THE ADVENTURE OF GRIZEL COCHRANE
By Arthur Quiller-Couch
At Edinburgh, almost under the shadow of the spire of St. Giles's,
in the pavement between that old cathedral church and the County
Hall, the passer-by will mark the figure of a heart let into the
causeway, and know that he is standing on the "Heart of Midlothian,"
[Footnote: The title of one of Sir Walter Scott's romances.] the
site of the old Tolbooth. That gloomy pile vanished in the autumn
of 1817; as Mr. Stevenson says, "the walls are now down in the
dust; there is no more squalor carceris for merry debtors, no
more cage for the old acknowledged prison-breaker; but the sun and
the wind play freely over the foundations of the gaol;" this place,
"old in story and name-father to a noble book." The author of that
same "noble book" possessed himself of some memorials of the keep
he had rendered so famous, securing the stones of the gateway, and
the door with its ponderous fastenings to decorate the entrance of
his kitchen-court at Abbotsford. And this is all that is left.
But in the summer and autumn of 1685 the Tolbooth held prisoners
enough, notwithstanding the many gloomy processions that were from
time to time walking to the axe and halter in the Grassmarket; and
in a narrow cell, late one August evening, two persons were sitting
of whom this story shall treat. These two were Sir John Cochrane,
of Ochiltree, and his daughter Grizel—here on the saddest of
errands, to visit her father in prison and help in his preparations
For Sir John, a stout Whig, had been one of the leaders of Argyle's
insurrection; had been beaten with his troops by Lord Ross at
Muirdykes; had disbanded his handful of men, and fled for hiding to
the house of his uncle, Mr. Gavin Cochrane, of Craigmuir; had been
informed against by his uncle's wife, seized, taken to Edinburgh;
had been paraded, bound and bareheaded, through the streets by
the common executioner; and then on the 3d of July flung into the
Tolbooth to await his trial for high treason. And now the trial,
too, was over, and Sir John was condemned to die.
As he now sat, with bowed head, on the bench of his cell, it was not
the stroke of death that terrified him—for Sir John was a brave
man—but the parting with his children, who would through his
rashness be left both orphaned and penniless (for the crown would
seize his goods), and chiefly the parting with his daughter, who
had been his one comfort in the dark days of waiting for the king's
warrant of execution to arrive.
Between his apprehension and his trial no friend or kinsman had been
allowed to visit him; but now that his death was assured, greater
license had been granted. But, anxious to deprive his enemies of a
chance to accuse his sons, he had sent them his earnest entreaties
and commands that they should abstain from using this permission
until the night before his execution. They had obeyed; but obedience
of this sort did not satisfy the conscience of his daughter Grizel.
On the very night of his condemnation he heard the key turn in his
door; thinking it could only be the gaoler, he scarcely lifted his
eyes. But the next moment a pair of soft arms were flung round his
neck, and his daughter was weeping on his breast. From that day she
had continued to visit him; and now as she sat beside him, staring
at the light already fading in the narrow pane, both father and
daughter knew that it was almost the last time.
Presently she spoke—
"And this message—tell me truly, have you any hope from it?"
It was an appeal made by Sir John's father, the Earl of Dundonald,
to Father Peters, the king's confessor, who often dictated to him,
as was well known, on matters of state. But in the short time left,
would there be time to press this appeal, and exert that influence
in London which alone could stay the death-warrant?
"There is no hope in that quarter," said Sir John.
Grizel knew that he spoke only what was her own conviction, and
"Argyle is dead these three days," pursued her father, "and with
him men of less consequence than I. Are they likely to spare me—a
head of the rising? Would they spare any man now, in the heat of
"Father," said Grizel suddenly, "could you spare me from your side
for a few days?"
Sir John looked up. He knew by her manner that she had formed some
plan in her mind; he knew, too, from her heart, that nothing but
chance of winning his safety could take her from him now, of all
"My child," he said, "you are going to attempt something."
She nodded, with a brighter face than she had worn for many days.
"And what you would attempt," he went on, "is an impossibility."
"Nothing is impossible to a true heart," she said.
"And who will help you?"
"No one." She was standing before him now, and in the twilight he
could see her eyes lit up with hope, her figure upright, and as if
full of a man's strength.
"My girl, you will run into danger—into blame. They will not
spare you, and—do you know the characters of those men whom you
would have to sue?"
She bent and kissed him.
"I am a Cochrane, my father."
Early next morning, before the world was up, Grizel Cochrane was
mounted on horseback and riding towards the border. She had dressed
herself—this girl of eighteen—as a young serving-woman, and when
she drew rein at a wayside cottage for food and drink, professed
herself journeying on a borrowed horse to visit her mother's house
across the Tweed.
By noon Edinburgh was some leagues behind, but she pressed on
through that day and most of the following night.
On the second day after leaving Edinburgh she crossed the Tweed,
and came in safety to the home of an old nurse, on the English
side, four miles beyond the town of Berwick.
"Gude sakes!" cried the old woman, who was standing at her cottage
door and was rather astonished to find the horsewoman draw rein,
leap to the ground, and plant a kiss on either cheek—"Gude sakes!
if it isna Miss Grizel!"
"Quickly, into the house!" commanded her young mistress; "I have
somewhat to tell that will not wait an hour."
She knew the old nurse was to be trusted, and therefore told her
story and her secret. "Even now," she said at the end of her story,
"the postman is riding from London with the warrant in his bag. I
must stop him and make him give it up to me, or my father's head
is the penalty.
"But what use to talk o' this, when the postman is a stout rider,
and armed to boot? How is a mere girl, saving your presence, to do
this at all?"
Grizel unrolled a bundle which she had brought on her saddle-crutch
from Edinburgh; it held a horseman's cloak and a brace of pistols.
"Now," said she, "where are the clothes of Donald, my foster-brother?
He was a slight lad in times syne, and little doubt they'll fit
For this was indeed the brave girl's plan:—In those times
the mail from London took eight days on its journey to Edinburgh;
by possessing herself of the warrant for her father's death and
detaining it, she could count on the delay of sixteen or seventeen
days at least before application could be made for a second, and
that signed and sent to the Scotch capital. By this delay, time
enough would be won for her friends in London to use all their
influence to quash the sentence.
It was a mad scheme; but, as she had said, nothing is impossible
to a true heart. She had possessed herself, too, of the minutest
information with regard to the places where the postmen rested on
their journey. One of these places, she knew, was a small inn kept
by a widow on the outskirts of the little town of Belford. There
the man who received the bag at Durham was accustomed to arrive at
about six in the morning, and take a few hours' sleep before going
on with his journey. And at Belford, Grizel Cochrane had determined
to meet him.
Taking leave of her faithful nurse, she rode southwards again, and,
timing her pace, drew up before the inn at Belford just an hour
after the postman had come in from the south and disposed himself
The mistress of the inn had no ostler, so Grizel stabled her horse
with her own hands, and striding into the inn-parlor, demanded food
"Sit ye down, then," answered the old woman, "at the end of yon table,
for the best I have to give you is there already. And be pleased,
my bonny man, to make as little noise as may be; for there's one
asleep in that bed that I like ill to disturb."
She pointed to the victuals on the board, which were indeed the
remains of the sleeping man's meal. Grizel sat down before them,
considered to herself while she played with a mouthful or two, and
"Can I have a drink of water?"
"'Deed," answered the hostess, "and are ye a water-drinker? 'Tis
but an ill-custom for a change-house."
"Why, that I know; and so, when I put up at an inn, 'tis my custom
always to pay for it the price of stronger drink, which I cannot
"Indeed—well, that's fairly spoken; and, come to think of it,
'tis but just." The landlady brought a jug of water and set it on
"Is the well where you got this water near at hand?" said Grizel,
pouring out a glass and sipping at it; "for if 'tis no trouble to
fetch some fresh for me, I will tell you this is rather over-warm
and flat. Your trouble shall be considered in the dawing," added
"'Tis a good step off," answered the dame; "but I cannot refuse to
fetch for so civil, discreet a lad—and a well-favored one, besides.
So bide ye here, and I'll be as quick as I maun. But for any sake
take care and don't meddle with the man's pistols there, for they
are loaded, the both; and every time I set eyes on them they scare
me out of my senses, almost."
She took up a pitcher and went out to draw the water. No sooner
was Grizel left alone than, starting up, she waited for a moment,
listening to the footsteps as they died away in the distance, and
then crept swiftly across the floor to the place where the postman
lay asleep. He lay in one of those close wooden bedsteads, like
cupboards, which were then common in the houses of the poor, and
to this day may be seen in many a house in Brittany. The door of it
was left half-open to give the sleeper air, and from this aperture
the noise of his snoring issued in a way that shook the house.
Nevertheless, it seemed to the girl that he must be awakened by
the creaking of the floor under her light footfall. With heart in
mouth she stole up to the bedstead, and gently pulling the door
still wider ajar, peeped in, in the hope of seeing the mail-bag
and being able to pounce upon it.
She saw it, indeed; but to her dismay, it lay beneath the shaggy
head of its guardian—a giant in size. The postman used his charge
as a pillow, and had flung himself so heavily across it as to
give not the faintest hope that any one could pull it away without
disturbing its keeper from his nap. Nothing could be done now. In
those few bitter moments, during which she stood helplessly looking
from the bag which contained the fatal warrant to the unconscious
face of the man before her, Grizel made up her mind to another
She turned to the table, caught up the postman's holsters, and
pulled out the pistols of which the old woman had professed herself
in such terror. Quickly drawing and secreting the charges, she
returned them to their cases, with many an anxious look over her
shoulder towards the bedstead, and took her seat again at the foot
of the table.
Hardly had she done so when she heard the old woman returning
with the pitcher. Grizel took a draught, for her throat felt like
a lime-kiln, and having settled her bill, much to the landlady's
satisfaction, by paying for the water the price of a pot of beer,
prepared to set off. She carelessly asked and ascertained how much
longer the other guest was likely to sleep.
"By the noise he makes he intends sleeping till Doomsday," she
"Ay, poor man! his is a hard life," said the hostess; "and little
more than half an hour more before he must be on the highway again."
Grizel laughed once more, and, mounting her horse, set off at a
trot along the road southward, as if continuing her journey in that
Hardly had she got beyond the town, however, when turning the
horse's head she galloped back, making a circuit around Belford and
striking into the high road again between that place and Berwick.
Having gained it, she walked the horse gently on, awaiting the
coming up of the postman.
Though all her mind was now set on the enterprise before her, she
could not help a shiver of terror as she thought on the chance of
her tampering with the pistols being discovered, and their loading
replaced. But she had chosen her course, and now she must go through
with it. She was a woman, after all; and it cannot be wondered
that her heart began to beat quickly as her ear caught the sound
of hoofs on the road behind her, and, turning, she saw the man on
whose face she had been gazing not an hour before, trotting briskly
towards her—the mail-bags (there were two—one containing the
letters direct from London, the other those taken up at the different
post-offices on the road) strapped one on each side of his saddle
in front, close to the holsters.
At the last moment her nerve came back, and as he drew near she
saluted him civilly and with perfect calmness, put her horse into
the same pace with his, and rode on for some way in his company.
The postman was a burly, thick-set man, with a good-humored face.
You may be sure that Miss Cochrane inspected it anxiously enough,
and was relieved to find that it did not contain any vast amount
of hardy courage.
The man was well enough inclined for conversation, too, and as
they rode had a heap of chat, which it seemed a pity to interrupt.
At length, however, when they were about half-way between Belford
and Berwick, Grizel judged now or never was the time. Pulling her
horse's rein gently so as to bring her close to her company, she
said in a low but perfectly determined voice—
"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 horse; I carry fire-arms; and, moreover, I am allied with
those who are stronger, though not bolder, than I. You see that
wood, yonder?" she continued, pointing to one about a mile off,
with an accent and air meant to corroborate her bold words. "Then
take my advice: give me up your 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."
The postman, whose eyes had been growing rounder and rounder during
this speech from the stripling beside him, pulled up and looked at
her in dumb amazement for some moments.
"If," said he, as soon as he found his tongue, "you mean, young
master, to make yourself merry at my expense, you are heartily
welcome. I can see a joke, I trust, as well as another man; so
have your laugh out, and don't think I'm one to take offence at
the words of a foolish boy. But if," and here he whipped a pistol
from his holster and turned the muzzle on her face—"if y'are mad
enough to think seriously of such a business, then I am ready for
They had come to a stand now, in the middle of the road; and Grizel
felt an ugly sinking at the heart as she looked at the mouth of the
pistol, now not a yard from her cheek. Nevertheless she answered,
very quietly and cooly—
"If you have a doubt, dismiss it; I am quite in earnest."
The postman, with his hand on the trigger, hesitated.
"Methinks my lad, you seem of an age when robbing a garden or an
old woman's fruit-stall would befit you better, if so be you must
turn thief, than taking his Majesty's mails upon his highway from
a stout and grown man. So be thankful, then, you have met with one
who will not shed blood if he can help it, and go your way before
I am provoked to fire."
"Sir," said Grizel, "you are a worthy man; nor am I fonder of
bloodshed than you; but if you will not be persuaded, what shall
I do? For I have said—and it is truth—that mail I must and will
have. Choose, then;" and with this she pulled out a pistol from
under her cloak, and, cocking it, presented it in his face.
"Nay, then, your blood be on your own head," cried the postman,
and raising his pistol again he pulled the trigger; it flashed in
the pan. Dashing the weapon to the ground, he pulled out the other
in a moment, and aiming it in Grizel's face, fired—with the same
result. In a furious passion he flung down this pistol, too, sprang
from his horse, and dashed forward to seize her. She dug her spurs
into her horse's flank and just eluded his grasp. Meanwhile the
postman's horse, frightened at the noise and the struggle, had moved
forward a pace or two. The girl saw her opportunity, and seized it
in the same instant. Another dig with the spurs, and her own horse
was level with the other; leaning forward she caught at the bridle,
and calling to the pair, in an instant was galloping off along the
highway, leaving the postman helplessly staring.
She had gone about a hundred yards with her prize, when she pulled
up to look back. Her discomfited antagonist was still standing
in the middle of the road, apparently stupefied with amazement at
the unlooked-for turn which affairs had taken. Shouting to him
to remember her advice about the wood, she put both the horses to
their speed, and on looking back once more was gratified to find
that the postman, impressed with the truth of her mysterious threat,
had turned and was making the best of his way back to Belford.
On gaining the wood to which she had pointed, Grizel tied the
postman's horse to a tree, at a safe distance from the road, and
set about unfastening the straps of the mail-bags. With a sharp
penknife she ripped them open, and searched for the government
despatches among their contents. To find these was not difficult, owing
to their address to the council in Edinburgh, and of the imposing
weight of their seals. Here she discovered, not only the warrant
for her father's death, but also many other sentences inflicting
punishment in varying degrees on the unhappy men who had been
taken in the late rising. Time was pressing; she could not stop to
examine the warrants, but, quickly tearing them in small pieces,
placed them carefully in her bosom.
This done, and having arranged all the private papers as far
as possible as she had found them, Grizel mounted her horse again
and rode off. The postman's horse and the mail-bags, she imagined,
would soon be found, from the hints which she had given to the man
about the wood—and this afterwards proved to be the case. She now
set her horse at a gallop again, and did not spare whip or spur
until she reached the cottage of her nurse, where her first care
was to burn, not only the warrant for her father's death, but the
remainder of the sentences on his fellow-prisoners. Having satisfied
herself that all trace of the obnoxious papers was now consumed,
she put on again her female garments, and was once more the gentle
and unassuming Miss Grizel Cochrane.
It was high time, however, to be making her way northwards again;
accordingly she left her pistols and cloak to be concealed by
the nurse, and again set forward on her journey. By avoiding the
highroad, resting only at the most sequestered cottages—and then
but for an hour or so—and riding all the while as hard as she
might, she reached Edinburgh in safety early next morning.
It remains only to say that the time thus won by this devoted girl
was enough to gain the end for which she strove; and Father Peters
plied the ear of King James so importunately that at length the
order was signed for Sir John Cochrane's pardon.
The state of public affairs rendered it prudent for many years that
this action of Grizel Cochrane's should be kept secret; but after
the Revolution, when men could speak more freely, her heroism was
known and applauded. She lived to marry Mr. Ker, of Morriston, in
Berwickshire, and doubtless was as good a wife as she had proved
herself a daughter.