The Abbot, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Thirty-Third.

Death distant? — No, alas! he’s ever with us,

And shakes the dart at us in all our actings:

He lurks within our cup, while we’re in health;

Sits by our sick-bed, mocks our medicines;

We cannot walk, or sit, or ride, or travel,

But Death is by to seize us when he lists.

The Spanish Father.

From the agitating scene in the Queen’s presence-chamber, the Lady of Lochleven retreated to her own apartment, and ordered the steward to be called before her.

“Have they not disarmed thee, Dryfesdale?” she said, on seeing him enter, accoutred, as usual, with sword and dagger.

“No!” replied the old man; “how should they? — Your ladyship, when you commanded me to ward, said nought of laying down my arms; and, I think none of your menials, without your order, or your son’s, dare approach Jasper Dryfesdale for such a purpose. — Shall I now give up my sword to you? — it is worth little now, for it has fought for your house till it is worn down to old iron, like the pantler’s old chipping knife.”

“You have attempted a deadly crime — poison under trust.”

“Under trust? — hem! — I know not what your ladyship thinks of it, but the world without thinks the trust was given you even for that very end; and you would have been well off had it been so ended as I proposed, and you neither the worse nor the wiser.”

“Wretch!” exclaimed the lady, “and fool as well as villain, who could not even execute the crime he had planned!”

“I bid as fair for it as man could,” replied Dryfesdale; “I went to a woman — a witch and a Papist — If I found not poison, it was because it was otherwise predestined. I tried fair for it; but the half-done job may be clouted, if you will.”

“Villain! I am even now about to send off an express messenger to my son, to take order how thou shouldst be disposed of. Prepare thyself for death, if thou canst.”

“He that looks on death, Lady,” answered Dryfesdale, “as that which he may not shun, and which has its own fixed and certain hour, is ever prepared for it. He that is hanged in May will eat no flaunes 33 in midsummer — so there is the moan made for the old serving-man. But whom, pray I, send you on so fair an errand?”

“There will be no lack of messengers,” answered his mistress.

“By my hand, but there will,” replied the old man; “your castle is but poorly manned, considering the watches that you must keep, having this charge — There is the warder, and two others, whom you discarded for tampering with Master George; then for the warder’s tower, the bailie, the donjon — five men mount each guard, and the rest must sleep for the most part in their clothes. To send away another man, were to harass the sentinels to death — unthrifty misuse for a household. To take in new soldiers were dangerous, the charge requiring tried men. I see but one thing for it — I will do your errand to Sir William Douglas myself.”

“That were indeed a resource! — And on what day within twenty years would it be done?” said the Lady.

“Even with the speed of man and horse,” said Dryfesdale; “for though I care not much about the latter days of an old serving-man’s life, yet I would like to know as soon as may be, whether my neck is mine own or the hangman’s.”

“Holdest thou thy own life so lightly?” said the Lady.

“Else I had reckoned more of that of others,” said the predestinarian —“What is death? — it is but ceasing to live — And what is living? — a weary return of light and darkness, sleeping and waking, being hungered and eating. Your dead man needs neither candle nor can, neither fire nor feather-bed; and the joiner’s chest serves him for an eternal frieze-jerkin.”

“Wretched man! believest thou not that after death comes the judgment?”

“Lady,” answered Dryfesdale, “as my mistress, I may not dispute your words; but, as spiritually speaking, you are still but a burner of bricks in Egypt, ignorant of the freedom of the saints; for, as was well shown to me by that gifted man, Nicolaus Schoefferbach, who was martyred by the bloody Bishop of Munster, he cannot sin who doth but execute that which is predestined, since —”

“Silence!” said the Lady, interrupting him — “Answer me not with thy bold and presumptuous blasphemy, but hear me. Thou hast been long the servant of our house —”

“The born servant of the Douglas — they have had the best of me — I served them since I left Lockerbie: I was then ten years old, and you may soon add the threescore to it.”

“Thy foul attempt has miscarried, so thou art guilty only in intention. It were a deserved deed to hang thee on the warder’s tower; and yet in thy present mind, it were but giving a soul to Satan. I take thine offer, then — Go hence — here is my packet — I will add to it but a line, to desire him to send me a faithful servant or two to complete the garrison. Let my son deal with you as he will. If thou art wise, thou wilt make for Lockerbie so soon as thy foot touches dry land, and let the packet find another bearer; at all rates, look it miscarries not.”

“Nay, madam,” replied he —“I was born, as I said, the Douglas’s servant, and I will be no corbie-messenger in mine old age — your message to your son shall be done as truly by me as if it concerned another man’s neck. I take my leave of your honour.”

The Lady issued her commands, and the old man was ferried over to the shore, to proceed on his extraordinary pilgrimage. It is necessary the reader should accompany him on his journey, which Providence had determined should not be of long duration.

On arriving at the village, the steward, although his disgrace had transpired, was readily accommodated with a horse, by the Chamberlain’s authority; and the roads being by no means esteemed safe, he associated himself with Auchtermuchty, the common carrier, in order to travel in his company to Edinburgh.

The worthy waggoner, according to the established customs of all carriers, stage-coachmen, and other persons in public authority, from the earliest days to the present, never wanted good reasons for stopping upon the road, as often as he would; and the place which had most captivation for him as a resting-place was a change-house, as it was termed, not very distant from a romantic dell, well known by the name of Keirie Craigs. Attractions of a kind very different from those which arrested the progress of John Auchtermuchty and his wains, still continue to hover round this romantic spot, and none has visited its vicinity without a desire to remain long and to return soon.

Arrived near his favourite howss, not all the authority of Dryfesdale (much diminished indeed by the rumours of his disgrace) could prevail on the carrier, obstinate as the brutes which he drove, to pass on without his accustomed halt, for which the distance he had travelled furnished little or no pretence. Old Keltie, the landlord, who had bestowed his name on a bridge in the neighbourhood of his quondam dwelling, received the carrier with his usual festive cordiality, and adjourned with him into the house, under pretence of important business, which, I believe, consisted in their emptying together a mutchkin stoup of usquebaugh. While the worthy host and his guest were thus employed, the discarded steward, with a double portion of moroseness in his gesture and look, walked discontentedly into the kitchen of the place, which was occupied but by one guest. The stranger was a slight figure, scarce above the age of boyhood, and in the dress of a page, but bearing an air of haughty aristocratic boldness and even insolence in his look and manner, that might have made Dryfesdale conclude he had pretensions to superior rank, had not his experience taught him how frequently these airs of superiority were assumed by the domestics and military retainers of the Scottish nobility. —“The pilgrim’s morning to you, old sir,” said the youth; “you come, as I think, from Lochleven Castle — What news of our bonny Queen? — a fairer dove was never pent up in so wretched a dovecot.”

“They that speak of Lochleven, and of those whom its walls contain,’ answered Dryfesdale,” speak of what concerns the Douglas; and they who speak of what concerns the Douglas, do it at their peril.”

“Do you speak from fear of them, old man, or would you make a quarrel for them? — I should have deemed your age might have cooled your blood.”

“Never, while there are empty-pated coxcombs at each corner to keep it warm.”

“The sight of thy gray hairs keeps mine cold,” said the boy, who had risen up and now sat down again.

“It is well for thee, or I had cooled it with this holly-rod,” replied the steward. “I think thou be’st one of those swash-bucklers, who brawl in alehouses and taverns; and who, if words were pikes, and oaths were Andrew Ferraras, would soon place the religion of Babylon in the land once more, and the woman of Moab upon the throne.”

“Now, by Saint Bennet of Seyton,” said the youth, “I will strike thee on the face, thou foul-mouthed old railing heretic!”

“Saint Bennet of Seyton,” echoed the steward; “a proper warrant is Saint Bennet’s, and for a proper nest of wolf-birds like the Seytons! — I will arrest thee as a traitor to King James and the good Regent. — Ho! John Auchtermuchty, raise aid against the King’s traitor!”

So saying, he laid his hand on the youth’s collar, and drew his sword. John Auchtermuchty looked in, but, seeing the naked weapon, ran faster out than he entered. Keltie, the landlord, stood by and helped neither party, only exclaiming, “Gentlemen! gentlemen! for the love of Heaven!” and so forth. A struggle ensued, in which the young man, chafed at Dryfesdale’s boldness, and unable, with the ease he expected, to extricate himself from the old man’s determined grasp, drew his dagger, and with the speed of light, dealt him three wounds in the breast and body, the least of which was mortal. The old man sunk on the ground with a deep groan, and the host set up a piteous exclamation of surprise.

“Peace, ye brawling hound!” said the wounded steward; “are dagger-stabs and dying men such rarities in Scotland, that you should cry as if the house were falling? — Youth, I do not forgive thee, for there is nought betwixt us to forgive. Thou hast done what I have done to more than one — And I suffer what I have seen them suffer — it was all ordained to be thus and not otherwise. But if thou wouldst do me right, thou wilt send this packet safely to the hands of Sir William Douglas; and see that my memory suffer not, as if I would have loitered on mine errand for fear of my life.”

The youth, whose passion had subsided the instant he had done the deed, listened with sympathy and attention, when another person, muffled in his cloak, entered the apartment, and exclaimed —“Good God! Dryfesdale, and expiring!”

“Ay, and Dryfesdale would that he had been dead,” answered the wounded man, “rather than that his ears had heard the words of the only Douglas that ever was false — but yet it is better as it is. Good my murderer, and the rest of you, stand back a little, and let me speak with this unhappy apostate. — Kneel down by me, Master George — You have heard that I failed in my attempt to take away that Moabitish stumbling-block and her retinue — I gave them that which I thought would have removed the temptation out of thy path — and this, though I had other reasons to show to thy mother and others, I did chiefly purpose for love of thee.”

“For the love of me, base poisoner!” answered Douglas, “wouldst thou have committed so horrible, so unprovoked a murder, and mentioned my name with it?”

“And wherefore not, George of Douglas?” answered Dryfesdale. “Breath is now scarce with me, but I would spend my last gasp on this argument. Hast thou not, despite the honour thou owest to thy parents, the faith that is due to thy religion, the truth that is due to thy king, been so carried away by the charms of this beautiful sorceress, that thou wouldst have helped her to escape from her prison-house, and lent her thine arm again to ascend the throne, which she had made a place of abomination? — Nay, stir not from me — my hand, though fast stiffening, has yet force enough to hold thee — What dost thou aim at? — to wed this witch of Scotland? — I warrant thee, thou mayest succeed — her heart and hand have been oft won at a cheaper rate, than thou, fool that thou art, would think thyself happy to pay. But, should a servant of thy father’s house have seen thee embrace the fate of the idiot Darnley, or of the villain Bothwell — the fate of the murdered fool, or of the living pirate — while an ounce of ratsbane would have saved thee?”

“Think on God, Dryfesdale,” said George Douglas, “and leave the utterance of those horrors — Repent, if thou canst — if not, at least be silent. — Seyton, aid me to support this dying wretch, that he may compose himself to better thoughts, if it be possible.”

“Seyton!” answered the dying man; “Seyton! Is it by a Seyton’s hand that I fall at last? — There is something of retribution in that — since the house had nigh lost a sister by my deed.” Fixing his fading eyes on the youth, he added, “He hath her very features and presence! — Stoop down, youth, and let me see thee closer — I would know thee when we meet in yonder world, for homicides will herd together there, and I have been one.” He pulled Seyton’s face, in spite of some resistance, closer to his own, looked at him fixedly, and added, “Thou hast begun young — thy career will be the briefer — ay, thou wilt be met with, and that anon — a young plant never throve that was watered with an old man’s blood. — Yet why blame I thee? Strange turns of fate,” he muttered, ceasing to address Seyton; “I designed what I could not do, and he has done what he did not perchance design. — Wondrous, that our will should ever oppose itself to the strong and uncontrollable tide of destiny — that we should strive with the stream when we might drift with the current! My brain will serve me to question it no farther — I would Schoefferbach were here — yet why? — I am on a course which the vessel can hold without a pilot. — Farewell, George of Douglas — I die true to thy father’s house.” He fell into convulsions at these words, and shortly after expired.

Seyton and Douglas stood looking on the dying man, and when the scene was closed, the former was the first to speak. “As I live, Douglas, I meant not this, and am sorry; but he laid hands on me, and compelled me to defend my freedom, as I best might, with my dagger. If he were ten times thy friend and follower, I can but say that I am sorry.”

“I blame thee not, Seyton,” said Douglas, “though I lament the chance. There is an overruling destiny above us, though not in the sense in which it was viewed by that wretched man, who, beguiled by some foreign mystagogue, used the awful word as the ready apology for whatever he chose to do — we must examine the packet.”

They withdrew into an inner room, and remained deep in consultation, until they were disturbed by the entrance of Keltie, who, with an embarrassed countenance, asked Master George Douglas’s pleasure respecting the disposal of the body. “Your honour knows,” he added, “that I make my bread by living men, not by dead corpses; and old Mr. Dryfesdale, who was but a sorry customer while he was alive, occupies my public room now that he is deceased, and can neither call for ale nor brandy.”

“Tie a stone round his neck,” said Seyton, “and when the sun is down, have him to the Loch of Ore, heave him in, and let him alone for finding out the bottom.”

“Under your favour, sir,” said George Douglas, “it shall not be so. — Keltie, thou art a true fellow to me, and thy having been so shall advantage thee. Send or take the body to the chapel at Scotland’s wall, or to the church of Ballanry, and tell what tale thou wilt of his having fallen in a brawl with some unruly guests of thine. Auchtermuchty knows nought else, nor are the times so peaceful as to admit close-looking into such accounts.”

“Nay, let him tell the truth,” said Seyton, “so far as it harms not our scheme. — Say that Henry Seyton met with him, my good fellow; — I care not a brass bodle for the feud.”

“A feud with the Douglas was ever to be feared, however,” said George, displeasure mingling with his natural deep gravity of manner.

“Not when the best of the name is on my side,” replied Seyton.

“Alas! Henry, if thou meanest me, I am but half a Douglas in this emprize — half head, half heart, and half hand. — But I will think on one who can never be forgotten, and be all, or more, than any of my ancestors was ever. — Keltie, say it was Henry Seyton did the deed; but beware, not a word of me! — Let Auchtermuchty carry this packet” (which he had resealed with his own signet) “to my father at Edinburgh; and here is to pay for the funeral expenses, and thy loss of custom.”

“And the washing of the floor,” said the landlord, “which will be an extraordinary job; for blood they say, will scarcely ever cleanse out.”

“But as for your plan,” said George of Douglas, addressing Seyton, as if in continuation of what they had been before treating of, “it has a good face; but, under your favour, you are yourself too hot and too young, besides other reasons which are much against your playing the part you propose.”

“We will consult the Father Abbot upon it,” said the youth. “Do you ride to Kinross to-night?”

“Ay — so I purpose,” answered Douglas; “the night will be dark, and suits a muffled man. 34 — Keltie, I forgot, there should be a stone laid on that man’s grave, recording his name, and his only merit, which was being a faithful servant to the Douglas.”

“What religion was the man of?” said Seyton; “he used words, which make me fear I have sent Satan a subject before his time.”

“I can tell you little of that,” said George Douglas; “he was noted for disliking both Rome and Geneva, and spoke of lights he had learned among the fierce sectaries of Lower Germany — an evil doctrine it was, if we judge by the fruits. God keep us from presumptuously judging of Heaven’s secrets!”

“Amen!” said the young Seyton, “and from meeting any encounter this evening.”

“It is not thy wont to pray so,” said George Douglas.

“No! I leave that to you,” replied the youth, “when you are seized with scruples of engaging with your father’s vassals. But I would fain have this old man’s blood off these hands of mine ere I shed more — I will confess to the Abbot to-night, and I trust to have light penance for ridding the earth of such a miscreant. All I sorrow for is, that he was not a score of years younger — He drew steel first, however, that is one comfort.”

33 Pancakes

34 Generally, a disguised man; originally one who wears the cloak or mantle muffled round the lower part of the face to conceal his countenance. I have on an ancient, piece of iron the representation of a robber thus accoutred, endeavouring to make his way into a house, and opposed by a mastiff, to whom he in vain offers food. The motto is spernit dona fides. It is part of a fire-grate said to have belonged to Archbishop Sharpe.

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