The Abbot, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Twelfth.

Nay, hear me, brother — I am elder, wiser,

And holier than thou — And age, and wisdom,

And holiness, have peremptory claims,

And will be listen’d to.

Old play.

When the matrons re-entered, and put an end to the conversation — which we have detailed in the last chapter, Dame Magdalen Graeme thus addressed her grandson and his pretty companion: “Have you spoke together, my children? — Have you become known to each other as fellow-travellers on the same dark and dubious road, whom chance hath brought together, and who study to learn the tempers and dispositions of those by whom their perils are to be shared?”

It was seldom the light-hearted Catharine could suppress a jest, so that she often spoke when she would have acted more wisely in holding her peace.

“Your grandson admires the journey which you propose so very greatly, that he was even now preparing for setting out upon it instantly.”

“This is to be too forward, Roland,” said the dame, addressing him, “as yesterday you were over slack — the just mean lies in obedience, which both waits for the signal to start, and obeys it when given. — But once again, my children, have you so perused each other’s countenances, that when you meet, in whatever disguise the times may impose upon you, you may recognize each in the other the secret agent of the mighty work in which you are to be leagued? — Look at each other, know each line and lineament of each other’s countenance. Learn to distinguish by the step, by the sound of the voice, by the motion of the hand, by the glance of the eye, the partner whom Heaven hath sent to aid in working its will. — Wilt thou know that maiden, whensoever, or wheresoever you shall again meet her, my Roland Graeme?”

As readily as truly did Roland answer in the affirmative. “And thou, my daughter, wilt thou again remember the features of this youth?”

“Truly, mother,” replied Catherine Seyton, “I have not seen so many men of late, that I should immediately forget your grandson, though I mark not much about him that is deserving of especial remembrance.”

“Join hands, then, my children,” said Magdalen Graeme; but, in saying so, was interrupted by her companion, whose conventual prejudices had been gradually giving her more and more uneasiness, and who could remain acquiescent no longer.

“Nay, my good sister, you forget,” said she to Magdalen, “Catharine is the betrothed bride of Heaven — these intimacies cannot be.”

“It is in the cause of Heaven that I command them to embrace,” said Magdalen, with the full force of her powerful voice; “the end, sister, sanctifies the means we must use.”

“They call me Lady Abbess, or Mother at the least, who address me,” said Dame Bridget, drawing herself up, as if offended at her friend’s authoritative manner —“the Lady of Heathergill forgets that she speaks to the Abbess of Saint Catherine.”

“When I was what you call me,” said Magdalen, “you indeed were the Abbess of Saint Catherine, but both names are now gone, with all the rank that the world and that the church gave to them; and we are now, to the eye of human judgment, two poor, despised, oppressed women, dragging our dishonoured old age to a humble grave. But what are we in the eye of Heaven? — Ministers, sent forth to work his will — in whose weakness the strength of the church shall be manifested-before whom shall be humbled the wisdom of Murray, and the dark strength of Morton — And to such wouldst thou apply the narrow rules of thy cloistered seclusion? — or, hast thou forgotten the order which I showed thee from thy Superior, subjecting thee to me in these matters?”

“On thy head, then, be the scandal and the sin,” said the Abbess, sullenly.

“On mine be they both,” said Magdalen. “I say, embrace each other, my children.”

But Catherine, aware, perhaps, how the dispute was likely to terminate, had escaped from the apartment, and so disappointed the grandson, at least as much as the old matron.

“She is gone,” said the Abbess, “to provide some little refreshment. But it will have little savour to those who dwell in the world; for I, at least, cannot dispense with the rules to which I am vowed, because it is the will of wicked men to break down the sanctuary in which they wont to be observed.”

“It is well, my sister,” replied Magdalen, “to pay each even the smallest tithes of mint and cummin which the church demands, and I blame not thy scrupulous observance of the rules of thine order. But they were established by the church, and for the church’s benefit; and reason it is that they should give way when the salvation of the church herself is at stake.”

The Abbess made no reply.

One more acquainted with human nature than the inexperienced page, might have found amusement in comparing the different kinds of fanaticisms which these two females exhibited. The Abbess, timid, narrowminded, and discontented, clung to ancient usages and pretensions which were ended by the Reformation; and was in adversity, as she had been in prosperity, scrupulous, weak-spirited, and bigoted. While the fiery and more lofty spirit of her companion suggested a wider field of effort, and would not be limited by ordinary rules in the extraordinary schemes which were suggested by her bold and irregular imagination. But Roland Graeme, instead of tracing these peculiarities of character in the two old damps, only waited with great anxiety for the return of Catherine, expecting probably that the proposal of the fraternal embrace would be renewed, as his grandmother seemed disposed to carry matters with a high hand.

His expectations, or hopes, if we may call them so, were, however, disappointed; for, when Catherine re-entered on the summons of the Abbess, and placed on the table an earthen pitcher of water, and four wooden platters, with cups of the same materials, the Dame of Heathergill, satisfied with the arbitrary mode in which she had borne down the opposition of the Abbess, pursued her victory no farther — a moderation for which her grandson, in his heart, returned her but slender thanks.

In the meanwhile, Catherine continued to place upon the table the slender preparations for the meal of a recluse, which consisted almost entirely of colewort, boiled and served up in a wooden platter, having no better seasoning than a little salt, and no better accompaniment than some coarse barley-bread, in very moderate quantity. The water-pitcher, already mentioned, furnished the only beverage. After a Latin grace, delivered by the Abbess, the guests sat down to their spare entertainment. The simplicity of the fare appeared to produce no distaste in the females, who ate of it moderately, but with the usual appearance of appetite. But Roland Graeme had been used to better cheer. Sir Halbert Glendinning, who affected even an unusual degree of nobleness in his housekeeping, maintained it in a style of genial hospitality, which rivalled that of the Northern Barons of England. He might think, perhaps, that by doing so, he acted yet more completely the part for which he was born — that of a great Baron and a leader. Two bullocks, and six sheep, weekly, were the allowance when the Baron was at home, and the number was not greatly diminished during his absence. A boll of malt was weekly brewed into ale, which was used by the household at discretion. Bread was baked in proportion for the consumption of his domestics and retainers; and in this scene of plenty had Roland Graeme now lived for several years. It formed a bad introduction to lukewarm greens and spring-water; and probably his countenance indicated some sense of the difference, for the Abbess observed, “It would seem, my son, that the tables of the heretic Baron, whom you have so long followed, are more daintily furnished than those of the suffering daughters of the church; and yet, not upon the most solemn nights of festival, when the nuns were permitted to eat their portion at mine own table, did I consider the cates, which were then served up, as half so delicious as these vegetables and this water, on which I prefer to feed, rather than do aught which may derogate from the strictness of my vow. It shall never be said that the mistress of this house made it a house of feasting, when days of darkness and of affliction were hanging over the Holy Church, of which I am an unworthy member.”

“Well hast thou said, my sister,” replied Magdalen Graeme; “but now it is not only time to suffer in the good cause, but to act in it. And since our pilgrim’s meal is finished, let us go apart to prepare for our journey tomorrow, and to advise on the manner in which these children shall be employed, and what measures we can adopt to supply their thoughtlessness and lack of discretion.”

Notwithstanding his indifferent cheer, the heart of Roland Graeme bounded high at this proposal, which he doubted not would lead to another tête-â-tête betwixt him and the pretty novice. But he was mistaken. Catherine, it would seem, had no mind so far to indulge him; for, moved either by delicacy or caprice, or some of those indescribable shades betwixt the one and the other, with which women love to tease, and at the same time to captivate, the ruder sex, she reminded the Abbess that it was necessary she should retire an hour before vespers; and, receiving the ready and approving nod of her Superior, she arose to withdraw. But before leaving the apartment, she made obeisance to the matrons, bending herself till her hands touched her knees, and then made a lesser reverence to Roland, which consisted in a slight bend of the body and gentle depression of the head. This she performed very demurely; but the party on whom the salutation was conferred, thought he could discern in her manner an arch and mischievous exultation over his secret disappointment. —“The devil take the saucy girl,” he thought in his heart, though the presence of the Abbess should have repressed all such profane imaginations — “she is as hard-hearted as the laughing hyaena that the story-books tell of — she has a mind that I shall not forget her this night at least.”

The matrons now retired also, giving the page to understand that he was on no account to stir from the convent, or to show himself at the windows, the Abbess assigning as a reason, the readiness with which the rude heretics caught at every occasion of scandalizing the religious orders.

“This is worse than the rigour of Mr. Henry Warden, himself,” said the page, when he was left alone; “for, to do him justice, however strict in requiring the most rigid attention during the time of his homilies, he left us to the freedom of our own wills afterwards — ay, and would take a share in our pastimes, too, if he thought them entirely innocent. But these old women are utterly wrapt up in gloom, mystery and self-denial. — Well, then, if I must neither stir out of the gate nor look out at window, I will at least see what the inside of the house contains that may help to pass away one’s time — peradventure I may light on that blue-eyed laugher in some corner or other.”

Going, therefore, out of the chamber by the entrance opposite to that through which the two matrons had departed, (for it may be readily supposed that he had no desire to intrude on their privacy.) he wandered from one chamber to another, through the deserted edifice, seeking, with boyish eagerness, some source of interest and amusement. Here he passed through a long gallery, opening on either hand into the little cells of the nuns, all deserted, and deprived of the few trifling articles of furniture which the rules of the order admitted.

“The birds are flown,” thought the page; “but whether they will find themselves worse off in the open air than in these damp narrow cages, I leave my Lady Abbess and my venerable relative to settle betwixt them. I think the wild young lark whom they have left behind them, would like best to sing under God’s free sky.”

A winding stair, strait and narrow, as if to remind the nuns of their duties of fast and maceration, led down to a lower suite of apartments, which occupied the ground story of the house. These rooms were even more ruinous than those which he had left; for, having encountered the first fury of the assailants by whom the nunnery had been wasted, the windows had been dashed in, the doors broken down, and even the partitions betwixt the apartments, in some places, destroyed. As he thus stalked from desolation to desolation, and began to think of returning from so uninteresting a research to the chamber which he had left, he was surprised to hear the low of a cow very close to him. The sound was so unexpected at the time and place, that Roland Graeme started as if it had been the voice of a lion, and laid his hand on his dagger, while at the same moment the light and lovely form of Catherine Seyton presented itself at the door of the apartment from which the sound had issued.

“Good even to you, valiant champion!” said she: “since the days of Guy of Warwick, never was one more worthy to encounter a dun cow.”

“Cow?” said Roland Graeme, “by my faith, I thought it had been the devil that roared so near me. Who ever heard of a convent containing a cow-house?”

“Cow and calf may come hither now,” answered Catherine, “for we have no means to keep out either. But I advise you, kind sir, to return to the place from whence you came.”

“Not till I see your charge, fair sister,” answered Roland, and made his way into the apartment, in spite of the half serious half laughing remonstrances of the girl.

The poor solitary cow, now the only severe recluse within the nunnery, was quartered in a spacious chamber, which had once been the refectory of the convent. The roof was graced with groined arches, and the wall with niches, from which the images had been pulled down. These remnants of architectural ornaments were strangely contrasted with the rude crib constructed for the cow in one corner of the apartment, and the stack of fodder which was piled beside it for her food. 12

“By my faith,” said the page, “Crombie is more lordly lodged than any one here!”

“You had best remain with her,” said Catherine, “and supply by your filial attentions the offspring she has had the ill luck to lose.”

“I will remain, at least, to help you to prepare her night’s lair, pretty Catherine,” said Roland, seizing upon a pitch-fork.

“By no means,” said Catherine; “for, besides that you know not in the least how to do her that service, you will bring a chiding my way, and I get enough of that in the regular course of things.”

“What! for accepting my assistance?” said the page — “for accepting my assistance, who am to be your confederate in some deep matter of import? That were altogether unreasonable — and, now I think on it, tell me if you can, what is this mighty emprise to which I am destined?”

“Robbing a bird’s nest, I should suppose,” said Catherine, “considering the champion whom they have selected.”

“By my faith,” said the youth, “and he that has taken a falcon’s nest in the Scaurs of Polmoodie, has done something to brag of, my fair sister. — But that is all over now — a murrain on the nest, and the eyases and their food, washed or unwashed, for it was all anon of cramming these worthless kites that I was sent upon my present travels. Save that I have met with you, pretty sister, I could eat my dagger-hilt for vexation at my own folly. But, as we are to be fellow-travellers —”

“Fellow-labourers! not fellow-travellers!” answered the girl; “for to your comfort be it known, that the Lady Abbess and I set out earlier than you and your respected relative tomorrow, and that I partly endure your company at present, because it may be long ere we meet again.”

“By Saint Andrew, but it shall not though,” answered Roland; “I will not hunt at all unless we are to hunt in couples.”

“I suspect, in that and in other points, we must do as we are bid,” replied the young lady. —“But, hark! I hear my aunt’s voice.”

The old lady entered in good earnest, and darted a severe glance at her niece, while Roland had the ready wit to busy himself about the halter of the cow.

“The young gentleman,” said Catherine, gravely, “is helping me to tie the cow up faster to her stake, for I find that last night when she put her head out of window and lowed, she alarmed the whole village; and — we shall be suspected of sorcery among the heretics, if they do not discover the cause of the apparition, or lose our cow if they do.”

“Relieve yourself of that fear,” said the Abbess, somewhat ironically; “the person to whom she is now sold, comes for the animal presently.”

“Good night, then, my poor companion,” said Catherine, patting the animal’s shoulders; “I hope thou hast fallen into kind hands, for my happiest hours of late have been spent in tending thee — I would I had been born to no better task!”

“Now, out upon thee, mean-spirited wench!” said the Abbess; “is that a speech worthy of the name of Seyton, or of the mouth of a sister of this house, treading the path of election — and to be spoken before a stranger youth, too? — Go to my oratory, minion — there read your Hours till I come thither, when I will read you such a lecture as shall make you prize the blessings which you possess.”

Catherine was about to withdraw in silence, casting a half sorrowful half comic glance at Roland Graeme, which seemed to say —“You see to what your untimely visit has exposed me,” when, suddenly changing her mind, she came forward to the page, and extended her hand as she bid him good evening. Their palms had pressed each other ere the astonished matron could interfere, and Catherine had time to say —“Forgive me, mother; it is long since we have seen a face that looked with kindness on us. Since these disorders have broken up our peaceful retreat, all has been gloom and malignity. I bid this youth kindly farewell, because he has come hither in kindness, and because the odds are great, that we may never again meet in this world. I guess better than he, that the schemes on which you are rushing are too mighty for your management, and that you are now setting the stone a-rolling, which must surely crush you in its descent. I bid fare-well,” she added, “to my fellow-victim!”

This was spoken with a tone of deep and serious feeling, altogether different from the usual levity of Catherine’s manner, and plainly showed, that beneath the giddiness of extreme youth and total inexperience, there lurked in her bosom a deeper power of sense and feeling, than her conduct had hitherto expressed.

The Abbess remained a moment silent after she had left the room. The proposed rebuke died on her tongue, and she appeared struck with the deep and foreboding, tone in which her niece had spoken her good-even. She led the way in silence to the apartment which they had formerly occupied, and where there was prepared a small refection, as the Abbess termed it, consisting of milk and barley-bread. Magdalen Graeme, summoned to take share in this collation, appeared from an adjoining apartment, but Catherine was seen no more. There was little said during the hasty meal, and after it was finished, Roland Graeme was dismissed to the nearest cell, where some preparations had been made for his repose.

The strange circumstances in which he found himself, had their usual effect in preventing slumber from hastily descending on him, and he could distinctly hear, by a low but earnest murmuring in the apartment which he had left, that the matrons continued in deep consultation to a late hour. As they separated he heard the Abbess distinctly express herself thus: “In a word, my sister, I venerate your character and the authority with which my Superiors have invested you; yet it seems to me, that, ere entering on this perilous course, we should consult some of the Fathers of the Church.”

“And how and where are we to find a faithful Bishop or Abbot at whom to ask counsel? The faithful Eustatius is no more — he is withdrawn from a world of evil, and from the tyranny of heretics. May Heaven and our Lady assoilzie him of his sins, and abridge the penance of his mortal infirmities! — Where shall we find another, with whom to take counsel?”

“Heaven will provide for the Church,” said the Abbess; “and the faithful fathers who yet are suffered to remain in the house of Kennaquhair, will proceed to elect an Abbot. They will not suffer the staff to fall down, or the mitre to be unfilled, for the threats of heresy.”

“That will I learn tomorrow,” said Magdalen Graeme; “yet who now takes the office of an hour, save to partake with the spoilers in their work of plunder? — tomorrow will tell us if one of the thousand saints who are sprung from the House of Saint Mary’s continues to look down on it in its misery. — Farewell, my sister — we meet at Edinburgh.”

“Benedicito!” answered the Abbess, and they parted.

“To Kennaquhair and to Edinburgh we bend our way.” thought Roland Graeme. “That information have I purchased by a sleepless hour — it suits well with my purpose. At Kennaquhair I shall see Father Ambrose; — at Edinburgh I shall find the means of shaping my own course through this bustling world, without burdening my affectionate relation — at Edinburgh, too, I shall see again the witching novice, with her blue eyes and her provoking smile.”— He fell asleep, and it was to dream of Catherine Seyton.

12 This, like the cell of Saint Cuthbert, is an imaginary scene, but I took one or two ideas of the desolation of the interior from a story told me by my father. In his youth — it may be near eighty years since, as he was born in 1729 — he had occasion to visit an old lady who resided in a Border castle of considerable renown. Only one very limited portion of the extensive ruins sufficed for the accommodation of the inmates, and my father amused himself by wandering through the part that was untenanted. In a dining-apartment, having a roof richly adorned with arches and drops, there was deposited a large stack of hay, to which calves were helping themselves from opposite sides. As my father was scaling a dark ruinous turnpike staircase, his greyhound ran up before him, and probably was the means of saving his life, for the animal fell through a trap-door, or aperture in the stair, thus warning the owner of the danger of the ascent. As the dog continued howling from a great depth, my father got the old butler, who alone knew most of the localities about the castle, to unlock a sort of stable, in which Kill-buck was found safe and sound, the place being filled with the same commodity which littered the stalls of Augeas, and which had rendered the dog’s fall an easy one.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00