Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Cader Idris—the Chair of Idris

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Illustrated by Frederick Walker.


I am an old bachelor now, the object of an interest—not, perhaps, wholly unselfish—to my nephews and nieces. Be it so. They will not have long to wait. The one bright thread in the darksome web of my life was snapped, rudely snapped, many a weary year ago, and I am only sorry when a new spring-time comes round and finds me still among the living.

In the autumn of 1829 I was staying in one of the wildest and most secluded districts of Wales, not, as now, a grey-haired, broken man, but young, happy, and rich in friends, in prospects, and, above all, in that elastic spirit of hopefulness that forms the best heritage of those who begin the world. Talglyn Hall, one of those moss-grown stone mansions whose weather-beaten masonry look old enough to be coeval with the eternal hills that overshadow them, was the place of my temporary abode. The Hall—the name of which I have slightly altered—was the ancestral residence of a Welsh gentleman whom I shall call Griffith. I was his friend and guest; indeed we were distantly related, and I was to have been the husband of his youngest daughter. Dear, lost Ellen! with what painful distinctness, after all these years, does her gentle image rise before me, in all the bloom of that youthful beauty on which the hand of Time was never to be laid. I often fancy that she stands beside me as I sit in my elbow-chair, brooding over the past, over the golden sands that ran out so early, and in a strain of faintly audible music, or in the sigh of the summer wind, I fondly dream that I hear the voice of Ellen. Forgive me, reader! I will wander from the point no more, but briefly tell how I won and lost her.

Rambling through Wales during the summer of the preceding year, sketching and fishing, and seeking all the benefit which the pure air and exercise could confer on a constitution somewhat impaired by study and hard work at the bar, a singular whim possessed me. This was no other than to seek out some remote connections of my mother’s, who were known to dwell peaceably on their hereditary acres somewhere in the Principality, but between whom and my immediate relatives no intercourse had taken place for at least a generation. I was shut up by stress of rain in a wretched little inn at Tryssidloes, unable to climb mountains, fish, or take sketches, when a letter arrived from the sister to whom I had written for information. At the point where the four closely-written pages—for postage was, in those times, a costly item—were traversed by what feminine correspondents called “crossings,” I found the following sentence:—“The name of the family you ask about is Griffith, people with a long pedigree, of course, being Welsh, and I believe with a grand old house and a good property. They live at Talglyn Hall, at the foot of Cader Idris, so if you go that way you can look them up. It was the father of the present squire who quarrelled with grandpapa, fifty years ago, and mamma says he behaved most shamefully, but she has forgotten in what manner. They are, you know, our second-cousins,” &c.

On such slight events, to all appearance, do our fortunes depend, that this trivial letter may be truly said to have coloured my whole future life. I have often tried to speculate on what that life might have been, had my sister delayed writing but a single day more, in which case I should have been gone from the neighbourhood before the arrival of her letter. However, the letter came; the information it gave reached me at a critical moment, just as I was about to start with post-horses for a more civilised place. It so happened, too, that I was within a few miles of Cader Idris. I could see the blue peak of the steep mountain, looming gigantic through the rain, even from the little window of the inn parlour in which I had been for three days a prisoner. Talglyn Hall must, therefore, be of easy access. I countermanded the post-chaise: I wrote a note, couched in that diplomatic style on which young men plume themselves, and I sent it by a messenger to “Squire Griffith’s.” Before the long summer day was spent, Mr. Griffith answered the note in person. I found him a capital specimen of the Welsh gentleman—spirited, hospitable, and rather choleric and imperious. But the brighter side of his character was the one most prominent, and that it was which was presented to me. He greeted me with a frank manliness that put my diplomacy to the rout, and insisted on bearing me off straightway to the Hall. I was his cousin, he said, and quite a near relation in a Cambrian point of view, and I must be his guest, in spite of the silly misunderstanding of half a century back. No, no; blood was thicker than water, and he should feel himself insulted if any kinsman came within ten miles of his roof-tree without harbouring there. Thus it occurred that I became a visitor at Talglyn Hall.

Mr. Griffith, a widower, had five children to cheer his hearth, and of these three were daughters. The two eldest were handsome enough, but Ellen, their younger sister, then scarcely seventeen, was as beautiful and winning as a fairy. No wonder that I admired her. Admired is a cold, pale phrase. She was born to be loved, and I loved her with a deep, strong love over which time has never gained the mastery. I do not wish to linger on that happy period of alternate hope and fear, of broken words eked out by glances, and all the petulant changes of passion. Suffice it that my love was returned at last, and that before my long visit was at an end Ellen had plighted me her simple troth. I went honestly to Mr. Griffith, and told him all. He was not displeased. He appeared, in fact, hardly to be surprised. Lovers, indeed, are generally very transparent in their wily stratagems for hoodwinking the world, and even the most guileless household is speedily aware of the progress of an attachment. But Mr. Griffith, though not averse to receiving me as a son-in-law, was not willing that his daughter should marry at seventeen, and was besides desirous that time should test whether we, the principal parties in the case, really knew our own minds. We both thought this decision very tyrannical and absurd. I am sure that it was right, and kind, and wise. For a year Ellen and I separated. I was to work heartily at the bar, as before; the Griffiths were to travel, to visit watering-places and cities, and to vary their usual retired mode of life, in order that Ellen might see something of the world before she irrevocably fixed her fate in it. And, if all went well, and we young people continued of the same opinion, after the lapse of a twelvemonth, why then—

Then! How cruel seemed the suspense and the banishment; how certain that our sentiments would be unchanged a year hence, fifty years hence, my younger readers may ask their own hearts. We obeyed. I not only obtained some credit as a rising junior at the bar, where I already possessed a certain footing—more due, I dare say, to circumstance than merit—but I won the consent and approbation of all my relatives to the match. I was not dependent on them or on my profession for support, but Squire Griffith was a great stickler for such matters, and he was not easy until I had induced my mother to write him a letter solemnly abjuring the feud between their parents—the reason of which had been, I believe, a dispute at long whist—and consenting formally to the marriage. And now the weary waiting was over, the year was out, and I was at Talglyn Hall again to claim my bride. All went smilingly with us. Ellen had the old loving look in her dear blue eyes; she had been courted and flattered, but no one had been able to win away her heart from me, and the Squire admitted that never had a probation turned out more satisfactory than ours. All the family were kind, warmhearted people; they welcomed me cordially among them; they were willing to hail me as a brother, though they did grudge a little at times that I should rob them of the light of their home, the darling of them all, for Ellen was both. She had been very pretty a year before, but had now expanded like a flower, and was as sweet a type of the more fragile order of womanhood as ever existed. I was surprised to see how much she had developed in so short a time, but she loved me none the less for the greater experience of life which she had gained in the past year. Our wedding-day was fixed; the preparations were nearly completed, and my sisters, who were to be bridesmaids jointly with Ellen’s sisters, were shortly expected at Talglyn. And now but a few days intervened between me and the crowning happiness of my life—that happiness which was never to be.

I have painted nothing as yet but a picture of hope and happiness, a sunny sea and white-sailed pleasure-barks gaily gliding over the soft summer waves. Now comes the blacker sketch of wreck and storm. Ellen had one fault, if fault be not too harsh a word, one flaw in her nature. She had a pretty waywardness, an impatience of contradiction that never degenerated into peevishness, never became imperious, but which in one endowed with a less sweet temper would infallibly have done so. As it was, it rather took the form of a half playful defiance, so winning, so full of grace, that you could scarcely have the heart to wish it away. But there were times when Ellen’s petulant caprice became a source of terror to those who loved her best. I have known her persist in maintaining her seat on a plunging, kicking horse, full of vice and mettle, and which exerted every sinew and every artifice to hurl from the saddle its slender but unconquerable rider. Equally, I have seen her run, mocking our cowardice, along the trunk of a fallen tree that bridged a cataract, slippery though that tree was with the washing of ceaseless spray, and perched at a fearful height above the ragged rocks and the dark pool below. And in a mountain excursion, no one, not even her daredevil young brothers, ventured so close to the most dangerous precipices as Ellen did, laughing the while. Yet she was no Amazon, but when the whim was over, showed all a girl’s timidity in face of peril; it was contradiction that nettled her to rashness. One evening, after a happy day spent partly on the hills and partly in boating on the little lake, the conversation turned, somehow, on the superstitions of Wales. One legend called forth another, and none of her relatives had such a store of these weird tales as Ellen, or told them so charmingly and simply. At last she related a particular story which I have but too much reason to remember, which has burnt into my brain like a fiery brand, the story of the Lady of Cader Idris. The legend has reference to the Welsh proverb, so old, that it is by some considered anterior to even Merlin, that “he who spends a night in the chair or Cader Idris will be found mad, dead, or a poet.” Tradition relates that Merlin sat there, and that Taliesin also went through the dread ordeal that touched his lips with the fire of prophecy.

“You know,” broke in young Herbert Griffith, “the gap cut in the live rock, on the high peak where the cairn is, just above the cliff? It looks like the throne of some queer old king. I showed it to you when we went shooting dotterils. Beg your pardon, Ellen!”

Ellen went on to relate how, long ago, in the thirteenth century, the lady of the manor, a beautiful and wilful heiress, called by her vassals the Lady of Cader Idris, had resolved to undergo this terrible trial in the hopes of becoming imbued with the spirit of poetry. How, being a lady of rare courage and headstrong will, she had persisted in her resolve, in spite of the entreaties of her kindred, the prayers of her tenants, and the authority of her confessor. How she had gone up alone to the haunted hill-top, where, as legends tell, spectres keep a world-long watch over buried treasure, and had faced storm, and darkness, and all the terrors of the visible and the viewless. Finally, how she had been found in the morning, stark and dead, seated in the rocky throne on blue Idris, with her long dark hair floating over the stones as she sate in an attitude that mocked life, and with an expression of awful fear stamped on her open eyes and fair pale face. The tradition added that, on account of her rebellion against the priest’s commands, the pitiless church had denied her poor body Christian burial, and that she had been laid, in silence and stealth, by the hands of sorrowing kinsmen, under a cairn of loose pebbles on the hill-top.

Then Ellen went to her harp, and sang us first the wild Welsh ditty that some bard had composed in elder days, and then the polished verses which Mrs. Hemans had penned on the same theme. Nor was it till the last notes of the harp and the sweet voice had long died away that we recovered from the impression of the weird and mournful tale, and began to question its authenticity and to challenge its probability. I remember we all took part, in a sportive way, against Ellen and the legend. Our wish was, no doubt, to tease, harmlessly, the darling and spoiled child of the household, and also perhaps to atone to ourselves for having been for a time more completely under the spell of romance than we cared to acknowledge. But to start a discussion is like rolling a stone down-hill. It starts gently, sliding down grassy banks and springing daintily from mound to mound, then leaps with huge bounds, gaining force every instant, till it thunders from crag to crag, and crashes into the valley below. Our controversy grew warm and lively, almost bitter. Ellen was piqued and ruffled. She had told us one of her favourite tales, one which she had loved and dwelt upon, and which was grown to be almost a part of herself, and we had listened—and laughed. She had not the experience that riper years impart, and which would have made her suspect that our derision was in a measure defensive and over-strained, and she was vexed, and showed it. She was quite angry with her jeering brothers, but I came in for the full weight of her indignation.

“Why was I incredulous? Did I think woman’s nature so frivolous and cowardly that nothing brave or self-devoted could be looked for from a woman?”

To this I replied, with provoking gravity, “That I thought the story a pretty one, but that it was as improbable as the adventures of King Arthur and his knights, and that I never saw or heard of any female capable of confronting so much risk and discomfort.” Finally, I declared the “Lady of Cader Idris” a pure invention of some crack-brained harper. Ellen’s scornful eyes flashed, and she tossed her golden ringlets as she turned away. All might have gone well had not some mischievous fiend whispered to me to improve my victory. So I did. I waxed very witty and satirical, and the company applauded, all but the squire, who was asleep, and Ellen, who stamped her little foot angrily on the floor, exclaiming:

“I will show you that a woman dares do more than you fancy. I will go through this ordeal, that you believe impossible. We shall see who is right, you or I.”

And she left the room at once. When she came back, half an hour later, she was quite calm and unruffled: she joined in the conversation as usual, and spoke pleasantly of the projects for pike fishing in the Llyn, for a late pic-nic to some celebrated point of view, and a ride to the county town. But there was a feverish restlessness in her air, and she broke off rapidly from talking on one subject to diverge to another. She sat down, when asked, to harp or piano, but she played but a few bars, and then rose again, saying she could not remember a tune. This change of manner caused me some concern, and I went up to her, and said in a low tone:

“Ellen, are you ill?”

“Ill? No,” she answered, in an abstracted manner, and moved away.

“You are not offended with me?” I began. “I did not mean—”

“No, I am not offended,” she answered, with some constraint, and then began to take the keenest interest in the artificial flies Herbert was tying.

Cader Idris—the Chair of Idris.png

We exchanged no other word until every one had retired to rest, and it came to my turn to wish her “Good night,” as usual. She took my hand between her own little white fingers, and for a moment gazed in my face with a strange look that has haunted me ever since—that will haunt me to my dying hour. Sorrow, reproach, affection, and an under-current of firm but hidden determination, were blended in that glance,—the last that I ever received from those fond blue eyes that I had hoped would be a sunshine in my home from youth till age. And her lips murmured the old trivial phrase, “Good night,” as if it had a new meaning. She turned away.

“Ellen!” said I, springing after her, “one moment, Ellen!”

She did not seem to hear. She glided from me, and was gone. One moment I stood irresolute. False pride made me ashamed of my anxiety. Even then, after the loss of one precious moment, I should have followed, but the Squire called to me, candle in hand, from his study door, to say something about to-morrow’s pike-fishing, and the opportunity was lost—for ever! What might not then have been the magic power of one word of real kindness and contrition?—it might have altered the whole current of an existence.

That has been one long and unavailing regret. But the word remained unspoken. I went to my chamber, a quaint room in one of the wings, close to the gray turret where, beneath its conical roof of slate, the alarm bell hung. I slowly undressed, often drawing aside the curtains, often peering forth through the Elizabethan casement of diamond panes, many of which were darkened by the heavy growth of the rank ivy without. All was ghostly still in the garden below, where the stiff hedges of clipped holly, the terraces fringed with box-trees and hornbeam, and the broad, old-fashioned walks were white with moonshine. An owl was hooting in the wood, and the mastiff in the courtyard bayed mournfully from time to time, and rattled his chain. The moon was high and bright, but black clouds were sailing across the sky; and as I looked, a sudden glow lit up the horizon, as if a trap-door had been opened above some fiery gulf, then vanished as quickly. “There will be a storm to-night,” I muttered, as I turned from the window for the last time. I was very ill-satisfied with myself, and, as often happens, I perversely chose to justify my own conduct by blaming poor Ellen. “She had no right to be so positive and so petulant,” I said to myself. It augured ill for our future happiness that she should resent idle words so deeply. But in the morning I would speak to her, reason with her—in the morning? We are blind, blind!

My prediction that there would be a storm that night was fulfilled to the letter. A storm there was. I was awakened by a peal of thunder that sounded in my sleeping ears as if the trumpet of the archangel were calling sinners to judgment. Crash upon crash, roar upon roar, till the vault of Heaven was full of the giant sound, and the strong stone mansion rocked like a living creature in fear. The blaze of the lightning, broad and bright, flooded the whole sky with an incessant lurid red, and between the stunning bursts of the thunder might be heard the howl of the wind and the hurtling of the hail and rain. An awful night. A night for shipwreck and ruin, and death of travellers on lonely moorland roads, and toppling down of gray steeples that had mocked at the gales of centuries. A grim, wild night. Presently the thunder died away, all but a sullen growl afar off, and the flashes ceased, and rain and wind went on lashing and tearing at the casement.

I fell asleep, and a strange dream I had. I dreamt of the high peak of Idris, with its storm-lashed terrace of mossy stone, the cairn of loose pebbles, and the rocky chair, deep cut in the very brow of the horrid cliff, with a yawning precipice below. And the chair was not empty. No. It had a tenant, and that tenant bore a female shape. I could see the white robe fluttering through the blackness of night, and the loosened hair, and the hand that was pressed to the eyes, as if to shut out some ghastly sight of things unspeakable, while its fellow grasped the rocky rim of the throne. Then the thunder bellowed over head, and the lightning flashed in fiery forks and hissing zigzags, ringing the hill-top with a flaming diadem, blazing, red and menacing, through the abyss below, and illuminating with a dreadful light that solitary form, alone amid the wrath of the elements. The tempest broke in its might upon the peak of Idris; hail, rain, wind, swept the mountain as with a besom, and the pale form in the fantastic chair endured them all. Strange, unearthly shrieks were blended with the howl of the wind; wild and dismal pageants trooped by amid the driving mists and sheets of blinding rain; and by one last glare of the lightning I saw the figure remove the hand that hid its face. The face of a young girl—of Ellen!—but so ghastly with terror, so full of agony and nameless horror, that I awoke, trembling and unnerved, with great heat-drops on my forehead, such as excessive bodily pain might have called forth. The storm still raged, but more feebly. Yes, it was subsiding now. I sank back again, but this time into a heavy, dreamless slumber. I woke in the golden, brilliant morning: the sky was blue, the birds were singing gaily, and the verdure of the country seemed fresher and fairer than before the storm. My spirits rose as I dressed; I was in the best of tempers, and I made a resolution that I would not chide Ellen for her wilful conduct of the preceding evening, but would be very considerate and kind, and would even say I was sorry to have hurt her feelings by a careless word. I went down to the breakfast-room. The Squire was there, with his two elder daughters and his eldest son, while young Herbert came in with his fishing-rod a moment later. But no Ellen. The old butler brought in the urn, after we had exchanged a few remarks, and then, for the first time, Ellen’s absence was commented upon.

“She is not usually the lazy one,” said her father. “Owen, send up Miss Ellen’s maid to let her know we are waiting breakfast.”

The man went. We chatted on. But Owen came back with a blank look to say, that the maid had found the door locked, and that she had knocked repeatedly, but without getting an answer.

This astonished us all.

“She must be ill!” cried Charlotte, the eldest sister, hastily leaving the room.

Soon she, too, came back, to say that she had called aloud at the door, but that Ellen would not reply a word.

“Perhaps she has gone out;” said Herbert. “The window in the oratory that opens out of her room leads right on to the terrace by the greenhouse, and then there are steps to the garden.”

“Nonsense,” said the Squire, knitting his brows, “that door has been locked these fifty years, and the key lost, too. I’ll go myself. I’m afraid she is ill.”

We all went up in a body. Two or three of the servants were on the landing place.

“I am afraid, sir,” said the lady’s maid, half crying,” something’s amiss. We can’t hear a sound. It’s all as still as death.”

Something painful shot across all our minds as we heard this speech.

We neared the door, the Squire tapped.

“Ellen! Ellen, love! answer, my darling; are you ill?”

No reply.

Mr. Griffith set his strong shoulder against the door, and by a violent effort, dashed it in. We entered. The room was tenantless,—empty.

“She has gone out, after all!” cried Herbert, running to the old oratory, and pointing to the long disused door, now wide open.

“Miss Ellen must have gone out last night,” stammered one of the women, “for the bed has not been touched.”

Last night! In the storm! Impossible. Yet on tracking farther we found on the terrace a bow of riband, drenched and heavy with moisture. It had evidently been dropped by its owner, and all recognised it as Ellen’s—on the previous night, before the rain began.

“She must be mad, my poor, poor child,” groaned the Squire, “or is she playing us a trick? No, she never could have the heart to trifle with us in such a way.”

Suddenly a horrid thought flashed across my mind. My dream! the dispute of the previous night—the strange resolve latent in Ellen’s face as she took leave of me—all these came crowding back.

“I know where she is;” I cried aloud. “I know it but too well. She is on the mountain, on Cader Idris, dead or mad by this, and I am the accursed cause.”

“My poor fellow, your anxiety makes you talk wildly,” said the Squire. “Cader Idris, how can she be there? Impossible!”

“She is there,” cried I, in an accent of agonized conviction that none could resist, “she spoke of going through the ordeal of the rock-chair last evening; and I, fool that I was, have slept while she was perishing in the tempest. Follow me, and waste no time. For Heaven’s dear love be quick, and bring restoratives, if in mercy it be not too late!”

My vehemence bore down all opposition. In foot of the mountain. But I outstripped them all. My heart was on fire, and my feet were gifted with unusual speed. Up, among the slippery shale and loose stones, up by bush and crag, by rock and watercourse, and by tracks only trodden by the goat, and I stand panting on the terrace, a few feet of peak above, a yawning precipice below. My dream was too terribly realised. There, in the rock-hewn chair, in her muslin dress and mantle of gay plaid, both of them drenched and stained with rain and earth, lay Ellen, cold and dead. Her long fair hair half-hid her pale face, and her little hands were tightly clasped together. I clasped her to my breast; I called wildly on her name; I parted the dank hair that hid her face, and on it I saw imprinted the same agony of fear, the same dark horror, as in my fatal dream. But she was dead, my dear, dear Ellen. And I think my heart must have broken then, as I saw her, for ever. Since that day the world has been a prison to me.

John Harwood.