Peveril of the Peak, by Walter Scott

Chapter 38

“Speak not of niceness, when there’s chance of wreck,”

The captain said, as ladies writhed their neck

To see the dying dolphin flap the deck:

“If we go down, on us these gentry sup;

We dine upon them, if we haul them up.

Wise men applaud us when we eat the eaters,

As the devil laughs when keen folks cheat the cheaters.”

THE SEA VOYAGE.

There was nothing in Duke’s manner towards Christian which could have conveyed to that latter personage, experienced as he was in the worst possible ways of the world, that Buckingham would, at that particular moment, rather have seen the devil than himself; unless it was that Buckingham’s reception of him, being rather extraordinarily courteous towards so old an acquaintance, might have excited some degree of suspicion.

Having escaped with some difficulty from the vague region of general compliments, which bears the same relation to that of business that Milton informs us the Limbo Patrum has to the sensible and material earth, Christian asked his Grace of Buckingham, with the same blunt plainness with which he usually veiled a very deep and artificial character, whether he had lately seen Chiffinch or his helpmate?

“Neither of them lately,” answered Buckingham. “Have not you waited on them yourself? — I thought you would have been more anxious about the great scheme.”

“I have called once and again,” said Christian, “but I can gain no access to the sight of that important couple. I begin to be afraid they are paltering with me.”

“Which, by the welkin and its stars, you would not be slow in avenging, Master Christian. I know your puritanical principles on that point well,” said the Duke. “Revenge may be well said to be sweet, when so many grave and wise men are ready to exchange for it all the sugar-plums which pleasures offer to the poor sinful people of the world, besides the reversion of those which they talk of expecting in the way of post obit.”

“You may jest, my lord,” said Christian, “but still ——”

“But still you will be revenged on Chiffinch, and his little commodious companion. And yet the task may be difficult — Chiffinch has so many ways of obliging his master — his little woman is such a convenient pretty sort of a screen, and has such winning little ways of her own, that, in faith, in your case, I would not meddle with them. What is this refusing their door, man? We all do it to our best friends now and then, as well as to duns and dull company.”

“If your Grace is in a humour of rambling thus wildly in your talk,” said Christian, “you know my old faculty of patience — I can wait till it be your pleasure to talk more seriously.”

“Seriously!” said his Grace —“Wherefore not? — I only wait to know what your serious business may be.”

“In a word, my lord, from Chiffinch’s refusal to see me, and some vain calls which I have made at your Grace’s mansion, I am afraid either that our plan has miscarried, or that there is some intention to exclude me from the farther conduct of the matter.” Christian pronounced these words with considerable emphasis.

“That were folly as well as treachery,” returned the Duke, “to exclude from the spoil the very engineer who conducted the attack. But hark ye, Christian — I am sorry to tell bad news without preparation; but as you insist on knowing the worst, and are not ashamed to suspect your best friends, out it must come — Your niece left Chiffinch’s house the morning before yesterday.”

Christian staggered, as if he had received a severe blow; and the blood ran to his face in such a current of passion, that the Duke concluded he was struck with an apoplexy. But, exerting the extraordinary command which he could maintain under the most trying circumstances, he said, with a voice, the composure of which had an unnatural contrast with the alteration of his countenance, “Am I to conclude, that in leaving the protection of the roof in which I placed her, the girl has found shelter under that of your Grace?”

“Sir,” replied Buckingham gravely, “the supposition does my gallantry more credit than it deserves.”

“Oh, my Lord Duke,” answered Christian, “I am not one whom you can impose on by this species of courtly jargon. I know of what your Grace is capable; and that to gratify the caprice of a moment you would not hesitate to disappoint even the schemes at which you yourself have laboured most busily. — Suppose this jest played off. Take your laugh at those simple precautions by which I intended to protect your Grace’s interest, as well as that of others. Let us know the extent of your frolic, and consider how far its consequences can be repaired.”

“On my word, Christian,” said the Duke, laughing, “you are the most obliging of uncles and of guardians. Let your niece pass through as many adventures as Boccaccio’s bride of the King of Garba, you care not. Pure or soiled, she will still make the footstool of your fortune.”

An Indian proverb says, that the dart of contempt will even pierce through the shell of the tortoise; but this is more peculiarly the case when conscience tells the subject of the sarcasm that it is justly merited. Christian, stung with Buckingham’s reproach, at once assumed a haughty and threatening mien, totally inconsistent with that in which sufferance seemed to be as much his badge as that of Shylock. “You are a foul-mouthed and most unworthy lord,” he said; “and as such I will proclaim you, unless you make reparation for the injury you have done me.”

“And what,” said the Duke of Buckingham, “shall I proclaim you, that can give you the least title to notice from such as I am? What name shall I bestow on the little transaction which has given rise to such unexpected misunderstanding?”

Christian was silent, either from rage or from mental conviction.

“Come, come, Christian,” said the Duke, smiling, “we know too much of each other to make a quarrel safe. Hate each other we may — circumvent each other — it is the way of Courts — but proclaim! — a fico for the phrase.”

“I used it not,” said Christian, “till your Grace drove me to extremity. You know, my lord, I have fought both at home and abroad; and you should not rashly think that I will endure any indignity which blood can wipe away.”

“On the contrary,” said the Duke, with the same civil and sneering manner, “I can confidently assert, that the life of half a score of your friends would seem very light to you, Christian, if their existence interfered, I do not say with your character, as being a thing of much less consequence, but with any advantage which their existence might intercept. Fie upon it, man, we have known each other long. I never thought you a coward; and am only glad to see I could strike a few sparkles of heat out of your cold and constant disposition. I will now, if you please, tell you at once the fate of the young lady, in which I pray you to believe that I am truly interested.”

“I hear you, my Lord Duke,” said Christian. “The curl of your upper lip, and your eyebrow, does not escape me. Your Grace knows the French proverb, ‘He laughs best who laughs last.’ But I hear you.”

“Thank Heaven you do,” said Buckingham; “for your case requires haste, I promise you, and involves no laughing matter. Well then, hear a simple truth, on which (if it became me to offer any pledge for what I assert to be such) I could pledge life, fortune, and honour. It was the morning before last, when meeting with the King at Chiffinch’s unexpectedly — in fact I had looked in to fool an hour away, and to learn how your scheme advanced — I saw a singular scene. Your niece terrified little Chiffinch —(the hen Chiffinch, I mean)— bid the King defiance to his teeth, and walked out of the presence triumphantly, under the guardianship of a young fellow of little mark or likelihood, excepting a tolerable personal presence, and the advantage of a most unconquerable impudence. Egad, I can hardly help laughing to think how the King and I were both baffled; for I will not deny, that I had tried to trifle for a moment with the fair Indamora. But, egad, the young fellow swooped her off from under our noses, like my own Drawcansir clearing off the banquet from the two Kings of Brentford. There was a dignity in the gallant’s swaggering retreat which I must try to teach Mohun;* it will suit his part admirably.”

* Then a noted actor.

“This is incomprehensible, my Lord Duke,” said Christian, who by this time had recovered all his usual coolness; “you cannot expect me to believe this. Who dared be so bold as to carry of my niece in such a manner, and from so august a presence? And with whom, a stranger as he must have been, would she, wise and cautious as I know her, have consented to depart in such a manner? — My lord, I cannot believe this.”

“One of your priests, my most devoted Christian,” replied the Duke, “would only answer, Die, infidel, in thine unbelief; but I am only a poor worldling sinner, and I will add what mite of information I can. The young fellow’s name, as I am given to understand, is Julian, son of Sir Geoffrey, whom men call Peveril of the Peak.”

“Peveril of the Devil, who hath his cavern there!” said Christian warmly; “for I know that gallant, and believe him capable of anything bold and desperate. But how could he intrude himself into the royal presence? Either Hell aids him, or Heaven looks nearer into mortal dealings than I have yet believed. If so, may God forgive us, who deemed he thought not on us at all!”

“Amen, most Christian Christian,” replied the Duke. “I am glad to see thou hast yet some touch of grace that leads thee to augur so. But Empson, the hen Chiffinch, and half-a-dozen more, saw the swain’s entrance and departure. Please examine these witnesses with your own wisdom, if you think your time may not be better employed in tracing the fugitives. I believe he gained entrance as one of some dancing or masking party. Rowley, you know, is accessible to all who will come forth to make him sport. So in stole this termagant tearing gallant, like Samson among the Philistines, to pull down our fine scheme about our ears.”

“I believe you, my lord,” said Christian; “I cannot but believe you; and I forgive you, since it is your nature, for making sport of what is ruin and destruction. But which way did they take?”

“To Derbyshire, I should presume, to seek her father,” said the Duke. “She spoke of going into paternal protection, instead of yours, Master Christian. Something had chanced at Chiffinch’s, to give her cause to suspect that you had not altogether provided for his daughter in the manner which her father was likely to approve of.”

“Now, Heaven be praised,” said Christian, “she knows not her father is come to London! and they must be gone down either to Martindale Castle, or to Moultrassie Hall; in either case they are in my power — I must follow them close. I will return instantly to Derbyshire — I am undone if she meet her father until these errors are amended. Adieu, my lord. I forgive the part which I fear your Grace must have had in baulking our enterprise — it is no time for mutual reproaches.”

“You speak truth, Master Christian,” said the Duke, “and I wish you all success. Can I help you with men, or horses, or money?”

“I thank your Grace,” said Christian, and hastily left the apartment.

The Duke watched his descending footsteps on the staircase, until they could be heard no longer, and then exclaimed to Jerningham, who entered, “Victoria! victoria! magna est veritas et prævalebit! — Had I told the villain a word of a lie, he is so familiar with all the regions of falsehood — his whole life has been such an absolute imposture, that I had stood detected in an instant; but I told him truth, and that was the only means of deceiving him. Victoria! my dear Jerningham, I am prouder of cheating Christian, than I should have been of circumventing a minister of state.”

“Your Grace holds his wisdom very high,” said the attendant.

“His cunning, at least, I do, which, in Court affairs, often takes the weather-gage of wisdom — as in Yarmouth Roads a herring-buss will baffle a frigate. He shall not return to London if I can help it, until all these intrigues are over.”

As his Grace spoke, the Colonel, after whom he had repeatedly made inquiry, was announced by a gentleman of his household. “He met not Christian, did he?” said the Duke hastily.

“No, my lord,” returned the domestic, “the Colonel came by the old garden staircase.”

“I judged as much,” replied the Duke; “’tis an owl that will not take wing in daylight, when there is a thicket left to skulk under. Here he comes from threading lane, vault, and ruinous alley, very near ominous a creature as the fowl of ill augury which he resembles.”

The Colonel, to whom no other appellation seemed to be given, than that which belonged to his military station, now entered the apartment. He was tall, strongly built, and past the middle period of life, and his countenance, but for the heavy cloud which dwelt upon it, might have been pronounced a handsome one. While the Duke spoke to him, either from humility or some other cause, his large serious eye was cast down upon the ground; but he raised it when he answered, with a keen look of earnest observation. His dress was very plain, and more allied to that of the Puritans than of the Cavaliers of the time; a shadowy black hat, like the Spanish sombrero; a large black mantle or cloak, and a long rapier, gave him something the air of a Castilione, to which his gravity and stiffness of demeanour added considerable strength.

“Well, Colonel,” said the Duke, “we have been long strangers — how have matters gone with you?”

“As with other men of action in quiet times,” answered the colonel, “or as a good war-caper* that lies high and dry in a muddy creek, till seams and planks are rent and riven.”

* A privateer.

“Well, Colonel,” said the Duke, “I have used your valour before now, and I may again; so that I shall speedily see that the vessel is careened, and undergoes a thorough repair.”

“I conjecture, then,” said the Colonel, “that your Grace has some voyage in hand?”

“No, but there is one which I want to interrupt,” replied the Duke.

“Tis but another stave of the same tune. — Well, my lord, I listen,” answered the stranger.

“Nay,” said the Duke, “it is but a trifling matter after all. — You know Ned Christian?”

“Ay, surely, my lord,” replied the Colonel, “we have been long known to each other.”

“He is about to go down to Derbyshire to seek a certain niece of his, whom he will scarcely find there. Now, I trust to your tried friendship to interrupt his return to London. Go with him, or meet him, cajole him, or assail him, or do what thou wilt with him — only keep him from London for a fortnight at least, and then I care little how soon he comes.”

“For by that time, I suppose,” replied the Colonel, “any one may find the wench that thinks her worth the looking for.”

“Thou mayst think her worth the looking for thyself, Colonel,” rejoined the Duke; “I promise you she hath many a thousand stitched to her petticoat; such a wife would save thee from skeldering on the public.”

“My lord, I sell my blood and my sword, but not my honour,” answered the man sullenly; “if I marry, my bed may be a poor, but it shall be an honest one.”

“Then thy wife will be the only honest matter in thy possession, Colonel — at least since I have known you,” replied the Duke.

“Why, truly, your Grace may speak your pleasure on that point. It is chiefly your business which I have done of late; and if it were less strictly honest than I could have wished, the employer was to blame as well as the agent. But for marrying a cast-off mistress, the man (saving your Grace, to whom I am bound) lives not who dares propose it to me.”

The Duke laughed loudly. “Why, this is mine Ancient Pistol’s vein,” he replied.

——“Shall I Sir Pandarus of Troy become,

And by my side wear steel? — then Lucifer take all!”

“My breeding is too plain to understand ends of playhouse verse, my lord,” said the Colonel suddenly. “Has your Grace no other service to command me?”

“None — only I am told you have published a Narrative concerning the Plot.”

“What should ail me, my lord?” said the Colonel; “I hope I am a witness as competent as any that has yet appeared?”

“Truly, I think so to the full,” said the Duke; “and it would have been hard, when so much profitable mischief was going, if so excellent a Protestant as yourself had not come in for a share.”

“I came to take your Grace’s commands, not to be the object of your wit,” said the Colonel.

“Gallantly spoken, most resolute and most immaculate Colonel! As you are to be on full pay in my service for a month to come, I pray your acceptance of this purse, for contingents and equipments, and you shall have my instructions from time to time.”

“They shall be punctually obeyed, my lord,” said the Colonel; “I know the duty of a subaltern officer. I wish your Grace a good morning.”

So saying, he pocketed the purse, without either affecting hesitation, or expressing gratitude, but merely as a part of a transaction in the regular way of business, and stalked from the apartment with the same sullen gravity which marked his entrance. “Now, there goes a scoundrel after my own heart,” said the Duke; “a robber from his cradle, a murderer since he could hold a knife, a profound hypocrite in religion, and a worse and deeper hypocrite in honour — would sell his soul to the devil to accomplish any villainy, and would cut the throat of his brother, did he dare to give the villainy he had so acted its right name. — Now, why stand you amazed, good Master Jerningham, and look on me as you would on some monster of Ind, when you had paid your shilling to see it, and were staring out your pennyworth with your eyes as round as a pair of spectacles? Wink, man, and save them, and then let thy tongue untie the mystery.”

“On my word, my Lord Duke,” answered Jerningham, “since I am compelled to speak, I can only say, that the longer I live with your Grace, I am the more at a loss to fathom your motives of action. Others lay plans, either to attain profit or pleasure by their execution; but your Grace’s delight is to counteract your own schemes, when in the very act of performance; like a child — forgive me — that breaks its favourite toy, or a man who should set fire to the house he has half built.”

“And why not, if he wanted to warm his hands at the blaze?” said the Duke.

“Ay, my lord,” replied his dependent; “but what if, in doing so, he should burn his fingers? — My lord, it is one of your noblest qualities, that you will sometimes listen to the truth without taking offence; but were it otherwise, I could not, at this moment, help speaking out at every risk.”

“Well, say on, I can bear it,” said the Duke, throwing himself into an easy-chair, and using his toothpick with graceful indifference and equanimity; “I love to hear what such potsherds as thou art, think of the proceeding of us who are of the pure porcelain clay of the earth.”

“In the name of Heaven, my lord, let me then ask you,” said Jerningham, “what merit you claim, or what advantage you expect, from having embroiled everything in which you are concerned to a degree which equals the chaos of the blind old Roundhead’s poem which your Grace is so fond of? To begin with the King. In spite of good-humour, he will be incensed at your repeated rivalry.”

“His Majesty defied me to it.”

“You have lost all hopes of the Isle, by quarrelling with Christian.”

“I have ceased to care a farthing about it,” replied the Duke.

“In Christian himself, whom you have insulted, and to whose family you intend dishonour, you have lost a sagacious, artful, and cool-headed instrument and adherent,” said the monitor.

“Poor Jerningham!” answered the Duke; “Christian would say as much for thee, I doubt not, wert thou discarded tomorrow. It is the common error of such tools as you and he to think themselves indispensable. As to his family, what was never honourable cannot be dishonoured by any connection with my house.”

“I say nothing of Chiffinch,” said Jerningham, “offended as he will be when he learns why, and by whom, his scheme has been ruined, and the lady spirited away — He and his wife, I say nothing of them.”

“You need not,” said the Duke; “for were they even fit persons to speak to me about, the Duchess of Portsmouth has bargained for their disgrace.”

“Then this bloodhound of a Colonel, as he calls himself, your Grace cannot even lay him on a quest which is to do you service, but you must do him such indignity at the same time, as he will not fail to remember, and be sure to fly at your throat should he ever have an opportunity of turning on you.”

“I will take care he has none,” said the Duke; “and yours, Jerningham, is a low-lived apprehension. Beat your spaniel heartily if you would have him under command. Ever let your agents see you know what they are, and prize them accordingly. A rogue, who must needs be treated as a man of honour, is apt to get above his work. Enough, therefore, of your advice and censure, Jerningham; we differ in every particular. Were we both engineers, you would spend your life in watching some old woman’s wheel, which spins flax by the ounce; I must be in the midst of the most varied and counteracting machinery, regulating checks and counter-checks, balancing weights, proving springs and wheels, directing and controlling a hundred combined powers.”

“And your fortune, in the meanwhile?” said Jerningham; “pardon this last hint, my lord.”

“My fortune,” said the Duke, “is too vast to be hurt by a petty wound; and I have, as thou knowest, a thousand salves in store for the scratches and scars which it sometimes receives in greasing my machinery.”

“Your Grace does not mean Dr. Wilderhead’s powder of projection?”

“Pshaw! he is a quacksalver, and mountebank, and beggar.”

“Or Solicitor Drowndland’s plan for draining the fens?”

“He is a cheat — videlicet, an attorney.”

“Or the Laird of Lackpelf’s sale of Highland woods?”

“He is a Scotsman,” said the Duke — "videlicet, both cheat and beggar.”

“These streets here, upon the site of your noble mansion-house?” said Jerningham.

“The architect’s a bite, and the plan’s a bubble. I am sick of the sight of this rubbish, and I will soon replace our old alcoves, alleys, and flower-pots by an Italian garden and a new palace.”

“That, my lord, would be to waste, not to improve your fortune,” said his domestic.

“Clodpate, and muddy spirit that thou art, thou hast forgot the most hopeful scheme of all — the South Sea Fisheries — their stock is up 50 per cent. already. Post down to the Alley, and tell old Mansses to buy £20,000 for me. — Forgive me, Plutus, I forgot to lay my sacrifice on thy shrine, and yet expected thy favours! — Fly post-haste, Jerningham — for thy life, for thy life, for thy life!”*

* Stock-jobbing, as it is called, that is, dealing in shares of monopolies, patent, and joint-stock companies of every description, was at least as common in Charles II.‘s time as our own; and as the exercise of ingenuity in this way promised a road to wealth without the necessity of industry, it was then much pursued by dissolute courtiers.

With hands and eyes uplifted, Jerningham left the apartment; and the Duke, without thinking a moment farther on old or new intrigues — on the friendship he had formed, or the enmity he had provoked — on the beauty whom he had carried off from her natural protectors, as well as from her lover — or on the monarch against whom he had placed himself in rivalship — sat down to calculate chances with all the zeal of Demoivre, tired of the drudgery in half-an-hour, and refused to see the zealous agent whom he had employed in the city, because he was busily engaged in writing a new lampoon.

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