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The Scottish Orphans
By Mrs. Blackford (now Lady Stoddart) (1857) - Chapter 1

THE estate of Monteith belonged, in the year 1745, to a gentleman of that name, who in his domestic circumstances was truly happy. A marriage of affection had united him to a young lady of beauty, virtue, and good sense; and Providence had blessed them with three lovely infants, to the care of whom the fond parents devoted a mutual and constant attention.

Unfortunately, Mr. Monteith had been brought up in principles of firm attachment to the House of Stuart. At the period of which I speak, the last attempt was made to place a prince of that family on the throne of Great Britain. Mr. Monteith thought himself bound in honour to take an open part in the insurrection; but the rash undertaking was soon quelled, and he found that, by engaging in it, he had for ever forfeited his rank and fortune. He was forced, after the last battle, to fly for his life; was discovered by a party of the king’s soldiers, and was carried prisoner to Stirling Castle.

Mrs. Monteith, with much difficulty, procured leave to share his confinement. She lost no time in availing herself of this permission, and joined him about a week after his seizure, bringing along with her, her three infants, who were too young to be at all aware of the dreadful misfortune that had befallen their parents. Passionately fond of his children, their innocent and endearing prattle served, in some degree, at first, to amuse and comfort their father; but as time rolled on, and all hopes of pardon for his crime vanished, Mrs. Monteith could not help seeing that their presence seemed to augment his wretchedness; and, therefore, she began to cast about in her mind how she could remove them, without being herself obliged to quit the prison.

One morning, as she passed along, the under-gaoler met her, and put into her hand a dirty crumbled bit of paper, which he desired her to read, and said, if she chose to send any answer, he would undertake to deliver it in the evening, when the bearer had promised to call again.

Mrs. Monteith was so much engrossed with her own melancholy reflections, at the time she received the note, that she never thought of looking at it, till the gaoler whispered to her, as he was removing the dinner from the table, that he would wait for her answer in the court, at six o’clock. Struck with something in the significance of his manner, she felt for the note, and drawing near the window, with some difficulty deciphered what it contained. It was written by a man who had lived from his infancy upon her husband’s estate, and now rented a small farm adjoining the village of Monteith. She had always known him to be an industrious, sober, quiet young man; but from his having positively refused to go out with Mr. Monteith in the rebellion, he had fallen under his landlord’s displeasure, and had been threatened with being turned out of the farm, as soon as he returned home. From this circumstance, she was the more surprised at receiving a letter from him, and still more so, when she made out its contents. He told her, that accident had made him acquainted with her wishes for removing the children from the prison, and thinking that as his wife had lived nursery-maid at the Castle, for some time before she married, her ladyship would, perhaps, trust them to her care sooner than to that of a stranger, he had made bold to write to her to propose taking the charge of them, till his dear master had got over his misfortunes; and that, if she would confer so great a favour upon Jane and himself, she might depend on their taking the greatest possible care of the darlings, who should want for nothing in their power to bestow on them.

Mrs. Monteith remained lost in thought for some minutes, after reading this note. Much as she wished to remove the children from where they were, she could not bring her mind to burden poor William with such a charge; particularly as she saw no prospect of being able to reimburse him for the actual expense they must occasion him; at the same time, her mind was filled with the strongest feelings of gratitude towards him, for the interest he had shewn in her concerns.

“Alas!” thought she, “among all the numerous friends and acquaintances with whom we lived and associated, not one, but this poor lad, has either inclination or courage to befriend us.”

She was roused from these reflections by her husband’s asking what she was reading. He listened while she related in what manner she had received it, and then, taking *her hand, said, “My dear Mary, let us bless God, who, in the extreme of our misery, has raised us up a friend, who, though a humble one, may serve us more effectually than those in a higher rank might have had the power of doing. Answer William’s letter directly, and tell him that I accept, with thankfulness, the offer he has made, and will intrust my children to the care of his wife, either till I, myself, am restored to freedom, or till, by my death, their mother is at liberty to relieve him from his engagement. When you have written your answer, my love, I will explain to you my reasons for so readily accepting his offer.”

Mrs. Monteith plainly saw that her husband’s mind was made up; and, therefore, did not attempt to remonstrate, but wrote William a few lines, informing him what his master had resolved on. These she conveyed to the hands of the gaoler, and returning to her husband, entreated him to tell her whether he had learnt anything relative to his destiny, that she was yet unacquainted with.

“Not with regard to myself, my love,” said he; "but I yesterday learnt a circumstance which has made me truly wretched as to the dear, children. I have reason to believe that my uncle, Colonel Monteith, to whom my estates have been given, is using all his influence, and you know he has a great deal, to get possession of my boys. He pretends, I have no doubt, that he means to take care of them, and place them in security; but I know the nature of the man too well, to trust to any of his promises; and never, if I can help it, shall they be placed in his power. In the event of my losing my life, were my children under the care of any of our relations, the Colonel might easily, either by persuasions, or by the exertion of his interest, succeed in getting them into his hands; and, therefore, I have resolved to confide them to William Mathieson, who, from being known as a decided friend to the House of Hanover, will be the last person on the estate to be suspected of having any intercourse with me or mine. He is a prudent, sensible man; very superior in understanding to most men in his rank of life; and as resolute as he is prudent. When I place them in his hands, mean to inform him of my suspicions of my uncle’s intentions, and, if possible, prevail with him to remove them directly into Edinburgh, where, through your old aunt’s assistance, lie may be able to conceal them, at least till my fate is determined; after which, you, my dear wife, must act to the best of your judgment for their benefit. I would recommend, however, to you, for some years to live in the strictest retirement. And if you could submit, at least for a short period, to live separated from the children, I think it would be advisable.”

Mrs. Monteith, very naturally, was alarmed at the knowledge of Colonel Monteith’s wishes to have possession of the children, and felt more reconciled in trusting them to the care of William and Jane Mathieson, than she at first thought possible. She continued conversing with her husband on the best way of removing them from the castle, for some time, when she was interrupted by a slight tap at the room door, which presently opened cautiously, and William Mathieson entered. He was a man about thirty years of age, tall, and stout made; but, at the same time, well proportioned and good looking. His features were not regularly handsome, but there was such an expression of good humour, accompanied with strong marks of good sense and shrewdness, that no one could converse with him without being prepossessed in his favour, and convinced that his understanding was far superior to that of most other men in his rank of life.

He approached Mr. and Mrs. Monteith, and kneeling at his master’s feet, thanked him, in the most simple and energetic terms, for the trust he had agreed to place in him, solemnly promising to devote himself to the service and interest of his dear mistress and her children, as long as they should require his feeble assistance. Mr. Monteith was much affected, and for some minutes was unable to speak; at last he said—

“William, it is impossible for me to express how much I feel the kindness of your conduct at this moment. Alas! it may never be in my power to shew you how deeply it has sunt into my mind; but you will receive your reward for your fidelity and kindness to your ruined master, from a higher hand than mine, and from the satisfaction of your own worthy heart. Your unexpected assistance has come, through the mercy of Providence, at a time when I had almost given way to despair; but if I can only have the satisfaction of learning that you have succeeded in conveying my children to a place of security, I think I can meet death with comparative resignation, and shall devote the little time that may now be given me, to prepare for my awful change.”

William here ventured to interrupt his master, by stating that, as he had much to say, and his time was very limited, he thought Mr. Monteith had better allow him to repeat what information he had brought, before his friend, the under-gaoler, returned for him. As he spoke, he glanced towards Mrs. Monteith, which signal his master understood, and, making an excuse that the noise of little Jessie disturbed him, requested her mother to try to amuse her at the window. The moment William thought he could speak without being heard, he informed Mr. Monteith he had learnt that an order for his removal had been given, and that in two days, he feared, he would be taken from Stirling, on his way to England, to be tried at Carlisle; that he had discovered that Colonel Monteith had had interest enough to be allowed to detain the children, under the pretence of taking care of them, and that strict orders had been given to the governor of the castle not to suffer them, or Mrs. Monteith, to quit the prison till after his removal. “But, my dear good master,” continued William, seeing Mr. Monteith clasp his hands in agony, “do not despair; I have thought of a method of eluding the vigilance of the governor, and, at the same time, preventing any blame from being attached to the gaoler who is a relation of my wife’s, and who would otherwise be suspected. For some time past, I have pretended to take up the business of a carrier between this place and Edinburgh, and have gone regularly, twice a week, with a couple of asses, loaded with panniers. To-morrow morning, by four o’clock, I shall quit the town, as usual; but shall return under your window, with my wife; when I think you may be able, by some contrivance, to lower the children to us, without their sustaining the slightest injury. Jane and I will then dress them so as to appear like peasants’ children, and I will carry the boys to Edinburgh in the panniers, while Jane shall follow in a cart with the baby. I hope to be clear of the neighbourhood of Stirling before six O’clock, and, once a few miles on the way, all fears of detection are at an end. I have likewise, sir, thought that, if you would make the attempt, it is not impossible that you might be able to escape by the window yourself, but to do it will require more time than between this and tomorrow morning, as you will be obliged to remove at least two of the iron bars, to make the opening large enough for you to get through; I would, therefore, advise you to send the children at once, and if, in the course of to-morrow, you are so fortunate as to succeed in loosening the bars, yon can, in the evening, endeavour to let yourself down from the window, and escape to my sister’s house at the end of the bridge, where you must remain till I return from Edinburgh; and then we may be able to contrive some method of getting you on board of a ship, and out of the country, as quickly as possible. Mr. Monteith shook his head. “I fear, William, your plan for my escape is impracticable. I am much too large and heavy a man to get safely down from such a height; the children, however, may be conveyed to you, I think, safely in that way, if we can only contrive to make them quiet; but if they should be frightened, and scream, poor things, the noise may alarm the guards, and discover our design. However, it is At least worth risking: and you may depend on finding me ready, at the hour you have named, to attempt to put the plan in execution.”

William endeavoured to persuade his master to attempt his own deliverance; but Mr. Monteith felt convinced, that instant death must be the consequence, if he did so; and the fear of adding to his poor wife’s sufferings, by making her a witness to such a dreadful catastrophe, weighed against all the arguments his faithful servant could urge; and when the gaoler summoned William from the presence of his master, he was forced to leave the prison, without having the slightest hope of being able to save him. Mr. Monteith communicated to his wife so much of what William had told him, as reconciled her to the plan of letting the children down from the window. William had brought, concealed under his coat, a strong rope, which Mr. Monteith was to let down in the morning, for him to attach a basket sufficiently large to contain a child; the difficulty, therefore, lay in getting them through the bars of the window, and in persuading them to be quiet. The whole night was occupied in making preparations; after almost despairing of success, Mr. Monteith felt the bar shake in his hand, and a few minutes before William appeared, he had the satisfaction of removing it sufficiently to permit the largest of the, boys to get through.

The moment this was accomplished, Mrs. Monteith began to prepare tne children, though the agony she endured, both from parting with them for the first time in her life, and from the danger she could not help seeing they ran, in case of any unforeseen accident happening to the rope, during their descent rendered her scarcely able to complete her task. Mr. Monteith was not much more composed himself; as he firmly believed, whatever might be his success in letting them down safely, he was now parting from them for the last time. The two youngest, Allen and Jessie, were too young to be at all aware of what was passing, Allen being little more thaii two years old, and Jessie a mere baby; but Arthur, who was nearly five years old, had, for some time, been watching his father, and now, on seeing his mother^ distress, was kissing her cheek, and comforting her with all the kindness and innocence of a child of his age. His father called him to him, and, after kissing him, told him that it was in his power to be of great service to his mother, by submitting quietly to be let down in a basket, to Jane Mathieson, his old friend, who would take care of him, till they could get out of prison, and come to Edinburgh.

“I will do anything,” answered Arthur, "that you please, papa, if mamma will promise not to cry; for indeed, and indeed, her tears make me so sorrowful, that my heart is like to break, whenever I look at her.”

His father assured him, that his mother would be greatly comforted if she saw him, and his brother and sister, safely down from the window. He then told him, that he hoped he would be a good boy till he saw his mamma again, and be very obedient to William and Jane; and, finally, after again kissing and blessing him, he knelt down and prayed for the preservation of his helpless infants.

He had scarcely finished, when the signal was given by William, that all was ready; he, therefore, lost no time in placing Arthur in the basket, which he lashed across with the rope, and then gently and steadily let the child down to his humble friend. When the basket began to move, Arthur became very much frightened; but he was a sensible little fellow, and had been for some months so constantly his mother’s companion, that he was aware, more than children generally are, of the pain and misery it would give her to hear him cry; and, as his father had lately taken every opportunity of talking to him, and impressing upon his young mind the great duty and obedience he ought always to show her, he resolved to try to conceal his fears, and succeeded so well that he actually reached the ground without uttering the slightest noise, and was received in William’s arms in perfect safety, who quickly disengaged him from the basket, and put him into Jane’s hands, when she immediately began to dress him in the clothes she had prepared for his disguise. Meantime the basket was again drawn up by Mr. Monteith, who then placed in it his sleeping boy, Allen, who was by the same method conveyed to the ground, just as Jane had finished dressing Arthur. The baby, likewise, fortunately still slept; but, either the moving her, or else the freshness of the air, awakened her, and during her descent, her cries became loud and strong, to the great alarm of William, and the agony of her wretched parents, who never doubted that the sentinel on duty would be alarmed, and prevent the final escape of both herself and her brothers. Fortunately, however, the wind carried the voice in the opposite direction from where he was posted, and Mr. Monteith at last saw her hushed in Jane’s arms. William delayed not a moment in quitting the window, after disengaging the basket, and he and the children were soon out of sight.

For hours after the children were gone, Mr. and Mrs. Monteith wept in each other’s arms. But recollecting the necessity of composing themselves, they dried up their tears; and by the time the governor paid his visit, they were both so composed as to avoid giving him the slightest suspicion of the flight of the children.

About nine o’clock the same evening, the gaoler came to inform them that Mr. Monteith must prepare for his journey, which was to commence at midnight. All their entreaties were unavailing to allow Mrs. Monteith to accompany her husband. The governor said, he was ordered to detain her and the children till the following morning, when she would be at liberty to leave the castle, and return to Monteith, where the Colonel had obtained liberty for them to remain till Mr. Monteith’s trial was over.

To describe the agony they both endured, upon this separation, is impossible. Mr. Monteith was carried off, leaving his wife senseless upon the bed, where she remained in the same state for many hours. In the morning, when the order for her liberation arrived, she was found by the gaoler in a high fever, which being told to the governor, he lost no time in getting medical assistance; but nothing that could be done had the least effect in recalling her senses, nor in gaining from her any account of the children. Their disappearance excited the utmost astonishment; and for weeks they were searched for in every possible direction, without the slightest success. At last, the fever abated, and the surgeon declared, that, unless Mrs. Monteith was removed from the close air of the prison, her life must sink under the debility and languor it had produced; the governor reluctantly gave his consent to her removal to the outskirts of the town, where she was placed under the care of a nurse hired by him/ and who was charged to endeavour, by every means, to discover what had become of the children.

Weeks, however, passed on, and Mrs. Monteith remained in nearly the same state of health as before her removal. A deep melancholy had seized her mind; and no inducement that her guardian could use, had power to draw from her a single word; and at the end of three months from the time of her separation from her husband, she breathed her last, one short week before Mr. Monteith was beheaded at Carlisle.

Poor William, who had hovered contin^ ually in her neighbourhood, in hopes of being able to ease her mind with regard to her children, found all his attempts to get access to her were in vain; and when her death was made public, perceiving that he could be of no use to his mistress, he determined to try, if possible, to see his master, and for that purpose set off directly towards Carlisle, travelling day and night. He arrived there early in the morning of the execution. The streets were crowded with people pressing forward to witness the awful scene; and William was carried bv the crowd almost to the foot of the scaffold, before he was aware of where it was leading him. Overpowered with grief and astonishment, he endeavoured to extricate himself, in order, if possible, to gain admission to the prisoners, so as at least to let his master know his children were secure from their enemy; but before he could get a yard from the spot a murmur arose, which made him look back, and the first thing he saw was Mr. Monteith led out upon the scaffold. Again he returned, and fixing his eyes on his master, slowly raised his hat, and displaced a large patch he wore over his right eye, in order to disguise his features from any of his countrymen who might happen to be in Carlisle, and recognise him. His height made him remarkable among the crowd, and, as he had hoped, caught instantly Mr. Monteith’s attention, who, the moment he perceived him, knelt down, and uttered a prayer for the protection of his innocent children, and for a blessing to descend upon that man, who had had courage and generosity sufficient to undertake the charge of them. Then rising, he continued in a loud voice, as if addressing the whole assembly—

“To him, alone, I leave them; and Heaven will surely, sooner or later, reward the man, who, in the true spirit of Christian charily, has poured balm on the last moments of their distracted father. Let him rear them as his own, and may they prove a blessing and assistance to him in his declining years.” He waved his hand, on finishing this sentence, as a signal to the executioner that he was now ready, and in a very few minutes his head was separated from his body. William remained almost stupified: but as the crowd began to separate, he recollected of what consequence it was that he should not be remarked, and that no suspicion should arise of his being the person addressed by Mr. Monteith. He therefore mingled directly with the multitude, and passing quickly along, quitted the town without taking the slightest refreshment, and never stopped till he arrived at a small inn, where he had spent a few hours the evening before. Here he only waited long enough to recruit his almost exhausted strength, and proceeded, with haste, to join his wife and the unhappy orphans, now left wholly dependent upon him for support and protection. How William and Jane executed the trust they had so humanely taken upon themselves, will be seen in the course of the following little history of the Orphans.

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