To hail the king in seemly sort The ladie was full fain, But King Arthur, all sore amazed, No answer made again 'What wight art thou,' the ladie said, 'That will not speak to me? Sir, I may chance to ease thy pain, Though I be foul to see'
The Marriage of Sir Gawaine.
The fairy bride of Sir Gawaine, while under the influence of the spell of her wicked step-mother, was more decrepit probably, and what is commonly called more ugly, than Meg Merrilies; but I doubt if she possessed that wild sublimity which an excited imagination communicated to features marked and expressive in their own peculiar character, and to the gestures of a form which, her sex considered, might be termed gigantic. Accordingly, the Knights of the Round Table did not recoil with more terror from the apparition of the loathly lady placed between 'an oak and a green holly,' than Lucy Bertram and Julia Mannering did from the appearance of this Galwegian sibyl upon the common of Ellangowan.
'For God's sake,' said Julia, pulling out her purse, 'give that dreadful woman something and bid her go away.'
'I cannot,' said Bertram; 'I must not offend her.'
'What keeps you here?' said Meg, exalting the harsh and rough tones of her hollow voice. 'Why do you not follow? Must your hour call you twice? Do you remember your oath? "Were it at kirk or market, wedding or burial,"'--and she held high her skinny forefinger in a menacing attitude.
Bertram--turned round to his terrified companions. 'Excuse me for a moment; I am engaged by a promise to follow this woman.'
'Good Heavens! engaged to a madwoman?' said Julia.
'Or to a gipsy, who has her band in the wood ready to murder you!' said Lucy.
'That was not spoken like a bairn of Ellangowan,' said Meg, frowning upon Miss Bertram. 'It is the ill-doers are ill-dreaders.'
'In short, I must go,' said Bertram, 'it is absolutely necessary; wait for me five minutes on this spot.'
'Five minutes?' said the gipsy, 'five hours may not bring you here again.'
'Do you hear that?' said Julia; 'for Heaven's sake do not go!'
'I must, I must; Mr. Dinmont will protect you back to the house.'
'No,' said Meg, 'he must come with you; it is for that he is here. He maun take part wi' hand and heart; and weel his part it is, for redding his quarrel might have cost you dear.'
'Troth, Luckie, it's very true,' said the steady farmer; 'and ere I turn back frae the Captain's side I'll show that I haena forgotten 't.'
'O yes,' exclaimed both the ladies at once, 'let Mr. Dinmont go with you, if go you must, on this strange summons.'
'Indeed I must,' answered Bertram; 'but you see I am safely guarded. Adieu for a short time; go home as fast as you can.'
* * * * * * *
He pressed his sister's hand, and took a yet more affectionate farewell of Julia with his eyes. Almost stupefied with surprise and fear, the young ladies watched with anxious looks the course of Bertram, his companion, and their extraordinary guide. Her tall figure moved across the wintry heath with steps so swift, so long, and so steady that she appeared rather to glide than to walk. Bertram and Dinmont, both tall men, apparently scarce equalled her in height, owing to her longer dress and high head-gear. She proceeded straight across the common, without turning aside to the winding path by which passengers avoided the inequalities and little rills that traversed it in different directions. Thus the diminishing figures often disappeared from the eye, as they dived into such broken ground, and again ascended to sight when they were past the hollow. There was something frightful and unearthly, as it were, in the rapid and undeviating course which she pursued, undeterred by any of the impediments which usually incline a traveller from the direct path. Her way was as straight, and nearly as swift, as that of a bird through the air. At length they reached those thickets of natural wood which extended from the skirts of the common towards the glades and brook of Derncleugh, and were there lost to the view.
'This is very extraordinary,' said Lucy after a pause, and turning round to her companion; 'what can he have to do with that old hag?'
'It is very frightful,' answered Julia, 'and almost reminds me of the tales of sorceresses, witches, and evil genii which I have heard in India. They believe there in a fascination of the eye by which those who possess it control the will and dictate the motions of their victims. What can your brother have in common with that fearful woman that he should leave us, obviously against his will, to attend to her commands?'
'At least,' said Lucy, 'we may hold him safe from harm; for she would never have summoned that faithful creature Dinmont, of whose strength, courage, and steadiness Henry said so much, to attend upon an expedition where she projected evil to the person of his friend. And now let us go back to the house till the Colonel returns. Perhaps Bertram may be back first; at any rate, the Colonel will judge what is to be done.'
Leaning, then, upon each other's arm, but yet occasionally stumbling, between fear and the disorder of their nerves, they at length reached the head of the avenue, when they heard the tread of a horse behind. They started, for their ears were awake to every sound, and beheld to their great pleasure young Hazlewood. 'The Colonel will be here immediately,' he said; 'I galloped on before to pay my respects to Miss Bertram, with the sincerest congratulations upon the joyful event which has taken place in her family. I long to be introduced to Captain Bertram, and to thank him for the well-deserved lesson he gave to my rashness and indiscretion.'
'He has left us just now,' said Lucy, 'and in a manner that has frightened us very much.'
Just at that moment the Colonel's carriage drove up, and, on observing the ladies, stopped, while Mannering and his learned counsel alighted and joined them. They instantly communicated the new cause of alarm.
'Meg Merrilies again!' said the Colonel. 'She certainly is a most mysterious and unaccountable personage; but I think she must have something to impart to Bertram to which she does not mean we should be privy.'
'The devil take the bedlamite old woman,' said the Counsellor; 'will she not let things take their course, prout de lege, but must always be putting in her oar in her own way? Then I fear from the direction they took they are going upon the Ellangowan estate. That rascal Glossin has shown us what ruffians he has at his disposal; I wish honest Liddesdale maybe guard sufficient.'
'If you please,' said Hazlewood, 'I should be most happy to ride in the direction which they have taken. I am so well known in the country that I scarce think any outrage will be offered in my presence, and I shall keep at such a cautious distance as not to appear to watch Meg, or interrupt any communication which she may make.'
'Upon my word,' said Pleydell (aside), 'to be a sprig whom I remember with a whey face and a satchel not so very many years ago, I think young Hazlewood grows a fine fellow. I am more afraid of a new attempt at legal oppression than at open violence, and from that this young man's presence would deter both Glossin and his understrappers.--Hie away then, my boy; peer out--peer out, you 'll find them somewhere about Derncleugh, or very probably in Warroch wood.'
Hazlewood turned his horse. 'Come back to us to dinner, Hazlewood,' cried the Colonel. He bowed, spurred his horse, and galloped off.
We now return to Bertram and Dinmont, who continued to follow their mysterious guide through the woods and dingles between the open common and the ruined hamlet of Derncleugh. As she led the way she never looked back upon her followers, unless to chide them for loitering, though the sweat, in spite of the season, poured from their brows. At other times she spoke to herself in such broken expressions as these: 'It is to rebuild the auld house, it is to lay the corner-stone; and did I not warn him? I tell'd him I was born to do it, if my father's head had been the stepping-stane, let alane his. I was doomed--still I kept my purpose in the cage and in the stocks; I was banished--I kept it in an unco land; I was scourged, I was branded--my resolution lay deeper than scourge or red iron could reach;--and now the hour is come.'
'Captain,' said Dinmont, in a half whisper, 'I wish she binna uncanny! her words dinna seem to come in God's name, or like other folks'. Od, they threep in our country that there ARE sic things.'
'Don't be afraid, my friend,' whispered Bertram in return.
'Fear'd! fient a haet care I,' said the dauntless farmer; 'be she witch or deevil, it's a' ane to Dandie Dinmont.'
'Haud your peace, gudeman,' said Meg, looking sternly over her shoulder; 'is this a time or place for you to speak, think ye?'
'But, my good friend,' said Bertram, 'as I have no doubt in your good faith or kindness, which I have experienced, you should in return have some confidence in me; I wish to know where you are leading us.'
'There's but ae answer to that, Henry Bertram,' said the sibyl. 'I swore my tongue should never tell, but I never said my finger should never show. Go on and meet your fortune, or turn back and lose it: that's a' I hae to say.'
'Go on then,' answered Bertram; 'I will ask no more questions.'
They descended into the glen about the same place where Meg had formerly parted from Bertram. She paused an instant beneath the tall rock where he had witnessed the burial of a dead body and stamped upon the ground, which, notwithstanding all the care that had been taken, showed vestiges of having been recently moved. 'Here rests ane,' she said; 'he'll maybe hae neibours sune.'
She then moved up the brook until she came to the ruined hamlet, where, pausing with a look of peculiar and softened interest before one of the gables which was still standing, she said in a tone less abrupt, though as solemn as before, 'Do you see that blackit and broken end of a sheeling? There my kettle boiled for forty years; there I bore twelve buirdly sons and daughters. Where are they now? where are the leaves that were on that auld ash tree at Martinmas! The west wind has made it bare; and I'm stripped too. Do you see that saugh tree? it's but a blackened rotten stump now. I've sate under it mony a bonnie summer afternoon, when it hung its gay garlands ower the poppling water. I've sat there, and,' elevating her voice, 'I've held you on my knee, Henry Bertram, and sung ye sangs of the auld barons and their bloody wars. It will ne'er be green again, and Meg Merrilies will never sing sangs mair, be they blythe or sad. But ye'll no forget her, and ye'll gar big up the auld wa's for her sake? And let somebody live there that's ower gude to fear them of another warld. For if ever the dead came back amang the living, I'll be seen in this glen mony a night after these crazed banes are in the mould.'
The mixture of insanity and wild pathos with which she spoke these last words, with her right arm bare and extended, her left bent and shrouded beneath the dark red drapery of her mantle, might have been a study worthy of our Siddons herself. 'And now,' she said, resuming at once the short, stern, and hasty tone which was most ordinary to her, 'let us to the wark, let us to the wark.'
She then led the way to the promontory on which the Kaim of Derncleugh was situated, produced a large key from her pocket, and unlocked the door. The interior of this place was in better order than formerly. 'I have made things decent,' she said; 'I may be streekit here or night. There will be few, few at Meg's lykewake, for mony of our folk will blame what I hae done, and am to do!'
She then pointed to a table, upon which was some cold meat, arranged with more attention to neatness than could have been expected from Meg's habits. 'Eat,' she said--'eat; ye'll need it this night yet.'
Bertram, in complaisance, eat a morsel or two; and Dinmont, whose appetite was unabated either by wonder, apprehension, or the meal of the morning, made his usual figure as a trencherman. She then offered each a single glass of spirits, which Bertram drank diluted, and his companion plain.
'Will ye taste naething yoursell, Luckie?' said Dinmont.
'I shall not need it,' replied their mysterious hostess. 'And now,' she said, 'ye maun hae arms: ye maunna gang on dry-handed; but use them not rashly. Take captive, but save life; let the law hae its ain. He maun speak ere he die.'
'Who is to be taken? who is to speak?' said Bertram, in astonishment, receiving a pair of pistols which she offered him, and which, upon examining, he found loaded and locked.
'The flints are gude,' she said, 'and the powder dry; I ken this wark weel.'
Then, without answering his questions, she armed Dinmont also with a large pistol, and desired them to choose sticks for themselves out of a parcel of very suspicious-looking bludgeons which she brought from a corner. Bertram took a stout sapling, and Dandie selected a club which might have served Hercules himself. They then left the hut together, and in doing so Bertram took an opportunity to whisper to Dinmont, 'There's something inexplicable in all this. But we need not use these arms unless we see necessity and lawful occasion; take care to do as you see me do.'
Dinmont gave a sagacious nod, and they continued to follow, over wet and over dry, through bog and through fallow, the footsteps of their conductress. She guided them to the wood of Warroch by the same track which the late Ellangowan had used when riding to Derncleugh in quest of his child on the miserable evening of Kennedy's murder.
When Meg Merrilies had attained these groves, through which the wintry sea-wind was now whistling hoarse and shrill, she seemed to pause a moment as if to recollect the way. 'We maun go the precise track,' she said, and continued to go forward, but rather in a zigzag and involved course than according to her former steady and direct line of motion. At length she guided them through the mazes of the wood to a little open glade of about a quarter of an acre, surrounded by trees and bushes, which made a wild and irregular boundary. Even in winter it was a sheltered and snugly sequestered spot; but when arrayed in the verdure of spring, the earth sending forth all its wild flowers, the shrubs spreading their waste of blossom around it, and the weeping birches, which towered over the underwood, drooping their long and leafy fibres to intercept the sun, it must have seemed a place for a youthful poet to study his earliest sonnet, or a pair of lovers to exchange their first mutual avowal of affection. Apparently it now awakened very different recollections. Bertram's brow, when he had looked round the spot, became gloomy and embarrassed. Meg, after uttering to herself, 'This is the very spot!' looked at him with a ghastly side-glance--'D'ye mind it?'
'Yes!' answered Bertram, 'imperfectly I do.'
'Ay!' pursued his guide, 'on this very spot the man fell from his horse. I was behind that bourtree bush at the very moment. Sair, sair he strove, and sair he cried for mercy; but he was in the hands of them that never kenn'd the word! Now will I show you the further track; the last time ye travelled it was in these arms.'
She led them accordingly by a long and winding passage, almost overgrown with brushwood, until, without any very perceptible descent, they suddenly found themselves by the seaside. Meg then walked very fast on between the surf and the rocks, until she came to a remarkable fragment of rock detached from the rest. 'Here,' she said in a low and scarcely audible whisper--'here the corpse was found.'
'And the cave,' said Bertram, in the same tone, 'is close beside it; are you guiding us there?'
'Yes,' said the gipsy in a decided tone. 'Bend up both your hearts; follow me as I creep in; I have placed the fire-wood so as to screen you. Bide behind it for a gliff till I say, "The hour and the man are baith come"; then rin in on him, take his arms, and bind him till the blood burst frae his finger nails.'
'I will, by my soul,' said Henry, 'if he is the man I suppose--Jansen?'
'Ay, Jansen, Hatteraick, and twenty mair names are his.'
'Dinmont, you must stand by me now,' said Bertram, 'for this fellow is a devil.'
'Ye needna doubt that,' said the stout yeoman; 'but I wish I could mind a bit prayer or I creep after the witch into that hole that she's opening. It wad be a sair thing to leave the blessed sun and the free air, and gang and be killed like a tod that's run to earth, in a dungeon like that. But, my sooth, they will be hard-bitten terriers will worry Dandie; so, as I said, deil hae me if I baulk you.' This was uttered in the lowest tone of voice possible. The entrance was now open. Meg crept in upon her hands and knees, Bertram followed, and Dinmont, after giving a rueful glance toward the daylight, whose blessings he was abandoning, brought up the rear.
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