Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1660
Sir William Ashton, the new master of the Ravenswood estate, is delighted to hear of the disturbances at the late Lord Ravenswood’s funeral. He hopes that the brave stand of Edgar, the young and former master of Ravenswood, which made it possible for the previously prohibited Episcopal service to take place in Scotland, will put Edgar in disfavor with the Privy Council and prevent his attempt to reclaim his family’s property. However, when the Lord Keeper and his daughter Lucy visit old Alice, a tenant on the estate, they are warned about the fierce Ravenswood blood and the family motto, I Bide My Time.
The Ashtons’ first encounter with Edgar seems fortunate; he shoots a bull as it charges Sir William and Lucy, saving them from serious injury. The sheltered, romantic girl is fascinated by her proud rescuer, who leaves abruptly after he identifies himself. Her more practical father gratefully softens his report of the disturbances at Lord Ravenswood’s funeral and asks several friends to help Edgar.
On the evening of the rescue, Edgar joins Bucklaw, the heir to a large fortune, and the adventurer-soldier Captain Craigengelt at a tavern where he tells them that he will not go with them to France. As he starts home, Bucklaw, who thinks himself insulted, challenges him to a duel. Edgar wins, gives his opponent his life, and invites him to Wolf’s Crag, the lonely, sea-beaten tower that is the only property left to the last of the once-powerful Ravenswoods.
Old Caleb Balderstone does his best to welcome his master and his companion to Wolf’s Crag in the style befitting the Ravenswood family, making ingenious excuses for the absence of whatever he is not able to procure from one of his many sources. The old man provides almost the only amusement for the two men, and Edgar thinks often of the girl he rescued. Deciding not to leave Scotland immediately, he writes to his kinsman, the Marquis of A——, for advice. The marquis tells him to remain at Wolf’s Crag and hints at political intrigue, but he offers no material assistance to supplement Caleb’s meager findings.
One morning, Bucklaw persuades Edgar to join a hunting party that is passing by the castle. An ardent sportsman, Bucklaw brings down a deer, while his friend watches from a hillside. Edgar offers Wolf’s Crag as shelter against an approaching storm for an elderly gentleman and a young girl who came to talk to him.
Poor Caleb’s resourcefulness is taxed to its limit with guests to feed. When Bucklaw thoughtlessly brings the hunting party to the castle, Caleb closes the gate, saying that he never admits anyone while a Ravenswood dines. The old servant sends them to the village, where Bucklaw meets Captain Craigengelt again.
At Wolf’s Crag, Edgar soon realizes that his guests are Sir William and Lucy; Sir William planned the hunt with the hope of securing an interview with Edgar. Lucy’s fright at the storm and Caleb’s comical excuses for the lack of food and elegant furnishings make relations between the two men less tense. When Edgar accompanies Sir William to his room after a feast of capon cleverly procured by Caleb, the older man offers his friendship and promises to try to settle certain unresolved questions about the estate in Edgar’s favor.
An astute politician, Sir William heeds a warning that the Marquis of A—— is likely to rise in power, raising his young kinsman with him, and he fears the loss of his newly acquired estate. He feels that Edgar’s goodwill might be valuable, and his ambitious wife’s absence allows him to follow his inclination to be friendly. A staunch Whig, Lady Ashton is in London, where she is trying to give support to the falling fortunes of her party.
Although Edgar’s pride and bitterness against the enemy of his father keeps him from trusting Sir William completely, the Lord Keeper has an unexpected advantage in the growing love between Edgar and Lucy. Anxious to assist the romance, he invites Edgar to accompany them to the castle where the young man once lived.
Edgar and Lucy go together to see old Alice, who prophesies that tragedy will be the result of this unnatural alliance of Ravenswood and Ashton. Edgar resolves to break off his relationship with Lucy, but at the Mermaiden Fountain, he asks her to marry him instead. They break a gold coin in token of their engagement but decide to keep their love a secret until Lucy’s much-feared mother arrives.
Sir William correctly interprets the confusion of the pair when they return, but he overlooks it to tell them of the approaching visit of the Marquis of A—— to Ravenswood. He urges Edgar to stay to meet his kinsman.
Sir William’s elaborate preparations for his distinguished guest leave Edgar and Lucy alone together much of the time, to the great disgust of Bucklaw, who inherited the adjoining property. He unfairly resents Edgar, thinking that he ordered Caleb to dismiss him summarily from Wolf’s Crag. Bucklaw confides to his companion, Captain Craigengelt, that a cousin of his is intimate with Lady Ashton and made a match between himself and Lucy. He sends the captain to tell Lady Ashton of Edgar’s presence and of the Marquis of A——’s impending visit. Bucklaw hopes that she will return and intervene on his behalf.
Lady Ashton is so upset by the news that she leaves for home immediately, arriving simultaneously with the marquis and striking fear into the hearts of her husband and daughter. She immediately sends Edgar a note ordering him to leave, thereby incurring the displeasure of his kinsman. She becomes still more furious when Lucy tells her of her engagement.
As Edgar passes the Mermaiden Fountain, traditionally a fateful spot for his family, he sees a white figure which he recognizes as old Alice or her ghost. When he goes to her cottage and finds her dead, he realizes that her appearance was her final warning to him.
The marquis joins his young cousin, who was helping with the funeral preparations, and reports that all his entreaties failed to make Lady Ashton tolerate the engagement. He asks Edgar to let him spend the night at Wolf’s Crag, insisting over the young man’s protests about the lack of comfort there. When the two approach the old castle, however, they see the tower windows aglow with flames. Later, after the people of Wolf’s Hope provide a bountiful feast for the marquis and his retinue, Caleb confesses to Edgar that he set a few fires around the tower to preserve the honor of the family. Henceforth, he can explain the absence of any number of luxuries by saying that they were lost in the great conflagration.
Edgar goes to Edinburgh with his kinsmen, who quickly acquire their expected power when the Tories take over Queen Anne’s government for a short time. In prospect of better fortunes, Edgar writes to Sir William and Lady Ashton asking permission to marry Lucy. Both answer negatively—the lady with insults and the gentleman in careful phrases, hopefully designed to win favor with the marquis. A brief note from Lucy warns her lover not to try to correspond with her; however, she promises fidelity. Edgar, unable to do anything else, goes to France for a year on a secret mission for the government.
Bucklaw, whose suit is approved by the Ashtons, requests an interview with Lucy and learns from Lady Ashton, who insists upon being present, that the girl agreed to marry him only on the condition that Edgar will release her from her engagement. Lucy writes to ask him to do so in a letter dictated by her mother, but Lady Ashton intercepts it, hoping that her daughter will give in if she receives no answer. Lucy confesses, however, that she sent a duplicate letter with the help of the minister and that she expects an answer before long.
She is not the same young woman with whom Edgar fell in love, for she is almost a prisoner of her mother for weeks. Unable to stand the constant persecution, she grows gloomy and ill. Lady Ashton hires an old woman as nurse for her, and at the mother’s instigation, she fills the girl’s wavering mind with mysterious tales and frightening legends about the Ravenswood family. Sir William, suspecting the reason for his daughter’s increasing melancholy, dismisses the crone, but the damage is already done.
Edgar, who finally receives Lucy’s request that their engagement be ended, comes to Ravenswood Castle to determine whether she wrote the letter of her own free will; he arrives just as she is signing her betrothal agreement with Bucklaw. Unable to speak, the girl indicates that she cannot stand against her parents’ wishes, and she returns Edgar’s half of the gold coin.
Lucy remains in a stupor after this encounter. Meanwhile, her mother continues making plans for the wedding. Old women outside the church on the marriage day prophesy that a funeral will soon follow this ceremony. Lucy’s younger brother is horrified at the cold clamminess of the girl’s hand. Later, she disappears during the bridal ball, and Lady Ashton sends the bridegroom after her. Horrible cries brings the whole party to the girl’s apartment, where they find Bucklaw lying stabbed on the floor. After a search, Lucy is discovered sitting in the chimney, gibbering insanely. She dies the next evening, reaching vainly for the broken coin that once hung around her neck.
Bucklaw recovers, but Edgar, who appears silently at Lucy’s funeral, perishes in quicksand near Wolf’s Crag as he goes to fight a duel with Lucy’s brother, who blames him for her death. Lady Ashton lives on, apparently without remorse for the horrors her pride had caused.
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