IT was Christmas Eve. All that day the east wind had been bringing up soft, woolly acres of cloud from the German Ocean. On the eastern coast of Scotland, paths, roads, and dykes were blotted out by the deep snow. The sun had just shot out one parting gleam as he went down behind the Grampians; and that gleam served only to show the heaviness of the clouds, and the probability of deeper snow, and a harder frost.
It was about nine o'clock when, on the high table land of eastern Aberdeenshire,--and a bleak, wild place it is in the gladdest day of summer,--some twenty or thirty people were assembled round a building, if building it might be called, the use of which it would have puzzled you to guess. It was a hut, built of peat, but there were holes all round it at about the height of a man's head. It was large enough to contain five people and a table. A miserable deal table it was, but it was the best then to be procured, and on it presently was about to be offered up that great Sacrifice, which comes up with greater acceptance to the throne of GOD from a Church--as the Church of Scotland then was--in the extremity of distress and persecution, than from the most gorgeous altar of a more luxurious and less earnest age.
For you must know that after the battle of Culloden, the English Government had determined--as the phrase went--to put the Church of Scotland down. Such laws were passed against its Priests, as would have been a disgrace to any savage nation. If any clergyman officiated before more than five persons, he was liable, on the first offence, to imprisonment, and on the second, to banishment for life, with sentence of death if he should return. Every possible advantage was given to informers; and any person attending such a meeting without acquainting the magistrates, might be imprisoned for two years. Notwithstanding these, and many other enactments of the same kind, the Church of Scotland did continue to evade, by many ingenious devices, the threatened penalty. It was forbidden, as you have heard, to assemble in a house for the worship of GOD; it was equally forbidden to meet in the open air. They, therefore invented the device of building huts in the most dreary spots of the wildest commons, in which the Priest officiated, with five attendants, the number allowed him by law. But open spaces were left in the walls of the hut, through which his voice might reach as many as chose to assemble without. Still, even this was not done without great danger: for the dragoons took the law into their own hands, and were encouraged in their brutality by the whole body of the Scotch establishment: those dragoons who, under the Duke of Cumberland, well and truly called the butcher, had burnt down so many "Episcopal meeting-houses," and had amused themselves, when regard for the neighbouring buildings hindered their doing this, by making bonfires of the Bibles and Prayer Books which they found in them!
And remember that this was no such very long time ago. I have myself talked with an old man whose father, when some five-and-twenty years of age, was seized by the dragoons while kneeling in the snow outside one of the huts I have described to you, and so hurried off to jail. Hard work it was then for the few poor scattered Priests of the Scotch Church; and there are instances recorded in which the same man, riding from moor to moor and from one hiding-place to another, performed the service twenty-three times in the same day.
On this Christmas Eve, some few of the hardiest fishermen of that coast of Buchan, were met, as I said, round the hut of which I have told you. There were one or two women among them, and scouts were posted along the road, or rather track, which led from Aberdeen to Peterhead. A track it was, indeed, and fully justified the verses which, for their absurd bull, have been so often quoted,--
"Had you but seen these roads before they were made,
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade."
For, lonely as was the place, and dark and snowy as the night was, there was not only a body of dragoons quartered at Peterhead, but a fatigue party was also stationed at Slain's Castle, the lord of which,--the Earl of Errol--had been active for the Chevalier; and from either of these two places a vigilant officer might pounce down on the few poor worshippers of GOD thus met to commemorate the night of His Birth into the world. The Priest for whom they were waiting, Mr. Grant,--or, as he was usually called, from the great intercourse of France with Scotland, the Abbé Grant,--had been communicating a dying man far up the valley of the Ythan. At dusk, he had ridden eastward, and was now dismounting from his horse at the cottage where he was to rest. It stood almost at the edge of the Buller of Buchan--that wonderful caldron-like rock, round the edge of which you may walk, the sea raging and dashing against its outer wall, and boiling up and moaning, as I never heard it moan but there, within the interior cavity. He was one of the most lion-hearted among the brave little band of Scotch Priests. He had been present at the field of Culloden, and when the battle was over, had,--certainly with more faith than knowledge (but no doubt the God Whom he served, though then ignorantly, took the will for the deed,) communicated the nobleman whose chaplain he was, as he lay dying of his wounds on the evening of that famous day, with the only material he could procure on the field of battle, namely, oatcake and whisky. [It may be as well to add that this is the national food and drink, and therefore ready at hand.]
Much about the same time that the Abbé Grant was leaving the Buller of Buchan for the place of meeting, a body of twenty-five soldiers were drawn up outside the temporary barracks at Peterhead; and the sergeant who was to lead them was receiving his final instructions from Captain Forbes, the Commandant at that place.
"You have but to keep straight forward to the Buller," said that officer, "and you are sure of him. I have certain intelligence that he is coming north. But let him go which way he will: if he takes the Aberdeen road, Mac Alpine will have him; and if he strikes up into the valley, Drummond will pounce upon him. They will scarcely break up till nearly midnight: so that there is no hurry."
And in a few moments the tramp of the soldiers died away, as they marched down the long narrow street of the town, and by the ruins of the chapel which Lord Ancrum had forced its congregation to pull down only a few months before.
Captain Forbes had laid his plans well. Three roads met near the place where the little congregation was assembled. One of these skirted the high, rocky cliffs, sometimes almost approaching to the edge of the sea, but generally keeping at a distance from it of from a quarter to half a mile. This went to Peterhead, on the north. The second road ran up the valley, towards the west, and gradually branched off into various little tracks, leading to the upland farms of that district. The third went southward, to Aberdeen, leaving Cruden church and village somewhat to the left. Besides these, there was no other track passable for a horse; the whole country is seamed and cut about with gullies and water-courses, and here and there old granite quarries rendered it no easy thing at the best of times for even a man on foot to cross the moor at night. In the pitch darkness of that night, and with the snow deep on the ground, it would have been simple madness to have tried any but the high road.
The service was over. The great Sacrifice had been offered up; the birthday of the Prince of Peace had been celebrated; the Communicants, kneeling in the snow, had received the Body and Blood which, as on that day, had been assumed for them at Bethlehem: and quietly and reverently, in groups of two or three, the worshippers were departing. It still snowed; little fear that any trace of their meeting would exist by sunrise.
It so happened that one of the men then present, by name James Donaldson, lived about four miles up the Peterhead road. He had started first; and when the Abbé Grant had mounted his horse, had said, "Good night, and GOD bless you," to his little flock, and had with some difficulty--the snow so completely blotting out all distinctions of ground--been put in the right way, he was glad to see Donaldson's horn lantern some distance ahead. At first he thought of riding up to the good man: but "No," said he to himself, "to be sure it's not likely that the soldiers will be out to-night, but if they were, the lantern would betray me at once, and it guides me as well here."
About four miles north of the Buller, there is a rising ground where the road turns away from the sea. On a fine summer day, you here catch the first sight of Peterhead, stretching boldly out into the waves, and to the left are quarries of that magnificent red granite for which this part of Aberdeenshire is so famous. Donaldson had just mounted the brow, when he heard, but a few yards before him, the steps of the advancing party of soldiers. Before he could extinguish his lantern, or make any attempt to conceal himself, he was in the hands of two of the privates.
"Now, my man," said the sergeant, "you are coming from that meeting out by the Buller. How many were there at it?"
The Scotch peasant, not knowing how far, if he answered at all, he might not have the truth wormed out of him, shook his head, made an inarticulate noise, and pointed to his cars.
"It's no use shamming deaf," said the sergeant. "An answer to my question, or you will spend the rest of the night in Peterhead jail. Do you hear?"
Donaldson, however, persisted in his deafness, and was accordingly handcuffed and sent behind. For himself he cared comparatively little, but he gave up the Abbé Grant for lost, knowing that he was on the same road, and could be no great way off. The lantern was extinguished, and the march continued.--
"It's very odd," said the Abbé, just at the time that Donaldson was taken, "that I should have been so deceived as to the road. I could have sworn that it lay more to the left, and that the lantern yonder was going down to the sea. I must keep to the right."
So saying, he unconsciously left the road, and struck out to that part of the moor which lay between him and the cliffs. Had there not been an Eye watching over him to Whom the darkness is no darkness at all, but the night is as clear as the day, his horse never could have threaded the labyrinth of ditches, gullies, ravines, and pitfalls through which he was passing. Still the lantern went on, and burnt, the worthy priest thought, more clearly than it had done previously.
"It's very odd," said he, "but I cannot help thinking that I am out of the road. I am sure the sea is louder than it was just now, and I ought to be getting further from it."
He urged his horse forward, in the hopes of overtaking his friend. The lantern at the same moment moved faster itself, and presently made a bold sweep to the left.
"He is wrong, then," said the Abbé. "A pretty thing it would have been had he led me over the cliffs." And presently, still following the light, he came out once more on what he-knew to be the Peterhead road.
"But what's all this?" he said to himself. "A party of men must have been along here!" For the footsteps of the soldiers could be made out even through the darkness, and the night was now a little less thick. Greatly astonished, he rode forward; and to his further surprise, the lantern, which had been but a minute before so bright, was now nowhere to be seen. Pressing forward, he reached his own obscure little room in the lowest and darkest part of Roanheads, about one in the morning: and there, to his infinite surprise, found that Bishop Kilgour, who then resided in that town, was waiting for him.
"How did you escape them, Abbé?" was the Bishop's first salutation. "We gave you up for lost, and Donaldson too."
"Nay, I never met the party," replied the Priest, "though I fell in with their traces; and where Donaldson is I cannot imagine, for I was following him only half an hour ago."
An obscure story they made of it that night; nor was it till Donaldson--against whom no evidence was forthcoming--was liberated by the magistrates, that he and the Abbé, putting, as they say, that and that together, made out the manner in which his deliverance had been accomplished. At the very moment when Donaldson's lantern had been extinguished, a Will-o'-the-Wisp had risen to the right of the road, and gone down towards the sea. One or two of the soldiers wanted to follow it, taking it for a real person; but the sergeant, who knew the ground, and had seen such an appearance before, laughed at them for their folly. It was this light, then, and no earthly lantern, which the Abbé Grant was following; and it led him, as we have seen, on to the moor, while the soldiers were passing, and as soon as ever they had passed, brought him back again to the Peter-head road, and then disappeared.
You may call that light a Will-o'-the-Wisp if you like: and so, very likely, it was. But I know who held and guided it: for I know that it is written, "He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways: they shall bear thee in their hands, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone."