The Tapestried Chamber, or The Lady in the Sacque
Sir Walter Scott, 1828
Author’s Note: This is another little story, from the Keepsake of 1828. It was told to me many years ago, by the late Miss Anna Seward, who, among other accomplishments that rendered her an amusing inmate in a country house, had that of recounting narratives of this sort with very considerable effect; much greater, indeed, than any one would be apt to guess from the style of her written performances. There are hours and moods when most people are not displeased to listen to such things; and I have heard some of the greatest and wisest of my contemporaries take their share in telling them. (August, 1831)
The following narrative is given from the pen, so far as memory permits, in the same character in which it was presented to the author’s ear; nor has he claim to farther praise, or to be more deeply censured, than in proportion to the good or bad judgment which he has employed in selecting his materials, as he has studiously avoided any attempt at ornament, which might interfere with the simplicity of the tale.
At the same time, it must be admitted, that the particular class of stories which turns on the marvellous, possesses a stronger influence when told than when committed to print. The volume taken up at noonday, though rehearsing the same incidents, conveys a much more feeble impression than, is achieved by the voice of the speaker on a circle of fireside auditors, who hang upon the narrative as the narrator details the minute incidents which serve to give it authenticity, and lowers his voice with an affectation of mystery while he approaches the fearful and wonderful part. It was with such advantages that the present writer heard the following events related, more than twenty years since, by the celebrated Miss Seward, of Litchfield, who, to her numerous accomplishments, added, in a remarkable degree, the power of narrative in private conversation. In its present form, the tale must necessarily lose all the interest which was attached to it, by the flexible voice and intelligent features of the gifted narrator. Yet still, read aloud, to an undoubting audience by the doubtful light of the closing evening, or in silence, by a decaying taper, and amidst the solitude of a half-lighted apartment, it may redeem its character as a good ghost story. Miss Seward always affirmed that she had derived her information from an authentic source, although she suppressed the names of the two persons chiefly concerned. I will not avail myself of any particulars I may have since received concerning the localities of the detail, but suffer them to rest under the same general description in which they were first related to me; and, for the same reason, I will not add to, or diminish the narrative, by any circumstances, whether more or less material, but simply rehearse, as I heard it, a story of supernatural terror.
About the end of the American war, when the officers of Lord Cornwallis’s army, which surrendered at York-town, and others, who had been made prisoners during the impolitic and ill-fated controversy, were returning to their own country, to relate their adventures, and repose themselves after their fatigues; there was amongst them a general officer, to whom Miss S. gave the name of Browne, but merely, as I understood, to save the inconvenience of introducing a nameless agent in the narrative. He was an officer of merit, as well as a gentleman of high consideration for family and attainments.
Some business had carried General Browne upon a tour through the western counties, when, in the conclusion of a morning stage, he found himself in the vicinity of a small country town, which presented a scene of uncommon beauty, and of a character peculiarly English.
The little town, with its stately church, whose tower bore testimony to the devotion of ages long past, lay amidst pasture and corn-fields of small extent, but bounded and divided with hedge-row timber of great age and size. There were few marks of modern improvement. The environs of the place intimated neither the solitude of decay, nor the bustle of novelty; the houses were old, but in good repair; and the beautiful little river murmured freely on its way to the left of the town, neither restrained by a dam, nor bordered by a towing-path.
Upon a gentle eminence, nearly a mile to the southward of the town, were seen, amongst many venerable oaks and tangled thickets, the turrets of a castle, as old as the wars of York and Lancaster, but which seemed to have received important alterations during the age of Elizabeth and her successors. It had not been a place of great size; but whatever accommodation it formerly afforded, was, it must be supposed, still to be obtained within its walls; at least, such was the inference which General Browne drew from observing the smoke arise merrily from several of the ancient wreathed and carved chimney-stalks. The wall of the park ran alongside of the highway for two or three hundred yards; and through the different points by which the eye found glimpses into the woodland scenery, it seemed to be well stocked. Other points of view opened in succession; now a full one, of the front of the old castle, and now a side glimpse at its particular towers; the former rich in all the bizarrerie of the Elizabethan school, while the simple arid solid strength of other parts of the building seemed to show that they had been raised more for defence than ostentation. Delighted with the partial glimpses which he obtained of the castle through the woods and glades by which this ancient feudal fortress was surrounded, our military traveller was determined to inquire whether it might not deserve a nearer view, and whether it contained family pictures or other objects of curiosity worthy of a stranger’s visit; when, leaving the vicinity of the park, he rolled through a clean and well-paved street, and stopped at the door of a well-frequented inn.
Before ordering horses to proceed on his journey, General Browne made inquiries concerning the proprietor of the chateau which had so attracted his admiration, and was equally surprised and pleased at hearing in reply a nobleman named whom we shall call Lord Woodville. How fortunate! Much of Browne’s early recollections, both at school and at college, had been connected with young Woodville, whom, by a few questions, he now ascertained to be the same with the owner of this fair domain. He had been raised to the peerage by the decease of his father a few months before, and, as the General learned from the landlord, the term of mourning being ended, was now taking possession of his paternal estate, in the jovial season of merry autumn, accompanied by a select party of friends to enjoy the sports of a country famous for game.
This was delightful news to our traveller. Frank Woodville had been Richard Browne’s fag at Eton, and his chosen intimate at Christ Church; their pleasures and their tasks had been the same; and the honest soldier’s heart warmed to find his early friend in possession of so delightful a residence, and of an estate, as the landlord assured him with a nod and a wink, fully adequate to maintain and add to his dignity. Nothing was more natural than that the traveller should suspend a journey, which there was nothing to render hurried, to pay a visit to an old friend under such agreeable circumstances.
The fresh horses, therefore, had only the brief task of conveying the General’s travelling carriage to Woodville Castle. A porter admitted them at a modern Gothic Lodge, built in that style to correspond with the Castle itself, and at the same time rang a bell to give warning of the approach of visitors. Apparently the sound of the bell had suspended the separation of the company, bent on the various amusements of the morning; for, on entering the court of the chateau, several young men were lounging about in their sporting dresses, looking at, and criticising, the dogs which the keepers held in readiness to attend their pastime. As General Browne alighted, the young lord came to the gate of the hall, and for an instant gazed, as at a stranger, upon the countenance of his friend, on which war, with its fatigues and its wounds, had made a great alteration. But the uncertainty lasted no longer than till the visitor had spoken, and the hearty greeting which followed was such as can only be exchanged betwixt those who have passed together the merry days of careless boyhood or early youth.
“If I could have formed a wish, my dear Browne,” said Lord Woodville, “it would have been to have you here, of all men, upon this occasion, which my friends are good enough to hold as a sort of holyday. Do not think you have been unwatched during the years you have been absent from us. I have traced you through your dangers, your triumphs, your misfortunes, and was delighted to see that, whether in victory or defeat, the name of my old friend was always distinguished with applause.”
The General made a suitable reply, and congratulated his friend on his new dignities, and the possession of a place and domain so beautiful.
“Nay, you have seen nothing of it as yet,” said Lord Woodville, “and I trust you do not mean to leave us till you are better acquainted with it. It is true, I confess, that my present party is pretty large, and the old house, like other places of the kind, does not possess so much accommodation as the extent of the outward walls appears to promise. But we can give you a comfortable old-fashioned room; and I venture to suppose that your campaigns have taught you to be glad of worse quarters.”
The General shrugged his shoulders, and laughed. “I presume,” he said, “the worst apartment in your chateau is considerably superior to the old tobacco-cask, in which I was fain to take up my night’s lodging when I was in the Bush, as the Virginians call it, with the light corps. There I lay, like Diogenes himself, so delighted with my covering from the elements, that I made a vain attempt to have it rolled on to my next quarters; but my commander for the time would give way to no such luxurious provision, and I took farewell of my beloved cask with tears in my eyes.”
“Well, then, since you do not fear your quarters,” said Lord Woodville, “you will stay with me a week at least. Of guns, dogs, fishing-rods, flies, and means of sport by sea and land, we have enough and to spare: you cannot pitch on an amusement, but we will pitch on the means of pursuing it. But if you prefer the gun and pointers, I will go with you myself, and see whether you have mended your shooting since you have been amongst the Indians of the back settlements.”
The General gladly accepted his friendly host’s proposal in all its points. After a morning of manly exercise, the company met at dinner, where it was the delight of Lord Woodville to conduce to the display of the high properties of his recovered friend, so as to recommend him to his guests, most of whom were persons of distinction. He led General Browne to speak of the scenes he had witnessed; and as every word marked alike the brave officer and the sensible man, who retained possession of his cool judgment under the most imminent dangers, the company looked upon the soldier with general respect, as no one who had proved himself possessed of an uncommon portion of personal courage — that attribute, of all others, of which every body desires to be thought possessed.
The day at Woodville Castle ended as usual in such mansions. The hospitality stopped within the limits of good order; music, in which the young lord was a proficient, succeeded to the circulation of the bottle: cards and billiards, for those who preferred such amusements, were in readiness: but the exercise of the morning required early hours, and not long after eleven o’clock the guests began to retire to their several apartments.
The young lord himself conducted his friend, General Browne, to the chamber destined for him, which answered the description he had given of it, being comfortable, but old-fashioned. The bed was of the massive form used in the end of the seventeenth century, and the curtains of faded silk, heavily trimmed with tarnished gold. But then the sheets, pillows, and blankets looked delightful to the campaigner, when he thought of his mansion, the cask. There was an air of gloom in the tapestry hangings, which, with their worn-out graces, curtained the walls of the little chamber, and gently undulated as the autumnal breeze found its way through the ancient lattice-window, which pattered and whistled as the air gained entrance. The toilet too, with its mirror, turbaned, after the manner of the beginning of the century, with a coiffure of murrey-coloured silk, and its hundred strange-shaped boxes, providing for arrangements which had been obsolete for more than fifty years, had an antique, and in so far a melancholy, aspect. But nothing could blaze more brightly and cheerfully than the two large wax candles; or if aught could rival them, it was the flaming bickering fagots in the chimney, that sent at once their gleam and their warmth through the snug apartment; which, notwithstanding the general antiquity of its appearance, was not wanting in the least convenience that modern habits rendered either necessary or desirable.
“This is an old-fashioned sleeping apartment, General,” said the young lord; “but I hope you will find nothing that makes you envy your old tobacco-cask.”
“I am not particular respecting my lodgings,” replied the General; “yet were I to make any choice, I would prefer this chamber by many degrees, to the gayer and more modern rooms of your family mansion. Believe me, that when I unite its modern air of comfort with its venerable antiquity, and recollect that it is your lordship’s property, I shall feel in better quarters here, than if I were in the best hotel London could afford.”
“I trust — I have no doubt — that you will find yourself as comfortable as I wish you, my dear General,” said the young nobleman; and once more bidding his guest good-night, he shook him by the hand, and withdrew.
The General again looked round him, and internally congratulating himself on his return to peaceful life, the comforts of which were endeared by the recollection of the hardships and dangers he had lately sustained, undressed himself, and prepared himself for a luxurious night’s rest.
Here, contrary to the custom of this species of tale, we leave the General in possession of his apartment until the next morning.
The company assembled for breakfast at an early hour, but without the appearance of General Browne, who seemed the guest that Lord Woodville was desirous of honouring above all whom his hospitality had assembled around him. He more than once expressed surprise at the General’s absence, and at length sent a servant to make inquiry after him. The man brought back information that General Browne had been walking abroad since an early hour of the morning, in defiance of the weather, which was misty and ungenial.
“The custom of a soldier,”— said the young nobleman to his friends; “many of them acquire habitual vigilance, and cannot sleep after the early hour at which their duty usually commands them to be alert.”
Yet the explanation which Lord Woodville thus offered to the company seemed hardly satisfactory to his own mind, and it was in a fit of silence and abstraction that he awaited the return of the General. It took place near an hour after the breakfast bell had rung. He looked fatigued and feverish. His hair, the powdering and arrangement of which was at this time one of the most important occupations of a man’s whole day, and marked his fashion as much as, in the present time, the tying of a cravat, or the want of one, was dishevelled, uncurled, void of powder, and dank with dew. His clothes were huddled on with a careless negligence, remarkable in a military man, whose real or supposed duties are usually held to include some attention to the toilet; and his looks were haggard and ghastly in a peculiar degree.
“So you have stolen a march upon us this morning, my dear General,” said Lord Woodville; “or you have not found your bed so much to your mind as I had hoped and you seemed to expect. How did you rest last night?”
“Oh, excellently well! remarkably well! never better in my life”— said General Browne rapidly, and yet with an air of embarrassment which was obvious to his friend. He then hastily swallowed a cup of tea, and neglecting or refusing whatever else was offered, seemed to fall into a fit of abstraction.
“You will take the gun today, General;” said his friend and host, but had to repeat the question twice ere he received the abrupt answer, “No, my lord; I am sorry I cannot have the honour of spending another day with your lordship; my post horses are ordered, and will be here directly.”
All who were present showed surprise, and Lord Woodville immediately replied, “Post horses, my good friend! what can you possibly want with them, when you promised to stay with me quietly for at least a week?”
“I believe,” said the General, obviously much embarrassed, “that I might, in the pleasure of my first meeting with your lordship, have said something about stopping here a few days; but I have since found it altogether impossible.”
“That is very extraordinary,” answered the young nobleman. “You seemed quite disengaged yesterday, and you cannot have had a summons today; for our post has not come up from the town, and therefore you cannot have received any letters.”
General Browne, without giving any farther explanation, muttered something of indispensable business, and insisted on the absolute necessity of his departure in a manner which silenced all opposition on the part of his host, who saw that his resolution was taken, and forbore farther importunity.
“At least, however,” he said, “permit me, my dear Browne, since go you will or must, to show you the view from the terrace, which the mist, that is now rising, will soon display.”
He threw open a sash window, and stepped down upon the terrace as he spoke. The General followed him mechanically, but seemed little to attend to what his host was saying, as, looking across an extended and rich prospect, he pointed out the different objects worthy of observation. Thus they moved on till Lord Woodville had attained his purpose of drawing his guest entirely apart from the rest of the company, when, turning round upon him with an air of great solemnity, he addressed him thus:
“Richard Browne, my old and very dear friend, we are now alone. Let me conjure you to answer me upon the word of a friend, and the honour of a soldier. How did you in reality rest during last night?”
“Most wretchedly indeed, my lord,” answered the General, in the same tone of solemnity; —“so miserably, that I would not run the risk of such a second night, not only for all the lands belonging to this castle, but for all the country which I see from this elevated point of view.”
“This is most extraordinary,” said the young lord, as if speaking to himself; “then there must be something in the reports concerning that apartment.” Again turning to the General, he said, “For God’s sake, my dear friend, be candid with me, and let me know the disagreeable particulars, which have befallen you under a roof, where, with consent of the owner, you should have met nothing save comfort.”
The General seemed distressed by this appeal, and paused a moment before he replied. “My dear lord,” he at length said, “what happened to me last night is of a nature so peculiar and so unpleasant, that I could hardly bring myself to detail it even to your lordship, were it not that, independent of my wish to gratify any request of yours, I think that sincerity on my part may lead to some explanation about a circumstance equally painful and mysterious. To others, the communication I am about to make, might place me in the light of a weak-minded, superstitious fool who suffered his own imagination to delude and bewilder him; but you have known me in childhood and youth, and will not suspect me of having adopted in manhood the feelings and frailties from which my early years were free.” Here he paused, and his friend replied:
“Do not doubt my perfect confidence in the truth of your communication, however strange it may be,” replied Lord Woodville; “I know your firmness of disposition too well, to suspect you could be made the object of imposition, and am aware that your honour and your friendship will equally deter you from exaggerating whatever you may have witnessed.”
“Well then,” said the General, “I will proceed with my story as well as I can, relying upon your candour; and yet distinctly feeling that I would rather face a battery than recall to my mind the odious recollection’s of last night.”
He paused a second time, and then perceiving that Lord Woodville remained silent and in an attitude of attention, he commenced, though not without obvious reluctance, the history of his night’s adventures in the Tapestried Chamber.
“I undressed and went to bed, so soon as your lordship left me yesterday evening; but the wood in the chimney, which nearly fronted my bed, blazed brightly and cheerfully, and, aided by a hundred exciting recollections of my childhood and youth, which had been recalled by the unexpected pleasure of meeting your lordship, prevented me from falling immediately asleep. I ought, however, to say, that these reflections were all of a pleasant and agreeable kind, grounded on a sense of having for a time exchanged the labour, fatigues, and dangers of my profession, for the enjoyments of a peaceful life, and the reunion of those friendly and affectionate ties, which I had torn asunder at the rude summons of war.
“While such pleasing reflections were stealing over my mind, and gradually lulling me to slumber, I was suddenly aroused by a sound like that of the rustling of a silken gown, and the tapping of a pair of high-heeled shoes, as if a woman were walking in the apartment. Ere I could draw the curtain to see what the matter was, the figure of a little woman passed between the bed and the fire. The back of this form was turned to me, and I could observe, from the shoulders and neck, it was that of an old woman, whose dress was an old-fashioned gown, which, I think, ladies call a sacque; that is, a sort of robe, completely loose in the body, but gathered into broad plaits upon the neck and shoulders, which fall down to the ground, and terminate in a species of train.
“I thought the intrusion singular enough, but never harboured for a moment the idea that what I saw was any thing more than the mortal form of some old woman about the establishment, who had a fancy to dress like her grandmother, and who, having perhaps (as your lordship mentioned that you were rather straitened for room) been dislodged from her chamber for my accommodation, had forgotten the circumstance, and returned by twelve to her old haunt. Under this persuasion I moved myself in bed and coughed a little, to make the intruder sensible of my being in possession of the premises. — She turned slowly round, but gracious heaven! my lord, what a countenance did she display to me! There was no longer any question what she was, or any thought of her being a living being. Upon a face which wore the fixed features of a corpse, were imprinted the traces of the vilest and most hideous passions which had animated her while she lived. The body of some atrocious criminal seemed to have been given up from the grave, and the soul restored from the penal fire, in order to form, for a space, a union with the ancient accomplice of its guilt. I started up in bed, and sat upright, supporting myself on my palms, as I gazed on this horrible spectre. The hag made, as it seemed, a single and swift stride to the bed where I lay, and squatted herself down upon it, in precisely the same attitude which I had assumed in the extremity of horror, advancing her diabolical countenance within half a yard of mine, with a grin which seemed to intimate the malice and the derision of an incarnate fiend.”
Here General Browne stopped, and wiped from his brow the cold perspiration with which the recollection of his horrible vision had covered it.
“My lord,” he said, “I am no coward. I have been in all the mortal dangers incidental to my profession, and I may truly boast, that no man ever knew Richard Browne dishonour the sword he wears; but in these horrible circumstances, under the eyes, and as it seemed, almost in the grasp of an incarnation of an evil spirit, all firmness forsook me, all manhood melted from me like wax in the furnace, and I felt my hair individually bristle. The current of my life-blood ceased to flow, and I sank back in a swoon, as very a victim to panic terror as ever was a village girl, or a child of ten years old. How long I lay in this condition I cannot pretend to guess.
“But I was roused by the castle clock striking one, so loud that it seemed as if it were in the very room. It was some time before I dared open my eyes, lest they should again encounter the horrible spectacle. When, however, I summoned courage to look up, she was no longer visible. My first idea was to pull my bell, wake the servants, and remove to a garret or a hay-loft, to be ensured against a second visitation. Nay, I will confess the truth, that my resolution was altered, not by the shame of exposing myself, but by the fear that, as the bell-cord hung by the chimney, I might, in making my way to it, be again crossed by the fiendish hag, who, I figured to myself, might be still lurking about some corner of the apartment.
“I will not pretend to describe what hot and cold fever-fits tormented me for the rest of the night, through broken sleep, weary vigils, and that dubious state which forms the neutral ground between them. A hundred terrible objects appeared to haunt me; but there was the great difference betwixt the vision which I have described, and those which followed, that I knew the last to be deceptions of my own fancy and over-excited nerves.
“Day at last appeared, and I rose from my bed ill in health, and humiliated in mind. I was ashamed of myself as a man and a soldier, and still more so, at feeling my own extreme desire to escape from the haunted apartment, which, however, conquered all other considerations; so that, huddling on my clothes with the most careless haste, I made my escape from your lordship’s mansion, to seek in the open air some relief to my nervous system, shaken as it was by this horrible encounter with a visitant, for such I must believe her, from the other world. Your lordship has now heard the cause of my discomposure, and of my sudden desire to leave your hospitable castle. In other places I trust we may often meet; but God protect me from ever spending a second night under that roof!”
Strange as the General’s tale was, he spoke with such a deep air of conviction, that it cut short all the usual commentaries which are made on such stories. Lord Woodville never once asked him if he was sure he did not dream of the apparition, or suggested any of the possibilities by which it is fashionable to explain supernatural appearances, as wild vagaries of the fancy, or deceptions of the optic nerves. On the contrary, he seemed deeply impressed with the truth and reality of what he had heard; and, after a considerable pause, regretted, with much appearance of sincerity, that his early friend should in his house have suffered so severely.
“I am the more sorry for your pain, my dear Browne,” he continued, “that it is the unhappy, though most unexpected, result of an experiment of my own! You must know, that for my father and grandfather’s time, at least, the apartment which was assigned to you last night, had been shut on account of reports that it was disturbed by supernatural sights and noises. When I came, a few weeks since, into possession of the estate, I thought the accommodation, which the castle afforded for my friends, was not extensive enough to permit the inhabitants of the invisible world to retain possession of a comfortable sleeping apartment. I therefore caused the Tapestried Chamber, as we call it, to be opened; and without destroying its air of antiquity, I had such new articles of furniture placed in it as became the modern times. Yet as the opinion that the room was haunted very strongly prevailed among the domestics, and was also known in the neighbourhood and to many of my friends, I feared some prejudice might be entertained by the first occupant of the Tapestried Chamber, which might tend to revive the evil report which it had laboured under, and so disappoint my purpose of rendering it a useful part of the house. I must confess, my dear Browne, that your arrival yesterday, agreeable to me for a thousand reasons besides, seemed the most favourable opportunity of removing the unpleasant rumours which attached to the room, since your courage was indubitable and your mind free of any pre-occupation on the subject. I could not, therefore, have chosen a more fitting subject for my experiment.”
“Upon my life,” said General Browne, somewhat hastily, “I am infinitely obliged to your lordship — very particularly indebted indeed. I am likely to remember for some time the consequences of the experiment, as your lordship is pleased to call it.”
“Nay, now you are unjust, my dear friend,” said Lord Woodville. “You have only to reflect for a single moment, in order to be convinced that I could not augur the possibility of the pain to which you have been so unhappily exposed. I was yesterday morning a complete sceptic on the subject of supernatural appearances. Nay, I am sure that had I told you what was said about that room, those very reports would have induced you, by your own choice, to select it for your accommodation. It was my misfortune, perhaps my error, but really cannot be termed my fault, that you have been afflicted so strangely.”
“Strangely indeed!” said the General, resuming his good temper; “and I acknowledge that I have no right to be offended with your lordship for treating me like what I used to think myself — a man of some firmness and courage. — But I see my post horses are arrived, and I must not detain your lordship from your amusement.”
“Nay, my old friend,” said Lord Woodville, “since you cannot stay with us another day, which, indeed, I can no longer urge, give me at least half an hour more. You used to love pictures, and I have a gallery of portraits, some of them by Vandyke, representing ancestry to whom this property and castle formerly belonged. I think that several of them will strike you as possessing merit.”
General Browne accepted the invitation, though somewhat unwillingly. It was evident he was not to breathe freely or at ease till he left Woodville Castle far behind him. He could not refuse his friend’s invitation, however; and the less so, that he was a little ashamed of the peevishness which he had displayed towards his well-meaning entertainer.
The General, therefore, followed Lord Woodville through several rooms, into a long gallery hung with pictures, which the latter pointed out to his guest, telling the names, and giving some account of the personages whose portraits presented themselves in progression. General Browne was but little interested in the details which these accounts conveyed to him. They were, indeed, of the kind which are usually found in an old family gallery. Here was a cavalier who had ruined the estate in the royal cause; there a fine lady who had reinstated it by contracting a match with a wealthy Roundhead. There hung a gallant who had been in danger for corresponding with the exiled Court at St. Germain’s; here one who had taken arms for William at the Revolution; and there a third that had thrown his weight alternately into the scale of whig and tory.
While Lord Woodville was cramming these words into his guest’s ear, “against the stomach of his sense,” they gained the middle of the gallery, when he beheld General Browne suddenly start, and assume an attitude of the utmost surprise, not unmixed with fear, as his eyes were caught and suddenly riveted by a portrait of an old lady in a sacque, the fashionable dress of the end of the seventeenth century.
“There she is!” he exclaimed; “there she is, in form and features, though inferior in demoniac expression, to the accursed hag who visited me last night.”
“If that be the case,” said the young nobleman, “there can remain no longer any doubt of the horrible reality of your apparition. That is the picture of a wretched ancestress of mine, of whose crimes a black and fearful catalogue is recorded in a family history in my charter-chest. The recital of them would be too horrible; it is enough to say, that in yon fatal apartment incest and unnatural murder were committed. I will restore it to the solitude, to which the better judgment of those who preceded me had consigned it; and never shall any one, so long as I can prevent it, be exposed to a repetition of the supernatural horrors which could shake such courage as yours.”
Thus the friends, who had met with such glee, parted in a very different mood; Lord Woodville to command the Tapestried Chamber to be unmantled, and the door built up; and General Browne to seek in some less beautiful country, and with some less dignified friend, forgetfulness of the painful night which he had passed in Woodville Castle.
About the Author
Poet, novelist, and biographer, son of Walter Scott, a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, and Margaret Rutherford, daughter of one of the Prof. of Medicine in the University there. Through both parents he was connected with several old Border families; his father was a scion of the Scotts of Harden, well known in Border history. In early childhood he suffered from a severe fever, one of the effects of which was a permanent lameness, and for some time he was delicate. The native vigour of his constitution, however, soon asserted itself, and he became a man of exceptional strength. Much of his childhood was spent at his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowe, Roxburghshire, and almost from the dawn of intelligence he began to show an interest in the traditionary lore which was to have so powerful an influence on his future life, an interest which was nourished and stimulated by several of the older members of his family, especially one of his aunts. At this stage he was a quick-witted, excitable child, who required rather to be restrained than pressed forward. At the age of 7 he was strong enough to be sent to the High School of Edinburgh, where he was more remarkable for miscellaneous and out-of-the-way knowledge and his powers of story-telling than for proficiency in the ordinary course of study; and notwithstanding his lameness, he was to be found in the forefront wherever adventure or fighting were to be had. Thereafter he was for three sessions at the University, where he bore much the same character as at school. He was, however, far from idle, and was all the time following the irresistible bent, which ultimately led to such brilliant results, in a course of insatiable reading of ballads and romances, to enlarge which he had by the time he was 15 acquired a working knowledge of French and Italian, and had made the acquaintance of Dante and Ariosto in the original. Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, published in 1765, came into his hands in 1784, and proved one of the most formative influences of this period. At 15 he was apprenticed to his father, but preferring the higher branch of the profession, he studied for the Bar, to which he was called in 1792. He did not, however, forego his favourite studies, but ransacked the Advocates’ Library for old manuscripts, in the deciphering of which he became so expert that his assistance soon came to be invoked by antiquarians of much longer standing. Although he worked hard at law his ideal was not the attainment of an extensive practice, but rather of a fairly paid post which should leave him leisure for his favourite pursuits, and this he succeeded in reaching, being appointed first in 1799 Sheriff of Selkirk, and next in 1812 one of the Principal Clerks to the Court of Session, which together brought him an income of £1600.
Meanwhile in 1795 he had translated Bürger’s ballad of Lenore, and in the following year he made his first appearance in print by publishing it along with a translation of The Wild Huntsman by the same author. About the same time he made the acquaintance of “Monk” Lewis, to whose collection of Tales of Wonderhe contributed the ballads of Glenfinlas, The Eve of St. John, and The Grey Brother; and he published in 1799 a translation of Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen. In 1797 he was married to Miss Charlotte Margaret Charpentier, the daughter of a French gentleman of good position. The year 1802 saw the publication of Scott’s first work of real importance, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, of which 2 vols. appeared, the third following in the next year. In 1804 he went to reside at Ashestiel on the Tweed, where he ed. the old romance, Sir Tristrem, and in 1805 he produced his first great original work, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was received with great favour, and decided that literature was thenceforth to be the main work of his life. In the same year the first few chapters of Waverley were written; but the unfavourable opinion of a friend led to the MS. being laid aside for nearly 10 years.
In 1806 Scott began, by a secret partnership, that association with the Ballantynes which resulted so unfortunately for him 20 years later. Marmion was published in 1808: it was even more popular than the Lay, and raised his reputation proportionately. The same year saw the publication of his elaborate ed. of Dryden with a Life, and was also marked by a rupture with Jeffrey, with whom he had been associated as a contributor to the Edinburgh Review, and by the establishment of the new firm of J. Ballantyne and Co., of which the first important publication was The Lady of the Lake, which appeared in 1810, The Vision of Don Roderick following in 1811.
In 1812 Scott purchased land on the Tweed near Melrose, and built his famous house, Abbotsford, the adornment of which became one of the chief pleasures of his life, and which he made the scene of a noble and kindly hospitality. In the same year he published Rokeby, and in 1813 The Bridal of Triermain, while 1814 saw The Life and Works of Swift in 19 vols., and was made illustrious by the appearance of Waverley, the two coming out in the same week, the latter, of course, like its successors, anonymously. The next year, The Lord of the Isles, Guy Mannering, and The Field of Waterlooappeared, and the next again, 1816, Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk, The Antiquary, The Black Dwarf, and Old Mortality, while 1817 saw Harold the Dauntless and Rob Roy. The enormous strain which Scott had been undergoing as official, man of letters, and man of business, began at length to tell upon him, and in this same year, 1817, he had the first of a series of severe seizures of cramp in the stomach, to which, however, his indomitable spirit refused to yield, and several of his next works, The Heart of Midlothian , by many considered his masterpiece, The Bride of Lammermoor, The Legend of Montrose, and Ivanhoe, all of 1819, were dictated to amanuenses, while he was too ill to hold a pen. In 1820 The Monastery, in which the public began to detect a falling off in the powers of the still generally unknown author, appeared. The immediately following Abbot, however, showed a recovery. Kenilworth and The Pirate followed in 1821, The Fortunes of Nigel in 1822; Peveril of the Peak, Quentin Durward, and St. Ronan’s Well in 1823; Redgauntlet in 1824, and Tales of the Crusaders (The Betrothed and The Talisman) in 1825.
By this time Scott had long reached a pinnacle of fame such as perhaps no British man of letters has ever attained during his lifetime. He had for a time been the most admired poet of his day, and though latterly somewhat eclipsed by Byron, he still retained great fame as a poet. He also possessed a great reputation as an antiquary, one of the chief revivers of interest in our ancient literature, and as the biographer and ed. of several of our great writers; while the incognito which he maintained in regard to his novels was to many a very partial veil. The unprecedented profits of his writings had made him, as he believed, a man of wealth; his social prestige was immense; he had in 1820 been made a baronet, when that was still a real distinction, and he had been the acknowledged representative of his country when the King visited it in 1822.
All this was now to change, and the fabric of prosperity which he had raised by his genius and labour, and which had never spoiled the simplicity and generosity of his character, was suddenly to crumble into ruin with, however, the result of revealing him as the possessor of qualities even greater and nobler than any he had shown in his happier days. The publishing and printing firms with which he had been connected fell in the commercial crisis of 1826, and Scott found himself at 55, and with failing health, involved in liabilities amounting to £130,000. Never was adversity more manfully and gallantly met. Notwithstanding the crushing magnitude of the disaster and the concurrent sorrow of his wife’s illness, which soon issued in her death, he deliberately set himself to the herculean task of working off his debts, asking only that time might be given him. The secret of his authorship was now, of course, revealed, and his efforts were crowned with a marvellous measure of success. Woodstock, his first publication after the crash, appeared in the same year and brought £8000; by 1828 he had earned £40,000. In 1827 The Two Drovers, The Highland Widow, and The Surgeon’s Daughter, forming the first series of Chronicles of the Canongate, appeared together with The Life of Napoleon in 9 vols., and the first series of Tales of a Grandfather; in 1828 The Fair Maid of Perth and the second series of Tales of a Grandfather, Anne of Geierstein, a third series of the Tales, and the commencement of a complete ed. of the novels in 1829; a fourth and last series of Tales, History of Scotland, and other work in 1830. Then at last the overworked brain gave way, and during this year he had more than one paralytic seizure. He was sent abroad for change and rest, and a Government frigate was placed at his disposal. But all was in vain; he never recovered, and though in temporary rallies he produced two more novels, Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous, both in 1831, which only showed that the spell was broken, he gradually sank, and died at Abbotsford on September 21, 1832.
The work which Scott accomplished, whether looked at as regards its mass or its quality, is alike marvellous. In mere amount his output in each of the four departments of poetry, prose fiction, history and biography, and miscellaneous literature is sufficient to fill an ordinary literary life. Indeed the quantity of his acknowledged work in other departments was held to be the strongest argument against the possibility of his being the author of the novels. The achievement of such a result demanded a power of steady, methodical, and rapid work almost unparalleled in the history of literature. When we turn to its quality we are struck by the range of subject and the variableness of the treatment. In general there is the same fulness of mind directed by strong practical sense and judgment, but the style is often heavy, loose, and even slipshod, and in most of his works there are “patches” in which he falls far below his best. His poetry, though as a whole belonging to the second class, is full of broad and bold effects, picturesqueness, and an irresistible rush and freshness. As a lyrist, however, he stands much higher, and in such gems as “Proud Maisie” and “A weary lot is thine, Fair Maid,” he takes his place among our greatest singers. His chief fame rests, of course, upon the novels. Here also, however, there is the same inequality and irregularity, but there is a singular command over his genius in virtue of which the fusing, creating imagination responds to his call, and is at its greatest just where it is most needed. For the variety, truth, and aliveness of his characters he has probably no equal since Shakespeare, and though, of course, coming far behind, he resembles him alike in his range and in his insight. The most remarkable feature in his character is the union of an imagination of the first order with practical sagacity and manly sanity, in this also resembling his great predecessor.