The Antiquary, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 34

Still in his dead hand clenched remain the strings

That thrill his father’s heart — e’en as the limb,

Lopped off and laid in grave, retains, they tell us,

Strange commerce with the mutilated stump,

Whose nerves are twinging still in maimed existence.

Old Play.

The Antiquary, as we informed the reader in the end of the thirty-first chapter, [tenth] had shaken off the company of worthy Mr. Blattergowl, although he offered to entertain him with an abstract of the ablest speech he had ever known in the teind court, delivered by the procurator for the church in the remarkable case of the parish of Gatherem. Resisting this temptation, our senior preferred a solitary path, which again conducted him to the cottage of Mucklebackit. When he came in front of the fisherman’s hut, he observed a man working intently, as if to repair a shattered boat which lay upon the beach, and going up to him was surprised to find it was Mucklebackit himself. “I am glad,” he said in a tone of sympathy —“I am glad, Saunders, that you feel yourself able to make this exertion.”

“And what would ye have me to do,” answered the fisher gruffly, “unless I wanted to see four children starve, because ane is drowned? It’s weel wi’ you gentles, that can sit in the house wi’ handkerchers at your een when ye lose a friend; but the like o’ us maun to our wark again, if our hearts were beating as hard as my hammer.”

Without taking more notice of Oldbuck, he proceeded in his labour; and the Antiquary, to whom the display of human nature under the influence of agitating passions was never indifferent, stood beside him, in silent attention, as if watching the progress of the work. He observed more than once the man’s hard features, as if by the force of association, prepare to accompany the sound of the saw and hammer with his usual symphony of a rude tune, hummed or whistled — and as often a slight twitch of convulsive expression showed, that ere the sound was uttered, a cause for suppressing it rushed upon his mind. At length, when he had patched a considerable rent, and was beginning to mend another, his feelings appeared altogether to derange the power of attention necessary for his work. The piece of wood which he was about to nail on was at first too long; then he sawed it off too short, then chose another equally ill adapted for the purpose. At length, throwing it down in anger, after wiping his dim eye with his quivering hand, he exclaimed, “There is a curse either on me or on this auld black bitch of a boat, that I have hauled up high and dry, and patched and clouted sae mony years, that she might drown my poor Steenie at the end of them, an’ be d — d to her!” and he flung his hammer against the boat, as if she had been the intentional cause of his misfortune. Then recollecting himself, he added, “Yet what needs ane be angry at her, that has neither soul nor sense? — though I am no that muckle better mysell. She’s but a rickle o’ auld rotten deals nailed thegither, and warped wi’ the wind and the sea — and I am a dour carle, battered by foul weather at sea and land till I am maist as senseless as hersell. She maun be mended though again the morning tide — that’s a thing o’ necessity.”

Thus speaking, he went to gather together his instruments, and attempt to resume his labour — but Oldbuck took him kindly by the arm. “Come, come,” he said, “Saunders, there is no work for you this day — I’ll send down Shavings the carpenter to mend the boat, and he may put the day’s work into my account — and you had better not come out tomorrow, but stay to comfort your family under this dispensation, and the gardener will bring you some vegetables and meal from Monkbarns.”

“I thank ye, Monkbarns,” answered the poor fisher; “I am a plain-spoken man, and hae little to say for mysell; I might hae learned fairer fashions frae my mither lang syne, but I never saw muckle gude they did her; however, I thank ye. Ye were aye kind and neighbourly, whatever folk says o’ your being near and close; and I hae often said, in thae times when they were ganging to raise up the puir folk against the gentles — I hae often said, neer a man should steer a hair touching to Monkbarns while Steenie and I could wag a finger — and so said Steenie too. And, Monkbarns, when ye laid his head in the grave (and mony thanks for the respect), ye, saw the mouls laid on an honest lad that likit you weel, though he made little phrase about it.”

Oldbuck, beaten from the pride of his affected cynicism, would not willingly have had any one by on that occasion to quote to him his favourite maxims of the Stoic philosophy. The large drops fell fast from his own eyes, as he begged the father, who was now melted at recollecting the bravery and generous sentiments of his son, to forbear useless sorrow, and led him by the arm towards his own home, where another scene awaited our Antiquary.

As he entered, the first person whom he beheld was Lord Glenallan. Mutual surprise was in their countenances as they saluted each other — with haughty reserve on the part of Mr. Oldbuck, and embarrassment on that of the Earl.

“My Lord Glenallan, I think?” said Mr. Oldbuck.

“Yes — much changed from what he was when he knew Mr. Oldbuck.”

“I do not mean,” said the Antiquary, “to intrude upon your lordship — I only came to see this distressed family.”

“And you have found one, sir, who has still greater claims on your compassion.”

“My compassion? Lord Glenallan cannot need my compassion. If Lord Glenallan could need it, I think he would hardly ask it.”

“Our former acquaintance,” said the Earl —

“Is of such ancient date, my lord — was of such short duration, and was connected with circumstances so exquisitely painful, that I think we may dispense with renewing it.”

So saying, the Antiquary turned away, and left the hut; but Lord Glenallan followed him into the open air, and, in spite of a hasty “Good morning, my lord,” requested a few minutes’ conversation, and the favour of his advice in an important matter.

“Your lordship will find many more capable to advise you, my lord, and by whom your intercourse will be deemed an honour. For me, I am a man retired from business and the world, and not very fond of raking up the past events of my useless life; — and forgive me if I say, I have particular pain in reverting to that period of it when I acted like a fool, and your lordship like”— He stopped short.

“Like a villain, you would say,” said Lord Glenallan —“for such I must have appeared to you.”

“My lord — my lord, I have no desire to hear your shrift,” said the Antiquary.

“But, sir, if I can show you that I am more sinned against than sinning — that I have been a man miserable beyond the power of description, and who looks forward at this moment to an untimely grave as to a haven of rest, you will not refuse the confidence which, accepting your appearance at this critical moment as a hint from Heaven, I venture thus to press on you.”

“Assuredly, my lord, I shall shun no longer the continuation of this extraordinary interview.”

“I must then recall to you our occasional meetings upwards of twenty years since at Knockwinnock Castle — and I need not remind you of a lady who was then a member of that family.”

“The unfortunate Miss Eveline Neville, my lord; I remember it well.”

“Towards whom you entertained sentiments”—

“Very different from those with which I before and since have regarded her sex. Her gentleness, her docility, her pleasure in the studies which I pointed out to her, attached my affections more than became my age though that was not then much advanced — or the solidity of my character. But I need not remind your lordship of the various modes in which you indulged your gaiety at the expense of an awkward and retired student, embarrassed by the expression of feelings so new to him, and I have no doubt that the young lady joined you in the well-deserved ridicule — it is the way of womankind. I have spoken at once to the painful circumstances of my addresses and their rejection, that your lordship may be satisfied everything is full in my memory, and may, so far as I am concerned, tell your story without scruple or needless delicacy.”

“I will,” said Lord Glenallan. “But first let me say, you do injustice to the memory of the gentlest and kindest, as well as to the most unhappy of women, to suppose she could make a jest of the honest affection of a man like you. Frequently did she blame me, Mr. Oldbuck, for indulging my levity at your expense — may I now presume you will excuse the gay freedoms which then offended you? — my state of mind has never since laid me under the necessity of apologizing for the inadvertencies of a light and happy temper.”

“My lord, you are fully pardoned,” said Mr. Oldbuck. “You should be aware, that, like all others, I was ignorant at the time that I placed myself in competition with your lordship, and understood that Miss Neville was in a state of dependence which might make her prefer a competent independence and the hand of an honest man — But I am wasting time — I would I could believe that the views entertained towards her by others were as fair and honest as mine!”

“Mr. Oldbuck, you judge harshly.”

“Not without cause, my lord. When I only, of all the magistrates of this county — having neither, like some of them, the honour to be connected with your powerful family — nor, like others, the meanness to fear it — when I made some inquiry into the manner of Miss Neville’s death — I shake you, my lord, but I must be plain — I do own I had every reason to believe that she had met most unfair dealing, and had either been imposed upon by a counterfeit marriage, or that very strong measures had been adopted to stifle and destroy the evidence of a real union. And I cannot doubt in my own mind, that this cruelty on your lordship’s part, whether coming of your own free will, or proceeding from the influence of the late Countess, hurried the unfortunate young lady to the desperate act by which her life was terminated.”

“You are deceived, Mr. Oldbuck, into conclusions which are not just, however naturally they flow from the circumstances. Believe me, I respected you even when I was most embarrassed by your active attempts to investigate our family misfortunes. You showed yourself more worthy of Miss Neville than I, by the spirit with which you persisted in vindicating her reputation even after her death. But the firm belief that your well-meant efforts could only serve to bring to light a story too horrible to be detailed, induced me to join my unhappy mother in schemes to remove or destroy all evidence of the legal union which had taken place between Eveline and myself. And now let us sit down on this bank — for I feel unable to remain longer standing — and have the goodness to listen to the extraordinary discovery which I have this day made.”

They sate down accordingly; and Lord Glenallan briefly narrated his unhappy family history — his concealed marriage — the horrible invention by which his mother had designed to render impossible that union which had already taken place. He detailed the arts by which the Countess, having all the documents relative to Miss Neville’s birth in her hands, had produced those only relating to a period during which, for family reasons, his father had consented to own that young lady as his natural daughter, and showed how impossible it was that he could either suspect or detect the fraud put upon him by his mother, and vouched by the oaths of her attendants, Teresa and Elspeth. “I left my paternal mansion,” he concluded, “as if the furies of hell had driven me forth, and travelled with frantic velocity I knew not whither. Nor have I the slightest recollection of what I did or whither I went, until I was discovered by my brother. I will not trouble you with an account of my sick-bed and recovery, or how, long afterwards, I ventured to inquire after the sharer of my misfortunes, and heard that her despair had found a dreadful remedy for all the ills of life. The first thing that roused me to thought was hearing of your inquiries into this cruel business; and you will hardly wonder, that, believing what I did believe, I should join in those expedients to stop your investigation, which my brother and mother had actively commenced. The information which I gave them concerning the circumstances and witnesses of our private marriage enabled them to baffle your zeal. The clergyman, therefore, and witnesses, as persons who had acted in the matter only to please the powerful heir of Glenallan, were accessible to his promises and threats, and were so provided for, that they had no objections to leave this country for another. For myself, Mr. Oldbuck,” pursued this unhappy man, “from that moment I considered myself as blotted out of the book of the living, and as having nothing left to do with this world. My mother tried to reconcile me to life by every art — even by intimations which I can now interpret as calculated to produce a doubt of the horrible tale she herself had fabricated. But I construed all she said as the fictions of maternal affection. I will forbear all reproach. She is no more — and, as her wretched associate said, she knew not how the dart was poisoned, or how deep it must sink, when she threw it from her hand. But, Mr. Oldbuck, if ever, during these twenty years, there crawled upon earth a living being deserving of your pity, I have been that man. My food has not nourished me — my sleep has not refreshed me — my devotions have not comforted me — all that is cheering and necessary to man has been to me converted into poison. The rare and limited intercourse which I have held with others has been most odious to me. I felt as if I were bringing the contamination of unnatural and inexpressible guilt among the gay and the innocent. There have been moments when I had thoughts of another description — to plunge into the adventures of war, or to brave the dangers of the traveller in foreign and barbarous climates — to mingle in political intrigue, or to retire to the stern seclusion of the anchorites of our religion; — all these are thoughts which have alternately passed through my mind, but each required an energy, which was mine no longer, after the withering stroke I had received. I vegetated on as I could in the same spot — fancy, feeling, judgment, and health, gradually decaying, like a tree whose bark has been destroyed — when first the blossoms fade, then the boughs, until its state resembles the decayed and dying trunk that is now before you. Do you now pity and forgive me?”

“My lord,” answered the Antiquary, much affected, “my pity — my forgiveness, you have not to ask, for your dismal story is of itself not only an ample excuse for whatever appeared mysterious in your conduct, but a narrative that might move your worst enemies (and I, my lord, was never of the number) to tears and to sympathy. But permit me to ask what you now mean to do, and why you have honoured me, whose opinion can be of little consequence, with your confidence on this occasion?”

“Mr. Oldbuck,” answered the Earl, “as I could never have foreseen the nature of that confession which I have heard this day, I need not say that I had no formed plan of consulting you, or any one, upon affairs the tendency of which I could not even have suspected. But I am without friends, unused to business, and, by long retirement, unacquainted alike with the laws of the land and the habits of the living generation; and when, most unexpectedly, I find myself immersed in the matters of which I know least, I catch, like a drowning man, at the first support that offers. You are that support, Mr. Oldbuck. I have always heard you mentioned as a man of wisdom and intelligence — I have known you myself as a man of a resolute and independent spirit; — and there is one circumstance,” said he, “which ought to combine us in some degree — our having paid tribute to the same excellence of character in poor Eveline. You offered yourself to me in my need, and you were already acquainted with the beginning of my misfortunes. To you, therefore, I have recourse for advice, for sympathy, for support.”

“You shall seek none of them in vain, my lord,” said Oldbuck, “so far as my slender ability extends; — and I am honoured by the preference, whether it arises from choice, or is prompted by chance. But this is a matter to be ripely considered. May I ask what are your principal views at present?”

“To ascertain the fate of my child,” said the Earl, “be the consequences what they may, and to do justice to the honour of Eveline, which I have only permitted to be suspected to avoid discovery of the yet more horrible taint to which I was made to believe it liable.”

“And the memory of your mother?”

“Must bear its own burden,” answered the Earl with a sigh: “better that she were justly convicted of deceit, should that be found necessary, than that others should be unjustly accused of crimes so much more dreadful.”

“Then, my lord,” said Oldbuck, “our first business must be to put the information of the old woman, Elspeth, into a regular and authenticated form.”

“That,” said Lord Glenallan, “will be at present, I fear, impossible. She is exhausted herself, and surrounded by her distressed family. To-morrow, perhaps, when she is alone — and yet I doubt, from her imperfect sense of right and wrong, whether she would speak out in any one’s presence but my own. I am too sorely fatigued.”

“Then, my lord,” said the Antiquary, whom the interest of the moment elevated above points of expense and convenience, which had generally more than enough of weight with him, “I would propose to your lordship, instead of returning, fatigued as you are, so far as to Glenallan House, or taking the more uncomfortable alternative of going to a bad inn at Fairport, to alarm all the busybodies of the town — I would propose, I say, that you should be my guest at Monkbarns for this night. By tomorrow these poor people will have renewed their out-of-doors vocation — for sorrow with them affords no respite from labour — and we will visit the old woman Elspeth alone, and take down her examination.”

After a formal apology for the encroachment, Lord Glenallan agreed to go with him, and underwent with patience in their return home the whole history of John of the Girnel, a legend which Mr. Oldbuck was never known to spare any one who crossed his threshold.

The arrival of a stranger of such note, with two saddle-horses and a servant in black, which servant had holsters on his saddle-bow, and a coronet upon the holsters, created a general commotion in the house of Monkbarns. Jenny Rintherout, scarce recovered from the hysterics which she had taken on hearing of poor Steenie’s misfortune, chased about the turkeys and poultry, cackled and screamed louder than they did, and ended by killing one-half too many. Miss Griselda made many wise reflections on the hot-headed wilfulness of her brother, who had occasioned such devastation, by suddenly bringing in upon them a papist nobleman. And she ventured to transmit to Mr. Blattergowl some hint of the unusual slaughter which had taken place in the basse-cour, which brought the honest clergyman to inquire how his friend Monkbarns had got home, and whether he was not the worse of being at the funeral, at a period so near the ringing of the bell for dinner, that the Antiquary had no choice left but to invite him to stay and bless the meat. Miss M’Intyre had on her part some curiosity to see this mighty peer, of whom all had heard, as an eastern caliph or sultan is heard of by his subjects, and felt some degree of timidity at the idea of encountering a person, of whose unsocial habits and stern manners so many stories were told, that her fear kept at least pace with her curiosity. The aged housekeeper was no less flustered and hurried in obeying the numerous and contradictory commands of her mistress, concerning preserves, pastry and fruit, the mode of marshalling and dishing the dinner, the necessity of not permitting the melted butter to run to oil, and the danger of allowing Juno — who, though formally banished from the parlour, failed not to maraud about the out-settlements of the family — to enter the kitchen.

The only inmate of Monkbarns who remained entirely indifferent on this momentous occasion was Hector M’Intyre, who cared no more for an Earl than he did for a commoner, and who was only interested in the unexpected visit, as it might afford some protection against his uncle’s displeasure, if he harboured any, for his not attending the funeral, and still more against his satire upon the subject of his gallant but unsuccessful single combat with the phoca, or seal.

To these, the inmates of his household, Oldbuck presented the Earl of Glenallan, who underwent, with meek and subdued civility, the prosing speeches of the honest divine, and the lengthened apologies of Miss Griselda Oldbuck, which her brother in vain endeavoured to abridge. Before the dinner hour, Lord Glenallan requested permission to retire a while to his chamber. Mr. Oldbuck accompanied his guest to the Green Room, which had been hastily prepared for his reception. He looked around with an air of painful recollection.

“I think,” at length he observed, “I think, Mr. Oldbuck, that I have been in this apartment before.”

“Yes, my lord,” answered Oldbuck, “upon occasion of an excursion hither from Knockwinnock — and since we are upon a subject so melancholy, you may perhaps remember whose taste supplied these lines from Chaucer, which now form the motto of the tapestry.”

“I guess”, said the Earl, “though I cannot recollect. She excelled me, indeed, in literary taste and information, as in everything else; and it is one of the mysterious dispensations of Providence, Mr. Oldbuck, that a creature so excellent in mind and body should have been cut off in so miserable a manner, merely from her having formed a fatal attachment to such a wretch as I am.”

Mr. Oldbuck did not attempt an answer to this burst of the grief which lay ever nearest to the heart of his guest, but, pressing Lord Glenallan’s hand with one of his own, and drawing the other across his shaggy eyelashes, as if to brush away a mist that intercepted his sight, he left the Earl at liberty to arrange himself previous to dinner.

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