Remorse—she neer forsakes us—|
A bloodhound staunch—she tracks our rapid step
Through the wild labyrinth of youthful frenzy,
Unheard, perchance, until old age hath tamed us
Then in our lair, when Time hath chilled our joints,
And maimed our hope of combat, or of flight,
We hear her deep-mouthed bay, announcing all
Of wrath, and wo, and punishment that bides us.
“I charge thee, woman,” said the Earl, in a voice trembling with passion, “name not her name in my hearing!”
“I MUST,” returned the penitent firmly and calmly, “or how can you understand me?”
The Earl leaned upon one of the wooden chairs of the hut, drew his hat over his face, clenched his hands together, set his teeth like one who summons up courage to undergo a painful operation, and made a signal to her to proceed.
“I say, then,” she resumed, “that my disgrace with my mistress was chiefly owing to Miss Eveline Neville, then bred up in Glenallan House as the daughter of a cousin-german and intimate friend of your father that was gane. There was muckle mystery in her history,—but wha dared to inquire farther than the Countess liked to tell?—All in Glenallan House loved Miss Neville—all but twa, your mother and mysell—we baith hated her.”
“God! for what reason, since a creature so mild, so gentle, so formed to inspire affection, never walked on this wretched world?”
“It may hae been sae,” rejoined Elspeth, “but your mother hated a’ that cam of your father’s family—a’ but himsell. Her reasons related to strife which fell between them soon after her marriage; the particulars are naething to this purpose. But oh! doubly did she hate Eveline Neville when she perceived that there was a growing kindness atween you and that unfortunate young leddy! Ye may mind that the Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther—at least it wasna seen farther; but at the lang run it brak out into such downright violence that Miss Neville was even fain to seek refuge at Knockwinnock Castle with Sir Arthur’s leddy, wha (God sain her!) was then wi’ the living.”
“You rend my heart by recalling these particulars—But go on,—and may my present agony be accepted as additional penance for the involuntary crime!”
“She had been absent some months,” continued Elspeth, “when I was ae night watching in my hut the return of my husband from fishing, and shedding in private those bitter tears that my proud spirit wrung frae me whenever I thought on my disgrace. The sneck was drawn, and the Countess your mother entered my dwelling. I thought I had seen a spectre, for even in the height of my favour, this was an honour she had never done me, and she looked as pale and ghastly as if she had risen from the grave. She sat down, and wrung the draps from her hair and cloak,—for the night was drizzling, and her walk had been through the plantations, that were a’ loaded with dew. I only mention these things that you may understand how weel that night lives in my memory,—and weel it may. I was surprised to see her, but I durstna speak first, mair than if I had seen a phantom—Na, I durst not, my lord, I that hae seen mony sights of terror, and never shook at them. Sae, after a silence, she said, Elspeth Cheyne (for she always gave me my maiden name), are not ye the daughter of that Reginald Cheyne who died to save his master, Lord Glenallan, on the field of Sheriffmuir?’ And I answered her as proudly as hersell nearly—‘As sure as you are the daughter of that Earl of Glenallan whom my father saved that day by his own death.’”
Here she made a deep pause.
“And what followed?—what followed?—For Heaven’s sake, good woman—But why should I use that word?—Yet, good or bad, I command you to tell me.”
“And little I should value earthly command,” answered Elspeth, “were there not a voice that has spoken to me sleeping and waking, that drives me forward to tell this sad tale. Aweel, my Lord—the Countess said to me, My son loves Eveline Neville—they are agreed—they are plighted: should they have a son, my right over Glenallan merges—I sink from that moment from a Countess into a miserable stipendiary dowager, I who brought lands and vassals, and high blood and ancient fame, to my husband, I must cease to be mistress when my son has an heir-male. But I care not for that—had he married any but one of the hated Nevilles, I had been patient. But for them—that they and their descendants should enjoy the right and honours of my ancestors, goes through my heart like a two-edged dirk. And this girl—I detest her!’—And I answered, for my heart kindled at her words, that her hate was equalled by mine.”
“Wretch!” exclaimed the Earl, in spite of his determination to preserve silence—“wretched woman! what cause of hate could have arisen from a being so innocent and gentle?”
“I hated what my mistress hated, as was the use with the liege vassals of the house of Glenallan; for though, my Lord, I married under my degree, yet an ancestor of yours never went to the field of battle, but an ancestor of the frail, demented, auld, useless wretch wha now speaks with you, carried his shield before him. But that was not a’,” continued the beldam, her earthly and evil passions rekindling as she became heated in her narration—“that was not a’; I hated Miss Eveline Neville for her ain sake, I brought her frae England, and, during our whole journey, she gecked and scorned at my northern speech and habit, as her southland leddies and kimmers had done at the boarding-school, as they cald it”—(and, strange as it may seem, she spoke of an affront offered by a heedless school-girl without intention, with a degree of inveteracy which, at such a distance of time, a mortal offence would neither have authorized or excited in any well-constituted mind)—“Yes, she scorned and jested at me—but let them that scorn the tartan fear the dirk!”
She paused, and then went on—“But I deny not that I hated her mair than she deserved. My mistress, the Countess, persevered and said, ‘Elspeth Cheyne, this unruly boy will marry with the false English blood. Were days as they have been, I could throw her into the Massymore1 of Glenallan, and fetter him in the Keep of Strathbonnel. But these times are past, and the authority which the nobles of the land should exercise is delegated to quibbling lawyers and their baser dependants. Hear me, Elspeth Cheyne! if you are your father’s daughter as I am mine, I will find means that they shall not marry. She walks often to that cliff that overhangs your dwelling to look for her lover’s boat—(ye may remember the pleasure ye then took on the sea, my Lord)—let him find her forty fathom lower than he expects!’—Yes! ye may stare and frown and clench your hand; but, as sure as I am to face the only Being I ever feared—and, oh that I had feared him mair!—these were your mother’s words. What avails it to me to lie to you?—But I wadna consent to stain my hand with blood.—Then she said, ‘By the religion of our holy Church they are ower sib thegither. But I expect nothing but that both will become heretics as well as disobedient reprobates;’—that was her addition to that argument. And then, as the fiend is ever ower busy wi’ brains like mine, that are subtle beyond their use and station, I was unhappily permitted to add—‘But they might be brought to think themselves sae sib as no Christian law will permit their wedlock.’”
Here the Earl of Glenallan echoed her words, with a shriek so piercing as almost to rend the roof of the cottage.—“Ah! then Eveline Neville was not the—the”—
“The daughter, ye would say, of your father?” continued Elspeth. “No—be it a torment or be it a comfort to you—ken the truth, she was nae mair a daughter of your father’s house than I am.”
“Woman, deceive me not!—make me not curse the memory of the parent I have so lately laid in the grave, for sharing in a plot the most cruel, the most infernal”—
“Bethink ye, my Lord Geraldin, ere ye curse the memory of a parent that’s gane, is there none of the blood of Glenallan living, whose faults have led to this dreadfu’ catastrophe?”
“Mean you my brother?—he, too, is gone,” said the Earl.
“No,” replied the sibyl, “I mean yoursell, Lord Geraldin. Had you not transgressed the obedience of a son by wedding Eveline Neville in secret while a guest at Knockwinnock, our plot might have separated you for a time, but would have left at least your sorrows without remorse to canker them. But your ain conduct had put poison in the weapon that we threw, and it pierced you with the mair force because ye cam rushing to meet it. Had your marriage been a proclaimed and acknowledged action, our stratagem to throw an obstacle into your way that couldna be got ower, neither wad nor could hae been practised against ye.”
“Great Heaven!” said the unfortunate nobleman—“it is as if a film fell from my obscured eyes! Yes, I now well understand the doubtful hints of consolation thrown out by my wretched mother, tending indirectly to impeach the evidence of the horrors of which her arts had led me to believe myself guilty.”
“She could not speak mair plainly,” answered Elspeth, “without confessing her ain fraud,—and she would have submitted to be torn by wild horses, rather than unfold what she had done; and if she had still lived, so would I for her sake. They were stout hearts the race of Glenallan, male and female, and sae were a’ that in auld times cried their gathering-word of Clochnaben—they stood shouther to shouther—nae man parted frae his chief for love of gold or of gain, or of right or of wrang. The times are changed, I hear, now.”
The unfortunate nobleman was too much wrapped up in his own confused and distracted reflections, to notice the rude expressions of savage fidelity, in which, even in the latest ebb of life, the unhappy author of his misfortunes seemed to find a stern and stubborn source of consolation.
“Great Heaven!” he exclaimed, “I am then free from a guilt the most horrible with which man can be stained, and the sense of which, however involuntary, has wrecked my peace, destroyed my health, and bowed me down to an untimely grave. Accept,” he fervently uttered, lifting his eyes upwards, “accept my humble thanks! If I live miserable, at least I shall not die stained with that unnatural guilt!—And thou—proceed if thou hast more to tell—proceed, while thou hast voice to speak it, and I have powers to listen.”
“Yes,” answered the beldam, “the hour when you shall hear, and I shall speak, is indeed passing rapidly away. Death has crossed your brow with his finger, and I find his grasp turning every day coulder at my heart. Interrupt me nae mair with exclamations and groans and accusations, but hear my tale to an end! And then—if ye be indeed sic a Lord of Glenallan as I hae heard of in my day—make your merrymen gather the thorn, and the brier, and the green hollin, till they heap them as high as the house-riggin’, and burn! burn! burn! the auld witch Elspeth, and a’ that can put ye in mind that sic a creature ever crawled upon the land!”
“Go on,” said the Earl, “go on—I will not again interrupt you.”
He spoke in a half-suffocated yet determined voice, resolved that no irritability on his part should deprive him of this opportunity of acquiring proofs of the wonderful tale he then heard. But Elspeth had become exhausted by a continuous narration of such unusual length; the subsequent part of her story was more broken, and though still distinctly intelligible in most parts, had no longer the lucid conciseness which the first part of her narrative had displayed to such an astonishing degree. Lord Glenallan found it necessary, when she had made some attempts to continue her narrative without success, to prompt her memory by demanding—“What proofs she could propose to bring of the truth of a narrative so different from that which she had originally told?”
“The evidence,” she replied, “of Eveline Neville’s real birth was in the Countess’s possession, with reasons for its being for some time kept private;—they may yet be found, if she has not destroyed them, in the left hand drawer of the ebony cabinet that stood in the dressing-room. These she meant to suppress for the time, until you went abroad again, when she trusted, before your return, to send Miss Neville back to her ain country, or to get her settled in marriage.”
“But did you not show me letters of my father’s, which seemed to me, unless my senses altogether failed me in that horrible moment, to avow his relationship to—to the unhappy”—
“We did; and, with my testimony, how could you doubt the fact, or her either? But we suppressed the true explanation of these letters, and that was, that your father thought it right the young leddy should pass for his daughter for a while, on account o’some family reasons that were amang them.”
“But wherefore, when you learned our union, was this dreadful artifice persisted in?”
“It wasna,” she replied, “till Lady Glenallan had communicated this fause tale, that she suspected ye had actually made a marriage—nor even then did you avow it sae as to satisfy her whether the ceremony had in verity passed atween ye or no—But ye remember, O ye canna but remember weel, what passed in that awfu’ meeting!”
“Woman! you swore upon the gospels to the fact which you now disavow.”
“I did,—and I wad hae taen a yet mair holy pledge on it, if there had been ane—I wad not hae spared the blood of my body, or the guilt of my soul, to serve the house of Glenallan.”
“Wretch! do you call that horrid perjury, attended with consequences yet more dreadful—do you esteem that a service to the house of your benefactors?”
“I served her, wha was then the head of Glenallan, as she required me to serve her. The cause was between God and her conscience—the manner between God and mine—She is gane to her account, and I maun follow. Have I taulds you a’?”
“No,” answered Lord Glenallan—“you have yet more to tell—you have to tell me of the death of the angel whom your perjury drove to despair, stained, as she thought herself, with a crime so horrible. Speak truth—was that dreadful—was that horrible incident”—he could scarcely articulate the words—“was it as reported? or was it an act of yet further, though not more atrocious cruelty, inflicted by others?”
“I understand you,” said Elspeth. “But report spoke truth;—our false witness was indeed the cause, but the deed was her ain distracted act. On that fearfu’ disclosure, when ye rushed frae the Countess’s presence and saddled your horse, and left the castle like a fire-flaught, the Countess hadna yet discovered your private marriage; she hadna fund out that the union, which she had framed this awfu’ tale to prevent, had e’en taen place. Ye fled from the house as if the fire o’ Heaven was about to fa’ upon it, and Miss Neville, atween reason and the want o’t, was put under sure ward. But the ward sleep’t, and the prisoner waked—the window was open—the way was before her—there was the cliff, and there was the sea!—O, when will I forget that!”
“And thus died,” said the Earl, “even so as was reported?”
“No, my lord. I had gane out to the cove—the tide was in, and it flowed, as ye’ll remember, to the foot o’ that cliff—it was a great convenience that for my husband’s trade—Where am I wandering?—I saw a white object dart frae the tap o’ the cliff like a sea-maw through the mist, and then a heavy flash and sparkle of the waters showed me it was a human creature that had fa’en into the waves. I was bold and strong, and familiar with the tide. I rushed in and grasped her gown, and drew her out and carried her on my shouthers—I could hae carried twa sic then—carried her to my hut, and laid her on my bed. Neighbours cam and brought help; but the words she uttered in her ravings, when she got back the use of speech, were such, that I was fain to send them awa, and get up word to Glenallan House. The Countess sent down her Spanish servant Teresa—if ever there was a fiend on earth in human form, that woman was ane. She and I were to watch the unhappy leddy, and let no other person approach.—God knows what Teresa’s part was to hae been—she tauld it not to me—but Heaven took the conclusion in its ain hand. The poor leddy! she took the pangs of travail before her time, bore a male child, and died in the arms of me—of her mortal enemy! Ay, ye may weep—she was a sightly creature to see to—but think ye, if I didna mourn her then, that I can mourn her now? Na, na, I left Teresa wi’ the dead corpse and new-born babe, till I gaed up to take the Countess’s commands what was to be done. Late as it was, I ca’d her up, and she gar’d me ca’ up your brother”—
“Yes, Lord Geraldin, e’en your brother, that some said she aye wished to be her heir. At ony rate, he was the person maist concerned in the succession and heritance of the house of Glenallan.”
“And is it possible to believe, then, that my brother, out of avarice to grasp at my inheritance, would lend himself to such a base and dreadful stratagem?”
“Your mother believed it,” said the old beldam with a fiendish laugh—“it was nae plot of my making; but what they did or said I will not say, because I did not hear. Lang and sair they consulted in the black wainscot dressing-room; and when your brother passed through the room where I was waiting, it seemed to me (and I have often thought sae since syne) that the fire of hell was in his cheek and een. But he had left some of it with his mother, at ony rate. She entered the room like a woman demented, and the first words she spoke were, ‘Elspeth Cheyne, did you ever pull a new-budded flower?’ I answered, as ye may believe, that I often had. ‘Then,’ said she, ‘ye will ken the better how to blight the spurious and heretical blossom that has sprung forth this night to disgrace my father’s noble house—See here;’—(and she gave me a golden bodkin)—‘nothing but gold must shed the blood of Glenallan. This child is already as one of the dead, and since thou and Teresa alone ken that it lives, let it be dealt upon as ye will answer to me!’ and she turned away in her fury, and left me with the bodkin in my hand.—Here it is; that and the ring of Miss Neville, are a’ I hae preserved of my ill-gotten gear—for muckle was the gear I got. And weel hae I keepit the secret, but no for the gowd or gear either.”
Her long and bony hand held out to Lord Glenallan a gold bodkin, down which in fancy he saw the blood of his infant trickling.
“Wretch! had you the heart?”
“I kenna if I could hae had it or no. I returned to my cottage without feeling the ground that I trode on; but Teresa and the child were gane—a’ that was alive was gane—naething left but the lifeless corpse.”
“And did you never learn my infant’s fate?”
“I could but guess. I have tauld ye your mother’s purpose, and I ken Teresa was a fiend. She was never mair seen in Scotland, and I have heard that she returned to her ain land. A dark curtain has fa’en ower the past, and the few that witnessed ony part of it could only surmise something of seduction and suicide. You yourself”—
“I know—I know it all,” answered the Earl.
“You indeed know all that I can say—And now, heir of Glenallan, can you forgive me?”
“Ask forgiveness of God, and not of man,” said the Earl, turning away.
“And how shall I ask of the pure and unstained what is denied to me by a sinner like mysell? If I hae sinned, hae I not suffered?—Hae I had a day’s peace or an hour’s rest since these lang wet locks of hair first lay upon my pillow at Craigburnfoot?—Has not my house been burned, wi’ my bairn in the cradle?—Have not my boats been wrecked, when a’ others weather’d the gale?—Have not a’ that were near and dear to me dree’d penance for my sin?—Has not the fire had its share o’ them—the winds had their part—the sea had her part?—And oh!” she added, with a lengthened groan, looking first upwards towards Heaven, and then bending her eyes on the floor—“O that the earth would take her part, that’s been lang lang wearying to be joined to it!”
Lord Glenallan had reached the door of the cottage, but the generosity of his nature did not permit him to leave the unhappy woman in this state of desperate reprobation. “May God forgive thee, wretched woman,” he said, “as sincerely as I do!—Turn for mercy to Him who can alone grant mercy, and may your prayers be heard as if they were mine own!—I will send a religious man.”
“Na, na—nae priest! nae priest!” she ejaculated; and the door of the cottage opening as she spoke, prevented her from proceeding.
1. Massa-mora, an ancient name for a dungeon, derived from the Moorish language, perhaps as far back as the time of the Crusades. [back]