Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 38

The Catastrophe.

What sheeted ghost is wandering through the storm?

For never did a maid of middle earth

Choose such a time or spot to vent her sorrows.

Old Play.

Grief, shame, confusion, and terror, had contributed to overwhelm the unfortunate Clara Mowbray at the moment when she parted with her brother, after the stormy and dangerous interview which it was our task to record in a former chapter. For years, her life, her whole tenor of thought, had been haunted by the terrible apprehension of a discovery, and now the thing which she feared had come upon her. The extreme violence of her brother, which went so far as to menace her personal safety, had united with the previous conflict of passions, to produce a rapture of fear, which probably left her no other free agency, than that which she derived from the blind instinct which urges flight, as the readiest resource in danger.

We have no means of exactly tracing the course of this unhappy young woman. It is probable she fled from Shaws-Castle, on hearing the arrival of Mr. Touchwood’s carriage, which she might mistake for that of Lord Etherington; and thus, while Mowbray was looking forward to the happier prospects which the traveller’s narrative seemed to open, his sister was contending with rain and darkness, amidst the difficulties and dangers of the mountain path which we have described. These were so great, that a young woman more delicately brought up, must either have lain down exhausted, or have been compelled to turn her steps back to the residence she had abandoned. But the solitary wanderings of Clara had inured her to fatigue and to night-walks; and the deeper causes of terror which urged her to flight, rendered her insensible to the perils of her way. She had passed the bower, as was evident from her glove remaining there, and had crossed the foot-bridge; although it was almost wonderful, that, in so dark a night, she should have followed with such accuracy a track, where the missing a single turn by a cubit’s length, might have precipitated her into eternity.

It is probable, that Clara’s spirits and strength began in some degree to fail her, after she had proceeded a little way on the road to the Aultoun; for she had stopped at the solitary cottage inhabited by the old female pauper, who had been for a time the hostess of the penitent and dying Hannah Irwin. Here, as the inmate of the cottage acknowledged, she had made some knocking, and she owned she had heard her moan bitterly, as she entreated for admission. The old hag was one of those whose hearts adversity turns to very stone, and obstinately kept her door shut, impelled more probably by general hatred to the human race, than by the superstitious fears which seized her; although she perversely argued that she was startled at the supernatural melody and sweetness of tone, with which the benighted wanderer made her supplication. She admitted, that when she heard the poor petitioner turn from the door, her heart was softened, and she did intend to open with the purpose of offering her at least a shelter; but that before she could “hirple to the door, and get the bar taken down,” the unfortunate supplicant was not to be seen; which strengthened the old woman’s opinion, that the whole was a delusion of Satan.

It is conjectured that the repulsed wanderer made no other attempt to awaken pity or obtain shelter, until she came to Mr. Cargill’s Manse, in the upper room of which a light was still burning, owing to a cause which requires some explanation.

The reader is aware of the reasons which induced Bulmer, or the titular Lord Etherington, to withdraw from the country the sole witness, as he conceived, who could, or at least who might choose to bear witness to the fraud which he had practised on the unfortunate Clara Mowbray. Of three persons present at the marriage, besides the parties, the clergyman was completely deceived. Solmes he conceived to be at his own exclusive devotion; and therefore, if by his means this Hannah Irwin could be removed from the scene, he argued plausibly, that all evidence to the treachery which he had practised would be effectually stifled. Hence his agent, Solmes, had received a commission, as the reader may remember, to effect her removal without loss of time, and had reported to his master that his efforts had been effectual.

But Solmes, since he had fallen under the influence of Touchwood, was constantly employed in counteracting the schemes which he seemed most active in forwarding, while the traveller enjoyed (to him an exquisite gratification) the amusement of countermining as fast as Bulmer could mine, and had in prospect the pleasing anticipation of blowing up the pioneer with his own petard. For this purpose, as soon as Touchwood learned that his house was to be applied to for the original deeds left in charge by the deceased Earl of Etherington, he expedited a letter, directing that only the copies should be sent, and thus rendered nugatory Bulmer’s desperate design of possessing himself of that evidence. For the same reason, when Solmes announced to him his master’s anxious wish to have Hannah Irwin conveyed out of the country, he appointed him to cause the sick woman to be carefully transported to the Manse, where Mr. Cargill was easily induced to give her temporary refuge.

To this good man, who might be termed an Israelite without guile, the distress of the unhappy woman would have proved a sufficient recommendation; nor was he likely to have enquired whether her malady might not be infectious, or to have made any of those other previous investigations which are sometimes clogs upon the bounty or hospitality of more prudent philanthropists. But to interest him yet farther, Mr. Touchwood informed him by letter that the patient (not otherwise unknown to him) was possessed of certain most material information affecting a family of honour and consequence, and that he himself, with Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan’s in the quality of a magistrate, intended to be at the Manse that evening, to take her declaration upon this important subject. Such indeed was the traveller’s purpose, which might have been carried into effect, but for his own self-important love of manoeuvring on the one part, and the fiery impatience of Mowbray on the other, which, as the reader knows, sent the one at full gallop to Shaws-Castle, and obliged the other to follow him post haste. This necessity he intimated to the clergyman by a note, which he dispatched express as he himself was in the act of stepping into the chaise.

He requested that the most particular attention should be paid to the invalid — promised to be at the Manse with Mr. Mowbray early on the morrow — and, with the lingering and inveterate self-conceit which always induced him to conduct every thing with his own hand, directed his friend, Mr. Cargill, not to proceed to take the sick woman’s declaration or confession until he arrived, unless in case of extremity.

It had been an easy matter for Solmes to transfer the invalid from the wretched cottage to the clergyman’s Manse. The first appearance of the associate of much of her guilt had indeed terrified her; but he scrupled not to assure her, that his penitence was equal to her own, and that he was conveying her where their joint deposition would be formally received, in order that they might, so far as possible, atone for the evil of which they had been jointly guilty. He also promised her kind usage for herself, and support for her children; and she willingly accompanied him to the clergyman’s residence, he himself resolving to abide in concealment the issue of the mystery, without again facing his master, whose star, as he well discerned, was about to shoot speedily from its exalted sphere.

The clergyman visited the unfortunate patient, as he had done frequently during her residence in his vicinity, and desired that she might be carefully attended. During the whole day, she seemed better; but, whether the means of supporting her exhausted frame had been too liberally administered, or whether the thoughts which gnawed her conscience had returned with double severity when she was released from the pressure of immediate want, it is certain that, about midnight, the fever began to gain ground, and the person placed in attendance on her came to inform the clergyman, then deeply engaged with the siege of Ptolemais, that she doubted if the woman would live till morning, and that she had something lay heavy at her heart, which she wished, as the emissary expressed it, “to make, a clean breast of” before she died, or lost possession of her senses.

Awakened by such a crisis, Mr. Cargill at once became a man of this world, clear in his apprehension, and cool in his resolution, as he always was when the path of duty lay before him. Comprehending, from the various hints of his friend Touchwood, that the matter was of the last consequence, his own humanity, as well as inexperience, dictated his sending for skilful assistance. His man-servant was accordingly dispatched on horseback to the Well for Dr. Quackleben; while, upon the suggestion of one of his maids, “that Mrs. Dods was an uncommon skeely body about a sick-bed,” the wench was dismissed to supplicate the assistance of the gudewife of the Cleikum, which she was not, indeed, wont to refuse whenever it could be useful. The male emissary proved, in Scottish phrase, a “corbie messenger;"E14 for either he did not find the doctor, or he found him better engaged than to attend the sick-bed of a pauper, at a request which promised such slight remuneration as that of a parish minister. But the female ambassador was more successful; for, though she found our friend Luckie Dods preparing for bed at an hour unusually late, in consequence of some anxiety on account of Mr. Touchwood’s unexpected absence, the good old dame only growled a little about the minister’s fancies in taking puir bodies into his own house; and then, instantly donning cloak, hood, and pattens, marched down the gate with all the speed of the good Samaritan, one maid bearing the lantern before her, while the other remained to keep the house, and to attend to the wants of Mr. Tyrrel, who engaged willingly to sit up to receive Mr. Touchwood.

But, ere Dame Dods had arrived at the Manse, the patient had summoned Mr. Cargill to her presence, and required him to write her confession while she had life and breath to make it.

“For I believe,” she added, raising herself in the bed, and rolling her eyes wildly around, “that, were I to confess my guilt to one of a less sacred character, the Evil Spirit, whose servant I have been, would carry away his prey, both body and soul, before they had severed from each other, however short the space that they must remain in partnership!”

Mr. Cargill would have spoken some ghostly consolation, but she answered with pettish impatience, “Waste not words — waste not words! — Let me speak that which I must tell, and sign it with my hand; and do you, as the more immediate servant of God, and therefore bound to bear witness to the truth, take heed you write that which I tell you, and nothing else. I desired to have told this to St. Ronan’s — I have even made some progress in telling it to others — but I am glad I broke short off — for I know you, Josiah Cargill, though you have long forgotten me.”

“It may be so,” said Cargill. “I have indeed no recollection of you.”

“You once knew Hannah Irwin, though,” said the sick woman, “who was companion and relation to Miss Clara Mowbray, and who was present with her on that sinful night, when she was wedded in the kirk of St. Ronan’s.”

“Do you mean to say that you are that person?” said Cargill, holding the candle so as to throw some light on the face of the sick woman. “I cannot believe it.”

“No?” replied the penitent; “there is indeed a difference between wickedness in the act of carrying through its successful machinations, and wickedness surrounded by all the horrors of a death-bed!”

“Do not yet despair,” said Cargill. “Grace is omnipotent — to doubt this is in itself a great crime.”

“Be it so! — I cannot help it — my heart is hardened, Mr. Cargill; and there is something here,” she pressed her bosom, “which tells me, that, with prolonged life and renewed health, even my present agonies would be forgotten, and I should become the same I have been before. I have rejected the offer of grace, Mr. Cargill, and not through ignorance, for I have sinned with my eyes open. Care not for me, then, who am a mere outcast.” He again endeavoured to interrupt her, but she continued, “Or if you really wish my welfare, let me relieve my bosom of that which presses it, and it may be that I shall then be better able to listen to you. You say you remember me not — but if I tell you how often you refused to perform in secret the office which was required of you — how much you urged that it was against your canonical rules — if I name the argument to which you yielded — and remind you of your purpose, to acknowledge your transgression to your brethren in the church courts, to plead your excuse, and submit to their censure, which you said could not be a light one — you will be then aware, that, in the voice of the miserable pauper, you hear the words of the once artful, gay, and specious Hannah Irwin.”

“I allow it — I allow it!” said Mr. Cargill; “I admit the tokens, and believe you to be indeed her whose name you assume.”

“Then one painful step is over,” said she; “for I would ere now have lightened my conscience by confession, saving for the cursed pride of spirit, which was ashamed of poverty, though it had not shrunk from guilt. — Well — In these arguments, which were urged to you by a youth best known to you by the name of Francis Tyrrel, though more properly entitled to that of Valentine Bulmer, we practised on you a base and gross deception. — Did you not hear some one sigh? — I hope there is no one in the room — I trust I shall die when my confession is signed and sealed, without my name being dragged through the public — I hope ye bring not in your menials to gaze on my abject misery — I cannot brook that.”

She paused and listened; for the ear, usually deafened by pain, is sometimes, on the contrary, rendered morbidly acute. Mr. Cargill assured her, there was no one present but himself. “But, O, most unhappy woman!” he said, “what does your introduction prepare me to expect!”

“Your expectation, be it ever so ominous, shall be fully satisfied. — I was the guilty confidant of the false Francis Tyrrel. — Clara loved the true one. — When the fatal ceremony passed, the bride and the clergyman were deceived alike — and I was the wretch — the fiend — who, aiding another yet blacker, if blacker could be — mainly helped to accomplish this cureless misery!”

“Wretch!” exclaimed the clergyman, “and had you not then done enough? — Why did you expose the betrothed of one brother to become the wife of another?”

“I acted,” said the sick woman, “only as Bulmer instructed me; but I had to do with a master of the game. He contrived, by his agent Solmes, to match me with a husband imposed on me by his devices as a man of fortune! — a wretch, who maltreated me — plundered me — sold me. — Oh! if fiends laugh, as I have heard they can, what a jubilee of scorn will there be, when Bulmer and I enter their place of torture! — Hark! — I am sure of it — some one draws breath, as if shuddering!”

“You will distract yourself if you give way to these fancies. Be calm — speak on — but, oh! at last, and for once, speak the truth!”

“I will, for it will best gratify my hatred against him, who, having first robbed me of my virtue, made me a sport and a plunder to the basest of the species. For that I wandered here to unmask him. I had heard he again stirred his suit to Clara, and I came here to tell young Mowbray the whole. — But do you wonder that I shrunk from doing so till this last decisive moment? — I thought of my conduct to Clara, and how could I face her brother? — And yet I hated her not after I learned her utter wretchedness — her deep misery, verging even upon madness — I hated her not then. I was sorry that she was not to fall to the lot of a better man than Bulmer; — and I pitied her after she was rescued by Tyrrel, and you may remember it was I who prevailed on you to conceal her marriage.”

“I remember it,” answered Cargill, “and that you alleged, as a reason for secrecy, danger from her family. I did conceal it, until reports that she was again to be married reached my ears.”

“Well, then,” said the sick woman, “Clara Mowbray ought to forgive me — since what ill I have done her was inevitable, while the good I did was voluntary. — I must see her, Josiah Cargill — I must see her before I die — I shall never pray till I see her — I shall never profit by word of godliness till I see her! If I cannot obtain the pardon of a worm like myself, how can I hope for that of”——

She started at these words with a faint scream; for slowly, and with a feeble hand, the curtains of the bed opposite to the side at which Cargill sat, were opened, and the figure of Clara Mowbray, her clothes and long hair drenched and dripping with rain, stood in the opening by the bedside. The dying woman sat upright, her eyes starting from their sockets, her lips quivering, her face pale, her emaciated hands grasping the bed-clothes, as if to support herself, and looking as much aghast as if her confession had called up the apparition of her betrayed friend.

“Hannah Irwin,” said Clara, with her usual sweetness of tone, “my early friend — my unprovoked enemy! — Betake thee to Him who hath pardon for us all, and betake thee with confidence — for I pardon you as freely as if you had never wronged me — as freely as I desire my own pardon. — Farewell — Farewell!”

She retired from the room, ere the clergyman could convince himself that it was more than a phantom which he beheld. He ran down stairs — he summoned assistants, but no one could attend his call; for the deep ruckling groans of the patient satisfied every one that she was breathing her last; and Mrs. Dods, with the maid-servant, ran into the bedroom, to witness the death of Hannah Irwin, which shortly after took place.

That event had scarcely occurred, when the maid-servant who had been left in the inn, came down in great terror to acquaint her mistress, that a lady had entered the house like a ghost, and was dying in Mr. Tyrrel’s room. The truth of the story we must tell our own way.

In the irregular state of Miss Mowbray’s mind, a less violent impulse than that which she had received from her brother’s arbitrary violence, added to the fatigues, dangers, and terrors of her night-walk, might have exhausted the powers of her body, and alienated those of her mind. We have before said, that the lights in the clergyman’s house had probably attracted her attention, and in the temporary confusion of a family, never remarkable for its regularity, she easily mounted the stairs, and entered the sick chamber undiscovered, and thus overheard Hannah Irwin’s confession, a tale sufficient to have greatly aggravated her mental malady.

Clara entering Tyrrel’s Room
Clara entering Tyrrel’s Room

We have no means of knowing whether she actually sought Tyrrel, or whether it was, as in the former case, the circumstance of a light still burning where all around was dark, that attracted her; but her next apparition was close by the side of her unfortunate lover, then deeply engaged in writing, when something suddenly gleamed on a large, old-fashioned mirror, which hung on the wall opposite. He looked up, and saw the figure of Clara, holding a light (which she had taken from the passage) in her extended hand. He stood for an instant with his eyes fixed on this fearful shadow, ere he dared turn round on the substance which was thus reflected. When he did so, the fixed and pallid countenance almost impressed him with the belief that he saw a vision, and he shuddered when, stooping beside him, she took his hand. “Come away!” she said, in a hurried voice —“Come away, my brother follows to kill us both. Come, Tyrrel, let us fly — we shall easily escape him. — Hannah Irwin is on before — but, if we are overtaken, I will have no more fighting — you must promise me that we shall not — we have had but too much of that — but you will be wise in future.”

“Clara Mowbray!” exclaimed Tyrrel. “Alas! is it thus? — Stay — do not go,” for she turned to make her escape —“stay — stay — sit down.”

“I must go,” she replied, “I must go — I am called — Hannah Irwin is gone before to tell all, and I must follow. Will you not let me go? — Nay, if you will hold me by force, I know I must sit down — but you will not be able to keep me for all that.”

A convulsion fit followed, and seemed, by its violence, to explain that she was indeed bound for the last and darksome journey. The maid, who at length answered Tyrrel’s earnest and repeated summons, fled terrified at the scene she witnessed, and carried to the Manse the alarm which we before mentioned.

The old landlady was compelled to exchange one scene of sorrow for another, wondering within herself what fatality could have marked this single night with so much misery. When she arrived at home, what was her astonishment to find there the daughter of the house, which, even in their alienation, she had never ceased to love, in a state little short of distraction, and tended by Tyrrel, whose state of mind seemed scarce more composed than that of the unhappy patient. The oddities of Mrs. Dods were merely the rust which had accumulated upon her character, but without impairing its native strength and energy; and her sympathies were not of a kind acute enough to disable her from thinking and acting as decisively as circumstances required.

“Mr. Tyrrel,” she said, “this is nae sight for men folk — ye maun rise and gang to another room.”

“I will not stir from her,” said Tyrrel —“I will not remove from her either now, or as long as she or I may live.”

“That will be nae lang space, Maister Tyrrel, if ye winna be ruled by common sense.”

Tyrrel started up, as if half comprehending what she said, but remained motionless.

“Come, come,” said the compassionate landlady; “do not stand looking on a sight sair enough to break a harder heart than yours, hinny — your ain sense tells ye, ye canna stay here — Miss Clara shall be weel cared for, and I’ll bring word to your room-door frae half-hour to half-hour how she is.”

The necessity of the case was undeniable, and Tyrrel suffered himself to be led to another apartment, leaving Miss Mowbray to the care of the hostess and her female assistants. He counted the hours in an agony, less by the watch than by the visits which Mrs. Dods, faithful to her promise, made from interval to interval, to tell him that Clara was not better — that she was worse — and, at last, that she did not think she could live over morning. It required all the deprecatory influence of the good landlady to restrain Tyrrel, who, calm and cold on common occasions, was proportionally fierce and impetuous when his passions were afloat, from bursting into the room, and ascertaining, with his own eyes, the state of the beloved patient. At length there was a long interval — an interval of hours — so long, indeed, that Tyrrel caught from it the flattering hope that Clara slept, and that sleep might bring refreshment both to mind and body. Mrs. Dods, he concluded, was prevented from moving, for fear of disturbing her patient’s slumber; and, as if actuated by the same feeling which he imputed to her, he ceased to traverse his apartment, as his agitation had hitherto dictated, and throwing himself into a chair, forbore to move even a finger, and withheld his respiration as much as possible, just as if he had been seated by the pillow of the patient. Morning was far advanced, when his landlady appeared in his room with a grave and anxious countenance.

“Mr. Tyrrel,” she said, “ye are a Christian man.”

“Hush, hush, for Heaven’s sake!” he replied; “you will disturb Miss Mowbray.”

“Naething will disturb her, puir thing,” answered Mrs. Dods; “they have muckle to answer for that brought her to this!”

“They have — they have indeed,” said Tyrrel, striking his forehead; “and I will see her avenged on every one of them! — Can I see her?”

“Better not — better not,” said the good woman; but he burst from her, and rushed into the apartment.

“Is life gone? — Is every spark extinct?” he exclaimed eagerly to a country surgeon, a sensible man, who had been summoned from Marchthorn in the course of the night. The medical man shook his head — Tyrrel rushed to the bedside, and was convinced by his own eyes that the being whose sorrows he had both caused and shared, was now insensible to all earthly calamity. He raised almost a shriek of despair, as he threw himself on the pale hand of the corpse, wet it with tears, devoured it with kisses, and played for a short time the part of a distracted person. At length, on the repeated expostulation of all present, he suffered himself to be again conducted to another apartment, the surgeon following, anxious to give such sad consolation as the case admitted of.

“As you are so deeply concerned for the untimely fate of this young lady,” he said, “it may be some satisfaction to you, though a melancholy one, to know, that it has been occasioned by a pressure on the brain, probably accompanied by a suffusion; and I feel authorized in stating, from the symptoms, that if life had been spared, reason would, in all probability, never have returned. In such a case, sir, the most affectionate relation must own, that death, in comparison to life, is a mercy.”

“Mercy?” answered Tyrrel; “but why, then, is it denied to me? — I know — I know! — My life is spared till I revenge her.”

He started from his seat, and hurried eagerly down stairs. But, as he was about to rush from the door of the inn, he was stopped by Touchwood, who had just alighted from a carriage, with an air of stern anxiety imprinted on his features, very different from their usual expression. “Whither would ye? Whither would ye?” he said, laying hold of Tyrrel, and stopping him by force.

“For revenge — for revenge!” said Tyrrel. “Give way, I charge you, on your peril!”

“Vengeance belongs to God,” replied the old man, “and his bolt has fallen. — This way — this way,” he continued, dragging Tyrrel into the house. “Know,” he said, so soon as he had led or forced him into a chamber, “that Mowbray of St. Ronan’s has met Bulmer within this half hour, and has killed him on the spot.”

“Killed? — whom?” answered the bewildered Tyrrel.

“Valentine Bulmer, the titular Earl of Etherington.”

“You bring tidings of death to the house of death,” answered Tyrrel; “and there is nothing in this world left that I should live for!”

E14 p. 300. “A corbie messenger.” It seems unlikely that the Scots had a legend like the Greek one concerning the evil “corbie” or raven messenger to Apollo about his false lady-love, but no other explanation suggests itself. — A.L.

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