Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey

The Rook Cell

Washington Irving

IN THE COURSE of my sojourn at the Abbey, I changed my quarters from the magnificent old state apartment haunted by Sir John Byron the Little, to another in a remote corner of the ancient edifice, immediately adjoining the ruined chapel. It possessed still more interest in my eyes, from having been the sleeping apartment of Lord Byron during his residence at the Abbey. The furniture remained the same. Here was the bed in which he slept, and which he had brought with him from college; its gilded posts surmounted by coronets, giving evidence of his aristocratical feelings. Here was likewise his college sofa; and about the walls were the portraits of his favorite butler, old Joe Murray, of his fancy acquaintance, Jackson the pugilist, together with pictures of Harrow School and the College at Cambridge, at which he was educated. The bedchamber goes by the name of the Book Cell, from its vicinity to the Rookery which, since time immemorial, has maintained possession of a solemn grove adjacent to the chapel. This venerable community afforded me much food for speculation during my residence in this apartment. In the morning I used to hear them gradually waking and seeming to call each other up. After a time, the whole fraternity would be in a flutter; some balancing and swinging on the tree tops, others perched on the pinnacle of the Abbey church, or wheeling and hovering about in the air, and the ruined walls would reverberate with their incessant cawings. In this way they would linger about the rookery and its vicinity for the early part of the morning, when, having apparently mustered all their forces, called over the roll, and determined upon their line of march, they one and all would sail off in a long straggling flight to maraud the distant fields. They would forage the country for miles, and remain absent all day, excepting now and then a scout would come home, as if to see that all was well. Toward night the whole host might be seen, like a dark cloud in the distance, winging their way homeward. They came, as it were, with whoop and halloo, wheeling high in the air above the Abbey, making various evolutions before they alighted, and then keeping up an incessant cawing in the tree tops, until they gradually fell asleep.

It is remarked at the Abbey, that the rooks, though they sally forth on forays throughout the week, yet keep about the venerable edifice on Sundays, as if they had inherited a reverence for the day, from their ancient confreres, the monks. Indeed, a believer in the metempsychosis might easily imagine these Gothic-looking birds to be the embodied souls of the ancient friars still hovering about their sanctified abode.

I dislike to disturb any point of popular and poetic faith, and was loath, therefore, to question the authenticity of this mysterious reverence for the Sabbath on the part of the Newstead rooks; but certainly in the course of my sojourn in the Rook Cell, I detected them in a flagrant outbreak and foray on a bright Sunday morning.

Beside the occasional clamor of the rookery, this remote apartment was often greeted with sounds of a different kind, from the neighboring ruins. The great lancet window in front of the chapel, adjoins the very wall of the chamber; and the mysterious sounds from it at night have been well described by Lord Byron:

                        ——“Now loud, now frantic,
    The gale sweeps through its fretwork, and oft sings
The owl his anthem, when the silent quire
    Lie with their hallelujahs quenched like fire.

“But on the noontide of the moon, and when
    The wind is winged from one point of heaven,
There moans a strange unearthly sound, which then
    Is musical—a dying accent driven
Through the huge arch, which soars and sinks again.
    Some deem it but the distant echo given
Back to the night wind by the waterfall,
And harmonized by the old choral wall.

Others, that some original shape or form,
    Shaped by decay perchance, hath given the power
To this gray ruin, with a voice to charm.
    Sad, but serene, it sweeps o’er tree or tower;
The cause I know not, nor can solve; but such
The fact:—I’ve heard it,—once perhaps too much.”

Never was a traveller in quest of the romantic in greater luck. I had in sooth, got lodged in another haunted apartment of the Abbey; for in this chamber Lord Byron declared he had more than once been harassed at midnight by a mysterious visitor. A black shapeless form would sit cowering upon his bed, and after gazing at him for a time with glaring eyes, would roll off and disappear. The same uncouth apparition is said to have disturbed the slumbers of a newly married couple that once passed their honeymoon in this apartment.

I would observe, that the access to the Rook Cell is by a spiral stone staircase leading up into it, as into a turret, from, the long shadowy corridor over the cloisters, one of the midnight walks of the Goblin Friar. Indeed, to the fancies engendered in his brain in this remote and lonely apartment, incorporated with the floating superstitions of the Abbey, we are no doubt indebted for the spectral scene in “Don Juan.”

“Then as the night was clear, though cold, he threw
    His chamber door wide open—and went forth
Into a gallery, of sombre hue,
    Long furnish’d with old pictures of great worth,
Of knights and dames, heroic and chaste too,
    As doubtless should be people of high birth.

No sound except the echo of his sigh
    Or step ran sadly through that antique house,
When suddenly he heard, or thought so, nigh,
    A supernatural agent—or a mouse,
Whose little nibbling rustle will embarrass
Most people, as it plays along the arras.

It was no mouse, but lo! a monk, arrayed
    In cowl, and beads, and dusky garb, appeared,
Now in the moonlight, and now lapsed in shade;
    With steps that trod as heavy, yet unheard;
His garments only a slight murmur made;
    He moved as shadowy as the sisters weird,
But slowly; and as he passed Juan by
Glared, without pausing, on him a bright eye.

Juan was petrified; he had heard a hint
    Of such a spirit in these halls of old,
But thought, like most men, there was nothing in’t
    Beyond the rumor which such spots unfold,
Coin’d from surviving superstition’s mint,
    Which passes ghosts in currency like gold,
But rarely seen, like gold compared with paper.
And did he see this? or was it a vapor?

Once, twice, thrice pass’d, repass’d—the thing of air,
    Or earth beneath, or heaven, or t’other place;
And Juan gazed upon it with a stare,
    Yet could not speak or move; but, on its base
As stauds a statue, stood: he felt his hair
    Twine like a knot of snakes around his face;
He tax’d his tongue for words, which were not granted
To ask the reverend person what he wanted.

The third time, after a still longer pause,
    The shadow pass’d away—but where? the hall
Was long, and thus far there was no great cause
    To think its vanishing unnatural:
Doors there were many, through which, by the laws
    Of physics, bodies, whether short or tall,
Might come or go; but Juan could not state
Through which the spectre seem’d to evaporate.

He stood, how long he knew not, but it seem’d
    An age—expectant, powerless, with his eyes
Strain’d on the spot where first the figure gleam’d:
    Then by degrees recall’d his energies,
And would have pass’d the whole off as a dream.
    But could not wake; he was, he did surmise,
Waking already, and return’d at length
Back to his chamber, shorn of half his strength.”

As I have already observed, it is difficult to determine whether Lord Byron was really subject to the superstitious fancies which have been imputed to him, or whether he merely amused himself by giving currency to them among his domestics and dependents. He certainly never scrupled to express a belief in supernatural visitations, both verbally and in his correspondence. If such were his foible, the Rook Cell was an admirable place to engender these delusions. As I have lain awake at night, I have heard all kinds of mysterious and sighing sounds from the neighboring ruin. Distant footsteps, too, and the closing of doors in remote parts of the Abbey, would send hollow reverberations and echoes along the corridor and up the spiral staircase. Once, in fact, I was roused by a strange sound at the very door of my chamber. I threw it open, and a form “black and shapeless with glaring eyes” stood before me. It proved, however, neither ghost nor goblin, but my friend Boatswain, the great Newfoundland dog, who had conceived a companionable liking for me, and occasionally sought me in my apartment. To the hauntings of even such a visitant as honest Boatswain may we attribute some of the marvellous stories about the Goblin Friar.

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