The Antiquary

Chapter XL

Walter Scott

Life ebbs from such old age, unmarked and silent,
As the slow neap-tide leaves yon stranded galley.—
Late she rocked merrily at the least impulse
That wind or wave could give; but now her keel
Is settling on the sand, her mast has ta’en
An angle with the sky, from which it shifts not.
Each wave receding shakes her less and less,
Till, bedded on the strand, she shall remain
Useless as motionless.
Old Play.


AS THE ANTIQUARY lifted the latch of the hut, he was surprised to hear the shrill tremulous voice of Elspeth chanting forth an old ballad in a wild and doleful recitative.

“The herring loves the merry moonlight,
    The mackerel loves the wind,
But the oyster loves the dredging sang,
    For they come of a gentle kind.”

A diligent collector of these legendary scraps of ancient poetry, his foot refused to cross the threshold when his ear was thus arrested, and his hand instinctively took pencil and memorandum-book. From time to time the old woman spoke as if to the children—“Oh ay, hinnies, whisht! whisht! and I’ll begin a bonnier ane than that—

“Now haud your tongue, baith wife and carle,
    And listen, great and sma’,
And I will sing of Glenallan’s Earl
    That fought on the red Harlaw.

“The cronach’s cried on Bennachie,
    And doun the Don and a’,
And hieland and lawland may mournfu’ be
    For the sair field of Harlaw.—

I dinna mind the neist verse weel—my memory’s failed, and theres unco thoughts come ower me—God keep us frae temptation!”

Here her voice sunk in indistinct muttering.

“It’s a historical ballad,” said Oldbuck, eagerly, “a genuine and undoubted fragment of minstrelsy! Percy would admire its simplicity—Ritson could not impugn its authenticity.”

“Ay, but it’s a sad thing,” said Ochiltree, “to see human nature sae far owertaen as to be skirling at auld sangs on the back of a loss like hers.”

“Hush! hush!” said the Antiquary—“she has gotten the thread of the story again. “—And as he spoke, she sung—

“They saddled a hundred milk-white steeds,
    They hae bridled a hundred black,
With a chafron of steel on each horse’s head,
    And a good knight upon his back.”—

“Chafron!” exclaimed the Antiquary,—“equivalent, perhaps, to cheveron;—the word’s worth a dollar,”—and down it went in his red book.

“They hadna ridden a mile, a mile,
    A mile, but barely ten,
When Donald came branking down the brae
    Wi’ twenty thousand men.

“Their tartans they were waving wide,
    Their glaives were glancing clear,
Their pibrochs rung frae side to side,
    Would deafen ye to hear.

“The great Earl in his stirrups stood
    That Highland host to see:
Now here a knight that’s stout and good
    May prove a jeopardie:

“What wouldst thou do, my squire so gay,
    That rides beside my reyne,
Were ye Glenallan’s Earl the day,
    And I were Roland Cheyne?

“To turn the rein were sin and shame,
    To fight were wondrous peril,
What would ye do now, Roland Cheyne,
    Were ye Glenallan’s Earl?’

Ye maun ken, hinnies, that this Roland Cheyne, for as poor and auld as I sit in the chimney-neuk, was my forbear, and an awfu’ man he was that dayin the fight, but specially after the Earl had fa’en, for he blamed himsell for the counsel he gave, to fight before Mar came up wi’ Mearns, and Aberdeen, and Angus.”

Her voice rose and became more animated as she recited the warlike counsel of her ancestor—

“Were I Glenallan’s Earl this tide,
    And ye were Roland Cheyne,
The spur should be in my horse’s side,
    And the bridle upon his mane.

“If they hae twenty thousand blades,
    And we twice ten times ten,
Yet they hae but their tartan plaids,
    And we are mail-clad men.

“My horse shall ride through ranks sae rude,
    As through the moorland fern,
Then neer let the gentle Norman blude
    Grow cauld for Highland kerne.’”

“Do you hear that, nephew?” said Oldbuck;—“you observe your Gaelic ancestors were not held in high repute formerly by the Lowland warriors.”

“I hear,” said Hector, “a silly old woman sing a silly old song. I am surprised, sir, that you, who will not listen to Ossian’s songs of Selma, can be pleased with such trash. I vow, I have not seen or heard a worse halfpenny ballad; I don’t believe you could match it in any pedlar’s pack in the country. I should be ashamed to think that the honour of the Highlands could be affected by such doggrel. “—And, tossing up his head, he snuffed the air indignantly.

Apparently the old woman heard the sound of their voices; for, ceasing her song, she called out, “Come in, sirs, come in—good-will never halted at the door-stane.”

They entered, and found to their surprise Elspeth alone, sitting “ghastly on the hearth,” like the personification of Old Age in the Hunter’s song of the Owl,1 “wrinkled, tattered, vile, dim-eyed, discoloured, torpid.”

“They’re a’ out,” she said, as they entered; “but an ye will sit a blink, somebody will be in. If ye hae business wi’ my gude-daughter, or my son, they’ll be in belyve,—I never speak on business mysell. Bairns, gie them seats—the bairns are a’ gane out, I trow,”—looking around her;—“I was crooning to keep them quiet a wee while since; but they hae cruppen out some gate. Sit down, sirs, they’ll be in belyve;” and she dismissed her spindle from her hand to twirl upon the floor, and soon seemed exclusively occupied in regulating its motion, as unconscious of the presence of the strangers as she appeared indifferent to their rank or business there.

“I wish,” said Oldbuck, “she would resume that canticle, or legendary fragment. I always suspected there was a skirmish of cavalry before the main battle of the Harlaw.”2

“If your honour pleases,” said Edie, “had ye not better proceed to the business that brought us a’ here? I’se engage to get ye the sang ony time.”

“I believe you are right, Edie—Do manus—I submit. But how shall we manage? She sits there the very image of dotage. Speak to her, Edie—try if you can make her recollect having sent you to Glenallan House.”

Edie rose accordingly, and, crossing the floor, placed himself in the same position which he had occupied during his former conversation with her. “I’m fain to see ye looking sae weel, cummer; the mair, that the black ox has tramped on ye since I was aneath your roof-tree.”

“Ay,” said Elspeth; but rather from a general idea of misfortune, than any exact recollection of what had happened,—“there has been distress amang us of late—I wonder how younger folk bide it—I bide it ill. I canna hear the wind whistle, and the sea roar, but I think I see the coble whombled keel up, and some o’ them struggling in the waves!—Eh, sirs; sic weary dreams as folk hae between sleeping and waking, before they win to the lang sleep and the sound! I could amaist think whiles my son, or else Steenie, my oe, was dead, and that I had seen the burial. Isna that a queer dream for a daft auld carline? What for should ony o’ them dee before me?—it’s out o’ the course o’ nature, ye ken.”

“I think you’ll make very little of this stupid old woman,” said Hector,—who still nourished, perhaps, some feelings of the dislike excited by the disparaging mention of his countrymen in her lay—“I think you’ll make but little of her, sir; and it’s wasting our time to sit here and listen to her dotage.”

“Hector,” said the Antiquary, indignantly, “if you do not respect her misfortunes, respect at least her old age and grey hairs: this is the last stage of existence, so finely treated by the Latin poet—

Membrorum damno major dementia, quæ nec
Nomina servorum, nec vultus agnoscit amici,
Cum queis preterita cœnavit nocte, nec illos
Quos genuit, quos ecluxit.’”

“That’s Latin!” said Elspeth, rousing herself as if she attended to the lines, which the Antiquary recited with great pomp of diction—“that’s Latin!” and she cast a wild glance around her—“Has there a priest fund me out at last?”

“You see, nephew, her comprehension is almost equal to your own of that fine passage.”

“I hope you think, sir, that I knew it to be Latin as well as she did?”

“Why, as to that— But stay, she is about to speak.”

“I will have no priest—none,” said the beldam, with impotent vehemence; “as I have lived I will die—none shall say that I betrayed my mistress, though it were to save my soul!”

“That bespoke a foul conscience,” said the mendicant;—“I wuss she wad mak a clean breast, an it were but for her sake;” and he again assailed her.

“Weel, gudewife, I did your errand to the Yerl.”

“To what Earl? I ken nae Earl;—I ken’d a Countess ance—I wish to Heaven I had never ken’d her! for by that acquaintance, neighbour, their cam,”—and she counted her withered fingers as she spoke “first Pride, then Malice, then Revenge, then False Witness; and Murder tirl’d at the door-pin, if he camna ben. And werena thae pleasant guests, think ye, to take up their quarters in ae woman’s heart? I trow there was routh o’ company.”

“But, cummer,” continued the beggar, “it wasna the Countess of Glenallan I meant, but her son, him that was Lord Geraldin.”

“I mind it now,” she said; “I saw him no that lang syne, and we had a heavy speech thegither. Eh, sirs! the comely young lord is turned as auld and frail as I am: it’s muckle that sorrow and heartbreak, and crossing of true love, will do wi’ young blood. But suldna his mither hae lookit to that hersell?—we were but to do her bidding, ye ken. I am sure there’s naebody can blame me—he wasna my son, and she was my mistress. Ye ken how the rhyme says—I hae maist forgotten how to sing, or else the tune’s left my auld head—

“‘He turn’d him right and round again,
    Said, Scorn na at my mither;
Light loves I may get mony a ane,
    But minnie neer anither’

Then he was but of the half blude, ye ken, and her’s was the right Glenallan after a’. Na, na, I maun never maen doing and suffering for the Countess Joscelin—never will I maen for that.”

Then drawing her flax from the distaff, with the dogged air of one who is resolved to confess nothing, she resumed her interrupted occupation.

“I hae heard,” said the mendicant, taking his cue from what Oldbuck had told him of the family history—“I hae heard, cummer, that some ill tongue suld hae come between the Earl, that’s Lord Geraldin, and his young bride.”

“Ill tongue?” she said in hasty alarm; “and what had she to fear frae an ill tongue?—she was gude and fair eneugh—at least a’ body said sae. But had she keepit her ain tongue aff ither folk, she might hae been living like a leddy for a’ that’s come and gane yet.”

“But I hae heard say, gudewife,” continued Ochiltree, “there was a clatter in the country, that her husband and her were ower sibb when they married.”

“Wha durst speak o’ that?” said the old woman hastily; “wha durst say they were married?—wha ken’d o’ that?—Not the Countess—not I. If they wedded in secret, they were severed in secret—They drank of the fountains of their ain deceit.”

“No, wretched beldam!” exclaimed Oldbuck, who could keep silence no longer, “they drank the poison that you and your wicked mistress prepared for them.”

“Ha, ha!” she replied, “I aye thought it would come to this. it’s but sitting silent when they examine me—there’s nae torture in our days; and if there is, let them rend me!—It’s ill o’ the vassal’s mouth that betrays the bread it eats.”

“Speak to her, Edie,” said the Antiquary; “she knows your voice, and answers to it most readily.”

“We shall mak naething mair out o’ her,” said Ochiltree. “When she has clinkit hersell down that way, and faulded her arms, she winna speak a word, they say, for weeks thegither. And besides, to my thinking, her face is sair changed since we cam in. However, I’se try her ance mair to satisfy your honour.—So ye canna keep in mind, cummer, that your auld mistress, the Countess Joscelin, has been removed?”

“Removed!” she exclaimed; for that name never failed to produce its usual effect upon her; “then we maun a’ follow—a’ maun ride when she is in the saddle. Tell them to let Lord Geraldin ken we’re on before them. Bring my hood and scarf—ye wadna hae me gang in the carriage wi’ my leddy, and my hair in this fashion?”

She raised her shrivelled arms, and seemed busied like a woman who puts on her cloak to go abroad, then dropped them slowly and stiffly; and the same idea of a journey still floating apparently through her head, she proceeded, in a hurried and interrupted manner,—“Call Miss Neville—What do you mean by Lady Geraldin? I said Eveline Neville, not Lady Geraldin—there’s no Lady Geraldin; tell her that, and bid her change her wet gown, and no’ look sae pale. Bairn! what should she do wi’ a bairn?—maidens hae nane, I trow.—Teresa—Teresa—my lady calls us!—Bring a candle;—the grand staircase is as mirk as a Yule midnight—We are coming, my lady!”—With these words she sunk back on the settle, and from thence sidelong to the floor.3

Edie ran to support her, but hardly got her in his arms, before he said, “It’s a’ ower—she has passed away even with that last word.”

“Impossible,” said Oldbuck, hastily advancing, as did his nephew. But nothing was more certain. She had expired with the last hurried word that left her lips; and all that remained before them were the mortal relics of the creature who had so long struggled with an internal sense of concealed guilt, joined to all the distresses of age and poverty.

“God grant that she be gane to a better place!” said Edie, as he looked on the lifeless body; “but oh! there was something lying hard and heavy at her heart. I have seen mony a ane dee, baith in the field o’ battle, and a fair-strae death at hame; but I wad rather see them a’ ower again, as sic a fearfu’ flitting as hers!”

“We must call in the neighbours,” said Oldbuck, when he had somewhat recovered his horror and astonishment, “and give warning of this additional calamity. I wish she could have been brought to a confession. And, though of far less consequence, I could have wished to transcribe that metrical fragment. But Heaven’s will must be done!”

They left the hut accordingly, and gave the alarm in the hamlet, whose matrons instantly assembled to compose the limbs and arrange the body of her who might be considered as the mother of their settlement. Oldbuck promised his assistance for the funeral.

“Your honour,” said Alison Breck, who was next in age to the deceased, “suld send doun something to us for keeping up our hearts at the lykewake, for a’ Saunders’s gin, puir man, was drucken out at the burial o’ Steenie, and we’ll no get mony to sit dry-lipped aside the corpse. Elspeth was unco clever in her young days, as I can mind right weel, but there was aye a word o’ her no being that chancy. Ane suldna speak ill o’ the dead—mair by token, o’ ane’s cummer and neighbour—but there was queer things said about a leddy and a bairn or she left the Craigburnfoot. And sae, in gude troth, it will be a puir lykewake, unless your honour sends us something to keep us cracking.”

“You shall have some whisky,” answered Oldbuck, “the rather that you have preserved the proper word for that ancient custom of watching the dead.—You observe, Hector, this is genuine Teutonic, from the Gothic Leichnam, a corpse. It is quite erroneously called Late-wake, though Brand favours that modern corruption and derivation.”

“I believe,” said Hector to himself, “my uncle would give away Monkbarns to any one who would come to ask it in genuine Teutonic! Not a drop of whisky would the old creatures have got, had their president asked it for the use of the Late-wake.

While Oldbuck was giving some farther directions, and promising assistance, a servant of Sir Arthur’s came riding very hard along the sands, and stopped his horse when he saw the Antiquary. “There had something,” he said, “very particular happened at the Castle”—(he could not, or would not, explain what)—“and Miss Wardour had sent him off express to Monkbarns, to beg that Mr. Oldbuck would come to them without a moment’s delay.”

“I am afraid,” said the Antiquary, “his course also is drawing to a close. What can I do?”

“Do, sir?” exclaimed Hector, with his characteristic impatience,—“get on the horse, and turn his head homeward—you will be at Knockwinnock Castle in ten minutes.”

“He is quite a free goer,” said the servant, dismounting to adjust the girths and stirrups,—“he only pulls a little if he feels a dead weight on him.”

“I should soon be a dead weight off him, my friend,” said the Antiquary.—“What the devil, nephew, are you weary of me? or do you suppose me weary of my life, that I should get on the back of such a Bucephalus as that? No, no, my friend, if I am to be at Knockwinnock to-day, it must be by walking quietly forward on my own feet, which I will do with as little delay as possible. Captain M‘Intyre may ride that animal himself, if he pleases.”

“I have little hope I could be of any use, uncle, but I cannot think of their distress without wishing to show sympathy at least—so I will ride on before, and announce to them that you are coming.—I’ll trouble you for your spurs, my friend.”

“You will scarce need them, sir,” said the man, taking them off at the same time, and buckling them upon Captain Mlntyre’s heels, “he’s very frank to the road.”

Oldbuck stood astonished at this last act of temerity, “Are you mad, Hector?” he cried, “or have you forgotten what is said by Quintus Curtius, with whom, as a soldier, you must needs be familiar,—Nobilis equus umbra quidem virgæ regitur; ignavus ne calcari quidem excitari potest; which plainly shows that spurs are useless in every case, and, I may add, dangerous in most.”

But Hector, who cared little for the opinion of either Quintus Curtius or of the Antiquary, upon such a topic, only answered with a heedless “Never fear—never fear, sir.”

With that he gave his able horse the head,
And, bending forward, struck his armed heels
Against the panting sides of his poor jade,
Up to the rowel-head; and starting so,
He seemed in running to devour the way,
Staying no longer question.

“There they go, well matched,” said Oldbuck, looking after them as they started—“a mad horse and a wild boy, the two most unruly creatures in Christendom! and all to get half an hour sooner to a place where nobody wants him; for I doubt Sir Arthur’s griefs are beyond the cure of our light horseman. It must be the villany of Dousterswivel, for whom Sir Arthur has done so much; for I cannot help observing, that, with some natures, Tacitus’s maxim holdeth good: Beneficia eo usque læta sunt dum videntur exsolvi posse; ubi multum antevenere, pro gratia odium redditur,—from which a wise man might take a caution, not to oblige any man beyond the degree in which he may expect to be requited, lest he should make his debtor a bankrupt in gratitude.”

Murmuring to himself such scraps of cynical philosophy, our Antiquary paced the sands towards Knockwinnock; but it is necessary we should outstrip him, for the purpose of explaining the reasons of his being so anxiously summoned thither.

1.    See Mrs. Grant on the Highland Superstitions, vol. ii. p. 260, for this fine translation from the Gaelic.    [back]

2.    The great battle of Harlaw, here and formerly referred to, might be said to determine whether the Gaelic or the Saxon race should be predominant in Scotland. Donald, Lord of the Isles, who had at that period the power of an independent sovereign, laid claim to the Earldom of Ross during the Regency of Robert, Duke of Albany. To enforce his supposed right, he ravaged the north with a large army of Highlanders and Islesmen. He was encountered at Harlaw, in the Garioch, by Alexander, Earl of Mar, at the head of the northern nobility and gentry of Saxon and Norman descent. The battle was bloody and indecisive; but the invader was obliged to retire in consequence of the loss he sustained, and afterwards was compelled to make submission to the Regent, and renounce his pretensions to Ross; so that all the advantages of the field were gained by the Saxons. The battle of Harlaw was fought 24th July 1411.    [back]

3.    Elspeth’s death - The concluding circumstance of Elspeth’s death is taken from an incident said to have happened at the funeral of John, Duke of Roxburghe. All who were acquainted with that accomplished nobleman must remember that he was not more remarkable for creating and possessing a most curious and splendid library, than for his acquaintance with the literary treasures it contained. In arranging his books, fetching and replacing the volumes which he wanted, and carrying on all the necessary intercourse which a man of letters holds with his library, it was the Duke’s custom to employ, not a secretary or librarian, but a livery servant, called Archie, whom habit had made so perfectly acquainted with the library, that he knew every book, as a shepherd does the individuals of his flock, by what is called head-mark, and could bring his master whatever volume he wanted, and afford all the mechanical aid the Duke required in his literary researches. To secure the attendance of Archie, there was a bell hung in his room, which was used on no occasion except to call him individually to the Duke’s study.

His Grace died in Saint James’s Square, London, in the year 1804; the body was to be conveyed to Scotland, to lie in state at his mansion of Fleurs, and to be removed from thence to the family burial-place at Bowden.

At this time, Archie, who had been long attacked by a liver-complaint, was in the very last stage of that disease. Yet he prepared himself to accompany the body of the master whom he had so long and so faithfully waited upon. The medical persons assured him he could not survive the journey. It signified nothing, he said, whether he died in England or Scotland; he was resolved to assist in rendering the last honours to the kind master from whom he had been inseparable for so many years, even if he should expire in the attempt. The poor invalid was permitted to attend the Duke’s body to Scotland; but when they reached Fleurs he was totally exhausted, and obliged to keep his bed, in a sort of stupor which announced speedy dissolution. On the morning of the day fixed for removing the dead body of the Duke to the place of burial, the private bell by which he was wont to summon his attendant to his study was rung violently. This might easily happen in the confusion of such a scene, although the people of the neighbourhood prefer believing that the bell sounded of its own accord. Ring, however, it did; and Archie, roused by the well-known summons, rose up in his bed, and faltered, in broken accents, “Yes, my Lord Duke—yes—I will wait on your Grace instantly;” and with these words on his lips he is said to have fallen back and expired.    [back]

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