The Abbot, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Eleventh.

Life hath its May, and is mirthful then:

The woods are vocal, and the flowers all odour;

Its very blast has mirth in’t — and the maidens,

The while they don their cloaks to screen their kirtles,

Laugh at the rain that wets them.

Old play.

Catherine was at the happy age of innocence and buoyancy of spirit, when, after the first moment of embarrassment was over, a situation of awkwardness, like that in which she was suddenly left to make acquaintance with a handsome youth, not even known to her by name, struck her, in spite of herself, in a ludicrous point of view. She bent her beautiful eyes upon the work with which she was busied, and with infinite gravity sate out the two first turns of the matrons upon the balcony; but then, glancing her deep blue eye a little towards Roland, and observing the embarrassment under which he laboured, now shifting on his chair, and now dangling his cap, the whole man evincing that he was perfectly at a loss how to open the conversation, she could keep her composure no longer, but after a vain struggle broke out into a sincere, though a very involuntary fit of laughing, so richly accompanied by the laughter of her merry eyes, which actually glanced through the tears which the effort filled them with, and by the waving of her rich tresses, that the goddess of smiles herself never looked more lovely than Catherine at that moment. A court page would not have left her long alone in her mirth; but Roland was country-bred, and, besides, having some jealousy as well as bashfulness, he took it into his head that he was himself the object of her inextinguishable laughter. His endeavours to sympathize with Catherine, therefore, could carry him no farther than a forced giggle, which had more of displeasure than of mirth in it, and which so much enhanced that of the girl, that it seemed to render it impossible for her ever to bring her laughter to an end, with whatever anxious pains she laboured to do so. For every one has felt, that when a paroxysm of laughter has seized him at a misbecoming time and place, the efforts which he made to suppress it, nay, the very sense of the impropriety of giving way to it, tend only to augment and prolong the irresistible impulse.

It was undoubtedly lucky for Catherine, as well as for Roland, that the latter did not share in the excessive mirth of the former. For, seated as she was, with her back to the casement, Catherine could easily escape the observation of the two matrons during the course of their promenade; whereas Graeme was so placed, with his side to the window, that his mirth, had he shared that of his companion, would have been instantly visible, and could not have failed to give offence to the personages in question. He sate, however, with some impatience, until Catherine had exhausted either her power or her desire of laughing, and was returning with good grace to the exercise of her needle, and then he observed with some dryness, that “there seemed no great occasion to recommend to them to improve their acquaintance, as it seemed, that they were already tolerably familiar.”

Catherine had an extreme desire to set off upon a fresh score, but she repressed it strongly, and fixing her eyes on her work, replied by asking his pardon, and promising to avoid future offence.

Roland had sense enough to feel, that an air of offended dignity was very much misplaced, and that it was with a very different bearing he ought to meet the deep blue eyes which had borne such a hearty burden in the laughing scene. He tried, therefore, to extricate himself as well as he could from his blunder, by assuming a tone of correspondent gaiety, and requesting to know of the nymph, “how it was her pleasure that they should proceed in improving the acquaintance which had commenced so merrily.”

“That,” she said, “you must yourself discover; perhaps I have gone a step too far in opening our interview.”

“Suppose,” said Roland Graeme, “we should begin as in a tale-book, by asking each other’s names and histories?”

“It is right well imagined,” said Catherine, “and shows an argute judgment. Do you begin, and I will listen, and only put in a question or two at the dark parts of the story. Come, unfold then your name and history, my new acquaintance.”

“I am called Roland Graeme, and that tall woman is my grandmother.”

“And your tutoress? — good. Who are your parents?”

“They are both dead,” replied Roland.

“Ay, but who were they? you had parents, I presume?”

“I suppose so,” said Roland, “but I have never been able to learn much of their history. My father was a Scottish knight, who died gallantly in his stirrups — my mother was a Graeme of Hathergill, in the Debateable Land — most of her family were killed when the Debateable country was burned by Lord Maxwell and Herries of Caerlaverock.”

“Is it long ago?” said the damsel.

“Before I was born,” answered the page.

“That must be a great while since,” said she, shaking her head gravely; “look you, I cannot weep for them.”

“It needs not,” said the youth, “they fell with honour.”

“So much for your lineage, fair sir,” replied his companion, “of whom I like the living specimen (a glance at the casement) far less than those that are dead. Your much honoured grandmother looks as if she could make one weep in sad earnest. And now, fair sir, for your own person — if you tell not the tale faster, it will be cut short in the middle; Mother Bridget pauses longer and longer every time she passes the window, and with her there is as little mirth as in the grave of your ancestors.”

“My tale is soon told — I was introduced into the castle of Avenel to be page to the lady of the mansion.”

“She is a strict Huguenot, is she not?” said the maiden.

“As strict as Calvin himself. But my grandmother can play the puritan when it suits her purpose, and she had some plan of her own, for quartering me in the Castle — it would have failed, however, after we had remained several weeks at the hamlet, but for an unexpected master of ceremonies —”

“And who was that?” said the girl.

“A large black dog, Wolf by name, who brought me into the castle one day in his mouth, like a hurt wild-duck, and presented me to the lady.”

“A most respectable introduction, truly,” said Catherine; “and what might you learn at this same castle? I love dearly to know what my acquaintances can do at need.”

“To fly a hawk, hollow to a hound, back a horse, and wield lance, bow, and brand.”

“And to boast of all this when you have learned it,” said Catherine, “which, in France at least, is the surest accomplishment of a page. But proceed, fair sir; how came your Huguenot lord and your no less Huguenot lady to receive and keep in the family so perilous a person as a Catholic page?”

“Because they knew not that part of my history, which from infancy I have been taught to keep secret — and because my grand-dame’s former zealous attendance on their heretic chaplain, had laid all this suspicion to sleep, most fair Callipolis,” said the page; and in so saying, he edged his chair towards the seat of the fair querist.

“Nay, but keep your distance, most gallant sir,” answered the blue-eyed maiden, “for, unless I greatly mistake, these reverend ladies will soon interrupt our amicable conference, if the acquaintance they recommend shall seem to proceed beyond a certain point — so, fair sir, be pleased to abide by your station, and reply to my questions. — By what achievements did you prove the qualities of a page, which you had thus happily acquired?”

Roland, who began to enter into the tone and spirit of the damsel’s conversation, replied to her with becoming spirit.

“In no feat, fair gentlewoman, was I found inexpert, wherein there was mischief implied. I shot swans, hunted cats, frightened serving-women, chased the deer, and robbed the orchard. I say nothing of tormenting the chaplain in various ways, for that was my duty as a good Catholic.”

“Now, as I am a gentlewoman,” said Catherine, “I think these heretics have done Catholic penance in entertaining so all-accomplished a serving-man! And what, fair sir, might have been the unhappy event which deprived them of an inmate altogether so estimable?”

“Truly, fair gentlewoman,” answered the youth, “your real proverb says that the longest lane will have a turning, and mine was more — it was, in fine, a turning off.”

“Good!” said the merry young maiden, “it is an apt play on the word — and what occasion was taken for so important a catastrophe? — Nay, start not for my learning, I do know the schools — in plain phrase, why were you sent from service?”

The page shrugged his shoulders while he replied — “A short tale is soon told — and a short horse soon curried. I made the falconer’s boy taste of my switch — the falconer threatened to make me brook his cudgel — he is a kindly clown as well as a stout, and I would rather have been cudgelled by him than any man in Christendom to choose — but I knew not his qualities at that time — so I threatened to make him brook the stab, and my Lady made me brook the ‘Begone;’ so adieu to the page’s office and the fair Castle of Avenel — I had not travelled far before I met my venerable parent — And so tell your tale, fair gentlewoman, for mine is done.”

“A happy grandmother,” said the maiden, “who had the luck to find the stray page just when his mistress had slipped his leash, and a most lucky page that has jumped at once from a page to an old lady’s gentleman-usher!”

“All this is nothing of your history,” answered Roland Graeme, began to be much interested in the congenial vivacity of this facetious young gentlewoman — ” tale for tale is fellow-traveller’s justice.”

“Wait till we are fellow-travellers, then,” replied Catherine.

“Nay, you escape me not so,” said the page; “if you deal not justly by me, I will call out to Dame Bridget, or whatever your dame be called, and proclaim you for a cheat.”

“You shall not need,” answered the maiden —“my history is the counterpart of your own; the same words might almost serve, change but dress and name. I am called Catherine Seyton, and I also am an orphan.”

“Have your parents been long dead?”

“This is the only question,” said she, throwing down her fine eyes with a sudden expression of sorrow, “that is the only question I cannot laugh at.”

“And Dame Bridget is your grandmother?”

The sudden cloud passed away like that which crosses for an instant the summer sun, and she answered with her usual lively expression, “Worse by twenty degrees — Dame Bridget is my maiden aunt.”

“Over gods forbode!” said Roland —“Alas! that you have such a tale to tell! and what horror comes next?”

“Your own history, exactly. I was taken upon trial for service —”

“And turned off for pinching the duenna, or affronting my lady’s waiting-woman?”

“Nay, our history varies there,” said the damsel —“Our mistress broke up house, or had her house broke up, which is the same thing, and I am a free woman of the forest.”

“And I am as glad of it as if any one had lined my doublet with cloth of gold,” said the youth.

“I thank you for your mirth,” said she, “but the matter is not likely to concern you.”

“Nay, but go on,” said the page, “for you will be presently interrupted; the two good dames have been soaring yonder on the balcony, like two old hooded crows, and their croak grows hoarser as night comes on; they will wing to roost presently. — This mistress of yours, fair gentlewoman, who was she, in God’s name?”

“Oh, she has a fair name in the world,” replied Catherine Seyton. “Few ladies kept a fairer house, or held more gentlewomen in her household; my aunt Bridget was one of her housekeepers. We never saw our mistress’s blessed face, to be sure, but we heard enough of her; were up early and down late, and were kept to long prayers and light food.”

“Out upon the penurious old beldam!” said the page.

“For Heaven’s sake, blaspheme not!” said the girl, with an expression of fear. —“God pardon us both! I meant no harm. I speak of our blessed Saint Catherine of Sienna! — may God forgive me that I spoke so lightly, and made you do a great sin and a great blasphemy. This was her nunnery, in which there were twelve nuns and an abbess. My aunt was the abbess, till the heretics turned all adrift.”

“And where are your companions?” asked the youth.

“With the last year’s snow,” answered the maiden; “east, north, south, and west — some to France, some to Flanders, some, I fear, into the world and its pleasures. We have got permission to remain, or rather our remaining has been connived at, for my aunt has great relations among the Kerrs, and they have threatened a death-feud if any one touches us; and bow and spear are the best warrant in these times.”

“Nay, then, you sit under a sure shadow,” said the youth; “and I suppose you wept yourself blind when Saint Catherine broke up housekeeping before you had taken arles 11 in her service?”

“Hush! for Heaven’s sake,” said the damsel, crossing herself; “no more of that! but I have not quite cried my eyes out,” said she, turning them upon him, and instantly again bending them upon her work. It was one of those glances which would require the threefold plate of brass around the heart, more than it is needed by the mariners, to whom Horace recommends it. Our youthful page had no defence whatever to offer.

“What say you, Catherine,” he said, “if we two, thus strangely turned out of service at the same time, should give our two most venerable duennas the torch to hold, while we walk a merry measure with each other over the floor of this weary world?”

“A goodly proposal, truly,” said Catherine, “and worthy the mad-cap brain of a discarded page! — And what shifts does your worship propose we should live by? — by singing ballads, cutting purses, or swaggering on the highway? for there, I think, you would find your most productive exchequer.”

“Choose, you proud peat!” said the page, drawing off in huge disdain at the calm and unembarrassed ridicule with which his wild proposal was received. And as he spoke the words, the casement was again darkened by the forms of the matrons — it opened, and admitted Magdalen Graeme and the Mother Abbess, so we must now style her, into the apartment.

11 Anglice — Earnest-money

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/abbot/chapter11.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29