The Monastery, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Eighth.

Nay, dally not with time, the wise man’s treasure,

Though fools are lavish on’t — the fatal Fisher

Hooks souls, while we waste moments.

Old play.

A November mist overspread the little valley, up which slowly but steadily rode the Monk Eustace. He was not insensible to the feeling of melancholy inspired by the scene and by the season. The stream seemed to murmur with a deep and oppressed note, as if bewailing the departure of autumn. Among the scattered copses which here and there fringed its banks, the oak-trees only retained that pallid green that precedes their russet hue. The leaves of the willows were most of them stripped from the branches, lay rustling at each breath, and disturbed by every step of the mule; while the foliage of other trees, totally withered, kept still precarious possession of the boughs, waiting the first wind to scatter them.

The monk dropped into the natural train of pensive thought which these autumnal emblems of mortal hopes are peculiarly calculated to inspire. “There,” he said, looking at the leaves which lay strewed around, “lie the hopes of early youth, first formed that they may soonest wither, and loveliest in spring to become most contemptible in winter; but you, ye lingerers,” he added, looking to a knot of beeches which still bore their withered leaves, “you are the proud plans of adventurous manhood, formed later, and still clinging to the mind of age, although it acknowledges their inanity! None lasts — none endures, save the foliage of the hardy oak, which only begins to show itself when that of the rest of the forest has enjoyed half its existence. A pale and decayed hue is all it possesses, but still it retains that symptom of vitality to the last. — So be it with Father Eustace! The fairy hopes of my youth I have trodden under foot like those neglected rustlers — to the prouder dreams of my manhood I look back as to lofty chimeras, of which the pith and essence have long since faded; but my religious vows, the faithful profession which I have made in my maturer age, shall retain life while aught of Eustace lives. Dangerous it may be — feeble it must be — yet live it shall, the proud determination to serve the Church of which I am a member, and to combat the heresies by which she is assailed.” Thus spoke, at least thus thought, a man zealous according to his imperfect knowledge, confounding the vital interests of Christianity with the extravagant and usurped claims of the Church of Rome, and defending his cause with an ardour worthy of a better.

While moving onward in this contemplative mood, he could not help thinking more than once, that he saw in his path the form of a female dressed in white, who appeared in the attitude of lamentation. But the impression was only momentary, and whenever he looked steadily to the point where he conceived the figure appeared, it always proved that he had mistaken some natural object, a white crag, or the trunk of a decayed birch-tree with its silver bark, for the appearance in question.

Father Eustace had dwelt too long in Rome to partake the superstitious feelings of the more ignorant Scottish clergy; yet he certainly thought it extraordinary, that so strong an impression should have been made on his mind by the legend of the Sacristan. “It is strange,” he said to himself, “that this story, which doubtless was the invention of Brother Philip to cover his own impropriety of conduct, should run so much in my head, and disturb my more serious thoughts — I am wont, I think, to have more command over my senses. I will repeat my prayers, and banish such folly from my recollection.”

The monk accordingly began with devotion to tell his beads, in pursuance of the prescribed rule of his order, and was not again disturbed by any wanderings of the imagination, until he found himself beneath the little fortalice of Glendearg.

Dame Glendinning, who stood at the gate, set up a shout of surprise and joy at seeing the good father. “Martin,” she said, “Jasper, where be a’ the folk? — help the right reverend Sub-Prior to dismount, and take his mule from him. — O father! God has sent you in our need — I was just going to send man and horse to the convent, though I ought to be ashamed to give so much trouble to your reverences.”

“Our trouble matters not, good dame,” said Father Eustace; “in what can I pleasure you? I came hither to visit the Lady of Avenel.”

“Well-a-day!” said Dame Alice, “and it was on her part that I had the boldness to think of summoning you, for the good lady will never be able to wear over the day! — Would it please you to go to her chamber?”

“Hath she not been shriven by Father Philip?” said the monk.

“Shriven she was,” said the Dame of Glendearg, “and by Father Philip, as your reverence truly says — but — I wish it may have been a clean shrift — Methought Father Philip looked but moody upon it — and there was a book which he took away with him, that —” She paused as if unwilling to proceed.

“Speak out, Dame Glendinning,” said the Father; “with us it is your duty to have no secrets.”

“Nay, if it please your reverence, it is not that I would keep anything from your reverence’s knowledge, but I fear I should prejudice the lady in your opinion; for she is an excellent lady — months and years has she dwelt in this tower, and none more exemplary than she; but this matter, doubtless, she will explain it herself to your reverence.”

“I desire first to know it from you, Dame Glendinning,” said the monk; “and I again repeat, it is your duty to tell it to me.”

“This book, if it please your reverence, which Father Philip removed from Glendearg, was this morning returned to us in a strange manner,” said the good widow.

“Returned!” said the monk; “how mean you?”

“I mean,” answered Dame Glendinning, “that it was brought back to the tower of Glendearg, the saints best know how — that same book which Father Philip carried with him but yesterday. Old Martin, that is my tasker and the lady’s servant, was driving out the cows to the pasture — for we have three good milk-cows, reverend father, blessed be Saint Waldave, and thanks to the holy Monastery —”

The monk groaned with impatience; but he remembered that a woman of the good dame’s condition was like a top, which, if you let it spin on untouched, must at last come to a pause; but, if you interrupt it by flogging, there is no end to its gyrations. “But, to speak no more of the cows, your reverence, though they are likely cattle as ever were tied to a stake, the tasker was driving them out, and the lads, that is my Halbert and my Edward, that your reverence has seen at church on holidays, and especially Halbert — for you patted him on the head and gave him a brooch of Saint Cuthbert, which he wears in his bonnet — and little Mary Avenel, that is the lady’s daughter, they ran all after the cattle, and began to play up and down the pasture as young folk will, your reverence. And at length they lost sight of Martin and the cows; and they began to run up a little cleugh which we call Corri-nan-Shian, where there is a wee bit stripe of a burn, and they saw there — Good guide us! — a White Woman sitting on the burnside wringing her hands — so the bairns were frighted to see a strange woman sitting there, all but Halbert, who will be sixteen come Whitsuntide; and, besides, he never feared ony thing — and when they went up to her — behold she was passed away!”

“For shame, good woman!” said Father Eustace; “a woman of your sense to listen to a tale so idle! — the young folk told you a lie, and that was all.”

“Nay, sir, it was more than that,” said the old dame; “for, besides that they never told me a lie in their lives, I must warn you that on the very ground where the White Woman was sitting, they found the Lady of Avenel’s book, and brought it with them to the tower.”

“That is worthy of mark at least,” said the monk. “Know you no other copy of this volume within these bounds?”

“None, your reverence,” returned Elspeth; “why should there? — no one could read it were there twenty.”

“Then you are sure it is the very same volume which you gave to Father Philip?” said the monk.

“As sure as that I now speak with your reverence.”

“It is most singular!” said the monk; and he walked across the room in a musing posture.

“I have been upon nettles to hear what your reverence would say,” continued Dame Glendinning, “respecting this matter — There is nothing I would not do for the Lady of Avenel and her family, and that has been proved, and for her servants to boot, both Martin and Tibb, although Tibb is not so civil sometimes as altogether I have a right to expect; but I cannot think it beseeming to have angels, or ghosts, or fairies, or the like, waiting upon a leddy when she is in another woman’s house, in respect it is no ways creditable. Ony thing she had to do was always done to her hand, without costing her either pains or pence, as a country body says; and besides the discredit, I cannot but think that there is no safety in having such unchancy creatures about ane. But I have tied red thread round the bairns’s throats,” (so her fondness still called them,) “and given ilka ane of them a riding-wand of rowan-tree, forby sewing up a slip of witch-elm into their doublets; and I wish to know of your reverence if there be ony thing mair that a lone woman can do in the matter of ghosts and fairies? — Be here! that I should have named their unlucky names twice ower!”

“Dame Glendinning,” answered the monk, somewhat abruptly, when the good woman had finished her narrative, “I pray you, do you know the miller’s daughter?”

“Did I know Kate Happer?” replied the widow; “as well as the beggar knows his dish — a canty quean was Kate, and a special cummer of my ain maybe twenty years syne.”

“She cannot be the wench I mean,” said Father Eustace; “she after whom I inquire is scarce fifteen, a black-eyed girl — you may have seen her at the kirk.”

“Your reverence must be in the right; and she is my cummer’s nie’ce, doubtless, that you are pleased to speak of: but I thank God I have always been too duteous in attention to the mass, to know whether young wenches have black eyes or green ones.”

The good father had so much of the world about him, that he was unable to avoid smiling, when the dame boasted her absolute resistance to a temptation, which was not quite so liable to beset her as those of the other sex.

“Perhaps, then,” he said, “you know her usual dress, Dame Glendinning?”

“Ay, ay, father,” answered the dame readily enough, “a white kirtle the wench wears, to hide the dust of the mill, no doubt — and a blue hood, that might weel be spared, for pridefulness.”

“Then, may it not be she,” said the father, “who has brought back this book, and stepped out of the way when the children came near her?”

The dame paused — was unwilling to combat the solution suggested by the monk — but was at a loss to conceive why the lass of the mill should come so far from home into so wild a corner merely to leave an old book with three children, from whose observation she wished to conceal herself.

Above all, she could not understand why, since she had acquaintances in the family, and since the Dame Glendinning had always paid her multure and knaveship duly, the said lass of the mill had not come in to rest herself and eat a morsel, and tell her the current news of the water.

These very objections satisfied the monk that his conjectures were right. “Dame,” he said, “you must be cautious in what you say. This is an instance — I would it were the sole one — of the power of the Enemy in these days. The matter must be sifted — with a curious and a careful hand.”

“Indeed,” said Elspeth, trying to catch and chime in with the ideas of the Sub-Prior, “I have often thought the miller’s folk at the Monastery-mill were far over careless in sifting our melder, and in bolting it too — some folk say they will not stick at whiles to put in a handful of ashes amongst Christian folk’s corn-meal.”

“That shall be looked after also, dame,” said the Sub-Prior, not displeased to see that the good old woman went off on a false scent; “and now, by your leave, I will see this lady — do you go before, and prepare her to see me.”

Dame Glendinning left the lower apartment accordingly, which the monk paced in anxious reflection, considering how he might best discharge, with humanity as well as with effect, the important duty imposed on him. He resolved to approach the bedside of the sick person with reprimands, mitigated only by a feeling for her weak condition — he determined, in case of her reply, to which late examples of hardened heretics might encourage her, to be prepared with answers to the customary scruples. High fraught, also, with zeal against her unauthorized intrusion into the priestly function, by study of the Sacred Scriptures, he imagined to himself the answers which one of the modern school of heresy might return to him — the victorious refutation which should lay the disputant prostrate at the Confessor’s mercy — and the healing, yet awful exhortation, which, under pain of refusing the last consolations of religion, he designed to make to the penitent, conjuring her, as she loved her own soul’s welfare, to disclose to him what she knew of the dark mystery of iniquity, by which heresies were introduced into the most secluded spots of the very patrimony of the Church herself — what agents they had who could thus glide, as it were unseen, from place to place, bring back the volume which the Church had interdicted to the spots from which it had been removed under her express auspices; and, who, by encouraging the daring and profane thirst after knowledge forbidden and useless to the laity, had encouraged the fisher of souls to use with effect his old bait of ambition and vain-glory.

Much of this premeditated disputation escaped the good father, when Elspeth returned, her tears flowing faster than her apron could dry them, and made him a signal to follow her. “How,” said the monk, “is she then so near her end? — nay, the Church must not break or bruise, when comfort is yet possible;” and forgetting his polemics, the good Sub-Prior hastened to the little apartment, where, on the wretched bed which she had occupied since her misfortunes had driven her to the Tower of Glendearg, the widow of Walter Avenel had rendered up her spirit to her Creator. “My God!” said the Sub-Prior, “and has my unfortunate dallying suffered her to depart without the Church’s consolation! Look to her, dame,” he exclaimed, with eager impatience; “is there not yet a sparkle of the life left? — may she not be recalled — recalled but for a moment? — Oh! would that she could express, but by the most imperfect word — but by the most feeble motion, her acquiescence in the needful task of penitential prayer! — Does she not breathe? — Art thou sure she doth not?”

“She will never breathe more,” said the matron. “Oh! the poor fatherless girl — now motherless also — Oh, the kind companion I have had these many years, whom I shall never see again! But she is in heaven for certain, if ever woman went there; for a woman of better life ——”

“Wo to me,” said the good monk, “if indeed she went not hence in good assurance — wo to the reckless shepherd, who suffered the wolf to carry a choice one from the flock, while he busied himself with trimming his sling and his staff to give the monster battle! Oh! if in the long Hereafter, aught but weal should that poor spirit share, what has my delay cost? — the value of an immortal soul!”

He then approached the body, full of the deep remorse natural to a good man of his persuasion, who devoutly believed the doctrines of the Catholic Church. “Ay,” said he, gazing on the pallid corpse, from which the spirit had parted so placidly as to leave a smile upon the thin blue lips, which had been so long wasted by decay that they had parted with the last breath of animation without the slightest convulsive tremor —“Ay,” said Father Eustace, “there lies the faded tree, and, as it fell, so it lies — awful thought for me, should my neglect have left it to descend in an evil direction!” He then again and again conjured Dame Glendinning to tell him what she knew of the demeanour and ordinary walk of the deceased.

All tended to the high honour of the deceased lady; for her companion, who admired her sufficiently while alive, notwithstanding some trifling points of jealousy, now idolized her after her death, and could think of no attribute of praise with which she did not adorn her memory.

Indeed, the Lady of Avenel, however she might privately doubt some of the doctrines announced by the Church of Rome, and although she had probably tacitly appealed from that corrupted system of Christianity to the volume on which Christianity itself is founded, had nevertheless been regular in her attendance on the worship of the Church, not, perhaps, extending her scruples so far as to break off communion. Such indeed was the first sentiment of the earlier reformers, who seemed to have studied, for a time at least, to avoid a schism, until the violence of the Pope rendered it inevitable.

Father Eustace, on the present occasion, listened with eagerness to everything which could lead to assure him of the lady’s orthodoxy in the main points of belief; for his conscience reproached him sorely, that, instead of protracting conversation with the Dame of Glendearg, he had not instantly hastened where his presence was so necessary. “If,” he said, addressing the dead body, “thou art yet free from the utmost penalty due to the followers of false doctrine — if thou dost but suffer for a time, to expiate faults done in the body, but partaking of mortal frailty more than of deadly sin, fear not that thy abode shall be long in the penal regions to which thou mayest be doomed — if vigils — if masses — if penance — if maceration of my body, till it resembles that extenuated form which the soul hath abandoned, may assure thy deliverance. The Holy Church — the godly foundation — our blessed Patroness herself, shall intercede for one whose errors were counter-balanced by so many virtues. — Leave me, dame — here, and by her bed-side, will I perform those duties — which this piteous case demands!”

Elspeth left the monk, who employed himself in fervent and sincere, though erroneous prayers, for the weal of the departed spirit. For an hour he remained in the apartment of death, and then returned to the hall, where he found the still weeping friend of the deceased.

But it would be injustice to Mrs. Glendinning’s hospitality, if we suppose her to have been weeping during this long interval, or rather if we suppose her so entirely absorbed by the tribute of sorrow which she paid frankly and plentifully to her deceased friend, as to be incapable of attending to the rights of hospitality due to the holy visitor — who was confessor at once, and Sub-Prior — mighty in all religious and secular considerations, so far as the vassals of the Monastery were interested.

Her barley-bread had been toasted — her choicest cask of home-brewed ale had been broached — her best butter had been placed on the hall-table, along with her most savoury ham, and her choicest cheese, ere she abandoned herself to the extremity of sorrow; and it was not till she had arranged her little repast neatly on the board, that she sat down in the chimney corner, threw her checked apron over her head, and gave way to the current of tears and sobs. In this there was no grimace or affectation. The good dame held the honours of her house to be as essential a duty, especially when a monk was her visitant, as any other pressing call upon her conscience; nor until these were suitably attended to did she find herself at liberty to indulge her sorrow for her departed friend.

When she was conscious of the Sub-Prior’s presence, she rose with the same attention to his reception; but he declined all the offers of hospitality with which she endeavoured to tempt him. Not her butter, as yellow as gold, and the best, she assured him, that was made in the patrimony of St. Mary — not the barley scones, which “the departed saint, God sain her! used to say were so good”— not the ale, nor any other cates which poor Elspeth’s stores afforded, could prevail on the Sub-Prior to break his fast. “This day,” he said, “I must not taste food until the sun go down, happy if, in so doing, I can expiate my own negligence — happier still, if my sufferings of this trifling nature, undertaken in pure faith and singleness of heart, may benefit the soul of the deceased. Yet, dame,” he added, I may not so far forget the living in my cares for the dead, as to leave behind me that book, which is to the ignorant what, to our first parents, the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil unhappily proved-excellent indeed in itself, but fatal because used by those to whom it is prohibited.”

“Oh, blithely, reverend father,” said the widow of Simon Glendinning, “will I give you the book, if so be I can while it from the bairns; and indeed, poor things, as the case stands with them even now, you might take the heart out of their bodies, and they never find it out, they are sae begrutten.” 26

“Give them this missal instead, good dame,” said the father, drawing from his pocket one which was curiously illuminated with paintings, “and I will come myself, or send one at a fitting time, and teach them the meaning of these pictures.”

“The bonny images!” said Dame Glendinning, forgetting for an instant her grief in her admiration, “and weel I wot,” added she, “it is another sort of a book than the poor Lady of Avenel’s; and blessed might we have been this day, if your reverence had found the way up the glen, instead of Father Philip, though the Sacristan is a powerful man too, and speaks as if he would ger the house fly abroad, save that the walls are gey thick. Simon’s forebears (may he and they be blessed!) took care of that.”

The monk ordered his mule, and was about to take his leave; and the good dame was still delaying him with questions about the funeral, when a horseman, armed and accoutred, rode into the little court-yard which surrounded the Keep.

26 Begrutten — over-weeped

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