The Monastery, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Sixth.

Now let us sit in conclave. That these weeds

Be rooted from the vineyard of the church.

That these foul tares be severed from the wheat,

We are, I trust, agreed. — Yet how to do this,

Nor hurt the wholesome crop and tender vine-plants,

Craves good advisement.

The Reformation.

The vesper service in the Monastery Church of Saint Mary’s was now over. The Abbot had disrobed himself of his magnificent vestures of ceremony, and resumed his ordinary habit, which was a black gown, worn over a white cassock, with a narrow scapulary; a decent and venerable dress, which was calculated to set off to advantage the portly mien of Abbot Boniface.

In quiet times no one could have filled the state of a mitred Abbot, for such was his dignity, more respectably than this worthy prelate. He had, no doubt, many of those habits of self-indulgence which men are apt to acquire who live for themselves alone. He was vain, moreover; and when boldly confronted, had sometimes shown symptoms of timidity, not very consistent with the high claims which he preferred as an eminent member of the church, or with the punctual deference which he exacted from his religious brethren, and all who were placed under his command. But he was hospitable, charitable, and by no means of himself disposed to proceed with severity against any one. In short, he would in other times have slumbered out his term of preferment with as much credit as any other “purple Abbot,” who lived easily, but at the same time decorously — slept soundly, and did not disquiet himself with dreams.

But the wide alarm spread through the whole Church of Rome by the progress of the reformed doctrines, sorely disturbed the repose of Abbot Boniface, and opened to him a wide field of duties and cares which he had never so much as dreamed of. There were opinions to be combated and refuted — practices to be inquired into — heretics to be detected and punished — the fallen off to be reclaimed — the wavering to be confirmed — scandal to be removed from the clergy, and the vigour of discipline to be re-established. Post upon post arrived at the Monastery of Saint Mary’s — horses reeking, and riders exhausted — this from the Privy Council, that from the Primate of Scotland, and this other again from the Queen Mother, exhorting, approving, condemning, requesting advice upon this subject, and requiring information upon that.

These missives Abbot Boniface received with an important air of helplessness, or a helpless air of importance — whichever the reader may please to term it, evincing at once gratified vanity, and profound trouble of mind. The sharp-witted Primate of Saint Andrews had foreseen the deficiencies of the Abbot of St. Mary’s, and endeavoured to provide for them by getting admitted into his Monastery as Sub-Prior a brother Cistercian, a man of parts and knowledge, devoted to the service of the Catholic Church, and very capable not only to advise the Abbot on occasions of difficulty, but to make him sensible of his duty in case he should, from good-nature or timidity, be disposed to shrink from it.

Father Eustace played the same part in the Monastery as the old general who, in foreign armies, is placed at the elbow of the Prince of the Blood, who nominally commands in chief, on condition of attempting nothing without the advice of his dry-nurse; and he shared the fate of all such dry-nurses, being heartily disliked as well as feared by his principal. Still, however, the Primate’s intention was fully answered. Father Eustace became the constant theme and often the bugbear of the worthy Abbot, who hardly dared to turn himself in his bed without, considering what Father Eustace would think of it. In every case of difficulty, Father Eustace was summoned, and his opinion asked; and no sooner was the embarrassment removed, than the Abbot’s next thought was how to get rid of his adviser. In every letter which he wrote to those in power, he recommended Father Eustace to some high church preferment, a bishopric or an abbey; and as they dropped one after another, and were otherwise conferred, he began to think, as he confessed to the Sacristan in the bitterness of his spirit, that the Monastery of St. Mary’s had got a life-rent lease of their Sub-Prior.

Yet more indignant he would have been, had he suspected that Father Eustace’s ambition was fixed upon his own mitre, which, from some attacks of an apoplectic nature, deemed by the Abbot’s friends to be more serious than by himself, it was supposed might be shortly vacant. But the confidence which, like other dignitaries, he reposed in his own health, prevented Abbot Boniface from imagining that it held any concatenation, with the motions of Father Eustace.

The necessity under which he found himself of consulting with his grand adviser, in cases of real difficulty, rendered the worthy Abbot particularly desirous of doing without him in all ordinary cases of administration, though not without considering what Father Eustace would have said of the matter. He scorned, therefore, to give a hint to the Sub-Prior of the bold stroke by which he had dispatched Brother Philip to Glendearg; but when the vespers came without his reappearance he became a little uneasy, the more as other matters weighed upon his mind. The feud with the warder or keeper of the bridge threatened to be attended with bad consequences, as the man’s quarrel was taken up by the martial baron under whom he served; and pressing letters of an unpleasant tendency had just arrived from the Primate. Like a gouty man, who catches hold of his crutch while he curses the infirmity that induces him to use if, the Abbot, however reluctant, found himself obliged to require Eustace’s presence, after the service was over, in his house, or rather palace, which was attached to, and made part of, the Monastery.

Abbot Boniface was seated in his high-backed chair, the grotesque carved back of which terminated in a mitre, before a fire where two or three large logs were reduced to one red glowing mass of charcoal. At his elbow, on an oaken stand, stood the remains of a roasted capon, on which his reverence had made his evening meal, flanked by a goodly stoup of Bordeaux of excellent flavour. He was gazing indolently on the fire, partly engaged in meditation on his past and present fortunes, partly occupied by endeavouring to trace towers and steeples in the red embers.

“Yes,” thought the Abbot to himself, “in that red perspective I could fancy to myself the peaceful towers of Dundrennan, where I passed my life ere I was called to pomp and to trouble. A quiet brotherhood we were, regular in our domestic duties; and when the frailties of humanity prevailed over us, we confessed, and were absolved by each other, and the most formidable part of the penance was the jest of the convent on the culprit. I can almost fancy that I see the cloister garden, and the pear-trees which I grafted with my own hands. And for what have I changed all this, but to be overwhelmed with business which concerns me not, to be called My Lord Abbot, and to be tutored by Father Eustace? I would these towers were the Abbey of Aberbrothwick, and Father Eustace the Abbot — or I would he were in the fire on any terms, so I were rid of him! The Primate says our Holy Father, the Pope hath an adviser — I am sure he could not live a week with such a one as mine. Then there is no learning what Father Eustace thinks till you confess your own difficulties — No hint will bring forth his opinion — he is like a miser, who will not unbuckle his purse to bestow a farthing, until the wretch who needs it has owned his excess of poverty, and wrung out the boon by importunity. And thus I am dishonoured in the eyes of my religious brethren, who behold me treated like a child which hath no sense of its own — I will bear it no longer! — Brother Bennet,”—(a lay brother answered to his call)—” tell Father Eustace that I need not his presence.”

“I came to say to your reverence, that the holy father is entering even now from the cloisters.”

“Be it so,” said the Abbot, “he is welcome — remove these things — or rather, place a trencher, the holy father may be a little hungry — yet, no — remove them, for there is no good fellowship in him — Let the stoup of wine remain, however, and place another cup.”

The lay brother obeyed these contradictory commands in the way he judged most seemly — he removed the carcass of the half-sacked capon, and placed two goblets beside the stoup of Bourdeaux. At the same instant entered Father Eustace.

He was a thin, sharp-faced, slight-made little man, whose keen grey eyes seemed almost to look through the person to whom he addressed himself. His body was emaciated not only with the fasts which he observed with rigid punctuality, but also by the active and unwearied exercise of his sharp and piercing intellect —

A fiery soul, which working out its way,

Fretted the puny body to decay,

And o’er-informed the tenement of clay.

He turned with conventual reverence to the Lord Abbot; and as they stood together, it was scarce possible to see a more complete difference of form and expression. The good-natured rosy face and laughing eye of the Abbot, which even his present anxiety could not greatly ruffle, was a wonderful contrast to the thin pallid cheek and quick penetrating glance of the monk, in which an eager and keen spirit glanced through eyes to which it seemed to give supernatural lustre.

The Abbot opened the conversation by motioning to his monk to take a stool, and inviting to a cup of wine. The courtesy was declined with respect, yet not without a remark, that the vesper service was past.

“For the stomach’s sake, brother,” said the Abbot, colouring a little —“You know the text.”

“It is a dangerous one,” answered the monk, “to handle alone, or at late hours. Out off from human society, the juice of the grape becomes a perilous companion of solitude, and therefore I ever shun it.”

Abbot Boniface had poured himself out a goblet which might hold about half an English pint; but, either struck with the truth of the observation, or ashamed to act in direct opposition to it, he suffered it to remain untasted before him, and immediately changed the subject.

“The Primate hath written to us,” said he, “to make strict search within our bounds after the heretical persons denounced in this list, who have withdrawn themselves from the justice which their opinions deserve. It is deemed probable that they will attempt to retire to England by our Borders, and the Primate requireth me to watch with vigilance, and what not.”

“Assuredly,” said the monk, “the magistrate should not bear the sword in vain — those be they that turn the world upside down — and doubtless your reverend wisdom will with due diligence second the exertions of the Right Reverend Father in God, being in the peremptory defence of the Holy Church.”

“Ay, but how is this to be done?” answered the Abbot; “Saint Mary aid us! The Primate writes to me as if I were a temporal baron — a man under command, having soldiers under him! He says, send forth — scour the country — guard the passes — Truly these men do not travel as those who would give their lives for nothing — the last who went south passed the dry-march at the Riding-burn with an escort of thirty spears, as our reverend brother the Abbot of Kelso did write unto us. How are cowls and scapularies to stop the way?”

“Your bailiff is accounted a good man at arms, holy father,” said Eustace; “your vassals are obliged to rise for the defence of the Holy Kirk — it is the tenure on which they hold their lands — if they will not come forth for the Church which gives them bread, let their possessions be given to others.”

“We shall not be wanting,” said the Abbot, collecting himself with importance, “to do whatever may advantage Holy Kirk — thyself shall hear the charge to our Bailiff and our officials — but here again is our controversy with the warden of the bridge and the Baron of Meigallot — Saint Mary! vexations do so multiply upon the House, and upon the generation, that a man wots not where to turn to! Thou didst say, Father Eustace, thou wouldst look into our evidents touching this free passage for the pilgrims?”

“I have looked into the Chartulary of the House, holy father,” said Eustace, “and therein I find a written and formal grant of all duties and customs payable at the drawbridge of Brigton, not only by ecclesiastics of this foundation, but by every pilgrim truly designed to accomplish his vows at this House, to the Abbot Allford, and the monks of the House of Saint Mary in Kennaquhair, from that time and for ever. The deed is dated on Saint Bridget’s Even, in the year of Redemption, 1137, and bears the sign and seal of the granter, Charles of Meigallot, great-great-grandfather of this baron, and purports to be granted for the safety of his own soul, and for the weal of the souls of his father and mother, and of all his predecessors and successors, being Barons of Meigallot.”

“But he alleges,” said the Abbot, “that the bridge-wards have been in possession of these dues, and have rendered them available for more than fifty years — and the baron threatens violence — meanwhile, the journey of the pilgrims is interrupted, to the prejudice of their own souls and the diminution of the revenues of Saint Mary. The Sacristan advised us to put on a boat; but the warden, whom thou knowest to be a godless man, has sworn the devil tear him, but that if they put on a boat on the laird’s stream, he will rive her board from board — and then some say we should compound the claim for a small sum in silver.” Here the Abbot paused a moment for a reply, but receiving none, he added, “But what thinkest thou, Father Eustace? why art thou silent?”

“Because I am surprised at the question which the Lord Abbot of Saint Mary’s asks at the youngest of his brethren.”

“Youngest in time of your abode with us, Brother Eustace,” said the Abbot, “not youngest in years, or I think in experience. Sub-Prior also of this convent.”

“I am astonished,” continued Eustace, “that the Abbot of this venerable house should ask of any one whether he can alienate the patrimony of our holy and divine patroness, or give up to an unconscientious, and perhaps, a heretic baron, the rights conferred on this church by his devout progenitor. Popes and councils alike prohibit it — the honour of the living, and the weal of departed souls, alike forbid it — it may not be. To force, if he dare use it, we must surrender; but never by our consent should we see the goods of the church plundered, with as little scruple as he would drive off a herd of English beeves. Rouse yourself, Reverend father, and doubt nothing but that the good cause shall prevail. Whet the spiritual sword, and direct it against the wicked who would usurp our holy rights. Whet the temporal sword, if it be necessary, and stir up the courage and zeal of your loyal vassals.”

The Abbot sighed deeply. “All this,” he said, “is soon spoken by him who hath to act it not; but —” He was interrupted by the entrance of Bennet rather hastily. “The mule on which the Sacristan had set out in the morning had returned,” he said, “to the convent stable all over wet, and with the saddle turned round beneath her belly.”

“Sancta Maria!” said the Abbot, “our dear brother hath perished by the way!”

“It may not be,” said Eustace, hastily —“let the bell be tolled — cause the brethren to get torches — alarm the village — hurry down to the river — I myself will be the foremost.”

The real Abbot stood astonished and agape, when at once he beheld his office filled, and saw all which he ought to have ordered, going forward at the dictates of the youngest monk in the convent. But ere the orders of Eustace, which nobody dreamed of disputing, were carried into execution, the necessity was prevented by the sudden apparition of the Sacristan, whose supposed danger excited all the alarm.

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