THE feast of Ravenswood Castle was as remarkable for its profusion as that of Wolf's Crag had been for its ill-veiled penury. The Lord Keeper might feel internal pride at the contrast, but he had too much tact to suffer it to appear. On the contrary, he seemed to remember with pleasure what he called Mr. Balderstone's bachelor's meal, and to be rather disgusted than pleaseed with the display upon his own groaning board.
"We do these things," he said, "because others do them; but I was bred a plain man at my father's frugal table, and I should like well would my wife and family permit me to return to my sowens and my poor-man-of-mutton."
This was a little overstretched. The Master only answered, "That different ranks--I mean," said he, correcting himself, "different degrees of wealth require a different style of housekeeping."
This dry remark put a stop to further conversation on the subject, nor is it necessary to record that which was substituted in its place. The evening was spent with freedom, and even cordiality; and Henry had so far overcome his first apprehensions, that he had settled a party for coursing a stag with the representative and living resemblance of grim Sir Malise of Ravenswood, called the Revenger. The next morning was the appointed time. It rose upon active sportsmen and successful sport. The banquet came in course; and a pressing invitation to tarry yet another day was given and accepted. This Ravenswood had resolved should be the last of his stay; but he recollected he had not yet visited the ancient and devoted servant of his house, Old Alice, and it was but kind to dedicate one morning to the gratification of so ancient an adherent.
To visit Alice, therefore, a day was devoted, and Lucy was the Master's guide upon the way. Henry, it is true, accompanied them, and took from their walk the air of a tete-a-tete, while, in reality, it was little else, considering the variety of circumstances which occurred to prevent the boy from giving the least attention to what passed between his companions. Now a rook settled on a branch within shot; anon a hare crossed their path, and Henry and his greyhound went astray in pursuit of it; then he had to hold a long conversation with the forester, which detained him a while behind his companions; and again he went to examine the earth of a badger, which carriued him on a good way before them.
The conversation betwixt the Master and his sister, meanwhile, took an interesting, and almost a confidential, turn. She could not help mentioning her sense of the pain he must feel in visiting scenes so well known to him, bearing now an aspect so different; and so gently was her sympathy expressed, that Ravenswood felt it for a moment as a full requital of all his misfortunes. Some such sentiment escaped him, which Lucy heard with more of confusion than displeasure; and she may be forgiven the imprudence of listening to such langauge, considering that the situation in which she was placed by her father seemed to authorise Ravenswood to use it. Yet she made an effort to turn the conversation, and she succeeded; for the Master also had advanced farther than he intended, and his conscience had instantly checked him when he found himself on the verge of speaking of love to the daughter of Sir William Ashton.
They now approached the hut of Old Alice, which had of late been rendered more comfortable, and presented an appearance less picturesque, perhaps, but far neater than before. The old woman was on her accustomed seat beneath the weeping birch, basking, with the listless enjoyment of age and infirmity, in the beams of the autumn sun. At the arrival of her visitors she turned her head towards them. "I hear your step, Miss Ashton," she said, "but the gentleman who attends you is not my lord, your father."
"And why should you think so, Alice?" said Lucy; "or how is it possible for you to judge so accurately by the sound of a step, on this firm earth, and in the open air?"
"My hearing, my child, has been sharpened by my blindness, and I can now draw conclusions from the slightest sounds, which formerly reached my ears as unheeded as they niw approach yours. Necessity is a stern but an excellent schoolmistress, and she that has lost her sight must collect her information from other sources."
"Well, you hear a man's step, I grant it," said Lucy; "but why, Alice, may it not be my father's?"
"The pace of age, my love, is timid and cautious: the foot takes leave of the earth slowly, and is planted down upon it with hesitation; it is the hasty and determined step of youth that I now hear, and --could I give credit to so strange a thought--I should say is was the step of a Ravenswood."
"This is indeed," said Ravenswood, "an acuteness of organ which I could not have credited had I not witnessed it. I am indeed the Master of Ravenswood, Alice,--the son of your old master."
"You!" said the old woman, with almost a scream of surprise-- "you the Master of Ravenswood--here--in this place, and thus accompanied! I cannot believe it. let me pass my old hand over your face, that my touch may bear witness to my ears."
The Master sate down beside her on the earthen bank, and permitted her to touch his features with her trembling hand.
"It is indeed!" she said--"it is the features as well as the voice of Ravenswood--the high lines of pride, as well as the bold and haughty tone. But what do you here, Master of Ravenwsood?-- what do you in your enemy's domain, and in company with his child?" As Old Alice spoke, her face kindled, as probably that of an ancient feudal vassal might have done in whose presence his youthful liege-lord had showed some symptom of degenerating from the spirit of his ancestors.
"The Master of Ravenswood," said Lucy, who liked not the tone of this expostulation, and was desirous to abridge it, "is upon a visit to my father."
"Indeed!" said the old blind woman, in an accent of surprise.
"I knew," continued Lucy, "I should do him a pleasure by conducting him to your cottage."
"Where, to say the truth, Alice," said Ravenswood, "I expected a more cordial reception."
"It is most wonderful!" said the old woman, muttering to herself; "but the ways of Heaven are not like our ways, and its judgments are brought about by means far beyond our fathoming. Hearken, young man," she said; "your fathers were implacable, but they were honourable, foes; they sought not to ruin their enemies under the mast of hospitality. "What have you to do with Lucy Ashton? why should your steps move in the same footpath with hers? why should your voice sound in the same chord and time with those of Sir William Ashton's daughter? Young man, he who aims at revenge by dishonourable means----"
"Be silent, woman!" said Ravenswood, sternly; "it is the devil that prompts your voice? Know that this young lady has not on earth a friend who would venture farther to save her from injury or from insult."
"And is it even so?" said the old woman, in an altered but melancholy tone, "then God help you both!"
"Amen! Alice," said Lucy, who had not comprehended the import of what the blind woman had hinted, "and send you your senses, Alice, and your good humour. If you hold this mysterious language, instead of welcoming your friends, they will think of you as other people do."
"And how do other people think?" said Ravenswood, for he also began to believe the old woman spoke with incoherence.
"They think," said Henry Ashton, who came up at that moment, and whispered into Ravenswood's ear, "that she is a witch, that should have been burned with them that suffered at Haddington."
"What is it you say?" said Alice, turning towards the boy, her sightless visage inflamed with passion; "that I am a witch, and ought to have suffered with the helpless old wretches who were murdered at Haddington?"
"Hear to that now," again whispered Henry, "and me whispering lower than a wren cheeps!"
"If the usurer, and the oppressor, and the grinder of the poor man's face, and the remover of ancient landmarks, and the subverter of ancient houses, were at the same stake with me, I could say, 'Light the fire, in God's name!'"
"This is dreadful," said Lucy; "I have never seen the poor deserted woman in this state of mind; but age and poverty can ill bear reproach. Come, Henry, we will leave her for the present; she wishes to speak with the Master alone. We will walk homeward, and rest us," she added, looking at Ravenswood, "by the Mermaiden's Well." "And Alice," said the boy, "if you know of any hare that comes through among the deer, and makes them drop their calves out of season, you may tell her, with my compliments to command, that if Norman has not got a silver bullet ready for her, I'll lend him one of my doublet-buttons on purpose."
Alice made no answer till she was aware that the sister and brother were out of hearing. She then said to Ravenswood: "And you, too, are angry with me for my love? It is just that strangers should be offended, but you, too, are angry!"
"I am not angry, Alice," said the Master, "only surprised that you, whose good sense I have ehard so often praised, should give way to offensive and unfounded suspicions."
"Offensive!" said Alice. "Ay, trust is ever offensive; but, surely, not unfounded."
"I tell you, dame, most groundless," replied Ravenswood.
"Then the world has changed its wont, and the Ravenswoods their hereditary temper, and the eyes of Old Alice's understanding are yet more blind than those of her countenance. When did a Ravenswood seek the house of his enemy but with the purpose of revenge? and hither are you come, Edgar Ravenswood, either in fatal anger or in still more fatal love."
"In neither," said Ravenswood, "I give you mine honour--I mean, I assure you."
Alice could not see his blushing cheek, but she noticed his hestitation, and that he retracted the pledge which he seemed at first disposed to attach to his denial.
"It is so, then," she said, "and therefore she is to tarry by the Mermaiden's Well! Often has it been called a place fatal to the race of Ravenswood--often has it proved so; but never was it likely to verify old sayings as much as on this day."
"You drive me to madness, Alice," said Ravenswood; "you are more silly and more superstitious than old Balderstone. Are you such a wretched Christian as to suppose I would in the present day levy war against the Ashton family, as was the sanguinary custom in elder times? or do you suppose me so foolish, that I cannot walk by a young lady's side without plunging headlong in love with her?"
"My thoughts," replied Alice, "are my own; and if my mortal sight is closed to objects present with me, it may be I can look with more steadiness into future events. Are you prepared to sit lowest at the board which was once your father's own, unwillingly, as a connexion and ally of his proud successor? Are you ready to live on his bounty; to follow him in the bye-paths of intrigue and chicane, which none can better point out to you; to gnaw the bones of his prey when he has devoured the substance? Can you say as Sir William Ashton says, think as he thinks, vote as he votes, and call your father's murderer your worshipful father-in-law and revered patron? Master of Ravenswood, I am the eldest servant of your house, and I would rather see you shrouded and coffined!"
The tumult in Ravenswood's mind was uncommonly great; she struck upon and awakened a chord which he had for some time successfully silenced. He strode backwards and forwards through the little garden with a hasty pace; and at length checking himself, and stopping right opposite to Alice, he exclaimed: "Woman! on the verge of the grave, dare you urge the son of your master to blood and to revenge?"
"God forbid!" said Alice, solemnly; "and therefore I would have you depart these fatal bounds, where your love, as well as your hatred, threatens sure mischief, or at least disgrace, both to yourself and others. I would shield, were it in the power of this withered hand, the Ashtons from you, and you from them, and both from their own passions. You can have nothing--ought to have nothing, in common with them. Begone from among them; and if God has destined vengeance on the oppressor's house, do not you be the instrument."
"I will think on what you have said, Alice," said Ravenswood, more composedly. "I believe you mean truly and faithfully by me, but you urge the freedom of an ancient domestic somewhat too far. But farewell; and if Heaven afford me better means, I will not fail to contribute to your comfort."
He attempted to put a piece of gold into her hand, which she refused to receive; and, in the slight struggle attending his wish to force it upon her, it dropped to the earth.
"Let it remain an instant on the ground," said Alice, as the Master stooped to raise it; "and believe me, that piece of gold is an emblem of her whom you love; she is as precious, I grant, but you must stoop even to abasement before you can win her. For me, I have as little to do with gold as with earthly passions; and the best news that the world has in store for me is, that Edgar Ravenswood is an hundred miles distant from the seat of his ancestors, with the determination never again to behold it."
"Alice," said the Master, who began to think this earnestness had some more secret cause than arose from anything that the blind woman could have gathered from this casual visit, "I have heard you praised by my mother for your sense, acuteness, and fidelity; you are no fool to start at shadows, or to dread old superstitious saws, like Caleb Balderstone; tell me distinctly where my danger lies, if you are aware of any which is tending towards me. If I know myself, I am free from all such views respecting Miss Ashton as you impute to me. I have necessary business to settle with Sir William; that arranged, I shall depart, and with as little wish, as you may easily believe, to return to a place full of melancholy subjects of reflection, as you have to see me here." Alice bent her sightless eyes on the ground, and was for some time plunged in deep meditation. "I will speak the truth," she said at length, raising up her head--"I will tell you the source of my apprehensions, whether my candour be for good or for evil. Lucy Ashton loves you, Lord of Ravenswood!"
"It is impossible," said the Master.
"A thousand circumstances have proved it to me," replied the blind woman. "Her thoughts have turned on no one else since you saved her from death, and that my experienced judgment has won from her own conversation. Having told you this--if you are indeed a gentleman and your father's son--you will make it a movtive for flying from her presence. Her passion will die like a lamp for want of that the flame should feed upon; but, if you remain here, her destruction, or yours, or that of both, will be the inevitable consequence of her misplaced attachment. I tell you this secret unwillingly, but it could not have been hid long from your own observation, and it is better you learn it from mine. Depart, Master of Ravenswood; you have my secret. If you remain an hour under Sir William Ashton's roof without the resolution to marry his daughter, you are a villain; if with the purpose of allying yourself with kin, you are an infatuated and predestined fool."
So saying, the old blind woman arose, asumed her staff, and, tottering to her hut, entered it and closed the door, leaving Ravenswood to his own reflections.
I do too ill in this,
And must not think but that a parent's plaint
Will move the heavens to pour forth misery
Upon the head of disobediency.
Yet reason tells us, parents are o'erseen,
When with too strict a rein they do hold in
Their child's affection, and control that love,
Which the high powers divine inspire them with.
The Hog hath lost his Pearl.