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Wilson's Border Tales
The Legend of the Parliament Close


A few years after the accession of George III, to the throne, when Edinburgh was still contained within its ancient walls, the inhabitants retained their ancient simplicity of manners, and every individual was known, in some degree, to his fellow. The Kirk-treasurer, or Treasurer of the Charity Workhouse as he is called now, was a bookseller, and had his shop in the Parliament Square, on the east side, near the President’s Stairs. As shopman, he had an interesting young man about seventeen years of age. He was the only son of a widow, a distant relation of one of the ancient and reduced families that abounded in Scotland at that time. A full cousin of his was also shopman or clerk in a clothier’s in the High Street; and between the two there existed a friendship and affection almost fraternal. In the month of August— the most pleasant month in the year for an evening walk— the eight o’clock bell had just begun to ring, and the clatter of shutters, preparatory to shutting up for the night, were sounded through the Parliament Square. The happy apprentices, with an alacrity they displayed at no other avocation, performed the last operation of the day; for it was the prelude to enjoyments which they could only partake when emancipated from their labour in their small confined work shops, or the dingy apartments of the houses of that period The clock of St Giles had struck the quarter-past eight; the whole square had fallen into the stillness of midnight; all but the treasurer’s shop was shut and secured; their inmates even the most dilatory, having left the scenes of their cares or daily toils; and the only person who now was to be seen loitering in the busy scenes of the day, was the town-guard soldier, who mounted guard at the statue of King Charles. Walking backwards and forwards on his allotted ground, he stopped occasionally to greet some passing acquaintance and exchange snuff with him. And the cousin of the treasurer’s clerk, who stood in the foot of the President’s Stairs, fretfully knocking one heel against the other, or occasionally moving out slowly past the diminutive shop window, casting a furtive glance into the interior, as if anxious to ascertain what business detained his friend, or who it was that so deeply interested the systematic treasurer, as to detain him five minutes after the hour had struck. All was still within. He could see no individual, even the friend he waited for. He thought it very strange; became anxious and alarmed and, ceasing to be contented with a passing glance, stood still, and scanned, with a scrutinizing glance, the whole interior of the shop. No human form was visible. The two chairs, by the fireside, were vacant; the master’s seat, and a spare one for a friend, stood as if they had not been moved since the morning. What could have happened? Was the door locked? Was his friend gone to the place of appointment without him? He could not suppose it for a moment. He put his hand upon the latch of the door; it yielded to his touch; he opened it, and slowly peered around. No one was within—no alteration could be seen on the premises. He looked behind the counter, and, uttering a cry of horror was transfixed to the spot where he stood. His beloved friend lay dead before him; the upper part of his body and head in a pool of blood; a Bible still in his hand, which appeared to be the last thing he had touched alive; his arm stretched out before him; and his beautiful yellow hair steeped in gore. A sickness of the heart came over his friend; he would have sunk senseless upon the floor, but, by a nervous effort, he started up, rushed from the spot, almost bereft of consciousness, ran to the guard at the statue, seized him by the arm, and, unable to utter a word, pointed to the shop, and attempted to drag him towards it. Struck by the horror expressed in the youth’s countenance, the man hurried with him to the spot, gazed for a moment on the spectacle and shouted for help.

A crowd of horror-stricken citizens soon assembled. Surgeons were sent for; but the unfortunate victim had been dead for some time. A guard was placed upon the door, to prevent the intrusion of the curious and excited citizens, who all strove to get a peep at the scene of blood and violence. The surgeons, in the meantime, examined the body. A fracture of the skull at the back of the head, caused by a blow, evidently given with the claws of a joiner’s hammer, was clearly the cause of death. The premises were searched; no such instrument could be found; but it was ascertained that the strong box that contained the poor’s money was gone.

So dreadful an event spread through the great city in as inconceivably short space of time. Deep groans, mixed with the wailings of females, were heard in the Square; the feelings of the crowd, urged to utterance by the arrival of the distracted mother of the youth—her hair dishevelled and floating upon her shoulders; grief and agony depicted upon her venerable face. She urged forward through the dense, but, to her, yielding crowd. She made no answer to the heartfelt words of sympathy addressed to her; her heart was too full to give utterance to her thoughts. Pressing on, she tossed her arms in the air; clutched her grayish locks, tore them out, and scattered them around. Her eyes either wandered eagerly about, as if in search of some object, or were turned to Heaven in silent prayer. She seemed urged on by some involuntary impulse; for she looked not at any one, heeded not over what obstacle she made her way onwards; but, rushing to where the object of all her soul held dear on earth lay a bloody corpse, she entered the shop—she stood for a few moments, pale as the boy who lay lifeless before her; then, uttering one long and piercing shriek, that no one who heard it could ever forget, she sank upon her boy insensible. The same bearers carried to her house the mother and her murdered son, and the same company attended the funeral of both to the Grey-friars’ Churchyard.

Every exertion was made by the authorities; rewards were offered for the apprehension of the murderer. Every citizen, high and low, rich and poor, joined in the search for one who had been guilty of the most revolting of all crimes—murder, and the next in guilt, sacrilege; for he had carried off the money of the poor, the farthing of the lone widow, and the silver of the rich, given in the love of God to feed the destitute. But no discovery was made; the guilty wretch lived on unpunished, save by his own unsparing conscience. Nearly twenty years had rolled away, and the event, though not forgot, was only remembered as one of the many traditions of the city.

There lived at the head of the Cowgate an old man, a wealthy master joiner, and an elder of the church, with a numerous family. He had been for some time very poorly and declining in health; a lowness of spirits and restlessness seemed to consume him, and he never left his house. His son, a married man, had conducted the business for several years; all the former acquaintances of the father were denied access to him, nor were any of the neighbours admitted into the house. The circumstance attracted little attention; for many do not choose to allow strangers to see their sick friends; but it was also remarked, that no physician attended the old man, and this excited the remarks of the observant neighbours, who became more watchful than they perhaps would have otherwise been. The children were not favourably thought of; for not having a physician to their father, and their harshness in denying, though civilly, the visits of his acquaintances. The old man’s cries and groans were heard night and day, by those who were passing up or down the stair; and the next neighbours, in the still hour of midnight, could hear threats and remonstrances used to cause him to cease the utterance of his cries. They could make out distinctly—"Oh, allow me to confess to any one!—I am lost!—lost!—lost!" This he would repeat until his voice failed from exhaustion; then, and after a pause, he would shriek—"Oh! what will wash away innocent blood!" These cries caused a great sensation in the neighbourhood, and gave rise to many conjectures. Several of the older inhabitants about the place called to recollection the murder of the youth by a joiner’s hammer. They also remembered that he who uttered those cries was, at the time of the murder, a poor man, with a young and numerous family, and, about the time of the murder and robbery, began to mend in his circumstances, and the appearance of his family was altered, much for the better, without any assignable cause. He did not put on the appearance of wealth suddenly, but left off being a journeyman, and became a master, at first in a small way, and gradually extended his business. No one could account for the way he had contrived to become rich in so short a space of time. The conclusion drawn by the neighbours was, that he had been the ruffian who perpetrated the double crime. Whether just or unjust, the conviction became general. Whether he was guilty or not, his own family, by his deathbed confession, if he made one, could only know; but so great was the horror of the man and crime, that his children were the sufferers; for few would hold intercourse with them, or wished to be thought of their acquaintance. Those who were in business, found their employers suddenly desert them; and they were all forced to emigrate from the city to other towns.


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