Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 35

Debate.

Sedet post equitem atra cura ——

Still though the headlong cavalier,

O’er rough and smooth, in wild career,

Seems racing with the wind;

His sad companion — ghastly pale,

And darksome as a widow’s veil,

CARE— keeps her seat behind.

HORACE.

Well was it that night for Mowbray, that he had always piqued himself on his horses, and that the animal on which he was then mounted was as sure-footed and sagacious as he was mettled and fiery. For those who observed next day the print of the hoofs on the broken and rugged track through which the creature had been driven at full speed by his furious master, might easily see, that in more than a dozen of places the horse and rider had been within a few inches of destruction. One bough of a gnarled and stunted oak-tree, which stretched across the road, seemed in particular to have opposed an almost fatal barrier to the horseman’s career. In striking his head against this impediment, the force of the blow had been broken in some measure by a high-crowned hat, yet the violence of the shock was sufficient to shiver the branch to pieces. Fortunately, it was already decayed; but, even in that state, it was subject of astonishment to every one that no fatal damage had been sustained in so formidable an encounter. Mowbray himself was unconscious of the accident.

Scarcely aware that he had been riding at an unusual rate, scarce sensible that he had ridden faster perhaps than ever he followed the hounds, Mowbray alighted at his stable door, and flung the bridle to his groom, who held up his hands in astonishment when he beheld the condition of the favourite horse; but, concluding that his master must be intoxicated, he prudently forbore to make any observations.

No sooner did the unfortunate traveller suspend that rapid motion by which he seemed to wish to annihilate, as far as possible, time and space, in order to reach the place he had now attained, than it seemed to him as if he would have given the world that seas and deserts had lain between him and the house of his fathers, as well as that only sister with whom he was now about to have a decisive interview.

“But the place and the hour are arrived,” he said, biting his lip with anguish; “this explanation must be decisive; and whatever evils may attend it, suspense must be ended now, at once and for ever.”

He entered the Castle, and took the light from the old domestic, who, hearing the clatter of his horse’s feet, had opened the door to receive him.

“Is my sister in her parlour?” he asked, but in so hollow a voice, that the old man only answered the question by another, “Was his honour well?”

“Quite well, Patrick — never better in my life,” said Mowbray; and turning his back on the old man, as if to prevent his observing whether his countenance and his words corresponded, he pursued his way to his sister’s apartment. The sound of his step upon the passage roused Clara from a reverie, perhaps a sad one; and she had trimmed her lamp, and stirred her fire, so slow did he walk, before he at length entered her apartment.

“You are a good boy, brother,” she said, “to come thus early home; and I have some good news for your reward. The groom has fetched back Trimmer — He was lying by the dead hare, and he had chased him as far as Drumlyford — the shepherd had carried him to the shieling, till some one should claim him.”

“I would he had hanged him, with all my heart!” said Mowbray.

“How! — hang Trimmer? — your favourite Trimmer, that has beat the whole country? — and it was only this morning you were half-crying because he was amissing, and like to murder man and mother’s son?”

“The better I like any living thing,” answered Mowbray, “the more reason I have for wishing it dead and at rest; for neither I, nor any thing that I love, will ever be happy more.”

“You cannot frighten me, John, with these flights,” answered Clara, trembling, although she endeavoured to look unconcerned —“You have used me to them too often.”

“It is well for you then; you will be ruined without the shock of surprise.”

“So much the better — We have been,” said Clara,

“‘So constantly in poortith’s sight,

The thoughts on’t gie us little fright.’

So say I with honest Robert Burns.”

“D— n Barns and his trash!” said Mowbray, with the impatience of a man determined to be angry with every thing but himself, who was the real source of the evil.

“And why damn poor Burns?” said Clara, composedly; “it is not his fault if you have not risen a winner, for that, I suppose, is the cause of all this uproar.”

“Would it not make any one lose patience,” said Mowbray, “to hear her quoting the rhapsodies of a hobnail’d peasant, when a man is speaking of the downfall of an ancient house! Your ploughman, I suppose, becoming one degree poorer than he was born to be, would only go without his dinner, or without his usual potation of ale. His comrades would cry ‘poor fellow!’ and let him eat out of their kit, and drink out of their bicker without scruple, till his own was full again. But the poor gentleman — the downfallen man of rank — the degraded man of birth — the disabled and disarmed man of power! — it is he that is to be pitied, who loses not merely drink and dinner, but honour, situation, credit, character, and name itself!”

“You are declaiming in this manner in order to terrify me,” said Clara: “but, friend John, I know you and your ways, and I have made up my mind upon all contingencies that can take place. I will tell you more — I have stood on this tottering pinnacle of rank and fashion, if our situation can be termed such, till my head is dizzy with the instability of my eminence; and I feel that strange desire of tossing myself down, which the devil is said to put into folk’s heads when they stand on the top of steeples — at least, I had rather the plunge were over.”

“Be satisfied, then; if that will satisfy you — the plunge is over, and we are — what they used to call it in Scotland — gentle beggars — creatures to whom our second, and third, and fourth, and fifth cousins may, if they please, give a place at the side-table, and a seat in the carriage with the lady’s maid, if driving backwards will not make us sick.”

“They may give it to those who will take it,” said Clara; “but I am determined to eat bread of my own buying — I can do twenty things, and I am sure some one or other of them will bring me all the little money I will need. I have been trying, John, for several months, how little I can live upon, and you would laugh if you heard how low I have brought the account.”

“There is a difference, Clara, between fanciful experiments and real poverty — the one is a masquerade, which we can end when we please, the other is wretchedness for life.”

“Methinks, brother,” replied Miss Mowbray, “it would be better for you to set me an example how to carry my good resolutions into effect, than to ridicule them.”

“Why, what would you have me do?” said he, fiercely —“turn postilion, or rough-rider, or whipper-in? — I don’t know any thing else that my education, as I have used it, has fitted me for — and then some of my old acquaintances would, I dare say, give me a crown to drink now and then for old acquaintance’ sake.”

“This is not the way, John, that men of sense think or speak of serious misfortunes,” answered his sister; “and I do not believe that this is so serious as it is your pleasure to make it.”

“Believe the very worst you can think,” replied he, “and you will not believe bad enough! — You have neither a guinea, nor a house, nor a friend; — pass but a day, and it is a chance that you will not have a brother.”

“My dear John, you have drunk hard — rode hard.”

“Yes — such tidings deserved to be carried express, especially to a young lady who receives them so well,” answered Mowbray, bitterly. “I suppose, now, it will make no impression, if I were to tell you that you have it in your power to stop all this ruin?”

“By consummating my own, I suppose? — Brother, I said you could not make me tremble, but you have found a way to do it.”

“What, you expect I am again to urge you with Lord Etherington’s courtship? — That might have saved all, indeed — But that day of grace is over.”

“I am glad of it, with all my spirit,” said Clara; “may it take with it all that we can quarrel about! — But till this instant I thought it was for this very point that this long voyage was bound, and that you were endeavouring to persuade me of the reality of the danger of the storm, in order to reconcile me to the harbour.”

“You are mad, I think, in earnest,” said Mowbray; “can you really be so absurd as to rejoice that you have no way left to relieve yourself and me from ruin, want, and shame?”

“From shame, brother?” said Clara. “No shame in honest poverty, I hope.”

“That is according as folks have used their prosperity, Clara. — I must speak to the point. — There are strange reports going below — By Heaven! they are enough to disturb the ashes of the dead! Were I to mention them, I should expect our poor mother to enter the room — Clara Mowbray, can you guess what I mean?”

It was with the utmost exertion, yet in a faltering voice, that she was able, after an ineffectual effort, to utter the monosyllable, “No!

“By Heaven! I am ashamed — I am even afraid to express my own meaning! — Clara, what is there which makes you so obstinately reject every proposal of marriage? — Is it that you feel yourself unworthy to be the wife of an honest man? — Speak out! — Evil Fame has been busy with your reputation — speak out! — Give me the right to cram their lies down the throats of the inventors, and when I go among them tomorrow, I shall know how to treat those who cast reflections on you! The fortunes of our house are ruined, but no tongue shall slander its honour. — Speak — speak, wretched girl! why are you silent?”

“Stay at home, brother!” said Clara; “stay at home, if you regard our house’s honour — murder cannot mend misery — Stay at home, and let them talk of me as they will — they can scarcely say worse of me than I deserve!”E13

The passions of Mowbray, at all times ungovernably strong, were at present inflamed by wine, by his rapid journey, and the previously disturbed state of his mind. He set his teeth, clenched his hands, looked on the ground, as one that forms some horrid resolution, and muttered almost unintelligibly, “It were charity to kill her!”

“Oh! no — no — no!” exclaimed the terrified girl, throwing herself at his feet; “Do not kill me, brother! I have wished for death — thought of death — prayed for death — but, oh! it is frightful to think that he is near — Oh! not a bloody death, brother, nor by your hand!”

She held him close by the knees as she spoke, and expressed, in her looks and accents, the utmost terror. It was not, indeed, without reason; for the extreme solitude of the place, the violent and inflamed passions of her brother, and the desperate circumstances to which he had reduced himself, seemed all to concur to render some horrid act of violence not an improbable termination of this strange interview.

Mowbray folded his arms, without unclenching his hands, or raising his head, while his sister continued on the floor, clasping him round the knees with all her strength, and begging piteously for her life and for mercy.

“Fool!” he said, at last, “let me go! — Who cares for thy worthless life? — who cares if thou live or die? Live, if thou canst — and be the hate and scorn of every one else, as much as thou art mine!”

He grasped her by the shoulder, with one hand pushed her from him, and, as she arose from the floor, and again pressed to throw her arms around his neck, he repulsed her with his arm and hand, with a push — or blow — it might be termed either one or the other — violent enough, in her weak state, to have again extended her on the ground, had not a chair received her as she fell. He looked at her with ferocity, grappled a moment in his pocket; then ran to the window, and throwing the sash violently up, thrust himself as far as he could without falling, into the open air. Terrified, and yet her feelings of his unkindness predominating even above her fears, Clara continued to exclaim.

“Oh, brother, say you did not mean this! — Oh, say you did not mean to strike me! — Oh, whatever I have deserved, be not you the executioner! — It is not manly — it is not natural — there are but two of us in the world!”

He returned no answer; and, observing that he continued to stretch himself from the window, which was in the second story of the building, and overlooked the court, a new cause of apprehension mingled, in some measure, with her personal fears. Timidly, and with streaming eyes and uplifted hands, she approached her angry brother, and, fearfully, yet firmly, seized the skirt of his coat, as if anxious to preserve him from the effects of that despair, which so lately seemed turned against her, and now against himself.

He felt the pressure of her hold, and drawing himself angrily back, asked her sternly what she wanted.

“Nothing,” she said, quitting her hold of his coat; “but what — what did he look after so anxiously?”

“After the devil!” he answered, fiercely; then drawing in his head, and taking her hand, “By my soul, Clara — it is true, if ever there was truth in such a tale! — He stood by me just now, and urged me to murder thee! — What else could have put my hunting-knife into my thought? — Ay, by God, and into my very hand — at such a moment? — Yonder I could almost fancy I see him fly, the wood, and the rock, and the water, gleaming back the dark-red furnace-light, that is shed on them by his dragon wings! By my soul, I can hardly suppose it fancy — I can hardly think but that I was under the influence of an evil spirit — under an act of fiendish possession! But gone as he is, gone let him be — and thou, too ready implement of evil, be thou gone after him!” He drew from his pocket his right hand, which had all this time held his hunting-knife, and threw the implement into the court-yard as he spoke, then, with a sad quietness, and solemnity of manner, shut the window, and led his sister by the hand to her usual seat, which her tottering steps scarce enabled her to reach. “Clara,” he said, after a pause of mournful silence, “we must think what is to be done, without passion or violence — there may be something for us in the dice yet, if we do not throw away our game. A blot is never a blot till it is hit — dishonour concealed, is not dishonour in some respects. — Dost thou attend to me, wretched girl?” he said, suddenly and sternly raising his voice.

“Yes, brother — yes, indeed, brother!” she hastily replied, terrified even by delay again to awaken his ferocious and ungovernable temper.

“Thus it must be, then,” he said. “You must marry this Etherington — there is no help for it, Clara — You cannot complain of what your own vice and folly have rendered inevitable.”

“But, brother!”— said the trembling girl.

“Be silent. I know all that you would say. You love him not, you would say. I love him not, no more than you. Nay, what is more, he loves you not; if he did, I might scruple to give you to him, you being such as you have owned yourself. But you shall wed him out of hate, Clara — or for the interest of your family — or for what reason you will — But wed him you shall and must.”

“Brother — dearest brother — one single word!”

“Not of refusal or expostulation — that time is gone by,” said her stern censurer. “When I believed thee what I thought thee this morning, I might advise you, but I could not compel. But, since the honour of our family has been disgraced by your means, it is but just, that, if possible, its disgrace should be hidden; and it shall — ay, if selling you for a slave would tend to conceal it!”

“You do worse — you do worse by me! A slave in an open market may be bought by a kind master — you do not give me that chance — you wed me to one who”——

“Fear him not, nor the worst that he can do, Clara,” said her brother. “I know on what terms he marries; and being once more your brother, as your obedience in this matter will make me, he had better tear his flesh from his bones with his own teeth, than do thee any displeasure! By Heaven, I hate him so much — for he has outreached me every way — that methinks it is some consolation that he will not receive in thee the excellent creature I thought thee! — Fallen as thou art, thou art still too good for him.”

Encouraged by the more gentle and almost affectionate tone in which her brother spoke, Clara could not help saying, although almost in a whisper, “I trust it will not be so — I trust he will consider his own condition, honour, and happiness, better than to share it with me.”

“Let him utter such a scruple if he dares,” said Mowbray —“But he dares not hesitate — he knows that the instant he recedes from addressing you, he signs his own death-warrant or mine, or perhaps that of both; and his views, too, are of a kind that will not be relinquished on a point of scrupulous delicacy merely. Therefore, Clara, nourish no such thought in your heart as that there is the least possibility of your escaping this marriage! The match is booked — Swear you will not hesitate.”

“I will not,” she said, almost breathlessly, terrified lest he was about to start once more into the fit of unbridled fury which had before seized on him.

“Do not even whisper or hint an objection, but submit to your fate, for it is inevitable.”

“I will — submit”— answered Clara, in the same trembling accent.

“And I,” he said, “will spare you — at least at present — and it may be for ever — all enquiry into the guilt which you have confessed. Rumours there were of misconduct, which reached my ears even in England; but who could have believed them that looked on you daily, and witnessed your late course of life? — On this subject I will be at present silent — perhaps may not again touch on it — that is, if you do nothing to thwart my pleasure, or to avoid the fate which circumstances render unavoidable. — And now it is late — retire, Clara, to your bed — think on what I have said as what necessity has determined, and not my selfish pleasure.”

He held out his hand, and she placed, but not without reluctant terror, her trembling palm in his. In this manner, and with a sort of mournful solemnity, as if they had been in attendance upon a funeral, he handed his sister through a gallery hung with old family pictures, at the end of which was Clara’s bedchamber. The moon, which at this moment looked out through a huge volume of mustering clouds that had long been boding storm, fell on the two last descendants of that ancient family, as they glided hand in hand, more like the ghosts of the deceased than like living persons, through the hall and amongst the portraits of their forefathers. The same thoughts were in the breast of both, but neither attempted to say, while they cast a flitting glance on the pallid and decayed representations, “How little did these anticipate this catastrophe of their house!” At the door of the bedroom Mowbray quitted his sister’s hand, and said, “Clara, you should to-night thank God, that saved you from a great danger, and me from a deadly sin.”

“I will,” she answered —“I will.” And, as if her terror had been anew excited by this allusion to what had passed, she bid her brother hastily good-night, and was no sooner within her apartment, than he heard her turn the key in the lock, and draw two bolts besides.

“I understand you, Clara,” muttered Mowbray between his teeth, as he heard one bar drawn after another. “But if you could earth yourself under Ben Nevis, you could not escape what fate has destined for you. — Yes!” he said to himself, as he walked with slow and moody pace through the moonlight gallery, uncertain whether to return to the parlour, or to retire to his solitary chamber, when his attention was roused by a noise in the court-yard.

The night was not indeed very far advanced, but it had been so long since Shaws-Castle received a guest, that had Mowbray not heard the rolling of wheels in the court-yard, he might have thought rather of housebreakers than of visitors. But, as the sound of a carriage and horses was distinctly heard, it instantly occurred to him, that the guest must be Lord Etherington, come, even at this late hour, to speak with him on the reports which were current to his sister’s prejudice, and perhaps to declare his addresses to her were at an end. Eager to know the worst, and to bring matters to a decision, he re-entered the apartment he had just left, where the lights were still burning, and, calling loudly to Patrick, whom he heard in communing with the postilion, commanded him to show the visitor to Miss Mowbray’s parlour. It was not the light step of the young nobleman which came tramping, or rather stamping, through the long passage, and up the two or three steps at the end of it. Neither was it Lord Etherington’s graceful figure which was seen when the door opened, but the stout square substance of Mr. Peregrine Touchwood.

E13 p. 254. “They can scarcely say worse of me than I deserve.” In this remark of Clara’s we have another trace of the original plot, involving Clara’s lapse from virtue. The whole scene, with Mowbray’s “You having been such as you own yourself,” was made unintelligible by Ballantyne’s objection. — A.L.

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