Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Jeanie Deans as Witness
By Sir Walter Scott (17711832)
From The Heart of Mid-Lothian
THE EVIDENCE of the crown being concluded, the counsel for the prisoner began to lead a proof in her defence. The first witnesses were examined upon the girls character. All gave her an excellent one, but none with more feeling than worthy Mrs. Saddletree, who, with the tears on her cheeks, declared, that she could not have had a higher opinion of Effie Deans, nor a more sincere regard for her, if she had been her own daughter. All present gave the honest woman credit for her goodness of heart, excepting her husband, who whispered to Dumbiedykes, That Nichil Novit of yours is but a raw hand at leading evidence, Im thinking. What signified his bringing a woman here to snotter and snivel, and bather their Lordships? He should hae ceeted me, sir, and I should hae gien them sic a screed o testimony, they shouldna hae touched a hair o her head.
Na, na, said Saddletree, thank ye for naething, neighbourthat would be ultroneous evidence, and I ken what belangs to that; but Nichil Novit suld hae had me ceeted debito tempore. And wiping his mouth with his silk handkerchief with great importance, he resumed the port and manner of an edified and intelligent auditor.
Mr. Fairbrother now premised, in a few words, that he meant to bring forward his most important witness, upon whose evidence the cause must in a great measure depend. What his client was, they had learned from the preceding witnesses; and so far as general character, given in the most forcible terms, and even with tears, could interest every one in her fate, she had already gained that advantage. It was necessary, he admitted, that he should produce more positive testimony of her innocence than what arose out of general character, and this he undertook to do by the mouth of the person to whom she had communicated her situationby the mouth of her natural counseller and guardianher sister.Macer, call into court, Jean, or Jeanie Deans, daughter of David Deans, cowfeeder at Saint Leonards Crags.
When he uttered these words, the poor prisoner instantly started up, and stretched herself half way over the bar, towards the side at which her sister was to enter. And when, slowly following the officer, the witness advanced to the foot of the table, Effie, with the whole expression of her countenance altered, from that of confused shame and dismay, to an eager, imploring, and almost ecstatic earnestness of entreaty, with out-stretched hands, hair streaming back, eyes raised eagerly to her sisters face, and glistening through tears, exclaimed, in a tone which went through the heart of all who heard her,O Jeanie, Jeanie, save me, save me!
With a different feeling, yet equally appropriate to his proud and self-dependent character, old Deans drew himself back still farther under the cover of the bench; so that when Jeanie, as she entered the court, cast a timid glance towards the place at which she had left him seated, his venerable figure was no longer visible. He sat down on the other side of Dumbiedykes, wrung his hand hard, and whispered, Ah, laird, this is warst of aif I can but win ower this partI feel my head unco dizzy; but my Master is strong in His servants weakness. After a moments mental prayer, he again started up, as if impatient of continuing in any one posture, and gradually edged himself forward towards the place he had just quitted.
Jeanie in the meantime had advanced to the bottom of the table, when, unable to resist the impulse of affection, she suddenly extended her hand to her sister. Effie was just within the distance that she could seize it with both hers, press it to her mouth, cover it with kisses, and bathe it in tears, with the fond devotion that a Catholic would pay to a guardian saint descended for his safety; while Jeanie, hiding her own face with her other hand, wept bitterly. The sight would have moved a heart of stone, much more of flesh and blood. Many of the spectators shed tears, and it was some time before the presiding judge himself could so far subdue his emotion as to request the witness to compose herself, and the prisoner to forbear those marks of eager affection, which, however natural, could not be permitted at that time, and in that presence.
The solemn oath,the truth to tell, and no truth to conceal, as far as she knew or should be asked, was then administered by the judge in the name of God, and as the witness should answer to God at the great day of judgment; an awful adjuration, which seldom fails to make impression even on the most hardened characters, and to strike with fear even the most upright. Jeanie, educated in deep and devout reverence for the name and attributes of the Deity, was, by the solemnity of a direct appeal to his person and justice, awed, but at the same time elevated above all considerations, save those which she could, with a clear conscience, call HIM to witness. She repeated the form in a low and reverent, but distinct tone of voice, after the judge, to whom, and not to any inferior officer of the court, the task is assigned in Scotland of directing the witness in that solemn appeal which is the sanction of his testimony.
Young woman, these were his words, you come before this court in circumstances which it would be worse than cruel not to pity and to sympathise with. Yet it is my duty to tell you, that the truth, whatever its consequences may be, the truth is what you owe to your country, and to that God whose word is truth, and whose name you have now invoked. Use your own time in answering the questions that gentleman (pointing to the counsel) shall put to you.But remember, that what you may be tempted to say beyond what is the actual truth, you must answer both here and hereafter.
The usual questions were then put to her:Whether any one had instructed her what evidence she had to deliver? Whether any one had given or promised her any good deed, hire, or reward, for her testimony? Whether she had any malice or ill-will at his Majestys advocate, being the party against whom she was cited as a witness? To which questions she successively answered by a quiet negative. But their tenor gave great scandal and offence to her father, who was not aware that they are put to every witness as a matter of form.
One of the judges, better acquainted, perhaps, with the Books of Adjournal than with the Book of Samuel, was disposed to make some instant inquiry after this Widow of Tekoah, who, as he construed the matter, had been tampering with the evidence. But the presiding judge, better versed in Scripture history, whispered to his learned brother the necessary explanation; and the pause occasioned by this mistake had the good effect of giving Jeanie Deans time to collect her spirits for the painful task she had to perform.
Fairbrother, whose practice and intelligence were considerable, saw the necessity of letting the witness compose herself. In his heart he suspected that she came to bear false witness in her sisters cause.
But that is her own affair, thought Fairbrother; and it is my business to see that she has plenty of time to regain composure, and to deliver her evidence, be it true, or be it falsevaleat quantum.
After the advocate had conceived that, by these preliminary and unimportant questions, he had familiarised the witness with the situation in which she stood, he asked, whether she had not remarked her sisters state of health to be altered, during the latter part of the term when she had lived with Mrs. Saddletree?
For the Scottish lawyers regard with a sacred and scrupulous horror every question so shaped by the counsel examining, as to convey to a witness the least intimation of the nature of the answer which is desired from him. These scruples, though founded on an excellent principle, are sometimes carried to an absurd pitch of nicety, especially as it is generally easy for a lawyer who has his wits about him to elude the objection. Fairbrother did so in the present case.
It is not necessary to waste the time of the court, my lord; since the kings counsel thinks it worth while to object to the form of my question, I will shape it otherwise.Pray, young woman, did you ask your sister any question when you observed her looking unwell?Take couragespeak out.
Jeanie was silent, and looked deadly pale. It was not that she at any one instant entertained an idea of the possibility of prevaricationit was the natural hesitation to extinguish the last spark of hope that remained for her sister.
Nothing, answered Jeanie, with a faint voice, which was yet heard distinctly in the most distant corner of the court-room,such an awful and profound silence had been preserved during the anxious interval which had interposed betwixt the lawyers question and the answer of the witness.
Fairbrothers countenance fell; but with that ready presence of mind, which is as useful in civil as in military emergencies, he immediately rallied.Nothing? True; you mean nothing at firstbut when you asked her again, did she not tell you what ailed her?
The question was put in a tone meant to make her comprehend the importance of her answer, had she not been already aware of it. The ice was broken, however, and, with less pause than at first, she now replied,Alack! alack! she never breathed word to me about it.
A deep groan passed through the court. It was echoed by one deeper and more agonized from the unfortunate father. The hope to which, unconsciously, and in spite of himself, he had still secretly clung, had now dissolved, and the venerable old man fell forward senseless on the floor of the court-house, with his head at the foot of his terrified daughter. The unfortunate prisoner, with impotent passion, strove with the guards betwixt whom she was placed. Let me gang to my father!I will gang to himI will gang to himhe is deadhe is killedI hae killed him!she repeated, in frenzied tones of grief, which those who heard them did not speedily forget.
The judge, after repeatedly wiping his eyes, gave directions that they should be conducted into a neighbouring apartment, and carefully attended. The prisoner, as her father was borne from the court, and her sister slowly followed, pursued them with her eyes so earnestly fixed as if they would have started from their sockets. But when they were no longer visible, she seemed to find, in her despairing and deserted state, a courage which she had not yet exhibited.
The judge, who, much to his honour, had shared deeply in the general sympathy, was surprised at being recalled to his duty by the prisoner. He collected himself, and requested to know if the panels counsel had more evidence to produce. Fairbrother replied, with an air of dejection, that his proof was concluded.