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Wilson's Border Tales
Gleanings of the Covenant

No. 11. Helen Palmer


Helen Palmer was originally from Cumberland; her parents were English, but her father had removed with Helen, an only daughter, whilst yet a child, to the neighbourhood of Closeburn Castle, to a small village which still goes by the name of Croalchapel. There the husband and father had been employed originally as forester on the estate of Closeburn, belonging to Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, and had afterwards become chamberlain or factor on the same property. Peter Palmer was a superior man. He had been well educated for the time in which he lived, and had been employed in Cumberland in keeping accounts for a mining establishment. The death, however, in childbirth of his beloved and well-born wife, (she had married below her station,) had, for some time, disgusted him with life, and his intellects had nearly given way. Having committed several acts of insanity, so as to make himself spoken of in the neighbourhood, he took a moonlight flitting, with his child and a faithful nurse, and, wandering north and north, at last fixed his residence in the locality already mentioned, where he was soon noticed as a superior person by the Laird of Closeburn, and advanced, as has been stated.

Helen Palmer was the apple of her father’s eye; he would permit no one but the nurse to approach her person, and he himself was her only instructor; he taught her to read, to write, and to calculate accounts; in short, every spare hour he had was spent with little Helen. There you might see him, after dinner, with Helen on his knee, his forest dog sleeping before him, and a tumbler of negus on a small table by his side, conversing with his child, as he would have done with her mother; holding her out at arm’s length, to mark her opening features; and then again straining her to his bosom in a paroxysm of tears.

"Just my Helen—my own dear Helen anew!" he would say; "oh, my child—my child!—dear, dear art thou to thy poor heart-broken father! but I will live for thee!—I will live with thee!—and when thou diest, child, thou shalt sleep on this breast—thou shalt be buried, child, in thy father’s dust; and thy mother and we shall meet, and I will tell her of her babe; of that babe which cost her so much, and we will rejoin in Divine love for ever and ever!"

Oh, how beautiful is paternal affection!—the love of an only surviving parent for an only child—and she a female. It is beautiful as the smile of Providence on benevolence—it is strong as the bond which binds the world to a common centre—it is enduring as the affections which, being cherished on earth, are matured above!

As Helen grew up her eye kindled, her brow expanded, her cheeks freshened into the most delicious bloom, and she walked on fairy footsteps of the most delicate impression. Her feet, her hands, her arms, her bust, her whole person, spoke her at once the lady of a thousand descents — ages had modelled her into aristocratic symmetry. But with all this, there was a rustic simplicity about her, an open, frank, unaffected manner, which seemed to say, as plain as any manner could, "I am not ashamed of being my father’s daughter." When Helen Palmer had attained her sixteenth year, she was quite a woman—not one of your thread-paper bulrushes, which shoot upwards merely into unfleshed gentility; but a round, firm, well-spread, and formed woman—a bonny lass, invested with all the delicacy and softness of a complete lady. Her bodily accomplishments, however, were not her only recommendation; her mind was unusually acute, and her memory was stored with much and varied information. She knew, for example, that the age in which she lived was one of cruelty and bloodshed; that the second Charles, who, at that time, filled the throne, was a sensual tyrant; that Lag, Clavers, Douglas, Johnstone, and others, were bloody persecutors; and that even Sir Roger Kirkpatrick himself, the humane and amiable in many respects, was "a friend of the castle—of the court—and would not permit any of the poor persecuted remnant to take refuge in the linns of Creehope, or in any of the fastnesses on his estate of Closeburn. All this grieved Helen’s heart; but her father had taught her that it was her duty, as well as his own, to be silent on such subjects, and not to give offence to one whose bread he was eating, and whose patronage he had enjoyed to so great an extent.

There were frequent visitors, in those days, at Closeburn Castle. In fact, with all the chivalric hospitality of ancient times and of an ancient family, Sir Roger kept, in a manner, open house. During dinner, the drawbridge was regularly elevated, and for a couple of hours at least, none might enter. This state ceremony had cost the family of Kirkpatrick many broad acres; for, when the old and heirless proprietor of the fine estate of Carlaverock called at the Castle of Closeburn, with the view of bequeathing his whole property to the then laird, the drawbridge was up—he was refused immediate entrance, because Sir Thomas was at dinner. "Tell Sir Thomas," said the enraged visitor, "tell your master to take his dinner, and with zest; but tell him, at the same time, that I will put a better dinner by his table this day than ever was on it." So he went on to Drumlanrig, and left the whole property to Douglas of Queensberry. Such, however, was not the reception of some young gentlemen who arrived about this time at the Castle of Closeburn, on a sporting expedition, with dogs and guns, and a suitable accompaniment of gamekeepers and other servants. These strangers were manifestly Englishmen, but from what quarter of England nobody knew, and, indeed, nobody inquired. They were only birds of passage, and would, in a month or so, give place to another arrival, about to disappear, in its turn, from a similar cause. As Helen Palmer was one day walking, according to her wont, amongst the Barmoor-woods, in her immediate neighbourhood, a hare crossed her path, followed closely by a greyhound, by which it was immediately killed. Poor Helen started, screamed, and dropped her book, in an agony of pity. She had not been accustomed to such barbarities; and the poor dying animal cried like a child, too, as it expired! At this instant, a horseman brought up his steed in her presence, and, immediately alighting, proceeded in the most polite and delicate manner imaginable, to administer such relief as was in his power. He begged her to be composed, for the animal was now dead, and its suffering over; and her feelings should never be lacerated again in this manner, as they would pursue their sport somewhere else, at a greater distance from her abode. Upon recovering herself, Helen felt ashamed at her position, and even at her weakness in betraying her feelings, and, begging the stranger’s pardon for the interruption to his sport which she had occasioned, with a most graceful courtesy she withdrew from his sight. The stranger was exceeding struck with her appearance. It was not that she was beautiful, for with beautiful women he had long been familiar; but there was something in the expression of her countenance which made him tremble all over—she was the very picture of his father; nay, his own features and hers bore a close resemblance. The same indefinite terror which had seized this young and exceedingly handsome sportsman had penetrated the breast of Helen. The resemblance of the stranger to herself was what struck her with amazement. There was the same arched eyebrow—the same hazel eye— and the same dimple in the chin. Besides, there was an all-over sameness in the air, manner, and even step, which she could not, with all her efforts, drive from her recollection. She did not, however, think proper to inform her father of this little foolish incident; but, ere she went to bed that night, she surveyed herself in the glass with more than wonted attention. Still, still, she was left in surprise, by comparing what she saw with what she recollected—the image in her bosom with that in the glass.

Next day, as might have been anticipated, the stranger called to see if she had recovered from her fright, and spent a considerable time in very pleasing conversation. Her father happened to be in the writing-office at the time, and did not see him. These calls were repeated from time to time, till at last it became evident to all about the castle, that the young heir of Middlefield, in Cumberland, was deeply in love. He had almost entirely given up his former amusements, and even railed against the cruelty of such sports. Mr Graham, a near connexion of him of Netherby, was a young person of an excellent heart, and of a large property, to which, from his father’s death, by an accident, he had just succeeded. He was, besides, one of the handsomest men in Cumberland; and it was reported that Sir James Graham’s oldest daughter had expressed herself very favourab1y respecting her kinsman’s pretensions to her hand, should he presume so high / However, his heart was not in the match, and he had made this visit to his father’s intimate friend, in order to avoid all importunity on a subject which was irksome to him. It is useless to mince the matter. Helen, in spite of her father’s remonstrauces and representations, was deeply and irrecoverably in love with the gallant Graham, and he, in his turn, was at least equally enamoured of the face, person, manners, mind, and soul, of the lovely and fascinating Miss Palmer.

There was only one subject on which there was any division of opinion betwixt the lovers—Helen was every inch a Covenanter; whilst Mr William was rather of anything inclined to view their opposition to government as factious and inexcusable. He did not, indeed, approve of the atrocities which were practising every day around him, and in the parish of Closeburn in particular; but he ventured to hope that a few instances of severity would put an end to the delusion of the people, and that they would again return to their allegiance and their parish churches. Helen was mighty and magnificent in the cause of non-conformity and humanity. She talked of freedom, conscience, religion, on the one hand—of tyranny, treachery, oppression, and cruelty on the other—till Mr William, either convinced, or appearing to be so, fairly gave in, promising most willingly, and in perfect good faith, that he would never assist the Laird of Closeburn, or of Lag, in any of their unhallowed proceedings.

One day when Helen and her lover (for it was now no secret) were on a walk into the Barmoor-wood, they were naturally attracted to the spot where their intercourse had begun; and, sitting down opposite to each other on the trunks of some felled trees, they gradually began a somewhat confidential conversation respecting their birth and parentage. Helen disguised nothing; she was born in Cumberland, and brought here whilst a child; her mother, whose name was Helen Graham, had died at her birth. At the mention of this name, the stranger and lover started convulsively to his feet, and, running up to and embracing Helen, he exclaimed—"O God! O God! you are my own cousin!" Helen fainted, and was with difficulty recovered, by an application of water from the adjoining brook. It was indeed so. Out of delicacy, Mr William had made no particular inquiries at Helen respecting her mother; and Helen, on the other hand, knew that Graham is an almost universal name, in Cumberland in particular. This, therefore, excited no suspicion; but true it is, and of verity, these two similar and affianced beings were cousins-german. Helen Graham, the sister of the Lord of Middlefield, having married beneath her rank, was abandoned by her brother and family, and her name was never mentioned in Middlefleld House. An old servant, however, of the family had made the young heir master of the fact of the marriage, and of the death of his old aunt; but he could not tell what had become of the father or the child; he supposed they had either died or gone to the plantations abroad; and there the matter rested till this sudden and unexpected discovery. Peter Palmer, the father of Helen, was altogether unacquainted with William Graham, as he was a mere child when Peter left Cumberland; and his father had used him so cruelly as to make him avoid his residence and presence as carefully as possible.

Would to heaven we could stop here, and gratify the reader with a wedding, and as much matrimonial happiness as poor mortality can possibly inherit!—But it may not be. As Lockhart says beautifully of Sir Walter, we hear "the sound of the muffled drum."

Sir Roger, and all the friends of Mr William Graham were opposed to his union with Miss Palmer, as Graham always called her. Her own father, too, was opposed to her forming a connexion with the son of one who had treated him so cruelly, and, as he thought, unjustly—aud it became manifest to William, as he was in every sense of the word his own master, that had he his fair betrothed in the leas of Middlefield, he might set them all at defiance, and effect their union peaceably, according to the rules of the Church. In an evil hour, Helen consented to leave her father’s house by night, along with her William, and on horseback, to take their way across the border for Cumberland. They had reached the parish of Kirkconnel about two o’clock in the morning, and were giving their horses a mouthful of water in the little stream called Kirtle, when a shot was heard in the immediate neighbourhood—it was heard, alas! by two only, for the third was dying, and in the act of falling from her seat in the saddle. She was caught by a servant, and by her lover; but she could only say, "I am gone, I am gone!" before breathing her last. Oh, curse upon the hand that fired the shot! It was, indeed, an accursed hand, but a fatal mistake. It was one of the bloody persecutors of Lag’s troop, who, having been appointed to watch at this spot for some Covenanters who were expected to be passing on horseback into England, in order to escape from the savage cruelty of their persecutors, had immediately, and in drunken blindness, fired upon this inoffensive group. The ball, alas! took too fatal effect in the heart of Helen Palmer; and it was on her, and not, as Allan Cunningham represents it, "on Helen Irving, the daughter of the laird of Kirkconnel," that the following most pathetic verses were written:—

"I wish I were where Helen lies;
Night and day on me she cries:
Oh, that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnel lea!

"Oh, Helen, fair beyond compare,
I’ll make a garland of thy hair;
Shall bind my heart for evermair,
Until the day I dee.

"Curst be the heart that thought the thought;
And curst the hand that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropped,
On fair Kirkconnel lea!"


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