They were thus constantly
on the alert when the death of a person in good circumstances was reported
to be at hand. This intelligence no sooner reached them—and they were
always well informed on such subjects—than they hastened to the couch of
the dying person, at once to prepare him, by spiritual discourse, for the
approaching change, and to secure what they could of the sinner’s temporal
possessions in return.
It was for such purposes as
these that two of the brethren of Dryburgh set out, one day, in great
haste, to visit the old Laird of Meldrum, whom, they had been informed,
was suddenly brought to the point of death; and the information was but
too true—for the old man had not only arrived at the point of death, but
had passed it, and that ere they came. In other words, the laird was dead
when they arrived, and their services, of course, no longer required.
This was a dreadful
disappointment to the holy men; for they had reckoned on making an
excellent thing of the job, as the laird had been long in their eye, and
had been carefully trained up for the finale of a handsome bequest.
It was with long faces,
therefore, and woful looks, that the monks returned to their monastery,
and reported the unlucky accident of the laird’s having slipped away
before they had had time to make anything of him in his last moments. The
disappointment was felt by all to be a grievous one for the laird had been
confidently reckoned upon as sure game. While in this state of
mortification, a bright idea occurred to one of the brethren, and he
mentioned it to the rest, by whom it was highly approved of.
This idea was to conceal
the laird’s death for a time, to remove his body out of the way, and to
procure some one to occupy his bed, and pass for the laird in a dying
state; then to procure a notary and witnesses; having previously
instructed the laird’s representative how to conduct himself—that is, to
bequeath all his property to the monastery; this done, the living man to
be secretly conveyed away, the dead one restored to his place again, and
his death publicly announced.
This ingenious scheme of
the monk met with universal approbation, and it was determined that it
should be instantly acted upon.
Fortunately, so far, for
the monks, there was a poor man, a small farmer in the neighbourhood, of
the name of Thomas Dickson, who bore a singularly strong personal
resemblance to the deceased—a circumstance which at once pointed him out
as the fittest person to act the required part. This person was,
accordingly, immediately waited upon, the matter explained to him, and a
handsome gratuity offered him for his services.
"A bargain be’t," said
Thomas, when the terms were proposed to him; "never ye fear me. If I dinna
mak a guid job o’t, blame me. I kent the laird weel, and can come as near
him in speech as I’m said to do in person."
The monks, satisfied with
Thomas’s assurances of fidelity, proceeded with their design; and, when
everything was prepared—the laird’s body removed out of the way, Thomas
extended on his bed, and the curtains closely drawn round him—they
introduced the notary, to take down the old man’s testament, (having
previously intimated to the former that he was required by the latter for
that purpose,) and four witnesses to attest the facts that were about to
Everything being in
readiness—the lawyer with pen in hand, and the witnesses in the attitude
of profound attention—one of the monks intimated to the dying man that he
might now proceed to dictate his will.
"Very well," replied the
latter, in a feeble, tremulous tone. "Hear me, then, good folks a’. I
bequeath to honest Tammas Dickson, wham I hae lang respeckit for his
worth, and pitied for his straits, the hail o’ my movable guids and lyin’
money. Put doon that." And down that accordingly went. But, if the
house had flown into the air with them, or the ghosts of their
great-grandfathers had appeared before them, the monks could not have
expressed more amazement or consternation than they did, at finding
themselves thus so fairly outwitted, by the superior genius of the canny
farmer. They dared not, however, breathe a word of remonstrance, nor take
the smallest notice of the trick that was about being played them; for
their own character was at stake in the transaction, and the least
intimation of their design on the laird’s property would have exposed them
to public infamy—and this Thomas well knew. It was in vain, therefore,
that they edged round towards the bed—concealing, however, their movements
from those present—and squeezed and pinched the dying laird. He was not to
be so driven from his purpose. On he went, bequeathing first one thing and
then another, to his honest friend, Thomas Dickson, till Thomas was fairly
put in possession of everything the laird had worth bequeathing. Some
trifles, indeed, he had the prudence and discretion to bestow upon the
monks of Dryburgh; but trifles they were, truly, when compared to the
valuable legacy he left to himself.
When the dying laird had
disposed of everything he had, the scene closed. The discomfited monks
returned to their monastery—the notary and the witnesses departed—and
Thomas Dickson, in due time, stepped into a comfortable living, and
defined the monks of Dryburgh, on the peril of their good name even to
dare to hint how he had come by it.