jealousy is cruel as the grave. . .Song of Solomon 8:6
Jealousy? Temper? Envy? I seem to detect hints of all three in this story from Edinburgh of young love, a forced marriage, and an O. Henry twist of fate.
Way back in 1712, a retired colonial administrator named Thomas Elphinstone bought a home in Edinburgh’s Morningside district. He was a widower, whose wife had died giving birth to a now-grown son. This son was long since on his own in life, and it seems there must have been some friction between him and his father, for reasons that will become clear as our story progresses.
Sir Thomas–he had been knighted for his services to the Crown–was, by this time, a man in his fifties, but he was in love: with a much younger woman called Elizabeth Pittendale. As was often the case in the old days, her family was all in favor of Sir Thomas’s suit, never mind the difference in age.
And never mind that Elizabeth’s heart was given irrevocably to another. At some jollification or other, she had met a dashing young army officer called–surely an unusual name–Jack Courage.
Jack, however, was about to be posted overseas, and her family would, she felt sure, never agree to her marrying him and leaving them, perhaps forever. Their pushing and prodding finally persuaded her that she should do her duty instead of following her heart. She broke off with Jack, and, once he was gone, married Sir Thomas.
She tried hard to be a good wife. Oh, she tried! But the careful pretense she built up of being blissfully happy tumbled down not long after her marriage, for Sir Thomas told her they would soon be getting a visit from his grown son, John. He had been serving abroad in the military and was coming home on furlough.
And–wouldn’t you know, and as you may already have guessed, Dear Reader–she recognized John Elphinstone no sooner than she saw him.
John Elphinstone was none other than the young man to whom she had given her heart: the man she had known as Jack Courage.
I could go off on a long thread of speculation here: perhaps father and son hated each other, with the father blaming the son for the loss of his first wife and the boy’s mother, the boy resenting the father’s undeserved blame; perhaps the boy ran away to join the service, and gave himself a new name in the process. . .or most sinister of all, that Jack Courage knew of his father’s affection for Elizabeth Pittendale and had deliberately courted her under an assumed name. . .
Nothing more than conspiracy theories tricked up in romantic dress, those speculations. Young Jack Courage, it would seem, loved Elizabeth, stepmother or no, as passionately as she loved him.
It followed, perhaps inevitably, that the much older Sir Thomas found his young wife, one day, in a feverish embrace with his son.
Sir Thomas went after his son like a tiger after prey, and Jack fought back with equal fury.
Unfortunately, neither of them reckoned on Elizabeth.
In the course of the fight, Sir Thomas had pulled a knife, and to prevent him from stabbing Jack, Elizabeth stepped in and took the blade through her own heart.
Horrified and heartbroken, Sir Thomas took his own life that same day. Three days later, his shaken son had the bodies of husband and wife placed side by side in the family vault.
John Elphinstone, aka Jack Courage, inherited the house and his father’s fortune, but did not stay in Morningside; he rented the house out to a friend and returned to his military service.
This friend and tenant settled into the house and lived quietly for some time, until, one night, he was surprised to hear footsteps in an upstairs corridor where, he knew, no one was present at the time; all others in the house were downstairs at the time.
The tenant went upstairs and was startled to see a pallid figure walking down the corridor toward one of the bedrooms: a woman, weeping as she went.
Although he wasn’t frightened–or claimed not to be–by this obviously spectral being, the tenant could not help but be moved by her tears and general air of sorrow.
It would be another hundred years and more before spiritualism became widely practiced, but there were those around who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, and the tenant consulted one such, who told him what he probably should have known before: that the weeping lady was none other than the late Elizabeth Elphinstone. The medium, though, added something interesting: Elizabeth was not able to rest in the family vault, and would not rest, as long as she lay beside the man who had killed her.
The tenant communicated with Jack Elphinstone, who came home and promptly had Elizabeth’s body moved out of the vault, and buried in the nearby churchyard, after which her spirit no longer walked.
When Jack Courage died, a very few years later, he was buried beside his beloved Elizabeth.
Chalk it up to an unnecessarily vivid and romantic imagination, but this story–which comes from Lily Seafield’s 2006 book Ghostly Scotland–reminds me of Doc Watson’s variant of Child Ballad number 81, “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard”. Doc’s version is called “Little Matty Groves”; in it, the young wife of Lord Daniel falls in love with Matty Groves, much closer to her in age. Lord Daniel catches the pair together and kills Matty in a duel, after which he asks his wife which of them she loves more, himself or Matty Groves.
. . .better I love little Matty Groves than you and all of your kin
Than you and all of your kin
You can dig my grave on a pretty green hill
Dig it wide and deep
And put little Matty Groves in my arms
Lord Daniel at my feet
Lord Daniel at my feet. . .
Yes–jealousy is, indeed, as cruel as the grave, often deadly in its consequences. Sometimes the ghosts of such tragedy continue to walk long after their deaths; others, like Elizabeth, are easily pacified.
And in any case, she rests beside the man with whom she should have shared her life.
Better late, I guess, than never.