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The Story of Grizel Cochrane, A Romance of Real Life by W. R. C.

 

Sir John Cochrane of Ochiltree, the father of our heroine, was the second son of the first Earl of Dundonald. He was a distinguished friend of Sidney, Russell, and other illustrious men, who signalised themselves in England by their opposition to the court; and he had so long endeavoured in vain to procure some improvement in the national affairs, that he at length began to despair of his country altogether, and formed the design of emigrating to America. Having gone to London in 1683, with a view to a colonising expedition to South Carolina, he became involved in the deliberations of the Whig party, which at that time tended towards a general insurrection in England and Scotland, for the purpose of forcing an alteration of the royal councils and the exclusion of the Duke of York from the throne. In furtherance of this plan, Sir John pledged himself to assist the Earl of Argyle in raising the malcontents in Scotland.

By the treachery of some of the subordinate agents this design was detected prematurely; and while some were unfortunately taken and executed, among whom were Sidney and Lord Russell, the rest fled from the kingdom. Of the latter number were the Earl of Argyle, Sir John Cochrane, and Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth. The fugitives found safety in Holland, where they remained in peace till the death of Charles II. in February 1685, when the Duke of York, the object politically of their greatest detestation, became king. It was then determined to invade Scotland with a small force, to embody the Highland adherents of Argyle with the west country Presbyterians, and, marching into England, to raise the people as they moved along, and not rest till they had produced the desired melioration of the state. The expedition sailed in May; but the Government was enabled to take such precautions as, from the very first, proved a complete frustration to their designs. Argyle lingered timidly in his own country, and, finally, against the advice of Cochrane and Hume, who were his chief officers, made some unfortunate movements, which ended in the entire dissolution of his army, and his own capture and death. While this well-meaning but weak nobleman committed himself to a low disguise, in the vain hope of effecting his escape, Sir John Cochrane, after a gallant fight against overwhelming numbers, finding his enemies were gathering large reinforcements, retired with his troops to a neighbouring wilderness or morass, where he dismissed them, with the request that each man would provide the best way he could for his own safety. For himself, having received two severe wounds in the body during the engagement, and being worn out with fatigue, he sought refuge in the house of his uncle, Mr. Gavin Cochrane of Craigmuir, who lived at no great distance from the place of encounter. Here he was seized and removed to Edinburgh, where, after being paraded through the streets bound and bare-headed, and conducted by the common hangman, he was lodged in the tollbooth on July 3rd, 1685, there to await his trial as a traitor. The day of trial came, and he was condemned to death, in spite of the most strenuous exertions of his aged father, Earl of Dundonald.

No friend or relative had been permitted to see him from the time of his apprehension; but it was now signified to him that any of his family he desired to communicate with might be allowed to visit him. Anxious, however, to deprive his enemies of an opportunity of an accusation against his sons, he immediately conveyed to them his earnest entreaties, and indeed commands, that they should refrain from availing themselves of this leave till the night before his execution. This was a sacrifice which it required his utmost fortitude to make; and it had left him to a sense of the most desolate loneliness, insomuch that, when, late in the evening, he heard his prison door unlocked, he lifted not his eyes toward it, imagining that the person who entered could only be the gaoler, who was particularly repulsive in his countenance and manner. What, then, was his surprise and momentary delight when he beheld before him his only daughter, and felt her arms entwining his neck! After the first transport of greeting she became sensible that, in order to palliate his misery, she must put a strong curb upon her own, and in a short time was calm enough to enter into conversation with her father upon the subject of his present situation, and to deliver a message from the old earl, her grandfather, by which he was informed that an appeal had been made from him to the king, and means taken to propitiate Father Peters, his Majesty's confessor, who, it was well known, often dictated to him in matters of state. It appeared evident, however, by the turn which their discourse presently took, that neither father nor daughter were at all sanguine in their hopes from this negotiation. The Earl of Argyle had been executed but a few days before, as had also several of his principal adherents, though men of less consequence than Sir John Cochrane; and it was therefore improbable that he, who had been so conspicuously active in the insurrection, should be allowed to escape the punishment which his enemies had it now in their power to inflict. Besides all this, the treaty to be entered into with Father Peters would require some time to adjust, and meanwhile the arrival of the warrant for execution must every day be looked for.

Under these circumstances, several days passed, each of which found Miss Grizel Cochrane an inmate of her father's prison for as many hours as she was permitted. Grizel Cochrane was only at that period eighteen years old; she had, however, a natural strength of character, that rendered her capable of a deed which has caused her history to vie with that of the most distinguished of heroines.

Ever since her father's condemnation, her daily and nightly thoughts had dwelt on the fear of her grandfather's communication with the king's confessor being rendered unavailable for want of the time necessary for enabling the friends in London to whom it was trusted, to make their application, and she boldly determined to execute a plan, whereby the arrival of the death-warrant would be retarded.

At that time horses were used as a mode of conveyance so much more than carriages that almost every gentlewoman had her own steed, and Miss Cochrane, being a skilful rider, was possessed of a well-managed palfrey, on whose speed and other good qualities she had been accustomed to depend. One morning after she had bidden her father farewell, long ere the inhabitants of Edinburgh were astir, she found herself many miles on the road to the borders. She had taken care to attire herself in a manner which corresponded with the design of passing herself off for a young serving-woman journeying on a borrowed horse to the house of her mother in a distant part of the country; and by only resting at solitary cottages, where she generally found the family out at work, save perhaps an old woman or some children, she had the good fortune, on the second day after leaving Edinburgh, to reach in safety the abode of her old nurse, who lived on the English side of the Tweed, four miles beyond the town of Berwick. In this woman she knew she could place implicit confidence, and to her, therefore, revealed her secret. She had resolved, she said, to make an attempt to save her father's life, by stopping the postman, an equestrian like herself, and forcing him to deliver up his bags, in which she expected to find the fatal warrant. In pursuance of this design she had brought with her a brace of small pistols, together with a horseman's cloak, tied up in a bundle, and hung on the crutch of her saddle, and now borrowed from her nurse the attire of her foster-brother, which, as he was a slight-made lad, fitted her reasonably well.

She had, by means which it is unnecessary here to detail, possessed herself of the most minute information with regard to the places at which the postmen rested on their journey, one of which was a small public-house, kept by a widow woman, on the outskirts of the little town of Belford. There the man who received the bag at Durham was accustomed to arrive about six o'clock in the morning, and take a few hours' repose before proceeding farther on his journey. In pursuance of the plan laid down by Miss Cochrane, she arrived at this inn about an hour after the man had composed himself to sleep, in the hope of being able, by the exercise of her wit and dexterity, to ease him of his charge.

Having put her horse into the stable, which was a duty that devolved on the guests at this little change-house, from its mistress having no ostler, she entered the only apartment which the house afforded, and demanded some refreshment. “Sit down at the end of that table,” said the old woman, “for the best I have to give you is there already; and be pleased, my bonny man, to make as little noise as ye can, for there's ane asleep in that bed that I like ill to disturb.” Miss Cochrane promised fairly; and after attempting to eat some of the viands, which were the remains of the sleeping man's meal, she asked for some cold water. “What,” said the old dame, as she handed it to her, “ye are a water-drinker, are ye? It's but an ill custom for a change-house.” “I am aware of that,” replied her guest, “and, therefore, when in a public house, always pay for it the price of the stronger potation, which I cannot take.” “Indeed—well, that is but just,” responded the dame, “and I think the more of you for such reasonable conduct.” “Is the well where you get this water near at hand?” said the young lady; “for if you will take the trouble to bring me some from it, as this is rather warm, it shall be considered in the lawing.” “It is a good bit off,” said the woman; “but I cannot refuse to fetch some for such a civil, discreet lad, and will be as quick as I can. But, for any sake, take care and don't meddle with these pistols,” she continued, pointing to a pair of pistols on the table, “for they are loaded, and I am always terrified for them.” Saying this, she disappeared; and Miss Cochrane, who would have contrived some other errand for her had the well been near, no sooner saw the door shut than she passed, with trembling eagerness, and a cautious but rapid step, across the floor to the place where the man lay soundly sleeping in one of those close wooden bedsteads common in the houses of the poor, the door of which was left half open to admit the air, and which she opened still wider, in the hope of seeing the mail-bag and being able to seize upon it. But what was her dismay when she beheld only a part of the integument which contained what she would have sacrificed her life a thousand times to obtain just peeping out from below the shaggy head and brawny shoulders of its keeper, who lay in such a position upon it as to give not the smallest hope of its extraction without his being aroused from his nap. A few moments of observation served to convince her that, if she obtained possession of this treasure, it must be in some other way, and again closing the door of the bed, she approached the pistols, and having taken them one by one from the holsters she as quickly as possible drew out their loading, which, having secreted, she returned them to their cases, and resumed her seat at the foot of the table. Here she had barely time to recover from the agitation into which the fear of the man's awaking during her recent occupation had thrown her, when the old woman returned with the water, and having taken a draught, of which she stood much in need, she settled her account, much to her landlady's content, by paying for the water the price of a pot of beer. Having then carelessly asked and ascertained how much longer the other guest was likely to continue his sleep, she left the house, and mounting her horse, set off at a trot, in a different direction from that in which she had arrived. Fetching a compass of two or three miles, she once more fell into the high road between Belford and Berwick, where she walked her horse gently on, awaiting the coming up of the postman. On his coming close up, she civilly saluted him, put her horse into the same pace with his, and rode on for some way in his company. He was a strong, thick-set fellow, with a good-humoured countenance, which did not seem to Miss Cochrane, as she looked anxiously upon it, to savour much of hardy daring. He rode with the mail-bags strapped firmly to his saddle in front, close to the holsters (for there were two), one containing the letters direct from London, and the other those taken up at the different post-offices on the road. After riding a short distance together, Miss Cochrane deemed it time, as they were nearly half-way between Belford and Berwick, to commence her operations. She therefore rode nearly close to her companion, and said, in a tone of determination, “Friend, I have taken a fancy for those mail-bags of yours, and I must have them; therefore take my advice, and deliver them up quietly, for I am provided for all hazards. I am mounted, as you see, on a fleet steed; I carry firearms; and, moreover, am allied with those who are stronger, though not bolder than myself. You see yonder wood,” she continued, pointing to one at the distance of about a mile, with an accent and air which was meant to carry intimidation with it. “Again, I say, take my advice; give me the bags, and speed back the road you came for the present, nor dare to approach that wood for at least two or three hours to come.”

There was in such language from a stripling something so surprising that the man looked on Miss Cochrane for an instant in silent and unfeigned amazement. “If,” said he, as soon as he found his tongue, “you mean, my young master, to make yourself merry at my expense, you are welcome. I am no sour churl to take offence at the idle words of a foolish boy. But if,” he said, taking one of his pistols from the holster, and turning its muzzle toward her, “ye are mad enough to harbour one serious thought of such a matter, I am ready for you. But, methinks, my lad, you seem at an age when robbing a garden or an old woman's fruit-stall would befit you better, if you must turn thief, than taking his Majesty's mails from a stout man such as I am upon his highway. Be thankful, however, that you have met with one who will not shed blood if he can help it, and sheer off before you provoke me to fire.”

“Nay,” said his young antagonist, “I am not fonder of bloodshed than you are; but if you will not be persuaded, what can I do? for I have told you a truth, that mail I must and will have. So now choose,” she continued, as she drew one of the small pistols from under her cloak, and deliberately cocking it, presented it in his face.

“Nay, then, your blood be on your own head,” said the fellow, as he raised his hand, and fired his pistol, which, however, only flashed in the pan. Dashing this weapon to the ground, he lost not a moment in pulling out the other, which he also aimed at his assailant, and fired with the same result. In a transport of rage and disappointment the man sprang from his horse and made an attempt to seize her; but, by an adroit use of her spurs, she eluded his grasp and placed herself out of his reach. Meanwhile, his horse had moved forward some yards, and to see and seize the advantage presented by this circumstance was one and the same to the heroic girl, who, darting toward it, caught the bridle, and having led her prize off about a hundred yards, stopped while she called to the thunderstruck postman to remind him of her advice about the wood. She then put both horses to their speed, and on turning to look at the man she had robbed, had the pleasure of perceiving that her mysterious threat had taken effect, and he was now pursuing his way back to Belford.

Miss Cochrane speedily entered the wood to which she had alluded, and tying the strange horse to a tree, out of all observation from the road, proceeded to unfasten the straps of the mail. By means of a sharp penknife, which set at defiance the appended locks, she was soon mistress of the contents, and with an eager hand broke open the Government despatches, which were unerringly pointed out to her by their address to the council in Edinburgh and their imposing weight and broad seals of office. Here she found not only the fatal warrant for her father's death, but also many other sentences inflicting different degrees of punishment on various delinquents. These, however, it may readily be supposed, she did not then stop to examine; she contented herself with tearing them into small fragments and placing them carefully in her bosom.

The intrepid girl now mounted her steed and rode off, leaving all the private papers where she had found them, imagining (what eventually proved the case) that they would be discovered ere long from the hints she had thrown out about the wood, and thus reach their proper places of destination. She now made all haste to reach the cottage of her nurse, where, having not only committed to the flames the fragments of the dreaded warrant, but also the other obnoxious papers, she quickly resumed her female garments, and was again, after this manly and daring action, the simple and unassuming Miss Grizel Cochrane. Leaving the cloak and pistols behind her, to be concealed by her nurse, she again mounted her horse and directed her flight towards Edinburgh, and, by avoiding as much as possible the high road, and resting at sequestered cottages, as she had done before, and that only twice for a couple of hours each time, she reached town early in the morning of the next day.

It must now suffice to say that the time gained by the heroic act related above was productive of the end for which it was undertaken, and that Sir John Cochrane was pardoned, at the instigation of the king's favourite counsellor, who interceded for him in consequence of receiving a bribe of five thousand pounds from the Earl of Dundonald.

 
 
 

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