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Chapter 12


There's something in that ancient superstition,
Which, erring as it is, our fancy loves.
The spring that, with its thousand crystal bubbles,
Bursts from the bosom of some desert rock
In secret solitude, may well be deem'd
The haunt of something purer, more refined,
And mightier than ourselves.
OLD PLAY.

Young Halbert Glendinning had scarcely pronounced the mystical rhymes,
than, as we have mentioned in the conclusion of the last chapter, an
appearance, as of a beautiful female, dressed in white, stood within
two yards of him. His terror for the moment overcame his natural
courage, as well as the strong resolution which he had formed, that
the figure which he had now twice seen should not a third time daunt
him. But it would seem there is something thrilling and abhorrent to
flesh and blood, in the consciousness that we stand in presence of a
being in form like to ourselves, but so different in faculties and
nature, that we can neither understand its purposes, nor calculate its
means of pursuing them.

Halbert stood silent and gasped for breath, his hairs erecting
themselves on his head---his mouth open--his eyes fixed, and, as the
sole remaining sign of his late determined purpose, his sword pointed
towards the apparition. At length with a voice of ineffable
sweetness, the White Lady, for by that name we shall distinguish this
being, sung, or rather chanted, the following lines:--


"Youth of the dark eye, wherefore didst thou call me?
Wherefore art thou here, if terrors can appal thee?
He that seeks to deal with us must know no fear nor failing!
To coward and churl our speech is dark, our gifts are unavailing.
The breeze that brought me hither now, must sweep Egyptian ground,
The fleecy cloud on which I ride for Araby is bound;
The fleecy cloud is drifting by, the breeze sighs for my stay,
For I must sail a thousand miles before the close of day."

The astonishment of Halbert began once more to give way to his
resolution, and he gained voice enough to say, though with a faltering
accent, "In the name of God, what art thou?" The answer was in melody
of a different tone and measure:--


"What I am I must not show--
What I am thou couldst not know--
Something betwixt heaven and hell--
Something that neither stood nor fell--
Something that through thy wit or will
May work thee good--may work thee ill.
Neither substance quite nor shadow,
Haunting lonely moor and meadow,
Dancing; by the haunted spring,
Riding on the whirlwind's wing;
Aping in fantastic fashion
Every change of human passion,

While o'er our frozen minds they pass,
Like shadows from the mirror'd glass.
Wayward, fickle is our mood,
Hovering betwixt bad and good,
Happier than brief-dated man,
Living twenty times his span;
Far less happy, for we have
Help nor hope beyond the grave!
Man awakes to joy or sorrow;
Ours the sleep that knows no morrow.
This is all that I can show--
This is all that thou mayest know."

The White Lady paused, and appeared to await an answer; but, as Halbert
hesitated how to frame his speech, the vision seemed gradually to fade,
and became more and more incorporeal. Justly guessing this to be a
symptom of her disappearance, Halbert compelled himself to say,--"Lady,
when I saw you in the glen, and when you brought back the black book of
Mary Avenel, thou didst say I should one day learn to read it."

The White Lady replied,

"Ay! and I taught thee the word and the spell,
To waken me here by the Fairies' Well,
But thou hast loved the heron and hawk,
More than to seek my haunted walk;
And thou hast loved the lance and the sword,
More than good text and holy word;
And thou hast loved the deer to track,
More than the lines and the letters black;
And thou art a ranger of moss and of wood,
And scornest the nurture of gentle blood."

"I will do so no longer, fair maiden," said Halbert; "I desire to
learn; and thou didst promise me, that when I did so desire, thou
wouldst be my helper; I am no longer afraid of thy presence, and I am
no longer regardless of instruction." As he uttered these words, the
figure of the White Maiden grew gradually as distinct as it had been
at first; and what had well-nigh faded into an ill-defined and
colourless shadow, again assumed an appearance at least of corporeal
consistency, although the hues were less vivid, and the outline of the
figure less distinct and defined--so at least it seemed to
Halbert--than those of an ordinary inhabitant of earth. "Wilt thou
grant my request," he said, "fair Lady, and give to my keeping the
holy book which Mary of Avenel has so often wept for?"

The White Lady replied:


"Thy craven fear my truth accused,
Thine idlehood my trust abused;
He that draws to harbour late,
Must sleep without, or burst the gate.

There is a star for thee which burn'd.
Its influence wanes, its course is turn'd;
Valour and constancy alone
Can bring thee back the chance that's flown."


"If I have been a loiterer, Lady," answered young Glendinning, "thou
shalt now find me willing to press forward with double speed. Other
thoughts have filled my mind, other thoughts have engaged my heart,
within a brief period--and by Heaven, other occupations shall
henceforward fill up my time. I have lived in this day the space of
years--I came hither a boy--I will return a man--a man, such as may
converse not only with his own kind, but with whatever God permits to
be visible to him. I will learn the contents of that mysterious
volume--I will learn why the Lady of Avenel loved it--why the priests
feared, and would have stolen it--why thou didst twice recover it
from their hands.--What mystery is wrapt in it?--Speak, I conjure
thee!" The lady assumed an air peculiarly sad and solemn, as drooping
her head, and folding her arms on her bosom, she replied:

"Within that awful volume lies
The mystery of mysteries!
Happiest they of human race,
To whom God has granted grace

To read, to fear, to hope, to pray,
To lift the latch, and force the way;
And better had they ne'er been born,
Who read, to doubt, or read to scorn."


"Give me the volume, Lady," said young Glendinning. "They call me
idle--they call me dull--in this pursuit my industry shall not fail,
nor, with God's blessing, shall my understanding. Give me the volume."
The apparition again replied:

"Many a fathom dark and deep
I have laid the book to sleep;
Ethereal fires around it glowing--
Ethereal music ever flowing--
The sacred pledge of Heav'n
All things revere.
Each in his sphere,
Save man for whom 'twas giv'n:
Lend thy hand, and thou shalt spy
Things ne'er seen by mortal eye."


Halbert Glendinning boldly reached his hand to the White Lady.

"Fearest thou to go with me?" she said, as his hand trembled at the soft
and cold touch of her own--


"Fearest thou to go with me?
Still it is free to thee
A peasant to dwell:
Thou mayst drive the dull steer,
And chase the king's deer,
But never more come near
This haunted well."

"If what thou sayest be true," said the undaunted boy, "my destinies
are higher than thine own. There shall be neither well nor wood which I
dare not visit. No fear of aught, natural or supernatural, shall bar my
path through my native valley."

He had scarce uttered the words, when they both descended through the
earth with a rapidity which took away Halbert's breath and every other
sensation, saving that of being hurried on with the utmost velocity. At
length they stopped with a shock so sudden, that the mortal journeyer
through this unknown space must have been thrown down with violence,
had he not been upheld by his supernatural companion.

It was more than a minute, ere, looking around him, he beheld a
grotto, or natural cavern, composed of the most splendid spars and
crystals, which returned in a thousand prismatic hues the light of a
brilliant flame that glowed on an altar of alabaster. This altar, with
its fire, formed the central point of the grotto, which was of a round
form, and very high in the roof, resembling in some respects the dome
of a cathedral. Corresponding to the four points of the compass, there
went off four long galleries, or arcades, constructed of the same
brilliant materials with the dome itself, and the termination of which
was lost in darkness.

No human imagination can conceive, or words suffice to describe, the
glorious radiance which, shot fiercely forth by the flame, was
returned from so many hundred thousand points of reflection, afforded
by the sparry pillars and their numerous angular crystals. The fire
itself did not remain steady and unmoved, but rose and fell, sometimes
ascending in a brilliant pyramid of condensed flame half way up the
lofty expanse, and again fading into a softer and more rosy hue, and
hovering, as it were, on the surface of the altar to collect its
strength for another powerful exertion. There was no visible fuel by
which it was fed, nor did it emit either smoke or vapour of any kind.

What was of all the most remarkable, the black volume so often
mentioned lay not only unconsumed, but untouched in the slightest
degree, amid this intensity of fire, which, while it seemed to be of
force sufficient to melt adamant, had no effect whatever on the sacred
book thus subjected to its utmost influence.

The White Lady, having paused long enough to let young Glendinning
take a complete survey of what was around him, now said in her usual
chant,

"Here lies the volume thou boldly hast sought;
Touch it, and take it,--'twill dearly be bought!"


Familiarized in some degree with marvels, and desperately desirous of
showing the courage he had boasted, Halbert plunged his hand, without
hesitation, into the flame, trusting to the rapidity of the motion, to
snatch out the volume before the fire could greatly affect him. But he
was much disappointed. The flame instantly caught upon his sleeve, and
though he withdrew his hand immediately, yet his arm was so dreadfully
scorched, that he had well-nigh screamed with pain. He suppressed the
natural expression of anguish, however, and only intimated the agony
which he felt by a contortion and a muttered groan. The White Lady
passed her cold hand over his arm, and, ere she had finished the
following metrical chant, his pain had entirely gone, and no mark of
the scorching was visible:

"Rash thy deed,
Mortal weed
To immortal flames applying;
Rasher trust
Has thing of dust,
On his own weak worth relying:
Strip thee of such fences vain,
Strip, and prove thy luck, again."


Obedient to what he understood to be the meaning of his conductress,
Halbert bared his arm to the shoulder, throwing down the remains of
his sleeve, which no sooner touched the floor on which he stood than
it collected itself together, shrivelled itself up, and was without
any visible fire reduced to light tinder, which a sudden breath of
wind dispersed into empty space. The White Lady, observing the
surprise of the youth, immediately repeated--

"Mortal warp and mortal woof.
Cannot brook this charmed roof;
All that mortal art hath wrought,
In our cell returns to nought.
The molten gold returns to clay,
The polish'd diamond melts away.
All is alter'd, all is flown,
Nought stands fast but truth alone.
Not for that thy quest give o'er:
Courage! prove thy chance once more."

Imboldened by her words, Halbert Glendinning made a second effort,
and, plunging his bare arm into the flame, took out the sacred volume
without feeling either heat or inconvenience of any kind. Astonished,
and almost terrified at his own success, he beheld the flame collect
itself, and shoot up into one long and final stream, which seemed as
if it would ascend to the very roof of the cavern, and then, sinking
as suddenly, became totally extinguished. The deepest darkness ensued;
but Halbert had no time to consider his situation, for the White Lady
had already caught his hand, and they ascended to upper air with the
same velocity with which they had sunk into the earth.

They stood by the fountain in the Corri-nan-shian when they emerged
from the bowels of the earth; but on casting a bewildered glance
around him, the youth was surprised to observe, that the shadows had
fallen far to the east, and that the day was well-nigh spent. He gazed
on his conductress for explanation, but her figure began to fade
before his eyes--her cheeks grew paler, her features less distinct,
her form became shadowy, and blended itself with the mist which was
ascending the hollow ravine. What had late the symmetry of form, and
the delicate, yet clear hues of feminine beauty, now resembled the
flitting and pale ghost of some maiden who has died for love, as it is
seen indistinctly and by moonlight, by her perjured lover.

"Stay, spirit!" said the youth, imboldened by his success in the
subterranean dome, "thy kindness must not leave me, as one encumbered
with a weapon he knows not how to wield. Thou must teach me the art to
read, and to understand this volume; else what avails it me that I
possess it?"

But the figure of the White Lady still waned before his eye, until it
became an outline as pale and indistinct as that of the moon, when the
winter morning is far advanced, and ere she had ended the following
chant, she was entirely invisible:--


"Alas! alas!
Not ours the grace
These holy characters to trace:
Idle forms of painted air,
Not to us is given to share
The boon bestow'd on Adam's race!
With patience bide.
Heaven will provide
The fitting time, the fitting guide."

The form was already gone, and now the voice itself had melted away in
melancholy cadence, softening, as if the Being who spoke had been slowly
wafted from the spot where she had commenced her melody.

It was at this moment that Halbert felt the extremity of the terror
which he had hitherto so manfully suppressed. The very necessity of
exertion had given him spirit to make it, and the presence of the
mysterious Being, while it was a subject of fear in itself, had
nevertheless given him the sense of protection being near to him. It
was when he could reflect with composure on what had passed, that a
cold tremor shot across his limbs, his hair bristled, and he was
afraid to look around lest he should find at his elbow something more
frightful than the first vision. A breeze arising suddenly, realized
the beautiful and wild idea of the most imaginative of our modern
bards [Footnote: Coleridge.]--


It fann'd his cheek, it raised his hair,
Like a meadow pale in spring;
It mingled strangely with his fears,
Yet it fell like a welcoming.

The youth stood silent and astonished for a few minutes. It seemed to
him that the extraordinary Being he had seen, half his terror, half
his protectress, was still hovering on the gale which swept past him,
and that she might again make herself sensible to his organs of sight.
"Speak!" he said, wildly tossing his arms, "speak yet again--be once
more present, lovely vision!--thrice have I now seen thee, yet the
idea of thy invisible presence around or beside me, makes my heart
beat faster than if the earth yawned and gave up a demon."

But neither sound nor appearance indicated the presence of the White
Lady, and nothing preternatural beyond what he had already witnessed,
was again audible or visible. Halbert, in the meanwhile, by the very
exertion of again inviting the presence of this mysterious Being, had
recovered his natural audacity. He looked around once more, and
resumed his solitary path down the valley into whose recesses he had
penetrated.

Nothing could be more strongly contrasted than the storm of passion
with which he had bounded over stock and crag, in order to plunge
himself into the Corri-nan-shian, and the sobered mood in which he now
returned homeward, industriously seeking out the most practicable
path, not from a wish to avoid danger, but that he might not by
personal toil distract his attention, deeply fixed on the
extraordinary scene which he had witnessed. In the former case, he had
sought by hazard and bodily exertion to indulge at once the fiery
excitation of passion, and to banish the cause of the excitement from
his recollection; while now he studiously avoided all interruption to
his contemplative walk, lest the difficulty of the way should
interfere with, or disturb, his own deep reflections. Thus slowly
pacing forth his course, with the air of a pilgrim rather than of a
deer-hunter, Halbert about the close of the evening regained his
paternal tower.


Sir Walter Scott