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At Edinburgh, almost under the shadow of the spire of St. Giles's, in the pavement between that old cathedral church and the County Hall, the passer-by will mark the figure of a heart let into the causeway, and know that he is standing on the "Heart of Midlothian," [Footnote: The title of one of Sir Walter Scott's romances.] the site of the old Tolbooth. That gloomy pile vanished in the autumn of 1817; as Mr. Stevenson says, "the walls are now down in the dust; there is no more…cage for the old acknowledged prison-breaker; but the sun and the wind play freely over the foundations of the gaol;" this place, "old in story and name-father to a noble book." The author of that same "noble book" possessed himself of some memorials of the keep he had rendered so famous, securing the stones of the gateway, and the door with its ponderous fastenings to decorate the entrance of his kitchen-court at Abbotsford. And this is all that is left.
But in the summer and autumn of 1685 the Tolbooth held prisoners enough, notwithstanding the many gloomy processions that were from time to time walking to the axe and halter in the Grassmarket; and in a narrow cell, late one August evening, two persons were sitting of whom this story shall treat. These two were Sir John Cochrane, of Ochiltree, and his daughter Grizel--here on the saddest of errands, to visit her father in prison and help in his preparations for death.
For Sir John, a stout Whig, had been one of the leaders of Argyle's insurrection; had been beaten with his troops by Lord Ross at Muirdykes; had disbanded his handful of men, and fled for hiding to the house of his uncle, Mr. Gavin Cochrane, of Craigmuir; had been informed against by his uncle's wife, seized, taken to Edinburgh; had been paraded, bound and bareheaded, through the streets by the common executioner; and then on the 3rd of July flung into the Tolbooth to await his trial for high treason. And now the trial, too, was over, and Sir John was condemned to die.
As he now sat, with bowed head, on the bench of his cell, it was not the stroke of death that terrified him--for Sir John was a brave man--but the parting with his children, who would through his rashness be left both orphaned and penniless (for the crown would seize his goods), and chiefly the parting with his daughter, who had been his one comfort in the dark days of waiting for the king's warrant of execution to arrive.
Between his apprehension and his trial no friend or kinsman had been allowed to visit him; but now that his death was assured, greater license had been granted. But, anxious to deprive his enemies of a chance to accuse his sons, he had sent them his earnest entreaties and commands that they should abstain from using this permission until the night before his execution. They had obeyed; but obedience of this sort did not satisfy the conscience of his daughter Grizel. On the very night of his condemnation he heard the key turn in his door; thinking it could only be the gaoler, he scarcely lifted his eyes. But the next moment a pair of soft arms were flung round his neck, and his daughter was weeping on his breast. From that day she had continued to visit him; and now as she sat beside him, staring at the light already fading in the narrow pane, both father and daughter knew that it was almost the last time.
Presently she spoke--
"And this message--tell me truly, have you any hope from it?"
It was an appeal made by Sir John's father, the Earl of Dundonald, to Father Peters, the king's confessor, who often dictated to him, as was well known, on matters of state. But in the short time left, would there be time to press this appeal, and exert that influence in London which alone could stay the death-warrant?
"There is no hope in that quarter," said Sir John.
Grizel knew that he spoke only what was her own conviction, and her despair.
"Argyle is dead these three days," pursued her father, "and with him men of less consequence than I. Are they likely to spare me--a head of the rising? Would they spare any man now, in the heat of their revenge?"
"Father," said Grizel suddenly, "could you spare me from your side for a few days?"
Sir John looked up. He knew by her manner that she had formed some plan in her mind; he knew, too, from her heart, that nothing but chance of winning his safety could take her from him now, of all times.
"My child," he said, "you are going to attempt something."
She nodded, with a brighter face than she had worn for many days.
"And what you would attempt," he went on, "is an impossibility."
"Nothing is impossible to a true heart," she said.
"And who will help you?"
"No one." She was standing before him now, and in the twilight he could see her eyes lit up with hope, her figure upright, and as if full of a man's strength.
"My girl, you will run into danger--into blame. They will not spare you, and--do you know the characters of those men whom you would have to sue?"
She bent and kissed him.
"I am a Cochrane, my father."
Early next morning, before the world was up, Grizel Cochrane was mounted on horseback and riding towards the border. She had dressed herself--this girl of eighteen--as a young serving-woman, and when she drew rein at a wayside cottage for food and drink, professed herself journeying on a borrowed horse to visit her mother's house across the Tweed.
By noon Edinburgh was some leagues behind, but she pressed on through that day and most of the following night.
On the second day after leaving Edinburgh she crossed the Tweed, and came in safety to the home of an old nurse, on the English side, four miles beyond the town of Berwick.
"Gude sakes!" cried the old woman, who was standing at her cottage door and was rather astonished to find the horsewoman draw rein, leap to the ground, and plant a kiss on either cheek--"Gude sakes! if it isna Miss Grizel!"
"Quickly, into the house!" commanded her young mistress; "I have somewhat to tell that will not wait an hour."
She knew the old nurse was to be trusted, and therefore told her story and her secret. "Even now," she said at the end of her story, "the postman is riding from London with the warrant in his bag. I must stop him and make him give it up to me, or my father's head is the penalty."
"But what use to talk of this, when the postman is a stout rider, and armed to boot? How is a mere girl, saving your presence, to do this at all?"
Grizel unrolled a bundle which she had brought on her saddle-crutch from Edinburgh; it held a horseman's cloak and a brace of pistols.
"Now," said she, "where are the clothes of Donald, my foster-brother? He was a slight lad in times syne, and little doubt they'll fit me."
For this was indeed the brave girl's plan:--In those times the mail from London took eight days on its journey to Edinburgh; by possessing herself of the warrant for her father's death and detaining it, she could count on the delay of sixteen or seventeen days at least before application could be made for a second, and that signed and sent to the Scotch capital. By this delay, time enough would be won for her friends in London to use all their influence to quash the sentence.
It was a mad scheme; but, as she had said, nothing is impossible to a true heart. She had possessed herself, too, of the minutest information with regard to the places where the postmen rested on their journey. One of these places, she knew, was a small inn kept by a widow on the outskirts of the little town of Belford. There the man who received the bag at Durham was accustomed to arrive at about six in the morning, and take a few hours' sleep before going on with his journey. And at Belford, Grizel Cochrane had determined to meet him.
Taking leave of her faithful nurse, she rode southwards again, and, timing her pace, drew up before the inn at Belford just an hour after the postman had come in from the south and disposed himself to sleep.
The mistress of the inn had no ostler, so Grizel stabled her horse with her own hands, and striding into the inn-parlor, demanded food and drink.
"Sit down, then," answered the old woman, "at the end of that table, for the best I have to give you is there already. And be pleased, my bonny man, to make as little noise as may be; for there's one asleep in that bed that I like ill to disturb."
She pointed to the victuals on the board, which were indeed the remains of the sleeping man's meal. Grizel sat down before them, considered to herself while she played with a mouthful or two, and then asked--
"Can I have a drink of water?"
"'Deed," answered the hostess, "and are you a water-drinker? It is but an ill-custom for a change-house."
"Why, that I know; and so, when I put up at an inn, it is my custom always to pay for it the price of stronger drink, which I cannot take."
"Indeed--well, that's fairly spoken; and, come to think of it, it is but just." The landlady brought a jug of water and set it on the board.
"Is the well where you got this water near at hand?" said Grizel, pouring out a glass and sipping at it; "for if it is no trouble to fetch some fresh for me, I will tell you this is rather over-warm and flat. Your trouble shall be considered in the paying," added she.
"'It is a good step off," answered the dame; "but I cannot refuse to fetch for so civil, discreet a lad--and a well-favored one, besides. So stay here, and I'll be as quick as I can. But for any sake take care and don't meddle with the man's pistols there, for they are loaded, the both; and every time I set eyes on them they scare me out of my senses, almost."
She took up a pitcher and went out to draw the water. No sooner was Grizel left alone than, starting up, she waited for a moment, listening to the footsteps as they died away in the distance, and then crept swiftly across the floor to the place where the postman lay asleep. He lay in one of those close wooden bedsteads, like cupboards, which were then common in the houses of the poor, and to this day may be seen in many a house in Brittany. The door of it was left half-open to give the sleeper air, and from this aperture the noise of his snoring issued in a way that shook the house.
Nevertheless, it seemed to the girl that he must be awakened by the creaking of the floor under her light footfall. With heart in mouth she stole up to the bedstead, and gently pulling the door still wider ajar, peeped in, in the hope of seeing the mail-bag and being able to pounce upon it.
She saw it, indeed; but to her dismay, it lay beneath the shaggy head of its guardian--a giant in size. The postman used his charge as a pillow, and had flung himself so heavily across it as to give not the faintest hope that any one could pull it away without disturbing its keeper from his nap. Nothing could be done now. In those few bitter moments, during which she stood helplessly looking from the bag which contained the fatal warrant to the unconscious face of the man before her, Grizel made up her mind to another plan.
She turned to the table, caught up the postman's holsters, and pulled out the pistols of which the old woman had professed herself in such terror. Quickly drawing and secreting the charges, she returned them to their cases, with many an anxious look over her shoulder towards the bedstead, and took her seat again at the foot of the table.
Hardly had she done so when she heard the old woman returning with the pitcher. Grizel took a draught, for her throat felt like a lime-kiln, and having settled her bill, much to the landlady's satisfaction, by paying for the water the price of a pot of beer, prepared to set off. She carelessly asked and ascertained how much longer the other guest was likely to sleep.
"By the noise he makes he intends sleeping till Doomsday," she said, laughing.
"Ay, poor man! his is a hard life," said the hostess; "and little more than half an hour more before he must be on the highway again."
Grizel laughed once more, and, mounting her horse, set off at a trot along the road southward, as if continuing her journey in that direction.
Hardly had she got beyond the town, however, when turning the horse's head she galloped back, making a circuit around Belford and striking into the high road again between that place and Berwick. Having gained it, she walked the horse gently on, awaiting the coming up of the postman.
Though all her mind was now set on the enterprise before her, she could not help a shiver of terror as she thought on the chance of her tampering with the pistols being discovered, and their loading replaced. But she had chosen her course, and now she must go through with it. She was a woman, after all; and it cannot be wondered that her heart began to beat quickly as her ear caught the sound of hoofs on the road behind her, and, turning, she saw the man on whose face she had been gazing not an hour before, trotting briskly towards her--the mail-bags (there were two--one containing the letters direct from London, the other those taken up at the different post-offices on the road) strapped one on each side of his saddle in front, close to the holsters.
At the last moment her nerve came back, and as he drew near she saluted him civilly and with perfect calmness, put her horse into the same pace with his, and rode on for some way in his company.
The postman was a burly, thick-set man, with a good-humored face. You may be sure that Miss Cochrane inspected it anxiously enough, and was relieved to find that it did not contain any vast amount of hardy courage.
The man was well enough inclined for conversation, too, and as they rode had a heap of chat, which it seemed a pity to interrupt. At length, however, when they were about half-way between Belford and Berwick, Grizel judged now or never was the time. Pulling her horse's rein gently so as to bring her close to her company, she said in a low but perfectly determined voice--
"Friend, I have taken a fancy for those mail-bags of yours, and I must have them: therefore take my advice, and deliver them up quietly, for I am provided for all hazards. I am mounted, as you see, on a fleet horse; I carry fire-arms; and, moreover, I am allied with those who are stronger, though not bolder, than I. You see that wood, yonder?" she continued, pointing to one about a mile off, with an accent and air meant to corroborate her bold words. "Then take my advice: give me up your bags, and speed back the road you came for the present, nor dare to approach that wood for at least two or three hours to come."
The postman, whose eyes had been growing rounder and rounder during this speech from the stripling beside him, pulled up and looked at her in dumb amazement for some moments.
"If," said he, as soon as he found his tongue, "you mean, young master, to make yourself merry at my expense, you are heartily welcome. I can see a joke, I trust, as well as another man; so have your laugh out, and don't think I'm one to take offence at the words of a foolish boy. But if," and here he whipped a pistol from his holster and turned the muzzle on her face--"if you are mad enough to think seriously of such a business, then I am ready for you."
They had come to a stand now, in the middle of the road; and Grizel felt an ugly sinking at the heart as she looked at the mouth of the pistol, now not a yard from her cheek. Nevertheless she answered, very quietly and cooly--
"If you have a doubt, dismiss it; I am quite in earnest."
The postman, with his hand on the trigger, hesitated.
"I think my lad, you seem of an age when robbing a garden or an old woman's fruit-stall would befit you better, if so be you must turn thief, than taking his Majesty's mails upon his highway from a stout and grown man. So be thankful, then, you have met with one who will not shed blood if he can help it, and go your way before I am provoked to fire."
"Sir," said Grizel, "you are a worthy man; nor am I fonder of bloodshed than you; but if you will not be persuaded, what shall I do? For I have said--and it is truth--that mail I must and will have. Choose, then;" and with this she pulled out a pistol from under her cloak, and, cocking it, presented it in his face.
"Nay, then, your blood be on your own head," cried the postman, and raising his pistol again he pulled the trigger; it flashed in the pan. Dashing the weapon to the ground, he pulled out the other in a moment, and aiming it in Grizel's face, fired--with the same result. In a furious passion he flung down this pistol, too, sprang from his horse, and dashed forward to seize her. She dug her spurs into her horse's flank and just eluded his grasp. Meanwhile the postman's horse, frightened at the noise and the struggle, had moved forward a pace or two. The girl saw her opportunity, and seized it in the same instant. Another dig with the spurs, and her own horse was level with the other; leaning forward she caught at the bridle, and calling to the pair, in an instant was galloping off along the highway, leaving the postman helplessly staring.
She had gone about a hundred yards with her prize, when she pulled up to look back. Her discomfited antagonist was still standing in the middle of the road, apparently stupefied with amazement at the unlooked-for turn which affairs had taken. Shouting to him to remember her advice about the wood, she put both the horses to their speed, and on looking back once more was gratified to find that the postman, impressed with the truth of her mysterious threat, had turned and was making the best of his way back to Belford.
On gaining the wood to which she had pointed, Grizel tied the postman's horse to a tree, at a safe distance from the road, and set about unfastening the straps of the mail-bags. With a sharp penknife she ripped them open, and searched for the government despatches among their contents. To find these was not difficult, owing to their address to the council in Edinburgh, and of the imposing weight of their seals. Here she discovered, not only the warrant for her father's death, but also many other sentences inflicting punishment in varying degrees on the unhappy men who had been taken in the late rising. Time was pressing; she could not stop to examine the warrants, but, quickly tearing them in small pieces, placed them carefully in her bosom.
This done, and having arranged all the private papers as far as possible as she had found them, Grizel mounted her horse again and rode off. The postman's horse and the mail-bags, she imagined, would soon be found, from the hints which she had given to the man about the wood--and this afterwards proved to be the case. She now set her horse at a gallop again, and did not spare whip or spur until she reached the cottage of her nurse, where her first care was to burn, not only the warrant for her father's death, but the remainder of the sentences on his fellow-prisoners. Having satisfied herself that all trace of the obnoxious papers was now consumed, she put on again her female garments, and was once more the gentle and unassuming Miss Grizel Cochrane.
It was high time, however, to be making her way northwards again; accordingly she left her pistols and cloak to be concealed by the nurse, and again set forward on her journey. By avoiding the highroad, resting only at the most sequestered cottages--and then but for an hour or so--and riding all the while as hard as she might, she reached Edinburgh in safety early next morning.
It remains only to say that the time thus won by this devoted girl was enough to gain the end for which she strove; and Father Peters plied the ear of King James so importunately that at length the order was signed for Sir John Cochrane's pardon.
The state of public affairs rendered it prudent for many years that this action of Grizel Cochrane's should be kept secret; but after the Revolution, when men could speak more freely, her heroism was known and applauded. She lived to marry Mr. Ker, of Morriston, in Berwickshire, and doubtless was as good a wife as she had proved herself a daughter.