Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/The jewel-case
On a bright December morning, long ago,—never mind how, never mind where, and never mind when,—I felt that I was really too busy to do aught but please myself; a gratifying sensation seasoned with a spice of conscience, for had I not performed sundry and manifold household duties? Had I not made the breakfast, and eaten my own good share of it? Had I not done all, and said all, that was necessary, even to informing my old nurse, housekeeper, lady’s-maid, confidante, and tyrant, Mary Bennet, that my long raved of and beautiful friend, Lora Gardiner, was coming that very day to commence, organise, and grace a whole series of Christmas festivities? Had she not, as was her wont when any far-famed star was mentioned, said: “Nae doubt, nae doubt; but I’m thinking she’ll nae be like the Lady Janet Johnstoun o’ Johnstoun Ha’!” and had I not mentally ejaculated, “Bother her!” but to the old woman, “You’ll see; she’s prettier, Mary, far, and I know you’ll say so?” Whereupon, of course, she had said: “Nae, nae, there wer but ae Lady Janet in a’ the warld, and she’s gane,” and wiped her eyes; so then I knew the curtain had fallen on that act of the drama, and went on my way.
I suppose every one, at some period or other of their lives, has known what it was to feel the heart lightened, step quickened, and cheek flushed, with nothing more or less exciting than a fine frosty morning! Such was my own case: and after my little confab with Mary—or Mrs. Bennet, as she was usually termed—I hastened to put on a jaunty hat, warm coat, gloves, &c., and sally forth rejoicing; but while my kirtle was undergoing the process of “kilting a little above the knee,” I could not resist again asking Mary, “Was Lady Janet really so very beautiful?”
The old woman gave a deep sigh; and then, apparently searching for some one string which had deserted its post, catching it, losing it again, and again reclaiming the wanderer, which she tied with a jerk, continued:
“Aye, she wer maire beautiful than ony I’se e’er seen; she wer winsome, and blithesome, and bonnie, wi’ the eye o’ an eagle, and the heart o’ the dove, but” (and here her voice sank to a tone which made me creep all over), ”they do say, up in my ain countree, that though the Lady Janet Johnstoun is aye dead and gone, she nae sleeps!” After this last remark, she observed, taking a bird’s-eye view of me from a far corner of the room, “I’m thinking yer a’ richt noo.”
All right!—what a mockery! All right! When I felt that the only safe mode of transit from one room to another was by planting “my back agin the wa’,” like Lewie Gordon, and progressing by a crab-like movement, thus having the comforting assurance that there was nothing more or worse than bricks and mortar behind me.
’Twas useless to indulge (what an indulgence!) in such superstitious fancies. I had a walk to take, and “things” to do; so off I set, with a brave look, a craven heart, and a somewhat flitting colour. The crisp road under foot, and the bright light of God’s mercy over-head, tended somewhat to reassure me, though I could not refrain once or twice from feeling that I wished Mrs. Bennet had been less communicative respecting that bright, particular star of hers, the Lady Janet Johnstoun; and making up my mind that I would know the whole history before I was many days older, went on, and on, and on, like the old woman in the story book, until I came to our town—a straggling, ill-built place, with more children than mothers to look after them, more dogs than owners, and more dirt than drains; but yet it boasted one or two good shops, with civil tradespeople, who informed you, with the blandest of smiles, that they had not got whatever you might happen to want, but would get it “with pleasure” a fortnight later than the day on which you required it; and in addition to these well-to-do emporiums was one wretched little jeweller’s or pawnbroker’s shop, kept by the most miserable, thievish-looking Israelite that ever disgraced a Christian country. Now this shop I somewhat affected; for, softly be it spoken, I have a weakness for old China! and Benjamin frequently meets with rare specimens at a far more moderate price than I should have to pay for the same in London; therefore I confess to hanging about that dirty old shop. I confess to poking my nose into that offensive little hole. I confess to holding long conferences with that dingy old dealer, Benjamin Lye! And on this particular occasion I went a quarter of a mile out of the direct road to have a gaze through his foggy window, where my attention was immediately riveted by the unusual sight of a queer-shaped morocco jewel-case. I at once stepped in, requesting Benjamin to gratify my womanly curiosity by opening the closed lid;—for, if there is one thing which teases me more than another, it is a mystery. I always consider a closed box, when you do not know what is in it, a decided mystery. If other people had had the same feelings as myself, we should never have had that catastrophe of the Mistletoe Bough. But in the mean time the obsequious Benjamin was doing his best to make me happy, by a sight of the contents of the faded case; but no, it resisted all his efforts, until he had recourse to a knife, which seemed of but little more avail, for so fast as he moved it from one side to the other, so quickly did that obstinate box close after it; and Benjamin grew redder and redder in the face, until crimson began to shine below the dirt, as between each attempt he gaspingly gave me the information that “been in ish possesshion a vary long time—brought by a lady—vary larsh shum—quite forget it—beautiful goodsh”—when snap went the knife, open flew the lid, disclosing a set of lovely antique ornaments, of enamel, gold, and rubies; the set consisting of ear-rings and four clasps, varying in size from a five-shilling piece to a sixpence, evidently for the front of a lady’s robe. I was charmed with them: the case was old, worn and faded, but the jewels were clear, bright, and beautiful, sparkling in a way that only finest rubies can do. Then, where did these antique Austrian (which I at once knew they were) ornaments come from? Benjamin, of course, was in a state of benighted ignorance on this point; but, noting my flushed cheek and greedy eyes, did not omit to ask a very fair sum, but still so little in comparison with their real value, that I saw he did not appreciate them; and after a very short parley with that individual, I walked off, with the little queer-shaped, faded case in my muff, elated and happy as a child with her first doll.
How often so small an incident as the foregoing may render us sad or gay: however charmed I might be with my new possession, a weight lay on my heart when I recollected that the only person to whom I could show it, or that would be pleased with my pleasure, was faithful Mary Bennet.
On that excellent lady’s inspection I was more than usually gratified, for the good dame’s cheek varied from the yellow tinted codling to the rosy ribston pippin, and back again to the russet, as she pronounced the highest encomium her lips were capable of. “They minded her strangelie of a set the vary same, worn by the Lady Janet Johnstoun o’ Johnstoun Ha’.”
The afternoon was fading from the jovial crispness of a frosty day into the chill air and clinging damp of a steady thaw, when I set myself about expecting Lora Gardiner, with the sort of restless preparation one is instinctively guilty of when it is for some loved one. Four o’clock! the day is closed, and night—or rather darkness—coming on. Tea things are on the Sutherland table by the library hearth; the room is long, and, I think, somewhat dark; the two fire-places, though logs are bright and blazing on each, seem as though one was for visible, the other invisible, folk. I don’t like to think of the latter, and have just placed the teapot inside the visible mortal’s fender, when I hear quick, cheerful carriage wheels grating on the drive. I burn both face and fingers in an attempt to replace that Madame Follet of domestic life, the teapot, on her tray, and spring forward, so heartily glad to greet my beauty—dear, dear Lora Gardiner!—with her fair face and serious eyes, her winning smile and atmosphere of sunshine. Yes, though since we parted, Lora, your life has been past and done, and though your young blood has done its part to lave the walls of Lucknow, in many a noble hall, in many a lowly home, your name is breathed with blessings, and your memory hallowed with a tear. Whenever I now think of Lora, the familiar epitaph in a country churchyard at home comes to my recollection:
“Fear no more the summer’s sun,
Or the stormy winter rages,
Thou thine earthly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.”
To say that Mrs. Bennet’s heart was won by Lora does not express it—she was her slave! and I almost felt jealous to see how quickly the stranger had wound herself as much into Mary’s good graces as myself, her nursling; but then Lora crept swiftly into every heart, while I—but I am but myself too apt to forget the old adage, “Love gets love.”
In the meantime, I was revolving a scheme for persuading Mrs. Bennet to unravel the history—the bare hint of which always so much unsettled me—respecting the family in which, or rather among whose descendants, she had been brought up, but of whose deeds of daring she was generally, with characteristic caution, somewhat shy: and I thought to myself, would a new ribbon (bright red) open her heart and subsequently her lips?—would a douceur of greater magnitude be necessary?—under what cloak could the coaxing, wheedling measure be best disguised? When, judge of my surprise on going into Lora’s room on the morning after her arrival, to hear (but it was not this which startled me), “for a’ the world just like ane Lady Janet Johnstoun o’ the Johnstoun Ha’.” Lora’s sweet voice replied gently, “Was Lady Janet very fond of you, Mrs. Bennet?”
“Nae, nae, my dear,” expostulated Mrs. Bennet, somewhat taken aback at this interpretation of her words, “I ne’er had glint o’ her bonnie face, but she wer cradled at the same time wi’ my ain gude mither, as wad gladlie ha’ died for her, and her name’s been the same to me as I’ve heard say the Vargin Mary’s is to some o’ them papishers ower the water.”
Lora smiled at the old woman’s words; but my entrance interrupted their flow, and it was not until Lora and I were leaving the room together that my astonishment reached its climax.
“Then you won’t forget your promise, Mrs. Bennet, and tell us the Johnstoun history, to-night?” said Lora.
“Weel, weel, my dear,” was the reply; “it’s ower hard to deny ye onything, I’m thinking, and ye’ll get yer ain way wi’ me fast eneuch.”
I could hardly restrain my curiosity until we were out of hearing.
“My dear Lora,” I then exclaimed, “how on earth did you do it?”
“Do what?” she said, looking surprised in her turn.
“Do?” I reiterated. “Get Mary to promise the Johnstoun history? She is always so shy of mentioning more than their mighty names.”
“Well, I suppose,” replied Lora, “that it was a verification of the old proverb, ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ I had not the least idea of any difficulty, therefore, when she spoke so frequently of the Lady Janet Johnstoun, I simply asked her to tell us the tale to-night, when I hope the rendezvous will be your boudoir as usual. But, do you think,” said Lora, becoming anxious, “that it will pain the old woman to rake up the memory of bygone days, because, if you do, I’ll run back and put a stop to it at once; there is no use in letting the poor thing brood over the thought for the whole day.”
I answered somewhat pettishly:
“Nonsense, Lora, come along; if she doesn’t like it, I’m sure she won’t do it. I don’t believe she has any objection, only she likes to be coaxed into doing a thing, and I never could learn how to do that.”
But as I gazed on my companion’s transparent face, and noted the unselfish purity which shone through, I recognised for a moment what it was which made her irresistible to most people, although she herself was so unconscious of the attraction; and a pang shot through my heart as I felt how much more loveable she was than my selfish self, for this very incident had called my amour propre into play, and the thought never left me during the next twenty-four hours—“Mrs. Bennet promised at once for Lora, although I have never been able to get her to relate me the story,” and once or twice jealous tears welled up into my eyes.
Lora was so merry, and fresh, and amusing, that the hours flew past unheeded, as every one knows they do when a party of ladies get together. But when two girls meet, Time’s pinions must ache again with the rapidity of his flight.
Lora was so deeply interested in everything—horses, dogs, books, ferns, flowers, music; she did everything so well, and sang, at all hours, at any one’s request, anything and everything, so charmingly, and with so much enjoyment of the music herself, that I did not wonder at her being idolised, for the crowning point of her attractions has yet to be told—she could be as charmingly quiet. And let me give this hint to all whom it may concern: quietness, repose, or what our neighbours term retenu, is the most difficult—nay, I had almost said impossible—attainment. There are some very young girls who, in the fresh buoyancy of youth, take hearts by storm—they are few, and their conquests doubtful; but a woman, be she young or old, who charms, simply and quietly, by saying and doing nothing, ought to be ticketed “dangerous.”
But once more let me take up the thread of my narrative. The day passed over so happily, that I had almost forgotten the Christmas-box which I—poor, lonely woman—had made myself a present of, namely, my antique ornaments, until the dressing-bell rang. Guests had arrived, to be welcomed and ushered to their respective chambers, where fires burned bright and cheery. And as I passed through the great hall on my way to my own side of the house, I saw the holly and mistletoe, with red and white berries reflecting each from their bright leaves the flashes of warmth wrung from their dismembered kindred on the hearth; and I wondered within myself if the dead logs were recognised by the fresh boughs, or exchanged a kindly greeting on this Christmas Eve, before fading into dust and ashes. It may be so.
After travelling up the long staircase, I paused to recover breath by the side of the table in my room, on which still lay the faded case, and, taking it in my hand, once more tried to open the obstinate lock, which resisted my most strenuous efforts, until, becoming quite vexed, I sat down determined to conquer it, whether I was thereby rendered late for dinner or no. At some time or other, the case had evidently been wet, consequently the snap was somewhat rusty and out of order. After devoting more time to the indulgence of my irritated temper than I had to spare, I succeeded in forcing the lid open, and was again struck with the beauty of the workmanship and the brilliancy of the stones in the ornaments; the largest clasp was peculiar in form, and somewhat thickly made, and as I passed it meditatively between my thumb and finger, testing its actual depth, I wondered what other hands had done the same—who was the original possessor—was she young or old, or beautiful or ugly? The ornaments were peculiar in device; perhaps some rich old woman had designed and ordered them for her own personal adornment, wearing them on her rich dress, where the jewels had flashed and sparkled with every rise and fall of her stout matronly bosom.
But this idea was unpleasing. I preferred to think them the property of some fair and gentle Austrian maid, who had—but, good gracious! here my surmises were interrupted by my thumb nail slipping into a chink hitherto indiscernible at the back of the large clasp, and prosecuting my discovery carefully, though with breathless interest, I removed a slide thin as a wafer, and there, in all its simple glory, lay a lock of golden hair, covering a miniature painting of a man’s face. There was nothing to mark the character or station of the original, therefore I say “a man’s face;” but if ever physiognomy showed the distinctive traces of nobility, this was a king’s! And even in the bright warm atmosphere of my room, amid the noises of a house full of people, I quailed before the indomitable eyes and silent majesty of the picture.
The dinner-bell pealed, but it was not its sound which made my hands tremble as, swiftly replacing the little slide, and ringing loudly for Mrs. Bennet, I commenced a far more hasty toilette than was my custom. Her exclamation, on entering the room, “Ech, sirs! My puir bairn, but yer pale and wearie, I’ll just ha’ to trick ye up like a babie!” did not rouse me. I drank the sal-volatile administered by her, and ran down stairs, long after the gong had growled its hospitable summons, feeling as if still in a dream—a dream of which the golden-haired chief, knight, or noble was the mysterious Alpha and Omega. The chatty Life Guardsman, who had the honour of handing me in to dinner, must have considered me a remarkably stupid person, as my interest in him was but to judge from his well-turned head whether the chief (so I will call him) of my Austrian jewels would have been worse looking with any covering on the throat, and I arrived at the conclusion that the portrait was so small that to have introduced drapery would have been impossible. Even the sight of Lora’s radiant beauty, so prettily set off by white silk, looped up with the large red cactus flowers, failed to divert my mind from the kingly face and lock of yellow hair. And it was a relief when the last song had been sung, the last reel footed, the last good-night uttered, even to that very last in the rooms of my guests where courtesy obliged me to see if they had everything they needed: but the last came at last, and I flew to my chamber to prepare as quickly as possible for the history, which somehow appeared to have a greater interest for me than ever; staying a few moments, however, with secured door to contend with the obstinate clasp, and take another look at my treasure. With reverent hands I lifted the lock of silky hair and gazed on the stedfast brow, when it occurred to me to use a powerful magnifying-glass which I had to see if I could discover any inscription or name; when, judge of my surprise, nay, almost terror, when I read in distinct little white letters these three words: ”Archdale. Mon Cœur,” written immediately beneath the face, where drapery would have commenced! The inexplicable feeling of sorrow which I had on deciphering these words almost drew tears from my eyes, and I replaced the lock of hair as gently and tenderly as though it had belonged to—well, mon cœur; and once more closing the obstinate case, which I had conceived a respect for, knowing what it so jealously guarded, I went into the adjoining room to await the entrance of Lora and Mrs. Bennet.
A strange feeling rendered me silent on the subject of my discovery, and my thoughts were far away during the earlier part of Mrs. Bennet’s narrative, which, however, soon attracted my wandering attention, the name of Lady Janet being in itself a talisman.
“Peace was an unco’ strange word for a Christian countree,” commenced Mrs. Bennet, “in the Lady Janet Johnstoun’s day. Mony a braw lad, understanding not its meaning, wud fain be lying stark and cauld on the muir than be thocht a mon o’ peace, believing it to be what we ca’ coward! There was never but ane o’ that likes in the Johnstouns, least o’ a’ amang the women, matron or maid; for if it was nae the ca’ o’ their time to strike the blow, there was ne’er an ane but could stan’ like the rocks theirselves to endure; and I’m thinking that wer the courage o’ the martyrs! The Lady Janet Johnstoun’s father wer a soldier and a saint if one e’er stepped this earth—what in my ain countree they aye ca’ ‘leal and loyal and trew’—and oh, Gude save us! if ever saint wer worshipped here, he wer, the brave, trew, old soldier, by his child the Lady Janet Johnstoun. He had several brothers, but they a’ died away wi’out leaving any survivors, except his youngest brother Kenneth, who lived to pruve his sel’ ane o’ the deil’s handy tools, and wha liked his master. This one, Kenneth, had a son and a daughter, Joan; the son’s name wer Patrick. I mind me not distinctly o’ a’ the bye ways and sly ways by which Kenneth mair na’ half ruined the Lady Janet’s father; but I have heard my mither tell that if the Lady Janet could ha’ gien her heart’s bluid drop by drop for her father, ’twould ha’ been dune, wi’ thanks to Heaven for the privilege. And sae she did, puir thing! but nae in a way as she recognised. Sin’ the time she wer cradled, there had been troth plighted ’twixt her and her cousin by her mother’s side, the Lord Archdale of Evry, the ainlie son and chief o’ a’ that ilk—ane as wad ha’ conferred honour to onnie throne he sat upon; and next to her father, the Lady Janet luved him, for he wer worthie of a’ a woman’s faith and love. When Kenneth and the deil together had rendered Lady Janet’s father nigh upon a ruined man, wha suld come forwards then but the son Patrick, saying, ’Only be my wife, Lady Janet Johnstoun, and your father’s a free mon again—free in his castle and in his ha’—free frae debt and all that he shrinks frae,’ or words to that effect; for,” continued Mrs. Bennet, humbly, “it’s nae likely that my puir tongue can say the things as they would be said by the Lady Janet, and nobles, and yerls o’ her kin. I ken but the facts, and maun be content to relate them as best I can, craving yer remembrance that they of whom I speak wad nae utter sounds like yer auld nurse, Mary Bennet.”
We begged her to proceed in her tale, Lora leaning her chin on her hand listening with breathless attention.
“Weel a day,” continued Mrs. Bennet, ”her father wad nae ha’ said a word to cross his darling’s heart, but she kenned a’, and that wer enough for the Lady Janet, and she spake up, honourable and bold, to Sir Patrick. Said she:—
“‘Ye ken, Sir Patrick, that I hae nae heart to give ye; sin’ I was a wee babe, it has been in my cousin Archdale’s keeping; but, for my father’s sake, gien ye will accept of sae puir a thing, sae loveless a gift, here is my hand, and I will be yer wife, faithful and true, till death.’ He took her at her word, and her father never kenned ’twas ought agin her inclination, for she’d never do a richt thing by halves: and but twice after that saw she ever her cousin Archdale. The first time ’twas to bid him farewell. They met on the open muir, the sun shining bright abuve their heads, and my ain mither stood by her side, and grat, puir thing! as if ’twer her heart wer breaking!—grat sae, that she heard but little of a’ they said. But for a’ sae braw and lustie as Lord Archdale wer, when he cam to meet the Lady Janet, stanning before her wi’ his bonnet in his hand, and the fresh breeze blowing his golden hair like a glory frae his brow; for a’ sae brave a mon as he wer, when ’twas ere a foe or the oppressor of his clan as stood before him, he quailed and sank before the doom o’ parting frae his true love, the Lady Janet Johnstoun. And my mither said that, with her ain characteristics, even in her sorrow, she thought but o’ comfortin’ him. At last the Lady Janet tuke his hand sae fondlie in baith o’ hers, and said, ‘Archie, mon cœur, God be with ye, and lighten every pang that I had hoped to share. Farewell! ye’ll think nae mair o’ me, Archie!’ Lord Archdale luked in her face as tho’ ’twer his last luke at ought below, and saying, ‘Nae mair than Heaven, Janet,’ turned awa’ a tremblin’ heartbroken mon. My mither led her hame. She never spoke a word, or seemed to make a sorrow o’ the parting frae her cousin, but her bonnie face, where the red rose used to dwell, turned like marble, and no one ever saw a gleam o’ colour in her cheek again, save once, as ye will hear.
“Sir Patrick was very proud of her, and so far as it lay in his niggardly, ungenerous, coward’s nature to be so, wer kind to her, and preparations for the wedding went on brawlie; kinsfolk cam speeding ower the hills, gentles o’ a’ high degrees frae far and near; but the Lady Janet sat in her bower alone, and never seemed to care for ought but tending on her father. She who’d fly a hawk, or hunt a hound, or rein a horse better and braver than the best, had lost all heart for onnie, save her duty to him. ’Twas in the winter time, and each cauld blast seemed to shake the auld mon waur, and Sir Patrick hurried on preparations for his wedding, in such a fashion as mony deemed unseemly. The day cam at last, and the Lady Janet, wi’ her voice as firm as her heart wer cauld, said the words that gave herself away; but her eyes ne’er sought the bridegroom, dark and lustrous as they were; they ne’er turned on ony but the auld mon by her side, her father.
“The blow cam at last,” continued Mrs. Bennet, wiping her eyes, for during the latter part of her story they had frequently overflowed. “The Lady Janet’s father wer found dead on the floor o’ her chamber, when she had na’ been a wedded wife a month. They feared to tell her the sad news; for them as kenned him best, said as how it wer the loss o’ his child as killed him—the loss o’ her who sold hersel’ to save him! But when she heard it, she took it a’ like a stane, and ne’er a muscle o’ the white face muved; but when she saw my mither, she said—and I often mind me of her words—‘A’ the rivers rin into the sea, Mary, and are lost! All my trouble’s lost in this, and I shall never feel again.’ Puir thing, she wer mistaken! Her father wer a stern, just mon; fierce, if onnie wrang’d him, mair gentle still, if onnie needed: but none dare say the word that was untrue within his ken, or lichtlie him so much as a shadow, e’en when seas rolled between, so long as he were standing on the hill’s blue heather! But when he wer dead and gone, without or kith or kin, save the Lady Janet and his brother, the deil put into the mouth o’ Kenneth to speak slightinglie and wi’ disparagement o’ the auld mon, the Lady Janet’s father—put it into their cowardlie hearts to say what the father o’ lies would; because there wer nane but a puir woman to gainsay him. And the Lady Janet heard—heard all they would invent, wi’ nought but her simple word, simple and trew as her puir father’s would ha’ been, to contradict them. And they who saw her, said the Lady Janet’s face, mild and gentle, and brave, and queenlike as it alway wer, became strange, wi’ an eerie glance in her large dark eyes,—a look like the look of a stag at bay!
“’Twas unco’ remarkable, to say nothing more o’ the matter,” continued Mrs. Bennet, who, like many Scotch women, was somewhat superstitious, “’twas unco’ remarkable, to say nothing more o’ the matter, that about this time, in a’ the glens, and in a’ the ways, might be heard the auld Johnstoun strathspey: sometimes ye might find the instrument and the men, oftner not; but what wer remarkable war, that a’most every Hielandmon o’ a’ the clan wer heard singing strange words to the auld tune, and nane could tell fra whence they came. I mind me of them noo.
We answer to thy voice,
Lady Janet o’ the Ha’;
Be it late or earlie,
We answer to thy ca’.
Sweethearts, wives, and mithers,
We leave them ane and a’;
We’re comin’, Lady Janet,
We answer to thy ca’.
O’er the muir and mountain,
O’er the water’s fa’,
We’re comin’, Lady Janet,
We answer to thy ca’.
Frae distant land or countrie,
Free near, or far awa’,
We’re comin’, Lady Janet,
We answer to thy ca’.
Ha’e we hames, or wives, or bairnies,
Or ha’e we nane at a’,
We’re comin’, Lady Janet,
We answer to thy ca’.
We’ll fire nae licht or beacon,
We’ll need just nane at a’,
We’ll ha’e the licht o’ yer eyes sae bright,
Lady Janet o’ the Ha’.
We’ll need nae pibrochs ploying,
We’ll say just nought at a’,
But strike, and live or die for
The Johnstouns o’ the Ha’.
Then, we’re comin’, Lady Janet,
Do ye hear us, ane and a’?
We answer to thy spirit,
Queen o’ the Johnstouns a’!
“Sir Patrick took it a’ darklie and silentlie, as wer his fashion, and ne’er stood up for his wife’s father, or so much as turned his head to save her a pang, but contrarywise, seemed as if ’twer something he would e’en brave out; and ’twer about this time, when every one belonging to the Lady Janet, or any o’ the Johnstouns, felt that something wer hanging o’er the clan, though they didna richtlie ken what, that he must needs summon a’ the folk round about for mony a mile to a gran’ ball! At that time naebody could mak’ oot for why.
“My mither, wi’ mony anither o’ the people, wer there in the great ha’, to see all as wer to be seen, and there wer more than Sir Patrick reckoned for, before the nicht wer over.
“They say the Lady Janet looked like a spirit in her white satin robe (ane o’ Sir Patrick’s petty oppressions being that he wad na permit her to wear the garb o’ sorrow for her father), a’ fastened like her hair, wi’ jewels, which wer dim beside the glittering hunted gleam o’ her eyes; and next to her, for remarkableness, wer Sir Patrick’s sister, the Mistress Joan; her face wer dark and heavy, like her brother’s, wi’ a look in it that alway turned a child or dog away. My mither, of course, could only see, nae hear ought except the music; but when the nicht wer far advanced, and the earlie winter’s morn wer comin’, she saw the Lady Janet (as had been standin’ wearie against ane o’ the pillars of the ha’ for half an hour or more) speaking to Sir Patrick’s sister, Joan. And gradually the music ceased, and folks gathered round to hark to what they wer saying; and my mither, for a’ she wer but a servant, wer the Lady Janet’s foster sister, and so she forced her way in, and stood amang the lords and ladies too, unnoted of, and listening. She just cam in time to hear Mistress Joan say scoffinglie, ‘And is’t for this ye glour sae stranglie upon me, my Lady Janet?’
“‘It is,’ said Lady Janet, ‘because ye’re your father’s dochter! I ha’ nae power,’ continued she despairinglie, ‘I ha’ nae power, for I am but ane puir simple woman again a powerful craftie mon, assisted by the father o’ a’ such lies. But I can show what I would do had I the power’ (and here her sma’ hand clenched sae that the flowers she held fell withered at her feet); ‘and may your father, Mistress Joan, be ten thousand times dishonoured, in his life and in his death, for every word by which he’s tried to lichtlie mine!’
“Mistress Joan looked almost afraid as the words were said, and a stillness fell over a’ as the Lady Janet leaned wearilie back again the marble pillar, which wer white like her face; when suddenlie a clear voice spoke like a clarion in the hush of all around, and him as had ne’er been seen sin’ they parted on the muir, Lord Archdale, stood amang ’em a’, and his hand grasped his dirk as he said, ‘For ae kiss o’ yer bonnie moo, cousin Janet, I’ll tear his lying tongue out frae his lips, and fling it to the dogs!’
“Lady Janet sprang forward, saying, ‘A hundred, Archie! and God bless ye!’
“I’ll no’ say he took sae mony less, ere he loosed her from his arms, and left the ha’, followed ane and a’ by the nobles and gentles, and his ain men, but none could tell for why the music maun ever add its voice to the rest, and struck up the auld Johnstoun strathspey. And there wer fierce muttering, and hurrying to and fro, and the dark nicht wer lichted by eyes and blades mair na torches. The Lady Janet, mair proudlie than had e’er been seen, followed her husband frae the deserted room, and what passed between them nane may tell, for strange as it may seem she wer but seldom seen again.
“Troubles followed fast upon her footsteps; the Lord Archdale wer found foulie slain, and nigh upon hacked to pieces by the road-side on that same nicht, and nane could tell by whom the cowardlie deed had been done. And there wer hardlie any but what rejoiced—strange rejoicing!—when Kenneth, Sir Patrick’s father, wer found in his ain braid chamber, decked about wi’ every device to pamper the heart o’ mon, but dead, and wi’ his tongue cut oot frae the mouth. Nane can tell or imagine the deadlie vengeance or horror of a Hieland feud; it wer characteristic of such that in the dead hand wer a scroll o’ paper, and written on it i’ bluid wer these strange words:—
‘Lords and gentles, hearken,
And remember what ye’ve heard:
Be it late or earlie,
Archdale Evry keeps his word.’
“The perpetrator o’ the deed wer ne’er discovered, but ’twer evident that retribution had followed the dead mon, and the orphan’s tears had furrowed a track for sorrow up to his ain threshold. The Lady Janet’s gleaming hunted eyes wer about to close on the path once sae bright, and then sae dim, and I’m thinking, puir thing, that she might, and perhaps does now,” said Mrs. Bennet, in a voice that thrilled through me, “sigh for the rest which folks say she’s never found.
“Soon after this time, Sir Patrick maun e’en choose ane o’ the cauldest, bitterest days o’ winter, when storms o’ wind and snow wer raging fierce, to drag the Lady Janet frae the ingle-nuik where she aye sat noo, dreaming nane could say o’ what;—maun drag her to gang wi’ him to visit his ill-favoured sister, Mistress Joan.
“The Lady Janet, ne’er in a’ the days that passed sin’ Lord Archdale’s death, sae long as she lived, ne’er gainsayed her husband in ony thing, and some even went sae far as to say that a shadow o’ sorrowful tenderness for her wer sometimes seen athwart his savage face;—it wer but a passing gleam, called forth by some act of obedience, perchance, or unselfishness on her part, or maybe some service performed for him by the thin shadowy hands, which had never sought his in love for a’ they’d been mon and wife a year.
“Be this as it may, they started in the face o’ the beating hail and drifting snow, though warned by a’most a’ the men about that a fearful nicht wer comin’ on. There were twa roads ye maun ken to Lowereslie, where the Mistress Joan held her rigid sway. The langest road wer the onlie one as wer passable except in summer weather, and by this they started, arriving safe at the frowning Ha’ where Mistress Joan were closeted long, long wi’ her brother, leaving the Lady Janet alane, in the cauld room, wi’ as sma’ courtesie as could be observed, until the gloom o’ the short winter’s day closing in, warned Sir Patrick to hasten his departure; but the gloom o’ winter wer as sunshine compared wi’ the gloom upon his browe, as he persisted sternlie and obstinatelie, as wer his wont, in ganging hame by the nearer road, by which they’d have to cross the ferry.
“I’ve often heard,” said Mrs. Bennet, gazing steadfastly into the fire, “that when the shadow o’ death is closing round, the mightie One is permitted wi’ his huge wing to touch those he is about to grasp, so that unconsciouslie to themselves they are warned to make their peace wi’ a’ men before departing on their lonely road. The Lady Janet might ha’ felt the icie touch, or read her doom in Sir Patrick’s face, for as she turned to leave the inhospitable ha’s o’ Lowereslie she stopped, then hurried back to where Mistress Joan stood wi’ the sinister smile upon her face, watching their departure; and wi’ her foot upon the threshold, held out her little trembling hand, and the hunted eyes looked up beseechinglie at her sister-in-law as she said quicklie, ‘Joan, let us part friends this winter’s night; for a’ that I ha’ wronged ye in, in thought or word have mercy, and forgive me now.’
“Joan looked at her as though she wer demented, and said sneeringlie, ‘The Lady Janet Johnstoun sue for pardon! What new game is this? Forgive! and wherefore now, may I make bold to ask?’
“Lady Janet clasped her hands together. ‘I canna say, Joan, but in the name o’ Him that rules seedtime and harvest, frost and snow, part friends wi’ me the nicht.’
“Sir Patrick had also turned back, and hearing the last words, seized her roughlie by the arm, and dragged her away, the fiendish laugh o’ Mistress Joan wringing in their ears. She said na mair, and nothing in reply to his taunts at her strange humilitie—her silence seeming as though it provoked him more na words would hae done—until when they came to the ferry the mon Sandie ventured to say that ’twer as much as a mon’s life wer worth to ferry him o’er the nicht, nearlie dark as it wer, wi’ nae but the fitful light o’ the moon, which the clouds were so continuallie crossing, that ’twer but little better than total darkness. When Sandie ventured to say that ’twer unsafe, Sir Patrick made as though he wad ha’ struck at him, and shouted as if beside his sel’, ‘Art afraid, hound, to ferry the Lady Janet Johnstoun, when she stan’s waiting?’ The coward made use o’ her name to attain his miserable object. As soon as he said the word, Sandie sprang up, and unmoored the boat, and lifting the Lady Janet in, wi’ mair care na ceremonie, said, ‘Nae mon e’er ca’d Sandie McClinton coward before, and I hope ye may live to repent it, Sir Patrick!’
“The boat sped bravelie on her way, until they wer nigh upon where the current ran, when it became evident that ’twer more than ony twa men could manage to steer across it. And Sir Patrick’s face grew white and pinched as the thought obtruded itself upon his mind, that the statelie ha’ they left i’ the morn might never echo to his tread again. The wind howled like the howl o’ spirits, but still Lady Janet sat silent and calm wi’ her dark eyes fixed upon the sky, and never seemed to have a fear that she wer sailing down that stream into eternitie, until she observed Sandie begin to take off his upper claithes, and pointing to a rope which lay i’ the stern, he said, ‘I am the stronger mon o’ the two, bind the Lady Janet fast to me, and wi’ the help o’ Him that rules, she shall be safe in her ain ha’ to nicht. There’s nae wife or child to make their mane for me gin I’m missing i’ the morn; and, as ye ken, I’m no’ the first o’ my name as has been gey to sink or swim wi’ the Johnstouns, sae lose na time, Sir Patrick.’ But the Lady Janet’s face for the onlie time flushed a bright red, as she exclaimed hastily, ‘Too late, too late, Sandie; the time’s come, ye can na detain me—the time’s come!’ And as she uttered the words, the boat capsized, and they wer a’ struggling again the torrent for their lives. The Lady Janet must ha’ gone down speedielie, but Sir Patrick and Sandie fought bravelie, and Sandie perilled his life to save the Lady Janet, but when she disappeared altogether, he, like one o’ the clan as he wer, after a sore ficht wi’ angry elements, wer flung upon the bank wi’ the senseless form o’ Sir Patrick in his grasp.
“Their shout for help as the boat gaed down had been heard at a fisherman’s cottage ower the cliff, and they wer baith taken up to it, and wi’ much care brought to life; Sir Patrick’s first question being aye thought a strange one: for, instead o’ demanding, as folk thought wad be natural, ‘Is she saved?’ his first question to the auld fish-wife, as she bent ower him, wer, ‘Is the body found?’ And he did na seem sae cut up as might hae been expected when they tauld him ‘nae.’
“But a’ the day and a’ the nicht he wer wandering backward and forward on the shore o’ the lake, as if he sought for treasure.
“At the first news o’ the disaster, Mistress Joan had come, and niver left her brother, and wer always at hand, biding him ‘bear up, bear it bravelie.’ Now, ’twer never expected he wad mourn for the Lady Janet; he’d never been the loving husband, generous and tender to the frail piece o’ womankind that o’ his ain free will he’d taken frae them as loved and tended her.
“’Twer never expected he’d mourn the loss o’ a companion; though unmurmuringlie, and wi’out fail she’d been his slave!
“Therefore, why should he ‘bear up bravelie’? ’Twer soon explained, for it became evident that he wer terrified—just as though a keeper had lost some wild animal, and alway feared it might spring upon and devour him—and wi’ a’ Mistress Joan’s care, and tending, and courage, and face, that seemed as though they could beard a lion in his den, he quailed more and more, until they brought the news, as he wandered by the lake, that the ‘body o’ the Lady Janet had been recovered lower down the stream,’ and a’ that remained o’ the queen o’ the clan, the darling o’ sae mony hearts, wer laid in the Johnstoun Ha’, ance again for the last time. Then wer his terror seen in its true licht; and when he and Mistress Joan entered the solemn chamber, where the stillness o’ the marble form seemed to rebuke his fear, he sprang wildlie at it, and tearing off the covering, pointed, with the yell of a demon, to a gash in the left side, which, with his touch, began to ooze forth big drops o’ bluid.
“Mistress Joan had need to bear up bravelie then, for Sir Patrick sank down whimpering like a craven hound, and ne’er again had the licht o’ reason vouchsafed him; sometimes wild wi’ terror, sometimes cowed and feeble like a child, but alway a thing to dread, for he wer mad!
“Mistress Joan micht weel speak awsomelie o’ ‘the wound the sharp rock had made in her puir sister’s breast.’ Folk kenned weel eneuch that a sharper instrument than the rugged rock had struck the blow, which made the Lady Janet sink down like a stone when the boat capsized. And for a’ that he wer questioned Sandie wad never say a word except that ‘a’ things wad be made clear, wi’out the testimony o’ a puir Hielandmon,’ but he wer a silent altered mon frae that day forward, and ne’er wad cross the ferry wi’ any human being again. He went out alone, on the stormiest nichts;—gossips said he wer wandering in his mind, for he alway took a piece o’ rope wi’ him, and when he cam back i’ the morn the neighbours wad speer, ‘What for did ye gang yer gait, Sandie?’ His reply wer alway the same, ‘To be ready he wer ca’d for.’
“The Lady Janet Johnstoun, the last o’ her name, in her twenty-first year, wer buried solemnly in the presence o’ them as had served and loved her; kith or kin she had nane, near, but the Mistress Joan. And sae the young girl, whose earlie promise had been brighter and gayer than most, had lived a bitterer life, and died a crueller death, than is often heard of, and wer maist truthfullie and deeplie mourned by her foster sister, my ain mither.
“And now, my dears,” said Mrs. Bennet, after a long pause, which we had been too deeply impressed with her story to break in upon, “I dinna ken whether I’m richt in telling you what folks say, except it may be that ye winna place ower much stress upon it, but set it down to the superstition o’ a puir woman frae the north countree; and therefore, wi’out further preface, I maun tell ye that the Lady Janet Johnstoun nae rests in a grave o’ mon’s delving, but is still seen seeking for, nane can tell what. If it is permitted her to work retribution upon ony that so much as hurt one hair o’ her head, I wad say wi’ my whole heart may it be dune. But I fear this maun be impossible, as there’s nane we ken of to reap either ban or blessing by her name.
“But ’tis said by some, that every mortal has their span o’ life given wi’ its portion o’ joy and woe, and gin the life be cut off by ony unexpected stroke, still the spirit maun do its work, and, invisible to a’, perform its task unseen and unrewarded. And so, perchance, it may be wi’ her, and if it is, puir thing, surelie it maun be joy she’ll hae noo, for ’tis hard to think her share o’ sorrow wer not consumed while she walked here; but in ony case, I say as I’ve often heard my mither, ‘Peace to the Lady Janet Johnstoun.’
“And now, my bairns,” said Mrs. Bennet, rising and stroking my head, as I sat on a low stool by the fire, “gang awa’ to yer beds, and think na mair to-nicht o’ the auld woman’s story, for it’s getting very late, and ye’ll hae to be up betimes, because of a’ yer companie, and ye look pale and wearie noo, my dear.”
To describe the effect which Mrs. Bennet’s history had produced upon our minds would be impossible; it was the lifting of the curtain which revealed a life of bitterness hitherto unknown; and, obedient to her word, we separated for our respective chambers, after simply thanking her for the recital.
But would I not rather have remained in ignorance respecting the object of my former curiosity, the Lady Janet?
Assuredly I would.
Perhaps my readers may have arrived at the same conclusion with myself respecting my Christmas box, the Austrian ornaments. I had no doubt in my own mind that, strangely and by accident, I was in possession of what had formerly been the property of the Lady Janet, and the golden-haired chief was no other than himself, Lord Archdale Evry!
Pondering over these surmises, I entered my room, where the fire burned brightly, and the “Sleepy Hollow,” by its side, tempted me beyond my strength of resistance to sit down and give way to speculative conjecture on the subject; and I freely confess that, although the faded case lay in solitary grandeur on the table in the centre of the apartment, I shrank with a feeling somewhat akin to horror from touching it; in fact, I should have been glad to know that it was in Mrs. Bennet’s chamber rather than mine. But yet it exercised a fascination over me, and, raking the fire together and throwing on more wood, I lay back in my chair, and, with my head half turned towards it, dreamed, and dreamed its history over again, until the hours passed by unheeded, and I still lay back in the cosy fauteuil, and watched the faded case. I say watched—but what was I watching? Of course I was watching nothing but the case, which I could not always see the whole of. Was it partially covered by something? I tried to raise my hand to my eyes, but it felt heavy, and I could not lift it from the elbow of my chair. Surely the candles were burning blue and pale; but not so pale but that now I could see the other side of the case. The room grew cold and chilly, as if a gust of air came in. Did the curtains move with the draught?
Bluer and dimmer burned the candles, fainter and fainter gleamed the fire: but still my eyes were riveted to the faded morocco case. What was it that moved slowly from side to side, as if seeking awkwardly for the clasp? It was a hand! and shrieks for help rose to my lips, but fell soundless, and I was paralysed to my chair, and watching—still watching—that thin, shadowy, little hand. Small and exquisite were the taper fingers which were pressing on the clasp; and with the fascination of horror, I wondered where was the other hand; and, redoubling the earnestness of my gaze, I traced from the little hand on the case, slowly up the wrist, arm, shoulder, until “Oh, help! help! she’s come!” I yelled. But no sound escaped my dry lips, as I recognised the Lady Janet Johnstoun.
There was the small broad head, with its raven tresses hanging down to her feet; but they were dishevelled and dripping with water. I could see and hear it trickling and dropping on to the floor. I saw the pure oval face, the eyes cast down, so that the jetty fringes rested on the cheek, as still that one hand moved on the clasp. The dim light around me became dimmer and dimmer, and my hands and feet were heavier and heavier—they were like stone. I could not fly from the presence of the thing—I could not stir or breathe—and I dare not divide my attention with it so much as to raise a prayer for aid and strength, knowing that if the eyes once met mine I was undone. I glared on it.
As the light around me became fainter and the atmosphere colder, so it became brighter and bluer around the thing, until the space behind was not the walls of my chamber but mist. I could not tell what, but—oh! sickening horror!—I now saw that the other hand was pressed over a wound in the side, from which the blood was oozing through the fingers on to the white drapery, which fell wet and shadowy like the hair. Whether this for one moment diverted my attention I cannot say, but I heard the faint click of the case opening, I saw the little hand take up the larger clasp, and, resting it on the velvet of the case, slowly withdraw the miniature and the lock of golden hair. The case was closed again, and I knew that the fringed lids were rising, and the eyes, strange and dilated, hunted, met mine. I felt that the thing was advancing towards me, the light around it becoming dimmer; but the eyes were on me. I could not cry or scream, but sat with hands grasping the elbows of my chair, knowing that the spirit had attained its ascendency over me, and awaiting my doom. Nearer it came, and nearer, colder and colder was the air, I saw the drapery of the chamber lifted as by a blast of wind which pierced through me, and as I crouched before the advancing thing it raised its bloody hand off its breast, as if to take hold of mine—but I knew no more.
So long as the world lasts, there will be a “to-morrow morning.” Late on this particular “to-morrow morning,” I was roused from what appeared to me a deep sleep by the ejaculations of Lora and Mrs. Bennet, and was surprised to see the medical man of the district bending gravely over me; moreover, it is somewhat startling to feel a dabbling of sal-volatile, &c., on your temples, when you are not aware of any necessity for the attention! And when I inquired the meaning of all this from Mrs. Bennet, my voice sounded as if it came faintly from the other end of the room, and I was promptly informed that I was not to be allowed to exercise it.
To make a long story short, I had been discovered by Mrs. Bennet some four hours before, that is to say about nine o’clock in the morning, stiff and senseless on the floor of my room; how long I had been so, of course she was unable to tell, but not finding that I “cam to” so quickly as she expected, she sent for Doctor Blount, thanks to whose care I escaped the brain fever hanging over me. So soon as he had taken his departure from the room, enjoining the strictest quiet, I begged Lora and Mrs. Bennet to sit down by my bedside, when I solemnly related to them all that had passed, commencing with my discovery of the contents of the clasp, and ending with the visitation of the previous night, but interrupted by the tears and sobs of Mrs. Bennet.
When I had slowly and with some difficulty finished my recital, I said: “This may all have been but a distempered dream, brought on by fatigue and over-excitement, but I feel very weak in mind as well as body, and if you will reach me the case, it will be a satisfaction to me to find the miniature and the lock of hair untouched; besides which you have neither of you seen them, and I confess I cannot believe it a dream, until I have the proof, by their being still in their former place.”
Mrs. Bennet said persuasively:
“Never mind it noo, my bairn, it wer all a dream, tak’ your auld nurse’s word for it.”
“No,” I said, “Mary, I cannot believe it a dream, until I have the proof that Lady Janet had not got them in her hand, so let me have it,” I persisted.
Mrs. Bennet looked sadly at me without moving, but Lora rose, and went to the table, returning with the case in her hand, saying as she did so, “it appears to have been wet!”
Her words thrilled me with horror, and shuddering, I took hold of it, opened it, lifted up the larger clasp, and with a shriek fell back again upon my pillow; for the miniature and the lock of golden hair were both gone!