Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 24

Private Information.

—— Ope this letter;

I can produce a champion that will prove

What is avouched there. ——

King Lear.

The billet which Mowbray received, and read in his sister’s presence, contained these words:—

“Sir — Clara Mowbray has few friends — none, perhaps, excepting yourself, in right of blood, and the writer of this letter, by right of the fondest, truest, and most disinterested attachment, that ever man bore to woman. I am thus explicit with you, because, though it is unlikely that I should ever again see or speak to your sister, I am desirous that you should be clearly acquainted with the cause of that interest, which I must always, even to my dying breath, take in her affairs.

“The person, calling himself Lord Etherington, is, I am aware, in the neighbourhood of Shaws-Castle, with the intention of paying his addresses to Miss Mowbray; and it is easy for me to foresee, arguing according to the ordinary views of mankind, that he may place his proposals in such a light as may make them seem highly desirable. But ere you give this person the encouragement which his offers may seem to deserve, please to enquire whether his fortune is certain, or his rank indisputable; and be not satisfied with light evidence on either point. A man may be in possession of an estate and title, to which he has no better right than his own rapacity and forwardness of assumption; and supposing Mr. Mowbray jealous, as he must be, of the honour of his family, the alliance of such a one cannot but bring disgrace. This comes from one who will make good what he has written.”

On the first perusal of a billet so extraordinary, Mowbray was inclined to set it down to the malice of some of the people at the Well, anonymous letters being no uncommon resource of the small wits who frequent such places of general resort, as a species of deception safely and easily executed, and well calculated to produce much mischief and confusion. But upon closer consideration, he was shaken in this opinion, and, starting suddenly from the reverie into which he had fallen, asked for the messenger who had brought the letter. “He was in the hall,” the servant thought, and Mowbray ran to the hall. No — the messenger was not there, but Mowbray might see his back as he walked up the avenue. — He hollo’d — no answer was returned — he ran after the fellow, whose appearance was that of a countryman. The man quickened his pace as he saw himself pursued, and when he got out of the avenue, threw himself into one of the numerous bypaths which wanderers, who strayed in quest of nuts, or for the sake of exercise, had made in various directions through the extensive copse which surrounded the Castle, and were doubtless the reason of its acquiring the name of Shaws, which signifies, in the Scottish dialect, a wood of this description.

Irritated by the man’s obvious desire to avoid him, and naturally obstinate in all his resolutions, Mowbray pursued for a considerable way, until he fairly lost breath; and the flier having been long out of sight, he recollected at length that his engagement with the Earl of Etherington required his attendance at the Castle.

The young lord, indeed, had arrived at Shaws-Castle, so few minutes after Mowbray’s departure, that it was wonderful they had not met in the avenue. The servant to whom he applied, conceiving that his master must return instantly, as he had gone out without his hat, ushered the Earl, without farther ceremony, into the breakfast-room, where Clara was seated upon one of the window-seats, so busily employed with a book, or perhaps with her own thoughts while she held a book in her hands, that she scarce raised her head, until Lord Etherington, advancing, pronounced the words, “Miss Mowbray.” A start, and a loud scream, announced her deadly alarm, and these were repeated as he made one pace nearer, and in a firmer accent said, “Clara.”

“No nearer — no nearer,” she exclaimed, “if you would have me look upon you and live!” Lord Etherington remained standing, as if uncertain whether to advance or retreat, while with incredible rapidity she poured out her hurried entreaties that he would begone, sometimes addressing him as a real personage, sometimes, and more frequently, as a delusive phantom, the offspring of her own excited imagination. “I knew it,” she muttered, “I knew what would happen, if my thoughts were forced into that fearful channel. — Speak to me, brother! speak to me while I have reason left, and tell me that what stands before me is but an empty shadow! But it is no shadow — it remains before me in all the lineaments of mortal substance!”

“Clara,” said the Earl, with a firm, yet softened voice, “collect and compose yourself. I am, indeed, no shadow — I am a much-injured man, come to demand rights which have been unjustly withheld from me. I am now armed with power as well as justice, and my claims shall be heard.”

“Never — never!” replied Clara Mowbray; “since extremity is my portion, let extremity give me courage. — You have no rights — none — I know you not, and I defy you.”

“Defy me not, Clara Mowbray,” answered the Earl, in a tone, and with a manner how different from those which delighted society! for now he was solemn, tragic, and almost stern, like the judge when he passes sentence upon a criminal. “Defy me not,” he repeated. “I am your Fate, and it rests with you to make me a kind or severe one.”

“Dare you speak thus?” said Clara, her eyes flashing with anger, while her lips grew white, and quivered for fear —“Dare you speak thus, and remember that the same heaven is above our heads, to which you so solemnly vowed you would never see me more without my own consent?”

“That vow was conditional — Francis Tyrrel, as he calls himself, swore the same — hath he not seen you?” He fixed a piercing look on her; “He has — you dare not disown it! — And shall an oath, which to him is but a cobweb, be to me a shackle of iron?”

“Alas! it was but for a moment,” said Miss Mowbray, sinking in courage, and drooping her head as she spoke.

“Were it but the twentieth part of an instant — the least conceivable space of subdivided time — still, you did meet — he saw you — you spoke to him. And me also you must see — me also you must hear! Or I will first claim you for my own in the face of the world; and, having vindicated my rights, I will seek out and extinguish the wretched rival who has dared to interfere with them.”

“Can you speak thus?” said Clara —“can you so burst through the ties of nature? — Have you a heart!”

“I have; and it shall be moulded like wax to your slightest wishes, if you agree to do me justice; but not granite, nor aught else that nature has of hardest, will be more inflexible if you continue an useless opposition! — Clara Mowbray, I am your Fate.”

“Not so, proud man,” said Clara, rising, “God gave not one potsherd the power to break another, save by his divine permission — my fate is in the will of Him, without whose will even a sparrow falls not to the ground. — Begone — I am strong in faith of heavenly protection.”

“Do you speak thus in sincerity?” said the Earl of Etherington; “consider first what is the prospect before you. I stand here in no doubtful or ambiguous character — I offer not the mere name of a husband — propose to you not a humble lot of obscurity and hardship, with fears for the past and doubts for the future; yet there was a time when to a suit like this you could listen favourably. — I stand high among the nobles of the country, and offer you, as my bride, your share in my honours, and in the wealth which becomes them. — Your brother is my friend, and favours my suit. I will raise from the ground, and once more render illustrious, your ancient house — your motions shall be regulated by your wishes, even by your caprices — I will even carry my self-denial so far, that you shall, should you insist on so severe a measure, have your own residence, your own establishment, and without intrusion on my part, until the most devoted love, the most unceasing attentions, shall make way on your inflexible disposition. — All this I will consent to for the future — all that is past shall be concealed from the public. — But mine, Clara Mowbray, you must be.”

“Never — never!” she said with increasing vehemence. “I can but repeat a negative, but it shall have all the force of an oath. — Your rank is nothing to me — your fortune I scorn — my brother has no right, by the law of Scotland, or of nature, to compel my inclinations. — I detest your treachery, and I scorn the advantage you propose to attain by it. — Should the law give you my hand, it would but award you that of a corpse.”

“Alas! Clara,” said the Earl, “you do but flutter in the net; but I will urge you no farther, now — there is another encounter before me.”

He was turning away, when Clara, springing forward, caught him by the arm, and repeated, in a low and impressive voice, the commandment — “Thou shalt do no murder!”

“Fear not any violence,” he said, softening his voice, and attempting to take her hand, “but what may flow from your own severity. — Francis is safe from me, unless you are altogether unreasonable. — Allow me but what you cannot deny to any friend of your brother, the power of seeing you at times — suspend at least the impetuosity of your dislike to me, and I will, on my part, modify the current of my just and otherwise uncontrollable resentment.”

Clara, extricating herself, and retreating from him, only replied, “There is a Heaven above us, and THERE shall be judged our actions towards each other! You abuse a power most treacherously obtained — you break a heart that never did you wrong — you seek an alliance with a wretch who only wishes to be wedded to her grave. — If my brother brings you hither, I cannot help it — and if your coming prevents bloody and unnatural violence, it is so far well. — But by my consent you come not; and, were the choice mine, I would rather be struck with life-long blindness, than that my eyes should again open on your person — rather that my ears were stuffed with the earth of the grave, than that they should again hear your voice!”

The Earl of Etherington smiled proudly, and replied, “Even this, madam, I can hear without resentment. Anxious and careful as you are to deprive your compliance of every grace and of every kindness, I receive the permission to wait on you, as I interpret your words.”

“Do not so interpret them,” she replied; “I do but submit to your presence as an unavoidable evil. Heaven be my witness, that, were it not to prevent greater and more desperate evil, I would not even so far acquiesce.”

“Let acquiescence, then, be the word,” he said; “and so thankful will I be, even for your acquiescence, Miss Mowbray, that all shall remain private, which I conceive you do not wish to be disclosed; and, unless absolutely compelled to it in self-defence, you may rely, no violence will be resorted to by me in any quarter. — I relieve you from my presence.”

So saying, he withdrew from the apartment.

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