I have already hinted that the dainty, squeamish, and fastidious taste acquired by a surfeit of idle reading had not only rendered our hero unfit for serious and sober study, but had even disgusted him in some degree with that in which he had hitherto indulged.
He was in his sixteenth year when his habits of abstraction and love of solitude became so much marked as to excite Sir Everard’s affectionate apprehension. He tried to counterbalance these propensities by engaging his nephew in field-sports, which had been the chief pleasure of his own youthful days. But although Edward eagerly carried the gun for one season, yet when practice had given him some dexterity, the pastime ceased to afford him amusement.
In the succeeding spring, the perusal of old Isaac Walton’s fascinating volume determined Edward to become ‘a brother of the angle.’ But of all diversions which ingenuity ever devised for the relief of idleness, fishing is the worst qualified to amuse a man who is at once indolent and impatient; and our hero’s rod was speedily flung aside. Society and example, which, more than any other motives, master and sway the natural bent of our passions, might have had their usual effect upon the youthful visionary. But the neighbourhood was thinly inhabited, and the home-bred young squires whom it afforded were not of a class fit to form Edward’s usual companions, far less to excite him to emulation in the practice of those pastimes which composed the serious business of their lives.
There were a few other youths of better education and a more liberal character, but from their society also our hero was in some degree excluded. Sir Everard had, upon the death of Queen Anne, resigned his seat in Parliament, and, as his age increased and the number of his contemporaries diminished, had gradually withdrawn himself from society; so that when, upon any particular occasion, Edward mingled with accomplished and well-educated young men of his own rank and expectations, he felt an inferiority in their company, not so much from deficiency of information, as from the want of the skill to command and to arrange that which he possessed. A deep and increasing sensibility added to this dislike of society. The idea of having committed the slightest solecism in politeness, whether real or imaginary, was agony to him; for perhaps even guilt itself does not impose upon some minds so keen a sense of shame and remorse, as a modest, sensitive, and inexperienced youth feels from the consciousness of having neglected etiquette or excited ridicule. Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure.
The hours he spent with his uncle and aunt were exhausted in listening to the oft-repeated tale of narrative old age. Yet even there his imagination, the predominant faculty of his mind, was frequently excited. Family tradition and genealogical history, upon which much of Sir Everard’s discourse turned, is the very reverse of amber, which, itself a valuable substance, usually includes flies, straws, and other trifles; whereas these studies, being themselves very insignificant and trifling, do nevertheless serve to perpetuate a great deal of what is rare and valuable in ancient manners, and to record many curious and minute facts which could have been preserved and conveyed through no other medium. If, therefore, Edward Waverley yawned at times over the dry deduction of his line of ancestors, with their various intermarriages, and inwardly deprecated the remorseless and protracted accuracy with which the worthy Sir Everard rehearsed the various degrees of propinquity between the house of Waverley-Honour and the doughty barons, knights, and squires to whom they stood allied; if (notwithstanding his obligations to the three ermines passant) he sometimes cursed in his heart the jargon of heraldry, its griffins, its moldwarps, its wyverns, and its dragons, with all the bitterness of Hotspur himself, there were moments when these communications interested his fancy and rewarded his attention.
The deeds of Wilibert of Waverley in the Holy Land, his long absence and perilous adventures, his supposed death, and his return on the evening when the betrothed of his heart had wedded the hero who had protected her from insult and oppression during his absence; the generosity with which the Crusader relinquished his claims, and sought in a neighbouring cloister that peace which passeth not away;17 — to these and similar tales he would hearken till his heart glowed and his eye glistened. Nor was he less affected when his aunt, Mrs. Rachel, narrated the sufferings and fortitude of Lady Alice Waverley during the Great Civil War. The benevolent features of the venerable spinster kindled into more majestic expression as she told how Charles had, after the field of Worcester, found a day’s refuge at Waverley-Honour, and how, when a troop of cavalry were approaching to search the mansion, Lady Alice dismissed her youngest son with a handful of domestics, charging them to make good with their lives an hour’s diversion, that the king might have that space for escape. ‘And, God help her,’ would Mrs. Rachel continue, fixing her eyes upon the heroine’s portrait as she spoke, ‘full dearly did she purchase the safety of her prince with the life of her darling child. They brought him here a prisoner, mortally wounded; and you may trace the drops of his blood from the great hall door along the little gallery, and up to the saloon, where they laid him down to die at his mother’s feet. But there was comfort exchanged between them; for he knew, from the glance of his mother’s eye, that the purpose of his desperate defence was attained. Ah! I remember,’ she continued, ‘I remember well to have seen one that knew and loved him. Miss Lucy Saint Aubin lived and died a maid for his sake, though one of the most beautiful and wealthy matches in this country; all the world ran after her, but she wore widow’s mourning all her life for poor William, for they were betrothed though not married, and died in — I cannot think of the date; but I remember, in the November of that very year, when she found herself sinking, she desired to be brought to Waverley-Honour once more, and visited all the places where she had been with my grand-uncle, and caused the carpets to be raised that she might trace the impression of his blood, and if tears could have washed it out, it had not been there now; for there was not a dry eye in the house. You would have thought, Edward, that the very trees mourned for her, for their leaves dropt around her without a gust of wind, and, indeed, she looked like one that would never see them green again.’
From such legends our hero would steal away to indulge the fancies they excited. In the corner of the large and sombre library, with no other light than was afforded by the decaying brands on its ponderous and ample hearth, he would exercise for hours that internal sorcery by which past or imaginary events are presented in action, as it were, to the eye of the muser. Then arose in long and fair array the splendour of the bridal feast at Waverley-Castle; the tall and emaciated form of its real lord, as he stood in his pilgrim’s weeds, an unnoticed spectator of the festivities of his supposed heir and intended bride; the electrical shock occasioned by the discovery; the springing of the vassals to arms; the astonishment of the bridegroom; the terror and confusion of the bride; the agony with which Wilibert observed that her heart as well as consent was in these nuptials; the air of dignity, yet of deep feeling, with which he flung down the half-drawn sword, and turned away for ever from the house of his ancestors. Then would he change the scene, and fancy would at his wish represent Aunt Rachel’s tragedy. He saw the Lady Waverley seated in her bower, her ear strained to every sound, her heart throbbing with double agony, now listening to the decaying echo of the hoofs of the king’s horse, and when that had died away, hearing in every breeze that shook the trees of the park, the noise of the remote skirmish. A distant sound is heard like the rushing of a swoln stream; it comes nearer, and Edward can plainly distinguish the galloping of horses, the cries and shouts of men, with straggling pistol-shots between, rolling forwards to the Hall. The lady starts up — a terrified menial rushes in — but why pursue such a description?
As living in this ideal world became daily more delectable to our hero, interruption was disagreeable in proportion. The extensive domain that surrounded the Hall, which, far exceeding the dimensions of a park, was usually termed Waverley-Chase, had originally been forest ground, and still, though broken by extensive glades, in which the young deer were sporting, retained its pristine and savage character. It was traversed by broad avenues, in many places half grown up with brush-wood, where the beauties of former days used to take their stand to see the stag coursed with greyhounds, or to gain an aim at him with the crossbow. In one spot, distinguished by a moss-grown Gothic monument, which retained the name of Queen’s Standing, Elizabeth herself was said to have pierced seven bucks with her own arrows. This was a very favourite haunt of Waverley. At other times, with his gun and his spaniel, which served as an apology to others, and with a book in his pocket, which perhaps served as an apology to himself, he used to pursue one of these long avenues, which, after an ascending sweep of four miles, gradually narrowed into a rude and contracted path through the cliffy and woody pass called Mirkwood Dingle, and opened suddenly upon a deep, dark, and small lake, named, from the same cause, Mirkwood-Mere. There stood, in former times, a solitary tower upon a rock almost surrounded by the water, which had acquired the name of the Strength of Waverley, because in perilous times it had often been the refuge of the family. There, in the wars of York and Lancaster, the last adherents of the Red Rose who dared to maintain her cause carried on a harassing and predatory warfare, till the stronghold was reduced by the celebrated Richard of Gloucester. Here, too, a party of Cavaliers long maintained themselves under Nigel Waverley, elder brother of that William whose fate Aunt Rachel commemorated. Through these scenes it was that Edward loved to ‘chew the cud of sweet and bitter fancy,’ and, like a child among his toys, culled and arranged, from the splendid yet useless imagery and emblems with which his imagination was stored, visions as brilliant and as fading as those of an evening sky. The effect of this indulgence upon his temper and character will appear in the next chapter.
17 There is a family legend to this purpose, belonging to the knightly family of Bradshaigh, the proprietors of Haigh Hall, in Lancashire, where, I have been told, the event is recorded on a painted glass window. The German ballad of the Noble Moringer turns upon a similar topic. But undoubtedly many such incidents may have taken place, where, the distance being great and the intercourse infrequent, false reports concerning the fate of the absent Crusaders must have been commonly circulated, and sometimes perhaps rather hastily credited at home.
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