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Book of Scottish Story
Ezra Peden

Chapter Three

The old burial-ground, the spirit’s trysting-place, was a fair but a lonely spot. All around lay scenes renowned in tradition for blood, and broil, and secret violence. The parish was formerly a land of warrior’s towers, and of houses for penance, and vigil, and mortification. But the Reformation came, and sacked and crushed down the houses of devotion; while the peace between the two kingdoms curbed the courage, and extinguished for ever the military and predatory glory of those old Galwegian chieftains. It was in a burial-ground pertaining to one of those ancient churches, and where the peasants still loved to have their dust laid, that Ezra trusted to meet again the shadowy representative of the fierce old Laird of Bonshaw.

The moon, he computed, had a full hour to travel before her beams would be shed on the place of conference, and to that eerie and deserted spot Ezra was observed to walk like one consecrating an evening hour to solitary musing on the rivulet side. No house stood within half a mile; and when he reached the little knoll on which the chapel formerly stood, he sat down on the summit to ponder over the way to manage this singular conference. A firm spirit, and a pure heart, he hoped, would confound and keep at bay the enemy of man’s salvation ; and he summed up, in a short historical way, the names of those who had met and triumphed over the machinations of fiends. Thus strengthened and reassured, he rose and looked around, but he saw no approaching shape. The road along which he expected the steed and rider to come was empty; and he walked towards the broken gate, to cast himself in the way, and show with what confidence he abode his coming.

Over the wall of the churchyard, repaired with broken and carved stones from the tombs and altar of the chapel, he now looked, and it was with surprise that he saw a new made widow kneeling over her husbands grave, and about to pour out her spirit in lamentation and sorrow. He knew her form and face, and the deepest sorrow came upon him. She was the daughter of an old and a faithful elder : she had married a seafaring youth, and borne him one fair child. Her husband was returning from a distant voyage; had entered the sea of Solway ; his native hills—his own home—rose to his view, and he saw the light streaming from the little chamber window, where his wife and his sweet child sat awaiting his return. But it was not written that they were to meet again in life. She heard the sweep of a whirlwind, and she heard a shriek, and going to her chamber-door, she saw the ship sinking, and her husband struggling in the agitated water. It is needless to lengthen a sorrowful story : she now threw herself weeping over his grave, and poured out the following wail:-

"He was the fairest among men, yet the sea swept him away: he was the kindest hearted, yet he was not to remain. What were all other men compared to him,—his long curling hair, and his sweet hazel eyes, and his kind and gladsome tongue? He loved me long, and he won me from many rivals; for who could see his face, and not love him? who could listen to his speech, and refuse him aught? When he danced, maids stood round, and thought his feet made richer music than the instruments. When he sang, the maids and matrons blessed him; and high-born dames loved the song of my frank and gentle sailor. But there is no mercy in the ocean for the sons of men; and there is nought but sorrow for their daughters. Men go gray-headed to the grave, who, had they trusted the unstable deeps, would have perished in their prime, and left fatherless babes, and sorrowing widows. Alas, alas! in lonely night, on this eerie spot, on thy low and early grave, I pour forth my heart ! Who now shrill speak peace to my mind, and open the latch of my little lonely home with thy kind and anxious hand? Who now shall dandle my sweet babe on his knee, or love to go with me to kirk and to preaching,—to talk over our old tales of love and courtship,—of the secret tryst and the bridal joy!"

And, concluding her melancholy chant, she looked sorrowfully and steadfastly at the grave, and recommenced anew her wailing and her tears.

The widow’s grief endured so long that the moon began to make her approach manifest by shooting up a long and a broad stream of thin, lucid, and trembling light over the eastern ridge of the Cumberland hills. She rose from her knees, shed back her moist and disordered locks, showing a face pale but lovely, while the watery light of two large dark eyes, of liquid and roving blue, was cast mournfully on the way homewards, down which she now turned her steps to be gone. Of what passed in the pastor’s mind at this moment, tradition, which sometimes mocks, and at other times deifies, the feelings of men, gives a very unsatisfactory account. He saw the hour of appointment with his shadowy messenger from the other world arrive and pass without his appearance; and he was perhaps persuaded that the pure, and pious, and overflowing grief of the fair young widow had prevented the intrusion of a form so ungracious and unholy. As she advanced from the burial-ground, the pastor of her parish stood mute and sorrowful before her. She passed him as one not wishing to be noticed, and glided along the path with a slow step and a downcast eye.

She had reached the side of a little lonely stream, which glided half seen, half hid, underneath its banks of broom and honeysuckle, sprinkled at that hour with wild daisies, and spotted with primroses—when the voice of Ezra reached her ears. She made a full stop, like one who hears something astounding, and turned round on the servant of the altar a face radiant with tears, to which her tale of woe, and the wild and lonely place, added an interest and a beauty.

"Young woman," he began, "it is unseemly in thee to bewail thy loss at this lonely hour, and in this dreary spot: the youth was given to thee, and ye became vain. I remarked the pride of thy looks, and the gaudiness of thine apparel, even in the house of holiness; he is taken from thee, perhaps, to punish thy pride. There is less meekness in thy sorrow than there was reason in thy joy; but be ye not discomforted.”

Here the weeping lady turned the sidelong glance of her swimming eyes on Ezra, shed back the locks which usurped a white brow and snowy temples, and folding her hands over a bosom, the throbbings of which made the cambric that concealed it undulate like water, stood still, and drank in his words of comfort and condolence.

Tradition always conducts Ezra and the mariner’s widow to this seldom frequented place. A hundred and a hundred times have I mused over the scene in sunlight and moonlight; a hundred and a hundred times have I hearkened to the wild and variable accounts of the peasantry, and sought to make bank, and bush, and stream, and tree assist in unravelling the mystery which must still hang over the singular and tragic catastrophe. Standing in this romantic place, a pious man, not over-stricken in years, conversing with a rosy young widow, a vain and a fair creature, a bank of blossomed flowers beside them, and the new risen moon scattering her slant and ineffectual beams on the thick budded branches above them,--such is the picture which tradition invariably draws, while imagination endeavours to take up the tender thread of the story, and imagination must have this licence still. Truth contents herself with the summary of a few and unsatisfactory particulars. The dawn of morning came, says Truth, and Ezra had not returned to his manse. Something evil hath happened, said Imagination, scattering as she spoke a thousand tales of a thousand hues, many of which still find credence among the pious people of Galloway.

Josiah, the old and faithful servant of Ezra, arrived in search of his master at the lonely burial-ground, about the dawn of the morning. He had become alarmed at his long absence, and his alarm was not abated by the unholy voices which at midnight sailed round the manse and kirk, singing, as he imagined, a wild and infernal hymn of joy and thanksgiving. He traced his steps down the footpath by the rivulet side till he came to the little primrose bank, and found it trodden upon and pressed as if two persons had been seated among the flowers. Here all further traces ceased, and Josiah stood pondering on the power of evil spirits, and the danger of holding tryst with Beelzebub or any of the lesser spirits of darkness.

He was soon joined by an old shepherd, who told a tale which pious men refuse to believe, though they always listen to it. The bright moonlight had made him imagine it was morning, and he arose and walked forth to look at his lambs on the distant hill—the moon had been up for nearly an hour. His way lay near the little lonely primrose bank, and as he walked along he heard the whispering of tongues : he deemed it some idle piece of lovemaking, and he approached to see who they might be. He saw what ought not to be seen, even the reverend Ezra seated on the bank, and conversing with a buxom young dame and a strange one. They were talking wondrous kindly. He observed them for a little space; the young dame was in widow’s weeds; the mariner’s widow wore the only weeds, praise be blest, in the parish, but she was a raven to a swan compared to the quean who conversed with the minister. She was indeed passing fair, and the longer he looked on her she became the lovelier—ower lovely for mere flesh and blood. His dog shrunk back and whimpered, and an owl that chased a bird in the grove uttered a scream of terror as it beheld her, and forsook its prey. At length she turned the light of her eyes on himself; Will-o’-the-wisp was but a proverb to them ; they had a glance he should never get the better of, and he hardly thought his legs carried him home, he flew with such supernatural speed.

"But, indeed," added the cautious peasant, " I have some doubts that the whole was a fiction of the auld enemy, to make me think ill of the douce man and the godly; and if he be spared to come home, so I shall tell him. But if Ezra, pious man, is heard of nae mair, I shall be free to believe that what I heard I heard, and what I saw I saw. And Josiah, man, I may as weel give you the benefit of my own opinion. I’ll amaist aver on my Bible, that the minister, a daring man and a courageous, --ower courageous, I doubt,--has been dared out to the lonely place by some he, or, maybe, she-fiend—the latter maist likely; and there he has been overcome by might or temptation, and now Satan may come atween the stilts of the gospel plough, for the right hand of Ezra will hold it no longer; or I shouldna wonder," added the shepherd, "but that the old dour persecutor Bonshaw has carried him away on his fiend-steed Geordie Johnstone; conscience ! nought mair likely; and I’ll warrant even now they are ducking, him in the dub of perdition, or picking his banes ahint the hallan o’ Hell.”

The whole of this rustic prediction was not fulfilled. In a little deep wild dell, at the distance of a gunshot, they found Ezra Peden lying on the ground, uttering words which will be pardoned, since they were the words of a delirious tongue. He was carried home amid the sympathy and sorrow of his parishioners ; he answered no question, nor seemed to observe a single face, though the face of many a friend stood round him. He only raved out words of tenderness and affection, addressed to some imaginary person at his side ; and concluded by starting up, and raising such an outcry of horror and amazement, as if the object of his regard had become a demon: seven strong men could hardly hold him. He died on the third day, after making a brief disclosure, which may be readily divined from this hasty and imperfect narrative.

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