How steadfastly he fix’d his eyes on me —
His dark eyes shining through forgotten tears —
Then stretch’d his little arms, and call’d me mother!
What could I do? I took the bantling home —
I could not tell the imp he had no mother.
When Warden had left the apartment, the Lady of Avenel gave way to the feelings of tenderness which the sight of the boy, his sudden danger, and his recent escape, had inspired; and no longer awed by the sternness, as she deemed it, of the preacher, heaped with caresses the lovely and interesting child. He was now, in some measure, recovered from the consequences of his accident, and received passively, though not without wonder, the tokens of kindness with which he was thus loaded. The face of the lady was strange to him, and her dress different and far more sumptuous than any he remembered. But the boy was naturally of an undaunted temper; and indeed children are generally acute physiognomists, and not only pleased by that which is beautiful in itself, but peculiarly quick in distinguishing and replying to the attentions of those who really love them. If they see a person in company, though a perfect stranger, who is by nature fond of children, the little imps seem to discover it by a sort of free-masonry, while the awkward attempts of those who make advances to them for the purpose of recommending themselves to the parents, usually fail in attracting their reciprocal attention. The little boy, therefore, appeared in some degree sensible of the lady’s caresses, and it was with difficulty she withdrew herself from his pillow, to afford him leisure for necessary repose.
“To whom belongs our little rescued varlet?” was the first question which the Lady of Avenel put to her handmaiden Lilias, when they had retired to the hall.
“To an old woman in the hamlet,” said Lilias, “who is even now come so far as the porter’s lodge to inquire concerning his safety. Is it your pleasure that she be admitted?”
“Is it my pleasure?” said the Lady of Avenel, echoing the question with a strong accent of displeasure and surprise; “can you make any doubt of it? What woman but must pity the agony of the mother, whose heart is throbbing for the safety of a child so lovely!”
“Nay, but, madam,” said Lilias, “this woman is too old to be the mother of the child; I rather think she must be his grandmother, or some more distant relation.”
“Be she who she will, Lilias,” replied the Lady, “she must have an aching heart while the safety of a creature so lovely is uncertain. Go instantly and bring her hither. Besides, I would willingly learn something concerning his birth.”
Lilias left the hall, and presently afterwards returned, ushering in a tall female very poorly dressed, yet with more pretension to decency and cleanliness than was usually combined with such coarse garments. The Lady of Avenel knew her figure the instant she presented herself. It was the fashion of the family, that upon every Sabbath, and on two evenings in the week besides, Henry Warden preached or lectured in the chapel at the castle. The extension of the Protestant faith was, upon principle, as well as in good policy, a primary object with the Knight of Avenel. The inhabitants of the village were therefore invited to attend upon the instructions of Henry Warden, and many of them were speedily won to the doctrine which their master and protector approved. These sermons, homilies, and lectures, had made a great impression on the mind of the Abbot Eustace, or Eustatius, and were a sufficient spur to the severity and sharpness of his controversy with his old fellow-collegiate; and, ere Queen Mary was dethroned, and while the Catholics still had considerable authority in the Border provinces, he more than once threatened to levy his vassals, and assail and level with the earth that stronghold of heresy the Castle of Avenel. But notwithstanding the Abbot’s impotent resentment, and notwithstanding also the disinclination of the country to favour the new religion, Henry Warden proceeded without remission in his labours, and made weekly converts from the faith of Rome to that of the reformed church. Amongst those who gave most earnest and constant attendance on his ministry, was the aged woman, whose form, tall, and otherwise too remarkable to be forgotten, the Lady had of late observed frequently as being conspicuous among the little audience. She had indeed more than once desired to know who that stately-looking woman was, whose appearance was so much above the poverty of her vestments. But the reply had always been, that she was an Englishwoman, who was tarrying for a season at the hamlet, and that no one knew more concerning her. She now asked her after her name and birth.
“Magdalen Graeme is my name,” said the woman; “I come of the Graemes of Heathergill, in Nicol Forest, 2 a people of ancient blood.”
“And what make you,” continued the Lady, “so far distant from your home?”
“I have no home,” said Magdalen Graeme, “it was burnt by your Border-riders — my husband and my son were slain — there is not a drop’s blood left in the veins of any one which is of kin to mine.”
“That is no uncommon fate in these wild times, and in this unsettled land,” said the Lady; “the English hands have been as deeply dyed in our blood as ever those of Scotsmen have been in yours.”
“You have right to say it, Lady,” answered Magdalen Graeme; “for men tell of a time when this castle was not strong enough to save your father’s life, or to afford your mother and her infant a place of refuge. And why ask ye me, then, wherefore I dwell not in mine own home, and with mine own people?”
“It was indeed an idle question,” answered the Lady, “where misery so often makes wanderers; but wherefore take refuge in a hostile country?”
“My neighbours were Popish and mass-mongers,” said the old woman; “it has pleased Heaven to give me a clearer sight of the gospel, and I have tarried here to enjoy the ministry of that worthy man Henry Warden, who, to the praise and comfort of many, teacheth the Evangel in truth and in sincerity.”
“Are you poor?” again demanded the Lady of Avenel.
“You hear me ask alms of no one,” answered the Englishwoman.
Here there was a pause. The manner of the woman was, if not disrespectful, at least much less than gracious; and she appeared to give no encouragement to farther communication. The Lady of Avenel renewed the conversation on a different topic.
“You have heard of the danger in which your boy has been placed?”
“I have, Lady, and how by an especial providence he was rescued from death. May Heaven make him thankful, and me!”
“What relation do you bear to him?”
“I am his grandmother, lady, if it so please you; the only relation he hath left upon earth to take charge of him.”
“The burden of his maintenance must necessarily be grievous to you in your deserted situation?” pursued the Lady.
“I have complained of it to no one,” said Magdalen Graeme, with the same unmoved, dry, and unconcerned tone of voice, in which she had answered all the former questions.
“If,” said the Lady of Avenel, “your grandchild could be received into a noble family, would it not advantage both him and you?”
“Received into a noble family!” said the old woman, drawing herself up, and bending her brows until her forehead was wrinkled into a frown of unusual severity; “and for what purpose, I pray you? — to be my lady’s page, or my lord’s jackman, to eat broken victuals, and contend with other menials for the remnants of the master’s meal? Would you have him to fan the flies from my lady’s face while she sleeps, to carry her train while she walks, to hand her trencher when she feeds, to ride before her on horseback, to walk after her on foot, to sing when she lists, and to be silent when she bids? — a very weathercock, which, though furnished in appearance with wings and plumage, cannot soar into the air — cannot fly from the spot where it is perched, but receives all its impulse, and performs all its revolutions, obedient to the changeful breath of a vain woman? When the eagle of Helvellyn perches on the tower of Lanercost, and turns and changes his place to show how the wind sits, Roland Graeme shall be what you would make him.”
The woman spoke with a rapidity and vehemence which seemed to have in it a touch of insanity; and a sudden sense of the danger to which the child must necessarily be exposed in the charge of such a keeper, increased the Lady’s desire to keep him in the castle if possible.
“You mistake me, dame,” she said, addressing the old woman in a soothing manner; “I do not wish your boy to be in attendance on myself, but upon the good knight my husband. Were he himself the son of a belted earl, he could not better be trained to arms, and all that befits a gentleman, than by the instructions and discipline of Sir Halbert Glendinning.”
“Ay,” answered the old woman, in the same style of bitter irony, “I know the wages of that service; — a curse when the corslet is not sufficiently brightened — a blow when the girth is not tightly drawn — to be beaten because the hounds are at fault — to be reviled because the foray is unsuccessful — to stain his hands for the master’s bidding in the blood alike of beast and of man — to be a butcher of harmless deer, a murderer and defacer of God’s own image, not at his own pleasure, but at that of his lord — to live a brawling ruffian, and a common stabber — exposed to heat, to cold, to want of food, to all the privations of an anchoret, not for the love of God, but for the service of Satan — to die by the gibbet, or in some obscure skirmish — to sleep out his brief life in carnal security, and to awake in the eternal fire, which is never quenched.”
“Nay,” said the Lady of Avenel, “but to such unhallowed course of life your grandson will not be here exposed. My husband is just and kind to those who live under his banner; and you yourself well know, that youth have here a strict as well as a good preceptor in the person of our chaplain.”
The old woman appeared to pause.
“You have named,” she said, “the only circumstance which can move me. I must soon onward, the vision has said it — I must not tarry in the same spot — I must on — I must on, it is my weird. — Swear, then, that you will protect the boy as if he were your own, until I return hither and claim him, and I will consent for a space to part with him. But especially swear, he shall not lack the instruction of the godly man who hath placed the gospel-truth high above those idolatrous shavelings, the monks and friars.”
“Be satisfied, dame,” said the Lady of Avenel; “the boy shall have as much care as if he were born of my own blood. Will you see him now?”
“No,” answered the old woman sternly; “to part is enough. I go forth on my own mission. I will not soften my heart by useless tears and wailings, as one that is not called to a duty.”
“Will you not accept of something to aid you in your pilgrimage?” said the Lady of Avenel, putting into her hands two crowns of the sun. The old woman flung them down on the table.
“Am I of the race of Cain,” she said, “proud Lady, that you offer me gold in exchange for my own flesh and blood?”
“I had no such meaning,” said the Lady, gently; “nor am I the proud woman you term me. Alas! my own fortunes might have taught me humility, even had it not been born with me.”
The old woman seemed somewhat to relax her tone of severity.
“You are of gentle blood,” she said, “else we had not parleyed thus long together. — You are of gentle blood, and to such,” she added, drawing up her tall form as she spoke, “pride is as graceful as is the plume upon the bonnet. But for these pieces of gold, lady, you must needs resume them. I need not money. I am well provided; and I may not care for myself, nor think how, or by whom, I shall be sustained. Farewell, and keep your word. Cause your gates to be opened, and your bridges to be lowered. I will set forward this very night. When I come again, I will demand from you a strict account, for I have left with you the jewel of my life! Sleep will visit me but in snatches, food will not refresh me, rest will not restore my strength, until I see Roland Graeme. Once more, farewell.”
“Make your obeisance, dame,” said Lilias to Magdalen Graeme, as she retired, “make your obeisance to her ladyship, and thank her for her goodness, as is but fitting and right.”
The old woman turned short around on the officious waiting-maid. “Let her make her obeisance to me then, and I will return it. Why should I bend to her? — is it because her kirtle is of silk, and mine of blue lockeram? — Go to, my lady’s waiting-woman. Know that the rank of the man rates that of the wife, and that she who marries a churl’s son, were she a king’s daughter, is but a peasant’s bride.”
Lilias was about to reply in great indignation, but her mistress imposed silence on her, and commanded that the old woman should be safely conducted to the mainland.
“Conduct her safe!” exclaimed the incensed waiting-woman, while Magdalen Graeme left the apartment; “I say, duck her in the loch, and then we will see whether she is witch or not, as every body in the village of Lochside will say and swear. I marvel your ladyship could bear so long with her insolence.” But the commands of the Lady were obeyed, and the old dame, dismissed from the castle, was committed to her fortune. She kept her word, and did not long abide in that place, leaving the hamlet on the very night succeeding the interview, and wandering no one asked whither. The Lady of Avenel inquired under what circumstances she had appeared among them, but could only learn that she was believed to be the widow of some man of consequence among the Graemes who then inhabited the Debateable Land, a name given to a certain portion of territory which was the frequent subject of dispute betwixt Scotland and England — that she had suffered great wrong in some of the frequent forays by which that unfortunate district was wasted, and had been driven from her dwelling-place. She had arrived in the hamlet no one knew for what purpose, and was held by some to be a witch, by others a zealous Protestant, and by others again a Catholic devotee. Her language was mysterious, and her manners repulsive; and all that could be collected from her conversation seemed to imply that she was under the influence either of a spell or of a vow — there was no saying which, since she talked as one who acted under a powerful and external agency.
Such were the particulars which the Lady’s inquiries were able to collect concerning Magdalen Graeme, being far too meagre and contradictory to authorize any satisfactory deduction. In truth, the miseries of the time, and the various turns of fate incidental to a frontier country, were perpetually chasing from their habitations those who had not the means of defence or protection. These wanderers in the land were too often seen, to excite much attention or sympathy. They received the cold relief which was extorted by general feelings of humanity; a little excited in some breasts, and perhaps rather chilled in others, by the recollection that they who gave the charity today might themselves want it tomorrow. Magdalen Graeme, therefore, came and departed like a shadow from the neighbourhood of Avenel Castle.
The boy whom Providence, as she thought, had thus strangely placed under her care, was at once established a favourite with the Lady of the castle. How could it be otherwise? He became the object of those affectionate feelings, which, finding formerly no object on which to expand themselves, had increased the gloom of the castle, and imbittered the solitude of its mistress. To teach him reading and writing as far as her skill went, to attend to his childish comforts, to watch his boyish sports, became the Lady’s favourite amusement. In her circumstances, where the ear only heard the lowing of the cattle from the distant hills, or the heavy step of the warder as he walked upon his post, or the half-envied laugh of her maiden as she turned her wheel, the appearance of the blooming and beautiful boy gave an interest which can hardly be conceived by those who live amid gayer and busier scenes. Young Roland was to the Lady of Avenel what the flower, which occupies the window of some solitary captive, is to the poor wight by whom it is nursed and cultivated — something which at once excited and repaid her care; and in giving the boy her affection, she felt, as it were, grateful to him for releasing her from the state of dull apathy in which she had usually found herself during the absence of Sir Halbert Glendinning.
But even the charms of this blooming favourite were unable to chase the recurring apprehensions which arose from her husband’s procrastinated return. Soon after Roland Graeme became a resident at the castle, a groom, despatched by Sir Halbert, brought tidings that business still delayed the Knight at the Court of Holyrood. The more distant period which the messenger had assigned for his master’s arrival at length glided away, summer melted into autumn, and autumn was about to give place to winter, and yet he came not.
2 A district of Cumberland, lying close to the Scottish border.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00