Hamlet: Has this fellow no feeling of his business? he sings at grave making.
Horatio: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.
Hamlet: ’Tis e’en so: the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.
Hamlet, Act V. Scene 1.
THE sleep of Ravenswood was broken by ghastly and agitating visions, and his waking intervals disturbed by melancholy reflections on the past and painful anticipations of the future. He was perhaps the only traveller who ever slept in that miserable kennel without complaining of his lodgings, or feeling inconvenience from their deficiencies. It is when “the mind is free the body’s delicate.” Morning, however, found the Master an early riser, in hopes that the fresh air of the dawn might afford the refreshment which night had refused him. He took his way towards the solitary burial-ground, which lay about half a mile from the inn.
The thin blue smoke, which already began to curl upward, and to distinguish the cottage of the living from the habitation of the dead, apprised him that its inmate had returned and was stirring. Accordingly, on entering the little churchyard, he saw the old man labouring in a half-made grave. “My destiny,” thought Ravenswood, “seems to lead me to scenes of fate and of death; but these are childish thoughts, and they shall not master me. I will not again suffer my imagination to beguile my senses.” The old man rested on his spade as the Master approached him, as if to receive his commands; and as he did not immediately speak, the sexton opened the discourse in his own way.
“Ye will be a wedding customer, sir, I’se warrant?”
“What makes you think so, friend?” replied the Master.
“I live by twa trades, sir,” replied the blythe old man —“fiddle, sir, and spade; filling the world, and emptying of it; and I suld ken baith cast of customers by head-mark in thirty years’ practice.”
“You are mistaken, however, this morning,” replied Ravenswood.
“Am I?” said the old man, looking keenly at him, “troth and it may be; since, for as brent as your brow is, there is something sitting upon it this day that is as near akin to death as to wedlock. Weel — weel; the pick and shovel are as ready to your order as bow and fiddle.”
“I wish you,” said Ravenswood, “to look after the descent interment of an old woman, Alice Gray, who lived at the Graigfoot in Ravenswood Park.”
“Alice Gray! — blind Alice!” said the sexton; “and is she gane at last? that’s another jow of the bell to bid me be ready. I mind when Habbie Gray brought her down to this land; a likely lass she was then, and looked ower her southland nose at us a’. I trow her pride got a downcome. And is she e’en gane?”
“She died yesterday,” said Ravenswood; “and desired to be buried here beside her husband; you know where he lies, no doubt?”
“Ken where he lies!” answered the sexton, with national indirection of response. “I ken whar a’body lies, that lies here. But ye were speaking o’ her grave? Lord help us, it’s no an ordinar grave that will haud her in, if a’s true that folk said of Alice in her auld days; and if I gae to six feet deep — and a warlock’s grave shouldna be an inch mair ebb, or her ain witch cummers would soon whirl her out of her shroud for a’ their auld acquaintance — and be’t six feet, or be’t three, wha’s to pay the making o’t, I pray ye?”
“I will pay that, my friend, and all other reasonable charges.”
“Reasonable charges!” said the sexton; “ou, there’s grundmail — and bell-siller, though the bell’s broken, nae doubt — and the kist — and my day’s wark — and my bit fee — and some brandy and yill to the dirgie, I am no thinking that you can inter her, to ca’ decently, under saxteen pund Scots.”
“There is the money, my friend,” said Ravenswood, “and something over. Be sure you know the grave.”
“Ye’ll be ane o’ her English relations, I’se warrant,” said the hoary man of skulls; “I hae heard she married far below her station. It was very right to let her bite on the bridle when she was living, and it’s very right to gie her a secent burial now she’s dead, for that’s a matter o’ credit to yoursell rather than to her. Folk may let their kindred shift for themsells when they are alive, and can bear the burden fo their ain misdoings; but it’s an unnatural thing to let them be buried like dogs, when a’ the discredit gangs to the kindred. What kens the dead corpse about it?”
“You would not have people neglect their relations on a bridal occasion neither?” said Ravenswood, who was amused with the professional limitation of the grave-digger’s philanthropy.
The old man cast up his sharp grey eyes with a shrewd smile, as if he understood the jest, but instantly continued, with his former gravity: “Bridals — wha wad neglect bridals that had ony regard for plenishing the earth? To be sure, they suld be celebrated with all manner of good cheer, and meeting of friends, and musical instruments — harp, sackbut, and psaltery; or gude fiddle and pipes, when these auld-warld instruments of melody are hard to be compassed.”
“The presence of the fiddle, I dare say,” replied Ravenswood, “would atone for the absence of all the others.”
The sexton again looked sharply up at him, as he answered. “Nae doubt — nae doubt, if it were weel played; but yonder,” he said, as if to change the discourse, “is Halbert Gray’s lang hame, that ye were speering after, just the third bourock beyond the muckle through-stane that stands on sax legs yonder, abune some ane of the Ravenswoods; for there is mony of their kin and followers here, deil lift them! though it isna just their main burial-place.”
“They are no favourites, then, of yours, these Ravenswoods?” said the Master, no much pleased with the passing benediction which was thus bestowed on his family and name.
“I kenna wha should favour them,” said the grave-digger; “when they had lands and power, they were ill guides of them baith, and now their head’s down, there’s few care how lang they may be of lifting it again.”
“Indeed!” said Ravenswood; “I never heard that this unhappy family deserved ill-will at the hands of their country. I grant their poverty, if that renders them contemptible.”
“It will gang a far way till’t” said the sexton of Hermitage, “ye may tak my word for that; at least, I ken naething else that suld mak myself contemptible, and folk are far frae respecting me as they wad do if I lived in a twa-lofted sclated house. But as for the Ravenswoods, I hae seen three generations of them, and deil ane to mend other.”
“I thought they had enjoyed a fair character in the country,” said their descendant.
“Character! Ou, ye see, sir,” said the sexton, “as for the auld gudesire body of a lord, I lived on his land when I was a swanking young chield, and could hae blawn the trumpet wi’ ony body, for I had wind eneugh then; and touching this trumpeter Marine that I have heard play afore the lords of the circuit, I wad hae made nae mair o’ him than of a bairn and a bawbee whistle. I defy him to hae played ‘Boot and saddle,’ or ‘Horse and away,’ or ‘Gallants, come trot,’ with me; he hadna the tones.”
“But what is all this to old Lord Ravenswood, my friend?” said the Master, who, with an anxiety not unnatural in his circumstances, was desirous of prosecuting the musician’s first topic —“what had his memory to do with the degeneracy of the trumpet music?”
“Just this, sir,” answered the sexton, “that I lost my wind in his service. Ye see I was trumpeter at the castle, and had allowance for blawing at break of day, and at dinner time, and other whiles when there was company about, and it pleased my lord; and when he raised his militia to caper awa’ to Bothwell Brig against the wrang-headed westland Whigs, I behoved, reason or name, to munt a horse and caper awa’ wi’ them.”
“And very reasonable,” said Ravenswood; “you were his servant and vassal.”
“Servitor, say ye?” replied the sexton, “and so I was; but it was to blaw folk to their warm dinner, or at the warst to a decent kirkyard, and no to skirl them awa’ to a bluidy braeside, where there was deil a bedral but the hooded craw. But bide ye, ye shall hear what cam o’t, and how far I am bund to be bedesman to the Ravenswoods. Till’t, ye see, we gaed on a braw simmer morning, twenty-fourth of June, saxteen hundred and se’enty-nine, of a’ the days of the month and year — drums beat, guns rattled, horses kicked and trampled. Hackstoun of Rathillet keepit the brig wi’ mustket and carabine and pike, sword and scythe for what I ken, and we horsemen were ordered down to cross at the ford — I hate fords at a’ times, let abee when there’s thousands of armed men on the other side. There was auld Ravenswood brandishing his Andrew Ferrara at the head, and crying to us to come and buckle to, as if we had been gaun to a fair; there was Caleb Balderstone, that is living yet, flourishing in the rear, and swearing Gog and Magog, he would put steel through the gus of ony man that turned bridle; there was young Allan Ravenswood, that was then Master, wi’ a bended pistol in his hand — it was a mercy it gaed na aff! — crying to me, that had scarce as much wind left as serve the necessary purpose of my ain lungs, ‘Sound, you poltroon! — sound, you damned cowardly villain, or I will blow your brains out!’ and, to be sure, I blew sic points of war that the scraugh of a clockin-hen was music to them.”
“Well, sir, cut all this short,” said Ravenswood.
“Short! I had like to hae been cut short mysell, in the flower of my youth, as Scripture says; and that’s the very thing that I compleen o’. Weel! in to the water we behoved a’ to splash, heels ower head, sit or fa’— ae horse driving on anither, as is the way of brute beasts, and riders that hae as little sense; the very bushes on the ither side were ableeze wi’ the flashes of the Whig guns; and my horse had just taen the grund, when a blackavised westland carle — I wad mind the face o’ him a hundred years yet — an ee like a wild falcon’s, and a beard as broad as my shovel — clapped the end o’ his lang black gun within a quarter’s length of my lug! By the grace o’ Mercy, the horse swarved round, and I fell aff at the tae side as the ball whistled by at the tither, and the fell auld lord took the Whig such a swauk wi’ his broadsword that he made twa pieces o’ his head, and down fell the lurdance wi’ a’ his bouk abune me.”
“You were rather obliged to the old lord, I think,” said Ravenswood.
“Was I? my sartie! first for bringing me into jeopardy, would I nould I, and then for whomling a chield on the tap o’ me that dang the very wind out of my body? I hae been short-breathed ever since, and canna gang twenty yards without peghing like a miller’s aiver.”
“You lost, then, your place as trumpeter?” said Ravenswood.
“Lost it! to be sure I lost it,” replied the sexton, “for I couldna hae played pew upon a dry hemlock; but I might hae dune weel eneugh, for I keepit the wage and the free house, and little to do but play on the fiddle to them, but for Allan, last Lord Ravenswood, that was far waur than ever his father was.”
“What,” said the Master, “did my father — I mean, did his father’s son — this last Lord Ravenswood, deprive you of what the bounty of his father allowed you?”
“Ay, troth did he,” answered the old man; “for he loot his affairs gang to the dogs, and let in this Sir William Ashton on us, that will gie naething for naething, and just removed me and a’ the puir creatures that had bite and soup at the castle, and a hole to put our heads in, when things were in the auld way.”
“If Lord Ravenswood protected his people, my friend, while he had the means of doing so, I think they might spare his memory,” replied the Master.
“Ye are welcome to your ain opinion, sir,” said the sexton; “but ye winna persuade me that he did his duty, either to himsell or to huz puir dependent creatures, in guiding us the gate he has done; he might hae gien us life-rent tacks of our bits o’ houses and yards; and me, that’s an auld man, living in you miserable cabin, that’s fitter for the dead than the quick, and killed wi’ rheumatise, and John Smith in my dainty bit mailing, and his window glazen, and a’ because Ravenswood guided his gear like a fule!”
“It is but too true,” said Ravenswood, conscience-struck; “the penalties of extravagance extend far beyond the prodigal’s own sufferings.” “However,” said the sexton, “this young man Edgar is like to avenge my wrangs on the haill of his kindred.” “Indeed?” said Ravenswood; “why should you suppose so?”
“They say he is about to marry the daughter of Leddy Ashton; and let her leddyship get his head ance under her oxter, and see you if she winna gie his neck a thraw. Sorra a bit, if I were him! Let her alane for hauding a’thing in het water that draws near her. Sae the warst wish I shall wish the lad is, that he may take his ain creditable gate o’t, and ally himsell wi’ his father’s enemies, that have taken his broad lands and my bonny kail-yard from the lawful owners thereof.”
Cervantes acutely remarks, that flattery is pleasing even from the mouth of a madman; and censure, as well as praise, often affects us, while we despise the opinions and motives on which it is founded and expressed. Ravenswood, abruptly reiterating his command that Alice’s funeral should be attended to, flung away from the sexton, under the painful impression that the great as well as the small vulgar would think of his engagement with Lucy like this ignorant and selfish peasant.
“And I have stooped to subject myself to these calumnies, and am rejected notwithstanding! Lucy, your faith must be true and perfect as the diamond to compensate for the dishonour which men’s opinions, and the conduct of your mother, attach to the heir of Ravenswood!”
As he raised his eyes, he beheld the Marquis of A— — who, having arrived at the Tod’s Hole, had walked forth to look for his kinsman.
After mutual greetings, he made some apology to the Master for not coming forward on the preceding evening. “It was his wish,” he said, “to have done so, but he had come to the knowledge of some matters which induced him to delay his purpose. I find,” he proceeded, “there has been a love affair here, kinsman; and though I might blame you for not having communicated with me, as being in some degree the chief of your family ——”
“With your lordship’s permission,” said Ravenswood, “I am deeply grateful for the interest you are pleased to take in me, but I am the chief and head of my family.”
“I know it — I know it,” said the Marquis; “in a strict heraldic and genealogical sense, you certainly are so; what I mean is, that being in some measure under my guardianship ——”
“I must take the liberty to say, my lord ——” answered Ravenswood, and the tone in which he interrupted the Marquis boded no long duration to the friendship of the noble relatives, when he himself was interrupted by the little sexton, who cam puffing after them, to ask if their honours would choose music at the change-house to make up for short cheer.
“We want no music,” said the Master, abruptly.
“Your honour disna ken what ye’re refusing, then,” said the fiddler, with the impertinent freedom of his profession. “I can play, ‘Wilt thou do’t again,’ and ‘The Auld Man’s Mear’s Dead,’ sax times better than ever Patie Birnie. I’ll get my fiddle in the turning of a coffin-screw.”
“Take yourself away, sir,” said the Marquis.
“And if your honour be a north-country gentleman,” said the persevering minstrel, “whilk I wad judge from your tongue, I can play ‘Liggeram Cosh,’ and ‘Mullin Dhu,’ and ‘The Cummers of Athole.’”
“Take yourself away, friend; you interrupt our conversation.”
“Or if, under your honour’s favour, ye should happen to be a thought honest, I can play (this in a low and confidential tone) ‘Killiecrankie,’ and ‘The King shall hae his ain,’ and ‘The Auld Stuarts back again’; and the wife at the change-house is a decent, discreet body, neither kens nor cares what toasts are drucken, and what tunes are played, in her house: she’s deaf to a’thing but the clink o’ the siller.”
The Marquis, who was sometimes suspected of Jacobitism, could not help laughing as he threw the fellow a dollar, and bid him go play to the servants if he had a mind, and leave them at peace.
“Aweel, gentlemen,” said he, “I am wishing your honours gude day. I’ll be a’ the better of the dollar, and ye’ll be the waur of wanting music, I’se tell ye. But I’se gang hame, and finish the grave in the tuning o’ a fiddle-string, lay by my spade, and then get my tother bread-winner, and awa’ to your folk, and see if they hae better lugs than their masters.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00