Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 37

The Wanderer.

’Tis a naughty night to swim in.

King Lear.

There was a wild uncertainty about Mowbray’s ideas, after he started from a feverish sleep on the morning succeeding this memorable interview, that his sister, whom he really loved as much as he was capable of loving any thing, had dishonoured him and her name; and the horrid recollection of their last interview was the first idea which his waking imagination was thrilled with. Then came Touchwood’s tale of exculpation — and he persuaded himself, or strove to do so, that Clara must have understood the charge he had brought against her as referring to her attachment to Tyrrel, and its fatal consequences. Again, still he doubted how that could be — still feared that there must be more behind than her reluctance to confess the fraud which had been practised on her by Bulmer; and then, again, he strengthened himself in the first and more pleasing opinion, by recollecting that, averse as she was to espouse the person he proposed to her, it must have appeared to her the completion of ruin, if he, Mowbray, should obtain knowledge of the clandestine marriage.

“Yes — O yes,” he said to himself, “she would think that this story would render me more eager in the rascal’s interest, as the best way of hushing up such a discreditable affair — faith, and she would have judged right too; for, had he actually been Lord Etherington, I do not see what else she could have done. But, not being Lord Etherington, and an anointed scoundrel into the bargain, I will content myself with cudgelling him to death so soon as I can get out of the guardianship of this old, meddling, obstinate, self-willed, busybody. — Then, what is to be done for Clara? — This mock marriage was a mere bubble, and both parties must draw stakes. She likes this grave Don, who proves to be the stick of the right tree, after all — so do not I, though there be something lordlike about him. I was sure a strolling painter could not have carried it off so. She may marry him, I suppose, if the law is not against it — then she has the earldom, and the Oaklands, and Nettlewood, all at once. — Gad, we should come in winners, after all — and, I dare say, this old boy Touchwood is as rich as a Jew — worth a hundred thousand at least — He is too peremptory to be cut up for sixpence under a hundred thousand. — And he talks of putting me to rights — I must not wince — must stand still to be curried a little — Only, I wish the law may permit Clara’s being married to this other earl. — A woman cannot marry two brothers, that is certain:— but then, if she is not married to the one of them in good and lawful form, there can be no bar to her marrying the other, I should think — I hope the lawyers will talk no nonsense about it — I hope Clara will have no foolish scruples. — But, by my word, the first thing I have to hope is, that the thing is true, for it comes through but a suspicious channel. I’ll away to Clara instantly — get the truth out of her — and consider what is to be done.”

Thus partly thought and partly spoke the young Laird of St. Ronan’s, hastily dressing himself, in order to enquire into the strange chaos of events which perplexed his imagination.

When he came down to the parlour where they had supped last night, and where breakfast was prepared this morning, he sent for a girl who acted as his sister’s immediate attendant, and asked, “if Miss Mowbray was yet stirring?”

The girl answered, “she had not rung her bell.”

“It is past her usual hour,” said Mowbray, “but she was disturbed last night. Go, Martha, tell her to get up instantly — say I have excellent good news for her — or, if her head aches, I will come and tell them to her before she rises — go like lightning.”

Martha went, and returned in a minute or two. “I cannot make my mistress hear, sir, knock as loud as I will. I wish,” she added, with that love of evil presage which is common in the lower ranks, “that Miss Clara may be well, for I never knew her sleep so sound.”

Mowbray jumped from the chair into which he had thrown himself, ran through the gallery, and knocked smartly at his sister’s door; there was no answer. “Clara, dear Clara! — Answer me but one word — say but you are well. I frightened you last night — I had been drinking wine — I was violent — forgive me! — Come, do not be sulky — speak but a single word — say but you are well.”

He made the pauses longer betwixt every branch of his address, knocked sharper and louder, listened more anxiously for an answer; at length he attempted to open the door, but found it locked, or otherwise secured. “Does Miss Mowbray always lock her door?” he asked the girl.

“Never knew her to do it before, sir; she leaves it open that I may call her, and open the window-shutters.”

She had too good reason for precaution last night, thought her brother, and then remembered having heard her bar the door.

“Come, Clara,” he continued, greatly agitated, “do not be silly; if you will not open the door, I must force it, that’s all; for how can I tell but that you are sick, and unable to answer? — if you are only sullen, say so. — She returns no answer,” he said, turning to the domestic, who was now joined by Touchwood.

Mowbray’s anxiety was so great, that it prevented his taking any notice of his guest, and he proceeded to say, without regarding his presence, “What is to be done? — she may be sick — she may be asleep — she may have swooned; if I force the door, it may terrify her to death in the present weak state of her nerves. — Clara, dear Clara! do but speak a single word, and you shall remain in your own room as long as you please.”

There was no answer. Miss Mowbray’s maid, hitherto too much fluttered and alarmed to have much presence of mind, now recollected a back-stair which communicated with her mistress’s room from the garden, and suggested she might have gone out that way.

“Gone out,” said Mowbray, in great anxiety, and looking at the heavy fog, or rather small rain, which blotted the November morning — “Gone out, and in weather like this! — But we may get into her room from the back-stair.”

So saying, and leaving his guest to follow or remain as he thought proper, he flew rather than walked to the garden, and found the private door which led into it, from the bottom of the back-stair above mentioned, was wide open. Full of vague, but fearful apprehensions, he rushed up to the door of his sister’s apartment, which opened from her dressing-room to the landing-place of the stair; it was ajar, and that which communicated betwixt the bedroom and dressing-room was half open. “Clara, Clara!” exclaimed Mowbray, invoking her name rather in an agony of apprehension, than as any longer hoping for a reply. And his apprehension was but too prophetic.

Miss Mowbray was not in that apartment; and, from the order in which it was found, it was plain she had neither undressed on the preceding night, nor occupied the bed. Mowbray struck his forehead in an agony of remorse and fear. “I have terrified her to death,” he said; “she has fled into the woods, and perished there!”

Under the influence of this apprehension, Mowbray, after another hasty glance around the apartment, as if to assure himself that Clara was not there, rushed again into the dressing-room, almost overturning the traveller, who, in civility, had not ventured to enter the inner apartment. “You are as mad as a Hamako,”34 said the traveller; “let us consult together, and I am sure I can contrive”——

“Oh, d — n your contrivance!” said Mowbray, forgetting all proposed respect in his natural impatience, aggravated by his alarm; “if you had behaved straight-forward, and like a man of common sense, this would not have happened!”

“God forgive you, young man, if your reflections are unjust,” said the traveller, quitting the hold he had laid upon Mowbray’s coat; “and God forgive me too, if I have done wrong while endeavouring to do for the best! — But may not Miss Mowbray have gone down to the Well? I will order my horses, and set off instantly.”

“Do, do,” said Mowbray, recklessly; “I thank you, I thank you;” and hastily traversing the garden, as if desirous to get rid at once of his visitor and his own thoughts, he took the shortest road to a little postern-gate, which led into the extensive copsewood, through some part of which Clara had caused a walk to be cut to a little summer-house built of rough shingles, covered with creeping shrubs.

As Mowbray hastened through the garden, he met the old man by whom it was kept, a native of the south country, and an old dependent on the family. “Have you seen my sister?” said Mowbray, hurrying his words on each other with the eagerness of terror.

“What’s your wull, St. Ronan’s?” answered the old man, at once dull of hearing, and slow of apprehension.

“Have you seen Miss Clara?” shouted Mowbray, and muttered an oath or two at the gardener’s stupidity.

“In troth have I,” replied the gardener, deliberately; “what suld ail me to see Miss Clara, St. Ronan’s?”

“When, and where?” eagerly demanded the querist.

“Ou, just yestreen, after tey-time — afore ye cam hame yoursell galloping sae fast,” said old Joseph.

“I am as stupid as he, to put off my time in speaking to such an old cabbage-stock!” said Mowbray, and hastened on to the postern-gate already mentioned, leading from the garden into what was usually called Miss Clara’s walk. Two or three domestics, whispering to each other, and with countenances that showed grief, fear, and suspicion, followed their master, desirous to be employed, yet afraid to force their services on the fiery young man.

At the little postern he found some trace of her he sought. The pass-key of Clara was left in the lock. It was then plain that she must have passed that way; but at what hour, or for what purpose, Mowbray dared not conjecture. The path, after running a quarter of a mile or more through an open grove of oaks and sycamores, attained the verge of the large brook, and became there steep and rocky, difficult to the infirm, and alarming to the nervous; often approaching the brink of a precipitous ledge of rock, which in this place overhung the stream, in some places brawling and foaming in hasty current, and in others seeming to slumber in deep and circular eddies. The temptations which this dangerous scene must have offered an excited and desperate spirit, came on Mowbray like the blight of the Simoom, and he stood a moment to gather breath and overcome these horrible anticipations, ere he was able to proceed. His attendants felt the same apprehension. “Puir thing — puir thing! — O, God send she may not have been left to hersell! — God send she may have been upholden!” were whispered by Patrick to the maidens, and by them to each other.

At this moment the old gardener was heard behind them, shouting, “Master — St. Ronan’s — Master — I have fund — I have fund”——

“Have you found my sister?” exclaimed the brother, with breathless anxiety.

The old man did not answer till he came up, and then, with his usual slowness of delivery, he replied to his master’s repeated enquiries, “Na, I haena fund Miss Clara, but I hae fund something ye wad be wae to lose — your braw hunting-knife.”

He put the implement into the hand of its owner, who, recollecting the circumstances under which he had flung it from him last night, and the now too probable consequences of that interview, bestowed on it a deep imprecation, and again hurled it from him into the brook. The domestics looked at each other, and recollecting each at the same time that the knife was a favourite tool of their master, who was rather curious in such articles, had little doubt that his mind was affected, in a temporary way at least, by his anxiety on his sister’s account. He saw their confused and inquisitive looks, and assuming as much composure and presence of mind as he could command, directed Martha, and her female companions, to return and search the walks on the other side of Shaws-Castle; and, finally, ordered Patrick back to ring the bell, “which,” he said, assuming a confidence that he was far from entertaining, “might call Miss Mowbray home from some of her long walks.” He farther desired his groom and horses might meet him at the Clattering Brig, so called from a noisy cascade which was formed by the brook, above which was stretched a small foot-bridge of planks. Having thus shaken off his attendants, he proceeded himself, with all the speed he was capable of exerting, to follow out the path in which he was at present engaged, which, being a favourite walk with his sister, she might perhaps have adopted from mere habit, when in a state of mind, which, he had too much reason to fear, must have put choice out of the question.

He soon reached the summer-house, which was merely a seat covered overhead and on the sides, open in front, and neatly paved with pebbles. This little bower was perched, like a hawk’s nest, almost upon the edge of a projecting crag, the highest point of the line of rock which we have noticed; and had been selected by poor Clara, on account of the prospect which it commanded down the valley. One of her gloves lay on the small rustic table in the summer-house. Mowbray caught it eagerly up. It was drenched with wet — the preceding day had been dry; so that, had she forgot it there in the morning, or in the course of the day, it could not have been in that state. She had certainly been there during the night, when it rained heavily.

Mowbray, thus assured that Clara had been in this place, while her passions and fears were so much afloat as they must have been at her flight from her father’s house, cast a hurried and terrified glance from the brow of the precipice into the deep stream that eddied below. It seemed to him that, in the sullen roar of the water, he heard the last groans of his sister — the foam-flakes caught his eye, as if they were a part of her garments. But a closer examination showed that there was no appearance of such a catastrophe. Descending the path on the other side of the bower, he observed a foot-print in a place where the clay was moist and tenacious, which, from the small size, and the shape of the shoe, it appeared to him must be a trace of her whom he sought. He hurried forward, therefore, with as much speed, as yet permitted him to look out keenly for similar impressions, of which it seemed to him he remarked several, although less perfect than the former, being much obliterated by the quantity of rain that had since fallen — a circumstance seeming to prove that several hours had elapsed since the person had passed.

At length, through the various turnings and windings of a long and romantic path, Mowbray found himself, without having received any satisfactory intelligence, by the side of the brook, called St. Ronan’s Burn, at the place where it was crossed by foot-passengers, by the Clattering Brig, and by horsemen through a ford a little lower. At this point the fugitive might have either continued her wanderings through her paternal woods, by a path which, after winding about a mile, returned to Shaws-Castle, or she might have crossed the bridge, and entered a broken horse-way, common to the public, leading to the Aultoun of St. Ronan’s.

Mowbray, after a moment’s consideration, concluded that the last was her most probable option. — He mounted his horse, which the groom had brought down according to order, and commanding the man to return by the footpath, which he himself could not examine, he proceeded to ride towards the ford. The brook was swollen during the night, and the groom could not forbear intimating to his master, that there was considerable danger in attempting to cross it. But Mowbray’s mind and feelings were too high-strung to permit him to listen to cautious counsel. He spurred the snorting and reluctant horse into the torrent, though the water, rising high on the upper side, broke both over the pommel and the croupe of his saddle. It was by exertion of great strength and sagacity, that the good horse kept the ford-way. Had the stream forced him down among the rocks, which lie below the crossing-place, the consequences must have been fatal. Mowbray, however, reached the opposite side in safety, to the joy and admiration of the servant, who stood staring at him during the adventure. He then rode hastily towards the Aultoun, determined, if he could not hear tidings of his sister in that village, that he would spread the alarm, and institute a general search after her, since her elopement from Shaws-Castle could, in that case, no longer be concealed. We must leave him, however, in his present state of uncertainty, in order to acquaint our readers with the reality of those evils, which his foreboding mind and disturbed conscience could only anticipate.

34 A fool is so termed in Turkey.

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