For the Soul of a Witch
John William Brodie-Innes
A few introductory words seem needed, they shall be as brief as possible. Though cast in a historic period, this tale is in no sense historical, no historic scene is introduced. I trust that the sixteenth century is portrayed with fair accuracy, but this was not my main purpose. The leading actors in the story are of course fictitious, but there is no reason why they should not have existed. There are blanks and lacunæ in family and local history about that period, and if Beatrix and Alasdair actually lived their lives as I have dreamed, there are certain subsequent events that would be more clearly accounted for than they are. The subsidiary characters mostly appear in family chronicles, and in Monastic and other records, so the tale moves against a background of actual fact.
The ruins of Dallas Castle are, in fact, somewhat farther to the east than, for the purposes of the story, I have placed them. Some of the lines of Cochrane’s masterpiece may still be traced.
The stories of witchcraft are drawn from contemporary documents—Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, Mackenzie’s Criminal Law, the records preserved in the Courts of Justiciary in Edinburgh, including many of the actual confessions of well-known witches, and other sources. Here, too, though the witch of the tale is not a recorded person, there is no point about her that has not contemporary authority. The theory I have advanced as to the real nature of witchcraft is my own, but I may say that it has the approval of some of our leading psychologists, and is at all events not inconsistent with the most modern ideas.
In regard to language, some readers may perhaps miss the familiar archaic jargon with which romances of historic periods are often plentifully besprinkled. But I would ask these to remember that in Morayshire, in the sixteenth century, Gaelic was still very generally spoken, though the nature and character of the people was far removed from that of the Western Highlanders, and among the better classes the tremendous ecclesiastical influence wielded by the powerful Bishop of Moray, by the Abbot of Kinloss, and the Prior of Pluscarden, would make Latin almost more familiar than the Scottish vernacular. Archaic English, with its quaint oaths, would be wholly out of place, and a man who said “Gramercy, good knave!” in the Laigh of Moray would be as un- intelligible as though he spoke Hebrew. Equally out of place would it be to try and reproduce the language of Lowland Scottish writers of the time, as Dunbar, Douglas or Sir David Lindsay. Such language was not spoken in the Laigh, and even if it could be satisfactorily reproduced, would be unintelligible to most readers. Beatrix and her scholar father would have written and probably mostly spoke Latin; to the serving-men, and to the clansmen in the Glens, she would have spoken some form of Gaelic. On the whole, therefore, it seemed best to render their speech into a comparatively modern English, avoiding all needless archaicisms.
I wish also to record here a tribute to the memory of the late Bishop of Edinburgh, to whom I am indebted for a mass of valuable information regarding the marriage laws and customs of the early sixteenth century, especially the marriage per procuratores, of which every one has heard in such romances as that of Paolo and Francesca, but so few understand. Nothing could exceed the kindness with which the late Bishop put all the stores of his stupendous learning and his magnificent library at my disposal. But for his generous help many passages in this story must have remained unwritten.
THE WIZARD LAIRD
Early in the sixteenth century a Scottish knight who in his youth had been a stout fighter, which was common enough in those days, and also a ripe scholar, which was more rare, was caught by the craze, that starting in Arabia had spread over Europe, of searching for the so-called “Stone of the Wise” which should make its possessor wealthy beyond dreams of avarice, and the Elixir which should prolong human life to the span of the patriarchs. Like every other seeker in the same fields he failed in his search, but incidentally he discovered many other things of curious interest, and his researches led him into strange bypaths of quaint learning.
His study presented a singular mixture. It was a vaulted apartment of moderate size; one or two valuable pieces of arras hung on the walls, which, however, were mostly bare stone; some open presses contained rare books and manuscripts, including some of the early printed works of Caxton, and the famous Maying of Chaucer, the first book printed in Scotland, some manuscripts of Paracelsus, with whom our scholar-knight maintained a correspondence, and others labelled “Grimorium Verum,” “De Prœstigiis Demonum” and such-like titles. Sconces wherein flambeaux might be stuck projected from the walls beside the arras, and various pieces of armour and gilt spurs hung from nails here and there. Over the door was a shield bearing gules a lion rampant or, within a bordure charged with eight roses, and various quarterings of the same coat on miniature shields marked the line of the spring of the vaulting. A table in the centre of the room was littered with weird implements showing the nature of the occupant’s studies, chief among them being a large alembic, and several retorts. The fireplace was bricked up and fashioned into an alchemic furnace, from which a pipe was led to the table; a wide couch stood near the window, and some substantial chairs completed the furniture of the room. The knight sat by the table watching carefully some mixture boiling over a lamp. He was past middle age; a black velvet skull-cap rested on the crisp grey curls of his thick hair; bushy white eyebrows overhung kindly eyes that were full of thought, yet that could not repress the humorous twinkle that would come into them; the nose was straight and well formed, but somewhat short and broad; a grey moustache and short curly beard hid a mouth that would have indicated unusual sweetness of disposition though a somewhat hasty temper had it been visible. It was a massive head, the bead of a thinker, yet one or two deep scars showed he had taken his part in some tough fights in his time.
A girl stood by one of the presses arranging and replacing some of the books and manuscripts. She wore a long robe of vivid green clinging close to her tall, graceful figure; her proudly poised little head was crowned with an aureole of hair, whose darker shades were the colour of the squirrel’s back, but shot through with golden gleams; her features were dainty, and her complexion like a wild rose; her finely curved lips, lightly parted, were red and full.
“There, father!” she said; “now I have found and arranged them all. You will find everything in order; and now I will leave you to your studies, and not disturb you again till you call. ‘Tie good of you to trust me to put your precious books in order for you.”
“Good child! good child!” said the old man. “Witchcraft, Beatrix—what is it? There’s a secret there, ‘tis some strange power. Would we could fathom it! They burn witches! Fools! No worse
use possible to put them to. Say they do hurt,—well! if so, shut them up. But for Heaven’s sake have them under observation. In league with the Devil—they say. Well I but what’s the Devil? Some great power again, if anything at all. A power we could use if we only knew how. ’Tis silly to be afraid of these powers. We shall never find out anything that way. Some spells I know that make things seem other than they are; but I think they only delude him who sees, so that he sees falsely—they don’t change the nature of things.” The knight seemed as though he were talking to himself: he suddenly broke off.
“But these matters concern you not, my Beatrix. Tell me what news of the outer world? ‘Tis months since I heard a whisper beyond the walls of this old Tower.”
The worst of news, I think, father. They say that our people have been defeated in a great battle down on the Border, at Flodden;—hundreds of our best and noblest have fallen and our King himself has been slain. Oh! it is terrible but I would not tell you before, lest it might spoil your work.”
“Ever considerate, my child,—I thank you. But these temporary matters cannot affect the studies that go to the very nature of things.”
“Oh, father, but our country is ruined! Can you think of that as a mere temporary matter, and treat it so lightly?”
“Ay, Trixy! so it is. Ere long, I think, an English king will rule in Scotland, or a Scottish king in England, I know not which, and ’twill make but little difference, and maybe in another hundred years a German king will rule over both countries, and the time will come when both Scotland and England will be as much matters of ancient history as Egypt or Babylon, and maybe an Eastern race will rule the world again, and the world will go on much the same. But the strife of contending forces, that is eternal. The life of man, that goes on into the infinities, and this present life of ours is but a day in our true life; we draw to sunset, we sleep, that is to say we die, and after a rest we wake again to a new day and new work. Silly to fret over the mischance of to-day,—to-morrow will cure it. But these thoughts are not for you, my Trixy. Thank God, when I am gone your husband will guard you, and your future is safe. Only I hope He will spare you to me while I am here. It may not be for long. Now leave me, dear. I have much to do, and this experiment is an important one.” Beatrix shivered slightly, and passed out of the room.
I – THE TROUBLE AT BLERVIE TOWER
The declining sun shone over the Moray Firth on an autumn afternoon in the first half of the sixteenth century. Few fairer scenes could be found in the country than the view from the peel tower of Blervie. The Firth itself lay calm as a sheet of pale turquoise, and beyond, outlined in clear blue against the sky, already beginning to assume the rose hues of sunset, the mighty mass of Wyvis stood majestic, his crown slightly silvered with an early snowstorm, and beyond him on the right the picturesque line of the Ross-shire and Caithness hills. On the nearer side the indentations of the shore looked from the hill on which the Tower stood almost like a map;—the dark headland of the Broch jutting boldly out to sea, and to the left the line of a curving bay led the eye to the little fishing village of Findhorn, standing at the mouth of the large estuary of the river, where could be plainly made out in the clear light the fishing stations belonging to the rich Abbey of Kinloss.
Cornfields interspersed with thick beech woods covered the level ground that lay between the estuary and the foot of the hills, and over these rose the towers of the great Abbey itself, and nearer still, just where the hill8 began to rise from the plain, the farm and orchards of Burgle, whose fruit trees were a fertile source of revenue to the Abbey, as well as a delightful pleasance for the Abbot and his friends in many an hour of tranquil meditation. On the left a few houses of the good town of Forres were visible beyond the Cluny hills that hid the main part of the little Burgh, and farther still, in a clearing in the dense woods, could just be seen the roofs of the Cummings’ new house of Altyre.
At the base of the Tower clustered a small village of poor and squalid huts, mostly built of wood, whose inmates were fain to seek the shelter and protection of the lord of the Castle from the raids of MacIntoshes and other wild Highland clans from the Inverness neighbourhood, who regarded the fertile land of Moray as a common hunting-ground where every man might take his prey.
Not far beyond these huts was a dense dark coppice of alder trees and stunted firs, looking even from this height an evil and forbidding place. Few of the villagers would venture within its gloomy recesses for dread of the heathen temple that yet stood therein, and where, so they heard and believed, nameless rites of horror were still practised, and the spirits of the heathen who had worshipped there in times long gone might still be heard on the wild nights of winter wailing for their lost souls as they were compelled to walk in endless circles round and round those awesome stones until the great Day of Judgment.
Over such a scene the Lady Beatrix Dunbar was gazing on this autumn afternoon, yet with troubled and unseeing eyes. Her hood was thrown back, her wimple loosened, and her green kirtle rose and fell with her panting breath as she looked eagerly down at the road that curved like a white serpent up the steep ascent of the hill.
“Will he never come?” she cried impatiently, though there was none to hear. “They told me he was at Burgie, surely ’tis not so far—he might have been here by now. Oh! what shall I do? What can I do? Unless he comes soon there is no other that can help.”
It was for no lover that she waited thus eagerly. Down the road, but out of sight as yet, the man she was expecting was stumping stoutly and cheerily along, beside a lanky youth whose dress indicated a serving-man rather than a peasant. One glance was sufficient to show that the man he was conducting was by no means of an ordinary type. His lameness did not hinder his getting over the ground at a pace that his companion obviously found somewhat trying. He carried a long stout stick, which he sometimes tucked under his arm like a crutch, and sometimes leaned upon as a walking-stick. As he comes nearer one sees that his left leg terminates in a stout piece of wood, for he had lost a foot in the French Wars. His dress was the usual jerkin of the period of a hodden grey, and the black hoodlike cap with lapels had something the appearance of a scapular, under which looked out a merry, kindly face, rosy as an old apple, with twinkling grey eyes and a slow, wise smile constantly curling round the corners of his mouth.
Such was Simon Tulloch, head gardener of the Abbey, a man noted for his skill in the management of fruit trees, and indeed for the introduction into the country of many species previously unknown. Men said he planted trees as though he were handling babies, and that the roots seemed to know his touch, and settled themselves down to draw nourishment from the kindly earth at once. Also he was noted as a skilled healer of wounds, which was a gift of great use in that rough time when brawls and broken heads were exceedingly common.
On their way, as they trudged along, he was trying to extract from his companion the reason of the sudden summons.
“Faith! I know no more than yourself, Master Tulloch,” said the youth. “My Lady Beatrix came to me in hot haste. ‘Fetch me Master Simon Tulloch at once,’ says she. ‘And indeed, my lady,’ says I, ‘he will be pruning the trees in Burgie Orchard,’ says I. ‘Ye daft Loon,’ says she, ‘’tis no time for pruning now—but never mind what he be doing, go at once and fetch him; tarry not one moment.’ So, as she was so urgent, I started running, and I ran down the road as far as the turn, and then, as ye well know, Master Simon, after that the road is out of sight of the Tower, and because a man may not run all day, I slackened my pace and walked soberly till I find your worship tending the trees in Burgie Orchard as I had said, whether pruning or no I know not, and I delivered my message, but what she should want with you I cannot tell, nor indeed what a maid should ever want with a man—”
“Hold your peace, boy! and prattle not of men and maids till five-and-twenty years are over your head—you are over young yet for such thoughts. But tell me, did the Lady Beatrix seem anxious, agitated, or what not?”
“Ay I that did she, Master Tulloch, that did she indeed; she was in a fine taking, I warrant you, crying and panting for breath, and her colour coming and going.”
“Well, then, ’tis something indeed serious, for her ladyship does not set her thoughts in her face thus for nothing. Tell me, boy! has that Mistress Cecily Ross been often to see her lately? Sore I misdoubt that long white slip of womanhood, ’tis an uncanny influence she has over the Lady Beatrix—such wild friendship betwixt woman and woman is against nature.”
“Sooth, I know not, Master Simon; I have not seen Mistress Ross hereabouts this month or more. I have heard my Lady Beatrix say she was a very Saint, living for nought but Our Blessed Lord, and ever giving her own frail body as a ransom for others, to ward off trouble from them. Faith! I never heard praise so extravagant.
“H’m! well, I misdoubt me, I like it not; I would for the lady’s sake that Mistress Ross would bide away. But where is my lord all this time?”
“That too I know not. Yet there is nought strange in that;—my lord, as you know, is often not seen for many days together; he sits, so they tell me, and reads curious books. He has small care for his lands or his people, he goes not hawking or hunting, yet they tell me he was a stout warrior in his day, and could handle a long-sword or drink a cup of sack with the best, but I doubt that day is past.”
“May be, may be; you prattle overmuch, boy! I wanted only to know if my Lord of Blervie was at home with his daughter, and if he were why she should send for me, for I guess he has far more learning in all things than Simon Tulloch.”
They had now reached the turn of the road leading to the Castle. The great gateway, closed with a ponderous iron grating, confronted them. The lowest floor, to which this gave access, was wholly unconnected with the house itself, being in fact a place of defence into which cattle were driven, and where the hinds of the village took refuge in the event of a raid. To the left of this gate a narrow stone stair with a high parapet ran up the side of the tower to within some ten feet of the door leading to the house itself, here it turned at a sharp angle to the door. Persons ascending this stair must do so in Indian file, there was no room for two abreast. It is easy to see the enormous advantage this arrangement gave for defence. From below, the parapet entirely hid the door, and from no possible place could the attackers get a straight rush at the defenders, while three or four stout men at the top of the steps could hurl the invaders off one by one at the angle, and might easily repel an army. Down this stair the Lady Beatrix sped with flying feet to meet Master Tulloch. In her haste and anxiety she looked singularly attractive; her bright auburn hair, shaken loose and somewhat disarranged by the light wind and by the speed of her going, becomingly framed the pale, eager face from which her eyes gleamed with lambent green lights, and her red lips were parted lightly as her breath panted irregularly.
“I knew you would come,” she exclaimed, “but I was sick with waiting. Oh, Master Tulloch, there is dire trouble here! There has been a desperate attempt to assassinate my father. But praise be to all the Saints he still lives. Oh, come quickly!”
“Tell me how,” said Tulloch, as he followed up the steep and narrow stair. “There have been no catamarans seen about, nor even any strangers?”
“Nay! ’tis all a mystery, Master Tulloch. My father and I were alone in the house. He had sent all the serving-men out on some errand, save only the boy Hubert, and he was working in the garden. My father was in his library, and—for you know how he hates to be disturbed—I was in my bower busy over some embroidery. Suddenly I thought I heard a sound as of struggling feet, and then a moan; then all was still. Knowing that there was no one in the house, I rushed to my father’s room and called him, but there was no answer. In spite of his often repeated prohibition I opened the door, and at first I could not see him; only the couch all tumbled, and a dark red stain slowly spreading and dripping on to the floor. Then I saw him lying all huddled up at the foot of the couch. I just moved him to lie more comfortably, and put a pillow under his head, but I dared do no more lest I should injure him. He breathed and groaned heavily, so I knew he lived. Oh, hasten, Master Tulloch!”
By this time they had passed through the strong iron-studded door and up the turret stair, past the first floor to a room above, and Master Tulloch, hurrying in, was in a moment bending over the wounded man, who lay unconscious, his heavy, laboured breathing being the only sign of life.
“H’m! scratches on face and neck,” said the gardener-surgeon, as he gently and tenderly examined his patient. “Whoever has done this has fought with tooth and nail, I should say. But that doesn’t account for the blood, there must be a deep wound somewhere. Ah! I see—his clothes are torn. Bear a hand, my lady, and help me to unlace the doublet—I think ‘tis the right shoulder.”
Tenderly as a woman did Master Tulloch loosen and turn back the collar of the doublet, slitting the seams over the shoulder, and Beatrix aided him, never flinching or faltering. A sudden sharp exclamation from her companion made her look up.
“This is no man’s work, Lady Beatrix. See how this shoulder is mangled! Quick, bring me some pure water and lint and napkins and dressings. I must examine this wound.”
It was a deep and ghastly wound, as though the whole shoulder had been torn and mangled, and long was it before the clotted blood was washed away and Tulloch could fully examine it. At last he said slowly and deliberately— “No vital part has been injured; it is only shock and loss of blood that have caused this faintness. He will recover if only the wound he not poisoned, but of that I cannot be sure. Bring me some of this year’s virgin honey, and, if you have gathered herbs, some aconite and moonshade and henbane. I have some of the solution of gold luckily with me. I will compound a dressing that I think will quickly heal this wound. But I misdoubt this sorely.”
She ran to get the things he required, and Master Tulloch stood in grave meditation regarding his patient, who lay unconscious as a log.
“I would you could speak, Sir Wilfred Dunbar,” said he. “There’s more lies behind this than I like to think of. I hardly credited that such things were done. And who is there who can deal with them?—unless indeed” He broke off suddenly, for the Lady Beatrix returned with the medicaments he had requested.
“Tell me,” he said, while his skilful hands were compounding the dressing, “you are confident that none could have had access to the house since you saw your father last—the door was fast always, and none could enter or leave?”
“As fast as bolt and bar could make it; ’twas never opened save just now, when I came myself to meet you, and it is now fast again. You can examine for yourself.”
“You and I, my lady, must make a thorough search of the whole house, for by what you say the assassin must be yet hiding here, since he could not leave, and as soon as the serving-men return we must have two of them to carry Sir Wilfred to his bedroom, and get him undressed and laid to bed, where I trust within a few weeks he may be perfectly recovered.”
The patient being now laid as comfortably as possible, the two undertook a minute search of the whole Tower; every little stone-floored and vaulted apartment, every nook and corner on the winding turret stair, even to the battlements, was peered into, probed, and examined, but no living thing could be discovered. Then the great door itself was looked to, but the three bolts of the huge lock were securely fast, the oaken bar was in its place, the key of the lock hung at Lady Beatrix’s girdle.
“The Inneses are foes of your house,” said Master Tulloch meditatively.
“Ay! and a cruel, revengeful crew they are,” she replied, “but with our branch of Dunbars they have no quarrel. My father has been a man of peace for over thirty years now. Nay, Master Simon, ’twas not of Inneses you were thinking; tell me what was in your mind.”
“By all appearance,” he said, after a long pause, “your father must have been attacked by some great sleuth-bound; those wounds were the work of no human hand. If I know aught of surgery they were the marks of fangs and claws, but where such a brute could come from, or how it found entrance, or escaped, is, I own, beyond me at present. Come, Lady Beatrix, I hear the serving-men returning, let us summon a couple or so, and have him carried to his bedchamber.”
Lady Beatrix pulled at a rope by the turret stair, and the clang of a bell on the roof of the Tower called the serving-men, who ran up the stair hurriedly, while Lady Beatrix unlocked and unbarred the strong oak door; and she and Simon, followed by three or four men, proceeded to the room where the master of the house lay helpless. But at the door they halted with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. The room was empty! The pillows and cushions on which they had laid the patient were there, the ewer with the reddened water and the stained cloths wherewith Simon had washed the wounds, the couch with its great dark patch, and the pool on the floor where the blood had dripped, and the thin stream yet crawling over the stone flags, the only thing that stirred in that room; for the little group halted on the threshold stood still as marble statues, struck with horror and amazement at the weird, mysterious ending of so tragic an adventure.
II – SIMON TULLOCH’S THEORIES
Simon was the first to recover himself sufficiently to speak. “I half expected something bf this kind, yet it is so terrible that in sooth I dared not expect it,” he said.
“In God’s name, Master Tulloch,” cried Lady Beatrix, “speak plainly! I cannot now bear riddles. Let me hear and know the worst.”
“I am convinced,” he answered, “that this is much rather a case for the aid of Holy Church, and of a skilled exorcist, than of a humble leech. In brief, it is to my mind the work of an evil spirit.
Just consider—not a soul in the Tower save your father and yourself—not a soul in the room with him—the door secured fast—no possibility of entrance. Even though a man could climb those perpendicular walls, there is no window wide enough for even the slimmest boy to force himself through—your father is attacked, mangled, mauled, and bitten by what looks like the teeth of a huge dog, and the Tower is as empty as before. You and I search the whole Castle, while the door is still fast shut, and while we do so his body is removed from the room where it lies, and whereto no human thing could have possible access. Then consider the nature of your father’s studies. You know well he has studied those books on witchcraft which the Holy Church most wisely forbids her faithful children even to look at. Does not the idea arise irresistibly that he may in his presumption have attempted to evoke some spirit, and having by permission of God, and the aid of the Devil, succeeded in so doing, have found that the spirit was too strong for him, and been unable to lay it again?”
“Master Tulloch, it looks too horribly probable. Oh, it but my dear Cecily was here, with her wondrous gifts, I believe she would tell us what had chanced to my father.”
“I would not that Mistress Ross should make or mar herein,” said he.
“Oh, you are prejudiced against my dear Cecily, but let me tell you, Master Simon, there is no truer, holier woman in this land of Moray, nor one so gifted,—her visions are like those of the saints. Often has Our Lady been with her, and has given her the power to avert ill, to turn evil into good, hatred to love, and to cure diseases as did the blessed saints. But it is not of her I would speak. Tell me, if you can, what we can do to find, or to rescue, or help my father?”
“It is of that I am thinking, Lady Beatrix; and first I would know, if it can be told, how came it that ye two were left alone in the Tower this afternoon. Surely that is not usual?”
Here one of the serving-men stepped forward. “The master ordered us all to go out this afternoon in search of a wolf that had been seen.” “A wolf? I had not heard of a wolf being seen hereabouts for many a year.” “Ay I but there was,” said the main “Only last evening was a great white wolf seen of Robin
Thomson the smith,—’tis true Robin was full of liquor at the time, but this morning we found the track of its paws up by Callifer, and we told the master, and he was much perturbed, and bade us all go out and eek it through the woods. Though, of course, as ye know, by the haunted wood none dare to go, and not many will go near the Dune.”
“I knew not of this,” said Beatrix. “But this morning I bade my bower maiden go down for me to the Port of Findhorn, for I expected some laces with Master Gervis’ boat, and the silly wench made request that she might go early, for she dreaded to be out in the twilight, and when I laughed at her, said she was feared for wolves.”
“Now if Sir Wilfred had been found out in the woods, instead of his own chamber,” quoth Simon, “we should say the wolf had attacked him; but here it is impossible.”
“You spoke of the power of Holy Church,” said Lady Beatrix. Then looking hastily round she waved a dismissal to the serving-men, and after they had retired she carefully locked and barred the great door.
“Knaves will gossip,” she said. “It is better that what you have to say on this head should be for me alone. Think you is there any at the Abbey who has the power to cast out evil spirits?”
“There, I confess, I find it hard to answer. The Abbot is a holy man, no doubt, they say the best Abbot we have had for a hundred years, but for my thought he is too engrossed in business, in the material welfare of the Abbey, to think much of spiritual things. Of course there’s the Sub- Dean, Master Robert Reid, but he is away—he is mostly away. Oh, a very popular man is our Sub-Dean, a great man at Courts. Then there is his friend Ferrers, Father Ferrerius they call him, but he’s always at the books, not very practical. And Father John Smith is ever in a dream— writing a history of the world from the Creation, he is, but the chapters I have seen are all on Kinloss Abbey—his world, you see. And Father Bairholm, he is painting the altar-piece. No, indeed, I know not, unless it were Father Ambrose.”
“And who is Father Ambrose? ’Tis a new name to me.”
“A new monk too. You must know, my lady, that in the late Abbot’s time—Abbot William Culross that was—our affairs were in a very bad state; nay, but I should always speak well of him, for he was a great gardener, but he left no money in the kist and few monks in the cells; so when Abbot Chrystal came he set about repairing these things, and brought in a number of new monks, and among them was Father Ambrose. He has had a history, that man, my lady, but what I know not, only I will swear to it, whatever else he may be, he is a Cumming; no man ever had that long head in this world but a Cumming. I have been a gravedigger in my time, and I would swear to the skull of a Cumming if there were no more of him than that left. They tell me that Father Ambrose fought at Flodden, I know not; he is very silent, he is intent always on his religious duties, a most ascetic man, but if I read the eyes of a man aright he hath not always been so. It is on my mind that Father Ambrose has seen trouble, and has lived his life, as indeed the Cummings are wont to do. But, be that as it may, he is a man of power, and now, as I think, of true religious power and fervour.”
“You interest me, Master Simon. Where may one see this monk? Methinks he might well be of great help to me now.”
“It will not be very easy to see him just now. For I heard but this morning that Father Ambrose was ordered for duty at the Chanter’s house of Windy-hills, and you know perhaps that there the rule is strict; the Chanter is a severe man, and there is but one monk of those on duty who is allowed to speak to visitors.”
“Oh, well I know;—the Chanter is a cousin of my own, and terrified me when I was a child with his gloomy, joyless religion. Well may the people crave for the new learning of Master Martin Luther to free them from the shackles of a creed such as the Chanter professes!”
“Nay, Mistress Beatrix, I can listen to no words condoning these terrible heresies, that will eat the soul out of our land if they be not checked.”
“I will not dispute with you, Master Simon; your convent training would soon overcome all my feeble arguments. Yet, pity me! proxy-wedded to a man I never saw, and only know to dread, before I knew what marriage meant; and now they tell me it is a deadly sin if I break that contract. Surely a Luther is needed to break such tyranny as that.”
“I crave your pardon, Lady Beatrix. I knew not,—who is the man?” “Oh, have you not heard? I thought every one knew. It is Norman Leslie.” “What! Leslie of the Glen—Lightsome Leslie they call him—the greatest brute and blackguard in all Scotland.” “So I am told;—a nunnery would be preferable. But, my friend, we are no nearer to finding anything about my father, or helping him.” “Pardon me, Lady Beatrix, we are much nearer; there are several clues, any one of which may help us. First, the servants were all sent out to hunt a wolf, and tracks of a wolf have been seen. There is, I think, small doubt that Sir Wilfred was attacked by a wolf, at first I thought a dog, and though I suggested evil spirits, I own I only half believed in the idea. I don’t see how a spirit can produce a material result, and Sir Wilfred’s wound was material enough—there were fangs and claws at work there. How a wolf could have got in, or how your father in his unconscious and helpless state could have got out, is I confess beyond me altogether. I can tend trees and dress wounds, and do other small jobs, but I do own that at the solving of riddles I am but little use. Ah I look there.”
The sun shining through the tiny slit of the window, cast a bright light on the floor, close against the wall; as this patch moved round it came on a corner that had hitherto lain in deep shadow, and revealed clearly two footprints as of huge paws marked in blood; evidently the beast, whatever it was, that had attacked Sir Wilfred, had there left the trace of its bloodstained pads.
“’Tis the mark of a wolf beyond doubt,” said Tulloch, examining it carefully. “I have hunted them often in France, and here in Scotland too at times, and well I know their tracks. Now, if we could but find some other prints, we might know how the brute got in, or out.”
But all search was vain; those two grim marks were alone, as though the animal had jumped against the bare stone wall.
“Pardon me now, my Lady Beatrix,” said Master Tulloch but where will you lie tonight? You cannot sleep here. Will you take shelter in the Abbey Grange? The farmer’s buxom wife would be right pleased to show you hospitality. She is a gossip of my own, and thus far I can vouch for her.”
“Nay, that will I not, Master Tulloch. My place is here, lest any tidings should come of my father. Besides, what should harm me? For long enough I have managed all there is here. My father has been but a cipher so far as any help or protection to me goes; he has often sat for days over his books, and I have not seen him. When some Highlanders raided our lands last year, and tried to force an entrance to the Tower itself, ’twas I who armed our men and told them what to do. Ay, and fired a piece myself from that very window; oh! I can fight, mark you; I have been taught to handle weapons. My father only begged me not to disturb him, for he was in the midst of a calculation. So you see I am no more alone than I have ever been, and the serving-men are all at home now. I think no wolf can enter; the boy Hubert lies at my chamber door, and four of the serving-men are in the little apartments off the hall. Oh, I am well protected, and I assure you I feel no fear. You will come up in the morning, will you not, Master Tulloch?”
“I will indeed, my lady; and if in the meantime I can have speech of Father Ambrose I will do so. Trust me, I will not leave this mystery till I have probed it out.”
“You are a true friend, Master Tulloch. Should there be any real danger the Earl of Moray will send men to guard the Tower, but believe me I apprehend none. Only, come of it what may, my poor father must be found and rescued—may God grant he be still alive!”
Simon Tulloch stumped rapidly off down the hill thinking hard. His reverence for the Lady Beatrix was unbounded; her beauty, her talents, and above all her magnificent courage and self- command, appealed to him to a remarkable degree. Never before had he seen her perturbed by aught that happened, and surely here was reason enough for perturbation, yet how soon she had recovered herself after all. With more than a man’s calm judgment she had surveyed all the situation, with more than an average man’s courage she elected to remain at the post of danger, notwithstanding the mysterious nature of the attack. More than ever he admired her. It was a strange friendship that had grown up between the proud, reticent Lady of Blervie Tower and the cheery, genial, one-legged gardener of the Abbey. © 2006 by http://www.HorrorMasters.com
Was it devil’s work? he asked himself. Naturally sceptical of all supernatural manifestation, he was nevertheless a very sincere Catholic, and he could not but remember how the very last Sunday Father Adam Elder, the confessor of the monks, had delivered a discourse on how our adversary the Devil goeth about as a roaring lion, telling how Satan doth sometimes take the form of a brute to work his evil will on mankind. Well, perchance Father Adam Elder might have some form of exorcism that might fit the case. Anyhow, the circumstances could be represented to him; but on the whole, somehow, he had more faith in Father Ambrose, though so lately come as to be little more than a novice. At all events it were not amiss to try the spiritual arm, though at the same time it would be foolish to neglect all material means of searching for and routing out the great white wolf they spoke of, and ransacking every hole and corner, cave or den, on the hillside, to which Sir Wilfred could conceivably have been carried. A full-grown man, broad, and massive in build, even though helpless, was not to be wholly spirited away; it stood to reason he must be somewhere, or if not he, then his dead body, and being somewhere it could and should be found.
A quick patter of steps behind roused him from his reverie. A boy of some ten or twelve years ran up to him with a twisted piece of paper in his hand. Simon took and turned it over, strangely puzzled; the handwriting was curious, as though some one were trying to draw serpents and succeeded in forming letters. It was brief:— “Sir Wilfred is alive, and for the present safe, but in great danger, which also threatens his daughter. Lord, save Thy servant from the power of the dog.”
Simon scratched his head,—“safe, yet in danger,” how might that be? and “the power of the dog”? Sir Wilfred’s wounds were implied, would the same evil beast attack the Lady Beatrix? It was a horrid thought.
“Whence got you this, boy?” he said. “From a tall man with a long white beard,” replied the boy. Simon scratched his head again—he failed to identify the description. “Well, well, run away home, then,” he said, and gave the boy a small coin out of his pouch, as he resumed his way back to the Abbey. But though Simon made the most extraordinary efforts, inquiring everywhere and stumping gallantly over the whole countryside, two days passed and never a trace or clue to the mystery could be found. The Lady Beatrix sent parties of serving-men in every direction, sometimes heading them herself, to seek for any track of the white wolf that had been said to be prowling about, or for any story of Highland raiders or any hostile families that might have been seen in the neighbourhood, with equal unsuceess. She had also sent a special message to the Earl of Moray, and a troop of spearmen galloped through Rafford and passed to the north of Callifer, and down again by the Kirk of Alves, but with no result.
Then on the evening of the second day there was a clatter of horses’ hoofs below the Tower, and Beatrix ran with fleet foot down the stairs to embrace a tall, slim girl who had just alighted from her palfry with the aid of a single serving-man. So slight she was she seemed like a willow wand, and her face was absolutely colourless, of an ivory white pallor, made more singular- looking by the contrast of heavy masses of straight jet black hair, and eyes with all the gloom of a moonless night in their weird depths, arched over by thick black eyebrows almost too regular in their arch. Her features were high and aristocratic, and her finely moulded lips though rather thin were startling in their redness as set in that strange white face.
“Darling Cecily,” cried Beatrix, “how sweet of you to come! We are in terrible trouble.”
“I know,” replied the other; “I dreamed it all last night, and I lost no time in setting out this morning. I knew I must come to help you—I felt you wanted me.”
“You dear, sweet, unselfish creature!” said Beatrix. “Where were you?”
“Oh, not far off. I went to nurse a sick friend at Rothes on the Spey. And listen while I tell you, Beatrix, there came to me a lovely vision concerning you. A great Angel with a rosy robe and gold wings standing keeping guard over you, and the Angel told me that I might always shield you from any harm. Was it not beautiful?”
“Indeed, a rare vision! What splendid things you see, Cecily! Look now, there is Master Simon Tulloch; doth he bring news, I wonder? Good evening, Master Tulloch. Here is my dear friend, Mistress Cecily Ross.”
Simon saluted gravely.
“I think ye stayed with Robert de Grant on Speyside. He was at the Abbey and was telling me that ye had left there four days ago.”
“Nay indeed—’twas but this morning.”
“Then was Master Robert a prophet, for ’twas yestreen I saw him. Nay, my lady, there is no news; we have scoured the whole hill, and save for some wolf tracks, two or three days old, have found nothing.”
“And nothing of my father?”
“Not a trace, my lady; but we give not over searching, nor shall, till we find him and restore him to you.”
“Thanks, true friend! Well, well, come within, Cecily, and rest you after your long ride. Strange that your host should mistake the day of your leaving!”
“Nay, I think ’twas Master Tulloch who mistook. But ’tis no matter.” And the two girls passed into the Tower.
III – A CONFERENCE AT THE CHANTER’S HOUSE
Father Gavin Dunbar, the Chanter of Moray, was a gloomy, ascetic man, very rigorous in his religious duties, and very stern in enforcing them on all under his jurisdiction; moreover, a man of great pride of family. When not on duty as Chanter or Precentor in Elgin Cathedral he occupied a small unfortified house, little more than a farm in fact, that nestled snugly under the lee of the hill, known locally as the Windyhill, which sheltered it from the bleak winds of the north-east. Here, with three or four monks, he cultivated a garden and home farm which supplied fruit and vegetables to the Abbey, and also ministered to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of the parish of Alves.
Looking round from the top of his hill he could see the territories of a circle of his own kith and kin, interspersed with his spiritual brethren. From the village of Findhorn, over the low ground southwards, extended the Abbey lands up to the march of Dunbar of Blervie. Over the river Findhorn on the coast lay the lands of Walter Kinnaird of Culben, who had married his cousin Marjory Dunbar and was reckoned as a kinsman. Eastward of these came the Abbey lands of Burgie, then Dunbar of Asleisk, and eastwards toward the sea Dunbar of Hempriggs. Thus spiritually as well as temporally he felt himself the centre of a circle of vast importance. And as the family of Dun bar was the most important in the North, so the Abbey of Kinloss was in his opinion the greatest religious establishment in Scotland.
When, therefore, Simon Tulloch coming to tend the fruit trees in the garden of Windyhills had brought the news of the mysterious attack on Sir Wilfred Dunbar, and his subsequent unaccountable disappearance, the Chanter was greatly perturbed. It was a breach of the circle of honour surrounding himself—an infringement of the sanctity that ought to hedge the Dunbars as with an inviolable fence.
After seriously pondering the matter for a day and a night, he sent an urgent message to his cousin the Lady Beatrix, requesting her to visit his house of Windyhills, and to confer with him on the matter.
By this time the story of Sir Wilfred’s disappearance was noised through the countryside, and every Dunbar within twenty miles was all agog. Some declared it must certainly be a device of their hereditary foes the Inneses, and would fain have raided Innes House and slaughtered all the inmates. Others, again, were no less certain that it was the deed of the MacIntoshes, whose raids and rapine made them the terror of the whole low country, and it was said that mothers in Dyke village frightened their bairns into good behaviour with threats of the bloody MacIntoshes. And with one thing and another there were many visits of sympathy and curiosity paid to the Tower of Blervie, and many dire threats of vengeance from irate kinsmen against the unknown perpetrators of the outrage, and many offers of hospitality and safeguarding to the Lady Beatrix, all of which she declined with gracious thanks but distinct firmness.
And so it came to pass that when, in obedience her cousin’s summons, she rode down to the low country to visit the house of Windyhills with Cecily Ross by her side, they were attended by several kins-folk and a troop of serving-men. By her side rode Alexander Dunbar, son of Sir James of Westfield, the hereditary Sheriff, and himself to be known as “the Bold Sheriff” in later years, and young Dunbar of Asleisk, who had not long since come into his property, and was considering the feasibility of uniting the lands of Blervie and Asleisk by a marriage with Lady Beatrix. The tale of her precontract with Norman Leslie was a sad shock to him when he heard it, but for the present he was riding beside Cedily Ross, and whispering compliments to which she scarcely seemed to listen. Two other younger Dunbars rode behind.
So they ambled gently down the hill, a gallant company, past the fertile lands of Burgie and down on to the great Abbey through the yellowing beech woods. The pile of buildings looked very beautiful as it was approached from the south. The Abbot’s house, newer than the rest of the buildings, was on their right, immediately in front the refectory, and the Chapter-house with the lower buildings where the lay brothers lived, and the guest-rooms on the right, and behind rose the stately and imposing mass of the great Abbey church, with its graceful arched windows whose lovely tracery and resplendent glass was the wonder and despair of the architects and craftsmen of the time; and above these, again, the smaller but no less beautiful windows of the clerestory, all leading up to and culminating in the great tower whose spire sprang aloft with a soaring lightness that seemed, as Father Adam Elder said in one of his Chapter discourses, like a finger pointing the way to heaven. This spire had only recently been completed, and the monks were somewhat inordinately proud of it.
As they rode down the last slope of the hill before reaching the Abbey, and entered on the road that passed between the west door of the church and the grange or farm buildings, Cecily drew closer to Beatrix, and said softly, so as only to reach her ear— “Ah, my Beatrix, what a terrible oppression there is here! It is like a great prison rising all round tee—do you not feel it?”
“No; surely, Cecily dear, you must be mistaken. All is holy and good; our monks are full of good works.”
“Oh, the monks, I dare say, but I see them not for the dark shadow that broods over every one—it is horrible. I see them all in fetters and chains, and that dreadful cloud ever enfolding them, and those cold, ghastly prison walls all round—never a ray of love can come into their lives. Let us hurry on, Beatrix; it oppresses me. When will the new revelation break over Scotland and the light dawn? Luther is preaching in Germany. I can see a great Scotsman, who will bring the light here and cast down all these prison walls, and set the poor captives free to love and live their own sweet lives.”
“Oh, Cecily, what dreadful things you are saying! Think only if our beautiful Abbey, whereof we are all so proud, should be destroyed!”
“What a splendid thing it would be, Beatrix!”
The two Dunbars had fallen behind by this time, and Beatrix and Cecily were riding alone together at the head of the cavalcade.
“You know how I love and trust your visions,” said Beatrix, “but I do believe, Cecily, that your prejudices have coloured your dreams in this. I have read and I admire much in the New Learning, but if it is to destroy all our beautiful churches, and all the glory of our religion, I am sure it cannot be good.”
“Listen, Beatrix—the Spirits have told me that you are a chosen instrument to break down the walls of this cruel iron bondage of superstition, and I have had—oh! such lovely visions of you, reaping your sure reward in joy and love, when you are free.”
“And will my dear father be restored to me? I can fancy no joy or love so long as he is, I know not where, in trouble, in danger—perhaps even now dead. Oh, Cecily, cannot your Spirits tell me so much?”
“Last night there came a great Angel, with wings all green and gold, and he held in his hand a lily, and he said to me that a lover would come to you, and that he should not only bring joy to you, but he should restore your father to your arms.”
“’Tis wondrous to have such visions. Oh, how I wish I could see as you do!”
“Not always, dear. I have terrible dreams sometimes, when I seem to do horrible wickedness, and to rejoice in cruelty and murder and hatred. I have thought sometimes I must have lived some life before, and been terribly wicked, and that I remember it in my dreams; but my dear old pastor, an exile from Geneva, told me that this was not to be believed on any account, and now in this life it has been given to me to know that I am without sin. So I can’t tell, it is very strange. But this I know, these dreams have made me understand the cruelty of men, and their lust for blood, and the spirit of fighting. I feel I could do it all myself sometimes; I could kill my enemies with my own hands—ay, and mangle them for the sheer love of killing.”
There was a strange gleam seeming to come up from the sombre darkness of her eyes, but a moment later her brows contracted, she shook her head with a slight shiver.
“My imagination is too vivid,—I frighten myself sometimes,—it is the price I have to pay for what you call my beautiful visions. You know, Beatrix, I couldn’t hurt any living thing, but I can fancy the spirit that makes men love all games that mean killing, and if I but give rein to fancies, then I begin to feel as if I loved them too, and then I come to myself and I am frightened.”
Beatrix did not reply; this side of Cecily was new and strange to her, and repelled her a little, though her intense loyalty to her friend would not acknowledge the feeling. So for awhile they rode in silence through the beech woods lying between the Abbey and the Chanter’s house of Windyhills, following the course of the burn that flowed under the Abbot’s house, and turned his mill. On their left hand they passed a tiny chapel with a tinier cell attached, where dwelt a hermit reputed holy, and the peasants of the district counted that they were free from ill chance for two weeks if they might have the privilege to serve at his daily mass. Right in front of them rose an octagonal tower.
“See you that, Cecily?” said Beatrix, glad to have a chance to turn the conversation. “’Tis the Chanter’s watch-tower, he has certain prearranged signals with the Abbey; also because the house is unfortified, he has to keep a sharp eye against raiders.”
A short way farther they halted before the lych gate leading to the Chanter’s grounds. Here they dismounted; a lay brother came forward to take their horses to the stables, and a monk bowing silently and gravely led them across the grass. The house was to their left, what was known then in Scotland as “a single house,” that is to say, it was only one room thick from back to front, a kitchen and offices and a large parlour or spence on the ground floor, the monk’s dormitory above, where the whole little colony lay down to rest together, each in his monk’s habit on a low truckle bed, covered by a single rug winter and summer. An inquisitive visitor had once asked the Chanter if it was true that the monks slept in their coffins. “Perfectly true,” he replied, indicating his habit. “These are our coffins; we sleep in them, and we are buried in them.”
Immediately in front, as they approached the house, was the little chapel where mass was said every morning for all the district around, to whom it was more convenient than the Abbey on the one hand or the Kirk of Alves on the other. Beyond the chapel was the garden, pride of the heart of Simon Tulloch, whence many dainties were supplied to the Abbot’s table, and to the right was the look-out tower before mentioned.
At the Abbey itself, under the strict Cistercian rule, no woman could enter, though scandal had hinted at exceptions in the late Abbot’s time—“the fat, amorous old gardener,” as Cumming of Altyre called him, with some sardonic humour and but little reverence. But in any case the Chanter was under different rule, for indeed he was more a secular priest of the Cathedral staff than a regular of the Abbey, though the appointment was joint and the house was provided by the Abbey. There was therefore nothing to prevent the Chanter from summoning his cousin the Lady Beatrix Dunbar to confer concerning the disappearance of her lather, which had affected him also very powerfully. And so the little company followed the monk who guided them, with fullest confidence of welcome, over the shaven grass to the door of the house, where the Chanter himself stood to meet them, a tall spare man with a lean, ascetic face and a stern expression. He wore only a simple cassock with a black girdle round his waist and a heavy gold cross hanging on his breast. Some said that he hoped for a bishopric and wore the cross in anticipation.
“Welcome, fair cousin, welcome!” he said. “And this, if I mistake not, is Mistress Cecily Ross, to whom Heaven in its infinite mercy hath vouchsafed to see visions such as we poor sinners seldom get a glimpse of.”
Whether he spoke seriously or in sarcasm was impossible to say—the Chanter’s manner admitted of either interpretation. He went on to greet his cousins of Asleisk and of Westfield and the two other cousins, and with grave courtesy invited them within. As they approached the door a tall monk emerged with a stately stride, who as he passed hastily drew his cowl down and bowed his head so that no vestige of his face could be seen.
“Father! Pax vobiscum!” said a lay brother who was digging in front of the house. The monk made the sign of the cross hurriedly in benediction and passed on.
“Who is that, Cousin Gavin?” said Beatrix. “Me-thinks that is more the stride of a soldier than a monk.”
“May be, may be,” replied the Chanter. “He has been a soldier, I am told; in fact, they say he fought at the ill-starred field of Flodden, whereat our gracious King fell and many another gallant man, including the father of our good Sub-Dean, who on that account is mightily taken up with Father Ambrose.”
“Oh, is that really Father Ambrose? I have heard much of him.”
“Not much, my child, not much; ‘tis impossible, for he is but a novice, though I grant most assiduous in all his duties, a man now full of religion whatever his former life may have been.
The lay brethren all desire his blessing as though he were a Saint. But come in, come in; we have serious matters to talk of, and I trust with the Divine blessing we may arrive at some idea of the truth regarding these mysterious happenings, and may find a means to rescue or relieve my good cousin of Blervie from whatever fate hath befallen him.”
They followed the Chanter into a pleasant apartment to the left of the entrance door facing to the south, and having a window also to the west. The floor was of stone, and the windows owing to the thickness of the walls were deeply recessed. A massive oak table with carved edges and fantastic legs stood in the centre, at the upper end of which the Chanter seated himself, with Beatrix on his right hand and Cecily on his left, the Dunbar kinsmen sitting lower down.
“I have made every possible inquiry,” said the Chanter, “and ye may know I hove some facility for inquiring through my good cousin and namesake, Gavin Dunbar, who is now by God’s grace the Lord Bishop of Aberdeen, and I am satisfied myself that no foeman that we wot of could have been near the fortalice of Blervie when our cousin was abducted. How say you, young Alexander of Westfield? Has the Sheriff thought on this matter at all?”
“Indeed he has,” replied the youth; “his men as well as my Lord of Moray’s have scoured all the neighbourhood and made every inquiry, but without result. The little Earl was very angry at his ill success, but I think my father had small hope of finding anything.”
“You are confident, cousin Beatrix,” the Chanter said, turning to her, “that the Tower was safely locked and barred, and that none could have had access to your father’s room?”
“Perfectly confident, cousin Gavin. The room is all stone, the drop from the window is over thirty feet, and a sheer wall none could climb, and the window itself has iron stanchions, the door was locked and barred, and Master Tulloch had dressed his wounds with me, and when we returned after searching the Tower he was gone; the great door was locked and barred all the time.”
“That, then, brings me to my conclusion,” said the Chanter: “this is no man’s work, it is the direct operation of the Devil. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, my children, but against the Enemy of mankind himself, and by God’s grace Holy Church hath weapons fit for the encounter.” This text was illegally
“My friend Mistress Ross hath seen it in a vision,” said Beatrix. “Tell cousin Gavin, Cecily, what you told me.” This text was lifted from another site–warning, copyrights may have been violated.
Cecily raised her strange white face, and the midnight gloom of her eyes rested intently on the Chanter’s till his stern eyes seemed to quail before hers, and she spoke in a low deep voice scarcely like that of a woman, yet gathering intense eagerness as she went on, throwing back her white fur hood from the cloudy masses of raven hair. Now for a break from the story. Where do you think that this came from? Another site, that’s where. Sorry if you find this annoying, but you might want to find a site that does the work ins
tead of stealing someone else’s work.
“It is not fitting,” she said, “that the visions that have been vouchsafed to me should be recounted to so eminent a Churchman. Poor and insignificant they must appear to you, to whom Heaven hath shown such abundant favour. Yet if you please to order me, I will tell as well as I may that which I saw. On the day on which my dear friend fell on trouble, as I was praying earnestly, it seemed to me that a Spirit stood by me and said, ‘Come, my child, I have somewhat to show you,’ and then I thought I saw the Tower of Blervie, and round and round it there ran a great white wolf, and I was sore frightened, for always the mere sight of those cruel beasts, or indeed of any beast of prey, makes me shudder and feel like to faint; all cruelty must be so opposed to the will of the good God. And then, I know not how, I seemed to be in Sir Wilfred’s room, and I think he was reading some book of magic, and the white wolf seemed to come out from the stone wall and to fall upon him. Ah! I cannot bear even now to think of it. And I covered my face, and could not look, and when I looked again the wolf was gone, and Sir Wilfred was gone, only there were great patches and stains of blood all about. And then the Spirit bade me go to Beatrix at once, and told me that it was given to me by the grace of Heaven to take upon myself the trouble and the punishment that should fall on another, and to turn the forces of evil to good. I was nursing a sick woman at the time away on the Spey, but I could not disobey the heavenly vision, and I came at once, and then too I saw a great Angel with a rosy robe and gold wings keeping guard over my Beatrix.”
“You are indeed highly favoured, my daughter, to see such vision as we poor sinners can only dream of; truly the purity of a pure woman is a great thing in the eyes of Heaven, and we must bow in thankful wonder at the grace of God so signally displayed. Our Lord hath given His Church power over the wiles of the Devil; that power will we exercise, and I doubt not ere long, by totally routing all the forces of evil, we shall restore our good cousin of Blervie to his home and to the arms of his daughter. Now come, my children, having decided what this danger is and how to meet it, let me show you the garden, which indeed hath some little repute, and where Master Tulloch hath done unusual well this season.”
IV – THE CONFESSION OF CECILY ROSS
The party strolled across the grass to the old walled garden, the Chanter and Lady Beatrix leading; Cecily followed with young Alexander Dunbar, and the rest came on in a group together. Two or three monks were busy digging and weeding; one was removing a sort of tem- porary arbour in the south-east corner.
“A garden shrine,” said the Chanter in reply to an inquiring look from Beatrix. “On the day of Corpus Christi the Abbot and monks came over from the Abbey bringing the Blessed Host in solemn procession to bless the farms and the gardens, and their last station was here. The custom was much neglected in the days of the late Abbot, gardener though he was, but our present lord, to his honour, has revived it.”
“’Tis a sweet and noble custom,” said Beatrix.
A tall monk stood by a sundial as they passed. His cowl was drawn down over his face, yet there could be no doubt that this was the same Father Ambrose whom they had seen coming from the house as they entered. Beatrix felt that his eyes were fixed on her as she passed, and a strange thrill ran through her like an electric shock. It seemed as if those eyes burned through the folds of the black cowl. “No need to confess to that man,” she thought; “he would read one’s inmost thoughts before one had time to utter them, yet I think his eyes would be like the eyes of God, all-pardoning because all-wise.” Clearly Father Ambrose was a man of great strength as well as great holiness, and Beatrix, though she had never beheld the least glimpse of his face, nor heard his voice, could fully understand Simon Tulloch’s enthusiasm for the novice.
Some distance behind, Cecily and Alexander Dunbar also passed the sundial, and were subjected to the same intensity of gaze. An impulse, she knew not what, caused Cecily to walk a little aside from her companion, and close by the monk as he stood by the sundial; as she passed she was startled to hear almost under his breath, in a deep musical voice with a note of sadness below it, the words, “Elspet Simpson, beware!”
Hurriedly, with catches of the breath, she spoke hardly above a whisper. “Father, you are the appointed one,—I know it, I feel it,—you must hear my confession.”
“Nay, that I may not, my child,” said the same low sad voice; “but wait for me in the chapel. I may be able to help you.”
“You have fascinated our friend the monk,” said her companion. “I never saw a monk speak to a woman before; the Chanter, of course, is a secular of the Cathedral. I don’t count him.”
“No rules avail against the power to help a soul. That has been shown to me. But perhaps you will not believe such things. I know that many do not, and hence I am loth to speak much of the wondrous love and beauty that has been shown to me.
“Ay! I have heard that you have seen strange visions. So much my cousin Beatrix hath told me. But indeed, Mistress Cecily, I am a plain man, and have but scant time for visions and the like— the real things of life take all my care.”
“Ay! so I wot; but if ye but knew, the things of vision are far more real than those that ye call so. May I crave a favour of you?” she said, with a sudden change of tone.
“Surely—anything that is in my power.”
“I wish to pray alone in that little chapel for awhile. Be a good and true friend, and take me there and leave me; let Beatrix know where I am, but none of the others. I will rejoin you before you ride homewards.”
“That will I certainly. I am rejoiced to be able to serve ye so easily, Mistress Cecily.”
While these two took their way to the north-west corner of the garden, where a small postern gate gave access to the little chapel, Father Ambrose approached the Chanter and said a few words in his ear, too low for any of the others to catch. The Chanter looked surprised and was about to speak, when the monk made a rapid sign with his hand and continued earnestly—the Chanter interposed, staying his speech.
“Well, it is granted, but godly counsel only, brother; there can be no question of absolution.” “None is needed, Father, or sought for.” So saying, Father Ambrose took himself with his long stately stride down the walk among the trees to the west of the garden, known as the Monk’s Walk, and bowing his lofty head disappeared under the low portal, keeping always his cowl drawn and his hands close wrapped in the long sleeves of his habit.
Inside the tiny chapel the light glowed through the richly tinted glass. The ruby lamp denoting the perpetual presence of the Holy Sacrament gleamed on the altar and its furnishings, and on the jewelled front of the tabernacle. In one of the stalls sat Father Ambrose in his white habit with black scapular, and black cowl still drawn over his face, only slightly withdrawn on one side that he might see and hear her who knelt beside him,—her weird white face upturned, and the thick black hair falling now from beneath the white fur of her hood, and never a gleam of light in the dusky eyes that looked like two openings into the unfathomable night.
“Father,” she said at last, almost too low for him to bear, “let me ask you one thing. Why did you speak the name of Elspet Simpson?”
“I know not, my daughter; but as you passed me in the garden it seemed I could see behind you, and almost 0vershadowing you, the form of a very evil woman, a woman as I think sold body and soul to the Devil, whom I saw down on the English marches before the battle of Flodden; I partly think she was of the race of those wandering Egyptians against whom a recent law has been passed in England, and who I deem have brought their evil sorcery with them. I feared her influence might be upon you, and that she might seek to practise her wicked arts on you, therefore I would bid her begone and trouble you not.”
“Listen then, Father; for herein is great trouble to me, and as I think you, and perhaps you alone, can help me, for indeed this name of Elspet Simpson has greatly troubled me. You know that it has been vouchsafed to me to see wonderful visions and to hear marvellous things from the blessed Angels, who from time to time come to me and tell me of the mysteries of God’s kingdom, and moreover grant me the inestimable privilege to help and protect His sorrowing children, and to take on myself the sorrows and blows which would be too heavy for them to bear.”
“I have so heard, my child, yet I bid you beware; for herein do I perceive there may be a great danger to your soul of spiritual pride, and of too readily believing what may be but the effort of a lying spirit to deceive, permitted to do so in order to test your humility and faith.”
“Oh, Father, take not away, I pray you, my belief in my Spirit guides. None can say how their sweet presence and support has sustained me when troubles and temptation seemed about to overwhelm me; but I will continue, and you shall hear. All my life, when I am myself, my whole desire is to Our Blessed Lord; and I believe that He in His mercy has accepted the gift of my heart, I feel wholly consecrated to His service. Yet at times, almost at regular intervals, there come over me evil dreams. I seem as though I had no longer power over my own body, or over my own thoughts, as though in spite of myself, and not wishing to do so, I am driven to the imagination of terrible things; the pure temple of my mind seems assailed by horrid thoughts, and though I long to drive them forth, yet, if you can understand, I long not to; it seems as if life would be all empty and colourless if I were to drive away and reject these images, yet I hate them all the time, and I hate myself for even seeming to encourage them,—forms of lust and cruelty, and of the service of the Devil instead of that of Our Lord,—and at such times I feel the only safe refuge is to go into absolute retirement till the evil thing has passed, lest I do a mischief to some dear friend, or lest some other pure and holy soul should catch my evil thought.”
“Tell me, my daughter,” said the monk, “have you ever at all been tempted to put these thoughts into action, to do any of the things you dream of?”
“No, Father; God in His mercy has spared me that. It is enough to have the thoughts, but even at their worst there is always shuddering horror of physical actions, corresponding to them. But always, at these times, does the name of Elspet Simpson come to me—a sort of conviction, I know not how, that I am dreaming or thinking what Elspet Simpson would have me, yet have I never heard her name in the flesh, never did I know such a woman existed till you said so just now. Oh, Father, can you help me? I feel there is no one else who can, and if you should fail me my last hope will be gone; never to any other human soul have I dared to tell what I have now told to you. And they think me so holy! Oh, Father, help me!”
“It is clear to me, my daughter,” said Father Ambrose, “you are extremely sensitive, and your religious enthusiasm and your remarkable gift of vision have strained your nerves almost beyond their power. Reaction must come—it is against all human strength to keep the bow thus eternally strung to a pitch so far above ordinary human powers—and the reaction brings the tendency to thoughts as far below the common level of mankind as your religious fervour is above it. At such times you are open to any suggestion or temptation of evil from whatever source. This Elspet Simpson, if I mistake not, is an evil witch such as our Holy Father Innocent VIII. has recently directed a Bull against, and she, I think, has obsessed you, or at least has endeavoured to do so. I thank God she has not so far succeeded. Now my counsel is that you endeavour to moderate the fervour of your devotions; restrain, so far as you can, these visions, beautiful as they are; occupy yourself in some material work, grow and tend flowers, make simples, work embroidery, anything you will; and when you feel the first assaults of the thoughts whereof you speak, seek some holy priest, the Father Abbot or the Lord Bishop, or whom you will, and beseech them to exorcise this evil thing. So do I think you will be freed altogether from this tyranny. It rejoiceth me, my child, that you stand in no need of absolution, for indeed I am not permitted to give you more than godly counsel and advice.”
“Father, you have saved me!” cried Cecily, wildly clasping and kissing his hand, which he strove gently but firmly to withdraw. “If only I can follow your counsels I shall be free indeed. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times—my poor tongue cannot express my thanks.”
Before she had finished the place was empty, the monk had passed out of a side door by the altar, and Cecily was left alone kneeling in prayer a few moments before she passed out again into the afternoon sunshine to rejoin the others, calmer in mind and heart than she had been for some time. Thanks to the tact of young Alexander of Westfield, Cecily’s absence had not been noticed. The Chanter accompanied them to the lych gate, and just before saying farewell he reiterated his opinion.
“I have come to the deliberate conclusion that no human agency has carried off my cousin of Blervie, neither raids of the wild Highlandmen nor any incursion of his family foes, nor yet human agents of evil. I know well that there be witches against whom our Holy Father Innocent hath so recently warned the faithful, but, so far as I have studied, and I have carefully considered all that is known on this matter, I deem not that any witch hath the power to abduct or carry away a christened man—though the first attack might have been caused by a witch. Therefore do I clearly think it is the direct work of the Arch Enemy, even the Devil himself, who as we know goeth about seeking whom he may devour; I hold that my cousin, by his study of unlawful books, against which I have so often warned him, hath put himself within the power of Satan, which Satan hath not been slow to avail himself of. Yet are the powers of Holy Church stronger by far than any malice of the Devil; and these powers I will exercise, by Divine permission, in a solemn exorcism, the which I have no doubt, in spite of all the forces of hell, will be sufficiently potent to restore my kinsman to his borne, and set him free from the captivity wherewith Satan hath bound him.”
The Chanter was falling into the verbiage of one of his own sermons, and his guests speedily took their leave.
As they rode homewards Beatrix and Cecily again took the lead. They seemed to have much to say to each other, but as a fact they spoke but little for a long time. The thoughts of each revolved persistently around the personality of Father Ambrose, yet in very different manner. Cecily’s reviewed over and over again, mentally re-enacting every point of it, the strange confessional scene in the little chapel. The wisdom of the man, his calm strength, and his evident earnestness impressed her greatly. In a world of shifting instability here was a firm rock on which she could rely in time of trouble. She had little faith in monks or priests generally, trusting far more to the revelation of her own visions, and being moreover not a little inclined, as we have seen, to the greater liberty of the New learning, as preached by Master Martin Luther, and impatient of the rules and discipline of the Church. For Beatrix, on the other hand, the prominent thought was the personality of the man, the soldierly bearing which his monkish robe could not hide, the intensity of his gaze fixed upon her, the strange electric thrill that passed through her as she felt those unseen eyes burning on her face, the stories she had heard of his courage, his learning, his sanctity, his vivid and romantic history. She shook her head impatiently—these thoughts were idle and useless.
“Cecily,” she said, “were you ever in love?”
“Never with any human being, Beatrix. You know I have been consecrated from my childhood. Our gracious Lord has marked me—I am the bride of Holy Church. Oh! I can well understand the feelings of those who are still of the earth and rejoice in their happy loves, but to me it would seem a profanity, an outrage.”
“Poor Cecily! I think you miss the crowning glory of womanhood. Surely there is no power like the power of love; with that we women sway men till they, with all their strength, all their wisdom and courage, just follow at our heels tame as a pet dog, and do exactly what we wish; we are the rudder that guides and controls the rich argosy or the mighty warship. Yet our highest glory lies in our supreme surrender; with all the power to wield man’s force as we will, we yet yield ourselves to them body and soul, and are proud to do so.”
“You talk strangely, Beatrix. Tell me—who is it you have found? Never have we had a secret from one another. If you have indeed met the man to whom your heart is in all loyalty given, none will rejoice more than I, your poor friend, who lives apart and knows not such matters save by repute.”
“Nay, Cecily, believe me I spoke but at random, for the sake of talking it may be. As yet I have never seen the face of the man who could stir my heart. But, as you know, I am precontracted to Norman Leslie of the Glen, and well I know that he could never stir aught but disgust and hatred within me.”
“Pray Heaven, then, Beatrix, that never may your heart be touched, and indeed I think for all your wild words, that it never will. For I see above and around you that great guardian Angel whose sword still threatens all who would do you any ill.” To the reader: this is posted so that you’ll know that someone has stolen this story from another source.
They were taking the lower or carse road home, instead of passing close to the Abbey, as Beatrix wished to show her friend something of the low grounds near the estuary. From where they rode they could plainly see the ingenious yards by which the monks took salmon. Stout fences were erected in the sea, covered by the water at high tide. As the tide receded many fish that had swum over the fences found their retreat cut off, and were taken by the brethren in the shallow water. Blah blah blah blah blah and whoever stole this story didn’t even bother to check this.
Out to sea the sun glinted golden on the great masses of sand that had grown up by degrees from the disintegration of the coast and the inroads of the sea, and which in later years were to be laid hold of by the mighty tearing force of the westerly winds and carried over the land, to swamp many fertile acres and utterly to overwhelm the fair lands of Culben, then lying basking in the afternoon sun, the rich golden harvest justifying the title of “the granary of Moray.” To their right as they turned inland the pleasant house and good lands of Tannachy made a bright foreground, beyond which the spires of Forres rose picturesquely against dark woods of Altyre backed by the blue hills over Inverness. From the left like the sudden chime of a song floated on the golden haze the sound of the three great bells of the Abbey, St. Anne, St. Mary, and St. Jerome, newly placed there by Abbot Chrystal, and now ringing the Angelus for Compline.
Up from the marshy levels that bordered the estuary rose a solitary white heron, and gracefully circled in the amber sunlight, her long legs stretched out behind, the wide white wings scarce moving as she swept in a great circle past the troop, returning again in a long curve to sail over their heads. The string of a cross-bow twanged, the bolt sped and smote the bird in the midst of her joyous sweep in the sunshine, and a mangled mass of tumbled feathers and a body drenched in blood, struggling its blithe little life away, fell with a heavy thud on the ground just by Beatrix’s horse’s feet. She shuddered and turned quickly away, but in Cecily’s eyes there came a sudden cruel gleam as of exultation, they narrowed almost to slits in her deadly white face, till they looked more like the eyes of an animal than a human being, and her lips involuntarily framed the words, “Elspet Simpson,” but muttered under her breath. The next instant she looked at Beatrix and caught her breath with a gasp, and her face resumed its normal appearance.
“Thank God! ’tis gone,” she murmured low to herself; “almost had the evil dream come over me then, almost I rejoiced in the blood and the pain of that poor creature. Father Ambrose will save nie yet.” Then turning to Beatrix with the tenderest compassion in her tones she said— “The poor sweet bird! Which of us all has had such a pure and beautiful life? and we must slay it, who never did us harm. Ah! why must all creation for ever prey on each other?”
“I trow ’tis nature,” said Beatrix. “For myself, I love hawking, yet can I not bear to see the gentle things die. I suppose the animal in me loves the sport, but the angel in me, if one there be, regrets it. Far rather could I kill a man in fair fight than an animal—often when fencing in sport I feel the wild nature within me. Methinks I could be the mate of some primitive man, and fight by his side and live free on the hills, away from all our petty conventions.”
“How strangely you speak, Beatrix! The thought of that monk, Father Ambrose, banishes wild thoughts from me.”
Beatrix too thought of Father Ambrose; but her wild thoughts were not banished. So they rode back in the mellow evening to Blervie Tower.
V – THE LAST OF THE DRUIDS
In spite of the most strenuous efforts of all the Dunbars and their kindred through the countryside, days passed fruitlessly. Nothing was heard of Sir Wilfred. Life at Blervie Tower went on much as usual, though Beatrix was consumed with anxiety for her father’s fate, yet for long she had been so much practically the sole responsible head of the household, and seeing her father sometimes only at intervals of four or five days, and then only to hear a disquisition on some of his researches or readings, that his disappearance scarcely made any difference to the management of the property or the control of the establishment. She resolutely declined all offers of hospitality, and all proffered visits of old or young matrons; she would bide in the Tower, and she would have no company but that of Cecily Ross. On these points she was fixed as fate.
Of Father Ambrose nothing whatever was heard, much to the disappointment of both the girls; for Beatrix, inspired by Master Simon Tulloch, was fully persuaded that from him if from any one might there be hope of rescue for her father, or at all events some solution of the mystery of his fate. And to Cecily the monk offered a means of escape from the evil dreams that periodically troubled her, and were beginning to prey upon her mind and nerves. The Chanter, so they heard, was preparing for the solemn exorcism on which he placed much faith. And rumour had it that he was endeavouring to persuade the Abbot of Kinloss, or the Lord Bishop of the diocese, to conduct the ceremony in person.
So again one evening Master Simon Tulloch came up the long slope of the hill leading to Blervie Tower. Full of importance was the genial one-legged gardener, for he had had an interview with his hero, Father Ambrose, and if not precisely messages for the ladies of the Tower, yet counsel given that he had requested should be repeated to them. As he turned up the last steep slope towards the Tower he saw a strange figure coming down as though to meet him. Simon thought he knew by sight every person of any note in the whole district, yet here he was fairly puzzled. He had never seen this man before, yet he was remarkable enough in appearance to attract attention anywhere. He was of unusual height, spare and erect as a lance; a long white beard fell almost to his girdle; a long grey gown something like a cassock in shape fell almost to his feet, which were shod with sandals; his robe was bordered with a brown fur, and on his head was a black skull-cap; his features were high and regular, and his keen grey eyes shone with an intense gleam that betokened a fiery enthusiasm, or perhaps an incipient gleam of madness.
“Master Simon Tulloch,” he said as he drew near, “I give you greeting.”
“I would know who thus greets me, and who is so free with my name,” said the gardener. “I seem not to have met your worship before.”
“Yet I deem my name will be not wholly unfamiliar. I was known as Eochain Beag when I was more familiarly known hereabouts, and yourself, Master Tulloch, a stripling.”
“Ah! I have ye now; methought there was something I recognised about the cut of ye. Ye are that Cumming of Altyre whom they called ‘the Apostate,’ who went after some strange heathen religion, and forsook the faith of our fathers—even denied your Christianity, so I’ve heard.”
“Nay, man! speak of what ye know, and keep your tongue from slanders. I profess, it may be, a holier and purer faith than you do, and it may be I am a better Christian, were all known; but this you could not understand if I talked till to-morrow. ’Tis true I am Eochain Cumming, the younger brother of Sir Alexander Cumming of Altyre, and let that suffice. I sent ye a note some days since concerning Sir Wilfred Dunbar of Blervie.”
“Ay, so! I wondered who was the tall man with a long white beard that the loon spoke of. I mind ye spake of Sir Wilfred being safe but in danger, and that the same threatened also his daughter.”
“I wished you to know that—though as you knew not who sent the note it could carry no conviction to your mind; still, it might have served to let you know that he was in the care of friends.”
“Strange sort of friends who could come through a stone wall and take a living Christian man out through the same!”
“Stranger things than that may be done, my friend. I may not tell you more, but meantime rely on the honour of a Cumming that I know ‘where Sir Wilfred is, that he is alive and safe, and thanks to your medicaments he is healing rapidly of his wounds. Meantime I would but ask you to carry this note to his daughter and bid her be of good cheer. And hereafter, if any should speak to you of Eochain Beag as ‘the Apostate,’ try to believe that he is, as I trust we all are, a humble seeker after truth, who having found a high and holy faith, is endeavouring as far as in him lies to follow the same.”
He handed to Simon a missive addressed to the Lady Beatrix Dunbar, written in the same curious hand as the former one to himself; then turned aside on to the moor and seemed to vanish, almost before the astounded eyes of Simon Tulloch.
Simon scratched his head. Strange tales had been told of Eochain Beag, a bright, handsome, and very popular boy; he had, so it was said, been addicted to odd and uncanny learning. Some maintained that he had the second sight; he himself used to speak of seeing fairies on the moor, and hearing fairy music below the dunes. And one night it was told that he slept within the haunted ring at Clava, and saw strange things whereof he would never speak; but from that time he went no more to mass, but communed with himself on the lone hillsides, and when he was about eighteen he left home for good and was heard of no more in Morayshire, save that from time to time came weird rumours. Now it was reported that Eochain had been burned in Edinburgh for a wizard, and again that he had gone to some far foreign country where he had renounced his Christianity and joined the Moslem. Wild enough were all the brood of the Cummings, but Eochain was the wildest of them all, so it was said, and no story was too strange to obtain credence. All these tales belonged to Simon’s boyhood. Since that time Eochain Beag had disappeared altogether, and the stories about him had passed into the realm of legend. His sudden reappearance now was as weird and strange as his disappearance half a century ago had been. Simon looked at the note in his hand as if it were some unholy thing. It was addressed in the same queer script, as though serpents had twisted themselves into letters. He was more than half afraid of the thing. But it had to be delivered to the Lady Beatrix, and though it came straight from the Devil himself Simon would not fail of his trust.
A clatter of hoofs sounded behind him, and a serving-man on a black horse galloped past. Simon’s eye caught the arms wrought on his surcoat, a shield argent, a bend azure charged with three buckles or, and a griffin’s head for crest.
“Norman Leslie of the Glen,” he muttered to himself, “the precontracted spouse of my Lady Beatrix. Now what does that rascal here? No good, I’ll be bound; he never did any good to any human soul in all his evil life that ever I heard tell of. God help my lady, if she be bound to marry him. A nunnery would be preferable, she said, and she is right. What could Sir Wilfred have been thinking of to allow that precontract? I will never believe the Church could enforce it, but they could prevent her marrying any one else. I must ask Father Ambrose how that stands. Well, well, I’ve a budget for my lady to-day: first what the good Father said, then this letter,— best not to tell her about Eochain Beag, I deem too much knowledge of the wild Cummings is not wholesome for a maid, though indeed this one seems to be more serious-minded than most of the race, but what sort of mad faith he professes is beyond me. I must deliver his letter, however. ‘Wild Cummings,’ said I. Well, if Father Ambrose is not one of the breed then am I a heathen Turk. I suppose it may be possible even for a Cumming to win to sanctity. I would far sooner credit it of them than I would of lightsome Leslie of the Glen.”
Simon, as it will be seen, had the habit that many more or less solitary men fall into, of talking to himself. At this moment his thoughts were interrupted by Beatrix and Cecily, who came suddenly upon him from the road leading up to the Tower.
“Give you good day, Master Simon,” said Beatrix. “By your face I see you come with news.” Simon hurriedly doffed his cap in a profound salutation. “Your ladyship, I have indeed words to say to you, yet not altogether such as you most desire, for of your father I have heard nothing whatever, alas! All our search has still been in vain, though to be sure there is one crack-brained person who tells me that he is safe and in the care of friends, yet I think not that he knows anything. More of him presently. I have also had a long conversation with Father Ambrose.”
Both the girls looked up in sudden and vivid interest, and Beatrix blushed deeply, and seemingly unnecessarily.
“The Father was cutting some figures on a sundial, while I was planting an apple tree close by, and I spoke to him and told him the whole story. He bade me say to you that he has no doubt that this is the work of one who has commerce with the Devil. But why, he said, should the Lady of Blervie seek counsel of a poor and humble monk, who has enough to do to win pardon for his own sins. ‘Not counsel, Father,’ I said, ‘but help.’ He shook his head gently. ‘I have taken the final vows,’ he said, ‘I am bound to the life of religion, and as you know, Master Simon,’ he said, ‘not one minute of a monk’s time is his own, nay not one thought of his mind; all are given to his Order. Gladly as I would help your lady, I cannot take back what is given to God, save by the direct command of the Father Abbot. This, however,’ he went on, ‘I may say; when I was down on the English marches I heard tell much of a notorious witch whom they called Elspet Simpson.’ ”
Neither Beatrix nor Simon noticed how Cecily winced and started at the name, almost as from the cut of a whip; it was of evil import to her. She quickly recovered herself, however, and Simon went on.
“The Father said that there had been witchwork down there very similar to what we have here, and that nought but the full rite of exorcism would avail, but that until this could be performed, for your own safety ye should take certain precautions, for he deems that either this Elspet Simpson can exercise her evil power even at this distance,—and it is well known that witches by the aid of their master the Devil can even do this,—or, may be, that there is hereabouts a witch of similar power and malice. These things therefore should ye do, as prescribed by the venerable Abbot of Melrose, who knoweth much of these matters. First, then, ye shall hang fresh boughs of the rowan over the main door of the Castle, and over the door of Sir Wilfred’s study, and of his bedroom; but over the door of your own chamber ye shall place the crucifix, and ye shall sprinkle holy water all around, and on the floor at the door of your sleeping-chamber ye shall trace a pentagram or five-pointed star, and the single point thereof shall be towards the room.
“Oh, Beatrix! not that, not that!” cried Cecily, in great distress. “It is the sign of the Inneses, the cruel and bloody foes of your house—it will bring you ill luck.”
“I would not that ye make or mar much herein, Mistress Ross,” said Simon, with some asperity. “I think ye have not the knowledge. I have given the Father’s message, and I think that he has skill. He sent a word to you also. He said, ‘Tell Mistress Ross, if you should see her, that I have asked for the prayers of Holy Church, both in the Abbey and in the Cathedral at Elgin, against the wiles and malice of this Elspet Simpson, for the reason that I told her before God’s altar, and that whenever she shall think of Elspet Simpson she shall pray most earnestly that this Elspet cast no spells upon her.”
Cecily lowered her eyes. She seemed as if praying; her face had grown even more strangely white than ever.
“Tell the Father, if ye should see him, that I will try,” she murmured almost under her breath.
“Furthermore,” said Simon, full of great importance of the messages he had to deliver, “I am bidden to tell you this, Lady Beatrix, from the Chanter, that in three days’ time the Abbot of Kinloss, or it may be the Bishop himself, doth propose to perform the solemn rite of exorcism here in the Tower, and that the Chanter hath good hopes that thereby the spells of evil magic shall be broken, and that Sir Wilfred Dunbar may be restored to his family in safety and good health. The Chanter therefore bids you to prepare to receive on that occasion so dignified a company with due honour and reverence.”
“I will do so, as in duty bound,” said Beatrix; “yet I confess I would rather that Father Ambrose should perform the ceremony alone, and in such simple style as our faith prescribes.”
“I doubt not but it might be more effective,” said Simon, “yet we must always look with becoming reverence on our Fathers in God, and gratefully accept their ministrations on our behalf, as said Father Adam Elder in his discourse last Sunday. But now finally, Lady Beatrix, I have to give ye this, and so is my mission accomplished.”
He handed to her the scroll he had received from Eochain Beag. Beatrix took it and looked at it curiously; the odd script imitating the twining of serpents affected her more than she showed. It was so like the carvings on some of the old heathen stones that yet stood in many places about the land, shunned with a superstitious dread by the people as altars for the worship of the Evil One, yet preserved, for in truth they dared not meddle with them lest a worse thing might befall them. It was some time before she broke the seal. At length she opened it, and read thus “If thou wouldest have news of thy father, come alone and unattended to the dune at Callifer at midnight on the day of the full moon. This, if thou darest to do, thou shalt be certified that he is alive and on the road to perfect recovery.” Instead of a signature were two serpents twining contrary ways round a rod, and in ancient letters thereunder, “The Last of the Druids.”
“Whence got you this, Master Simon?”
“From a tall man with a long white beard—somewhat crack-brained as I think, but yet he professes to know much.”
“Well, we shall see. I mean to keep this tryst. ‘If I dare,’ he says. He knows me not; I think that very sentence would move me to go straight into the jaws of hell. When is the full moon, Simon?”
“On the fourth day after this, Lady Beatrix.”
“So! on the very day after the exorcism. Well, the powers of evil are to be broken by that time, so my cousin the Chanter thinks. If they be broken, there is no need for me to fear them; and if they be not, then there is not much good in longer heeding our Mother Church, for she will have failed to produce the very effect that Our Master said should follow them that believed. Ergo, if this effect followeth not, then hath the Church ceased to believe, and who shall believe in that which believes not in itself, and we may accept Master Martin Luther without compunction.”
Coolly, who had walked away a short distance, with a certain instinctive delicacy, while Beatrix read the missive, now drew near again; and her eye fell on the paper in Beatrix’s hand. Instantly she drew in her breath with a sobbing sound, and gave a low cry, almost like that of an animal in pain or deadly fear; it was faint and scarce audible, yet it was a wail that was like the moan of a beaten dog. Beatrix turned in surprise.
“Oh, Beatrix! it was a terrible vision came on me. I saw bars, iron bars all round me. I was shut in prison, and your great Angel was standing over you, and pointing a cruel sword at me, and from the sword came lightnings, and I could not come to you.” Beatrix noticed the direction of her eyes, and instinctively concealed the letter in her dress. Almost immediately the fit passed, and Cecily controlled herself, but she was still trembling violently, and in great distress.
“What was that paper, Beatrix? It was something terrible. Whoever wrote that has some strange power over me—I know not what. My Spirits cannot answer—the good Angels seem to stand far apart. It is like a great serpent that holds me captive. I felt then as if I was in prison, just as I saw those poor monks down in the Abbey—only there is no Master Luther who can set me free from this thrall. I must go and lie down to rest for a little, my heart thumps so I can scarcely breathe.”
She turned into the Tower, tottering, and clinging to the stone parapet of the stairs for support, but refusing all offer of help.
“Poor girl!” said Beatrix, after she had left them, “she is terribly sensitive, and exhausted by her work for others. You are a skilled leech, Master Simon, can you not suggest some potion of simples that would give her strength, or rest in any case?”
“Nay, Mistress Beatrix, I am but a gardener with a trifling skill in tending wounds and the like, such as an old soldier may have; but I confess the ways of women are beyond me. When there is nothing ill but fantasy, then do they make the most ado.”
So saying, Master Tulloch, making low reverence, turned down the hill again towards the Abbey.
Near the foot of the hill, where the last slope began to descend upon the Abbey, a small company crossed his path—a man on a huge black warhorse, followed by five or six men in buff jerkins carrying spears, one of whom had a pennon charged with a golden buckle. The leader of the troop was a burly, dissipated-looking man, with close-cropped black hair, and a pointed black beard. He had plate armour over his embroidered buff coat, and a helmet hanging at his saddle- bow with a griffin crest.
Simon looked up with some curiosity.
“So that’s Lightsome Leslie,” he said to himself. “Grown coarser, and as I think wickeder, since I saw him last—indeed, my Lady Beatrix is right, a nunnery were preferable.”
The horseman halted. “Hie, fellow! Hast heard tell of a certain Mistress Elspet Simpson in these parts?” “That have I not. We love not to deal with witches in Morayshire.” “Then is Morayshire much misrepresented. I have been told your town of Forres is a favourite haunt. But no matter! we ride to punish the MacIntoshes, and we need this Elspet Simpson. I was well informed she had been seen hereabouts.”
“I think you were misinformed, Sir Norman Leslie.” “Eh! how know you me?” “Any man with eyes can see the buckles and the griffin’s head, and no Leslie but Sir Norman of the Glen rides thus accoutred.” “Well, well! ’tis no matter. See, fellow! if you chance on this Elspet wench, tell her that Leslie seeks her company.” So saying, he clattered away, with a great jangling of spears and horses’ bridles, and prancing and stamping of heavy hoofs. “And indeed I will do no errands for your like, my lord of the Glen,” quoth Master Simon.
“Fellow, indeed! fellow yourself! And Elspet may be a witch or whatever they please, I doubt she is too good for the like of you. No woman could ever be foul enough not to be too clean for you. Hey! Is it possible that any proxy marriage with such a swine could hold binding? My poor sweet lady! I must ask of Father Ambrose.”
As Master Simon was stumping off cheerily intent on his duty, Cecily Ross sat in her chamber in Blervie Tower that was above Beatrix’s, and looking out to the Firth and the sunset over Wyvis, and all the gorgeous colours that were reflected in the sea, leant her face on her hands on the window-seat in deep dejection. The three sweet bells from the Abbey were ringing out the Angelus.
“Is there no hope?” she cried aloud to the still evening air. “Oh, must those dreadful dreams come over me again? O sweet Angelus, is there no Angel message any more for me? I have done all that Father Ambrose said, but it grows worse; soon I shall not be able to recover myself. And they are new dreams—worse than any I have ever had before. Why should the Star of the Inneses terrify me so? They are Beatrix’s foes, I know, but that is not the reason I shudder before that Star, and I feel I can’t pass it. Is it possible that the Inneses will separate me from her? Oh! God forbid! What is this Elspet Simpson? I seem to long for her, while I dread and hate her. No one but Father Ambrose ever knew of her. Did I ever see her, I wonder? I see her in dreams. O God, deliver me—let me not long for Elspet—it is the evil thing, I know.”
She cast herself on her knees and prayed fervently, clasping her hands so tight that the slender fingers were bruised and cut with her rings. Then for long she gazed again out to the sunset over the sea.
“’Tis a pity,” she went on a little more calmly now, “that the rite of exorcism is such poor superstition and mummery. If indeed the Church could cast out devils! Nay, Master Martin Luther himself has had several tussles with the Evil One,—threw an inkpot at his head, so they tell me. Why then should not the monks and their Abbot heir me? Oh, they are all in prison as I saw them, shut up in darkness till some brave soul shall break their bondage as Master Luther has done in Germany. They cannot help—Ah! woe is me that it is so sinful! Oh, the wild exultation of those dreams—Oh, the joy, the mad rush—the blood surging through the veins— the throb of the heart like a mad thing—Oh, the blood! How I have dreamed of killing—the hunter’s mad ecstasy. Why was I not born a man? All this Elspet gives me in my dreams—Ah! I must—I must!”
She writhed on the floor, clinging hard to the stone window-sill with both hands, and dragging her slender body up to the window with strange contortions.
Then suddenly she cried, with a wild moan—
“No! no! I must not—I will not yield to it here. I can keep Elspet away;—she would kill my darling Beatrix. No! before the dreams get overpowering I must go. I must hide myself somewhere;—Beatrix must never know how this frightful thing gets hold of me. Oh, if Father Ambrose would but take me and keep me till the spell is past, let me lie in some cell, shut away from all but himself, and dream out my wicked dreams. I am calm when it is over. Ah me! how tired I am now! I would I might die, all strength and force is gone from me. Let me but lie down and sleep, and ah! dear God! keep all evil dreams from me.”
She sank worn out on the couch, but no quiet sleep was hers. Two hours later, when Beatrix came with some small cakes and a soothing drink, Cecily was still tossing wildly, with short barking cries, her cheek was flushed through its usual unnatural whiteness, her heavy black hair in strange disorder, and on her lip where she had bitten it in her struggle was a tiny spot of blood.