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Anna Jane Vardill

The Last Leaf of the Parish-Register

Part Two

“Yes, Monsieur Denon,” for I thought myself entitled to borrow my friend’s travelling name, and my ci-devant tutor had thus introduced me to his patron, “it is true, no well in our king’s dominions is fairer than that which my reverend neighbour has shewn to you this day. And I know none more sanctified by a good monarch’s touch, except it be Robert Bruce’s well in Ayrshire, which he called the King’s Ease, and allowed eight bolls of meat, and twenty eight pounds of Scottish money, by which I understand pence, to the lepers who had faith in it. And, M. Denon, each person had a drinking-horn provided for him, one of which I require you to examine, when it is filled with purifying Champagne.”

Sir Launcelot Vivian finished the speech of an antiquary with the grace of an old English host; and the young Hebe, who still kept her station on a low stool near his knee, rose and presented a horn far more ancient than the notable one of Rory More. The coral inlaid in its silver edge was not ill matched by the colour which enriched her cheek, as she obeyed her adopted father’s command. And I made a farther step into his favour, by comparing it to one of the horns, said to have been the only instruments of music used by Bruce at Bannockburn.

“Sir,” replied my antiquarian, “I can hardly believe that Ritson’s guess is accurate on that point; for as the Scotch have always been famed for their nice ears in music, and the very seals on their coasts were good judges of it long before that day, I will not think they could have endured the sound of such horns blown, as tradition says, by every man in Bruce’s army; but if indeed they were so blown, it is no wonder that our King Edward ran away. However, it is more probable that the historian spoke metaphorically, and that Bruce gave every man a horn full of wine to cheer him.”

“Which, being constantly at their mouths,” said I, “might make their enemies suppose they were sounding them in another way; and if they were filled with wine like this, the victory of Bannockburn was no wonder.”

Sir Launcelot’s sightless eyes turned towards me with a gleeful smile, and he repaid my comment by an ample quotation from Archdeacon Barbour’s metrical history of the Bruce, ending by a request to his pretty handmaiden, to read from the huge quarto in her lap the names of those that fell near the brook of Bannock. The young student, either in carelessness, or to shew her skill in Latin, began with “Abbatis de Newbottle,—Prioris de Pettyweam.—” “Stop, child!” interposed my host, —“those are the signatures annexed to the ecclesiastical mandate in favour of Bruce, dated vi. Die Novembris. 1304, from the monastery of Cambuskenneth; and I do not think they are very correctly given, for though I can believe an Abbot of Newbottle, there is no likelihood of a Prior called Pettyweam. I wish you, M. Denon, to hear the list of the slain from Trivet’s Annals, and to ask you if your travelling companion, whose name, as I have heard, is Thibaut or Teapottus, is any ways descended from the brave Payan de Tybetot, distinguished among the Barons killed on our Edward’s side, or from Thobaude, his archer.” My smile would have betrayed me if my questioner had not been blind. “My companion,” I replied in the most indifferent tone I could command, “is a descendant from the poetical King Thibaut of Navarre, who flourished about those days, and his family traditions say his ancestors were anglicised and placed among the oldest knights-bannerets in Wharfdale, from whence they fled to their countrymen in the western world, in the red days of Cromwell. And now, like myself, he is a researcher into the natural wonders and ancient tales of the Western Isles, to enrich our memoir for the National Institute.”

“Then,” said Sir Launcelot, “I imagine you can hardly find any not already published in prose by Martin or Pennant, and in poetry by the college of Scotch Advocates. And if there were not always two or three hundred pages of notes, vouching for their authenticity, I should think the personage called the father of fibs must have been educated there. As King James assured us that Adam was a Scotsman, this was probably the reason he was so outwitted.”

“These gentlemen might have outwitted me too, Sir Launcelot, if I had not appeared their countryman. For I changed my French name, which implies only a non-entity, into one in their ancient Gaelic language, signifying nothing but a name; and they were pleased with its affinity to the title bestowed on their most familiar and friendly goblin.”

“Ah!” exclaimed my host,—“the facetious Nienevin, in England called Robin Goodfellow!—and as you truly say, the last two syllables from the old English word also for a name, that is, of honest renown, as you may find in the metrical history of my ancestor Sir Launcelot du Lac,—

“He saw Sir Gawain by him keep
With more folk than men can neven”—

meaning, as all commentators on the Harleian MS. say, more than poets can celebrate. But, Sir, I will not believe, though King James averred it, that Adam was a Scotsman, for he was neither wise nor brave. I have read many learned tracts and essays by Johannes de Stuckius, striving to prove that Sathanas came from the west,—meaning, perhaps, the West-riding, which I might have believed if it had been certain that he cheated a north-countryman.”

“But,” I replied, “we had the good fortune to find a tradition not recorded even in the Auchinleck library, or among the ballads which Norway seems to have borrowed so familiarly from Scotland. And if you will permit me to place in my cabinet one fragment of the stone brought from King Robert’s well, you shall hear the first reading of this unpublished manuscript.”

“No,” said Sir Launcelot, half rising on his crutch and his blooming child’s shoulder—“though the stone on my chimney-piece is a fragment of the true charter stone, and though the elder Caledonians believed a stone laid on a fasting minstrel’s breast would inspire him, you shall have its weight of English venison and French grapes before it begins.”

I was not sorry to hear this respite proposed, and to see the old man recruit his spirits with a large flask of champagne, for I knew a heavy task awaited both his and mine.

“Near that Sound which divides the two hundred isles of the Hebrides from the shores of Argyleshire,”—

“You may call it Morven,” interrupted Sir Launcelot, misconstruing my hesitation,—“there is no other place in Scotland so windy and so misty; and every body has agreed Ossian must have lived there if he lived at all, on which point I reserve my opinion.”

“There lived a chieftain with two nephews, one called Ivone Black-knee, the other Ogg of Macgrynill.”

“Then I doubt not they came from the race of that Ivone de Kirkpatrick, who witnessed Robert Bruce of Annandale’s charter in 1141. The grandson of one Macgrynill was Prince of the Isle of Man, in the year when the Lord of the Isle had a drinking-cup made, dated 993. Had not your chieftain the merk lands of Mosskessen and Glengrip?”

“He had those of Birkthistle and Blackmire, from whence his elder nephew Ivone, who usually went bare-legged, might have derived his surname. Yet Ivone was the reputed son of the chief’s elder brother; and Ogg, his presumptive heir, sprang only from the youngest.”

“M. Denon, that comment indicates your non-acquaintance with Scottish custom. Bruce, claimant of the crown of Scotland, was the son of Isabella, second daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, and his rejected opponent, John Baliol, was grandson of the eldest. Which proves that primogenitureship anciently gave no right of succession there; and going bare-legged, was no token of disgrace then as we may see now.”

“Well, Sir Launcelot, this Ivone, surnamed Black-knee, appears to have been like John Baliol, a rejected claimant for favour. And while his cousin was educated in all the arts of the camp and the court, he was left among these wild shores to play the bagpipe and catch seals, which were probably the only admirers of his music.”

“That is more than you should say,” interposed my auditor, “for the red deer have a mighty notion of melody, and he might prefer them for his dinner. A dish of venison, M. Denon, is no contemptible thing, washed down with a glass of Marasquin, or a bottle of Chateau la Rose,—ay, or even a tass of honest Lochaber usquebaugh.”

“As you say, Sir Launcelot, he might have or hoped to have, other listeners, for his uncle had a daughter, the beautiful Marjorie.”—

“Woe is me!” again interrupted my antiquarian, “there is always one too many even for a Scotsman. That wicked Martha, Countess of Carrick, carried off Robert Bruce’s ancestor to her castle by force, and his brother Edward lost a housefull of provisions, by looking after a pretty Miss Ross, and they must have been choice ones, for the Abbot of Cambuskenneth had them lodged in his cellar.”

“Marjorie Angus would neither have needed to take a husband by force, like the lady of Carrick, nor to lure one from his wife, as did Sir Walter Ross’s sister. Her father designed her for his favourite nephew, and there was, in the manner of feudal times, much preparation for their spousals in the hall, which was to be crowded for six nights. On the third—”

“After the fashion of Sir Roderic M‘Cleod, I guess, as we find in a bard’s praises of Dunvegan castle. Had the hero of your tale a Marischal Tach, or master of the ceremonies?”

“The chieftain of Blackmire chose his elder brother’s son Ivone to perform that office, and to usher the lady-guests as attendant on the bridegroom. Tradition says, as the nephew walked with his uncle in that hall, he stopped suddenly and said,— ‘You have given my kinsman all that he asked or desired, what have you reserved for me?’” There was a little pause in my reading, but Sir Launceot did not fill it up, as usual, with a comment, and I proceeded.

“The uncle answered,—‘I must give my daughter to him who keeps the name and the lands of our clan,— but I give you this inventory of all the silver in my coffer, and I bid you take it as your portion.’—It was an inventory as long as that found in the sovereign jewel-house of Scotland, in 1478, for there were plates of silver, basons and dishes over-gilt, three cups, no less than King Robert’s, and—”

“And what said the nephew?” interrupted Sir Launcelot, forgetting the ideas I hoped to have awakened by my reference to Bruce’s treasures. “He replied as the last Earl of Douglas replied to James III. ‘Sir, you have kept me and your black coffer too long, for neither of us can now do you any good: I, because my rights have fallen from me, and your trunk of silver is too far from you. If you had shewn all its contents at first, they would have done you honour, and if you had favoured me in due time, I might have done you service.’ So saying, he turned his back and went from his uncle’s hall, taking only one knife from the table, and followed only by one sleugh-hound, who had slept with him always on the straw allotted for his bed.”

“And not insufficient neither;” muttered my hearer, mingling his antiquarian notions with those that stirred in his memory. “King Robert charged the land of Shiels, near Ayr, to provide annually straw for eight beds—”

“True,” said I, “but it was for lepers and paupers. Well, my MSS. inform us that the nephew went his way, and was seen no more. The bridegroom, his more favoured cousin, heard of his removal with no word either of joy or anger, and the bride was sought for,—she was gone. There was search in every cranny of the shores, and in every boat on the Sound of Mull, but no trace of her was found. Foot-marks and a broken torch were seen under her window, and some had heard, or dreamed they had heard, screams near it. There was a door or postern, and an ancient staircase, which the laird her father had caused to be barred up. Both these had been opened, and a handful of wet sand, mixed with a lock of her long bright hair, was brought by a fisherman from the beach. Small doubt could be held that Ivone had forcibly carried off his cousin’s bride; and the few that knew him assented to his guilt, when it was discovered that his uncle’s chest of plate and jewels had been stolen also. The bereaved bridegroom was in despair and eager for vengeance,—the uncle was slower in both, but a time came for him also. The sleugh-hound so greatly and long loved by Ivone, was found howling and half-famished near that huge upright stone called the Dog’s Pillar, because Fingal is said to have used it as a stake for his famous grey dog Bran. But Ivone’s hound was grievously wounded, as if he had struggled for his life. He was brought back to Blackire’s hall, and when his strength and speed were restored, the servants led him to all the corries and hollows in those glens, hoping to trace his master. They were patrolling that long lonely neck of land which leads to the ruin of Dunolly, when the dog suddenly sprang on a heap of loose earth and underwood. A man was seen to leap from beneath it, and throw himself into the sea. He swam across the narrow armlet of the bay, and plunged into a rocky ravine on the other side; but though he had waded through water, the sleugh-hound did not lose his scent, and he was taken, half bruised to death, at the foot of a precipice he had striven to climb. The fugitive was Ivone: but till he was forced into his uncle’s presence, he grasped the plaid that covered his face with such ire, that his hands met through it. Meanwhile, the shrewdest of the highlanders, whose speed had overtaken him, returned to the spot where he had first been seen, and digging deep, discovered Blackire’s black-coffer with nearly all its treasures, and in another spot, the bride clothes of his daughter buried in a sheet. The miserable nephew saw them brought into his presence, and heard his uncle’s bitter accusation, without any defence but silence. He was arraigned before the criminal court of his country, on a double charge of robbery and murder. There was no evidence in his favour, a host against him. He denied both charges with an intrepid coolness, very inconsistent with the desperate efforts he had made for flight and concealment. The chest, he said, had been brought there by the reputed master of a low-changehouse, a ruffian notoriously allied to a gang of pirates, and not unsuspected of secret commerce with Angus Ogg; but of this no witness could be found, and Angus Ogg asked his judges how it could be assumed possible that he, the avowed heir of all Blackire’s worldly goods, and the possessor of his daughter, would thus covertly remove a part of one, and disposses himself savagely of the other. What motive had he, or what benefit had accrued? Ivone swore the chest and its silver contents were undiminished, and he appealed to his uncle to confirm his words. But instead of proving his innocence, this appeal conveyed an indirect proof of guilt, since it was impossible that he could have known the state of Blackire’s coffer unless he had searched it, and he refused to give any farther explanation. He was sentenced to die, and escaped the night before his execution was expected, no one ever guessed or discovered by what means. Angus remained a widower, and his only sister dutifully came to attend the heart-broken father.”

“I should like to know,” said Sir Launcelot, lifting up his head and his glassy eye, with a struggling recollection of recent facts, arising among habitual and deeprooted ideas of his favourite subjects—“what was left in that coffer. The Deputy Register of Scotland has a memorandum of a gold chain, with seventy-six links, three silver plates, twelve saltcellars, four mazers or drinking-cups, fifteen dishes, a water-vat, of which I cannot guess the use, since in those days, they carried away their guests in wheelbarrows, a bottle of rose water, and an item which nobody can decypher, but which I think means King Robert’s sark, or shirt of mail.”

I seized on this lucky coincidence between my story and the Antiquary’s remembrances of the royal Scottish jewel-house in 1478. “Sir Launcelot, only the last two articles were deficient,—one of them was not a sark or shirt, but the materials of it, a ball of tow or yarn unspun.”

“A ball of tow!” he repeated,—“I have a dim recollection of such a matter in the records of the high court of Justiciary, or was it in Winton’s chronicles? or the Culloden papers? Pray, go on, if it is knit with the thread of your narrative.”

“Sir, it will unwind presently.—Ten years after, when old Angus, the chieftain of Blackire, was sunk in total, and as it seemed incurable stupor of insanity, a stranger presented himself to one of the officers of that high court, and claimed a second trial. This was his youngest nephew, the husband of his daughter, and his presumptive heir:—He surrendered himself to justice, only desiring that the sleugh-hound which accompanied him might be allowed to guide three strong men into the cavern of Strathaird. These persons were chosen, and properly instructed. They went as ordinary travellers do, to the rich gallery of crystalized frostwork in that cave, and from thence to the pool which opens beneath, clear and bright as if it was a mass of that diamond from whence Catharine of Russia caused a piece to be taken as a cover for her picture in a favourite’s snuff-box. Beyond this transparent pool is an arched portal, composed by two columns of spar, whose silvery whiteness reveals them even when a traveller’s torch grows dim. The sleugh-hound, no less faithful yet fatal to his master than your beloved Bruce’s, instantly swam across, and climbed up a few rude ledges or steps in the rock beyond. The servants of justice, seeing no other means to follow him, plunged into the pool, gained the subterranean staircase, and ascended till they saw gleams of light, and emerged, not into a mermaid’s palace, but into a lovely little valley, surrounded by inaccessible walls of granite, thrice the height of an ordinary church. A few huts were constructed of the small fragments which lay scattered in the centre, and a few wild shrubs composed a kind of curtain for one whose door opened into a little garden of the simplest vegetables. Here they found only an old man, whose sons gained their livelihood by shewing strangers the wonders of the cavern. He was asked if any had been there lately, and he answered, none of any note. But his reply was attended by a conscious look of dismay; and the dog, renewing his scent, beat fiercely and joyfully against the back-door of his hut. Then he confessed that a boat, with two strangers, had been wrecked in the creek of the isle, and one had perished. The other had refused all help for many days, only begging to be buried in the same grave. He conducted them to the coffin of stone which the survivor had instructed him to shape, and shewed the body wrapped in a plaid within it. One of those who heard his evidence was an old retainer of the Angus family, selected to attend the officers of justice, that he might identify the body. He gave a doleful cry when he recognized the face of his young mistress, and saw stretched on a mattrass near her coffin, his master’s eldest nephew, Ivone. The wailings and caresses of the unfortunate sleugh-hound would have been sufficient to discover his master in any disguise, but Ivone attempted none. He was removed with the corpse of the fair lady of Angus in safe custody, and rigorously confined, though he seemed incapable and heedless of escape. There was a general and angry belief that he had been the real purloiner of the black chest, and the lady whose disappearance had caused his cousin’s ruin. When searched, a ball of yarn was found upon his person, which he most earnestly endeavoured to conceal; and when unwound, the antique silver essence box, embossed with his uncle’s arms and cypher, one of the articles missing from the black chest, was found within it; and, strange to say, another ball of tow was discovered wrapped in the plaid which served for the lady’s shroud, and within it lay a paper carefully and curiously rolled up. When compared with the last leaf of the register of Blackire’s parish, it proved to be a remnant mysteriously torn from it thirty years before. Ivone gave his deposition in writing, attested by the mayor of St. Kilda, and the steward of the Laird M‘Cleod, sovereign proprietor of that island. Here is an authentic copy taken from judicial record.”—“Read it, Isabel,” said Sir Launcelot to his young nurse, “it will be a glad task to you who love so well all legends of the Green Isle of the West, to read in manuscript a matter thought worthy M. Denon’s communication to the antiquarians of his National Institute.”—I was not unwilling to place this part of my narrative in another hand, but I had self-command enough to reply in a tone of mere courteous raillery, “It is not unworthy a more gentle reader than a learned critic, for it shews an example of constancy not far beneath Penelope’s, and, like hers, exemplified by a web of yarn.”


The European Magazine, Vol. 80, November 1821, pp. 412-416