The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 34

And now, will pardon, comfort, kindness, draw

The youth from vice? will honour, duty, law?

Crabbe.

Jeanie arose from her seat, and made her quiet reverence, when the elder Mr. Staunton entered the apartment. His astonishment was extreme at finding his son in such company.

“I perceive, madam, I have made a mistake respecting you, and ought to have left the task of interrogating you, and of righting your wrongs, to this young man, with whom, doubtless, you have been formerly acquainted.”

“It’s unwitting on my part that I am here;” said Jeanie; “the servant told me his master wished to speak with me.”

“There goes the purple coat over my ears,” murmured Tummas. “D— n her, why must she needs speak the truth, when she could have as well said anything else she had a mind?”

“George,” said Mr. Staunton, “if you are still, as you have ever been — lost to all self-respect, you might at least have spared your father and your father’s house, such a disgraceful scene as this.”

“Upon my life — upon my soul, sir!” said George, throwing his feet over the side of the bed, and starting from his recumbent posture.

“Your life, sir?” interrupted his father, with melancholy sternness — “What sort of life has it been? — Your soul! alas! what regard have you ever paid to it? Take care to reform both ere offering either as pledges of your sincerity.”

“On my honour, sir, you do me wrong,” answered George Staunton; “I have been all that you can call me that’s bad, but in the present instance you do me injustice. By my honour you do!”

“Your honour!” said his father, and turned from him, with a look of the most upbraiding contempt, to Jeanie. “From you, young woman, I neither ask nor expect any explanation; but as a father alike and as a clergyman, I request your departure from this house. If your romantic story has been other than a pretext to find admission into it (which, from the society in which you first appeared, I may be permitted to doubt), you will find a justice of peace within two miles, with whom, more properly than with me, you may lodge your complaint.”

“This shall not be,” said George Staunton, starting up to his feet. “Sir, you are naturally kind and humane — you shall not become cruel and inhospitable on my account. Turn out that eaves-dropping rascal,” pointing to Thomas, “and get what hartshorn drops, or what better receipt you have against fainting, and I will explain to you in two words the connection betwixt this young woman and me. She shall not lose her fair character through me. I have done too much mischief to her family already, and I know too well what belongs to the loss of fame.”

“Leave the room, sir,” said the Rector to the servant; and when the man had obeyed, he carefully shut the door behind him. Then, addressing his son, he said sternly, “Now, sir, what new proof of your infamy have you to impart to me?”

Young Staunton was about to speak, but it was one of those moments when those, who, like Jeanie Deans, possess the advantage of a steady courage and unruffled temper, can assume the superiority over more ardent but less determined spirits.

“Sir,” she said to the elder Staunton, “ye have an undoubted right to ask your ain son to render a reason of his conduct. But respecting me, I am but a wayfaring traveller, no ways obligated or indebted to you, unless it be for the meal of meat which, in my ain country, is willingly gien by rich or poor, according to their ability, to those who need it; and for which, forby that, I am willing to make payment, if I didna think it would be an affront to offer siller in a house like this — only I dinna ken the fashions of the country.”

“This is all very well, young woman,” said the Rector, a good deal surprised, and unable to conjecture whether to impute Jeanie’s language to simplicity or impertinence; “this may be all very well — but let me bring it to a point. Why do you stop this young man’s mouth, and prevent his communicating to his father and his best friend, an explanation (since he says he has one) of circumstances which seem in themselves not a little suspicious?”

“He may tell of his ain affairs what he likes,” answered Jeanie; “but my family and friends have nae right to hae ony stories told anent them without their express desire; and, as they canna be here to speak for themselves, I entreat ye wadna ask Mr. George Rob — I mean Staunton, or whatever his name is, ony questions anent me or my folk; for I maun be free to tell you, that he will neither have the bearing of a Christian or a gentleman, if he answers you against my express desire.”

“This is the most extraordinary thing I ever met with,” said the Rector, as, after fixing his eyes keenly on the placid, yet modest countenance of Jeanie, he turned them suddenly upon his son. “What have you to say, sir?”

“That I feel I have been too hasty in my promise, sir,” answered George Staunton; “I have no title to make any communications respecting the affairs of this young person’s family without her assent.”

The elder Mr. Staunton turned his eyes from one to the other with marks of surprise.

“This is more, and worse, I fear,” he said, addressing his son, “than one of your frequent and disgraceful connections — I insist upon knowing the mystery.”

“I have already said, sir,” replied his son, rather sullenly, “that I have no title to mention the affairs of this young woman’s family without her consent.”

“And I hae nae mysteries to explain, sir,” said Jeanie, “but only to pray you, as a preacher of the gospel and a gentleman, to permit me to go safe to the next public-house on the Lunnon road.”

“I shall take care of your safety,” said young Staunton “you need ask that favour from no one.”

“Do you say so before my face?” said the justly-incensed father. “Perhaps, sir, you intend to fill up the cup of disobedience and profligacy by forming a low and disgraceful marriage? But let me bid you beware.”

“If you were feared for sic a thing happening wi’ me, sir,” said Jeanie, “I can only say, that not for all the land that lies between the twa ends of the rainbow wad I be the woman that should wed your son.”

“There is something very singular in all this,” said the elder Staunton; “follow me into the next room, young woman.”

“Hear me speak first,” said the young man. “I have but one word to say. I confide entirely in your prudence; tell my father as much or as little of these matters as you will, he shall know neither more nor less from me.”

His father darted at him a glance of indignation, which softened into sorrow as he saw him sink down on the couch, exhausted with the scene he had undergone. He left the apartment, and Jeanie followed him, George Staunton raising himself as she passed the door-way, and pronouncing the word, “Remember!” in a tone as monitory as it was uttered by Charles I. upon the scaffold. The elder Staunton led the way into a small parlour, and shut the door.

“Young woman,” said he, “there is something in your face and appearance that marks both sense and simplicity, and, if I am not deceived, innocence also — Should it be otherwise, I can only say, you are the most accomplished hypocrite I have ever seen. — I ask to know no secret that you have unwillingness to divulge, least of all those which concern my son. His conduct has given me too much unhappiness to permit me to hope comfort or satisfaction from him. If you are such as I suppose you, believe me, that whatever unhappy circumstances may have connected you with George Staunton, the sooner you break them through the better.”

“I think I understand your meaning, sir,” replied Jeanie; “and as ye are sae frank as to speak o’ the young gentleman in sic a way, I must needs say that it is but the second time of my speaking wi’ him in our lives, and what I hae heard frae him on these twa occasions has been such that I never wish to hear the like again.”

“Then it is your real intention to leave this part of the country, and proceed to London?” said the Rector.

“Certainly, sir; for I may say, in one sense, that the avenger of blood is behind me; and if I were but assured against mischief by the way”

“I have made inquiry,” said the clergyman, “after the suspicious characters you described. They have left their place of rendezvous; but as they may be lurking in the neighbourhood, and as you say you have special reason to apprehend violence from them, I will put you under the charge of a steady person, who will protect you as far as Stamford, and see you into a light coach, which goes from thence to London.”

“A coach is not for the like of me, sir,” said Jeanie, to whom the idea of a stage-coach was unknown, as, indeed, they were then only used in the neighbourhood of London.

Mr. Staunton briefly explained that she would find that mode of conveyance more commodious, cheaper, and more safe, than travelling on horseback. She expressed her gratitude with so much singleness of heart, that he was induced to ask her whether she wanted the pecuniary means of prosecuting her journey. She thanked him, but said she had enough for her purpose; and, indeed, she had husbanded her stock with great care. This reply served also to remove some doubts, which naturally enough still floated in Mr. Staunton’s mind, respecting her character and real purpose, and satisfied him, at least, that money did not enter into her scheme of deception, if an impostor she should prove. He next requested to know what part of the city she wished to go to.

“To a very decent merchant, a cousin o’ my ain, a Mrs. Glass, sir, that sells snuff and tobacco, at the sign o’ the Thistle, somegate in the town.”

Jeanie communicated this intelligence with a feeling that a connection so respectable ought to give her consequence in the eyes of Mr. Staunton; and she was a good deal surprised when he answered —

“And is this woman your only acquaintance in London, my poor girl? and have you really no better knowledge where she is to be found?”

“I was gaun to see the Duke of Argyle, forby Mrs. Glass,” said Jeanie; “and if your honour thinks it would be best to go there first, and get some of his Grace’s folk to show me my cousin’s shop”

“Are you acquainted with any of the Duke of Argyle’s people?” said the Rector.

“No, sir.”

“Her brain must be something touched after all, or it would be impossible for her to rely on such introductions. — Well,” said he aloud, “I must not inquire into the cause of your journey, and so I cannot be fit to give you advice how to manage it. But the landlady of the house where the coach stops is a very decent person; and as I use her house sometimes, I will give you a recommendation to her.”

Jeanie thanked him for his kindness with her best courtesy, and said, “That with his honour’s line, and ane from worthy Mrs. Bickerton, that keeps the Seven Stars at York, she did not doubt to be well taken out in Lunnon.”

“And now,” said he, “I presume you will be desirous to set out immediately.”

“If I had been in an inn, sir, or any suitable resting-place,” answered Jeanie, “I wad not have presumed to use the Lord’s day for travelling but as I am on a journey of mercy, I trust my doing so will not be imputed.”

“You may, if you choose, remain with Mrs. Dalton for the evening; but I desire you will have no farther correspondence with my son, who is not a proper counsellor for a person of your age, whatever your difficulties may be.”

“Your honour speaks ower truly in that,” said Jeanie; “it was not with my will that I spoke wi’ him just now, and — not to wish the gentleman onything but gude — I never wish to see him between the een again.”

“If you please,” added the Rector, “as you seem to be a seriously disposed young woman, you may attend family worship in the hall this evening.”

“I thank your honour,” said Jeanie; “but I am doubtful if my attendance would be to edification.”

“How!” said the Rector; “so young, and already unfortunate enough to have doubts upon the duties of religion!”

“God forbid, sir,” replied Jeanie; “it is not for that; but I have been bred in the faith of the suffering remnant of the Presbyterian doctrine in Scotland, and I am doubtful if I can lawfully attend upon your fashion of worship, seeing it has been testified against by many precious souls of our kirk, and specially by my worthy father.”

“Well, my good girl,” said the Rector, with a good-humoured smile, “far be it from me to put any force upon your conscience; and yet you ought to recollect that the same divine grace dispenses its streams to other kingdoms as well as to Scotland. As it is as essential to our spiritual, as water to our earthly wants, its springs, various in character, yet alike efficacious in virtue, are to be found in abundance throughout the Christian world.”

“Ah, but,” said Jeanie, “though the waters may be alike, yet, with your worship’s leave, the blessing upon them may not be equal. It would have been in vain for Naaman the Syrian leper to have bathed in Pharpar and Abana, rivers of Damascus, when it was only the waters of Jordon that were sanctified for the cure.”

“Well,” said the Rector, “we will not enter upon the great debate betwixt our national churches at present. We must endeavour to satisfy you, that, at least, amongst our errors, we preserve Christian charity, and a desire to assist our brethren.”

He then ordered Mrs. Dalton into his presence, and consigned Jeanie to her particular charge, with directions to be kind to her, and with assurances, that, early in the morning, a trusty guide and a good horse should be ready to conduct her to Stamford. He then took a serious and dignified, yet kind leave of her, wishing her full success in the objects of her journey, which he said he doubted not were laudable, from the soundness of thinking which she had displayed in conversation.

Jeanie was again conducted by the housekeeper to her own apartment. But the evening was not destined to pass over without farther torment from young Staunton. A paper was slipped into her hand by the faithful Tummas, which intimated his young master’s desire, or rather demand, to see her instantly, and assured her he had provided against interruption.

“Tell your young master,” said Jeanie, openly, and regardless of all the winks and signs by which Tummas strove to make her comprehend that Mrs. Dalton was not to be admitted into the secret of the correspondence, “that I promised faithfully to his worthy father that I would not see him again.”

“Tummas,” said Mrs. Dalton, “I think you might be much more creditably employed, considering the coat you wear, and the house you live in, than to be carrying messages between your young master and girls that chance to be in this house.”

“Why, Mrs. Dalton, as to that, I was hired to carry messages, and not to ask any questions about them; and it’s not for the like of me to refuse the young gentleman’s bidding, if he were a little wildish or so. If there was harm meant, there’s no harm done, you see.”

“However,” said Mrs. Dalton, “I gie you fair warning, Tummas Ditton, that an I catch thee at this work again, his Reverence shall make a clear house of you.”

Thomas retired, abashed and in dismay. The rest of the evening passed away without anything worthy of notice.

Jeanie enjoyed the comforts of a good bed and a sound sleep with grateful satisfaction, after the perils and hardships of the preceding day; and such was her fatigue, that she slept soundly until six o’clock, when she was awakened by Mrs. Dalton, who acquainted her that her guide and horse were ready, and in attendance. She hastily rose, and, after her morning devotions, was soon ready to resume her travels. The motherly care of the housekeeper had provided an early breakfast, and, after she had partaken of this refreshment, she found herself safe seated on a pillion behind a stout Lincolnshire peasant, who was, besides, armed with pistols, to protect her against any violence which might be offered.

They trudged along in silence for a mile or two along a country road, which conducted them, by hedge and gate-way, into the principal highway, a little beyond Grantham. At length her master of the horse asked her whether her name was not Jean, or Jane, Deans. She answered in the affirmative, with some surprise. “Then here’s a bit of a note as concerns you,” said the man, handing it over his left shoulder. “It’s from young master, as I judge, and every man about Willingham is fain to pleasure him either for love or fear; for he’ll come to be landlord at last, let them say what they like.”

Jeanie broke the seal of the note, which was addressed to her, and read as follows:—

“You refuse to see me. I suppose you are shocked at my character: but, in painting myself such as I am, you should give me credit for my sincerity. I am, at least, no hypocrite. You refuse, however, to see me, and your conduct may be natural — but is it wise? I have expressed my anxiety to repair your sister’s misfortunes at the expense of my honour — my family’s honour — my own life, and you think me too debased to be admitted even to sacrifice what I have remaining of honour, fame, and life, in her cause. Well, if the offerer be despised, the victim is still equally at hand; and perhaps there may be justice in the decree of Heaven, that I shall not have the melancholy credit of appearing to make this sacrifice out of my own free good-will. You, as you have declined my concurrence, must take the whole upon yourself. Go, then, to the Duke of Argyle, and, when other arguments fail you, tell him you have it in your power to bring to condign punishment the most active conspirator in the Porteous mob. He will hear you on this topic, should he be deaf to every other. Make your own terms, for they will be at your own making. You know where I am to be found; and you may be assured I will not give you the dark side of the hill, as at Muschat’s Cairn; I have no thoughts of stirring from the house I was born in; like the hare, I shall be worried in the seat I started from. I repeat it — make your own terms. I need not remind you to ask your sister’s life, for that you will do of course; but make terms of advantage for yourself — ask wealth and reward — office and income for Butler — ask anything — you will get anything — and all for delivering to the hands of the executioner a man most deserving of his office — one who, though young in years, is old in wickedness, and whose most earnest desire is, after the storms of an unquiet life, to sleep and be at rest.”

This extraordinary letter was subscribed with the initials G. S.

Jeanie read it over once or twice with great attention, which the slow pace of the horse, as he stalked through a deep lane, enabled her to do with facility.

When she had perused this billet, her first employment was to tear it into as small pieces as possible, and disperse these pieces in the air by a few at a time, so that a document containing so perilous a secret might not fall into any other person’s hand.

The question how far, in point of extremity, she was entitled to save her sister’s life by sacrificing that of a person who, though guilty towards the state, had done her no injury, formed the next earnest and most painful subject of consideration. In one sense, indeed, it seemed as if denouncing the guilt of Staunton, the cause of her sister’s errors and misfortunes, would have been an act of just, and even providential retribution. But Jeanie, in the strict and severe tone of morality in which she was educated, had to consider not only the general aspect of a proposed action, but its justness and fitness in relation to the actor, before she could be, according to her own phrase, free to enter upon it. What right had she to make a barter between the lives of Staunton and of Effie, and to sacrifice the one for the safety of the other? His guilt — that guilt for which he was amenable to the laws — was a crime against the public indeed, but it was not against her.

Neither did it seem to her that his share in the death of Porteous, though her mind revolted at the idea of using violence to any one, was in the relation of a common murder, against the perpetrator of which every one is called to aid the public magistrate. That violent action was blended with many circumstances, which, in the eyes of those in Jeanie’s rank of life, if they did not altogether deprive it of the character of guilt, softened, at least, its most atrocious features. The anxiety of the government to obtain conviction of some of the offenders, had but served to increase the public feeling which connected the action, though violent and irregular, with the idea of ancient national independence. The rigorous measures adopted or proposed against the city of Edinburgh, the ancient metropolis of Scotland — the extremely unpopular and injudicious measure of compelling the Scottish clergy, contrary to their principles and sense of duty, to promulgate from the pulpit the reward offered for the discovery of the perpetrators of this slaughter, had produced on the public mind the opposite consequences from what were intended; and Jeanie felt conscious, that whoever should lodge information concerning that event, and for whatsoever purpose it might be done, it would be considered as an act of treason against the independence of Scotland. With the fanaticism of the Scottish Presbyterians, there was always mingled a glow of national feeling, and Jeanie, trembled at the idea of her name being handed down to posterity with that of the “fause Monteath,” and one or two others, who, having deserted and betrayed the cause of their country, are damned to perpetual remembrance and execration among its peasantry. Yet, to part with Effie’s life once more, when a word spoken might save it, pressed severely on the mind of her affectionate sister.

“The Lord support and direct me!” said Jeanie, “for it seems to be His will to try me with difficulties far beyond my ain strength.”

While this thought passed through Jeanie’s mind, her guard, tired of silence, began to show some inclination to be communicative. He seemed a sensible, steady peasant, but not having more delicacy or prudence than is common to those in his situation, he, of course, chose the Willingham family as the subject of his conversation. From this man Jeanie learned some particulars of which she had hitherto been ignorant, and which we will briefly recapitulate for the information of the reader.

The father of George Staunton had been bred a soldier, and during service in the West Indies, had married the heiress of a wealthy planter. By this lady he had an only child, George Staunton, the unhappy young, man who has been so often mentioned in this narrative. He passed the first part of his early youth under the charge of a doting mother, and in the society of negro slaves, whose study it was to gratify his every caprice. His father was a man of worth and sense; but as he alone retained tolerable health among the officers of the regiment he belonged to, he was much engaged with his duty. Besides, Mrs. Staunton was beautiful and wilful, and enjoyed but delicate health; so that it was difficult for a man of affection, humanity, and a quiet disposition, to struggle with her on the point of her over-indulgence to an only child. Indeed, what Mr. Staunton did do towards counteracting the baneful effects of his wife’s system, only tended to render it more pernicious; for every restraint imposed on the boy in his father’s presence, was compensated by treble license during his absence. So that George Staunton acquired, even in childhood, the habit of regarding his father as a rigid censor, from whose severity he was desirous of emancipating himself as soon and absolutely as possible.

When he was about ten years old, and when his mind had received all the seeds of those evil weeds which afterwards grew apace, his mother died, and his father, half heart-broken, returned to England. To sum up her imprudence and unjustifiable indulgence, she had contrived to place a considerable part of her fortune at her son’s exclusive control or disposal, in consequence of which management, George Staunton had not been long in England till he learned his independence, and how to abuse it. His father had endeavoured to rectify the defects of his education by placing him in a well-regulated seminary. But although he showed some capacity for learning, his riotous conduct soon became intolerable to his teachers. He found means (too easily afforded to all youths who have certain expectations) of procuring such a command of money as enabled him to anticipate in boyhood the frolics and follies of a more mature age, and, with these accomplishments, he was returned on his father’s hands as a profligate boy, whose example might ruin a hundred.

The elder Mr. Staunton, whose mind, since his wife’s death, had been tinged with a melancholy, which certainly his son’s conduct did not tend to dispel, had taken orders, and was inducted by his brother Sir William Staunton into the family living of Willingham. The revenue was a matter of consequence to him, for he derived little advantage from the estate of his late wife; and his own fortune was that of a younger brother.

He took his son to reside with him at the rectory, but he soon found that his disorders rendered him an intolerable inmate. And as the young men of his own rank would not endure the purse-proud insolence of the Creole, he fell into that taste for low society, which is worse than “pressing to death, whipping, or hanging.” His father sent him abroad, but he only returned wilder and more desperate than before. It is true, this unhappy youth was not without his good qualities. He had lively wit, good temper, reckless generosity, and manners, which, while he was under restraint, might pass well in society. But all these availed him nothing. He was so well acquainted with the turf, the gaming-table, the cock-pit, and every worse rendezvous of folly and dissipation, that his mother’s fortune was spent before he was twenty-one, and he was soon in debt and in distress. His early history may be concluded in the words of our British Juvenal, when describing a similar character:—

Headstrong, determined in his own career,

He thought reproof unjust, and truth severe.

    The soul’s disease was to its crisis come,

He first abused, and then abjured, his home;

    And when he chose a vagabond to be,

He made his shame his glory, “I’ll be free!”

[Crabbe’s Borough, Letter xii.]

“And yet ’tis pity on Measter George, too,” continued the honest boor, “for he has an open hand, and winna let a poor body want an he has it.”

The virtue of profuse generosity, by which, indeed, they themselves are most directly advantaged, is readily admitted by the vulgar as a cloak for many sins.

At Stamford our heroine was deposited in safety by her communicative guide. She obtained a place in the coach, which, although termed a light one, and accommodated with no fewer than six horses, only reached London on the afternoon of the second day. The recommendation of the elder Mr. Staunton procured Jeanie a civil reception at the inn where the carriage stopped, and, by the aid of Mrs. Bickerton’s correspondent, she found out her friend and relative Mrs. Glass, by whom she was kindly received and hospitably entertained.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29