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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 10. Sergeant Wilson


It was early on Monday morning, in the cold month of March, Anno Domini 1683, that the farm-house of Barjarg, in the parish of Keir and county of Dumfries, was surrounded by dragoons. They were in quest of a sergeant of the name of Wilson—a Sergeant Wilson—who had all unexpectedly (for he was a steady man and a good soldier) deserted his colours, and was nowhere to be found. The reason why they had come to Barjarg, was the report which one of Sergeant Wilson’s companions in arms had made, that he knew the deserter was in love with Catherine Chalmers, the farmer’s fair and only child. Catherine Chalmers was indeed forthcoming in all her innocence and bloom—but William was nowhere to be found, though they searched most minutely into every hole and corner. Being compelled, at last, to retire without their object—though not without threatening Catherine with the thumbikins, if she persevered in refusing to discover her lover’s retreat— the family of Barjarg was once more left to enjoy its wonted quietude and peace. Adjoining to the farm-house of Barjarg, and occupying the ground where the mansion-house now stands, there stood an old tower, containing one habitable apartment; but only occupied as a sleeping-room by one of the ploughmen and the herd boy. There were one or two lumber-garrets besides; but these were seldom entered, as they were understood to contain nothing of any value, besides being dark and swarming with vermin. Reports of odd noises and fearful apparitions had begun to prevail about the place, and both ploughman and herd were unwilling to continue any longer in a lodgment into which it was their firm persuasion that something "no canny" had entered. Holding this exceedingly cheap, Adam Chalmers, the veteran guidman of Barjarg, agreed to take a night of the old tower, and to set the devil and all his imps at defiance; but it was observed, that he came home next morning thoughtful and out of spirits, agreeing, at once, that nobody should, in future, be compelled to sleep in the old tower. He said little of what he had seen or heard, but he shook his head, and seemed to intimate that he knew more than he was at liberty to divulge. Things went on in this manner for some time—reports of noises at unseasonable hours still prevailing, and every one shunning the place after dark—till, one morning before daylight, the whole building was observed to be on fire, surrounded, at the same time, as the flames were, by a troop of Grierson’s men, with their leader at their head. The scream which Catherine Chalmers uttered when she beheld the flames but too plainly intimated the state of her mind; nor was her father less composed, but went about, wringing his hands, and exclaiming —"Oh! poor Sergeant Wilson! poor Sergeant Wilson!" At this instant, the fire had made its way to the upper apartment, and had thrown light upon a human head and shoulders, which leaned over the decayed battlement. Every one was horror-struck except the inhuman soldiery, who collected around the burning pile, and shouted up their profane and insulting jests, in the face of the poor perishing being, who, from his footing immediately giving way, was precipitated into the flames, and disappeared.

"There, let him go," said Grierson, "dog and traitor as he is, let him sink to the lowest pit, there to await the arrival of his canting and Covenanting spouse, whom we shall now take the liberty of carrying to headquarters, there to await her sentence, for decoying a king’s sworn servant and a sergeant from his duty and allegiance."

No sooner said than done, was the order of these dreadful times. Catherine Chalmers was placed in one of her father’s carts; and, notwithstanding every remonstrance, and an assurance that poor Catherine was now a widow, she was placed betwixt two soldiers, who rode alongside the cart on horseback, and conveyed her to Dumfries, there to stand her trial before the Sheriff, Clavers, and the inhuman Laird of Lag. When arrived at her destination, she was put under lock and key, but allowed more personal liberty than many others who were accused of crimes more heinous in the eyes of the persecutors, than those of which she was merely suspected to be guilty. It so happened, that the quarterly meeting of the court was held in a few days, and the chief witness produced against Catherine Wilson, was a servant maid of her father, who was compelled, very much against her will, to bear evidence to her having seen Sergeant Wilson and her mistress, (for Catherine kept her father’s house,) several times together in the old tower, as well as under a particular tree at the end of the old avenue, and that her mistress had told her that Sergeant Wilson was heartily tired of the service in which he was engaged. Her own father, too, was compelled to confess, that he had had an interview with the sergeant, in the tower, who had confessed to him the marriage, had asked and with difficulty obtained his forgiveness, and that he meditated a departure along with his wife, to some distant place, beyond the reach of his enemies. There was no direct evidence, however, that Catherine had persuaded him to desert, or to vilify the service which he had left; and the court were about to dismiss her simpliciter from the bar, when, to the amazement of all, Catherine rose in her place, and addressed the court to the following purpose:—"And now ye have done your utmost, and I am innocent, in as far as your evidence has gone; but I am NOT INNOCENT—I am deeply guilty, if guilty ye deem it, in this matter. ‘Twas I that first awakened poor William’s conscience to a sense of his danger, in serving an emissary of Satan; ‘twas I that spoke to him of the blood that cries day and night under the altar; ‘twas I that made him tremble—ay, as an aspen leaf, and as some here will yet shake before the Judge of all—when I brought to his recollection the brutal scenes which he had witnessed, and in which he had taken a part; ‘twas I that agreed to marry him privately, without my dear father’s consent, (whose pardon I have sought on my knees, and whose blessing I have already obtained,) father nodded assent, provided he would desert, and retire with me, at least for a time, beyond the reach of ye all—ye messengers of evil, sent to scourge a guilty and backsliding race; ‘twas I that visited him night after night in that old tower, which you inhumanly set on fire, and in which—O my God!"—Hereupon she laid hold of the desk before her and would have dropped to the earth, had not an officer in attendance supported her, and borne her, under the authority of the court, into the open air. She was now, notwithstanding her self-accusation, declared to be at liberty; and immediately, so soon as strength was given her, retired into the house of an acquaintance and relative, where suitable restoratives and refreshments were administered. The house where her friend lived was close upon what is called the Sands of Dumfries, adjoining to the river, which up to this point is navigable, and where boats are generally to be seen. During the night she disappeared, and, though all search was made at home and everywhere else, she was not heard of. Her father at first took her disappearance sadly to heart; but time seemed to have a remedial effect upon his spirits, and he at length rallied, even into cheerfulness. Things went on for years and years, very much in the old way at Barjarg. The old man’s hairs gradually whitened, and became more scanty, whilst this loss was made up for by an increase of wrinkles. The only change in his habits were not unfrequent visits which he payed to an old friend, he said, in Whitehaven, and from which he always returned in high spirits. It might have been stated formerly that, when the ashes of the old tower were searched, after they had cooled, for the body of poor Wilson, no such body was found—but the inference was made by the neighbours, that the remains had been early removed by his wife’s orders, who would naturally wish to possess herself of so valued a deposit. In fact, the whole transaction melted away in the stream of time, like the snow-flake on the surface of the water; and things went on very much as usual. Six long years revolved, and still no word of Catherine Wilson. Many conjectured that she had missed her foot in the dark, and fallen into the river, and been carried out to sea by the reflux of the tide. Others again hinted at suicide, from extreme grief; and some very charitable females nodded and winked something meant to be significant, about some people’s not being easily known—and that some people, provided that they got a grip of a man, would not be very nice about the object or the manner!

Oh, what a blessed thing it was when King William cam’ in!—and with him cam’ amnesty, and peace, and restoration! It was upon a fine summer evening, in the year 1689, just six years after the mysterious disappearance of Catherine Wilson, that the old guidman of Barjarg was sitting enjoying the setting sun at his own door, on the root of an old tree, which had been converted into a dais, or out-of-doors seat. It was about the latter end of July, that most exuberantly lovely of all months, when Adam Chalmers, with Rutherford’s Letters on his knee, sat gazing upon one of the most beautiful landscapes which our own romantic country can boast of. Before him flowed the Nith, over its blue pebbles, and through a thousand windings; beyond it were the woods and hills of Closeburn, all blooming and blushing in the setting beams of the sun, and rising up, tier above tier, till they terminated in the blue sky of the east. To the left were the Louther Hills, with their smooth-green magnificence, bearing away into the distance, and placed, as it were, to shelter this happy valley from the stormy north and its wintry blasts. At present, however, all idea of storm and blast was incongruous, for they seemed to sleep in the sun’s effulgence, as if cradled into repose by the hand of God. To the south, and hard at hand, were the woods and the fields of Collestown, with the echoing Linn, and the rush of many waters. O land of our nativity!—how deeply art thou impressed upon this poor brain!—go where we will—see what we may—thou art still unique to us—thou art still superior to all other lands.

It was eight o’clock of the evening above referred to, when a chaise entered the old avenue, passed the ruins of the Tower and the old mansion-house, and drew up immediately opposite old Adam Chalmers. The steps were immediately let down, and out sprung, with a bound, the long lost child, the blooming and matronly looking Mrs Wilson. Behind her followed one whom the reader, I trust, has long ago considered as dead, and perhaps buried, her manly and rejoicing husband William Wilson, handing out a fine girl of five years of age, a boy about three, and an infant still at the breast! It was indeed a joyous meeting; and the old man bustled about, embracing and pressing his child, and then surveying, with silent and intense interest his grandchildren; taking the oldest on his knee, and permitting him all manner of intercourse with his wrinkles and his gray hairs.

One of Lag’s troop, the intimate and attached friend of the sergeant, had conveyed to him, by means of a letter, the fact that his haunt was discovered; and that Lag had sworn he would search him out like a fox—in short, that he would burn the old tower about his ears. A thought struck Wilson, that, even though he should now escape, the pursuit would still be continued; but that if he could by any means persuade his enemies that he had perished in the flames, the search of course would cease. As he was occupied with these thoughts, it occurred to him, that, by placing a couple of pillows, dressed in some old clothes, which were lying about, and which belonged to the former tenant, in the topmast turret of the tower, he might impose the belief upon Lag and his party, that he had actually perished in the flames. Having communicated this plan to his friend in the troop by a secret messenger, he immediately, and without waiting even to advertise his wife of the deception, departed, and hastened on to a brother’s house in the neighbourhood of Dumfries, where he lay concealed. By the management of his friend, the deception was accomplished; for he even swore to the captain, that he heard Wilson scream, and jump upwards, and then sink down into the devouring flames. The trial was not unknown to Wilson, and he had prevailed upon his brother, with a few friends sworn to secrecy, to assist him in possessing himself of the person of his wife, in going to or coming from the court-house. Matters, however, succeeded beyond his utmost hopes. His spouse was liberated, and, by means of a boat well manned, he reached Douglas in the isle of Man in safety, in the course of eight-and-forty hours. There, at last, he was safe, being beyond immediate pursuit, and indeed being supposed to be dead; and there, by a successful speculation or two, with money which had been left him by an uncle, after whom he was named, and who had prospered in the Virginia trade, he soon became prosperous, and even wealthy. His wife having a natural desire to see her father, took means to have him apprised of the secret of their retreat. His visits, nominally to England, were in fact made to Douglas; and the Revolution now put it in the power of Sergeant Wilson to return with his young and interesting family to the farm of Barjarg, and to purchase the property on which the old house stood, it being now in the market; to refit the old burnt tower; to rebuild the old castle, and to live there along with old Adam for several years, not only in comfort, but in splendour. When engaged over a bottle, of which he became ultimately rather more fond than was good for his health, he used to amuse his friends with the above narrative, adding always at the end—"The burning o’ me has been the making o’ me." The property has long passed into other hands, and is now in the family of Hunter; but such was its destination for at least fifty years, during the life of the sergeant, and the greater part of the life of the son, who, being a spendthrift, spent and sold it.


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