This little ring, with necromantic force,
Has raised the ghost of pleasure to my fears,
Conjured the sense of honour and of love
Into such shapes, they fright me from myself.
The Fatal Marriage.
The Earl of Glenallan was therefore seated in an apartment hung with black cloth, which waved in dusky folds along its lofty walls. A screen, also covered with black baize, placed towards the high and narrow window, intercepted much of the broken light which found its way through the stained glass, that represented, with such skill as the fourteenth century possessed, the life and sorrows of the prophet Jeremiah. The table at which the Earl was seated was lighted with two lamps wrought in silver, shedding that unpleasant and doubtful light which arises from the mingling of artificial lustre with that of general daylight. The same table displayed a silver crucifix, and one or two clasped parchment books. A large picture, exquisitely painted by Spagnoletto, represented the martyrdom of St. Stephen, and was the only ornament of the apartment.
The inhabitant and lord of this disconsolate chamber was a man not past the prime of life, yet so broken down with disease and mental misery, so gaunt and ghastly, that he appeared but a wreck of manhood; and when he hastily arose and advanced towards his visitor, the exertion seemed almost to overpower his emaciated frame. As they met in the midst of the apartment, the contrast they exhibited was very striking. The hale cheek, firm step, erect stature, and undaunted presence and bearing of the old mendicant, indicated patience and content in the extremity of age, and in the lowest condition to which humanity can sink; while the sunken eye, pallid cheek, and tottering form of the nobleman with whom he was confronted, showed how little wealth, power, and even the advantages of youth, have to do with that which gives repose to the mind, and firmness to the frame.
The Earl met the old man in the middle of the room, and having commanded his attendant to withdraw into the gallery, and suffer no one to enter the antechamber till he rung the bell, awaited, with hurried yet fearful impatience, until he heard first the door of his apartment, and then that of the antechamber, shut and fastened by the spring-bolt. When he was satisfied with this security against being overheard, Lord Glenallan came close up to the mendicant, whom he probably mistook for some person of a religious order in disguise, and said, in a hasty yet faltering tone, “In the name of all our religion holds most holy, tell me, reverend father, what am I to expect from a communication opened by a token connected with such horrible recollections?”
The old man, appalled by a manner so different from what he had expected from the proud and powerful nobleman, was at a loss how to answer, and in what manner to undeceive him. “Tell me,” continued the Earl, in a tone of increasing trepidation and agony—“tell me, do you come to say that all that has been done to expiate guilt so horrible, has been too little and too trivial for the offence, and to point out new and more efficacious modes of severe penance?—I will not blench from it, father—let me suffer the pains of my crime here in the body, rather than hereafter in the spirit!”
Edie had now recollection enough to perceive, that if he did not interrapt the frankness of Lord Glenallan’s admissions, he was likely to become the confidant of more than might be safe for him to know. He therefore uttered with a hasty and trembling voice—“Your lordship’s honour is mistaken—I am not of your persuasion, nor a clergyman, but, with all reverence, only puir Edie Ochiltree, the king’s bedesman and your honour’s.”
This explanation be accompanied by a profound bow after his manner, and then, drawing himself up erect, rested his arm on his staff, threw back his long white hair, and fixed his eyes upon the Earl, as he waited for an answer.
“And you are not then,” said Lord Glenallan, after a pause of surprise—“You are not then a Catholic priest?”
“God forbid!” said Edie, forgetting in his confusion to whom he was speaking; “I am only the king’s bedesman and your honour’s, as I said before.”
The Earl turned hastily away, and paced the room twice or thrice, as if to recover the effects of his mistake, and then, coming close up to the mendicant, he demanded, in a stern and commanding tone, what he meant by intruding himself on his privacy, and from whence he had got the ring which he had thought proper to send him. Edie, a man of much spirit, was less daunted at this mode of interrogation than he had been confused by the tone of confidence in which the Earl had opened their conversation. To the reiterated question from whom he had obtained the ring, he answered composedly, “From one who was better known to the Earl than to him.”
“Better known to me, fellow?” said Lord Glenallan: “what is your meaning?—explain yourself instantly, or you shall experience the consequence of breaking in upon the hours of family distress.”
“It was auld Elspeth Mucklebackit that sent me here,” said the beggar, “in order to say”—
“You dote, old man!” said the Earl; “I never heard the name—but this dreadful token reminds me”—
“I mind now, my lord,” said Ochiltree, “she tauld me your lordship would be mair familiar wi’ her, if I ca’d her Elspeth o’ the Craigburnfoot—she had that name when she lived on your honour’s land, that is, your honour’s worshipful mother’s that was then—Grace be wi’ her!”
“Ay,” said the appalled nobleman, as his countenance sunk, and his cheek assumed a hue yet more cadaverous; “that name is indeed written in the most tragic page of a deplorable history. But what can she desire of me? Is she dead or living?”
“Living, my lord; and entreats to see your lordship before she dies, for she has something to communicate that hangs upon her very soul, and she says she canna flit in peace until she sees you.”
“Not until she sees me!—what can that mean? But she is doting with age and infirmity. I tell thee, friend, I called at her cottage myself, not a twelvemonth since, from a report that she was in distress, and she did not even know my face or voice.”
“If your honour wad permit me,” said Edie, to whom the length of the conference restored a part of his professional audacity and native talkativeness—“if your honour wad but permit me, I wad say, under correction of your lordship’s better judgment, that auld Elspeth’s like some of the ancient ruined strengths and castles that ane sees amang the hills. There are mony parts of her mind that appear, as I may say, laid waste and decayed, but then there’s parts that look the steever, and the stronger, and the grander, because they are rising just like to fragments amaong the ruins o’ the rest. She’s an awful woman.”
“She always was so,” said the Earl, almost unconsciously echoing the observation of the mendicant; “she always was different from other women—likest perhaps to her who is now no more, in her temper and turn of mind.—She wishes to see me, then?”
“Before she dies,” said Edie, “she earnestly entreats that pleasure.”
“It will be a pleasure to neither of us,” said the Earl, sternly, “yet she shall be gratified. She lives, I think, on the sea-shore to the southward of Fairport?”
“Just between Monkbarns and Knockwinnock Castle, but nearer to Monkbarns. Your lordship’s honour will ken the laird and Sir Arthur, doubtless?”
A stare, as if he did not comprehend the question, was Lord Glenallan’s answer. Edie saw his mind was elsewhere, and did not venture to repeat a query which was so little germain to the matter.
“Are you a Catholic, old man?” demanded the Earl.
“No, my lord,” said Ochiltree stoutly; for the remembrance of the unequal division of the dole rose in his mind at the moment; “I thank Heaven I am a good Protestant.”
“He who can conscientiously call himself good, has indeed reason to thank Heaven, be his form of Christianity what it will—But who is he that shall dare to do so!”
“Not I,” said Edie; “I trust to beware of the sin of presumption.”
“What was your trade in your youth?” continued the Earl.
“A soldier, my lord; and mony a sair day’s kemping I’ve seen. I was to have been made a sergeant, but”—
“A soldier! then you have slain and burnt, and sacked and spoiled?”
“I winna say,” replied Edie, “that I have been better than my neighbours;—it’s a rough trade—war’s sweet to them that never tried it.”
“And you are now old and miserable, asking from precarious charity the food which in your youth you tore from the hand of the poor peasant?”
“I am a beggar, it is true, my lord; but I am nae just sae miserable neither. For my sins, I hae had grace to repent of them, if I might say sae, and to lay them where they may be better borne than by me; and for my food, naebody grudges an auld man a bit and a drink—Sae I live as I can, and am contented to die when I am ca’d upon.”
“And thus, then, with little to look back upon that is pleasant or praiseworthy in your past life—with less to look forward to on this side of eternity, you are contented to drag out the rest of your existence? Go, begone! and in your age and poverty and weariness, never envy the lord of such a mansion as this, either in his sleeping or waking moments—Here is something for thee.”
The Earl put into the old man’s hand five or six guineas. Edie would perhaps have stated his scruples, as upon other occasions, to the amount of the benefaction, but the tone of Lord Glenallan was too absolute to admit of either answer or dispute. The Earl then called his servant—“See this old man safe from the castle—let no one ask him any questions—and you, friend, begone, and forget the road that leads to my house.”
“That would be difficult for me,” said Edie, looking at the gold which he still held in his hand, “that would be e’en difficult, since your honour has gien me such gade cause to remember it.”
Lord Glenallan stared, as hardly comprehending the old man’s boldness in daring to bandy words with him, and, with his hand, made him another signal of departure, which the mendicant instantly obeyed.