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Chapter 31

In which a witch did dwell, in loathly weeds,
And wilful want, all careless of her deeds;
So choosing solitary to abide,
Far from all neighbours, that her devilish deeds
And hellish arts from people she might hide,
And hurt far off, unknown, whome'er she envied.

Faerie Queene.

THE health of Lucy Ashton soon required the assistance of a person more
skilful in the office of a sick-nurse than the female domestics of the
family. Ailsie Gourlay, sometimes called the Wise Woman of Bowden, was
the person whom, for her own strong reasons, Lady Ashton selected as an
attendant upon her daughter.

This woman had acquired a considerable reputation among the ignorant by
the pretended cures which she performed, especially in "oncomes," as
the Scotch call them, or mysterious diseases, which baffle the regular
physician. Her pharmacopoeia consisted partly of herbs selected in
planetary hours, partly of words, signs, and charms, which sometimes,
perhaps, produced a favourable influence upon the imagination of her
patients. Such was the avowed profession of Luckie Gourlay, which, as
may well be supposed, was looked upon with a suspicious eye, not only
by her neighbours, but even by the clergy of the district. In
private, however, she traded more deeply in the occult sciences; for,
notwithstanding the dreadful punishments inflicted upon the supposed
crime of witchcraft, there wanted not those who, steeled by want and
bitterness of spirit, were willing to adopt the hateful and dangerous
character, for the sake of the influence which its terrors enabled them
to exercise in the vicinity, and the wretched emolument which they could
extract by the practice of their supposed art.

Ailsie Gourlay was not indeed fool enough to acknowledge a compact with
the Evil One, which would have been a swift and ready road to the stake
and tar-barrel. Her fairy, she said, like Caliban's, was a harmless
fairy. Nevertheless, she "spaed fortunes," read dreams, composed
philtres, discovered stolen goods, and made and dissolved matches as
successfully as if, according to the belief of the whole neighbourhood,
she had been aided in those arts by Beelzebub himself. The worst of the
pretenders to these sciences was, that they were generally persons who,
feeling themselves odious to humanity, were careless of what they did
to deserve the public hatred. Real crimes were often committed under
pretence of magical imposture; and it somewhat relieves the disgust
with which we read, in the criminal records, the conviction of
these wretches, to be aware that many of them merited, as poisoners,
suborners, and diabolical agents in secret domestic crimes, the severe
fate to which they were condemned for the imaginary guilt of witchcraft.

Such was Aislie Gourlay, whom, in order to attain the absolute
subjugation of Lucy Ashton's mind, her mother thought it fitting to
place near her person. A woman of less consequence than Lady Ashton
had not dared to take such a step; but her high rank and strength of
character set her above the censure of the world, and she was allowed to
have selected for her daughter's attendant the best and most experienced
sick-nurse and "mediciner" in the neighbourhood, where an inferior
person would have fallen under the reproach of calling in the assistance
of a partner and ally of the great Enemy of mankind.

The beldam caught her cue readily and by innuendo, without giving
Lady Ashton the pain of distinct explanation. She was in many respects
qualified for the part she played, which indeed could not be efficiently
assumed without some knowledge of the human heart and passions. Dame
Gourlay perceived that Lucy shuddered at her external appearance, which
we have already described when we found her in the death-chamber of
blind Alice; and while internally she hated the poor girl for the
involuntary horror with which she saw she was regarded, she commenced
her operations by endeavouring to efface or overcome those prejudices
which, in her heart, she resented as mortal offences. This was easily
done, for the hag's external ugliness was soon balanced by a show of
kindness and interest, to which Lucy had of late been little accustomed;
her attentive services and real skill gained her the ear, if not the
confidence, of her patient; and under pretence of diverting the solitude
of a sick-room, she soon led her attention captive by the legends in
which she was well skilled, and to which Lucy's habit of reading and
reflection induced her to "lend an attentive ear." Dame Gourlay's tales
were at first of a mild and interesting character--

Of fays that nightly dance upon the wold,
And lovers doom'd to wander and to weep,
And castles high, where wicked wizards keep
Their captive thralls.

Gradually, however, they assumed a darker and more mysterious character,
and became such as, told by the midnight lamp, and enforced by the
tremulous tone, the quivering and livid lip, the uplifted skinny
forefinger, and the shaking head of the blue-eyed hag, might have
appalled a less credulous imagination in an age more hard of belief. The
old Sycorax saw her advantage, and gradually narrowed her magic circle
around the devoted victim on whose spirit she practised. Her legends
began to relate to the fortunes of the Ravenswood family, whose ancient
grandeur and portentous authority credulity had graced with so many
superstitious attributes. The story of the fatal fountain was narrated
at full length, and with formidable additions, by the ancient sibyl. The
prophecy, quoted by Caleb, concerning the dead bride who was to be won
by the last of the Ravenswoods, had its own mysterious commentary;
and the singular circumstance of the apparition seen by the Master of
Ravenswood in the forest, having partly transpired through his
hasty inquiries in the cottage of Old Alice, formed a theme for many

Lucy might have despised these tales if they had been related concerning
another family, or if her own situation had been less despondent. But
circumstanced as she was, the idea that an evil fate hung over her
attachment became predominant over her other feelings; and the gloom
of superstition darkened a mind already sufficiently weakened by
sorrow, distress, uncertainty, and an oppressive sense of desertion and
desolation. Stories were told by her attendant so closely resembling her
own in their circumstances, that she was gradually led to converse upon
such tragic and mystical subjects with the beldam, and to repose a sort
of confidence in the sibyl, whom she still regarded with involuntary
shuddering. Dame Gourlay knew how to avail herself of this imperfect
confidence. She directed Lucy's thoughts to the means of inquiring into
futurity--the surest mode perhaps, of shaking the understanding and
destroying the spirits. Omens were expounded, dreams were interpreted,
and other tricks of jugglery perhaps resorted to, by which the pretended
adepts of the period deceived and fascinated their deluded followers. I
find it mentioned in the articles of distay against Ailsie Gourlay--for
it is some comfort to know that the old hag was tried, condemned, and
burned on the top of North Berwick Law, by sentence of a commission
from the privy council--I find, I say, it was charged against her, among
other offences, that she had, by the aid and delusions of Satan, shown
to a young person of quality, in a mirror glass, a gentleman then
abroad, to whom the said young person was betrothed, and who appeared in
the vision to be in the act of bestowing his hand upon another lady. But
this and some other parts of the record appear to have been studiously
left imperfect in names and dates, probably out of regard to the honour
of the families concerned. If Dame Gourlay was able actually to play
off such a piece of jugglery, it is clear she must have had better
assistance to practise the deception than her own skill or funds could
supply. Meanwhile, this mysterious visionary traffic had its usual
effect in unsettling Miss Ashton's mind. Her temper became unequal,
her health decayed daily, her manners grew moping, melancholy,
and uncertain. Her father, guessing partly at the cause of these
appearances, made a point of banishing Dame Gourlay from the castle;
but the arrow was shot, and was rankling barb-deep in the side of the
wounded deer.

It was shortly after the departure of this woman, that Lucy Ashton,
urged by her parents, announced to them, with a vivacity by which they
were startled, "That she was conscious heaven and earth and hell had set
themselves against her union with Ravenswood; still her contract," she
said, "was a binding contract, and she neither would nor could resign
it without the consent of Ravenswood. Let me be assured," she concluded,
"that he will free me from my engagement, and dispose of me as you
please, I care not how. When the diamonds are gone, what signifies the

The tone of obstinacy with which this was said, her eyes flashing
with unnatural light, and her hands firmly clenched, precluded the
possibility of dispute; and the utmost length which Lady Ashton's art
could attain, only got her the privilege of dictating the letter, by
which her daughter required to know of Ravenswood whether he intended to
abide by or to surrender what she termed "their unfortunate engagement."
Of this advantage Lady Ashton so far and so ingeniously availed herself
that, according to the wording of the letter, the reader would have
supposed Lucy was calling upon her lover to renounce a contract which
was contrary to the interests and inclinations of both. Not trusting
even to this point of deception, Lady Ashton finally determined to
suppress the letter altogether, in hopes that Lucy's impatience would
induce her to condemn Ravenswood unheard and in absence. In this she was
disappointed. The time, indeed, had long elapsed when an answer should
have been received from the continent. The faint ray of hope which still
glimmered in Lucy's mind was well nigh extinguished. But the idea never
forsook her that her letter might not have been duly forwarded. One of
her mother's new machinations unexpectedly furnished her with the means
of ascertaining what she most desired to know.

The female agent of hell having been dismissed from the castle, Lady
Ashton, who wrought by all variety of means, resolved to employ, for
working the same end on Lucy's mind, an agent of a very different
character. This was no other than the Reverent Mr. Bide-the-Bent, a
presbyterian clergyman, formerly mentioned, of the very strictest
order and the most rigid orthodoxy, whose aid she called in, upon the
principle of the tyrant in the in the tragedy:

I'll have a priest shall preach her from her faith,
And make it sin not to renounce that vow
Which I'd have broken.

But Lady Ashton was mistaken in the agent she had selected. His
prejudices, indeed, were easily enlisted on her side, and it was no
difficult matter to make him regard with horror the prospect of a union
betwixt the daughter of a God-fearing, professing, and Presbyterian
family of distinction and the heir of a bloodthirsty prelatist and
persecutor, the hands of whose fathers had been dyed to the wrists in
the blood of God's saints. This resembled, in the divine's opinion, the
union of a Moabitish stranger with a daughter of Zion. But with all
the more severe prejudices and principles of his sect, Bide-the-Bent
possessed a sound judgment, and had learnt sympathy even in that very
school of persecution where the heart is so frequently hardened. In a
private interview with Miss Ashton, he was deeply moved by her distress,
and could not but admit the justice of her request to be permitted a
direct communication with Ravenswood upon the subject of their solemn
contract. When she urged to him the great uncertainty under which she
laboured whether her letter had been ever forwarded, the old man paced
the room with long steps, shook his grey head, rested repeatedly for a
space on his ivory-headed staff, and, after much hesitation, confessed
that he thought her doubts so reasonable that he would himself aid in
the removal of them.

"I cannot but opine, Miss Lucy," he said, "that your worshipful lady
mother hath in this matter an eagerness whilk, although it ariseth
doubtless from love to your best interests here and hereafter, for the
man is of persecuting blood, and himself a persecutor, a Cavalier
or Malignant, and a scoffer, who hath no inheritance in Jesse;
nevertheless, we are commanded to do justice unto all, and to fulfil
our bond and covenant, as well to the stranger as to him who is in
brotherhood with us. Wherefore myself, even I myself, will be aiding
unto the delivery of your letter to the man Edgar Ravenswood, trusting
that the issue therof may be your deliverance from the nets in which he
hath sinfully engaged you. And that I may do in this neither more nor
less than hath been warranted by your honourable parents, I pray you
to transcribe, without increment or subtraction, the letter formerly
expeded under the dictation of your right honourable mother; and I shall
put it into such sure course of being delivered, that if, honourable
young madam, you shall receive no answer, it will be necessary that
you conclude that the man meaneth in silence to abandon that naughty
contract, which, peradventure, he may be unwilling directly to restore."

Lucy eagerly embraced the expedient of the worthy divine. A new letter
was written in the precise terms of the former, and consigned by Mr.
Bide-the-Bent to the charge of Saunders Moonshine, a zealous elder of
the church when on shore, and when on board his brig as bold a smuggler
as ever ran out a sliding bowsprit to the winds that blow betwixt
Campvere and the east coast of Scotland. At the recommendation of his
pastor, Saunders readily undertook that the letter should be securely
conveyed to the Master of Ravenswood at the court where he now resided.

This retrospect became necessary to explain the conference betwixt Miss
Ashton, her mother, and Bucklaw which we have detailed in a preceding

Lucy was now like the sailor who, while drifting through a tempestuous
ocean, clings for safety to a single plank, his powers of grasping it
becoming every moment more feeble, and the deep darkness of the night
only checkered by the flashes of lightning, hissing as they show the
white tops of the billows, in which he is soon to be engulfed.

Week crept away after week, and day after day. St. Jude's day arrived,
the last and protracted term to which Lucy had limited herself, and
there was neither letter nor news of Ravenswood.

Sir Walter Scott