The Monastery, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Third.

They lighted down on Tweed water

And blew their coals sae het,

And fired the March and Teviotdale,

All in an evening late.

Auld Maitland.

The report soon spread through the patrimony of Saint Mary’s and its vicinity, that the Mistress of Glendearg had received assurance from the English Captain, and that her cattle were not to be driven off, or her corn burned. Among others who heard this report, it reached the ears of a lady, who, once much higher in rank than Elspeth Glendinning, was now by the same calamity reduced to even greater misfortune.

She was the widow of a brave soldier, Walter Avenel, descended of a very ancient Border family, who once possessed immense estates in Eskdale. These had long since passed from them into other hands, but they still enjoyed an ancient Barony of considerable extent, not very far from the patrimony of Saint Mary’s, and lying upon the same side of the river with the narrow vale of Glendearg, at the head of which was the little tower of the Glendinnings. Here they had lived, bearing a respectable rank amongst the gentry of their province, though neither wealthy nor powerful. This general regard had been much augmented by the skill, courage, and enterprise which had been displayed by Walter Avenel, the last Baron.

When Scotland began to recover from the dreadful shock she had sustained after the battle of Pinkie-Cleuch, Avenel was one of the first who, assembling a small force, set an example in those bloody and unsparing skirmishes, which showed that a nation, though conquered and overrun by invaders, may yet wage against them such a war of detail as shall in the end become fatal to the foreigners. In one of these, however, Walter Avenel fell, and the news which came to the house of his fathers was followed by the distracting intelligence, that a party of Englishmen were coming to plunder the mansion and lands of his widow, in order, by this act of terror, to prevent others from following the example of the deceased.

The unfortunate lady had no better refuge than the miserable cottage of a shepherd among the hills, to which she was hastily removed, scarce conscious where or for what purpose her terrified attendants were removing her and her infant daughter from her own house. Here she was tended with all the duteous service of ancient times by the shepherd’s wife, Tibb Tacket, who in better days had been her own bowerwoman. For a time the lady was unconscious of her misery; but when the first stunning effect of grief was so far passed away that she could form an estimate of her own situation, the widow of Avenel had cause to envy the lot of her husband in his dark and silent abode. The domestics who had guided her to her place of refuge, were presently obliged to disperse for their own safety, or to seek for necessary subsistence; and the shepherd and his wife, whose poor cottage she shared, were soon after deprived of the means of affording their late mistress even that coarse sustenance which they had gladly shared with her. Some of the English forayers had discovered and driven off the few sheep which had escaped the first researches of their avarice. Two cows shared the fate of the remnant of their stock; they had afforded the family almost their sole support, and now famine appeared to stare them in the face.

“We are broken and beggared now, out and out,” said old Martin the shepherd — and he wrung his hands in the bitterness of agony, “the thieves, the harrying thieves I not a cloot left of the haill hirsel!”

“And to see poor Grizzle and Crumbie,” said his wife, “turning back their necks to the byre, and routing while the stony-hearted villains were brogging them on wi’ their lances!”

“There were but four of them,” said Martin, “and I have seen the day forty wad not have ventured this length. But our strength and manhood is gane with our puir maister.”

“For the sake of the holy rood, whisht, man,” said the goodwife, “our leddy is half gane already, as ye may see by that fleightering of the ee-lid — a word mair and she’s dead outright.”

“I could almost wish,” said Martin, “we were a’ gane, for what to do passes my puir wit. I care little for mysell, or you, Tibb — we can make a fend — work or want — we can do baith, but she can do neither.”

They canvassed their situation thus openly before the lady, convinced by the paleness of her look, her quivering lip, and dead-set eye, that she neither heard nor understood what they were saying.

“There is a way,” said the shepherd, “but I kenna if she could bring her heart to it — there’s Simon Glendinning’s widow of the glen yonder, has had assurance from the Southern loons, and nae soldier to steer them for one cause or other. Now, if the leddy could bow her mind to take quarters with Elspeth Glendinning till better days cast up, nae doubt it wad be doing an honour to the like of her, but ——”

“An honour,” answered Tibb, “ay, by my word, sic an honour as wad be pride to her kin mony a lang year after her banes were in the mould. Oh! gudeman, to hear ye even the Lady of Avenel to seeking quarters wi’ a Kirk-vassal’s widow!”

“Loath should I be to wish her to it,” said Martin; “but what may we do? — to stay here is mere starvation; and where to go, I’m sure I ken nae mair than ony tup I ever herded.”

“Speak no more of it,” said the widow of Avenel, suddenly joining in the conversation, “I will go to the tower. — Dame Elspeth is of good folk, a widow, and the mother of orphans — she will give us house-room until something be thought upon. These evil showers make the low bush better than no bield.”

“See there, see there,” said Martin, “you see the leddy has twice our sense.”

“And natural it is,” said Tibb, “seeing that she is convent-bred, and can lay silk broidery, forby white-seam and shell-work.”

“Do you not think,” said the lady to Martin, still clasping her child to her bosom and making it clear from what motives she desired the refuge, “that Dame Glendinning will make us welcome?”

“Blithely welcome, blithely welcome, my leddy,” answered Martin, cheerily, “and we shall deserve a welcome at her hand. Men are scarce now, my leddy, with these wars; and gie me a thought of time to it, I can do as good a day’s darg as ever I did in my life, and Tibb can sort cows with ony living woman.”

“And muckle mair could I do,” said Tibb, “were it ony feasible house; but there will be neither pearlins to mend, nor pinners to busk up, in Elspeth Glendinning’s.”

“Whisht wi’ your pride, woman,” said the shepherd; “eneugh you can do, baith outside and inside, an ye set your mind to it; and hard it is if we twa canna work for three folk’s meat, forby my dainty wee leddy there. Come awa, come awa, nae use in staying here langer; we have five Scots miles over moss and muir, and that is nae easy walk for a leddy born and bred.”

Household stuff there was little or none to remove or care for; an old pony which had escaped the plunderers, owing partly to its pitiful appearance, partly from the reluctance which it showed to be caught by strangers, was employed to carry the few blankets and other trifles which they possessed. When Shagram came to his master’s well-known whistle, he was surprised to find the poor thing had been wounded, though slightly, by an arrow, which one of the forayers had shot off in anger after he had long chased it in vain.

“Ay, Shagram,” said the old man, as he applied something to the wound, “must you rue the lang-bow as weel as all of us?”

“What corner in Scotland rues it not!” said the Lady of Avenel.

“Ay, ay, madam,” said Martin, “God keep the kindly Scot from the cloth-yard shaft, and he will keep himself from the handy stroke. But let us go our way; the trash that is left I can come back for. There is nae ane to stir it but the good neighbours, and they ——”

“For the love of God, goodman,” said his wife, in a remonstrating tone, “haud your peace! Think what ye’re saying, and we hae sae muckle wild land to go over before we win to the girth gate.”

The husband nodded acquiescence; for it was deemed highly imprudent to speak of the fairies, either by their title of good neighbours or by any other, especially when about to pass the places which they were supposed to haunt.24

They set forward on their pilgrimage on the last day of October. “This is thy birthday, my sweet Mary,” said the mother, as a sting of bitter recollection crossed her mind. “Oh, who could have believed that the head, which, a few years since, was cradled amongst so many rejoicing friends, may perhaps this night seek a cover in vain!”

The exiled family then set forward — Mary Avenel, a lovely girl between five and six years old, riding gipsy fashion upon Shagram, betwixt two bundles of bedding; the Lady of Avenel walking by the animal’s side; Tibb leading the bridle, and old Martin walking a little before, looking anxiously around him to explore the way.

Martin’s task as guide, after two or three miles’ walking, became more difficult than he himself had expected, or than he was willing to avow. It happened that the extensive range of pasturage, with which he was conversant, lay to the west, and to get into the little valley of Glendearg he had to proceed easterly. In the wilder districts of Scotland, the passage from one vale to another, otherwise than by descending that which you leave, and reascending the other, is often very difficult. — Heights and hollows, mosses and rocks intervene, and all those local impediments which throw a traveller out of his course. So that Martin, however sure of his general direction, became conscious, and at length was forced reluctantly to admit, that he had missed the direct road to Glendearg, though he insisted they must be very near it. “If we can but win across this wide bog,” he said, “I shall warrant ye are on the top of the tower.” But to get across the bog was a point of no small difficulty. The farther they ventured into it, though proceeding with all the caution which Martin’s experience recommended, the more unsound the ground became, until, after they had passed some places of great peril, their best argument for going forward came to be, that they had to encounter equal danger in returning. The Lady of Avenel had been tenderly nurtured, but what will not a woman endure when her child is in danger? Complaining less of the dangers of the road than her attendants, who had been inured to such from their infancy, she kept herself close by the side of the pony, watching its every footstep, and ready, if it should flounder in the morass, to snatch her little Mary from its back. At length they came to a place where the guide greatly hesitated, for all around him was broken lumps of heath, divided from each other by deep sloughs of black tenacious mire. After great consideration, Martin, selecting what he thought the safest path, began himself to lead forward Shagram, in order to afford greater security to the child. But Shagram snorted, laid his ears back, stretched his two feet forward, and drew his hind feet under him, so as to adopt the best possible posture for obstinate resistance, and refused to move one yard in the direction indicated. Old Martin, much puzzled, now hesitated whether to exert his absolute authority, or to defer to the contumacious obstinacy of Shagram, and was not greatly comforted by his wife’s observation, who, seeing Shagram stare with his eyes, distend his nostrils, and tremble with terror, hinted that “he surely saw more than they could see.”

In this dilemma, the child suddenly exclaimed —“Bonny leddy signs to us to come yon gate.” They all looked in the direction where the child pointed, but saw nothing, save a wreath, of rising mist, which fancy might form into a human figure; but which afforded to Martin only the sorrowful conviction, that the danger of their situation was about to be increased by a heavy fog. He once more essayed to lead forward Shagram; but the animal was inflexible in its determination not to move in the direction Martin recommended. “Take your awn way for it, then,” said Martin, “and let us see what you can do for us.”

Shagram, abandoned to the discretion of his own free-will, set off boldly in the direction the child had pointed. There was nothing wonderful in this, nor in its bringing them safe to the other side of the dangerous morass; for the instinct of these animals in traversing bogs is one of the most curious parts of their nature, and is a fact generally established. But it was remarkable, that the child more than once mentioned the beautiful lady and her signals, and that Shagram seemed to be in the secret, always moving in the same direction which she indicated. The Lady of Avenel took little notice at the time, her mind being probably occupied by the instant danger; but her attendants changed expressive looks with each other more than once.

“All-Hallow Eve!” said Tibb, in a whisper to Martin.

“For the mercy of Our Lady, not a word of that now!” said Martin in reply. “Tell your beads, woman, if you cannot be silent.”

When they got once more on firm ground, Martin recognized certain land-marks, or cairns, on the tops of the neighbouring hills, by which he was enabled to guide his course, and ere long they arrived at the Tower of Glendearg.

It was at the sight of this little fortalice that the misery of her lot pressed hard on the poor Lady of Avenel. When by any accident they had met at church, market, or other place of public resort, she remembered the distant and respectful air with which the wife of the warlike baron was addressed by the spouse of the humble feuar. And now, so much was her pride humbled, that she was to ask to share the precarious safety of the same feuar’s widow, and her pittance of food, which might perhaps be yet more precarious. Martin probably guessed what was passing in her mind, for he looked at her with a wistful glance, as if to deprecate any change of resolution; and answering to his looks, rather than his words, she said, while the sparkle of subdued pride once more glanced from her eye, “If it were for myself alone, I could but die-but for this infant — the last pledge of Avenel —”

“True, my lady,” said Martin, hastily; and, as if to prevent the possibility of her retracting, he added, “I will step on and see Dame Elspeth — I kend her husband weel, and have bought and sold with him, for as great a man as he was.”

Martin’s tale was soon told, and met all acceptance from her companion in misfortune. The Lady of Avenel had been meek and courteous in her prosperity; in adversity, therefore, she met with the greatest sympathy. Besides, there was a point of pride in sheltering and supporting a woman of such superior birth and rank; and, not to do Elspeth Glendinning injustice, she felt sympathy for one whose fate resembled her own in so many points, yet was so much more severe. Every species of hospitality was gladly and respectfully extended to the distressed travellers, and they were kindly requested to stay as long at Glendearg as their circumstances rendered necessary, or their inclination prompted.

24 This superstition continues to prevail, though one would suppose it must now be antiquated. It is only a year or two since an itinerant puppet show-man, who, disdaining to acknowledge the profession of Gines de Passamonte, called himself an artist from Vauxhall, brought a complaint of a singular nature before the author, as Sheriff of Selkirkshire. The singular dexterity with which the show-man had exhibited the machinery of his little stage, had, upon a Selkirk fair-day, excited the eager curiosity of some mechanics of Galashiels. These men, from no worse motive that could be discovered than a thirst after knowledge beyond their sphere, committed a burglary upon the barn in which the puppets had been consigned to repose, and carried them off in the nook of their plaids, when returning from Selkirk to their own village.

“But with the morning cool reflection came.”

The party found, however, they could not make Punch dance, and that the whole troop were equally intractable; they had also, perhaps, some apprehensions of the Rhadamanth of the district; and, willing to be quit of their booty, they left the puppets seated in a grove by the side of the Ettrick, where they were sure to be touched by the first beams of the rising sun. Here a shepherd, who was on foot with sunrise to pen his master’s sheep on a field of turnips, to his utter astonishment, saw this train, profusely gay, sitting in the little grotto. His examination proceeded thus:—

Sheriff. You saw these gay-looking things? what did you think they were?

Shepherd. Ou, I am no that free to say what I might think they were.

Sheriff. Come, lad, I must have a direct answer — who did you think they were?

Shepherd. Ou, sir, troth I am no that free to say that I mind wha I might think they were.

Sheriff. Come, come sir! I ask you distinctly, did you think they were the fairies you saw?

Shepherd. Indeed, sir, and I winna say but I might think it was the Good Neighbours.

Thus unwillingly was he brought to allude to the irritable and captious inhabitants of fairy land.

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