Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 40

Aumerle that was,

But that is gone for being Richard’s friend;

And, madam, you must call him Rutland now.

Richard II.

The scene of explanation was hastily removed from the little kitchen to Mrs. Wilson’s own matted room — the very same which she had occupied as housekeeper, and which she continued to retain. “It was,” she said, “better secured against sifting winds than the hall, which she had found dangerous to her rheumatisms, and it was more fitting for her use than the late Milnwood’s apartment, honest man, which gave her sad thoughts;” and as for the great oak parlour, it was never opened but to be aired, washed, and dusted, according to the invariable practice of the family, unless upon their most solemn festivals. In the matted room, therefore, they were settled, surrounded by pickle-pots and conserves of all kinds, which the ci-devant housekeeper continued to compound, out of mere habit, although neither she herself, nor any one else, ever partook of the comfits which she so regularly prepared.

Morton, adapting his narrative to the comprehension of his auditor, informed her briefly of the wreck of the vessel and the loss of all hands, excepting two or three common seamen who had early secured the skiff, and were just putting off from the vessel when he leaped from the deck into their boat, and unexpectedly, as well as contrary to their inclination, made himself partner of their voyage and of their safety. Landed at Flushing, he was fortunate enough to meet with an old officer who had been in service with his father. By his advice, he shunned going immediately to the Hague, but forwarded his letters to the court of the Stadtholder.

“Our prince,” said the veteran, “must as yet keep terms with his father-inlaw and with your King Charles; and to approach him in the character of a Scottish malecontent would render it imprudent for him to distinguish you by his favour. Wait, therefore, his orders, without forcing yourself on his notice; observe the strictest prudence and retirement; assume for the present a different name; shun the company of the British exiles; and, depend upon it, you will not repent your prudence.”

The old friend of Silas Morton argued justly. After a considerable time had elapsed, the Prince of Orange, in a progress through the United States, came to the town where Morton, impatient at his situation and the incognito which he was obliged to observe, still continued, nevertheless, to be a resident. He had an hour of private interview assigned, in which the prince expressed himself highly pleased with his intelligence, his prudence, and the liberal view which he seemed to take of the factions of his native country, their motives and their purposes.

“I would gladly,” said William, “attach you to my own person; but that cannot be without giving offence in England. But I will do as much for you, as well out of respect for the sentiments you have expressed, as for the recommendations you have brought me. Here is a commission in a Swiss regiment at present in garrison in a distant province, where you will meet few or none of your countrymen. Continue to be Captain Melville, and let the name of Morton sleep till better days.”

“Thus began my fortune,” continued Morton; “and my services have, on various occasions, been distinguished by his Royal Highness, until the moment that brought him to Britain as our political deliverer. His commands must excuse my silence to my few friends in Scotland; and I wonder not at the report of my death, considering the wreck of the vessel, and that I found no occasion to use the letters of exchange with which I was furnished by the liberality of some of them — a circumstance which must have confirmed the belief that I had perished.”

“But, dear hinny,” asked Mrs. Wilson, “did ye find nae Scotch body at the Prince of Oranger’s court that kend ye? I wad hae thought Morton o’ Milnwood was kend a’ through the country.”

“I was purposely engaged in distant service,” said Morton, “until a period when few, without as deep and kind a motive of interest as yours, Ailie, would have known the stripling Morton in Major-General Melville.”

“Malville was your mother’s name,” said Mrs. Wilson; “but Morton sounds far bonnier in my auld lugs. And when ye tak up the lairdship, ye maun tak the auld name and designation again.”

“I am like to be in no haste to do either the one or the other, Ailie, for I have some reasons for the present to conceal my being alive from every one but you; and as for the lairdship of Milnwood, it is in as good hands.”

“As gude hands, hinny!” re-echoed Ailie; “I’m hopefu’ ye are no meaning mine? The rents and the lands are but a sair fash to me. And I’m ower failed to tak a helpmate, though Wylie Mactrickit the writer was very pressing, and spak very civilly; but I ‘m ower auld a cat to draw that strae before me. He canna whilliwhaw me as he’s dune mony a ane. And then I thought aye ye wad come back, and I wad get my pickle meal and my soup milk, and keep a’ things right about ye as I used to do in your puir uncle’s time, and it wad be just pleasure eneugh for me to see ye thrive and guide the gear canny. Ye’ll hae learned that in Holland, I’se warrant, for they’re thrifty folk there, as I hear tell. — But ye’ll be for keeping rather a mair house than puir auld Milnwood that’s gave; and, indeed, I would approve o’ your eating butchermeat maybe as aften as three times a-week — it keeps the wind out o’ the stamack.”

“We will talk of all this another time,” said Morton, surprised at the generosity upon a large scale which mingled in Ailie’s thoughts and actions with habitual and sordid parsimony, and at the odd contrast between her love of saving and indifference to self-acquisition. “You must know,” he continued, “that I am in this country only for a few days on some special business of importance to the Government, and therefore, Ailie, not a word of having seen me. At some other time I will acquaint you fully with my motives and intentions.”

“E’en be it sae, my jo,” replied Ailie, “I can keep a secret like my neighbours; and weel auld Milnwood kend it, honest man, for he tauld me where he keepit his gear, and that’s what maist folk like to hae as private as possibly may be. — But come awa wi’ me, hinny, till I show ye the oak-parlour how grandly it’s keepit, just as if ye had been expected haine every day — I loot naebody sort it but my ain hands. It was a kind o’ divertisement to me, though whiles the tear wan into my ee, and I said to mysell, What needs I fash wi’ grates and carpets and cushions and the muckle brass candlesticks ony mair? for they’ll ne’er come hame that aught it rightfully.”

With these words she hauled him away to this sanctum sanctorum, the scrubbing and cleaning whereof was her daily employment, as its high state of good order constituted the very pride of her heart. Morton, as he followed her into the room, underwent a rebuke for not “dighting his shune,” which showed that Ailie had not relinquished her habits of authority. On entering the oak-parlour he could not but recollect the feelings of solemn awe with which, when a boy, he had been affected at his occasional and rare admission to an apartment which he then supposed had not its equal save in the halls of princes. It may be readily supposed that the worked-worsted chairs, with their short ebony legs and long upright backs, had lost much of their influence over his mind; that the large brass andirons seemed diminished in splendour; that the green worsted tapestry appeared no masterpiece of the Arras loom; and that the room looked, on the whole, dark, gloomy, and disconsolate. Yet there were two objects, “The counterfeit presentment of two brothers,” which, dissimilar as those described by Hamlet, affected his mind with a variety of sensations. One full-length portrait represented his father in complete armour, with a countenance indicating his masculine and determined character; and the other set forth his uncle, in velvet and brocade, looking as if he were ashamed of his own finery, though entirely indebted for it to the liberality of the painter.

“It was an idle fancy,” Ailie said, “to dress the honest auld man in thae expensive fal-lalls that he ne’er wore in his life, instead o’ his douce Raploch grey, and his band wi’ the narrow edging.”

In private, Morton could not help being much of her opinion; for anything approaching to the dress of a gentleman sate as ill on the ungainly person of his relative as an open or generous expression would have done on his mean and money-making features. He now extricated himself from Ailie to visit some of his haunts in the neighbouring wood, while her own hands made an addition to the dinner she was preparing — an incident no otherwise remarkable than as it cost the life of a fowl, which, for any event of less importance than the arrival of Henry Morton, might have cackled on to a good old age ere Ailie could have been guilty of the extravagance of killing and dressing it. The meal was seasoned by talk of old times and by the plans which Ailie laid out for futurity, in which she assigned her young master all the prudential habits of her old one, and planned out the dexterity with which she was to exercise her duty as governante. Morton let the old woman enjoy her day-dreams and castle-building during moments of such pleasure, and deferred till some fitter occasion the communication of his purpose again to return and spend his life upon the Continent.

His next care was to lay aside his military dress, which he considered likely to render more difficult his researches after Burley. He exchanged it — for a grey doublet and cloak, formerly his usual attire at Milnwood, and which Mrs. Wilson produced from a chest of walnut-tree, wherein she had laid them aside, without forgetting carefully to brush and air them from time to time. Morton retained his sword and fire-arms, without which few persons travelled in those unsettled times. When he appeared in his new attire, Mrs. Wilson was first thankful “that they fitted him sae decently, since, though he was nae fatter, yet he looked mair manly than when he was taen frae Milnwood.”

Next she enlarged on the advantage of saving old clothes to be what she called “beet-masters to the new,” and was far advanced in the history of a velvet cloak belonging to the late Milnwood, which had first been converted to a velvet doublet, and then into a pair of breeches, and appeared each time as good as new, when Morton interrupted her account of its transmigration to bid her good-by.

He gave, indeed, a sufficient shock to her feelings, by expressing the necessity he was under of proceeding on his journey that evening.

“And where are ye gaun? And what wad ye do that for? And whar wad ye sleep but in your ain house, after ye hae been sae mony years frae hame?”

“I feel all the unkindness of it, Ailie, but it must be so; and that was the reason that I attempted to conceal myself from you, as I suspected you would not let me part from you so easily.”

“But whar are ye gaun, then?” said Ailie, once more. “Saw e’er mortal een the like o’ you, just to come ae moment, and flee awa like an arrow out of a bow the neist?”

“I must go down,” replied Morton, “to Niel Blane the Piper’s Howff; he can give me a bed, I suppose?”

“A bed? I’se warrant can he,” replied Ailie, “and gar ye pay weel for ‘t into the bargain. Laddie, I daresay ye hae lost your wits in thae foreign parts, to gang and gie siller for a supper and a bed, and might hae baith for naething, and thanks t’ ye for accepting them.”

“I assure you, Ailie,” said Morton, desirous to silence her remonstrances, “that this is a business of great importance, in which I may be a great gainer, and cannot possibly be a loser.”

“I dinna see how that can be, if ye begin by gieing maybe the feck o’ twal shillings Scots for your supper; but young folks are aye venturesome, and think to get siller that way. My puir auld master took a surer gate, and never parted wi’ it when he had anes gotten ‘t.”

Persevering in his desperate resolution, Morton took leave of Ailie, and mounted his horse to proceed to the little town, after exacting a solemn promise that she would conceal his return until she again saw or heard from him.

“I am not very extravagant,” was his natural reflection, as he trotted slowly towards the town; “but were Ailie and I to set up house together, as she proposes, I think my profusion would break the good old creature’s heart before a week were out.”

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