Guy Mannering, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 3

Do not the hist’ries of all ages

Relate miraculous presages

Of strange turns in the world’s affairs,

Foreseen by astrologers, soothsayers,

Chaldeans, learned genethliacs,

And some that have writ almanacks?

Hudibras.

The circumstances of the landlady were pleaded to Mannering, first, as an apology for her not appearing to welcome her guest, and for those deficiencies in his entertainment which her attention might have supplied, and then as an excuse for pressing an extra bottle of good wine. ‘I cannot weel sleep,’ said the Laird, with the anxious feelings of a father in such a predicament, ‘till I hear she’s gotten ower with it; and if you, sir, are not very sleepery, and would do me and the Dominie the honour to sit up wi’ us, I am sure we shall not detain you very late. Luckie Howatson is very expeditious. There was ance a lass that was in that way; she did not live far from hereabouts — ye needna shake your head and groan, Dominie; I am sure the kirk dues were a’ weel paid, and what can man do mair? — it was laid till her ere she had a sark ower her head; and the man that she since wadded does not think her a pin the waur for the misfortune. They live, Mr. Mannering, by the shoreside at Annan, and a mair decent, orderly couple, with six as fine bairns as ye would wish to see plash in a saltwater dub; and little curlie Godfrey — that’s the eldest, the come o’ will, as I may say — he’s on board an excise yacht. I hae a cousin at the board of excise; that’s Commissioner Bertram; he got his commissionership in the great contest for the county, that ye must have heard of, for it was appealed to the House of Commons. Now I should have voted there for the Laird of Balruddery; but ye see my father was a Jacobite, and out with Kenmore, so he never took the oaths; and I ken not weel how it was, but all that I could do and say, they keepit me off the roll, though my agent, that had a vote upon my estate, ranked as a good vote for auld Sir Thomas Kittlecourt. But, to return to what I was saying, Luckie Howatson is very expeditious, for this lass — ’

Here the desultory and long-winded narrative of the Laird was interrupted by the voice of some one ascending the stairs from the kitchen story, and singing at full pitch of voice. The high notes were too shrill for a man, the low seemed too deep for a woman. The words, as far as Mannering could distinguish them, seemed to run thus:—

Canny moment, lucky fit!

Is the lady lighter yet?

Be it lad, or be it lass,

Sign wi’ cross and sain wi’ mass.

‘It’s Meg Merrilies, the gipsy, as sure as I am a sinner,’ said Mr. Bertram. The Dominie groaned deeply, uncrossed his legs, drew in the huge splay foot which his former posture had extended, placed it perpendicularly, and stretched the other limb over it instead, puffing out between whiles huge volumes of tobacco smoke. ‘What needs ye groan, Dominie? I am sure Meg’s sangs do nae ill.’

‘Nor good neither,’ answered Dominie Sampson, in a voice whose untuneable harshness corresponded with the awkwardness of his figure. They were the first words which Mannering had heard him speak; and as he had been watching with some curiosity when this eating, drinking, moving, and smoking automaton would perform the part of speaking, he was a good deal diverted with the harsh timber tones which issued from him. But at this moment the door opened, and Meg Merrilies entered.

Her appearance made Mannering start. She was full six feet high, wore a man’s great-coat over the rest of her dress, had in her hand a goodly sloethorn cudgel, and in all points of equipment, except her petticoats, seemed rather masculine than feminine. Her dark elf-locks shot out like the snakes of the gorgon between an old-fashioned bonnet called a bongrace, heightening the singular effect of her strong and weather-beaten features, which they partly shadowed, while her eye had a wild roll that indicated something like real or affected insanity.

‘Aweel, Ellangowan,’ she said, ‘wad it no hae been a bonnie thing, an the leddy had been brought to bed, and me at the fair o’ Drumshourloch, no kenning, nor dreaming a word about it? Wha was to hae keepit awa the worriecows, I trow? Ay, and the elves and gyre-carlings frae the bonnie bairn, grace be wi’ it? Ay, or said Saint Colme’s charm for its sake, the dear?’ And without waiting an answer she began to sing —

Trefoil, vervain, John’s-wort, dill,

Hinders witches of their

will, Weel is them, that weel may

Fast upon Saint Andrew’s day.

Saint Bride and her brat,

Saint Colme and his cat,

Saint Michael and his spear,

Keep the house frae reif and wear.

This charm she sung to a wild tune, in a high and shrill voice, and, cutting three capers with such strength and agility as almost to touch the roof of the room, concluded, ‘And now, Laird, will ye no order me a tass o’ brandy?’

‘That you shall have, Meg. Sit down yont there at the door and tell us what news ye have heard at the fair o’ Drumshourloch.’

‘Troth, Laird, and there was muckle want o’ you, and the like o’ you; for there was a whin bonnie lasses there, forbye mysell, and deil ane to gie them hansels.’

‘Weel, Meg, and how mony gipsies were sent to the tolbooth?’

‘Troth, but three, Laird, for there were nae mair in the fair, bye mysell, as I said before, and I e’en gae them leg-bail, for there’s nae ease in dealing wi’ quarrelsome fowk. And there’s Dunbog has warned the Red Rotten and John Young aff his grunds — black be his cast! he’s nae gentleman, nor drap’s bluid o’ gentleman, wad grudge twa gangrel puir bodies the shelter o’ a waste house, and the thristles by the roadside for a bit cuddy, and the bits o’ rotten birk to boil their drap parritch wi’. Weel, there’s Ane abune a’; but we’ll see if the red cock craw not in his bonnie barn-yard ae morning before day-dawing.’

‘Hush! Meg, hush! hush! that’s not safe talk.’

‘What does she mean?’ said Mannering to Sampson, in an undertone.

‘Fire-raising,’ answered the laconic Dominie.

‘Who, or what is she, in the name of wonder?’

‘Harlot, thief, witch, and gipsy,’ answered Sampson again.

‘O troth, Laird,’ continued Meg, during this by-talk, ‘it’s but to the like o’ you ane can open their heart; ye see, they say Dunbog is nae mair a gentleman than the blunker that’s biggit the bonnie house down in the howm. But the like o’ you, Laird, that’s a real gentleman for sae mony hundred years, and never hunds puir fowk aff your grund as if they were mad tykes, nane o’ our fowk wad stir your gear if ye had as mony capons as there’s leaves on the trysting-tree. And now some o’ ye maun lay down your watch, and tell me the very minute o’ the hour the wean’s born, an I’ll spae its fortune.’

‘Ay, but, Meg, we shall not want your assistance, for here’s a student from Oxford that kens much better than you how to spae its fortune; he does it by the stars.’

‘Certainly, sir,’ said Mannering, entering into the simple humour of his landlord, ‘I will calculate his nativity according to the rule of the “triplicities,” as recommended by Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Diocles, and Avicenna. Or I will begin ab hora questionis, as Haly, Messahala, Ganwehis, and Guido Bonatus have recommended.’

One of Sampson’s great recommendations to the favour of Mr. Bertram was, that he never detected the most gross attempt at imposition, so that the Laird, whose humble efforts at jocularity were chiefly confined to what were then called bites and bams, since denominated hoaxes and quizzes, had the fairest possible subject of wit in the unsuspecting Dominie. It is true, he never laughed, or joined in the laugh which his own simplicity afforded — nay, it is said, he never laughed but once in his life, and on that memorable occasion his landlady miscarried, partly through surprise at the event itself, and partly from terror at the hideous grimaces which attended this unusual cachinnation. The only effect which the discovery of such impositions produced upon this saturnine personage was, to extort an ejaculation of ‘Prodigious!’ or ‘Very facetious!’ pronounced syllabically, but without moving a muscle of his own countenance.

On the present occasion, he turned a gaunt and ghastly stare upon the youthful astrologer, and seemed to doubt if he had rightly understood his answer to his patron.

‘I am afraid, sir,’ said Mannering, turning towards him, ‘you may be one of those unhappy persons who, their dim eyes being unable to penetrate the starry spheres, and to discern therein the decrees of heaven at a distance, have their hearts barred against conviction by prejudice and misprision.’

‘Truly,’ said Sampson, ‘I opine with Sir Isaac Newton, Knight, and umwhile master of his Majesty’s mint, that the (pretended) science of astrology is altogether vain, frivolous, and unsatisfactory.’ And here he reposed his oracular jaws.

‘Really,’ resumed the traveller, ‘I am sorry to see a gentleman of your learning and gravity labouring under such strange blindness and delusion. Will you place the brief, the modern, and, as I may say, the vernacular name of Isaac Newton in opposition to the grave and sonorous authorities of Dariot, Bonatus, Ptolemy, Haly, Eztler, Dieterick, Naibob, Harfurt, Zael, Taustettor, Agrippa, Duretus, Maginus, Origen, and Argol? Do not Christians and Heathens, and Jews and Gentiles, and poets and philosophers, unite in allowing the starry influences?’

‘Communis error — it is a general mistake,’ answered the inflexible Dominie Sampson.

‘Not so,’ replied the young Englishman; ‘it is a general and well-grounded belief.’

‘It is the resource of cheaters, knaves, and cozeners,’ said Sampson.

‘Abusus non tollit usum. — The abuse of anything doth not abrogate the lawful use thereof.’

During this discussion Ellangowan was somewhat like a woodcock caught in his own springe. He turned his face alternately from the one spokesman to the other, and began, from the gravity with which Mannering plied his adversary, and the learning which he displayed in the controversy, to give him credit for being half serious. As for Meg, she fixed her bewildered eyes upon the astrologer, overpowered by a jargon more mysterious than her own.

Mannering pressed his advantage, and ran over all the hard terms of art which a tenacious memory supplied, and which, from circumstances hereafter to be noticed, had been familiar to him in early youth.

Signs and planets, in aspects sextile, quartile, trine, conjoined, or opposite; houses of heaven, with their cusps, hours, and minutes; almuten, almochoden, anabibazon, catabibazon; a thousand terms of equal sound and significance, poured thick and threefold upon the unshrinking Dominie, whose stubborn incredulity bore him out against the pelting of this pitiless storm.

At length the joyful annunciation that the lady had presented her husband with a fine boy, and was (of course) as well as could be expected, broke off this intercourse. Mr. Bertram hastened to the lady’s apartment, Meg Merrilies descended to the kitchen to secure her share of the groaning malt and the ‘ken-no,’3 and Mannering, after looking at his watch, and noting with great exactness the hour and minute of the birth, requested, with becoming gravity, that the Dominie would conduct him to some place where he might have a view of the heavenly bodies.

The schoolmaster, without further answer, rose and threw open a door half sashed with glass, which led to an old-fashioned terrace-walk behind the modern house, communicating with the platform on which the ruins of the ancient castle were situated. The wind had arisen, and swept before it the clouds which had formerly obscured the sky. The moon was high, and at the full, and all the lesser satellites of heaven shone forth in cloudless effulgence. The scene which their light presented to Mannering was in the highest degree unexpected and striking.

We have observed, that in the latter part of his journey our traveller approached the sea-shore, without being aware how nearly. He now perceived that the ruins of Ellangowan Castle were situated upon a promontory, or projection of rock, which formed one side of a small and placid bay on the sea-shore. The modern mansion was placed lower, though closely adjoining, and the ground behind it descended to the sea by a small swelling green bank, divided into levels by natural terraces, on which grew some old trees, and terminating upon the white sand. The other side of the bay, opposite to the old castle, was a sloping and varied promontory, covered chiefly with copsewood, which on that favoured coast grows almost within water-mark. A fisherman’s cottage peeped from among the trees. Even at this dead hour of night there were lights moving upon the shore, probably occasioned by the unloading a smuggling lugger from the Isle of Man which was lying in the bay. On the light from the sashed door of the house being observed, a halloo from the vessel of ‘Ware hawk! Douse the glim!’ alarmed those who were on shore, and the lights instantly disappeared.

It was one hour after midnight, and the prospect around was lovely. The grey old towers of the ruin, partly entire, partly broken, here bearing the rusty weather-stains of ages, and there partially mantled with ivy, stretched along the verge of the dark rock which rose on Mannering’s right hand. In his front was the quiet bay, whose little waves, crisping and sparkling to the moonbeams, rolled successively along its surface, and dashed with a soft and murmuring ripple against the silvery beach. To the left the woods advanced far into the ocean, waving in the moonlight along ground of an undulating and varied form, and presenting those varieties of light and shade, and that interesting combination of glade and thicket, upon which the eye delights to rest, charmed with what it sees, yet curious to pierce still deeper into the intricacies of the woodland scenery. Above rolled the planets, each, by its own liquid orbit of light, distinguished from the inferior or more distant stars. So strangely can imagination deceive even those by whose volition it has been excited, that Mannering, while gazing upon these brilliant bodies, was half inclined to believe in the influence ascribed to them by superstition over human events. But Mannering was a youthful lover, and might perhaps be influenced by the feelings so exquisitely expressed by a modern poet:—

For fable is Love’s world, his home, his birthplace:

Delightedly dwells he ‘mong fays, and talismans,

And spirits, and delightedly believes

Divinities, being himself divine

The intelligible forms of ancient poets,

The fair humanities of old religion,

The power, the beauty, and the majesty,

That had their haunts in dale, or piny mountain,

Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,

Or chasms and wat’ry depths — all these have vanish’d;

They live no longer in the faith of reason!

But still the heart doth need a language, still

Doth the old instinct bring back the old names.

And to yon starry world they now are gone,

Spirits or gods, that used to share this earth

With man as with their friend, and to the lover

Yonder they move, from yonder visible sky

Shoot influence down; and even at this day

‘T is Jupiter who brings whate’er is great,

And Venus who brings everything that’s fair.

Such musings soon gave way to others. ‘Alas!’ he muttered, ‘my good old tutor, who used to enter so deep into the controversy between Heydon and Chambers on the subject of astrology, he would have looked upon the scene with other eyes, and would have seriously endeavoured to discover from the respective positions of these luminaries their probable effects on the destiny of the new — born infant, as if the courses or emanations of the stars superseded, or at least were co-ordinate with, Divine Providence. Well, rest be with him! he instilled into me enough of knowledge for erecting a scheme of nativity, and therefore will I presently go about it.’ So saying, and having noted the position of the principal planetary bodies, Guy Mannering returned to the house. The Laird met him in the parlour, and, acquainting him with great glee that the boy was a fine healthy little fellow, seemed rather disposed to press further conviviality. He admitted, however, Mannering’s plea of weariness, and, conducting him to his sleeping apartment, left him to repose for the evening.

3 The groaning malt mentioned in the text was the ale brewed for the purpose of being drunk after the lady or goodwife’s safe delivery. The ken-no has a more ancient source, and perhaps the custom may be derived from the secret rites of the Bona Dea. A large and rich cheese was made by the women of the family, with great affectation of secrecy, for the refreshment of the gossips who were to attend at the ‘canny’ minute. This was the ken-no, so called because its existence was secret (that is, presumed to be so) from all the males of the family, but especially from the husband and master. He was accordingly expected to conduct himself as if he knew of no such preparation, to act as if desirous to press the female guests to refreshments, and to seem surprised at their obstinate refusal. But the instant his back was turned the ken-no was produced; and after all had eaten their fill, with a proper accompaniment of the groaning malt, the remainder was divided among the gossips, each carrying a large portion home with the same affectation of great secrecy.

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