On leaving the place of his
residence in the Highlands, M’Lauchlane left behind him, until he should
fall into some way of earning a subsistence, his wife, a son, and two
daughters. The former was, at this period, about fifteen years of age; a
fine, manly-looking boy, of kind and amiable dispositions, the pride of
his mother’s heart, and the stay of his father’s hopes. It was not doubted
that, on the latter’s obtaining employment, he would succeed in procuring
some situation or other in Edinburgh for his son also; and, with these,
and sundry other little plans and prospects, the family of M’Lauchlane,
including himself, looked forward to the enjoyment of some happy days.
Having obtained employment for himself, M’Lauchlane lost no time in
looking out for an engagement for his son; and, at length, found an
opening for him in a merchant’s counting-house in Leith. This good fortune
he speedily communicated to his family, desiring that James should
immediately set out for Edinburgh. James, however, had been already
unexpectedly provided for, although not altogether to his liking. He had
been engaged to assist some salmon-curers who had an establishment in the
neighbourhood; and with these he was now employed. The wages, however,
were small, and the work heavy; but it was considered by the dutiful boy
himself a desirable situation, as it enabled him to reside with his
mother, whom he tenderly loved, and to contribute more promptly and
efficiently to her support than if he were at a distance. On these
accounts, therefore, he determined to remain in his present employment for
some time at least— this was till the ensuing term, when it was proposed
that the whole family should proceed to Edinburgh, to join their head; and
this was stated in reply to James’ father, who, though he longed to have
his boy with him, acquiesced in its propriety; and thus matters stood for
several weeks, when it was found that James’ strength was unequal to the
labour imposed on him. The poor lad was long unwilling to admit this, even
to himself, and continued to toil on with uncomplaining perseverance; but
a mother’s anxiety and scrutinising solicitude soon discovered what he
would have concealed. She saw, from his wan cheek and sunken eye, that he
was tasked beyond his strength, and that a continuance much longer in his
present employment might even endanger his life. Impressed with this idea
she insisted on him quitting it, and proceeding immediately to Edinburgh
to join his father.
"But, mother," said the
affectionate boy, "what will you do without me? My wages, though small,
are a great help to you."
"They are, James, no
doubt," replied his mother; "but what are your wages, or what would all
the gold and silver in the world be to me, compared to your life, my
child? Think ye that anything could compensate that to your mother, James?
No, no; all the wealth of the Indies, my son, would be nothing to me, if
anything was to happen you. Besides, you can help me even where you are
going. You can remit me a little of your wages, along with what your
father sends from his; and, at the term, you know, which is now only four
months’ distant, we will all be together again, and as happy as the day’s
Thus reasoned with, and
feeling his own physical inadequacy to continue in his present employment,
the boy finally consented to leave it, and to proceed to Edinburgh to join
his father. It was not thought necessary to give the latter any previous
intimation of this change in his son’s views; and no communication,
therefore, took place on the subject.
The day fixed for the boy’s
departure having arrived, a little bundle, containing some small articles
of wearing apparel, and some bread and cheese, was made up for him by the
hands of his doting mother, whose tears fell fast and thick on the little,
humble package, as she tied it up. This completed, the boy took down a
staff from amongst many that were hung to the roof of the cottage, thrust
one end of it through the bundle, shouldered it manfully, clapped his
bonnet on his head, and was about suddenly to rush out of the house,
finding that he could not stand a more deliberate parting, when his
mother, flying after him, caught him by the arm just as he had reached the
door, and, murmuring his name, clasped him in her arms, and, in silent
anguish, pressed him convulsively to her bosom. The weeping boy returned
the fond embrace of his mother; but, at length, tore himself away, and
hurried off, with a speed that soon carried him out of her sight.
The lad had now a long
journey before him, not less than a hundred and fifty miles, the whole of
which was to be performed on foot, for there were then no conveyances on
his intended route; and, although there had, he had no money to pay for
their use; but, as he was active and vigorous, and accustomed to rove over
his native hills like a young deer, a journey on foot of even a hundred
and fifty miles had nothing formidable whatever in it for him; and it was,
therefore, with a fearless heart and bounding step that he now took the
long, wild, and dreary Highland road, that was to conduct him to the city
in which his father resided.
In about four months after
the boy had left home to join his father in Edinburgh, his mother, with
her two daughters, also proceeded to that city, and for the same purpose;
the period having arrived which, according to previous understanding, was
to see the family once more united under one roof. We will not attempt to
describe the poor mother’s feelings of joyous anticipation on this
occasion, as she looked forward to the exquisite happiness of embracing
the two objects whom she loved best on earth, her husband and son. These
feelings were such as the reader can imagine for himself without our aid
On M’Lauchlane’s wife and
daughters arriving, which they did in due time and in safety, at the
humble domicile which the farmer’s dutiful affection had provided for them
in Edinburgh, the first question she asked of her husband, and she put it
ere she had yet fairly entered his door, was—"Where is James? Where is my
dear boy, Fergus?"
"Why, Margaret," replied
M’Lauchlane, laughingly, "you should know that fully better than I do.
Where did you leave him?" The boy had never reached his father’s house.
"Come, come, now, Fergus,
none of your tricks," said his wife, smiling. "Tell me where my boy is—I
cannot rest till I see him."
"Ha, ha!" rejoined her
husband, now laughing outright, "you keep up the farce very well,
Margaret; but, come, now, let James be produced; for I am impatient
to see him. You want to tantalise me a little."
"Or rather it is you that
wish to tantalise me, Fergus," replied his wife, good-humouredly; "but do
not keep me longer in pain, I beseech you. Go and bring James to me
immediately. Do now, I entreat of you."
M’Lauchlane, now somewhat alarmedly—for the earnest manner of his wife
struck him as very strange, and as carrying very little of jocularity in
it—"Margaret," he said, gravely, "is this jest or earnest? Is James not
with you?—and, if he is not, where is he?"
exclaimed his wife, in an agony of horror—she in turn having marked the
serious manner of her husband—"what is this come over us? O Fergus,
Fergus," she said, in dreadful agitation, and flinging her arms around her
husband in wild despair, "has not James been with you for these three
months past? He left home to come to you then, and I always believed him
to be with you. O my God, my God! where is my child? What has come over my
boy?" And she gave way to a fearful and uncontrollable paroxysm of grief.
During this scene, her
husband sat silent and motionless, but there were dreadful workings going
on in his bosom. His face was deadly pale, and his lips quivered with
"I have never seen him,
Margaret," he at length said, in a slow and solemn tone—"never seen him.
What has come over my boy?" And the strong man burst into tears. We need
not prolong our description of the scene of misery which ensued on the
appalling discovery being made, as it now was, that the poor boy had never
reached his destination. His distracted father instantly set about the
apparently hopeless task of ascertaining what had been his fate but, for
some weeks after, all remained as great a mystery as ever; and no
exertions or inquiries he could make, led to the slightest elucidation of
the fact. At length, however, a clue to the mystery was obtained. It was
gradually unwarped, and a train of circumstances finally unfolded the
dreadful tale. In disclosing this tale to the reader, however, we have no
occasion whatever to go through the tedious and digressive processes by
which M’Lauchlane ultimately arrived at the history of his unfortunate
son’s fate. Ours is a much simpler and much easier task. It is merely to
place the facts in their order, divested of all extraneous matter; and
this will be best done by our retro-gressing a little, and resuming the
history of the unhappy boy’s proceedings after leaving his mother, at the
point where we left it.
On the evening of the
second day after his departure, the lad arrived at Stirling, and had thus
accomplished about half his journey. On reaching this town, where he
intended remaining for the night, young M’Lauchlane repaired to a certain
public-house, which he knew, by report, to be much frequented by his
countrymen, when going to and from the Highlands and the low country. This
house was usually crowded with guests, but it happened that it contained
but one on the night of his arrival. The solitary stranger was an
Irishman, on his way to Edinburgh, as he said, to look for employment.
Between young M’Lauchlane and this person—they being the only two guests
in the house—a familiar footing was soon established, chiefly through the
advances of the latter, who affected a sudden and strong liking for his
young companion, whom he insisted on treating with some liquor. In the
morning, they breakfasted together, and, immediately after, set out
together for Edinburgh—M’Lauchlane delighted with the kindness and
rattling off-hand glee of his companion, who seemed, to his unsuspicious
and unsophisticated nature, one of the best and merriest fellows he had
ever met with. In place, however, of showing an anxiety to prosecute the
journey with the expedition natural to those seeking a distant
destination, M’Lauchlane’s companion seemed bent on living by the way.
Every mile, and often within shorter distances, he insisted on his young
friend’s taking some refreshment with him. He would, in truth, scarcely
pass a single public-house on the road; but he paid, in every instance,
for the entertainment to which he invited his companion. Two consequences
resulted from this manner of proceeding. These were—young M’Lauchlane’s
getting, for the first time in his life, somewhat intoxicated; and the
expiry of the day, before they had completed their journey that
comprehended the distance between Stirling and Edinburgh. The shades of
evening were thus just beginning to gather, as the travellers reached a
small village about six or seven miles from Edinburgh; and it had become
pretty dark by the time they had got midway between the two places just
named. At this particular locality, young M’Lauchlane and his companion
passed a well-dressed, respectable looking, elderly man, on the road, who
was going in the same direction with themselves. On having gone beyond him
about the distance of a hundred yards or so, the Irishman suddenly
stopped, and, addressing his young friend, said—"I owe that old rascal
that we passed just now, a grudge, and have a good mind to go back and
give him a taste of this twig, by way of recompense" shaking a stout
cudgel that he carried in his hand. "Will you lend me a hand?"
Stupified, or rather,
perhaps, distracted with the drink which he had swallowed, the poor,
unreflecting boy at once agreed to assist his friend in revenging the
injuries of which he complained. What these were, or when, where, or how
they had taken place, he never thought of inquiring. It was enough for him
that his companion had been injured, and enough also for him was the
assertion of the latter that he had been so, and that the old man they had
just passed was the inflictor of this injury.
In a minute after, the old
man, whom they had now approached; was knocked down by the bludgeon of the
Irishman—young M’Lauchlane standing close by. On his falling—"Tip his
watch there," said the former, in a hurried whisper to his companion, at
the same time nudging him with his elbow; "and feel if the old fellow has
any clink in his pockets. Out with it if he has. He owes me ten times more
than he has about him, let that be what it may."
Without a moment’s thought
or hesitation, the unthinking boy, doing as he was desired, flung himself
on the prostrate old man, seized his watch chain, and had just dragged it
from its pocket, when he was seized by the collar from behind. On turning
round, he found himself in the custody of two men, who had come up
accidentally, unheard and unobserved, at least by him; but not by his
companion, who, aware of their approach, had, without giving the
unfortunate lad warning, darted through a hedge, and disappeared. It was
in vain that the unhappy youth, on perceiving the dreadful predicament in
which he stood, urged the extenuating facts of the case to his captors.
All the circumstances of a highway robbery, aggravated by personal
violence, were too apparent, and too clearly referable to M’Lauchlane as
the perpetrator, to allow of anything he might assert to the contrary
being for an instant believed.
On the recovery of the old
man (whose face was streaming with blood) from the temporary stupefaction
which the blow he had been struck had caused, M’Lauchlane was conveyed a
prisoner to Edinburgh, handed over to the police, and eventually thrown
into jail on a capital charge.
We may here pause a moment
to remark that, at the period of our tale, the penal code of this country
was enforced, with the most unrelenting ferocity, against all offenders,
who came within the reach of its sanguinary enactments. Mercy was
then unknown in the dispensation of the criminal laws, which, written in
blood were executed to the letter, without regard to any of those
considerations which are now permitted to have their influence on the side
of clemency. The ultimate fate of the poor Highland boy may be
anticipated; and this the more certainly, that his seducer was never
taken, or even heard of; so that no chance was left him of the facts of
his unhappy case being ascertained.
Shortly after being
committed to prison, he was capitally indicted to stand trial before the
court, which happened to be held in Edinburgh about six weeks after his
apprehension; and, on the evidence of the old man and the two persons who
had assisted in his capture, he was convicted of highway robbery,
condemned to death, and actually executed at the usual place of execution;
neither the boy’s extreme youth, nor the extenuating circumstances
connected with his case, (which, indeed, the Court was not bound to
believe, seeing there was only his own bare, unsupported assertion of the
facts,) having the slightest effect on his judges, who, partaking at once
of the spirit of the times and of the laws, were sternly rigorous in the
execution of what they conceived to be their duty—seeing no safety for
society but in a frequent and unsparing use of the gibbet.
We have now to explain the
most extraordinary part of this piteous case—and that is, how it was that
the poor boy’s parents knew nothing of his miserable fate till it was
discovered by the inquiry of which we shall shortly speak. In the first
place, his father took it for granted that he was at home with his mother,
and his mother believed that he was with his father, and thus his absence
was known to neither, and, therefore, no unusual interest regarding him
was excited. During, his confinement, and at all his precognitions, the
infatuated boy steadily refused— though for what reason, we know not—to
give up his name, or to give any account of himself whatever. He would
neither tell where he came from, where or to whom he was going, nor what
nor who were his parents; and in this resolution he remained to the last;
and, as no one knew him, he was thus finally executed, without any single
particular being known regarding him, excepting that for which he
suffered. Neither could he be prevailed upon to make known his situation
to any of his friends. In short, he seemed to have determined to prevent
his fate from ever being associated with his identity.
What his motives were for
this extraordinary conduct—whether it arose from a fear of disgracing his
family, or from tenderness to the feelings of his parents—we cannot tell,
nor will we trouble the reader with conjectures which he can make as well
for himself. We content ourselves with relating the facts of the
melancholy case, as they actually and truly occurred.
It was by an inquiry at the
police-office of Edinburgh, whither he had gone, as a last expedient, to
endeavour to find some trace of his son, that M’Lauchlane obtained the
intelligence that led to the discovery of his unhappy fate. He had gone to
the office, however, without the most remote idea that he should there
learn anything of his boy as a violator of the laws, but merely as a
repository of general intelligence on such subjects as that in which he
was at the moment interested. Having stated his errant to two officers
whom he found there; they asked him to describe the boy. This he did; when
the men looked significantly at each other. Poor M’Lauchlane observed the
look and he felt his heart failing him, as he imagined, and too truly,
that he saw in it something ominous.
"Do you know anything of my
boy?" he said, looking piteously at the officers.
They made no reply; but
seemed a good deal discomposed. They felt for the unfortunate
father—having little or no doubt, from the personal description, and other
particulars he gave of the boy, that it was he who had been executed for
the robbery on the Stirling road.
"Tell me, for God’s sake,
if you know anything of my son," said the poor father, imploringly, after
waiting some time in vain for an answer to his first inquiry of a similar
The men would have still
evaded a reply, and were, indeed, both edging out of the apartment, to
avoid being further pressed on the subject, when M’Lauchlane seized one of
them by the arm, and besought him not to leave him, without giving him
what information he possessed on the subject of his inquiry. "Has any
accident happened him?" said the miserable father. "Is he dead? Tell me,
for Heaven’s sake, tell me the worst at once. I can bear it. If he is
dead, I say, God’s will be done. Is it so or not, my friend?" again said
M’Lauchlane, with a look of wretchedness that the man could not resist.
"I am afraid he is," was
"Still, I say God’s will be
done!" said M’Lauchlane, endeavouring to display a composure he was very
far from feeling. He next inquired into the time and manner of his death.
On being informed, the unhappy man instantly sank down on the floor in a
state of insensibility. He had little dreamt of such a horrible
catastrophe; and, however resigned he might have been to his boy’s having
met with a natural death, his fortitude was unequal to the dreadful trial
it was now called on to sustain. On coming again to himself, the
unfortunate man left the office without exchanging a word with any one,
and returned to his own house. When he entered, his wife, as was her usual
practice, eagerly inquired if he had yet heard any tidings of their son;
but she soon saw that she had no occasion whatever to put the question.
The haggard countenance in which the utmost depth of human misery was
strongly depicted—assured her at once that tidings had been heard of the
boy, and that these were of the most dismal kind.
"He’s dead, then," she
screamed out, on looking on the wo-begone, or rather horror-stricken face
of her husband—"my boy is gone." And she flung herself on the floor in a
paroxysm of grief and despair.
To his wife’s exclamations,
M’Lauchlane made no reply, but threw himself on a bed, and buried his head
beneath the clothes. But this covering did not conceal the dreadful
writhings of the crushed spirit beneath. The bed-clothes heaved with the
violent emotions that shook the powerful frame of the miserable sufferer.
From that bed M’Lauchlane never again rose. He never, however, told his
wife of the unhappy death her son had died; steadily and even sternly
resisting all the importunities on that appalling subject; and whether she
ever learned it, we are not aware.