The Monastery, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Fifth.

A priest, ye cry, a priest! — lame shepherds they,

How shall they gather in the straggling flock?

Dumb dogs which bark not — how shall they compel

The loitering vagrants to the Master’s fold?

Fitter to bask before the blazing fire,

And snuff the mess neat-handed Phillis dresses,

Than on the snow-wreath battle with the wolf.


The health of the Lady of Avenel had been gradually decaying ever since her disaster. It seemed as if the few years which followed her husband’s death had done on her the work of half a century. She lost the fresh elasticity of form, the colour and the mien of health, and became wasted, wan, and feeble. She appeared to have no formed complaint; yet it was evident to those who looked on her, that her strength waned daily. Her lips at length became blenched and her eye dim; yet she spoke not of any desire to see a priest, until Elspeth Glendinning in her zeal could not refrain from touching upon a point which she deemed essential to salvation. Alice of Avenel received her hint kindly, and thanked her for it.

“If any good priest would take the trouble of such a journey,” she said, “he should be welcome; for the prayers and lessons of the good must be at all times advantageous.”

This quiet acquiescence was not quite what Elspeth Glendinning wished or expected. She made up, however, by her own enthusiasm, for the lady’s want of eagerness to avail herself of ghostly counsel, and Martin was despatched with such haste as Shagram would make, to pray one of the religious men of Saint Mary’s to come up to administer the last consolations to the widow of Walter Avenel.

When the Sacristan had announced to the Lord Abbot, that the Lady of the umquhile Walter de Avenel was in very weak health in the Tower of Glendearg, and desired the assistance of a father confessor, the lordly monk paused on the request.

“We do remember Walter de Avenel,” he said; “a good knight and a valiant: he was dispossessed of his lands, and slain by the Southron — May not the lady come hither to the sacrament of confession? the road is distant and painful to travel.”

“The lady is unwell, holy father,” answered the Sacristan, “and unable to bear the journey.”

“True — ay — yes — then must one of our brethren go to her — Knowest thou if she hath aught of a jointure from this Walter de Avenel?”

“Very little, holy father,” said the Sacristan; “she hath resided at Glendearg since her husband’s death, well-nigh on the charity of a poor widow, called Elspeth Glendinning.”

“Why, thou knowest all the widows in the country-side!” said the Abbot. “Ho! ho! ho!” and he shook his portly sides at his own jest.

“Ho! ho! ho!” echoed the Sacristan, in the tone and tune in which an inferior applauds the jest of his superior. — Then added, with a hypocritical shuffle, and a sly twinkle of his eye, “It is our duty, most holy father, to comfort the widow — He! he! he!”

This last laugh was more moderate, until the Abbot should put his sanction on the jest.

“Ho! ho!” said the Abbot; “then, to leave jesting, Father Philip, take thou thy riding gear, and go to confess this Dame Avenel.”

“But,” said the Sacristan ——

“Give me no Buts; neither But nor If pass between monk and Abbot, Father Philip; the bands of discipline must not be relaxed — heresy gathers force like a snow-ball — the multitude expect confessions and preachings from the Benedictine, as they would from so many beggarly friars — and we may not desert the vineyard, though the toil be grievous unto us.”

“And with so little advantage to the holy monastery,” said the Sacristan.

“True, Father Philip; but wot you not that what preventeth harm doth good? This Julian de Avenel lives a light and evil life, and should we neglect the widow of his brother, he might foray our lands, and we never able to show who hurt us — moreover it is our duty to an ancient family, who, in their day, have been benefactors to the Abbey. Away with thee instantly, brother; ride night and day, an it be necessary, and let men see how diligent Abbot Boniface and his faithful children are in the execution of their spiritual duty — toil not deterring them, for the glen is five miles in length — fear not withholding them, for it is said to be haunted of spectres — nothing moving them from pursuit of their spiritual calling; to the confusion of calumnious heretics, and the comfort and edification of all true and faithful sons of the Catholic Church. I wonder what our brother Eustace will say to this?”

Breathless with his own picture of the dangers and toil which he was to encounter, and the fame which he was to acquire, (both by proxy,) the Abbot moved slowly to finish his luncheon in the refectory, and the Sacristan, with no very good will, accompanied old Martin in his return to Glendearg; the greatest impediment in the journey being the trouble of restraining his pampered mule, that she might tread in something like an equal pace with poor jaded Shagram.

After remaining an hour in private with his penitent, the monk returned moody and full of thought. Dame Elspeth, who had placed for the honoured guest some refreshment in the hall, was struck with the embarrassment which appeared in his countenance. Elspeth watched him with great anxiety. She observed there was that on his brow which rather resembled a person come from hearing the confession of some enormous crime, than the look of a confessor who resigns a reconciled penitent, not to earth, but to heaven. After long hesitating, she could not at length refrain from hazarding a question. She was sure she said, the leddy had made an easy shrift. Five years had they resided together, and she could safely say, no woman lived better.

“Woman,” said the Sacristan, sternly, “thou speakest thou knowest not what — What avails clearing the outside of the platter, if the inside be foul with heresy?”

“Our dishes and trenchers are not so clean as they could be wished, holy father,” said Elspeth, but half understanding what he said, and beginning with her apron to wipe the dust from the plates, of which she supposed him to complain.

“Forbear, Dame Elspeth” said the monk; “your plates are as clean as wooden trenchers and pewter flagons can well be; the foulness of which I speak is of that pestilential heresy which is daily becoming ingrained in this our Holy Church of Scotland, and as a canker-worm in the rose-garland of the Spouse.”

“Holy Mother of Heaven!” said Dame Elspeth, crossing herself, “have I kept house with a heretic?”

“No, Elspeth, no,” replied the monk; “it were too strong a speech for me to make of this unhappy lady, but I would I could say she is free from heretical opinions. Alas! they fly about like the pestilence by noon-day, and infect even the first and fairest of the flock! For it is easy to see of this dame, that she hath been high in judgment as in rank.”

“And she can write and read, I had almost said, as weel as your reverence” said Elspeth.

“Whom doth she write to, and what doth she read?” said the monk, eagerly.

“Nay,” replied Elspeth, “I cannot say I ever saw her write at all, but her maiden that was — she now serves the family — says she can write — And for reading, she has often read to us good things out of a thick black volume with silver clasps.”

“Let me see it,” said the monk, hastily, “on your allegiance as a true vassal — on your faith as a Catholic Christian — instantly — instantly let me see it.”

The good woman hesitated, alarmed at the tone in which the confessor took up her information; and being moreover of opinion, that what so good a woman as the Lady of Avenel studied so devoutly, could not be of a tendency actually evil. But borne down by the clamour, exclamations, and something like threats used by Father Philip, she at length brought him the fatal volume. It was easy to do this without suspicion on the part of the owner, as she lay on her bed exhausted with the fatigue of a long conference with her confessor, and as the small round, or turret closet, in which was the book and her other trifling property, was accessible by another door. Of all her effects the book was the last she would have thought of securing, for of what use or interest could it be in a family who neither read themselves, nor were in the habit of seeing any who did? so that Dame Elspeth had no difficulty in possessing herself of the volume, although her heart all the while accused her of an ungenerous and an inhospitable part towards her friend and inmate. The double power of a landlord and a feudal superior was before her eyes; and to say truth, the boldness, with which she might otherwise have resisted this double authority, was, I grieve to say it, much qualified by the curiosity she entertained, as a daughter of Eve, to have some explanation respecting the mysterious volume which the lady cherished with so much care, yet whose contents she imparted with such caution. For never had Alice of Avenel read them any passage from the book in question until the iron door of the tower was locked, and all possibility of intrusion prevented. Even then she had shown, by the selection of particular passages, that she was more anxious to impress on their minds the principles which the volume contained, than to introduce them to it as a new rule of faith.

When Elspeth, half curious, half remorseful, had placed the book in the monk’s hands, he exclaimed, after turning over the leaves, “Now, by mine order, it is as I suspected! — My mule, my mule! — I will abide no longer here — well hast thou done, dame, in placing in my hands this perilous volume.”

“Is it then witchcraft or devil’s work?” said Dame Elspeth, in great agitation.

“Nay, God forbid!” said the monk, signing himself with the cross, “it is the Holy Scripture. But it is rendered into the vulgar tongue, and therefore, by the order of the Holy Catholic Church, unfit to be in the hands of any lay person.”

“And yet is the Holy Scripture communicated for our common salvation,” said Elspeth. “Good Father, you must instruct mine ignorance better; but lack of wit cannot be a deadly sin, and truly, to my poor thinking, I should be glad to read the Holy Scripture.”

“I dare say thou wouldst,” said the monk; “and even thus did our mother Eve seek to have knowledge of good and evil, and thus Sin came into the world, and Death by Sin.”

“I am sure, and it is true,” said Elspeth. “Oh, if she had dealt by the counsel of Saint Peter and Saint Paul!”

“If she had reverenced the command of Heaven,” said the monk, “which, as it gave her birth, life, and happiness, fixed upon the grant such conditions as best corresponded with its holy pleasure. I tell thee, Elspeth, the Word slayeth — that is, the text alone, read with unskilled eye and unhallowed lips, is like those strong medicines which sick men take by the advice of the learned. Such patients recover and thrive; while those dealing in them at their own hand, shall perish by their own deed.”

“Nae doubt, nae doubt,” said the poor woman, “your reverence knows best.”

“Not I,” said Father Philip, in a tone as deferential as he thought could possibly become the Sacristan of Saint Mary’s — “Not I, but the Holy Father of Christendom, and our own holy father, the Lord Abbot, know best. I, the poor Sacristan of Saint Mary’s, can but repeat what I hear from others my superiors. Yet of this, good woman, be assured — the Word, the mere Word, slayetlh. But the church hath her ministers to gloze and to expound the same unto her faithful congregation; and this I say, not so much, my beloved brethren — I mean my beloved sister,” (for the Sacristan had got into the end of one of his old sermons,)—“This I speak not so much of the rectors, curates, and secular clergy, so called because they live after the fashion of the seculum or age, unbound by those ties which sequestrate us from the world; neither do I speak this of the mendicant friars, whether black or gray, whether crossed or uncrossed; but of the monks, and especially of the monks Benedictine, reformed on the rule of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, thence called Cistercian, of which monks, Christian brethren — sister, I would say — great is the happiness and glory of the country in possessing the holy ministers of Saint Mary’s, whereof I, though an unworthy brother, may say it hath produced more saints, more bishops, more popes — may our patrons make us thankful! — than any holy foundation in Scotland. Wherefore — But I see Martin hath my mule in readiness, and I will but salute you with the kiss of sisterhood, which maketh not ashamed, and so betake me to my toilsome return, for the glen is of bad reputation for the evil spirits which haunt it. Moreover, I may arrive too late at the bridge, whereby I may be obliged to take to the river, which I observed to be somewhat waxen.”

Accordingly, he took his leave of Dame Elspeth, who was confounded by the rapidity of his utterance, and the doctrine he gave forth, and by no means easy on the subject of the book, which her conscience told her she should not have communicated to any one, without the knowledge of its owner.

Notwithstanding the haste which the monk as well as the mule made to return to better quarters than they had left at the head of Glendearg; notwithstanding the eager desire Father Philip had to be the very first who should acquaint the Abbot that a copy of the book they most dreaded had been found within the Halidome, or patrimony of the Abbey; notwithstanding, moreover, certain feelings which induced him to hurry as fast as possible through the gloomy and evil-reputed glen, still the difficulties of the road, and the rider’s want of habitude of quick motion, were such, that twilight came upon him ere he had nearly cleared the narrow valley. It was indeed a gloomy ride. The two sides of the vale were so near, that at every double of the river the shadows from the western sky fell upon, and totally obscured, the eastern bank; the thickets of copsewood seemed to wave with a portentous agitation of boughs and leaves, and the very crags and scaurs seemed higher and grimmer than they had appeared to the monk while he was travelling in daylight, and in company. Father Philip was heartily rejoiced, when, emerging from the narrow glen, he gained the open valley of the Tweed, which held on its majestic course from current to pool, and from pool stretched away to other currents, with a dignity peculiar to itself amongst the Scottish rivers; for whatever may have been the drought of the season, the Tweed usually fills up the space between its banks, seldom leaving those extensive sheets of shingle which deform the margins of many of the celebrated Scottish streams.

The monk, insensible to beauties which the age had not regarded as deserving of notice, was, nevertheless, like a prudent general, pleased to find himself out of the narrow glen in which the enemy might have stolen upon him unperceived. He drew up his bridle, reduced his mule to her natural and luxurious amble, instead of the agitating and broken trot at which, to his no small inconvenience, she had hitherto proceeded, and, wiping his brow, gazed forth at leisure on the broad moon, which, now mingling with the lights of evening, was rising over field and forest, village and fortalice, and, above all, over the stately Monastery, seen far and dim amid the vellow light.

The worst part of the magnificent view, in the monk’s apprehension, was, that the Monastery stood on the opposite side of the river, and that of the many fine bridges which have since been built across that classical stream, not one then existed. There was, however, in recompense, a bridge then standing which has since disappeared, although its ruins may still be traced by the curious.

It was of a very peculiar form. Two strong abutments were built on either side of the river, at a part where the stream was peculiarly contracted. Upon a rock in the centre of the current was built a solid piece of masonry, constructed like the pier of a bridge, and presenting, like a pier, an angle to the current of the stream. The masonry continued solid until the pier rose to a level with the two abutments upon either side, and from thence the building rose in the form of a tower. The lower story of this tower consisted only of an archway or passage through the building, over either entrance to which hung a drawbridge with counterpoises, either of which, when dropped, connected the archway with the opposite abutment, where the farther end of the drawbridge rested. When both bridges were thus lowered, the passage over the river was complete.

The bridge-keeper, who was the dependant of a neighbouring baron, resided with his family in the second and third stories of the tower, which, when both drawbridges were raised, formed an insulated fortalice in the midst of the river. He was entitled to a small toll or custom for the passage, concerning the amount of which disputes sometimes arose between him and the passengers. It is needless to say, that the bridge-ward had usually the better in these questions, since he could at pleasure detain the traveller on the opposite side; or, suffering him to pass half way, might keep him prisoner in his tower till they were agreed on the rate of pontage.25

But it was most frequently with the Monks of Saint Mary’s that the warder had to dispute his perquisites. These holy men insisted for, and at length obtained, a right of gratuitous passage to themselves, greatly to the discontent of the bridge-keeper. But when they demanded the same immunity for the numerous pilgrims who visited the shrine, the bridge-keeper waxed restive, and was supported by his lord in his resistance. The controversy grew animated on both sides; the Abbot menaced excommunication, and the keeper of the bridge, though unable to retaliate in kind, yet made each individual monk who had to cross and recross the river, endure a sort of purgatory, ere he would accommodate them with a passage. This was a great inconvenience, and would have proved a more serious one, but that the river was fordable for man and horse in ordinary weather.

It was a fine moonlight night, as we have already said, when Father Philip approached this bridge, the singular construction of which gives a curious idea of the insecurity of the times. The river was not in flood, but it was above its ordinary level — a heavy water, as it is called in that country, through which the monk had no particular inclination to ride, if he could manage the matter better.

“Peter, my good friend,” cried the Sacristan, raising his voice; “my very excellent friend, Peter, be so kind as to lower the drawbridge. Peter, I say, dost thou not hear? — it is thy gossip, Father Philip, who calls thee.”

Peter heard him perfectly well, and saw him into the bargain; but as he had considered the Sacristan as peculiarly his enemy in his dispute with the convent, he went quietly to bed, after reconnoitring the monk through his loop-hole, observing to his wife, that “riding the water in a moonlight night would do the Sacristan no harm, and would teach him the value of a brig the neist time, on whilk a man might pass high and dry, winter and summer, flood and ebb.”

After exhausting his voice in entreaties and threats, which were equally unattended to by Peter of the Brig, as he was called, Father Philip at length moved down the river to take the ordinary ford at the head of the next stream. Cursing the rustic obstinacy of Peter, he began, nevertheless, to persuade himself that the passage of the river by the ford was not only safe, but pleasant. The banks and scattered trees were so beautifully reflected from the bosom of the dark stream, the whole cool and delicious picture formed so pleasing a contrast to his late agitation, to the warmth occasioned by his vain endeavours to move the relentless porter of the bridge, that the result was rather agreeable than otherwise.

As Father Philip came close to the water’s edge, at the spot where he was to enter it, there sat a female under a large broken scathed oak-tree, or rather under the remains of such a tree, weeping, wringing her hands, and looking earnestly on the current of the river. The monk was struck with astonishment to see a female there at that time of night. But he was, in all honest service — and if a step farther, I put it upon his own conscience — a devoted squire of dames. After observing the maiden for a moment, although she seemed to take no notice of his presence, he was moved by her distress, and willing to offer his assistance. “Damsel,” said he, “thou seemest in no ordinary distress; peradventure, like myself, thou hast been refused passage at the bridge by the churlish keeper, and thy crossing may concern thee either for performance of a vow, or some other weighty charge.”

The maiden uttered some inarticulate sounds, looked at the river, and then in the face of the Sacristan. It struck Father Philip at that instant, that a Highland chief of distinction had been for some time expected to pay his vows at the shrine of Saint Mary’s; and that possibly this fair maiden might be one of his family, travelling alone for accomplishment of a vow, or left behind by some accident, to whom, therefore, it would be but right and prudent to use every civility in his power, especially as she seemed unacquainted with the Lowland tongue. Such at least was the only motive the Sacristan was ever known to assign for his courtesy; if there was any other, I once more refer it to his own conscience.

To express himself by signs, the common language of all nations, the cautious Sacristan first pointed to the river, then to his mule’s crupper, and then made, as gracefully as he could, a sign to induce the fair solitary to mount behind him. She seemed to understand his meaning, for she rose up as if to accept his offer; and while the good monk, who, as we have hinted, was no great cavalier, laboured, with the pressure of the right leg and the use of the left rein, to place his mule with her side to the bank in such a position that the lady might mount with ease, she rose from the ground with rather portentous activity, and at one bound sate behind the monk upon the animal, much the firmer rider of the two. The mule by no means seemed to approve of this double burden; she bounded, bolted, and would soon have thrown Father Philip over her head, had not the maiden with a firm hand detained him in the saddle.

At last the restive brute changed her humour; and, from refusing to budge off the spot, suddenly stretched her nose homeward, and dashed into the ford as fast as she could scamper. A new terror now invaded the monk’s mind — the ford seemed unusually deep, the water eddied off in strong ripple from the counter of the mule, and began to rise upon her side. Philip lost his presence of mind — which was at no time his most ready attribute, the mule yielded to the weight of the current, and as the rider was not attentive to keep her head turned up the river, she drifted downward, lost the ford and her footing at once, and began to swim with her head down the stream. And what was sufficiently strange, at the same moment, notwithstanding the extreme peril, the damsel began to sing, thereby increasing, if anything could increase, the bodily fear of the worthy Sacristan.


Merrily swim we, the moon shines bright,

Both current and ripple are dancing in light.

We have roused the night raven, I heard him croak,

As we plashed along beneath the oak

That flings its broad branches so far and so wide,

Their shadows are dancing in midst of the tide.

“Who wakens my nestlings,” the raven he said,

“My beak shall ere morn in his blood be red.

For a blue swoln corpse is a dainty meal.

And I’ll have my share with the pike and the eel.”


Merrily swim we, the moon shines bright,

There’s a golden gleam on the distant height;

There’s a silver shower on the alders dank.

And the drooping willows that wave on the bank.

I see the abbey, both turret and tower,

It is all astir for the vesper hour;

The monks for the chapel are leaving each cell.

But Where’s Father Philip, should toll the bell?


Merrily swim we, the moon shines bright,

Downward we drift through shadow and light,

Under yon rock the eddies sleep,

Calm and silent, dark and deep.

The Kelpy has risen from the fathomless pool.

He has lighted his candle of death and of dool.

Look, Father, look, and you’ll laugh to see

How he gapes and glares with his eyes on thee.


Good luck to your fishing, whom watch ye to-night?

A man of mean, or a man of might?

Is it layman or priest that must float in your cove,

Or lover who crosses to visit his love?

Hark! heard ye the Kelpy reply, as we pass’d —

“God’s blessing on the warder, he lock’d the bridge fast!

All that come to my cove are sunk,

Priest or layman, lover or monk.”

How long the damsel might have continued to sing, or where the terrified monk’s journey might have ended, is uncertain. As she sung the last stanza, they arrived at, or rather in, a broad tranquil sheet of water, caused by a strong wear or damhead, running across the river, which dashed in a broad cataract over the barrier. The mule, whether from choice, or influenced by the suction of the current, made towards the cut intended to supply the convent mills, and entered it half swimming half wading, and pitching the unlucky monk to and fro in the saddle at a fearful rate.

As his person flew hither and thither, his garment became loose, and in an effort to retain it, his hand lighted on the volume of the Lady of Avenel which was in his bosom. No sooner had he grasped it, than his companion pitched him out of the saddle into the stream, where, still keeping her hand on his collar, she gave him two or three good souses in the watery fluid, so as to ensure that every other part of him had its share of wetting, and then quitted her hold when he was so near the side that by a slight effort (of a great one he was incapable) he might scramble on shore. This accordingly he accomplished, and turning his eyes to see what had become of his extraordinary companion, she was nowhere to be seen; but still he heard, as if from the surface of the river, and mixing with the noise of the water breaking over the damhead, a fragment of her wild song, which seemed to run thus:—

Landed — landed! the black book hath won.

Else had you seen Berwick with morning sun!

Sain ye, and save ye, and blithe mot ye be,

For seldom they land that go swimming with me.

The ecstasy of the monk’s terror could be endured no longer; his head grew dizzy, and, after staggering a few steps onward and running himself against a wall, he sunk down in a state of insensibility.

25 A bridge of the very peculiar construction described in the text, actually existed at a small hamlet about a mile and a half above Melrose, called from the circumstance Bridge-end. It is thus noticed in Gordon’s Iter Septentrionale:—

“In another journey through the south parts of Scotland, about a mile and a half from Melrose, in the shire of Teviotdale, I saw the remains of a curious bridge over the river Tweed, consisting of three octangular pillars, or rather towers, standing within the water, without any arches to join them. The middle one, which is the most entire, has a door towards the north, and I suppose another opposite one toward the south, which I could not see without crossing the water. In the middle of this tower is a projection or cornice surrounding it: the whole is hollow from the door upwards, and now open at the top, near which is a small window. I was informed that not long agro a countryman and his family lived in this tower — and got his livelihood by laying out planks from pillar to pillar, and conveying passengers over the river. Whether this be ancient or modern, I know not; but as it is singular in its kind I have thought fit to exhibit it.”

The vestiges of this uncommon species of bridge still exist, and the author has often seen the foundations of the columns when drifting down the Tweed at night for the purpose of killing salmon by torch-light. Mr. John Mercer of Bridge-end recollects, that about fifty years ago the pillars were visible above water; and the late Mr. David Kyle, of the George Inn, Melrose, told the author that he saw a stone taken from the river bearing this inscription:—

“I, Sir John Pringle of Palmer stede, Give an hundred markis of gowd sae reid, To help to bigg my brigg ower Tweed.”

Pringle of Galashiels, afterwards of Whytbank, was the Baron to whom the bridge belonged.

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