A Deputation to the by Robert Barr- 1901
A DEPUTATION TO THE KING
By ROBERT BARR
Robert Barr (September 16, 1849 – October 21, 1912)
EVENING had fallen on the grey walls of Stirling Castle, and dark night on the town itself, where narrow streets and high gables gave early welcome to the mirk, while the westward-facing turrets of the Castle still reflected the departing glory of the sky. With something suggestive of stealth in his movements, a young man was picking his way through the thickening gloom of the streets. There was still light enough to show that, judging by his costume, he was of the well-to-do farmer class. This was proclaimed by his broad, coarse bonnet and the grey check plaid which he wore, not looped to the shoulder and pinned there by a brooch, Highland fashion, but wrapped around his middle, with the two ends brought over the shoulders and tucked under the broad belt which the plaid itself made, the fringes hanging down at each knee, as a Lowland shepherd might have worn the garment. As he threaded his way through the tortuous streets, ever descending, he heard, coming up, the clatter of a troop of horse, and paused, looking to the right and left as if desirous of escaping an encounter which seemed inevitable; indeed, if such were his object, the stoppage, although momentary, was already too long, for ere he could deflect his course, the foremost of the horsemen was upon him—a well known noble of the Scottish Court.
“Out of the way, fellow!” cried the rider, and, without giving him time to obey, struck at the pedestrian fiercely with his whip. The young man’s agility, however, saved him. Nimbly he placed his back against the wall, thus avoiding the horse’s hoofs and the rider’s lash. The young man’s right hand made a swift motion to his left hip, and finding no weapon of defence there, the hand fell back to his side again and he laughed quietly to himself. The next motion of his hand was more in accordance with his station, for it removed his bonnet, and he stood uncovered until the proud cavalcade passed him.
When the street was once more clear, and the echoing sounds had died away in the direction of the Castle, the young man descended and descended until he came to the lower part of the town, where, turning aside up a narrow lane, he knocked at the door of a closed and shuttered building, evidently an abiding place of some of the poorer inhabitants of Stirling. With a certain degree of caution, the door was slightly opened, but when the occupant saw, by the flash of light that came from within, who his visitor was, he threw the portal wide and warmly welcomed the new-comer.
“Hey, guidman! ” he cried, “ye’re late the night in Stirling.”
“Yes,” said the young man, stepping inside; “but the farm will see nothing of me till the morning. I’ve a friend in town who gives me a bed for myself, and a stall for my horse, and gets the same in return when he pays a visit to the country.”
“A fair exchange,” replied the host, as he closed and barred the door.
The low room in which the stranger found himself was palpably a cobbler’s shop. Boots and shoes of various sizes and different degrees of ill-repair strewed the floor, and the bench in the corner under a lighted crusie held the implements of his trade, while the apron which enveloped the man proclaimed his occupation. The incomer seated himself on a stool, while the cobbler returned to his last and resumed his interrupted work, looking up, however, from time to time in kindly fashion at his visitor, who seemed to be a welcome guest.
“Well,” said the shoemaker, with a laugh, “what’s wrong with you?”
“Wrong with me? Nothing; what makes you think there is?”
“You are flushed in the face, your breath comes quick as if you had been running, and there’s a set about your lips that spells anger.”
“You are a very observing man, Fleming,” replied he of the plaid. “I have been walking fast, so that I should have little chance of meeting anyone. But it is as well to tell the whole truth as only part of it. I had a fright up the street. One of those young Court sprigs riding to the Castle tried to trample me under the feet of his horse, and struck at me with his whip for getting into his road, so I had just to plaster my back against somebody’s front door and keep out of the way of the troop.”
“It’s easy to see that you live in the country, Ballengeich,” replied the cobbler, “or you’d never get red in the face over a trifle like that.”
“I had some thought of pulling him off his horse, nevertheless,” said the Laird of Ballengeich, whose brow wrinkled into a frown at the thought of the indignity he had suffered.
“It was just as well you left him alone,” commented the cobbler, “for an unarmed man must ever take whatever those Court gallants think to offer, and if wise, he keeps the gap in the front of his face shut, for fear he gets a bigger gap in his head opened. Such actions on the part of the nobles do not make them exactly popular. Still, I am speaking rather freely, and doubtless you are a firm friend of the new King?”—and the shoemaker gave a sidelong glance of caution at his visitor.
“A friend of the King? I wonder to hear you! I doubt if he has a greater enemy than myself in all Scotland.”
“Do you mean that, Ballengeich?” inquired the shoemaker, with greater interest than the subject seemed to demand, laying down his hammer as he spoke and looking intently at his guest.
“I’d never say it if it wasn’t true,” replied the Laird.
It was some moments before the workman spoke, and then he surprised the Laird by his apparent change of subject.
“You are not a married man, I think you told me?”
“No, I am not. There’s time enough for that yet,” returned the other, with a smile. “You see, as I have told you, I am new in my situation of responsibility, and it’s as well not to take in the wife till you are sure you can support her.”
“What like a house have you got, and how far is it from Stirling?”
“The house is well enough in its way; there’s more room in it than I care to occupy. It’s strongly built of stone and could stand a siege if necessary, as very likely it has done in days long past, for it’s an old building. It’s near enough to Stirling for me to come in and see my friend the cobbler in the evening and to sleep in my own bed that night, if I cared to do so.”
“Is it in a lonely place?”
“It is at the top of a big hill, yet there’s room enough to give you rest and retirement if you should think of keeping retreat from the busy world of the town. What’s on your mind, Fleming? Are you swithering whether you’ll turn farmer or” not? Let me inform you that it’s a poor occupation.”
“I’ll tell you what’s on my mind, Ballengeich, if you’ll swear piously to keep it a secret.”
“Indeed, I’ll do nothing of the sort,” replied the young man decisively ” An honest man’s bare word is as good as his bond, and the strongest oath ever yet sworn never yet kept a rascal from divulging a secret intrusted to him.”
“You’re right in that—you’re right in that,” the cobbler hastened to add; “but this involves others as well as myself, and all are bound to each other by oaths.”
“Then I venture to say that you are engaged in some nefarious business. What is it? I’ll tell nobody, and mayhap, young as I am, I can give you some plain, useful advice from the green fields that will counteract the pernicious notions that rise in the stifling winds of the crowded town.”
“Well, I’m not at all sure that we don’t need it, for, to tell the truth, I have met with a wild set of lads, and I find myself wondering how long my head will be in partnership with my body.”
“Is the case so serious as that?”
“Aye, it is.”
“Then why not withdraw?”
“Ah! that’s easier said than done! When you once shut a spring-door on yourself, it isn’t by saying ‘I will’ that you get out. You’ll not have forgotten the first night that we met, when you jumped down on my back from the wall of the Grey Friars’ Church.”
“I remember it distinctly, but which was the more surprised, you or me, I have never yet been able to settle. I know I was very much taken aback.”
“Not so much as me,” interrupted the cobbler drily, “when you came plump on my shoulders.”
“I was going to say,” went on Ballengeich, “that I’m afraid my explanation about taking a short cut was rather incoherent.”
“Oh! no more than mine—that I was there to catch a thief. It was none of my business to learn why you were in the kirkyard.”
“By the way, did you ever hear any more of the thief you were after?”
“That’s just the point I am coming to. The man we were after was his youthful Majesty, James the Fifth of Scotland.”
What! the King?” exclaimed the amazed Laird.
“Just him, and no other,” replied the cobbler, “and very glad I am that the plot miscarried, although I fear it’s to come on again.”
“I never heard the like of this!”
“You may well say that. You see, it was known that the King in disguise visits a certain house—for what purpose his Majesty will be able to tell you better than I can. He goes unattended and secretly, and this gives us our chance.”
“But what in the name of the Prince of Fools, whoever he happens to be, would you do with Jimmy once you got him?”
“Well, there are many things that might be mended in this country, as you well know, and the King can mend them if he likes, with a word. Now, rather than have his throat cut, our leader thinks he will agree to reasonable reform.”
“And, supposing he doesn’t agree, are you going to cut his throat?”
“I don’t know what would happen if he proved stubborn. The moderate section is for just locking him by somewhere until he listens to reason.”
“And it is in your mind that my house should become a prison for the King?”
“It seems to me to be worth considering.”
“There seems to me very little worth considering in the matter. It is a mad scheme. Supposing the King promised under compulsion, what would be his first action the moment he returned to Stirling Castle? He would scour the country for you, and your heads would come off, one by one, like buttons from an old coat.”
“That’s what I said. ‘Trust the word of a Stuart,’ says I. ‘It’s pure nonsense.'”
“Oh! I’m not sure that the word of a Stuart is not as good as the word of any other man,” said Ballengeich, with a ring of anger in his voice at which the cobbler looked up surprised.
“You’re not such an enemy to the King as you let on at first,” commented the mender of shoes. “I doubt if I should have told you all this.”
“Have no fear. I can pledge you that my word is as good as a Stuart’s, at least.”
“I hope it’s a good deal better.”
“Your plan is not only useless, but dangerous, my friend. I told you I would give you my advice, and now you have it. Do you think James is a lad that you could tie to your bench stool here, lock your door, and expect to find him when you came back? You must remember that James has been in captivity before—when the Earl of Angus thought he had him secure in the stronghold of Falkland—and yet Jimmy, who was then but a lad of sixteen, managed to escape. Man, Fleming, I must tell you about that some day.”
“Tell me about what?” inquired the shoemaker.
“Oh! well, it may not be true, after all,” said young Ballengeich, in confusion, “but a friend of mine was gardener at Falkland and knew the whole story about James’s escape. But never mind that; my advice to you is to shake hands with all such schemes and turn your back on them.”
“Oh! that’s soon said!” cried the cobbler with some impatience. “‘Keep out of the fire and ye’ll not be burnt,’ says the branch on the tree to the faggot on the woodman’s back. You see, Ballengeich, in this matter I’m between the cart-wheel and the hard road. My head’s off if this plot miscarries, as you’ve just told me, and my throat’s cut if I withdraw from the secret conclave. It’s but a choice between two bashings. There’s a dead cobbler in any event.”
“I see your difficulty,” said the Laird; “do you want to be helped out of it.”
“Does the toad want to get from under the harrow?”
“When is your next meeting, and where?”
“The meetings are held in this room, and the next will be on Wednesday night at eleven o’clock.”
“Bless my soul!” cried Ballengeich. “Would nothing content you but to drink the whole bucketful? The rendezvous in your shop! Then, whoever escapes, your head’s on a pike.”
“Aye,” murmured the shoemaker dismally.
“It isn’t taking very many of you to overturn the House of Stuart,” said the Laird, looking around the room, which was small.
“There’s just one less than a dozen,” replied the cobbler.
“Then we’ll make up the number to the even twelve, hoping good luck will attend us, as we are just as many as the Apostles. Between now and Wednesday night you might confer with your leaders, Fleming. Tell them you have a young man you can trust who owns just the kind of a house that James can be kept fast in, if he is captured. Say that I will take the oath, or anything else they like to give, and add, which is more to the purpose, that I have a plot of my own, which differs from theirs in giving at least as much chance of success and has the additional quality of being safe. Whether my plan miscarries or not, there will be no need to fear a reprisal, and that has much to say in its favour.”
“It is everything in its favour,” said the shoemaker, with a sigh of relief.
“Very well, then, I will meet you here on Wednesday night at this time, and learn whether or not they agree to have me as one of their number. If they refuse, there’s no harm done; I shall say nothing, and the King will know no more about the matter than he does now.”
“No man could ask better assurance than that,” said the host cordially, as his guest rose.
They shook hands, and the guidman of Ballengeich, after peering out into the darkness to see that the way was clear, took his leave.
The Laird was prompt to keep his appointment on the following Wednesday, and learned that the conspirators were glad of his assistance. The cobbler’s tool-box had been pushed out of the way, and a makeshift table, composed of three boards and two trestles, occupied the centre of the room. A bench made up in similar fashion ran along the back wall, and there were besides half a dozen stools. There was a hospitable pitcher of strong drink on the rude table, and a few small measures, cups and horns.
As if the weight of conspiracy had lain heavily on his shoulders, the young Laird of Ballengeich seemed older than he had ever looked before. Lines of care marked his brow, and his distraught manner proclaimed the plotmonger new to a dangerous business. The lights, however, were dim, and Ballengeich doubted if any there present would recognise him should they meet him in broad day, and this, in a measure, was comforting. The cobbler sat very quiet on his accustomed bench, the others occupying the stools and the board along the wall.
“We have been told,” began the leader, who sat on a chair at the head of the table, where he administered the oath with much solemnity to their new member—”we have been told that you have a house which you will place at our disposal, should the purpose for which we are gathered here together succeed.”
“I have such a house,” said the Laird, “and it is, of course, placed freely at your service. But the plan you propose is so full of danger that I wonder if you have given the project the deep consideration it deserves. It will be a hazardous undertaking to get the King safely into my house; but let us suppose that done—how are you going to keep him there?”
“We will set a guard over him.”
“Very good. Which of you are the guardsmen, and how many?”
The conspirators looked at each other, but no one replied. At last the leader said—
“It will be time to consider that when we have him safely under bolt.”
“Pardon me—not so. The time to consider all things is now. Everything must be cut and dried, or failure is certain. The moment the King is missing, the country will be scoured for him. There will be no possible place of refuge for miles around that will not be searched for the missing monarch. We will suppose that four of you are guarding the King, two and two, turn about. What are four and myself to say to the King’s soldiers when they demand entrance to my house?”
“The King is but a boy, and when he sees death or compliance before him, he will accede to our demands.”
“He is but a boy, it is true,” said the Laird; “but he is a boy, as I pointed out to my friend Fleming, who escaped from the clutches of the Earl of Angus out of the stronghold of Falkland Palace, and who afterwards drove the Earl and many of the Douglas leaders into exile. That is the kind of boy you have to deal with. Suppose, then, he gives consent to all you place before him? Do you think he will keep his word?”
“I doubt it,” said the cobbler, speaking for the first time. “The word of a Stuart is not worth the snap of my fingers.”
“On the other hand, if he does not accede,” continued Ballengeich, “what are we to do with him?”
“Cut his throat,” replied the leader decisively.
“No, no!” cried several others, and for a moment there was a clamour of discussion, all speaking at once, while the Laird stood silently regarding the vociferous disputants. Finally their leader said—
“What better plan have you to propose?”
“The King is a boy,” spoke up Ballengeich, “as you have said.” At the sound of his voice instant silence reigned. “But he is a boy, as I have told yon, extremely difficult to handle with violence. I propose, then, to approach him peaceably. The fact that he is a boy, or a very young man at least, argues that his mind will be more impressionable than that of an older person whose ideas are set. I propose, then, that a deputation wait upon his Majesty and place before him the evils that require remedying, being prepared to answer any question he may ask regarding the method of their amendment. If peaceable means fail, then try violence, say I; but it is hardly fair to the young man to approach him at the beginning of his reign with a dirk in the hand. His answer would likely be a reference to his headsman—that is a favourite Stuart mode of argument. I have some friends about the Castle,” continued the Laird; “I supply them with various necessities from the farm, and, if I do say it myself, I am well thought of by some in authority. I can guarantee you, I am sure, a safe conduct for your mission.”
“But if safe conduct is refused?” said the leader.
“In that case no harm’s done. I shall divulge the names of none here present, for, indeed, I know the name of none, except of my friend the cobbler.”
“Will you head the delegation and be its spokesman?”
“No. My power to serve you lies in the fact, as I said, that I am well thought of in the Palace. That power would be instantly destroyed were I known as disaffected. I would put it on this basis. My friend Fleming is the spokesman of ten others who have grievances to place before his Majesty; therefore, as a matter of friendship between Fleming and myself, I ask safe conduct for the eleven.”
“Indeed,” cried the cobbler, “I wish you ‘ would leave my name out of the affair, since no one else seems eager to put their own forward.”
“I put mine forward in making the request,” said Ballengeich.
“Aye, but not as one of the deputation.”
“Very well,” agreed the Laird in an off-hand manner; “if you make a point of it, I have no objection in saying that I shall make one of the concert. I only proposed to keep out of it because it is always well to have an unbiassed person to put in his word at a critical moment, and it seems to me important to have such a person on the outside; but it shall be exactly as you please—I care little one way or the other. I have made my proposal, and with you rests the acceptance or rejection of it. If you think it safer to kidnap a king than to have a friendly chat with him, amicably arranged beforehand, then all I can say is, that I don’t in the least agree with you. Please yourselves. We have but one neck apiece, and surely we can risk it in the manner that brings us most content.”
“There is wisdom in what the Laird says,” cried one of the moderate party. “I never liked the kidnapping idea.”
“Nor I,” said the cobbler. “It was but a wild Hie’lan’ plan.”
“My scheme has this advantage,” continued Ballengeich with nonchalant impartiality—”that, if it does not succeed, you can then fall back upon abduction. Nothing in my proposal interferes with the ultimate carrying out of your first project.”
“It is putting our heads in the lion’s mouth,” objected the leader, but in the discussion that followed he was voted down; and then came the choosing of the delegates, on which rock the proposal was nearly wrecked, for there seemed no anxiety on the part of any four present to form the committee of expostulation which was to meet the monarch. At last it was decided that all should go, if Ballengeich could produce them a written safe conduct signed by the King, which would include eleven persons.
Within three days this document was placed in the hands of the cobbler by Ballengeich, who told him that it had been signed that morning. And he added that the King had expressed himself as well pleased to receive a deputation of his loyal subjects.
The cobbler handled the passport gingerly, as if he were not altogether assured of its potency to protect him.
“The conference is for Wednesday at midday,” said Ballengeich. “Assemble some minutes before that hour in the courtyard of the Castle, and you will be conducted to the Presence.”
“Wednesday!” echoed the cobbler, his face turning pale. “Why Wednesday, the day of our weekly meetings? Did you suggest it?”
“It was the King’s suggestion, of course,” replied Ballengeich. “It is merely a coincidence, and is, I think, a good omen.”
“I wish I were as sure of it,” moaned the cobbler.
Before the bell rang twelve, the conspirators gathered together in the courtyard of the Castle of Stirling—huddled would, perhaps, be the more accurate word, for they were eleven very frightened men. More than one cast longing looks towards the gate by which they had come in; but some places are easier to enter than to leave, and the portal was well guarded by stalwart soldiers.
As the bell slowly tolled twelve, an official came from the Palace into the courtyard, searched the delegates for concealed weapons, and curtly commanded them to follow him. Climbing the stone stairway, they were ushered into a large room containing a long oaken table, with five chairs on one side and six on the other. At the head of the table was a high-backed chair, resembling a throne. The official left them standing there alone, and after he had closed the door by which they had entered, they heard the ominous sounds of bolts being thrust into their places. The silence which followed seemed oppressive, almost suffocating. No man spoke, but each stood like a statue, holding his cap in his hand. At last the tension was broken, but it would scarcely be correct to say it was relieved. The heavy curtains parted and the King entered the room, clad in the imposing robes of his high estate. A frown was on his brow, and he advanced straight from the doorway to the throne at the head of the table without speaking or casting a glance at any one of the eleven. When he had seated himself, he said gruffly—
“There is a chair for each of you; sit down.”
It is doubtful if any of the company, except the cobbler, at first recognised the Laird of Ballengeich; but when he spoke, several started and looked anxiously one at another. Again the King spoke.
“A week ago to-night I met you in Fleming’s room. I appointed this day for the conference that the routine of your meetings might not be disturbed, as I thought it well that the last of your rebellious gatherings should be held in the Castle of Stirling, for I have resolved that this conclave shall be your final effort in treason. One of your number has stated that the word of a Stuart is not to be trusted. This reputation appears to have descended to me, and it is a pity I should not take advantage of it.”
When the King ceased speaking he lifted a small mallet and smote a resounding bell which was on the table before him. A curtain parted and two men entered, bearing between them a block covered with a black cloth; this they silently placed in the centre of the floor and withdrew. Again the King smote the bell, and there entered a masked executioner, with a gleaming axe over his shoulder. He took his place beside the block, resting the head of his axe on the floor.
“This,” continued the King, “is the entertainment I have provided for you. Each of you shall taste of that”—and he pointed to the heading block.
The cobbler rose unsteadily to his feet, drawing from his bosom with trembling fingers the parchment bearing the King’s signature. He moistened his dry lips with his tongue, then spoke in a low voice. “Sire,” he said, “we are here under safe conduct from the King.”
“Safe conduct to where?” cried James angrily. “That is the point. I stand by the document; read it—read it!”
“Sire, it says safe conduct for eleven men here present, under protection of your Royal word.”
“You do not keep to the point, cobbler,” shouted the King, bringing his fist down upon the table. “Safe conduct to where? I asked. The parchment does not say safe conduct back into Stirling again. Safe conduct to heaven, or elsewhere, is what I guaranteed.”
“That is but an advocate’s quibble, your Majesty. ‘Safe conduct’ is a phrase well understood by high and low alike. But we have placed our heads in the lion’s mouth, as our leader said last Wednesday night, and we cannot complain if now his jaws are shut. Nevertheless, I would respectfully submit to your Majesty that I alone, of those present, doubted a Stuart’s word, and am like to have my doubts practically confirmed. I would also point out to your Majesty that my comrades would not have been here if, because of my fault, I had not trusted the Master of Ballengeich, and, through him, the King; therefore I ask you to let me alone pay the penalty of my error, and allow my friends to go scatheless from the grim walls of Stirling.”
“There is reason in what you say,” replied the King. “Are you all agreed to that?” he asked of the others.
“No, by Heaven!” cried the leader, springing to his feet and smiting the table with his fist as lustily as the King had done. “We stand together or fall together. The mistake was ours as well as his, and we entered these gates with our eyes open.”
“Headsman,” said the King, “do your duty!”
The headsman whipped off the black cloth and displayed underneath it a box containing a large jug, surrounded by eleven drinking horns.
Those present, all now on their feet, glanced with amazement from the masked man to the King. The sternness had vanished from his Majesty’s face, as if a dark cloud had passed from the sun and allowed it to shine again. There sparkled in the King’s eye all the jubilant mischief of the incorrigible boy, and his laughter rang to the ceiling. Somewhat recovering his gravity, he stretched out his hand and pointed a finger at the cobbler.
“I frightened you, Fleming!” he cried. “I frightened you! Don’t deny it. I’ll wager my gold crown against a weaver’s woollen bonnet I frightened the whole eleven of you.”
“Indeed,” said the cobbler, with an uneasy laugh, “I shall be the first to admit it.”
“Your face was as white as a harvest moon in mid-sky, and I heard somebody’s teeth chatter. Now, the drink we had at our meetings heretofore was vile, and no more fitted for a Christian’s throat than is the headsman’s axe; but if you ever tasted anything better than this, tell me where to get a hogshead of it.”
The headsman having filled their horns, the leader raised the flagon above his head and said—
“I give you the toast of the King!”
“No, no,” said the boyish monarch. “I want to drink this myself. I’ll give you a toast. ‘May there never come a time when a Scotchman is afraid to risk his head for what he thinks is right!'”
And this toast they drank together.
SOURCE: Extracted from Windsor magazine, v. 15 1916-17