Say from whence|
You owe this strange intelligence? or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting?
Speak, I charge you.
‘That it was fruitless to you, my dear,’ said the Colonel, ‘I do most deeply lament; but for my own share, I have made some valuable acquaintances, and have spent the time I have been absent in Edinburgh with peculiar satisfaction; so that on that score there is nothing to be regretted. Even our friend the Dominie is returned thrice the man he was, from having sharpened his wits in controversy with the geniuses of the northern metropolis.’
‘Of a surety,’ said the Dominie, with great complacency, ‘I did wrestle, and was not overcome, though my adversary was cunning in his art.’
‘I presume,’ said Miss Mannering, ‘the contest was somewhat fatiguing, Mr. Sampson?’
‘Very much, young lady; howbeit I girded up my loins and strove against him.’
‘I can bear witness,’ said the Colonel; ‘I never saw an affair better contested. The enemy was like the Mahratta cavalry: he assailed on all sides, and presented no fair mark for artillery; but Mr. Sampson stood to his guns notwithstanding, and fired away, now upon the enemy and now upon the dust which he had raised. But we must not fight our battles over again to-night; to-morrow we shall have the whole at breakfast.’
The next morning at breakfast, however, the Dominie did not make his appearance. He had walked out, a servant said, early in the morning. It was so common for him to forget his meals that his absence never deranged the family. The housekeeper, a decent old-fashioned Presbyterian matron, having, as such, the highest respect for Sampson’s theological acquisitions, had it in charge on these occasions to take care that he was no sufferer by his absence of mind, and therefore usually waylaid him on his return, to remind him of his sublunary wants, and to minister to their relief. It seldom, however, happened that he was absent from two meals together, as was the case in the present instance. We must explain the cause of this unusual occurrence.
The conversation which Mr. Pleydell had held with Mr. Mannering on the subject of the loss of Harry Bertram had awakened all the painful sensations which that event had inflicted upon Sampson. The affectionate heart of the poor Dominie had always reproached him that his negligence in leaving the child in the care of Frank Kennedy had been the proximate cause of the murder of the one, the loss of the other, the death of Mrs. Bertram, and the ruin of the family of his patron. It was a subject which he never conversed upon, if indeed his mode of speech could be called conversation at any time; but it was often present to his imagination. The sort of hope so strongly affirmed and asserted in Mrs. Bertram’s last settlement had excited a corresponding feeling in the Dominie’s bosom, which was exasperated into a sort of sickening anxiety by the discredit with which Pleydell had treated it. ‘Assuredly,’ thought Sampson to himself, ‘he is a man of erudition, and well skilled in the weighty matters of the law; but he is also a man of humorous levity and inconsistency of speech, and wherefore should he pronounce ex cathedra, as it were, on the hope expressed by worthy Madam Margaret Bertram of Singleside?’
All this, I say, the Dominie thought to himself; for had he uttered half the sentence, his jaws would have ached for a month under the unusual fatigue of such a continued exertion. The result of these cogitations was a resolution to go and visit the scene of the tragedy at Warroch Point, where he had not been for many years; not, indeed, since the fatal accident had happened. The walk was a long one, for the Point of Warroch lay on the farther side of the Ellangowan property, which was interposed between it and Woodbourne. Besides, the Dominie went astray more than once, and met with brooks swoln into torrents by the melting of the snow, where he, honest man, had only the summer recollection of little trickling rills.
At length, however, he reached the woods which he had made the object of his excursion, and traversed them with care, muddling his disturbed brains with vague efforts to recall every circumstance of the catastrophe. It will readily be supposed that the influence of local situation and association was inadequate to produce conclusions different from those which he had formed under the immediate pressure of the occurrences themselves. ‘With many a weary sigh, therefore, and many a groan,’ the poor Dominie returned from his hopeless pilgrimage, and weariedly plodded his way towards Woodbourne, debating at times in his altered mind a question which was forced upon him by the cravings of an appetite rather of the keenest, namely, whether he had breakfasted that morning or no? It was in this twilight humour, now thinking of the loss of the child, then involuntarily compelled to meditate upon the somewhat incongruous subject of hung beef, rolls, and butter, that his route, which was different from that which he had taken in the morning, conducted him past the small ruined tower, or rather vestige of a tower, called by the country people the Kaim of Derncleugh.
The reader may recollect the description of this ruin in the twenty-seventh chapter, as the vault in which young Bertram, under the auspices of Meg Merrilies, witnessed the death of Hatteraick’s lieutenant. The tradition of the country added ghostly terrors to the natural awe inspired by the situation of this place, which terrors the gipsies who so long inhabited the vicinity had probably invented, or at least propagated, for their own advantage. It was said that, during the times of the Galwegian independence, one Hanlon Mac-Dingawaie, brother to the reigning chief, Knarth Mac-Dingawaie, murdered his brother and sovereign, in order to usurp the principality from his infant nephew, and that, being pursued for vengeance by the faithful allies and retainers of the house, who espoused the cause of the lawful heir, he was compelled to retreat, with a few followers whom he had involved in his crime, to this impregnable tower called the Kaim of Derucleugh, where he defended himself until nearly reduced by famine, when, setting fire to the place, he and the small remaining garrison desperately perished by their own swords, rather than fall into the hands of their exasperated enemies. This tragedy, which, considering the wild times wherein it was placed, might have some foundation in truth, was larded with many legends of superstition and diablerie, so that most of the peasants of the neighbourhood, if benighted, would rather have chosen to make a considerable circuit than pass these haunted walls. The lights, often seen around the tower, when used as the rendezvous of the lawless characters by whom it was occasionally frequented, were accounted for, under authority of these tales of witchery, in a manner at once convenient for the private parties concerned and satisfactory to the public.
Now it must be confessed that our friend Sampson, although a profound scholar and mathematician, had not travelled so far in philosophy as to doubt the reality of witchcraft or apparitions. Born, indeed, at a time when a doubt in the existence of witches was interpreted as equivalent to a justification of their infernal practices, a belief of such legends had been impressed upon the Dominie as an article indivisible from his religious faith, and perhaps it would have been equally difficult to have induced him to doubt the one as the other. With these feelings, and in a thick misty day, which was already drawing to its close, Dominie Sampson did not pass the Kaim of Derncleugh without some feelings of tacit horror.
What, then, was his astonishment when, on passing the door—that door which was supposed to have been placed there by one of the latter Lairds of Ellangowan to prevent presumptuous strangers from incurring the dangers of the haunted vault—that door, supposed to be always locked, and the key of which was popularly said to be deposited with the presbytery—that door, that very door, opened suddenly, and the figure of Meg Merrilies, well known, though not seen for many a revolving year, was placed at once before the eyes of the startled Dominie! She stood immediately before him in the footpath, confronting him so absolutely that he could not avoid her except by fairly turning back, which his manhood prevented him from thinking of.
‘I kenn’d ye wad be here,’ she said, with her harsh and hollow voice; ‘I ken wha ye seek; but ye maun do my bidding.’
‘Get thee behind me!’ said the alarmed Dominie. ‘Avoid ye! Conjuro te, scelestissima, nequissima, spurcissima, iniquissima atque miserrima, conjuro te!!!’
Meg stood her ground against this tremendous volley of superlatives, which Sampson hawked up from the pit of his stomach and hurled at her in thunder. ‘Is the carl daft,’ she said, ‘wi’ his glamour?’
‘Conjuro,’ continued the Dominie, ’abjuro, contestor atque viriliter impero tibi!’
‘What, in the name of Sathan, are ye feared for, wi’ your French gibberish, that would make a dog sick? Listen, ye stickit stibbler, to what I tell ye, or ye sail rue it while there’s a limb o’ ye hings to anither! Tell Colonel Mannering that I ken he’s seeking me. He kens, and I ken, that the blood will be wiped out, and the lost will be found,
And Bertram’s right and Bertram’s might|
Shall meet on Ellangowan height.
Hae, there’s a letter to him; I was gaun to send it in another way. I canna write mysell; but I hae them that will baith write and read, and ride and rin for me. Tell him the time’s coming now, and the weird’s dreed, and the wheel’s turning. Bid him look at the stars as he has looked at them before. Will ye mind a’ this?’
‘Assuredly,’ said the Dominie, ‘I am dubious; for, woman, I am perturbed at thy words, and my flesh quakes to hear thee.’
‘They’ll do you nae ill though, and maybe muckle gude.’
‘Avoid ye! I desire no good that comes by unlawful means.’
‘Fule body that thou art,’ said Meg, stepping up to him, with a frown of indignation that made her dark eyes flash like lamps from under her bent brows—‘Fule body! if I meant ye wrang, couldna I clod ye ower that craig, and wad man ken how ye cam by your end mair than Frank Kennedy? Hear ye that, ye worricow?’
‘In the name of all that is good,’ said the Dominie, recoiling, and pointing his long pewter-headed walking cane like a javelin at the supposed sorceress—‘in the name of all that is good, bide off hands! I will not be handled; woman, stand off, upon thine own proper peril! Desist, I say; I am strong; lo, I will resist!’ Here his speech was cut short; for Meg, armed with supernatural strength (as the Dominie asserted), broke in upon his guard, put by a thrust which he made at her with his cane, and lifted him into the vault, ‘as easily,’ said he, ‘as I could sway a Kitchen’s Atlas.’
‘Sit down there,’ she said, pushing the half-throttled preacher with some violence against a broken chair—‘sit down there and gather your wind and your senses, ye black barrow-tram o’ the kirk that ye are. Are ye fou or fasting?’
‘Fasting, from all but sin,’ answered the Dominie, who, recovering his voice, and finding his exorcisms only served to exasperate the intractable sorceress, thought it best to affect complaisance and submission, inwardly conning over, however, the wholesome conjurations which he durst no longer utter aloud. But as the Dominie’s brain was by no means equal to carry on two trains of ideas at the same time, a word or two of his mental exercise sometimes escaped and mingled with his uttered speech in a manner ludicrous enough, especially as the poor man shrunk himself together after every escape of the kind, from terror of the effect it might produce upon the irritable feelings of the witch.
Meg in the meanwhile went to a great black cauldron that was boiling on a fire on the floor, and, lifting the lid, an odour was diffused through the vault which, if the vapours of a witch’s cauldron could in aught be trusted, promised better things than the hell-broth which such vessels are usually supposed to contain. It was, in fact, the savour of a goodly stew, composed of fowls, hares, partridges, and moor-game boiled in a large mess with potatoes, onions, and leeks, and from the size of the cauldron appeared to be prepared for half a dozen of people at least. ‘So ye hae eat naething a’ day?’ said Meg, heaving a large portion of this mess into a brown dish and strewing it savourily with salt and pepper.1
‘Nothing,’ answered the Dominie, ‘scelestissima!—that is, gudewife.’
‘Hae then,’ said she, placing the dish before him, ‘there’s what will warm your heart.’
‘I do not hunger—malefica—that is to say, Mrs. Merrilies! ‘for he said unto himself,’ the savour is sweet, but it hath been cooked by a Canidia or an Ericthoe.’
‘If ye dinna eat instantly and put some saul in ye, by the bread and the salt, I’ll put it down your throat wi’ the cutty spoon, scaulding as it is, and whether ye will or no. Gape, sinner, and swallow!’
Sampson, afraid of eye of newt, and toe of frog, tigers’ chaudrons, and so forth, had determined not to venture; but the smell of the stew was fast melting his obstinacy, which flowed from his chops as it were in streams of water, and the witch’s threats decided him to feed. Hunger and fear are excellent casuists.
‘Saul,’ said Hunger, ‘feasted with the witch of Endor.’ ‘And,’ quoth Fear, ‘the salt which she sprinkled upon the food showeth plainly it is not a necromantic banquet, in which that seasoning never occurs.’ ‘And, besides,’ says Hunger, after the first spoonful, ‘it is savoury and refreshing viands.’
‘So ye like the meat?’ said the hostess.
‘Yea,’ answered the Dominie, ‘and I give thee thanks, sceleratissima!—which means, Mrs. Margaret.’
‘Aweel, eat your fill; but an ye kenn’d how it was gotten ye maybe wadna like it sae weel.’ Sampson’s spoon dropped in the act of conveying its load to his mouth. ‘There’s been mony a moonlight watch to bring a’ that trade thegither,’ continued Meg; ‘the folk that are to eat that dinner thought little o’ your game laws.’
‘Is that all?’ thought Sampson, resuming his spoon and shovelling away manfully; ‘I will not lack my food upon that argument.’
‘Now ye maun tak a dram?’
‘I will,’ quoth Sampson, ‘conjuro te—that is, I thank you heartily,’ for he thought to himself, in for a penny in for a pound; and he fairly drank the witch’s health in a cupful of brandy. When he had put this copestone upon Meg’s good cheer, he felt, as he said, ‘mightily elevated, and afraid of no evil which could befall unto him.’
‘Will ye remember my errand now?’ said Meg Merrilies; ‘I ken by the cast o’ your ee that ye’re anither man than when you cam in.’
‘I will, Mrs. Margaret,’ repeated Sampson, stoutly; ‘I will deliver unto him the sealed epistle, and will add what you please to send by word of mouth.’
‘Then I’ll make it short,’ says Meg. ‘Tell him to look at the stars without fail this night, and to do what I desire him in that letter, as he would wish
That Bertram’s right and Bertram’s might|
Should meet on Ellangowan height.
I have seen him twice when he saw na me; I ken when he was in this country first, and I ken what’s brought him back again. Up an’ to the gate! ye’re ower lang here; follow me.’
Sampson followed the sibyl accordingly, who guided him about a quarter of a mile through the woods, by a shorter cut than he could have found for himself; then they entered upon the common, Meg still marching before him at a great pace, until she gained the top of a small hillock which overhung the road.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘stand still here. Look how the setting sun breaks through yon cloud that’s been darkening the lift a’ day. See where the first stream o’ light fa’s: it’s upon Donagild’s round tower, the auldest tower in the Castle o’ Ellangowan; that’s no for naething! See as it’s glooming to seaward abune yon sloop in the bay; that’s no for naething neither. Here I stood on this very spot,’ said she, drawing herself up so as not to lose one hair-breadth of her uncommon height, and stretching out her long sinewy arm and clenched hand—‘here I stood when I tauld the last Laird o’ Ellangowan what was coming on his house; and did that fa’ to the ground? na, it hit even ower sair! And here, where I brake the wand of peace ower him, here I stand again, to bid God bless and prosper the just heir of Ellangowan that will sune be brought to his ain; and the best laird he shall be that Ellangowan has seen for three hundred years. I’ll no live to see it, maybe; but there will be mony a blythe ee see it though mine be closed. And now, Abel Sampson, as ever ye lo’ed the house of Ellangowan, away wi’ my message to the English Colonel, as if life and death were upon your haste!’
So saying, she turned suddenly from the amazed Dominie and regained with swift and long strides the shelter of the wood from which she had issued at the point where it most encroached upon the common. Sampson gazed after her for a moment in utter astonishment, and then obeyed her directions, hurrying to Woodbourne at a pace very unusual for him, exclaiming three times, ‘Prodigious! prodigious! pro-di-gi-ous!’
1. We must again have recourse to the contribution to Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1817:—
‘To the admirers of good eating, gipsy cookery seems to have little to recommend it. I can assure you, however, that the cook of a nobleman of high distinction, a person who never reads even a novel without an eye to the enlargement of the culinary science, has added to the “Almanach des Gourmands” a certain Potage à la Meg Merrilies de Derncleugh, consisting of game and poultry of all kinds, stewed with vegetables into a soup, which rivals in savour and richness the gallant messes of Camacho’s wedding; and which the Baron of Bradwardine would certainly have reckoned among the Epulæ lautiores.’
The artist alluded to in this passage is Mons. Florence, cook to Henry and Charles, late Dukes of Buccleuch, and of high distinction in his profession. [back]