The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 25

Death finds us ‘mid our playthings — snatches us,

As a cross nurse might do a wayward child,

From all our toys and baubles. His rough call

Unlooses all our favourite ties on earth;

And well if they are such as may be answer’d

In yonder world, where all is judged of truly.

Old Play.

It was a ghastly scene which opened, upon Martha Trapbois’s return with a light. Her own haggard and austere features were exaggerated by all the desperation of grief, fear, and passion — but the latter was predominant. On the floor lay the body of the robber, who had expired without a groan, while his blood, flowing plentifully, had crimsoned all around. Another body lay also there, on which the unfortunate woman precipitated herself in agony, for it was that of her unhappy father. In the next moment she started up, and exclaiming —“There may be life yet!” strove to raise the body. Nigel went to her assistance, but not without a glance at the open window; which Martha, as acute as if undisturbed either by passion or terror, failed not to interpret justly.

“Fear not,” she cried, “fear not; they are base cowards, to whom courage is as much unknown as mercy. If I had had weapons, I could have defended myself against them without assistance or protection. — Oh! my poor father! protection comes too late for this cold and stiff corpse. — He is dead — dead!”

While she spoke, they were attempting to raise the dead body of the old miser; but it was evident, even from the feeling of the inactive weight and rigid joints, that life had forsaken her station. Nigel looked for a wound, but saw none. The daughter of the deceased, with more presence of mind than a daughter could at the time have been supposed capable of exerting, discovered the instrument of his murder — a sort of scarf, which had been drawn so tight round his throat, as to stifle his cries for assistance, in the first instance, and afterwards to extinguish life.

She undid the fatal noose; and, laying the old man’s body in the arms of Lord Glenvarloch, she ran for water, for spirits, for essences, in the vain hope that life might be only suspended. That hope proved indeed vain. She chafed his temples, raised his head, loosened his nightgown, (for it seemed as if he had arisen from bed upon hearing the entrance of the villains,) and, finally, opened, with difficulty, his fixed and closely-clenched hands, from one of which dropped a key, from the other the very piece of gold about which the unhappy man had been a little before so anxious, and which probably, in the impaired state of his mental faculties, he was disposed to defend with as desperate energy as if its amount had been necessary to his actual existence.

“It is in vain — it is in vain,” said the daughter, desisting from her fruitless attempts to recall the spirit which had been effectually dislodged, for the neck had been twisted by the violence of the murderers; “It is in vain — he is murdered — I always knew it would be thus; and now I witness it!”

She then snatched up the key and the piece of money, but it was only to dash them again on the floor, as she exclaimed, “Accursed be ye both, for you are the causes of this deed!”

Nigel would have spoken — would have reminded her, that measures should be instantly taken for the pursuit of the murderer who had escaped, as well as for her own security against his return; but she interrupted him sharply.

“Be silent,” she said, “be silent. Think you, the thoughts of my own heart are not enough to distract me, and with such a sight as this before me? I say, be silent,” she said again, and in a yet sterner tone —“Can a daughter listen, and her father’s murdered corpse lying on her knees?”

Lord Glenvarloch, however overpowered by the energy of her grief, felt not the less the embarrassment of his own situation. He had discharged both his pistols — the robber might return — he had probably other assistants besides the man who had fallen, and it seemed to him, indeed, as if he had heard a muttering beneath the windows. He explained hastily to his companion the necessity of procuring ammunition.

“You are right,” she said, somewhat contemptuously, “and have ventured already more than ever I expected of man. Go, and shift for yourself, since that is your purpose — leave me to my fate.”

Without stopping for needless expostulation, Nigel hastened to his own room through the secret passage, furnished himself with the ammunition he sought for, and returned with the same celerity; wondering himself at the accuracy with which he achieved, in the dark, all the meanderings of the passage which he had traversed only once, and that in a moment of such violent agitation.

He found, on his return, the unfortunate woman standing like a statue by the body of her father, which she had laid straight on the floor, having covered the face with the skirt of his gown. She testified neither surprise nor pleasure at Nigel’s return, but said to him calmly —“My moan is made — my sorrow — all the sorrow at least that man shall ever have noting of, is gone past; but I will have justice, and the base villain who murdered this poor defenceless old man, when he had not, by the course of nature, a twelvemonth’s life in him, shall not cumber the earth long after him. Stranger, whom heaven has sent to forward the revenge reserved for this action, go to Hildebrod’s — there they are awake all night in their revels — bid him come hither — he is bound by his duty, and dare not, and shall not, refuse his assistance, which he knows well I can reward. Why do ye tarry? — go instantly.” “I would,” said Nigel, “but I am fearful of leaving you alone; the villains may return, and —”

“True, most true,” answered Martha, “he may return; and, though I care little for his murdering me, he may possess himself of what has most tempted him. Keep this key and this piece of gold; they are both of importance — defend your life if assailed, and if you kill the villain I will make you rich. I go myself to call for aid.”

Nigel would have remonstrated with her, but she had departed, and in a moment he heard the house-door clank behind her. For an instant he thought of following her; but upon recollection that the distance was but short betwixt the tavern of Hildebrod and the house of Trapbois, he concluded that she knew it better than he — incurred little danger in passing it, and that he would do well in the meanwhile to remain on the watch as she recommended.

It was no pleasant situation for one unused to such scenes to remain in the apartment with two dead bodies, recently those of living and breathing men, who had both, within the space of less than half an hour, suffered violent death; one of them by the hand of the assassin, the other, whose blood still continued to flow from the wound in his throat, and to flood all around him, by the spectator’s own deed of violence, though of justice. He turned his face from those wretched relics of mortality with a feeling of disgust, mingled with superstition; and he found, when he had done so, that the consciousness of the presence of these ghastly objects, though unseen by him, rendered him more uncomfortable than even when he had his eyes fixed upon, and reflected by, the cold, staring, lifeless eyeballs of the deceased. Fancy also played her usual sport with him. He now thought he heard the well-worn damask nightgown of the deceased usurer rustle; anon, that he heard the slaughtered bravo draw up his leg, the boot scratching the floor as if he was about to rise; and again he deemed he heard the footsteps and the whisper of the returned ruffian under the window from which he had lately escaped. To face the last and most real danger, and to parry the terrors which the other class of feelings were like to impress upon him, Nigel went to the window, and was much cheered to observe the light of several torches illuminating the street, and followed, as the murmur of voices denoted, by a number of persons, armed, it would seem, with firelocks and halberds, and attendant on Hildebrod, who (not in his fantastic office of duke, but in that which he really possessed of bailiff of the liberty and sanctuary of Whitefriars) was on his way to inquire into the crime and its circumstances.

It was a strange and melancholy contrast to see these debauchees, disturbed in the very depth of their midnight revel, on their arrival at such a scene as this. They stared on each other, and on the bloody work before them, with lack-lustre eyes; staggered with uncertain steps over boards slippery with blood; their noisy brawling voices sunk into stammering whispers; and, with spirits quelled by what they saw, while their brains were still stupefied by the liquor which they had drunk, they seemed like men walking in their sleep.

Old Hildebrod was an exception to the general condition. That seasoned cask, however full, was at all times capable of motion, when there occurred a motive sufficiently strong to set him a-rolling. He seemed much shocked at what he beheld, and his proceedings, in consequence, had more in them of regularity and propriety, than he might have been supposed capable of exhibiting upon any occasion whatever. The daughter was first examined, and stated, with wonderful accuracy and distinctness, the manner in which she had been alarmed with a noise of struggling and violence in her father’s apartment, and that the more readily, because she was watching him on account of some alarm concerning his health. On her entrance, she had seen her father sinking under the strength of two men, upon whom she rushed with all the fury she was capable of. As their faces were blackened, and their figures disguised, she could not pretend, in the hurry of a moment so dreadfully agitating, to distinguish either of them as persons whom she had seen before. She remembered little more except the firing of shots, until she found herself alone with her guest, and saw that the ruffians had escaped. Lord Glenvarloch told his story as we have given it to the reader. The direct evidence thus received, Hildebrod examined the premises. He found that the villains had made their entrance by the window out of which the survivor had made his escape; yet it seemed singular that they should have done so, as it was secured with strong iron bars, which old Trapbois was in the habit of shutting with his own hand at nightfall. He minuted down with great accuracy, the state of every thing in the apartment, and examined carefully the features of the slain robber. He was dressed like a seaman of the lowest order, but his face was known to none present. Hildebrod next sent for an Alsatian surgeon, whose vices, undoing what his skill might have done for him, had consigned him to the wretched practice of this place. He made him examine the dead bodies, and make a proper declaration of the manner in which the sufferers seemed to have come by their end. The circumstances of the sash did not escape the learned judge, and having listened to all that could be heard or conjectured on the subject, and collected all particulars of evidence which appeared to bear on the bloody transaction, he commanded the door of the apartment to be locked until next morning; and carrying, the unfortunate daughter of the murdered man into the kitchen, where there was no one in presence but Lord Glenvarloch, he asked her gravely, whether she suspected no one in particular of having committed the deed.

“Do you suspect no one?” answered Martha, looking fixedly on him.

“Perhaps, I may, mistress; but it is my part to ask questions, yours to answer them. That’s the rule of the game.”

“Then I suspect him who wore yonder sash. Do not you know whom I mean?”

“Why, if you call on me for honours, I must needs say I have seen Captain Peppercull have one of such a fashion, and he was not a man to change his suits often.”

“Send out, then,” said Martha, “and have him apprehended.”

“If it is he, he will be far by this time; but I will communicate with the higher powers,” answered the judge.

“You would have him escape,” resumed she, fixing her eyes on him sternly.

“By cock and pie,” replied Hildebrod, “did it depend on me, the murdering cut-throat should hang as high as ever Haman did — but let me take my time. He has friends among us, that you wot well; and all that should assist me are as drunk as fiddlers.”

“I will have revenge — I will have it,” repeated she; “and take heed you trifle not with me.”

“Trifle! I would sooner trifle with a she-bear the minute after they had baited her. I tell you, mistress, be but patient, and we will have him. I know all his haunts, and he cannot forbear them long; and I will have trap-doors open for him. You cannot want justice, mistress, for you have the means to get it.”

“They who help me in my revenge,” said Martha, “shall share those means.”

“Enough said,” replied Hildebrod; “and now I would have you go to my house, and get something hot — you will be but dreary here by yourself.”

“I will send for the old char-woman,” replied Martha, “and we have the stranger gentleman, besides.”

“Umph, umph — the stranger gentleman!” said Hildebrod to Nigel, whom he drew a little apart. “I fancy the captain has made the stranger gentleman’s fortune when he was making a bold dash for his own. I can tell your honour — I must not say lordship — that I think my having chanced to give the greasy buff-and-iron scoundrel some hint of what I recommended to you to-day, has put him on this rough game. The better for you — you will get the cash without the father-in-law. — You will keep conditions, I trust?”

“I wish you had said nothing to any one of a scheme so absurd,” said Nigel.

“Absurd! — Why, think you she will not have thee? Take her with the tear in her eye, man — take her with the tear in her eye. Let me hear from you to-morrow. Good-night, good-night — a nod is as good as a wink. I must to my business of sealing and locking up. By the way, this horrid work has put all out of my head. — Here is a fellow from Mr. Lowestoffe has been asking to see you. As he said his business was express, the Senate only made him drink a couple of flagons, and he was just coming to beat up your quarters when this breeze blew up. — Ahey, friend! there is Master Nigel Grahame.”

A young man, dressed in a green plush jerkin, with a badge on the sleeve, and having the appearance of a waterman, approached and took Nigel aside, while Duke Hildebrod went from place to place to exercise his authority, and to see the windows fastened, and the doors of the apartment locked up. The news communicated by Lowestoffe’s messenger were not the most pleasant. They were intimated in a courteous whisper to Nigel, to the following effect:— That Master Lowestoffe prayed him to consult his safety by instantly leaving Whitefriars, for that a warrant from the Lord Chief-Justice had been issued out for apprehending him, and would be put in force to-morrow, by the assistance of a party of musketeers, a force which the Alsatians neither would nor dared to resist.

“And so, squire,” said the aquatic emissary, “my wherry is to wait you at the Temple Stairs yonder, at five this morning, and, if you would give the blood-hounds the slip, why, you may.”

“Why did not Master Lowestoffe write to me?” said Nigel.

“Alas! the good gentleman lies up in lavender for it himself, and has as little to do with pen and ink as if he were a parson.”

“Did he send any token to me?” said Nigel.

“Token! — ay, marry did he — token enough, an I have not forgot it,” said the fellow; then, giving a hoist to the waistband of his breeches, he said — ” Ay, I have it — you were to believe me, because your name was written with an O, for Grahame. Ay, that was it, I think. — Well, shall we meet in two hours, when tide turns, and go down the river like a twelve-oared barge?”

“Where is the king just now, knowest thou?” answered Lord Glenvarloch.

“The king! why, he went down to Greenwich yesterday by water, like a noble sovereign as he is, who will always float where he can. He was to have hunted this week, but that purpose is broken, they say; and the Prince, and the Duke, and all of them at Greenwich, are as merry as minnows.”

“Well,” replied Nigel, “I will be ready to go at five; do thou come hither to carry my baggage.”

“Ay, ay, master,” replied the fellow, and left the house mixing himself with the disorderly attendants of Duke Hildebrod, who were now retiring. That potentate entreated Nigel to make fast the doors behind him, and, pointing to the female who sat by the expiring fire with her limbs outstretched, like one whom the hand of Death had already arrested, he whispered, “Mind your hits, and mind your bargain, or I will cut your bow-string for you before you can draw it.”

Feeling deeply the ineffable brutality which could recommend the prosecuting such views over a wretch in such a condition, Lord Glenvarloch yet commanded his temper so far as to receive the advice in silence, and attend to the former part of it, by barring the door carefully behind Duke Hildebrod and his suite, with the tacit hope that he should never again see or hear of them. He then returned to the kitchen, in which the unhappy woman remained, her hands still clenched, her eyes fixed, and her limbs extended, like those of a person in a trance. Much moved by her situation, and with the prospect which lay before her, he endeavoured to awaken her to existence by every means in his power, and at length apparently succeeded in dispelling her stupor, and attracting her attention. He then explained to her that he was in the act of leaving Whitefriars in a few hours — that his future destination was uncertain, but that he desired anxiously to know whether he could contribute to her protection by apprizing any friend of her situation, or otherwise. With some difficulty she seemed to comprehend his meaning, and thanked him with her usual short ungracious manner. “He might mean well,” she said, “but he ought to know that the miserable had no friends.”

Nigel said, “He would not willingly be importunate, but, as he was about to leave the Friars —” She interrupted him —

“You are about to leave the Friars? I will go with you.”

“You go with me!” exclaimed Lord Glenvarloch.

“Yes,” she said, “I will persuade my father to leave this murdering den.” But, as she spoke, the more perfect recollection of what had passed crowded on her mind. She hid her face in her hands, and burst out into a dreadful fit of sobs, moans, and lamentations, which terminated in hysterics, violent in proportion to the uncommon strength of her body and mind.

Lord Glenvarloch, shocked, confused, and inexperienced, was about to leave the house in quest of medical, or at least female assistance; but the patient, when the paroxysm had somewhat spent its force, held him fast by the sleeve with one hand, covering her face with the other, while a copious flood of tears came to relieve the emotions of grief by which she had been so violently agitated.

“Do not leave me,” she said —“do not leave me, and call no one. I have never been in this way before, and would not now,” she said, sitting upright, and wiping her eyes with her apron — “would not now — but that — but that he loved me. if he loved nothing else that was human — To die so, and by such hands!”

And again the unhappy woman gave way to a paroxysm of sorrow, mingling her tears with sobbing, wailing, and all the abandonment of female grief, when at its utmost height. At length, she gradually recovered the austerity of her natural composure, and maintained it as if by a forcible exertion of resolution, repelling, as she spoke, the repeated returns of the hysterical affection, by such an effort as that by which epileptic patients are known to suspend the recurrence of their fits. Yet her mind, however resolved, could not so absolutely overcome the affection of her nerves, but that she was agitated by strong fits of trembling, which, for a minute or two at a time, shook her whole frame in a manner frightful to witness. Nigel forgot his own situation, and, indeed, every thing else, in the interest inspired by the unhappy woman before him — an interest which affected a proud spirit the more deeply, that she herself, with correspondent highness of mind, seemed determined to owe as little as possible either to the humanity or the pity of others.

“I am not wont to be in this way,” she said — “but — but — Nature will have power over the frail beings it has made. Over you, sir, I have some right; for, without you, I had not survived this awful night. I wish your aid had been either earlier or later — but you have saved my life, and you are bound to assist in making it endurable to me.”

“If you will show me how it is possible,” answered Nigel.

“You are going hence, you say, instantly — carry me with you,” said the unhappy woman. “By my own efforts, I shall never escape from this wilderness of guilt and misery.”

“Alas! what can I do for you?” replied Nigel. “My own way, and I must not deviate from it, leads me, in all probability, to a dungeon. I might, indeed, transport you from hence with me, if you could afterwards bestow yourself with any friend.”

“Friend!” she exclaimed —“I have no friend — they have long since discarded us. A spectre arising from the dead were more welcome than I should be at the doors of those who have disclaimed us; and, if they were willing to restore their friendship to me now, I would despise it, because they withdrew it from him — from him”—(here she underwent strong but suppressed agitation, and then added firmly)—“from him who lies yonder. — I have no friend.” Here she paused; and then suddenly, as if recollecting herself, added, “I have no friend, but I have that will purchase many — I have that which will purchase both friends and avengers. — It is well thought of; I must not leave it for a prey to cheats and ruffians. — Stranger, you must return to yonder room. Pass through it boldly to his — that is, to the sleeping apartment; push the bedstead aside; beneath each of the posts is a brass plate, as if to support the weight, but it is that upon the left, nearest to the wall, which must serve your turn — press the corner of the plate, and it will spring up and show a keyhole, which this key will open. You will then lift a concealed trap-door, and in a cavity of the floor you will discover a small chest. Bring it hither; it shall accompany our journey, and it will be hard if the contents cannot purchase me a place of refuge.”

“But the door communicating with the kitchen has been locked by these people,” said Nigel.

“True, I had forgot; they had their reasons for that, doubtless,” answered she. “But the secret passage from your apartment is open, and you may go that way.”

Lord Glenvarloch took the key, and, as he lighted a lamp to show him the way, she read in his countenance some unwillingness to the task imposed.

“You fear?” said she —“there is no cause; the murderer and his victim are both at rest. Take courage, I will go with you myself — you cannot know the trick of the spring, and the chest will be too heavy for you.”

“No fear, no fear,” answered Lord Glenvarloch, ashamed of the construction she put upon a momentary hesitation, arising from a dislike to look upon what is horrible, often connected with those high-wrought minds which are the last to fear what is merely dangerous —“I will do your errand as you desire; but for you, you must not — cannot go yonder.”

“I can — I will,” she said. “I am composed. You shall see that I am so.” She took from the table a piece of unfinished sewing-work, and, with steadiness and composure, passed a silken thread into the eye of a fine needle. —“Could I have done that,” she said, with a smile yet more ghastly than her previous look of fixed despair, “had not my heart and hand been both steady?”

She then led the way rapidly up stairs to Nigel’s chamber, and proceeded through the secret passage with the same haste, as if she had feared her resolution might have failed her ere her purpose was executed. At the bottom of the stairs she paused a moment, before entering the fatal apartment, then hurried through with a rapid step to the sleeping chamber beyond, followed closely by Lord Glenvarloch, whose reluctance to approach the scene of butchery was altogether lost in the anxiety which he felt on account of the survivor of the tragedy.

Her first action was to pull aside the curtains of her father’s bed. The bed-clothes were thrown aside in confusion, doubtless in the action of his starting from sleep to oppose the entrance of the villains into the next apartment. The hard mattress scarcely showed the slight pressure where the emaciated body of the old miser had been deposited. His daughter sank beside the bed, clasped her hands, and prayed to heaven, in a short and affectionate manner, for support in her affliction, and for vengeance on the villains who had made her fatherless. A low-muttered and still more brief petition recommended to Heaven the soul of the sufferer, and invoked pardon for his sins, in virtue of the great Christian atonement.

This duty of piety performed, she signed to Nigel to aid her; and, having pushed aside the heavy bedstead, they saw the brass plate which Martha had described. She pressed the spring, and, at once, the plate starting up, showed the keyhole, and a large iron ring used in lifting the trap-door, which, when raised, displayed the strong box, or small chest, she had mentioned, and which proved indeed so very weighty, that it might perhaps have been scarcely possible for Nigel, though a very strong man, to have raised it without assistance.

Having replaced everything as they had found it, Nigel, with such help as his companion was able to afford, assumed his load, and made a shift to carry it into the next apartment, where lay the miserable owner, insensible to sounds and circumstances, which, if any thing could have broken his long last slumber, would certainly have done so. His unfortunate daughter went up to his body, and had even the courage to remove the sheet which had been decently disposed over it. She put her hand on the heart, but there was no throb — held a feather to the lips, but there was no motion — then kissed with deep reverence the starting veins of the pale forehead, and then the emaciated hand.

“I would you could hear me,” she said — “Father! I would you could hear me swear, that, if I now save what you most valued on earth, it is only to assist me in obtaining vengeance for your death.”

She replaced the covering, and, without a tear, a sigh, or an additional word of any kind, renewed her efforts, until they conveyed the strong-box betwixt them into Lord Glenvarloch’s sleeping apartment. “It must pass,” she said, “as part of your baggage. I will be in readiness so soon as the waterman calls.”

She retired; and Lord Glenvarloch, who saw the hour of their departure approach, tore down a part of the old hanging to make a covering, which he corded upon the trunk, lest the peculiarity of its shape, and the care with which it was banded and counterbanded with bars of steel, might afford suspicions respecting the treasure which it contained. Having taken this measure of precaution, he changed the rascally disguise, which he had assumed on entering Whitefriars, into a suit becoming his quality, and then, unable to sleep, though exhausted with the events of the night, he threw himself on his bed to await the summons of the waterman.

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