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The Scot Abroad
Chapter 2 - The Soldier - Part 4


This was in the year 1655, when Hamburg like many towns in Northern Germany, was filled with emissaries recruiting for the great Swedish army, and all the inns were full of cavaliers "ranting and carousing." Patrick evidently felt, though he does not tell, that as this great mustering and marshalling afforded various opportunities, differing greatly from each other, for effecting his design, he must be cautious, and pick his footing warily. He was strongly tempted by the talk of two recruiting officers, a comet and quartermaster, who, knowing whence he came and what his views were, showed him much kindness and attention, he permitting them no opportunity for fixing their society on him save at meal-time.

The recruiter is probably much the same all the world over, and the following is as good a specimen of him as Sergeant Kite: "In all their discourses they extolled a soldier’s life, telling that riches, honours, and all sorts of worldly blessings lay prostrate at a soldier’s feet, wanting only his will to stoop and take them up; then, falling out in commendation of our countrymen, than whom no better ‘sojers’ were of any nation to be found, and that albeit nature had endowed them with a genius fit for anything, yet did they despise the ease, advantage, or contentment any other trade might bring, and embraced that of a soldier, which, without all dispute, is the most honourable."

No compliments could be more skilfully put, and no sentiments could have been expressed more in harmony with those which were fermenting in the mind of the ambitious young Scot; but he believed he could make a better bargain for himself than these men could give him, and he held on till, one day at dinner, the quartermaster electrified him by the information that there was in the city a Scotsman—a neighbour—in fact, a member of the worshipful family of Gordon of Troup, in Banffshire, holding the rank of Rittmaster. This was conclusive, and away the youth hied to pay his respects where they were so eminently due. "I told him that, hearing of a person of such quality as he was being come to this city, I could not be satisfied with myself until I had paid my respects to him with a visit, hoping that he would pardon my abrupt intruding myself, &c." There was much coming and going of military people, and trampling to and fro, in the Rittmaster’s house. At a carouse where they "were all pretty well warmed," the important question was opened; but he was still cautious, and mumbled something about his intention of returning home. They laughed at him, and insisted that his friends would say he had gone to the Continent to see what o’clock it was, and returned as wise as he went "But what needed," he says, "many persuasions, it being a course to the which I was naturally inclined; so that, without any further circumstance, I gave my promise to go along, so ignorant I was of such matters at that time."

His career at this juncture was interrupted by a remittent fever, which threatened abruptly to close it. On the 15th of July 1665 he joined the Swedish army, encamped on a large meadow near Stettin. "It consisted of thirty brigades of foot and 7000 Reiters, being in all about 17,000 men, with a gallant train of artillery. It was a most delightful and brave show, the Reiters being very well mounted, and the foot well clothed and armed, and, above all, the officers in extraordinary good equipage."

It has doubtless been seen already, and will presently become more apparent, that Patrick Gordon did not shackle himself with the higher motives professed by Mourn and his school. The soldiering of the day was no longer in conflicts of principle like the struggle for freedom in Holland and the Thirty Years’ War, but had become a mere scramble for territory among greedy kings. A youth struggling upwards from sheer want, could not stand on the dignity of his position and exercise a restraining influence on the rapacity of his royal employer as the Earl Marischal or his brother might. Gordon went into the system as he found it, pretty heartily; and he affords us a genuine, and perhaps a favourable, picture of the superior officer in the Continental wars, such as he was from that day down to the first French Revolution.

He now held a command in that foolish invasion of Poland, the first of those aggressive acts of Sweden which gave her a bad character throughout Europe, and brought her ultimately to grief. Patrick Gordon had perhaps as much right, in consideration of his pay and rank, to plead an honest espousal of the cause be was fighting for as any other of its promoters, from the King of Sweden downwards. Professing no devotion to any higher motive for his own conduct than a selfish ambition— an aspiration after military renown, rank, and pay, combined in large and due proportions—he took the measure of his masters conduct in the following terms, which embrace his own private opinion, as distinguished from the views adopted by the philosophers and politicians of the age :—" But, to tell you briefly, the main reason was this. The Swedish King having been bred a soldier, and having now obtained the crown by the resignation of his cousin, Queen Christians, would needs begin his reign by some notable action. He knew that the remembrance of the honours and riches obtained by many cavaliers in the German wars, under the Swedish conduct, would bring great confluence of soldiers to him when it should be known that he was to arm, which, by reason of the late universal peace in Germany and the many forces lately disbanded, would be more easily effectivated. Having in his conceit already formed an army, there was no prince or people except Poland to which he could have the least pretence—albeit princes indeed never want pretensions to satisfy their ambition, and will have their pretences looked upon as solid and just reason."

We shall see that Patrick Gordon practised and avowed a code of political ethics which responded pretty accurately to those of the ambitious king. But first I give a passage which tells in a few words its own story, and furnishes a powerful exemplification of the ferocity generated by the contemporary civil conflicts in Britain. The date is 1658 :—" Whilst we lay in this Werder, an English ambassador called Bradshaw, having been on his journey to Moscovia, and not admitted, returned this way, and was lodged in Lamehand’s tavern. We getting notice thereof and judging him to be that Bradshaw who sat president in the highest court of justice upon our sovereign King Charles I. of blessed memory, were resolved, come what will, to make an end of him; and being about fifteen with servants, six whereof might be accounted trusty weight men, the others also indifferent, we concluded that, doing the feat in the evening, we could easily make our escape by benefit of the strait ground and darkness of the night, and so, being resolved, we took our way thither. Being come near, and asking a boor come from thence some questions, he told us that just now some officers were come from Elbing to the ambassador, and some forty dragoons who were to guard and convey him to Marienburgh, which made us despair of doing any good, and so we returned. We had resolved to make our addresses to him, as sent with a commission from Field-Marshal Von Der Linde to him; and being admitted seven or eight of us, to have gone in and stabbed him, the rest guarding our horses and the door; and so, being cone to horse, make our escape to Danzic."

Even if they had been successful, they would have found that they had not done "any good" in their own sense of the term, for the Bradshaw they were to put to death was not the Bradshaw who had committed the mortal offence. If they had slain him, no doubt they would have been disappointed that they had thrown away their exertions and peril in extinguishing the wrong life; but Gordon has not the affectation to express a word of thankfulness for not having done it. He seems, on the whole, rather to regret that a project so well planned should have come to nothing.

So long as it remains a fixed principle that every writer of biography is to bring his hero through, attributing to him all the virtues under heaven, and fighting with splenetic bitterness against every accusation against him, it is fortunate that we have autobiographies in which people speak about their own conduct in a sensible, practical, business-like way, without attempting to make themselves better than the best men of their day, or even very much better than they are. It is from good sort of fellows—not wiser than their neighbours, and not pretending to be better—telling a few facts without much consciousness of their significance, that we know the truth about history and the condition of governments and peoples. Take up any ordinary history, and see what it says about any campaign, in the European wars of the seventeenth century, for instance. There are sentences duly turned and balanced, about ravaging a territory from one extremity to the other, sweeping away the fruits of the soil and the accumulated produce of industry, subjecting the people to the horrors of military havoc, without respect for age or sex, &c.; and yet, if we read a memoir of any actor in such scenes, we find him accredited to the world by his biographer as everything that is disinterested and gentlemanly, according to our modern notions of "an officer and a gentleman."

Hence the use of people telling their own story in their own way, and according to the lights conferred upon them. If Gordon ever perpetrated what would have been a crime in his own social circle, of course he would not have told it., for his autobiography is not a confession; and except an occasional hard boose, with its consequent headache, mentioned with an apologetic explanation that it was against his nature and forced upon him, he sets forth his practice like a man who has nothing to be ashamed of. The editor of the volume justly remarks that, in some instances, he appears to have aided the natural rapacity of the German mercenaries by what might be called "a wrinkle" from Highland practice. Thus he levies a sort of black-mail by engaging for certain dollars to protect certain cattle; and in other instances, with the full knowledge that the beasts have been driven away by men under his own command, he claims and pockets tribute for their restitution.

The way in which Gordon dealt with employers for his services as a military commander would shock "the service" at the present day; but it is nevertheless as well that we should know it from the statement of one who practised it, and was so little ashamed of it as to be very explicit about his method of transacting bushiest. He was repeatedly taken prisoner by the Poles, and on each occasion tempted to serve with them; but he always declined, and went back to the Swedes on exchange of prisoners. At length, in 1659, after he had been four years in the service, having come to the conclusion that the Swedish cause was not likely to be a propitious one, and being a prisoner in the hands of the Poles, who, somewhat conveniently, refused in this instance to exchange him, he began to listen to the proposals made to him. He was offered by John Sobieski, whom he calls "a hard bargainer, but courteous," the command of a body of troops permanently stationed on the Sobieski domains—a sort of household regiment apparently. This offer did not suit his views, as he found that, however high and lucrative the appointment might be, it shelved him out of the way of promotion. He preferred, therefore, the next appointment offered to him, that of quartermaster. He had not been long in the Polish service ere he heard of the restoration of the Stewart dynasty, and naturally thought of Britain as the proper field for his ambition. "But," he says, "my father informing me that the armies were disbanded, and that only a few troops were continued in pay, and that the charge of these was given to the nobility, and to such persons as had extraordinarily deserved and suffered for his Majesty, and that without a good stock it was very hard living in Scotland," — he remained where he was, but not contentedy, for the Polish army and the Diet were at feud, and Gordon’s sagacity taught him that the service was not one of sufficient force and compactness to offer scope for the genius of a great commander—an outlook in the direction of ambition, rare, it may be supposed, among young soldiers just entering on their career, and glad to have secured the first step. He had an eye then on the service in which he finally distinguished himself: "I had great temptation from the Muskovitish ambassadors; for having by order conducted some of their chief officers to them about their ransom, as also they having ransomed two officers from me, they very earnestly desired their colonels to engage me in the Tzaar's service, to the which I seemed to give half a willing ear. So they promised that I should not be longer detained than three years—one year whereof to serve as major, and two for lieutenant-colonel. Yet did I not accept of these offers, but only kept them in hand to have another string for my bow."

Meanwhile a prospect opened to him of service under the head of all the Christian kings. "The Roman emperor’s ambassador, the Baron D’Isola, got orders from the emperor to engage officers to levy a regiment of horse; to which purpose he engaged Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, commonly called Steelhand, who, using all the pressing reasons he could to persuade me to engage with him, telling me of the honourable service, the good pay, with the advantage and easiness of the levies at this time; wherewith being overcome, after mature consideration I resolved to engage; and so we entered into a stipulation, four of us, to levy a regiment of eight hundred horse." The person called Steelhand was another Patrick Gordon, who frequently figures in his namesake’s narrative. He was excommunicated in Scotland by his title of "Patrick Gordon of the Steelhand"—a designation which he obtained doubtless not without fitting reasons, though they are not explained; he was to be the colonel, and, besides our hero, the other two field-officers were to be John Watson and Major Davidson—Scotsmen all.

This brilliant prospect was, however, immediately blighted. "The tenth of July, by an express from Vienna, the Roman emperor’s ambassador received an order not to engage any officers, or to capitulate for the levying of men; and; if he had engaged any already, to discharge them the handsomest way he could." Gordon was retained in the service he had adopted, but not in a shape suited to his ambition. He was to hold a secondary rank on a peace establishment, instead of casting his lot into the chances and changes of the mighty contest with the Turks, which was unfortunately, as he felt, coming to a close.

He lets us into his secret estimate of his position, and it seems to have been sagaciously taken. "Soldiers of fortune," he says, "unless of great merit and long standing in that service, would be hardly admitted and little regarded;" and thus, if he were at last to obtain a company, he would be thrown an unoccupied stranger among "men of great birth and rents, or well-stocked and acquainted with the ways of that country, where quarters, accidencies, and shifts are the greatest part of their subsistence."

He then bethought himself of the proffers which had been made to him by his friend Zamiaty Fiodororovitz Leontiuf, the Russian ambassador, and resolved to join that service, if, on close examination, he should find it adapted to his views. But he was ordered by the imperial authorities to go to Vienna, on duty, with despatches; and the question was, "how to come handsomely off" from the service he had so adopted. There might be differences of opinion as to his method of "coming handsomely off:" It involved a profession of sickness, which, by the way, to the comfort of his conscience if not of his body, ended in a real illness.

After many adventures he reached Riga, still feeling his way before committing himself to the Russian service. He was in search of General Douglas, who had, however, just marched onwards; and the next statement shows, in a characteristic light, how his countrymen dropped in wherever he went. "I was very sorry, and so went into the town to look for acquaintance. Coming to the marketplace, I did meet with my old comrades and friends, Alexander Landells and Walter Airth, with whom I went to a tavern and took a glass of wine, to whom I revealed my intention These being out of service themselves, having been lately disbanded by the Swedes, were in a poor condition, and willing to engage anywhere; and told me that no service was to be had among the Swedes; and besides, that it was so poor, they having but pitiful allowance, that it was not worth the seeking; that they had heard that the Muscovites’ pay, though not great, was duly paid, and that officers were soon advanced to high degrees; and many of our countrymen, of great quality, were there, and some gone thither lately; that they themselves, with many others of our countrymen, and strangers, were resolving to go thither, not knowing how to do better: so that the consideration of a certain, at least, livelyhood, preferment, good company, and my former promises and engagements, confirmed me in my resolution to go to Moskow."

So onward they went, having settled among each other the relative ranks they were to accept in the service, until at last "we came to Moscow, and hired a lodging in the Slabod, or village where the strangers live. We were admitted to kiss his Tzarasky Majesty’s hand at Columinsko, a country-house of the Tzaar’s, seven versts from Moscow, below the village of the same name. The Tzaar was pleased to thank me for having been kind to his subjects who had been prisoners in Poland; and it was told me that I should have his Majesty’s grace or favour, whereon I might rely."

It was on the 5th of September 1661 that the event took place which not only decided the fate of the poor wandering Scot, but had no little influence on the subsequent destinies of Europe; since, after his friend and master Peter the Great, it may be questioned if any other one man did so much for the early consolidation of the Russian empire as Patrick Gordon. His great services date at a far later period; but at the very beginning we find him engaged in the faint remnant of a contest which, though he seems to have been unconscious of it, was really a life and death struggle of the imperial power for predominance in its old domain of Muscovy. It is a phase of European history not often kept in view, that the corporate influence of the great towns maintained a long contest with the predominant royal houses of Europe, and that this contest had its very highest development in Russia. The corporations, indeed, with Novgorod at their head—now that we look back on their power, and compare it with other institutions commemorated in history—were evidently so far the predominant power, that, had they been led by a few great men, they might have kept out the empire, and preserved a rule over Russia more like that of the East India Company’s in Hindostan than perhaps any other method of government on record. It was to be otherwise, however; and, as history tells us, the great men came on the side of the empire, not of the corporate republic.

When Gordon joined the service, the contest with the corporations was nearly over. His "Tzaric Majesty" was in a state of transition from "the Duke of Muscovia" of old to "the Emperor of Russia" of our own day. It was not long since the power of the corporations had been so great, however, as to give significance to the old Russian proverb, "Who can resist the great God and Novgorod?" The annual market, drawing its traders from the extremity of the empire, and from other empires, is the only existing relic of its greatness. When Gordon and his companions passed through it, he jotted down the following memorandurn—"The town of Novgorod, called ‘the Great,’ having been one of the greatest market-cities of Europe, giveth name to a large dukedom, the greatest of all Russia, where Rurick, from whom all the Russian princes and dukes draw their original, did reign;" and then he refers to the ordinary histories for the cruelties which Ivan the Terrible inflicted on the inhabitants when he got access to the town. Another municipal relic which had "been a free principality in former times, until subdued by the Tzar Ivan Vasiliovitz," attracted him by its faded though not entirely ruined splendour. "About mid-day," he says, "we had a sight of Plesko or Opsko, which had a glorious show, being environed with a stone wall and many towers. There are many churches and monasteries, some whereof have three, some five steeples or towers, whereon are round globes of six, eight, or ten fathoms circumference, which, being covered with white iron or plate, and thereon great crosses covered with the same, make a great and pleasant show. One of these globes, being the largest, is over-gilt"

That the municipal spirit, though broken, still lingered among the people, is shown by such incidents as the following, in which Gordon showed an early appreciation of the approved Russian method of treating difficulties with the ordinary citizen: "Some contentions did fall out betwixt the officers and sojours with the rich burgesses, who would not admit them into their houses. Among the rest, a merchant, by whom my quarters were taken up whilst my servants were cleaning the inner room; he broke down the oven in the utter room which served to warm both, so that I was forced to go to another quarter. But, to teach him better manners, I sent the profos (provost-marshal) to quater by him, with twenty prisoners and a corporalship of sojours, who, by connivance, did grievously plague him a week, and it cost him near a hundred dollars before he could procure an order out of the right office to have them removed, and was well laughed at besides for his incivility and obstinacy."

This was very early in his career, and shows how quickly he had leaned that in Russia there was no justice to be got but what could be taken or bought. His proud Scottish spirit, however, revolted against the slights and impositions to which he was himself subjected, and nothing but a threat to leave the service would bring "the chancellor, being a most corrupt fellow," and his subordinates, to acknowledge his position and claims. The Russians had not yet been much accustomed to see the adventurers from Scotland step in among them as their natural lords and masters; and Gordon spoke of the calamity of leaving those countries, "where strangers had great respect, and were in a great reputation, and even more trust as the natives themselves; and where a free passage for all deserving persons lay open to all honour, military and civil;" and coming to a land where he perceived "strangers to be looked upon as a company of hirelings, and at the best (as they say of women) but necessaria mala: no honour or degree of preferment here to be expected but military, and that with a limited command, in the attainment whereof a good mediator or mediatrix, and a piece of money or other bribe, is more available as the merit or sufficiency of the person; a faint heart under fair plumes, and a cuckoo in gay clothes, being as ordinary here as a counterfeited or painted visage." A certain Boyar to whom he made his complaint, "being vexed, caused stop his coach, and caused call the Diack; whom being come, he took by the beard, and shaked him three or four times, telling him, if I complained again he would cause knout him." Notwithstanding this broad hint, the Diack showed no great improvement either in civility or honesty when the Boyar’s back was turned; but when he heard one man in the rank of a gentleman talk to another who happened to be his inferior in this fashion, the Scot was fain to suppose that there was an intention to propitiate him according to the national manner.

Here is the way in which he entered on his duties: "1661, September 17.—I got orders to receive from a Russ 700 men to be in our regiment, being runnaway sojours out of’ several regiments, and fetched back from divers places. Having received these, I marched through the Sloboda of the strangers to Crasna Celia, where we got our quarters, and exercised these soldiers twice a-day in fair weather. September 20.—I received money— twenty-five roubles—for my welcome, and the next day sables, and two days thereafter damask and cloth. September 25.—I received a month’s means in cursed copper money, as did those who came along with me."

Gordon had roughed it for a quarter of a century in the service before he met his illustrious master Peter the Great, with whose name his later achievements are historically connected. Characteristically enough for one who became notorious in later life as a lover of strong drink, the young prince presented him, at their first meeting, with a glass of brandy—at least it is likely that no smaller measure of the liquid is referred to in the following notandum: "1686, January 26, was at their majesty’s hands— receiving a charke of brandy out of the youngest his hand, with a command to return speedily." Peter was then a boy fourteen years old; but three years only were to elapse ere a crisis, in which events, directed by the sagacious old Scot to whom he presented a dram, were to secure to him the throne he made so renowned.


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