What is this secret sin, this untold tale,|
That art cannot extract, nor penance cleanse?
—Her muscles hold their place;
Nor discomposed, nor formed to steadiness,
No sudden flushing, and no faltering lip.—
“O, what a day is this! what a day is this!” said the poor mother, her womanish affliction already exhausted by sobs and tears, and now almost lost in terror for the state in which she beheld her husband—“O, what an hour is this! and naebody to help a poor lone woman—O, gudemither, could ye but speak a word to him!—wad ye but bid him be comforted!”
To her astonishment, and even to the increase of her fear, her husband’s mother heard and answered the appeal. She rose and walked across the floor without support, and without much apparent feebleness, and standing by the bed on which her son had extended himself, she said, “Rise up, my son, and sorrow not for him that is beyond sin and sorrow and temptation. Sorrow is for those that remain in this vale of sorrow and darkness—I, wha dinna sorrow, and wha canna sorrow for ony ane, hae maist need that ye should a’ sorrow for me.”
The voice of his mother, not heard for years as taking part in the active duties of life, or offering advice or consolation, produced its effect upon her son. He assumed a sitting posture on the side of the bed, and his appearance, attitude, and gestures, changed from those of angry despair to deep grief and dejection. The grandmother retired to her nook, the mother mechanically took in her hand her tattered Bible, and seemed to read, though her eyes were drowned with tears.
They were thus occupied, when a loud knock was heard at the door.
“Hegh, sirs!” said the poor mother, “wha is that can be coming in that gate e’enow?—They canna hae heard o’ our misfortune, I’m sure.”
The knock being repeated, she rose and opened the door, saying querulously, “Whatna gait’s that to disturb a sorrowfu’ house?”
A tall man in black stood before her, whom she instantly recognised to be Lord Glenallan. “Is there not,” he said, “an old woman lodging in this or one of the neighbouring cottages, called Elspeth, who was long resident at Craigburnfoot of Glenallan?”
“It’s my gudemither, my lord,” said Margaret; “but she canna see onybody e’enow—Ohon! we’re dreeing a sair weird—we hae had a heavy dispensation!”
“God forbid,” said Lord Glenallan, “that I should on light occasion disturb your sorrow;—but my days are numbered—your mother-in-law is in the extremity of age, and, if I see her not to-day, we may never meet on this side of time.”
“And what,” answered the desolate mother, “wad ye see at an auld woman, broken down wi’ age and sorrow and heartbreak? Gentle or semple shall not darken my door the day my bairn’s been carried out a corpse.”
While she spoke thus, indulging the natural irritability of disposition and profession, which began to mingle itself with her grief when its first uncontrolled bursts were gone by, she held the door about one-third part open, and placed herself in the gap, as if to render the visitor’s entrance impossible. But the voice of her husband was heard from within—“Wha’s that, Maggie? what for are ye steaking them out?—let them come in; it doesna signify an auld rope’s end wha comes in or wha gaes out o’ this house frae this time forward.”
The woman stood aside at her husband’s command, and permitted Lord Glenallan to enter the hut. The dejection exhibited in his broken frame and emaciated countenance, formed a strong contrast with the effects of grief, as they were displayed in the rude and weatherbeaten visage of the fisherman, and the masculine features of his wife. He approached the old woman as she was seated on her usual settle, and asked her, in a tone as audible as his voice could make it, “Are you Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot of Glenallan?”
“Wha is it that asks about the unhallowed residence of that evil woman?” was the answer returned to his query.
“The unhappy Earl of Glenallan.”
“Earl!—Earl of Glenallan!”
“He who was called William Lord Geraldin,” said the Earl; “and whom his mother’s death has made Earl of Glenallan.”
“Open the bole,” said the old woman firmly and hastily to her daughter-in-law, “open the bole wi’ speed, that I may see if this be the right Lord Geraldin—the son of my mistress—him that I received in my arms within the hour after he was born—him that has reason to curse me that I didna smother him before the hour was past!”
The window, which had been shut in order that a gloomy twilight might add to the solemnity of the funeral meeting, was opened as she commanded, and threw a sudden and strong light through the smoky and misty atmosphere of the stifling cabin. Falling in a stream upon the chimney, the rays illuminated, in the way that Rembrandt would have chosen, the features of the unfortunate nobleman, and those of the old sibyl, who now, standing upon her feet, and holding him by one hand, peered anxiously in his features with her light-blue eyes, and holding her long and withered fore-finger within a small distance of his face, moved it slowly as if to trace the outlines and reconcile what she recollected with that she now beheld. As she finished her scrutiny, she said, with a deep sigh, “It’s a sair, sair change; and wha’s fault is it?—but that’s written down where it will be remembered—it’s written on tablets of brass with a pen of steel, where all is recorded that is done in the flesh.—And what,” she said after a pause, “what is Lord Geraldin seeking from a poor auld creature like me, that’s dead already, and only belongs sae far to the living that she isna yet laid in the moulds?”
“Nay,” answered Lord Glenallan, “in the name of Heaven, why was it that you requested so urgently to see me?—and why did you back your request by sending a token which you knew well I dared not refuse?”
As he spoke thus, he took from his purse the ring which Edie Ochiltree had delivered to him at Glenallan House. The sight of this token produced a strange and instantaneous effect upon the old woman. The palsy of fear was immediately added to that of age, and she began instantly to search her pockets with the tremulous and hasty agitation of one who becomes first apprehensive of having lost something of great importance;—then, as if convinced of the reality of her fears, she turned to the Earl, and demanded, “And how came ye by it then?—how came ye by it? I thought I had kept it sae securely—what will the Countess say?”
“You know,” said the Earl, “at least you must have heard, that my mother is dead.”
“Dead! are ye no imposing upon me? has she left a’ at last, lands and lordship and lineages?”
“All, all,” said the Earl, “as mortals must leave all human vanities.”
“I mind now,” answered Elspeth—“I heard of it before but there has been sic distress in our house since, and my memory is sae muckle impaired—But ye are sure your mother, the Lady Countess, is gane hame?”
The Earl again assured her that her former mistress was no more.
“Then,” said Elspeth, “it shall burden my mind nae langer!—When she lived, wha dared to speak what it would hae displeased her to hae had noised abroad? But she’s gane—and I will confess all.”
Then turning to her son and daughter-in-law, she commanded them imperatively to quit the house, and leave Lord Geraldin (for so she still called him) alone with her. But Maggie Mucklebackit, her first burst of grief being over, was by no means disposed in her own house to pay passive obedience to the commands of her mother-in-law, an authority which is peculiarly obnoxious to persons in her rank of life, and which she was the more astonished at hearing revived, when it seemed to have been so long relinquished and forgotten.
“It was an unco thing,” she said, in a grumbling tone of voice,—for the rank of Lord Glenallan was somewhat imposing—“it was an unco thing to bid a mother leave her ain house wi’ the tear in her ee, the moment her eldest son had been carried a corpse out at the door o’t.”
The fisherman, in a stubborn and sullen tone, added to the same purpose. “This is nae day for your auld-warld stories, mother. My lord, if he be a lord, may ca’ some other day—or he may speak out what he has gotten to say if he likes it; there’s nane here will think it worth their while to listen to him or you either. But neither for laird or loon, gentle or semple, will I leave my ain house to pleasure onybody on the very day my poor”—
Here his voice choked, and he could proceed no farther; but as he had risen when Lord Glenallan came in, and had since remained standing, he now threw himself doggedly upon a seat, and remained in the sullen posture of one who was determined to keep his word.
But the old woman, whom this crisis seemed to repossess in all those powers of mental superiority with which she had once been eminently gifted, arose, and advancing towards him, said, with a solemn voice, “My son, as ye wad shun hearing of your mother’s shame—as ye wad not willingly be a witness of her guilt—as ye wad deserve her blessing and avoid her curse, I charge ye, by the body that bore and that nursed ye, to leave me at freedom to speak with Lord Geraldin, what nae mortal ears but his ain maun listen to. Obey my words, that when ye lay the moulds on my head—and, oh that the day were come!—ye may remember this hour without the reproach of having disobeyed the last earthly command that ever your mother wared on you.”
The terms of this solemn charge revived in the fisherman’s heart the habit of instinctive obedience in which his mother had trained him up, and to which he had submitted implicitly while her powers of exacting it remained entire. The recollection mingled also with the prevailing passion of the moment; for, glancing his eye at the bed on which the dead body had been laid, he muttered to himself, “He never disobeyed me, in reason or out o’ reason, and what for should I vex her?” Then, taking his reluctant spouse by the arm, he led her gently out of the cottage, and latched the door behind them as he left it.
As the unhappy parents withdrew, Lord Glenallan, to prevent the old woman from relapsing into her lethargy, again pressed her on the subject of the communication which she proposed to make to him.
“Ye will have it sune eneugh,” she replied;—“my mind’s clear eneugh now, and there is not—I think there is not—a chance of my forgetting what I have to say. My dwelling at Craigburnfoot is before my een, as it were present in reality:—the green bank, with its selvidge, just where the burn met wi’ the sea—the twa little barks, wi’ their sails furled, lying in the natural cove which it formed—the high cliff that joined it with the pleasure-grounds of the house of Glenallan, and hung right ower the stream—Ah! yes—I may forget that I had a husband and have lost him—that I hae but ane alive of our four fair sons—that misfortune upon misfortune has devoured our ill-gotten wealth—that they carried the corpse of my son’s eldest-born frae the house this morning—But I never can forget the days I spent at bonny Craigburnfoot!”
“You were a favourite of my mother,” said Lord Glenallan, desirous to bring her back to the point, from which she was wandering.
“I was, I was,—ye needna mind me o’ that. She brought me up abune my station, and wi’ knowledge mair than my fellows—but, like the tempter of auld, wi’ the knowledge of gude she taught me the knowledge of evil.”
“For God’s sake, Elspeth,” said the astonished Earl, “proceed, if you can, to explain the dreadful hints you have thrown out! I well know you are confidant to one dreadful secret, which should split this roof even to hear it named—but speak on farther.”
“I will,” she said—“I will!—just bear wi’ me for a little;”—and again she seemed lost in recollection, but it was no longer tinged with imbecility or apathy. She was now entering upon the topic which had long loaded her mind, and which doubtless often occupied her whole soul at times when she seemed dead to all around her. And I may add, as a remarkable fact, that such was the intense operation of mental energy upon her physical powers and nervous system, that, notwithstanding her infirmity of deafness, each word that Lord Glenallan spoke during this remarkable conference, although in the lowest tone of horror or agony, fell as full and distinct upon Elspeth’s ear as it could have done at any period of her life. She spoke also herself clearly, distinctly, and slowly, as if anxious that the intelligence she communicated should be fully understood; concisely at the same time, and with none of the verbiage or circumlocutory additions natural to those of her sex and condition. In short, her language bespoke a better education, as well as an uncommonly firm and resolved mind, and a character of that sort from which great virtues or great crimes may be naturally expected. The tenor of her communication is disclosed in the following chapter.