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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XVI


Visit to the Gretna Priest.

A visit to the weaver-priest,
A register of names,
A true certificate of marriage,
This chapter now proclaims.

Simon Laing, " weaver and priest," son and heir, and so forth, to the most notable David the pedlar, is a personage of much, and most especial respect, a personage whose interest is great, whose power is confessed, whose influence is extensive, whose friendship is worth obtaining, whose reputation is unbounded, &c.

In his custody are the most important volumes of marriage register, come down to him through a long succession, and by him hereafter to be transmitted to the latest posterity. This Register descended to its present possessor from his father, who received it from Paisley, who received it we know not whence. It probably originated in him, when the plan of monopolizing the trade began to be systematically established.

It has been the policy at Gretna Green, for the principal marrier to associate unto himself some partner in the business : thus, old Paisley took into his confidence David Laing, and when Paisley died, David connected his son Simon with him as his partner ; furthermore, when the Angel of Death breathed upon David, and Simon was left alone, he, the said Simon, became associated in partnership with one Robert Elliott, of honourable mention.

Now, this apostolic succession is not thus scrupulously maintained without good reason, that is, in so far as they themselves are concerned; and, indeed, it was the discovery of certain advantages to be derived therefrom, that at first established this consecutive dove-tailing,—this concatenation—of priests.

In the first place, it enables them, by the extreme exclusiveness of their body, to secure to themselves the whole of the traffic, and, above all, the emoluments arising therefrom ; in the second place, it gives vast importance, consideration, and notability' to him that thus holds "the keys;*' and, in the third, this concatenation tends to prevent the loss, dispersion, or injury of the sacred books, so reverently looked upon and so carefully guarded.

In these volumes are entered the names of all those whom the guardian priest has united in holy bands and the custody of them gives to their possessor his chief ability to continue the prevailing system of monopoly. Their importance, therefore, is manifest. Hence, that they may not pass into the hands of strangers, the necessity of partnership is acknowledged, so that, when the principal dies, the other being heir by devise, Succeeds to the inheritance. By looking well to these things, they engross much commerce and much lucre to themselves, of course not a little to the envy and prejudice of their neighbours in the parish, whom the destinies have made less fortunate.

Albeit we had more than once fortuitously seen Simon Laing, still, we never had, as yet, paid him a decided visit, by repairing to his own particular abode in the village of Springfield; wherefore, with the ostensible object of saying amiable things, such as inquiring after his health and happiness, but inwardly, with the dire and dark intent of getting a sly peep at the Register, we directed our steps one evening thitherward. ~

We knocked at the door as one having business ; incontinently it was answered, but not "by the dignitary himself, but by his wife.

We inquired whether her other half—better we know not—or her "master,"as my Lady Morgan writes it, were at home, as we wished to see him ? But to this Mrs. Laing shook her head, a sign which, in every part of the known world, whether savage or civilized, is universally understood to signify a negative.

This question, however, drew from her a keen and scrutinizing glance—a glance evidently commingled with a strong suspicion as to the possible object of the visit; for, like Simon Beatie at the toll-gate, she appeared to think that no stranger could come into the village, and more particularly right up to the priest's house, without haying some most interested motive for so doing.

She searchingly scanned over the new comer, as if to discover whether lie might not wear the feature and semblance of bachelorship; and if so, whether he had not come there touching the possibility of ridding himself of a state so irksome and lonely as bachelorship is unanimously allowed to be. Yet, we do believe, that no persons in the world are more ready than the priests, and their confederates of Gretna, to agree that " it is not meet for man to be alone.'"

She declared that in good sooth her husband was not within at that identical moment, but that the hour of his coming at eve, when the toil of the day was over, had arrived, and he would not be absent long ; at all events she did not like to let her visitor depart, lest he should fall into other hands; so she courteously, but urgently bid him enter in and abide her husband's coming. And as he never could resist the alluring accents and persuasive voice of a woman, he hesitated not in the least to comply with her bidding, especially as he saw no reason why he should not.

If one may form a judgment by the appearance and furniture of the chamber into which he was shown—a chamber which embraced at once all the varied attributes of parlour, kitchen, bed-room, nursery, and larder, it would seem that the occupier thereof had not solemnized many profitable marriages of late—none such as Joe Paisley performed whilst he lay on his death-bed ; for indigence became revealed to his eyes, wherever he directed them.

The floor was neither boards, nor flag-stone, nor brick, nor tiles, nor lime-ash; it was nothing but plain unsophisticated mother earth, beaten flat—or rather, not flat, for it was like human life in this world, all ups and downs. The tables and chairs were like angels'' visits, so that it was not until after much searching that one of the latter could be found to sit down upon ; they were made of native-grown ash, pine, or oak; and the possessor had evidently conferred the favours of his patronage on several different upholsterers, since no two resembled each other in pattern, but they were all of divers and dissimilar fashion in their make. Some pieces of peat that had been cut on Sol way Moss were piled-on the dusty hearth, out of which issued the melancholy pretence of a fire; and the flickering flame, that darted about like an adder's tongue, inconstantly licked the bottom of a smoky iron pot, that the reverend dweller might have his evening meal when he should arrive. The lime-washed walls, once white, were now brown by age and neglect; a few prints of miserable execution, and one or two popular ballads, taken for all we know from the Border Minstrelsy, were stuck upon them by means of wafers at the corners, for the sake of adornment rich and rare.

Other decorations, ornaments, and articles of furniture consorted passable well both in style and semblance with such as we have enumerated; and the woman herself, in appearance and vesture, suited, not unmeetly, the poverty around.

These important observations, so imperative to the perfect compilation of a complete History of Gretna Green, had scarcely been achieved, when the latch of the door was lifted, and. no less a personage than Simon Laing, "weaver and priest," walked into the apartment.

To say the truth, and nothing but the truth, he certainly looked much more like the weaver than like the priest. But Simon bears a good reputation, and a fair name for integrity; never demanding a higher fee from his employers, than his predecessors have been wont to demand before him; much consideration is due to so great a dignitary from "his high place" alone; and if it be that the Evil One may sometimes prompt him to a little exorbitance of charge, still, we know that Shakspere says, "Let the devil be honoured for his burning throne."

He is a kind of happy medium in stature, neither tall nor short; in face he is somewhat spare, and not much otherwise in limb; and for that particular, very different from his rival at the toll-gate, the stout and stalwart Simon Beatie.

His greeting was evidently that of an encouraging welcome; for, like the woman whom he had taken for better for worse, he manifestly boded that some good would arise out of this meeting.

Like a perfect diplomatist who has a secret victory to gain, he begged his visitor to be seated and at ease ; he then entered into a pleasant strain of conversation, not bluntly assailing the topic which was nearest his interest, and as he conjectured, nearest the interest—or at all events nearest the heart-^-of this said visitor, but discoursed of subjects foreign to the matter, only now and then, by way of judiciously feeling his ground, casually alluding to the loving politics of his parish.

But his visitor had also a secret victory to gain; he had an unrevealed object in view, which was, to elicit from Simon the knowledge of certain facts touching his reverend calling; and to compass this, he had recourse to a little diplomatic hypocrisy, by putting the priest on a wrong scent, even as Pennant and his friends did, when they sought out and gossiped with the fisherman.

He gave him to understand that he had not come to Gretna " for nothingwhich assertion, broached with an air of significance and mystery, led the comprehensive mind of the weaver to infer that he had really come there for a great deal,—a great deal more than his modesty permitted him to express all at once.

This was just the thing; Simon shrewdly intimated that a word to the wise was enough; whilst his visitor chuckled within himself, and thought that a wink was as good as a nod to a blind horse.

Both parties, therefore, having come to a clear understanding, they now began to talk with less reserve; but the applicant discovered, in prosecution of his diplomatic negotiations, that the surest way of coining by the knowledge that he sought, was to start innumerable objections and many fears, as to the plans so readily proposed by the priest: for, by starting difficulties on one side, it was necessary that they should be explained away on the other; and this course served to impart the very knowledge that was desired.

The stranger then honestly confessed—certainly he would not conceal it—he would not deny it—he confessed that he ran great risk in the course he was pursuing; that marrying at Gretna Green was not the form he should prefer; that he should always counsel everybody to take so important a step advisedly ; that he would rather have been married in England in the usual way; he avowed openly he preferred it, and approved of it; but that desperate ailments demanded desperate cures; and in fact, to conceal nothing, but to unburden his bosom frankly to the weaver, he had now, in a state of the maddest delirium, fled from his home, his country, his friends (all but the sole sharer of his affections) and had hastened to the Gilead of Gretna to collect balm.

The sympathising mechanic, howbeit, saw no necessity for any anxiety whatsoever; that the stranger, in coming to him from home and friends, had done no more than hundreds had done before ; that his troubles were altogether imaginary, unreal, and without foundation ; and that, if he would only send to the King's Head Inn for his ladye love, where he concluded she was doubtless secreted, he would cure him of all his afflictions in the space of about two minutes.

Certainly this was a plain and friendly offer; but his visitor had not as yet learnt all he desired, and therefore it should seem that his. perplexed mind could not immediately come to a cool and definite resolution. He much wished to know whether the affair could really be achieved with so much ease, and expedition, and secrecy, as his reverence declared; whether it could be assuredly accomplished in despite of all denial or opposition from hostile parties ; whether, if done in opposition to parents and guardians, the tie would be equally secure; whether, if so done, ' it would hold good against English law, and defy all the Alexander the Greats of the Inner Temple who might try to undo it—and whether, in defiance of half a dozen other whethers and ifs, it would be all right, legal, tight, proper, and so forth?

To all these difficult questions and honest doubts, put forth, as the knight of the hand-loom thought, by one who had been driven by adversity and persecution to a just desperation; yet, by one who had not quite lost his powers of reflection, or of calculating the consequences of a rash act, he returned answers that were most encouraging and consolatory.

So eloquent at last did Simon get, when he now resolutely set about persuading away all obstacles,— so thoroughly indeed did he succeed in removing them,—so enticing a course of argument did he take up in favour of the advantages attendant on marrying at once, without waiting to deliberate, which, lie declared, always brought doubt and mistrust,—so completely did he make it appear that those who deliberate on matrimony are like those who deliberate going into a cold bath, who, instead of plunging in at once, stand on the brink waiting and considering, until they at last begin to shiver and turn away in disgust,—and so entirely did he succeed in drawing a bright picture of wedded love and happiness, and so on, that his visitor almost began to regret that he had not brought any lady to the King's Head or the Hall, for whom, as the priest suggested, he might send.

This only shows how weak and irresolute human nature is; how we may be won over to do a thing which, but .five minutes before, we had no idea of; and how easily we may be persuaded to go astray when the devil* becomes our counsellor. Simon's new friend, however, nobly triumphed over temptation, for the possibility of yielding thereunto" was beyond his reach. Of a truth, he never was married at Gretna, and he hopes he never may.

But all this time he had totally failed in obtaining a glimpse at the important books of Register, for the priest was wary, cautious, and jealous. Hints would not do ; direct questions were unavailing ; and therefore, dissembler that he was, he now "veered his mayne sheete," as Edmund Spenser made one of his crafty heroes do in a difficult case, and baited his treacherous hooks with an irresistible morsel of sweet flattery.

Who be they that declare it is only women that nibble at this gentle? Peradventure, it is not women who say so, but rather those who would seek to disown such a weakness in their own sex, by essaying to naturalize it as pertaining inseparably to the other.

No matter; he enlarged upon Simon's widely extended fame—upon the sanctity of his calling—his honourable position—his exclusiveness and note, as being the much sought after by all the noble and the simple who might be in duresse—and the undeniable fact of his being the custos rotulorum or librorum Registrorum.

Hard, indeed, must the weaver have been if he could have resisted all this: the bait was taken, and the float disappeared under the water.

He was palpably touched when he was assured that his fame had found its way far south of the border; and being now awakened to his own importance as custodier of the sacred volumes, he evidently betrayed traces of being pleased with himself; and when a person is pleased with himself, it is a sure argument that he is also pleased with those who may be around him. Like the toad in the fable, he began to swell up at the idea of his own pride of place; so that (in his own eyes) he soon became twice as big a man as he had been only a few minutes before. At length, going to a closet, he produced the very books.

For one half hour did these two amuse themselves in turning over the variously written pages, the priest satisfying his visitor's curiosity touching many of the personages whose names there appeared. Truly, he was not a little amused at what he saw laid open to his wondering eyes; for almost every page turned up something to speculate upon ; the noble, the gentle, the illustrious, the notorious, the wealthy, the wicked, the wild, the gay,—there they were, manifestly, undeniably.

Before we bade this worthy dignitary farewell; we had yet one other small matter of business to transact with him: and that was, to obtain a marriage certificate, such as is employed in the true, legitimate, and usual mode of performing the ceremony at Gretna. At first he hesitated, thinking, that when we should be in possession of this paper, we might go and get united to the lady who was concealed, as he believed, at the King's Head, without his assistance or co-operation, by somebody else, and of course to his prejudice. These scruples were natural enough; and it was not until after we had solemnly declared that our main object in coming to Springfield was partly owing to a fatal curiosity, which we would gladly cast off upon the other sex if we could, and partly for the purpose of collecting authentic materials for a standard work; that, indeed, we were only an innocent tourist returning from the Highlands; that we had not any intention whatever of being wedded within the bounds of his parish; and that, to satisfy him in every point, we would pledge him our word, our honour, and all we held sacred, that if peradventure we really should be married there, though totally against our present purpose, of a truth, nobody else besides himself should perform the office for us.

These protestations, so seriously pronounced, served to overrule every objection; and when the weaver heard a broad silver piece ring upon the table, he produced the certificate with most admired readiness.

At such time of the arrival of the disobedient children at the Hall, or other hostel, who have conspired betwixt themselves to run away from home, and have, by means of certain subtle contrivances and stratagems, succeeded in eluding parents or other keepers, and have actually declared their intention and most foul design of thus perpetrating matrimony, then will such a certificate be duly called into immediate requisition.

We believe we have elsewhere declared that mine host requires no elaborate explanation as to the motives for the visit; for those who live upon sin in others readily anticipate iniquity, even before it is pointed, out to them.

The spaces left blank in the paper are filled up with the names and places of abode of the parties, (here shown in italics) ; and then they subscribe their names at the right hand lower corner, whilst two witnesses (who may be the innkeeper and the postilion) do the same on the other side of the document.

This is all that is necessary to constitute a legal and binding marriage, and the certificate is always a sufficient voucher that it has taken place. It often happens, let it be recorded, that the fugitives from England, in spite of their iniquity in pursuing this course, are not without some good still lingering in their minds. They are not married beneath the roof of Mother Church, because, peradventure, they could not get the knot tied there; but, owing to impeding circumstances, they were enforced to fly to Scotland, although they would have preferred the church if possible. Thus, they really look upon the ceremony in a religious view, and would rather have availed themselves of a clergyman ; but, sooner than not get married at all, supposing them bent upon so doing, they have had recourse to such simply legal forms, by way of pisaller, as the enactments of the land recognise to be valid.

For such piously disposed elopers, even the priests of Gretna have provided. For those, indeed, who wish to throw a greater air of sanctity over the transaction, than the usual hasty and profane mode of procedure seems to carry with it, these dignitaries will pronounce the following words, namely: —"What God has joined together, let no man put asunder." In many instances, howbeit, methinks that to say these words were but to utter sheer blasphemy. This is not all; in some cases, if the parties require it, they will repeat the Lord's Prayer, and the native artist who painted the sign of the "Gretna Wedding" appears to have had this idea in his head when engaged about that work; for the blacksmith is there represented kneeling down, with an open book on the anvil before him, (no book is required, generally speaking,) and with his clasped hands raised, as in the attitude of prayer.

Should "the happy couple" choose to abide at the Hall for a space, they will there find passable good accommodation; David Laing has assured us that the cellar contains "the best of shumpine;" and ourself can aver that there are divers knotty-limbed trees around the lawn, whereon those who have "married in haste," and have afterwards weepingly discovered their mistake, can hang themselves up by the neck in the wind, and there dry their tears whilst they "repent at leisure."


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