Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 10

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Come, let me have thy counsel, for I need it;

Thou art of those, who better help their friends

With sage advice, than usurers with gold,

Or brawlers with their swords — I’ll trust to thee,

For I ask only from thee words, not deeds.

The Devil hath met his Match.

The day of which we last gave the events chanced to be Monday, and two days therefore intervened betwixt it and that for which the entertainment was fixed, that was to assemble in the halls of the Lord of the Manor the flower of the company now at St. Ronan’s Well. The interval was but brief for the preparations necessary on an occasion so unusual; since the house, though delightfully situated, was in very indifferent repair, and for years had never received any visitors, except when some blithe bachelor or fox-hunter shared the hospitality of Mr. Mowbray; an event which became daily more and more uncommon; for, as he himself almost lived at the Well, he generally contrived to receive his companions where it could be done without expense to himself. Besides, the health of his sister afforded an irresistible apology to any of those old-fashioned Scottish gentlemen, who might be too apt (in the rudeness of more primitive days) to consider a friend’s house as their own. Mr. Mowbray was now, however, to the great delight of all his companions, nailed down, by invitation given and accepted, and they looked forward to the accomplishment of his promise, with the eagerness which the prospect of some entertaining novelty never fails to produce among idlers.

A good deal of trouble devolved on Mr. Mowbray, and his trusty agent Mr. Meiklewham, before any thing like decent preparation could be made for the ensuing entertainment; and they were left to their unassisted endeavours by Clara, who, during both the Tuesday and Wednesday, obstinately kept herself secluded; nor could her brother, either by threats or flattery, extort from her any light concerning her purpose on the approaching and important Thursday. To do John Mowbray justice, he loved his sister as much as he was capable of loving any thing but himself; and when, in several arguments, he had the mortification to find that she was not to be prevailed on to afford her assistance, he, without complaint, quietly set himself to do the best he could by his own unassisted judgment or opinion with regard to the necessary preparations.

This was not, at present, so easy a task as might be supposed: for Mowbray was ambitious of that character of ton and elegance, which masculine faculties alone are seldom capable of attaining on such momentous occasions. The more solid materials of a collation were indeed to be obtained for money from the next market-town, and were purchased accordingly; but he felt it was likely to present the vulgar plenty of a farmer’s feast, instead of the elegant entertainment, which might be announced in a corner of the county paper, as given by John Mowbray, Esq. of St. Ronan’s, to the gay and fashionable company assembled at that celebrated spring. There was likely to be all sorts of error and irregularity in dishing, and in sending up; for Shaws-Castle boasted neither an accomplished housekeeper, nor a kitchenmaid with a hundred pair of hands to execute her mandates. All the domestic arrangements were on the minutest system of economy consistent with ordinary decency, except in the stables, which were excellent and well kept. But can a groom of the stables perform the labours of a groom of the chambers? or can the gamekeeper arrange in tempting order the carcasses of the birds he has shot, strew them with flowers, and garnish them with piquant sauces? It would be as reasonable to expect a gallant soldier to act as undertaker, and conduct the funeral of the enemy he has slain.

In a word, Mowbray talked, and consulted, and advised, and squabbled, with the deaf cook, and a little old man whom he called the butler, until he at length perceived so little chance of bringing order out of confusion, or making the least advantageous impression on such obdurate understandings as he had to deal with, that he fairly committed the whole matter of the collation, with two or three hearty curses, to the charge of the officials principally concerned, and proceeded to take the state of the furniture and apartments under his consideration.

Here he found himself almost equally helpless; for what male wit is adequate to the thousand little coquetries practised in such arrangements? how can masculine eyes judge of the degree of demi-jour which is to be admitted into a decorated apartment, or discriminate where the broad light should be suffered to fall on a tolerable picture, where it should be excluded, lest the stiff daub of a periwigged grandsire should become too rigidly prominent? And if men are unfit for weaving such a fairy web of light and darkness as may best suit furniture, ornaments, and complexions, how shall they be adequate to the yet more mysterious office of arranging, while they disarrange, the various movables in the apartment? so that while all has the air of negligence and chance, the seats are placed as if they had been transported by a wish to the spot most suitable for accommodation; stiffness and confusion are at once avoided, the company are neither limited to a formal circle of chairs, nor exposed to break their noses over wandering stools; but the arrangements seem to correspond to what ought to be the tone of the conversation, easy, without being confused, and regulated, without being constrained or stiffened.

Then how can a clumsy male wit attempt the arrangement of all the chiffonerie, by which old snuff-boxes, heads of canes, pomander boxes, lamer beads, and all the trash usually found in the pigeon-holes of the bureaus of old-fashioned ladies, may be now brought into play, by throwing them, carelessly grouped with other unconsidered trifles, such as are to be seen in the windows of a pawnbroker’s shop, upon a marble encognure, or a mosaic work-table, thereby turning to advantage the trash and trinketry, which all the old maids or magpies, who have inhabited the mansion for a century, have contrived to accumulate. With what admiration of the ingenuity of the fair artist have I sometimes pried into these miscellaneous groups of pseudo-bijouterie, and seen the great grandsire’s thumb-ring couchant with the coral and bells of the first-born — and the boatswain’s whistle of some old naval uncle, or his silver tobacco-box, redolent of Oroonoko, happily grouped with the mother’s ivory comb-case, still odorous of musk, and with some virgin aunt’s tortoise-shell spectacle-case, and the eagle’s talon of ebony, with which, in the days of long and stiff stays, our grandmothers were wont to alleviate any little irritation in their back or shoulders! Then there was the silver strainer, on which, in more economical times than ours, the lady of the house placed the tea-leaves, after the very last drop had been exhausted, that they might afterwards be hospitably divided among the company, to be eaten with sugar, and with bread and butter. Blessings upon a fashion which has rescued from the claws of abigails, and the melting-pot of the silversmith, those neglected cimelia, for the benefit of antiquaries and the decoration of side-tables! But who shall presume to place them there, unless under the direction of female taste? and of that Mr. Mowbray, though possessed of a large stock of such treasures, was for the present entirely deprived.

This digression upon his difficulties is already too long, or I might mention the Laird’s inexperience in the art of making the worse appear the better garnishment, of hiding a darned carpet with a new floor-cloth, and flinging an Indian shawl over a faded and threadbare sofa. But I have said enough, and more than enough, to explain his dilemma to an unassisted bachelor, who, without mother, sister, or cousin, without skilful housekeeper, or experienced clerk of the kitchen, or valet of parts and figure, adventures to give an entertainment, and aspires to make it elegant and comme il faut.

The sense of his insufficiency was the more vexatious to Mowbray, as he was aware he would find sharp critics in the ladies, and particularly in his constant rival, Lady Penelope Penfeather. He was, therefore, incessant in his exertions; and for two whole days ordered and disordered, demanded, commanded, countermanded, and reprimanded, without pause or cessation. The companion, for he could not be termed an assistant, of his labours, was his trusty agent, who trotted from room to room after him, affording him exactly the same degree of sympathy which a dog doth to his master when distressed in mind, by looking in his face from time to time with a piteous gaze, as if to assure him that he partakes of his trouble, though he neither comprehends the cause or the extent of it, nor has in the slightest degree the power to remove it.

At length when Mowbray had got some matters arranged to his mind, and abandoned a great many which he would willingly have put in better order, he sat down to dinner upon the Wednesday preceding the appointed day, with his worthy aide-decamp, Mr. Meiklewham; and after bestowing a few muttered curses upon the whole concern, and the fantastic old maid who had brought him into the scrape, by begging an invitation, declared that all things might now go to the devil their own way, for so sure as his name was John Mowbray, he would trouble himself no more about them.

Keeping this doughty resolution, he sat down to dinner with his counsel learned in the law; and speedily they dispatched the dish of chops which was set before them, and the better part of the bottle of old port, which served for its menstruum.

“We are well enough now,” said Mowbray, “though we have had none of their d —— d kickshaws.”

“A wamefou’ is a wamefou’,” said the writer, swabbing his greasy chops, “whether it be of the barleymeal or the bran.”

“A cart-horse thinks so,” said Mowbray; “but we must do as others do, and gentlemen and ladies are of a different opinion.”

“The waur for themselves and the country baith, St. Ronan’s — it’s the jinketing and the jirbling wi’ tea and wi’ trumpery that brings our nobles to nine-pence, and mony a het ha’-house to a hired lodging in the Abbey.”

The young gentleman paused for a few minutes — filled a bumper, and pushed the bottle to the senior — then said abruptly, “Do you believe in luck, Mick?”

“In luck?” answered the attorney; “what do you mean by the question?”

“Why, because I believe in luck myself — in a good or bad run of luck at cards.”

“You wad have mair luck the day, if you had never touched them,” replied his confident.

“That is not the question now,” said Mowbray; “but what I wonder at is the wretched chance that has attended us miserable Lairds of St. Ronan’s for more than a hundred years, that we have always been getting worse in the world, and never better. Never has there been such a backsliding generation, as the parson would say — half the country once belonged to my ancestors, and now the last furrows of it seem to be flying.”

“Fleeing!” said the writer, “they are barking and fleeing baith. — This Shaws-Castle here, I’se warrant it flee up the chimney after the rest, were it not weel fastened down with your grandfather’s tailzie.”

“Damn the tailzie!” said Mowbray; “if they had meant to keep up their estate, they should have entailed it when it was worth keeping: to tie a man down to such an insignificant thing as St. Ronan’s, is like tethering a horse on six roods of a Highland moor.”

“Ye have broke weel in on the mailing by your feus down at the Well,” said Meiklewham, “and raxed ower the tether maybe a wee bit farther than ye had ony right to do.”

“It was by your advice, was it not?” said the Laird.

“I’se ne’er deny it, St. Ronan’s,” answered the writer; “but I am such a gude-natured guse, that I just set about pleasing you as an auld wife pleases a bairn.”

“Ay,” said the man of pleasure, “when she reaches it a knife to cut its own fingers with. — These acres would have been safe enough, if it had not been for your d —— d advice.”

“And yet you were grumbling e’en now,” said the man of business, “that you have not the power to gar the whole estate flee like a wild-duck across a bog? Troth, you need care little about it; for if you have incurred an irritancy — and sae thinks Mr. Wisebehind, the advocate, upon an A. B. memorial that I laid before him — your sister, or your sister’s goodman, if she should take the fancy to marry, might bring a declarator, and evict St. Ronan’s frae ye in the course of twa or three sessions.”

“My sister will never marry,” said John Mowbray.

“That’s easily said,” replied the writer; “but as broken a ship’s come to land. If ony body kend o’ the chance she has o’ the estate, there’s mony a weel-doing man would think little of the bee in her bonnet.”

“Harkye, Mr. Meiklewham,” said the Laird, “I will be obliged to you if you will speak of Miss Mowbray with the respect due to her father’s daughter, and my sister.”

“Nae offence, St. Ronan’s, nae offence,” answered the man of law; “but ilka man maun speak sae as to be understood — that is, when he speaks about business. Ye ken yoursell, that Miss Clara is no just like other folk; and were I you — it’s my duty to speak plain — I wad e’en gie in a bit scroll of a petition to the Lords, to be appointed Curator Bonis, in respect of her incapacity to manage her own affairs.”

“Meiklewham,” said Mowbray, “you are a”—— and then stopped short.

“What am I, Mr. Mowbray?” said Meiklewham, somewhat sternly —“What am I? I wad be glad to ken what I am.”

“A very good lawyer, I dare say,” replied St. Ronan’s, who was too much in the power of his agent to give way to his first impulse. “But I must tell you, that rather than take such a measure against poor Clara, as you recommend, I would give her up the estate, and become an ostler or a postilion for the rest of my life.”

“Ah, St. Ronan’s,” said the man of law, “if you had wished to keep up the auld house, you should have taken another trade, than to become an ostler or a postilion. What ailed you, man, but to have been a lawyer as weel as other folk? My auld Maister had a wee bit Latin about rerum dominos gentemque togatam, whilk signified, he said, that all lairds should be lawyers.”

“All lawyers are likely to become lairds, I think,” replied Mowbray; “they purchase our acres by the thousand, and pay us, according to the old story, with a multiplepoinding, as your learned friends call it, Mr. Meiklewham.”

“Weel — and mightna you have purchased as weel as other folk?”

“Not I,” replied the Laird; “I have no turn for that service, I should only have wasted bombazine on my shoulders, and flour upon my three-tailed wig — should but have lounged away my mornings in the Outer-House, and my evenings at the play-house, and acquired no more law than what would have made me a wise justice at a Small-debt Court.”

“If you gained little, you would have lost as little,” said Meiklewham; “and albeit ye were nae great gun at the bar, ye might aye have gotten a Sheriffdom, or a Commissaryship, amang the lave, to keep the banes green; and sae ye might have saved your estate from deteriorating, if ye didna mend it muckle.”

“Yes, but I could not have had the chance of doubling it, as I might have done,” answered Mowbray, “had that inconstant jade, Fortune, but stood a moment faithful to me. I tell you, Mick, that I have been, within this twelvemonth, worth a hundred thousand — worth fifty thousand — worth nothing, but the remnant of this wretched estate, which is too little to do one good while it is mine, though, were it sold, I could start again, and mend my hand a little.”

“Ay, ay, just fling the helve after the hatchet,” said his legal adviser —“that’s a’ you think of. What signifies winning a hundred thousand pounds, if you win them to lose them a’ again?”

“What signifies it?” replied Mowbray. “Why, it signifies as much to a man of spirit, as having won a battle signifies to a general — no matter that he is beaten afterwards in his turn, he knows there is luck for him as well as others, and so he has spirit to try it again. Here is the young Earl of Etherington will be amongst us in a day or two — they say he is up to every thing — if I had but five hundred to begin with, I should be soon up to him.”

“Mr. Mowbray,” said Meiklewham, “I am sorry for ye. I have been your house’s man-of-business — I may say, in some measure, your house’s servant — and now I am to see an end of it all, and just by the lad that I thought maist likely to set it up again better than ever; for, to do ye justice, you have aye had an ee to your ain interest, sae far as your lights gaed. It brings tears into my auld een.”

“Never weep for the matter, Mick,” answered Mowbray; “some of it will stick, my old boy, in your pockets, if not in mine — your service will not be altogether gratuitous, my old friend — the labourer is worthy of his hire.”

“Weel I wot is he,” said the writer; “but double fees would hardly carry folk through some wark. But if ye will have siller, ye maun have siller — but, I warrant, it goes just where the rest gaed.”

“No, by twenty devils!” exclaimed Mowbray, “to fail this time is impossible — Jack Wolverine was too strong for Etherington at any thing he could name; and I can beat Wolverine from the Land’s-End to Johnnie Groat’s — but there must be something to go upon — the blunt must be had, Mick.”

“Very likely — nae doubt — that is always provided it can be had,” answered the legal adviser.

“That’s your business, my old cock,” said Mowbray. “This youngster will be here perhaps tomorrow, with money in both pockets — he takes up his rents as he comes down, Mick — think of that, my old friend.”

“Weel for them that have rents to take up,” said Meiklewham; “ours are lying rather ower low to be lifted at present. — But are you sure this Earl is a man to mell with? — are you sure ye can win of him, and that if you do, he can pay his losings, Mr. Mowbray? — because I have kend mony are come for wool, and gang hame shorn; and though ye are a clever young gentleman, and I am bound to suppose ye ken as much about life as most folk, and all that; yet some gate or other ye have aye come off at the losing hand, as ye have ower much reason to ken this day — howbeit”——

“O, the devil take your gossip, my dear Mick! If you can give no help, spare drowning me with your pother. — Why, man, I was a fresh hand — had my apprentice-fees to pay — and these are no trifles, Mick. — But what of that? — I am free of the company now, and can trade on my own bottom.”

“Aweel, aweel, I wish it may be sae,” said Meiklewham.

“It will be so, and it shall be so, my trusty friend,” replied Mowbray, cheerily, “so you will but help me to the stock to trade with.”

“The stock? — what d’ye ca’ the stock? I ken nae stock that ye have left.”

“But you have plenty, my old boy — Come, sell out a few of your three per cents; I will pay difference — interest — exchange — every thing.”

“Ay, ay — every thing or naething,” answered Meiklewham; “but as you are sae very pressing, I hae been thinking — Whan is the siller wanted?”

“This instant — this day — tomorrow at farthest!” exclaimed the proposed borrower.

“Wh — ew!” whistled the lawyer, with a long prolongation of the note; “the thing is impossible.”

“It must be, Mick, for all that,” answered Mr. Mowbray, who knew by experience that impossible, when uttered by his accommodating friend in this tone, meant only, when interpreted, extremely difficult, and very expensive.

“Then it must be by Miss Clara selling her stock, now that ye speak of stock,” said Meiklewham; “I wonder ye didna think of this before.”

“I wish you had been dumb rather than that you had mentioned it now,” said Mowbray, starting, as if stung by an adder —“What, Clara’s pittance! — the trifle my aunt left her for her own fanciful expenses — her own little private store, that she puts to so many good purposes — Poor Clara, that has so little! — And why not rather your own, Master Meiklewham, who call yourself the friend and servant of our family?”

“Ay, St. Ronan’s,” answered Meiklewham, “that is a’ very true — but service is nae inheritance; and as for friendship, it begins at hame, as wise folk have said lang before our time. And for that matter, I think they that are nearest sib should take maist risk. You are nearer and dearer to your sister, St. Ronan’s, than you are to poor Saunders Meiklewham, that hasna sae muckle gentle blood as would supper up an hungry flea.”

“I will not do this,” said St. Ronan’s, walking up and down with much agitation; for, selfish as he was, he loved his sister, and loved her the more on account of those peculiarities which rendered his protection indispensable to her comfortable existence —“I will not,” he said, “pillage her, come on’t what will. I will rather go a volunteer to the continent, and die like a gentleman.”

He continued to pace the room in a moody silence, which began to disturb his companion, who had not been hitherto accustomed to see his patron take matters so deeply. At length he made an attempt to attract the attention of the silent and sullen ponderer.

“Mr. Mowbray”— no answer —“I was saying, St. Ronan’s”— still no reply. “I have been thinking about this matter — and”——

“And what, sir?” said St. Ronan’s, stopping short, and speaking in a stern tone of voice.

“And, to speak truth, I see little feasibility in the matter ony way; for if ye had the siller in your pocket today, it would be a’ in the Earl of Etherington’s the morn.”

“Pshaw! you are a fool,” answered Mowbray.

“That is not unlikely,” said Meiklewham; “but so is Sir Bingo Binks, and yet he’s had the better of you, St. Ronan’s, this twa or three times.”

“It is false! — he has not,” answered St. Ronan’s, fiercely.

“Weel I wot,” resumed Meiklewham, “he took you in about the saumon fish, and some other wager ye lost to him this very day.”

“I tell you once more, Meiklewham, you are a fool, and no more up to my trim than you are to the longitude. — Bingo is got shy — I must give him a little line, that is all — then I shall strike him to purpose — I am as sure of him as I am of the other — I know the fly they will both rise to — this cursed want of five hundred will do me out of ten thousand!”

“If you are so certain of being the bangster — so very certain, I mean, of sweeping stakes — what harm will Miss Clara come to by your having the use of her siller? You can make it up to her for the risk ten times told.”

“And so I can, by Heaven!” said St. Ronan’s. “Mick, you are right, and I am a scrupulous, chicken-hearted fool. Clara shall have a thousand for her poor five hundred — she shall, by ——. And I will carry her to Edinburgh for a season, or perhaps to London, and we will have the best advice for her case, and the best company to divert her. And if they think her a little odd — why, d —— me, I am her brother, and will bear her through it. Yes — yes — you’re right; there can be no hurt in borrowing five hundred of her for a few days, when such profit may be made on’t, both for her and me. — Here, fill the glasses, my old boy, and drink success to it, for you are right.”

“Here is success to it, with all my heart,” answered Meiklewham, heartily glad to see his patron’s sanguine temper arrive at this desirable conclusion, and yet willing to hedge in his own credit; “but it is you are right, and not me, for I advise nothing except on your assurances, that you can make your ain of this English earl, and of this Sir Bingo — and if you can but do that, I am sure it would be unwise and unkind in ony ane of your friends to stand in your light.”

“True, Mick, true,” answered Mowbray. —“And yet dice and cards are but bones and pasteboard, and the best horse ever started may slip a shoulder before he get to the winning-post — and so I wish Clara’s venture had not been in such a bottom. — But, hang it, care killed a cat — I can hedge as well as any one, if the odds turn up against me — so let us have the cash, Mick.”

“Aha! but there go two words to that bargain — the stock stands in my name, and Tam Turnpenny the banker’s, as trustees for Miss Clara — Now, get you her letter to us, desiring us to sell out and to pay you the proceeds, and Tam Turnpenny will let you have five hundred pounds instanter, on the faith of the transaction; for I fancy you would desire a’ the stock to be sold out, and it will produce more than six hundred, or seven hundred pounds either — and I reckon you will be selling out the whole — it’s needless making twa bites of a cherry.”

“True,” answered Mowbray; “since we must be rogues, or something like it, let us make it worth our while at least; so give me a form of the letter, and Clara shall copy it — that is, if she consents; for you know she can keep her own opinion as well as any other woman in the world.”

“And that,” said Meiklewham, “is as the wind will keep its way, preach to it as ye like. But if I might advise about Miss Clara — I wad say naething mair than that I was stressed for the penny money; for I mistake her muckle if she would like to see you ganging to pitch and toss wi’ this lord and tither baronet for her aunt’s three per cents — I ken she has some queer notions — she gies away the feck of the dividends on that very stock in downright charity.”

“And I am in hazard to rob the poor as well as my sister!” said Mowbray, filling once more his own glass and his friend’s. “Come, Mick, no sky-lights — here is Clara’s health — she is an angel — and I am — what I will not call myself, and suffer no other man to call me. — But I shall win this time — I am sure I shall, since Clara’s fortune depends upon it.”

“Now, I think, on the other hand,” said Meiklewham, “that if any thing should chance wrang, (and Heaven kens that the best-laid schemes will gang ajee,) it will be a great comfort to think that the ultimate losers will only be the poor folk, that have the parish between them and absolute starvation — if your sister spent her ain siller, it would be a very different story.”

“Hush, Mick — for God’s sake, hush, mine honest friend,” said Mowbray; “it is quite true; thou art a rare counsellor in time of need, and hast as happy a manner of reconciling a man’s conscience with his necessities, as might set up a score of casuists; but beware, my most zealous counsellor and confessor, how you drive the nail too far — I promise you some of the chaffing you are at just now rather abates my pluck. — Well — give me your scroll — I will to Clara with it — though I would rather meet the best shot in Britain, with ten paces of green sod betwixt us.” So saying, he left the apartment.

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