Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 39

Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shades!

Ah, fields beloved in vain!

Where once my careless childhood strayed,

A stranger yet to pain.

Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

It is not by corporal wants and infirmities only that men of the most distinguished talents are levelled, during their lifetime, with the common mass of mankind. There are periods of mental agitation when the firmest of mortals must be ranked with the weakest of his brethren, and when, in paying the general tax of humanity, his distresses are even aggravated by feeling that he transgresses, in the indulgence of his grief, the rules of religion and philosophy by which he endeavours in general to regulate his passions and his actions. It was during such a paroxysm that the unfortunate Morton left Fairy Knowe. To know that his long-loved and still-beloved Edith, whose image had filled his mind for so many years, was on the point of marriage to his early rival, who had laid claim to her heart by so many services as hardly left her a title to refuse his addresses, bitter as the intelligence was, yet came not as an unexpected blow.

During his residence abroad he had once written to Edith. It was to bid her farewell for ever, and to conjure her to forget him. He had requested her not to answer his letter; yet he half hoped, for many a day, that she might transgress his injunction. The letter never reached her to whom it was addressed, and Morton, ignorant of its miscarriage, could only conclude himself laid aside and forgotten, according to his own self-denying request. All that he had heard of their mutual relations since his return to Scotland prepared him to expect that he could only look upon Miss Bellenden as the betrothed bride of Lord Evandale; and even if freed from the burden of obligation to the latter, it would still have been inconsistent with Morton’s generosity of disposition to disturb their arrangements, by attempting the assertion of a claim proscribed by absence, never sanctioned by the consent of friends, and barred by a thousand circumstances of difficulty. Why then did he seek the cottage which their broken fortunes had now rendered the retreat of Lady Margaret Bellenden and her granddaughter? He yielded, we are under the necessity of acknowledging, to the impulse of an inconsistent wish which many might have felt in his situation.

Accident apprised him, while travelling towards his native district, that the ladies, near whose mansion he must necessarily pass, were absent; and learning that Cuddie and his wife acted as their principal domestics, he could not resist pausing at their cottage to learn, if possible, the real progress which Lord Evandale had made in the affections of Miss Bellen den — alas! no longer his Edith. This rash experiment ended as we have related, and he parted from the house of Fairy Knowe, conscious that he was still beloved by Edith, yet compelled, by faith and honour, to relinquish her for ever. With what feelings he must have listened to the dialogue between Lord Evandale and Edith, the greater part of which he involuntarily overheard, the reader must conceive, for we dare not attempt to describe them. An hundred times he was tempted to burst upon their interview, or to exclaim aloud, “Edith, I yet live!” and as often the recollection of her plighted troth, and of the debt of gratitude which he owed Lord Evandale (to whose influence with Claverhouse he justly ascribed his escape from torture and from death), withheld him from a rashness which might indeed have involved all in further distress, but gave little prospect of forwarding his own happiness. He repressed forcibly these selfish emotions, though with an agony which thrilled his every nerve.

“No, Edith!” was his internal oath, “never will I add a thorn to thy pillow. That which Heaven has ordained, let it be; and let me not add, by my selfish sorrows, one atom’s weight to the burden thou hast to bear. I was dead to thee when thy resolution was adopted; and never, never shalt thou know that Henry Morton still lives!”

As he formed this resolution, diffident of his own power to keep it, and seeking that firmness in flight which was every moment shaken by his continuing within hearing of Edith’s voice, he hastily rushed from his apartment by the little closet and the sashed door which led to the garden.

But firmly as he thought his resolution was fixed, he could not leave the spot where the last tones of a voice so beloved still vibrated on his ear, without endeavouring to avail himself of the opportunity which the parlour window afforded to steal one last glance at the lovely speaker. It was in this attempt, made while Edith seemed to have her eyes unalterably bent upon the ground, that Morton’s presence was detected by her raising them suddenly. So soon as her wild scream made this known to the unfortunate object of a passion so constant, and which seemed so ill-fated, he hurried from the place as if pursued by the furies. He passed Halliday in the garden without recognising or even being sensible that he had seen him, threw himself on his horse, and, by a sort of instinct rather than recollection, took the first by-road in preference to the public route to Hamilton.

In all probability this prevented Lord Evandale from learning that he was actually in existence; for the news that the Highlanders had obtained a decisive victory at Killiecrankie had occasioned an accurate look-out to be kept, by order of the Government, on all the passes, for fear of some commotion among the Lowland Jacobites. They did not omit to post sentinels on Bothwell Bridge; and as these men had not seen any traveller pass westward in that direction, and as, besides, their comrades stationed in the village of Bothwell were equally positive that none had gone eastward, the apparition, in the existence of which Edith and Halliday were equally positive, became yet more mysterious in the judgment of Lord Evandale, who was finally inclined to settle in the belief that the heated and disturbed imagination of Edith had summoned up the phantom she stated herself to have seen, and that Halliday had, in some unaccountable manner, been infected by the same superstition. Meanwhile, the by-path which Morton pursued, with all the speed which his vigorous horse could exert, brought him in a very few seconds to the brink of the Clyde, at a spot marked with the feet of horses, who were conducted to it as a watering-place. The steed, urged as he was to the gallop, did not pause a single instant, but, throwing himself into the river, was soon beyond his depth. The plunge which the animal made as his feet quitted the ground, with the feeling that the cold water rose above his swordbelt, were the first incidents which recalled Morton, whose movements had been hitherto mechanical, to the necessity of taking measures for preserving himself and the noble animal which he bestrode. A perfect master of all manly exercises, the management of a horse in water was as familiar to him as when upon a meadow. He directed the animal’s course somewhat down the stream towards a low plain, or holm, which seemed to promise an easy egress from the river. In the first and second attempt to get on shore, the horse was frustrated by the nature of the ground, and nearly fell backwards on his rider. The instinct of self-preservation seldom fails, even in the most desperate circumstances, to recall the human mind to some degree of equipoise, unless when altogether distracted by terror, and Morton was obliged to the danger in which he was placed for complete recovery of his self-possession. A third attempt, at a spot more carefully and judiciously selected, succeeded better than the former, and placed the horse and his rider in safety upon the farther and left-hand bank of the Clyde.

“But whither,” said Morton, in the bitterness of his heart, “am I now to direct my course? or rather, what does it signify to which point of the compass a wretch so forlorn betakes himself? I would to God, could the wish be without a sin, that these dark waters had flowed over me, and drowned my recollection of that which was, and that which is!” The sense of impatience, which the disturbed state of his feelings had occasioned, scarcely had vented itself in these violent expressions, ere he was struck with shame at having given way to such a paroxysm. He remembered how signally the life which he now held so lightly in the bitterness of his disappointment had been preserved through the almost incessant perils which had beset him since he entered upon his public career.

“I am a fool!” he said, “and worse than a fool, to set light by that existence which Heaven has so often preserved in the most marvellous manner. Something there yet remains for me in this world, were it only to bear my sorrows like a man, and to aid those who need my assistance. What have I seen, what have I heard, but the very conclusion of that which I knew was to happen? They”— he durst not utter their names even in soliloquy —“they are embarrassed and in difficulties. She is stripped of her inheritance, and he seems rushing on some dangerous career, with which, but for the low voice in which he spoke, I might have become acquainted. Are there no means to aid or to warn them?”

As he pondered upon this topic, forcibly withdrawing his mind from his own disappointment, and compelling his attention to the affairs of Edith and her betrothed husband, the letter of Burley, long forgotten, suddenly rushed on his memory, like a ray of light darting through a mist. “Their ruin must have been his work,” was his internal conclusion. “If it can be repaired, it must be through his means, or by information obtained from him. I will search him out. Stern, crafty, and enthusiastic as he is, my plain and downright rectitude of purpose has more than once prevailed with him. I will seek him out, at least; and who knows what influence the information I may acquire from him may have on the fortunes of those whom I shall never see more, and who will probably never learn that I am now suppressing my own grief, to add, if possible, to their happiness.”

Animated by these hopes, though the foundation was but slight, he sought the nearest way to the high-road; and as all the tracks through the valley were known to him since he hunted through them in youth, he had no other difficulty than that of surmounting one or two enclosures, ere he found himself on the road to the small burgh where the feast of the popinjay had been celebrated. He journeyed in a state of mind sad indeed and dejected, yet relieved from its earlier and more intolerable state of anguish; for virtuous resolution and manly disinterestedness seldom fail to restore tranquillity even where they cannot create happiness. He turned his thoughts with strong effort upon the means of discovering Burley, and the chance there was of extracting from him any knowledge which he might possess favourable to her in whose cause he interested himself; and at length formed the resolution of guiding himself by the circumstances in which he might discover the object of his quest, trusting that, from Cuddie’s account of a schism betwixt Burley and his brethren of the Presbyterian persuasion, he might find him less rancorously disposed against Miss Bellenden, and inclined to exert the power which he asserted himself to possess over her fortunes, more favourably than heretofore.

Noontide had passed away when our traveller found himself in the neighbourhood of his deceased uncle’s habitation of Milnwood. It rose among glades and groves that were chequered with a thousand early recollections of joy and sorrow, and made upon Morton that mournful impression, soft and affecting, yet, withal, soothing, which the sensitive mind usually receives from a return to the haunts of childhood and early youth, after having experienced the vicissitudes and tempests of public life. A strong desire came upon him to visit the house itself. “Old Alison,” he thought, “will not know me, more than the honest couple whom I saw yesterday. I may indulge my curiosity, and proceed on my journey, without her having any knowledge of my existence. I think they said my uncle had bequeathed to her my family mansion — well, be it so. I have enough to sorrow for, to enable me to dispense with lamenting such a disappointment as that; and yet methinks he has chosen an odd successor in my grumbling old dame, to a line of respectable, if not distinguished, ancestry. Let it be as it may, I will visit the old mansion at least once more.”

The house of Milnwood, even in its best days, had nothing cheerful about it; but its gloom appeared to be doubled under the auspices of the old housekeeper. Everything, indeed, was in repair; there were no slates deficient upon the steep grey roof, and no panes broken in the narrow windows. But the grass in the court-yard looked as if the foot of man had not been there for years; the doors were carefully locked, and that which admitted to the hall seemed to have been shut for a length of time, since the spiders had fairly drawn their webs over the door-way and the staples. Living sight or sound there was none, until, after much knocking, Morton heard the little window, through which it was usual to reconnoitre visitors, open with much caution. The face of Alison, puckered with some score of wrinkles in addition to those with which it was furrowed when Morton left Scotland, now presented itself, enveloped in a toy, from under the protection of which some of her grey tresses had escaped in a manner more picturesque than beautiful, while her shrill, tremulous voice demanded the cause of the knocking. “I wish to speak an instant with one Alison Wilson, who resides here,” said Henry.

“She’s no at hame the day,” answered Mrs. Wilson, in propria persona, the state of whose headdress, perhaps, inspired her with this direct mode of denying herself; “and ye are but a mislear’d person to speer for her in sic a manner. Ye might hae had an M under your belt for Mistress Wilson of Milnwood.”

“I beg pardon,” said Morton, internally smiling at finding in old Ailie the same jealousy of disrespect which she used to exhibit upon former occasions — “I beg pardon; I am but a stranger in this country, and have been so long abroad that I have almost forgotten my own language.” “Did ye come frae foreign parts?” said Ailie; “then maybe ye may hae heard of a young gentleman of this country that they ca’ Henry Morton?”

“I have heard,” said Morton, “of such a name in Germany.”

“Then bide a wee bit where ye are, friend; or stay — gang round by the back o’ the house, and ye’ll find a laigh door; it’s on the latch, for it’s never barred till sunset. Ye ‘ll open ‘t — and tak care ye dinna fa’ ower the tub, for the entry’s dark — and then ye’ll turn to the right, and then ye’ll hand straught forward, and then ye’ll turn to the right again, and ye ‘ll tak heed o’ the cellarstairs, and then ye ‘ll be at the door o’ the little kitchen — it’s a’ the kitchen that’s at Milnwood now — and I’ll come down t’ye, and whate’er ye wad say to Mistress Wilson ye may very safely tell it to me.”

A stranger might have had some difficulty, notwithstanding the minuteness of the directions supplied by Ailie, to pilot himself in safety through the dark labyrinth of passages that led from the back-door to the little kitchen; but Henry was too well acquainted with the navigation of these straits to experience danger, either from the Scylla which lurked on one side in shape of a bucking tub, or the Charybdis which yawned on the other in the profundity of a winding cellar-stair. His only impediment arose from the snarling and vehement barking of a small cocking spaniel, once his own property, but which, unlike to the faithful Argus, saw his master return from his wanderings without any symptom of recognition.

“The little dogs and all!” said Morton to himself, on being disowned by his former favourite. “I am so changed that no breathing creature that I have known and loved will now acknowledge me!”

At this moment he had reached the kitchen; and soon after, the tread of Alison’s high heels, and the pat of the crutch-handled cane which served at once to prop and to guide her footsteps, were heard upon the stairs — an annunciation which continued for some time ere she fairly reached the kitchen.

Morton had, therefore, time to survey the slender preparations for housekeeping which were now sufficient in the house of his ancestors. The fire, though coals are plenty in that neighbourhood, was husbanded with the closest attention to economy of fuel, and the small pipkin, in which was preparing the dinner of the old woman and her maid-of-all-work, a girl of twelve years old, intimated, by its thin and watery vapour, that Ailie had not mended her cheer with her improved fortune.

When she entered, the head, which nodded with self-importance; the features, in which an irritable peevishness, acquired by habit and indulgence, strove with a temper naturally affectionate and good-natured; the coif; the apron; the blue-checked gown — were all those of old Ailie; but laced pinners, hastily put on to meet the stranger, with some other trifling articles of decoration, marked the difference between Mrs. Wilson, life-rentrix of Milnwood, and the housekeeper of the late proprietor.

“What were ye pleased to want wi’ Mrs. Wilson, sir? I am Mrs. Wilson,” was her first address; for the five minutes time which she had gained for the business of the toilet entitled her, she conceived, to assume the full merit of her illustrious name, and shine forth on her guest in unchastened splendour. Morton’s sensations, confounded between the past and present, fairly confused him so much that he would have had difficulty in answering her, even if he had known well what to say. But as he had not determined what character he was to adopt while concealing that which was properly his own, he had an additional reason for remaining silent. Mrs. Wilson, in perplexity, and with some apprehension, repeated her question.

“What were ye pleased to want wi’ me, sir? Ye said ye kend Mr. Harry Morton?”

“Pardon me, madam,” answered Henry, “it was of one Silas Morton I spoke.” The old woman’s countenance fell.

“It was his father, then, ye kent o’, the brother o’ the late Milnwood? Ye canna mind him abroad, I wad think — he was come hame afore ye were born. I thought ye had brought me news of poor Maister Harry.”

“It was from my father I learned to know Colonel Morton,” said Henry; “of the son I know little or nothing — rumour says he died abroad on his passage to Holland.”

“That’s ower like to be true,” said the old woman with a sigh, “and mony a tear it’s cost my auld een. His uncle, poor gentleman, just sough’d awa wi’ it in his mouth. He had been gieing me preceeze directions anent the bread and the wine and the brandy at his burial, and how often it was to be handed round the company (for, dead or alive, he was a prudent, frugal, painstaking man), and then he said, said he, ‘Ailie,’ (he aye ca’d me Ailie; we were auld acquaintance), ‘Ailie, take ye care and haud the gear weel thegither; for the name of Morton of Milnwood ‘s gane out like the last sough of an auld sang.’ And sae he fell out o’ ae dwam into another, and ne’er spak a word mair, unless it were something we cou’dna mak out, about a dipped candle being gude eneugh to see to dee wi’. He cou’d ne’er bide to see a moulded ane, and there was ane, by ill luck, on the table.”

While Mrs. Wilson was thus detailing the last moments of the old miser, Morton was pressingly engaged in diverting the assiduous curiosity of the dog, which, recovered from his first surprise, and combining former recollections, had, after much snuffing and examination, begun a course of capering and jumping upon the stranger which threatened every instant to betray him. At length, in the urgency of his impatience, Morton could not forbear exclaiming, in a tone of hasty impatience, “Down, Elphin! down, sir!”

“Ye ken our dog’s name,” said the old lady, struck with great and sudden surprise — “ye ken our dog’s name, and it’s no a common ane. And the creature kens you too,” she continued, in a more agitated and shriller tone — “God guide us! it’s my ain bairn!”

So saying, the poor old woman threw herself around Morton’s neck, cling to him, kissed him as if he had been actually her child, and wept for joy. There was no parrying the discovery, if he could have had the heart to attempt any further disguise. He returned the embrace with the most grateful warmth, and answered —

“I do indeed live, dear Ailie, to thank you for all your kindness, past and present, and to rejoice that there is at least one friend to welcome me to my native country.”

“Friends!” exclaimed Ailie, “ye’ll hae mony friends — ye ‘ll hae mony friends; for ye will hae gear, hinny — ye will hae gear. Heaven mak ye a gude guide o’t! But eh, sirs!” she continued, pushing him back from her with her trembling hand and shrivelled arm, and gazing in his face as if to read, at more convenient distance, the ravages which sorrow rather than time had made on his face — “Eh, sirs! ye’re sair altered, hinny; your face is turned pale, and your een are sunken, and your bonny red-and-white cheeks are turned a’ dark and sun-burnt. Oh, weary on the wars! mony ‘s the comely face they destroy. — And when cam ye here, hinny? And where hae ye been? And what hae ye been doing? And what for did ye na write to us? And how cam ye to pass yoursell for dead? And what for did ye come creepin’ to your ain house as if ye had been an unto body, to gie poor auld Ailie sic a start?” she concluded, smiling through her tears. It was some time ere Morton could overcome his own emotion so as to give the kind old woman the information which we shall communicate to our readers in the next chapter.

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