riverside, and as soon as we turned Hew-the-Friar’s corner, we saw all the noble tower of Ardstinchar flaming to the skies—every window belching fire, and the sparks fleeing upward as before a mighty wind, though it was a stirless night with a moon and stars floating serenely above.
Down by the waterside and straight before us we saw a post of men, and we heard them clank their war-gear as they marched from side to side and looked ever up at the castle on its steep, spitting like a furnace, flaming like a torch. So at sight of them my father turned us about sharply enough, because, in spite of what he had said to my Aunt Grisel, he had much reason to fear for his neck. For if, on the night of a Cassillis raid, one of the hated faction should be found in the town of Ballantrae, little doubt there was but that a long tow and a short shrift would be his fate.
We climbed the breast of the brae up from the waterside, intending to make a detour behind the castle. My father said that there would be an easy crossing at Heronford, where he knew a decent man that was of his own party. Thence we could make up the glen of the Tigg Water, which in the evil state of the country was as good and quiet a way back to Minnochside as one might hope to find.
It seemed a most pitiful sight to me, that was but a young lad (and had never seen a fire bigger than a screed of muirburn screeving across the hills with a following wind at its tail), to watch the noble house with all its wealth of plenishing and gear being burned up.
I said as much to my father, who swung along with his head bent to the hill slope, dragging my arm oftentimes almost from the socket, in his haste to get us out of such unwholesome company as the angry folk of Ballantrae.
‘It is an enemy’s house!’ he replied very hastily. ‘Come thy ways, lad!’
‘But what harm have the Bargany folk done to us?’ I asked. For this thing seemed strange to me—that Kennedy should strive with Kennedy, burn castle, kill man, harry mow and manger, drive cattle—and I never be able to make out what it was all for.
‘Hold your breath, Launcelot Kennedy!’ said my father, testy with shortness of wind and going uphill, ‘or right speedily you will find out for what! Is it not enough that you are born to love Cassillis and to hate Bargany?’
‘Are the folk of Cassillis, then, so much better than the folk of Bargany?’ I asked, taking what I well knew to be the chances of a civil answer, or of a ring on the side of the head.
It was not the civil answer that I got.
And, indeed, it was an ill season for query and question, or for the answering of them. In time we got to the angle of the castle, and there we were somewhat sheltered from the fierce heat and from the glare of light also. From the eminence we had gained, we could look away along the shore side. My father pointed with his finger.
‘Boy, do you see yon?’ he whispered.
I looked long and eagerly with my unaccustomed eyes, before I could see in the pale moonlight a dark train of horsemen that rode steadily northward. Their line wimpled like a serpent, being pricked out to our sight with little reeling twinkles of fire, which I took to be the moon shining on their armour and the points of their spears.
‘See,’ said my father, ‘yonder goes our good Earl home with the spoil. Would that I were by his side! Why do I live so far among the hills, and out of the call of my chief when he casts his war pennon to the winds?’
We looked all round the castle, and seeing no one, we made shift to get about it and darn ourselves among the heather of the further hillside. But even as we passed the angle and reached a broken part of the wall, there came a trampling of iron-shod hoofs. And lo! a troop of horsemen rode up to the main castle gate, that which looks to the north-west. It was all we could do to clamber out of sight over the broken wall, my father lifting me in his arms. There we lay flat and silent behind a pile of stones, just where the breach had been made—over which we could look into the courtyard and see the splotched causeway and the bodies of the dead lying here and there athwart it in the ruddy light of burning.
Just as the foremost horseman came to the gate, which the riders of Cassillis had left wide open, the roof of red tile fell in with an awesome crash. The flames again sprang high and the sparks soared. Soon all the courtyard was aglow with the red, unsteady leme which the skies gave back, while the moon and stars paled and went out.
‘Hist!’ whispered my father, ‘this is young Bargany himself who comes first.’
I looked eagerly from behind a stone and saw the noblest figure of a young man that ever I saw or shall see, riding on a black horse, sitting framed in the dark of the gateway, the flames making a crimson flicker about him. After a moment’s pause he rode within the deserted close, and there sat his horse, looking up sternly and silently at the leaping flames and hearkening as it were to the crackling of the timbers as they burned.
Then another and yet another horseman came riding within, some of whom my father knew.
‘See you, Launce, and remember,’ he whispered; ‘that loon there is Thomas Kennedy of Drummurchie, Bargany’s brother. Observe his fangs of the wolf. He of all the crew is the wickedest and the worst.’
I looked forth and saw a gaunt, dark youth, with a short upper lip drawn up from teeth that shone white in the leaping flame which harvested the goodly gear of the house of Ardstinchar.
‘There also is Blairquhan the Simpleton, Cloncaird of the Black Heart, and Benane the Laird’s brother—a very debauched man—and there, I declare, is my Lord Ochiltree. Upon soul and conscience, I wonder what he does here thus riding with the Barganies?’
As soon as the fire died down a little, some of the party began to search about among the defences and outhouses, and a few even entered into the inner part of the tower. In twos and threes they came forth, some bringing a wounded man, some a dead man, till, on the cool, grey stones of the court, there rested five that lay motionless on their backs, and two that moaned a while and then were still. The more lightly wounded were cared for in a chamber within the gate. Then we could see all the gentlemen of the Bargany side dismounted from their horses and standing about those five that were killed.
‘Alas for young Girvanmains!’ I heard one cry, for we were very near. ‘What shall we say to his father? And here also is Walter Pollock, the cunning scrivener—and James Dalrymple, that was a kindly little man and never harmed anyone—the Lord do so to me, and more also, if I write not this killing in blood upon the walls of Cassillis!’
The crowd thinned a little, and I saw it was the Laird himself that spoke.
Then this same young Bargany, who was taller by a head than any there, called for room. So they made a ring, with the dead men in the midst, and Bargany standing a little before. He bent him over the body of Walter Pollock, the young clerk, and drew forth a book from his breast.
‘Listen!’ he cried, ‘all you that love Bargany, and who now behold this deed of dule and cruelty. Here lie our dead. Here is the Book of God that I have taken from one of the servants of peace, cruelly bereft of life by our enemies!’
‘I warrant he drew a good sword when it came to the fighting, clerk though he might be,’ whispered my father, ‘I know the Pollock breed!’
Bargany looked at the book in his grasp and again at the hand which had held it.
‘This falls out well,’ he said. ‘Here in the presence of our dead, upon the Bible that is wet with the blood of the unjustly slain, let us band ourselves together and take oath to be avenged upon the cruel house—the house of over-trampling pride—the house that has ever wrought us woe! Will ye swear?’
He looked round a circle of faces that shone fierce and dark in the lowe of the furnace beyond. As he did so he unsheathed his sword, and pointed with it to the topmost pinnacles of Ardstinchar. In a moment there was a ring of steel all about him, for, quick as his own, every man’s hand went out to his scabbard, and in every man’s grip there gleamed a bare blade. And the sight thrilled me to see it, ay, more than all the religion I had ever been taught, for I was but a boy. And even though religion be learned in youth, the strength and the use of it comes not till after.
Thus Bargany stood with the brand in his right hand and the Bible in his left, to take, as was ancient custom in our countryside, the solemn oath of vengeance and eternal enmity. And thus he spake,—
‘By this Holy Book and by the wet blood upon it, I, Gilbert Kennedy of Bargany, swear never to satisfy my just feud against the bloody house of Cassillis, till of all their defenced towers there stands not one stone in its place, remains alive not one scion of its cruel race. I who stand here, in the presence of these dead men of my folk, charge the Kennedies of the North with the blood of my kin, the spoiling of my vassals, and the heart-breaking of my father. In the name of God I swear! If I stay my hand and make not an end, the God of Battles do so to me, and more also!’
Gilbert Kennedy kissed the book which he gripped in his left hand, and then with sudden gesture of hatred he flung down the sword which he had held aloft in his right. It fell with a ringing dirl of iron upon the stones of the pavement beside the slain men, and the sound of its fall made the flesh creep on my bones.
Then the Laird’s wicked brother, Thomas, called the Wolf of Drummurchie, came forward, hatred fairly sparkling in his eyes, and his teeth set in a girn of devil’s anger.
‘I swear,’ he cried, ‘to harry John of Cassillis, the enemy that has wrought us this woe, with fire and sword—to cut off him and his with dagger and spear, to light the thack and to lift the cattle. I will be an outlaw, a prey for the hunters for their sake. For Cassillis it was who first slandered me to the King, chased me from my home, and made me no better than a robber man upon the mountains.’
And in turn he kissed the Book, and his sword rang grimly on the pavement beside his brother’s. So one by one the men of Bargany took the solemn band of eternal and bloody feud. Presently an old man stood forth. He held a spear in his hand, being, as my father whispered, but a tenant vassal and keeping to the ancient Scottish yeoman’s weapon.
‘By the blood of my son that lies here before me, by this spear which he held in his dying hand, I, that am but the poor goodman of Girvanmains, before death takes me to where all vengeance is Another’s, I swear the vengeance of blood!’
And he cast the spear beside the swords of the gentlemen. Then issuing forth from the chamber over the gate, and leaning heavily upon the arm of a young page boy, there came creeping the strangest shape of a man—his countenance thrawed and drawn, his shrunk shanks twisted, his feet wambling one over another like those of a mummer’s bear. Bowed double the man was, and he walked with a staff that tapped and rattled tremblingly on the pavement as he came. The men of war turned at the sound, for there had been stark silence among them after old Girvanmains had let his spear fall.
Like one risen from the dead, the old man looked up at the tower which was now beginning to show black against the dulling red glow of the dying fire.
‘Thou tower of Ardstinchar,’ he cried, lifting up a voice like the wind whistling through scrannel pipes, ‘they have burned you that erstwhile burned me. Curse me Cassillis and the Lords of it! Curse me all that cleave to it, for their tender mercies are cruel. I, Allan Stewart, sometime Abbot of Crossraguel, lay my curse bitterly upon them for the cruel burning they gave me before their fire in the Black Vault of Dunure. But bless me the House of Bargany, that rescued me from torture and took me to their strong tower, wherein I have to this day found in peace a quiet abiding chamber.’
‘Mark well, boy,’ whispered my father; ‘remember this to tell it in after days to your children’s children. Your eyes have seen the Abbot of Crossraguel whom the King of Carrick, the father of our Earl John, roasted quick in the vault of Dunure—a deed which has wrought mickle woe, and will yet work more.’
And even as my father spoke I saw the old cripple hirple away, the young Laird himself helping him with the kindliest courtesy.
Then, last of all that spake, came a voice from one who had remained in the gloomy archway of the gate, by the entering in of the courtyard. He that broke the silence was a tall man who sat on a grey horse, and was clad from head to foot in a cloak of grey, having his face shaded with a high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat of the ancient fashion.
‘Give me the Book and I also will swear an oath!’ he said, in a voice which made all turn towards him.
‘Who may that man be? I ken him not,’ said my father, for he had named all the others as they came within.
So one gave the man the blood-stained Bible, and he held it in his hand a moment. He was silent a space before he spoke.
‘By this Christian Book and among this Christian people,’ he cried, ‘I swear to root out and slay utterly all the house of Cassillis and Culzean, pursuing them, man, woman and child, with fire and sword till they die the death of pain and scorn, or I who swear die in the accomplishing of it.’
The unknown paused at the end of this terrible oath, and gazed again at the Book. The dying flame within the castle flared up for a chance moment as another rafter caught fire.
‘Fauch!’ said he of the grey cloak, looking at the Bible in his hand, ‘there is blood upon thee. Go thou into the burning as the seal of our oaths. A bloody Bible is no Christian book!’
And with that he threw the Bible into the red embers that glowed sullenly within the tower.
There broke a cry of horror from all that saw. For though in this dark land of Carrick deeds of blood were done every day, this Bible-burning was accounted rank blasphemy and ungodly sacrilege. But I was not prepared for its effect upon my father. He trembled in all his limbs, and I felt the stones shake upon which he now leaned breast high, careless who should see him.
‘This is fair devil’s work,’ he muttered. ‘The fires of Sodom, the brimstone of Gomorrah shall light upon us all for this deed!’
He would have said more, but I never heard him finish his words. Sudden as a springing deer, he tore from the covert of the wall by my side and bounded across the court, threading the surprised group and overleaping the swords and the bodies of the slain men. He disappeared in a moment through the door into the tower, within which the flames still glowed red, and from which every instant the crash of falling timber and the leaping flames answered each other.
Ere my father sprang back, his figure stood plain and dark against the fire within, like that of a smith at his forge seen in the bygoing upon a snowy night. He held the unburned Bible clasped to his breast, but his left hand hung straight down by his side.
A moment after he had sprung from a window and fallen upon his face on the pavement with the Bible beneath him.
A dozen men ran towards him and seized him—Thomas of Drummurchie the first among them.
‘A traitor! A spy!’ he cried, lifting a sword from the pile with clear purpose to kill. ‘To the death with him! It is John Kennedy of Kirrieoch—I ken him well, a rank Cassillis thief!’
And he would have slain my father forthwith, but that I ran among his legs and gripped him so close to me that he fell clattering on the pavement among the swords. Then I went and took my father’s hand, standing by his side and crying out the while,—
‘Ye shallna, ye shallna kill my father. He never did ye harm a’ the days o’ his life!’
‘Who are you, and what do you here?’ asked young Bargany in a voice of command, when they had set my father on his feet.
‘I am John Kennedy of Kirrieoch on Minnochside, and I came to Ballantrae to bury the corpse of my sister’s man, Hew Grier, merchant and indweller there, that was this day laid in the earth.’
So, right quietly and calmly, my father spoke among them all.
‘But what seek you in my burned Castle of Ardstinchar and alone with these dead men?’ asked the young Bargany.
With a quietness that came of the hills my father told the chieftain his plain tale, and his words were not words that any man could gainsay.
Then Bargany answered him without consulting the others, as none but a great chief does whose lightest word is life or death.
‘Ye are here within my danger, and had I been even as your folk of Cassillis, ye should have died the death; but because ye stopped devil’s work and, it may be, kept away a curse from us for the burning of the Holy Book, ye shall not die in my house. Take your life and your son’s life, as a gift from Gilbert Kennedy of Bargany.’
My father bowed his head and thanked his house’s enemy.
‘Bring a horse,’ cried the Laird, and immediately they set my father on a beast, and me in the saddle before him. ‘Put the Bible for a keepsake in your winnock sole, turn out the steed on Minnochside, and come no more to Ballantrae in time of feud, lest a worse thing befall you!’ So said he, and waved us away, as I thought grandly.
Some of the men that had sworn enmity murmured behind him.
‘Silence!’ he cried, ‘am not I Lord of Bargany? Shall I not do as I will? Take your life, Kirrieoch. And whenever a Bargany rides by your door, ye shall give him bite and sup for the favour that was this night shown you in the courtyard of Ardstinchar.’
‘Ye shall get that, Bargany, and welcome, whether ye let me gang or no!’ said my father. And pressing the Book to his bosom, and gathering up the reins in his unwounded hand, we rode unquestioned through the arch of the wall into the silence of the night. And the hill winds and the stillnesses without were like God’s blessing about us.
But from a knoll on the left of the entrance the man of the grey habit, he who had thrown the Bible, sat silent upon his horse and watched. And as we looked back, he still sat and watched. Him my father took to have been the devil, as he said to me many times that night ere we got to Minnochside.
Also ere we left the clattering pavement behind, looking out from the postern door we saw the thrawn visage of him who was Allan Stewart, the tortured residue of the man who had once been Abbot of Crossraguel, and in stature like a square-shouldered tower.
And this is the way my father brought home the burnt Bible to the house of Kirrieoch. There it bides to this day, blackened as to its bindings and charred at the edges, but safe in the wall press at my father’s bed-head, a famous book in all the land, even as far as Glencaird and Dranie Manors upon the Waters of Trool.
But it brought good fortune with it—a fortune which, God be thanked, still remains and grows. And as for my father, he never lifted sword nor spear against the house of Bargany from that day to this, because of the usage which Gilbert Kennedy gave him that night at the burning of Ardstinchar.
Nevertheless, for all that, he exercised me tightly in the use of every weapon of war, from the skill of the bow to the shooting of the hackbutt. For it was his constant intent to make me an esquire in the service of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean,[#] reputed the wisest man and the best soldier in all the parts of Carrick and Ayr. As, indeed, I have found him.
[#] Culzean is pronounced Culayne, as though to rhyme with ‘domain.’
And this saving of the burning Bible was, as I guess, the beginning of my respect for religion—which, alas! I fear this chronicle will show to have been both a late-garnered and a thin-sown crop.
Categories: English Literature