Guy Mannering, a young English gentleman traveling in Scotland, stops at the home of Godfrey Bertram, Laird of Ellangowan, on the night the first Bertram child, a boy, is born. Mannering, a student of astrology, casts the horoscope of the newborn babe and is distressed to find that the child’s fifth, tenth, and twenty-first years will be hazardous. The young Englishman puzzles over the fact that the boy’s twenty-first year will correspond with the thirty-ninth year of the woman Mannering loves, which is the year the stars say will bring her death or imprisonment. An old gypsy, Meg Merrilies, also predicts danger for the new baby. Not wishing to worry the parents, Mannering writes down his finds and presents them to Mr. Bertram, first cautioning him not to open the packet until the child passes by one day his fifth birthday. Then he departs.
Young Harry Bertram grows steadily and well. He is tutored and supervised by Dominie Sampson, a teacher and preacher retained by his father; at times, the child is also watched over by the gypsy Meg, who has great love for the boy. The child is four years old when the laird becomes a justice of the peace and promises to rid the countryside of gypsies and poachers. After he orders all gypsies to leave the district, old Meg puts a curse on him, saying that his own house is in danger of being as empty as are now the homes of the gypsies. On Harry’s fifth birthday, the prediction comes true: The boy disappears while on a ride with a revenue officer hunting smugglers. The man is killed and his body found, but there is no trace of the child. All search proving futile, he is at last given up for dead. In her grief, his mother, prematurely delivered of a daughter, dies soon afterward.
Seventeen years pass. Old Mr. Bertram, cheated by his lawyer, Gilbert Glossin, is to have his estate sold to pay his debts. Glossin plans to buy the property without much outlay of money, for the law says that when an heir is missing a purchaser need not put up the full price, in case the heir should return and claim his inheritance. Before the sale, Mannering returns and tries to buy the property to save it for the Bertram family, but a delay in the mail prevents his effort, and Glossin gets possession of the estate. Old Mr. Bertram dies before the transaction is completed, leaving his daughter Lucy homeless and penniless.
During these transactions, Mannering’s past history comes to light. Years before, he had gone as a soldier to India and married there. Through a misunderstanding, he had accused his wife of faithlessness with Captain Brown, who was in reality in love with Mannering’s daughter, Julia. The two men fought a duel, and Brown was wounded. Later he was captured by bandits, and Mannering assumed that he was dead. When Mannering’s wife died eight months later, the unhappy man, having learned she had not been unfaithful, resigned his commission and returned with his daughter to England.
When Mannering learns that he cannot buy the Bertram estate and allow Lucy to remain there with the faithful Dominie, he leases a nearby house for them. He also brings his daughter Julia to the house after he learns from friends with whom she is staying that she has been secretly meeting an unknown young man. What Mannering does not know is that the man is Brown, who escaped from his bandit captors and followed Julia to England and later to Scotland. Julia and...
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Lucy are unhappy in their love affairs. Lucy loves Charles Hazlewood, but since Lucy has no money, Charles’s father will not permit their marriage.
Brown, loitering near the house, meets old Meg, who takes a great interest in him. Once she saved his life, and for his thanks, she made him promise to come to her whenever she sends for him. A short time later, Brown encounters Julia, Lucy, and Charles. Thinking Brown a bandit, Charles pulls a firearm from his clothing. In his attempt to disarm Charles, Brown accidentally discharges the weapon and wounds Charles. Brown flees.
Charles would have made little of the incident, but Glossin, desiring to gain favor with the gentry by whom he has been snubbed since he bought the Bertram property, goes to Sir Robert Hazlewood and offers to apprehend the man who had shot his son. Glossin, finding some papers marked with the name of Brown, uses them in his search. He is momentarily deterred, however, when he is called to interview a prisoner named Dirk Hatteraick. Dirk, a Dutch smuggler, is the killer of the revenue officer found dead when the Bertram heir disappeared. Dirk tells Glossin that the boy is alive and in Scotland. Glossin planned the kidnapping many years before; it is to his advantage to have the young man disappear again. He is even more anxious to get rid of the Bertram heir forever when he learns from Dirk that the man is Brown. Brown—or Harry Bertram—would claim his estate, and Glossin would lose the rich property he had acquired for almost nothing. Glossin finally captures Brown and has him imprisoned, after arranging with Dirk to storm the prison and carry Brown off to sea to be killed or lost.
Old Meg, learning of the plot in some mysterious way, foils it when she has Harry rescued. She also secures Mannering’s aid in behalf of the young man, whom she has loved from the day of his birth. Bertram is taken by his rescuers to Mannering’s home. There his story is pieced together from what he remembers and from the memory of old Dominie. Bertram can hardly believe that he is the heir to Ellangowan and Lucy’s brother. His sister is overjoyed at the reunion, but it will take more than the proof of circumstances to win back his inheritance from Glossin. Mannering, Sampson, and Sir Robert Hazlewood, who hear the story, try to trace old papers to secure the needed proof.
In the meantime, old Meg sends Bertram a message reminding him of Brown’s promise to come should she need him. She leads him into a cave where Dirk is hiding out and there tells him her story. She kidnapped him for Dirk on the day the revenue officer is murdered. She promised Dirk and Glossin, also one of the gang, not to reveal her secret until the boy is twenty-one years old. Now she feels released from her promise, since that period has passed. She tells Bertram to capture Dirk for the hangman, but before the smuggler can be taken, he shoots the old gypsy in the heart.
Dirk is taken to prison and will not verify the gypsy’s story; his sullenness is taken as proof of Bertram’s right to his inheritance. Glossin’s part in the plot is also revealed, and he, too, is put into prison to await trial. When the two plotters fight in the cell, Dirk kills Glossin. Then Dirk writes a full confession and cheats the hangman by killing himself. His confession, added to other evidence, proves Bertram’s claim, and he is restored to his rightful position. Successful at last in his suit for Julia Mannering, he settles part of his estate on his sister Lucy and so paves the way for her marriage with Charles. The predictions come true; Mannering’s work is done.