Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 14

The Consultation.

Clown. I hope here be proofs. —

Measure for Measure.

The borough of —— lies, as all the world knows, about fourteen miles distant from St. Ronan’s, being the county town of that shire, which, as described in the Tourist’s Guide, numbers among its objects of interest that gay and popular watering-place, whose fame, no doubt, will be greatly enhanced by the present annals of its earlier history. As it is at present unnecessary to be more particular concerning the scene of our story, we will fill up the blank left in the first name with the fictitious appellation of Marchthorn, having often found ourselves embarrassed in the course of a story, by the occurrence of an ugly hiatus, which we cannot always at first sight fill up, with the proper reference to the rest of the narrative.

Marchthorn, then, was an old-fashioned Scottish town, the street of which, on market-day, showed a reasonable number of stout great-coated yeomen, bartering or dealing for the various commodities of their farms; and on other days of the week, only a few forlorn burghers, crawling about like half-awakened flies, and watching the town steeple till the happy sound of twelve strokes from Time’s oracle should tell them it was time to take their meridian dram. The narrow windows of the shops intimated very imperfectly the miscellaneous contents of the interior, where every merchant, as the shopkeepers of Marchthorn were termed, more Scotico, sold every thing that could be thought of. As for manufactures, there were none, except that of the careful Town-Council, who were mightily busied in preparing the warp and woof, which, at the end of every five or six years, the town of Marchthorn contributed, for the purpose of weaving the fourth or fifth part of a member of Parliament.

In such a town, it usually happens, that the Sheriff-clerk, especially supposing him agent for several lairds of the higher order, is possessed of one of the best-looking houses; and such was that of Mr. Bindloose. None of the smartness of the brick-built and brass-hammered mansion of a southern attorney appeared indeed in this mansion, which was a tall, thin, grim-looking building, in the centre of the town, with narrow windows and projecting gables, notched into that sort of descent, called crow-steps, and having the lower casements defended by stancheons of iron; for Mr. Bindloose, as frequently happens, kept a branch of one of the two national banks, which had been lately established in the town of Marchthorn.

Towards the door of this tenement, there advanced slowly up the ancient, but empty streets of this famous borough, a vehicle, which, had it appeared in Piccadilly, would have furnished unremitted laughter for a week, and conversation for a twelvemonth. It was a two-wheeled vehicle, which claimed none of the modern appellations of tilbury, tandem, dennet, or the like; but aspired only to the humble name of that almost forgotten accommodation, a whiskey; or, according to some authorities, a tim-whiskey. Green was, or had been, its original colour, and it was placed sturdily and safely low upon its little old-fashioned wheels, which bore much less than the usual proportion to the size of the carriage which they sustained. It had a calash head, which had been pulled up, in consideration either to the dampness of the morning air, or to the retiring delicacy of the fair form which, shrouded by leathern curtains, tenanted this venerable specimen of antediluvian coach-building.

But, as this fair and modest dame noway aspired to the skill of a charioteer, the management of a horse, which seemed as old as the carriage he drew, was in the exclusive charge of an old fellow in a postilion’s jacket, whose grey hairs escaped on each side of an old-fashioned velvet jockey-cap, and whose left shoulder was so considerably elevated above his head, that it seemed, as if, with little effort, his neck might have been tucked under his arm, like that of a roasted grouse-cock. This gallant equerry was mounted on a steed as old as that which toiled betwixt the shafts of the carriage, and which he guided by a leading rein. Goading one animal with his single spur, and stimulating the other with his whip, he effected a reasonable trot upon the causeway, which only terminated when the whiskey stopped at Mr. Bindloose’s door — an event of importance enough to excite the curiosity of the inhabitants of that and the neighbouring houses. Wheels were laid aside, needles left sticking in the half-finished seams, and many a nose, spectacled and unspectacled, was popped out of the adjoining windows, which had the good fortune to command a view of Mr. Bindloose’s front door. The faces of two or three giggling clerks were visible at the barred casements of which we have spoken, much amused at the descent of an old lady from this respectable carriage, whose dress and appearance might possibly have been fashionable at the time when her equipage was new. A satin cardinal, lined with grey squirrels’ skin, and a black silk bonnet, trimmed with crape, were garments which did not now excite the respect, which in their fresher days they had doubtless commanded. But there was that in the features of the wearer, which would have commanded Mr. Bindloose’s best regard, though it had appeared in far worse attire; for he beheld the face of an ancient customer, who had always paid her law expenses with the ready penny, and whose accompt with the bank was balanced by a very respectable sum at her credit. It was, indeed, no other than our respected friend, Mrs. Dods of the Cleikum Inn, St. Ronan’s, Aultoun.

Now her arrival intimated matter of deep import. Meg was a person of all others most averse to leave her home, where, in her own opinion at least, nothing went on well without her immediate superintendence. Limited, therefore, as was her sphere, she remained fixed in the centre thereof; and few as were her satellites, they were under the necessity of performing their revolutions around her, while she herself continued stationary. Saturn, in fact, would be scarce more surprised at a passing call from the Sun, than Mr. Bindloose at this unexpected visit of his old client. In one breath he rebuked the inquisitive impertinence of his clerks, in another stimulated his housekeeper, old Hannah — for Mr. Bindloose was a bluff bachelor — to get tea ready in the green parlour; and while yet speaking, was at the side of the whiskey, unclasping the curtains, rolling down the apron, and assisting his old friend to dismount.

“The japanned tea-caddie, Hannah — the best bohea — bid Tib kindle a spark of fire — the morning’s damp — Draw in the giggling faces of ye, ye d —— d idle scoundrels, or laugh at your ain toom pouches — it will be lang or your weeldoing fill them.” This was spoken, as the honest lawyer himself might have said, in transitu, the rest by the side of the carriage. “My stars, Mrs. Dods, and is this really your ain sell, in propria persona? — Wha lookit for you at such a time of day? — Anthony, how’s a’ wi’ ye, Anthony? — so ye hae taen the road again, Anthony — help us down wi’ the apron, Anthony — that will do. — Lean on me, Mrs. Dods — help your mistress, Anthony — put the horses in my stable — the lads will give you the key. — Come away, Mrs. Dods — I am blithe to see you straight your legs on the causeway of our auld borough again — come in by, and we’ll see to get you some breakfast, for ye hae been asteer early this morning.”

“I am a sair trouble to you, Mr. Bindloose,” said the old lady, accepting the offer of his arm, and accompanying him into the house; “I am e’en a sair trouble to you, but I could not rest till I had your advice on something of moment.”

“Happy will I be to serve you, my gude auld acquaintance,” said the Clerk; “but sit you down — sit you down — sit you down, Mrs. Dods — meat and mess never hindered wark. Ye are something overcome wi’ your travel — the spirit canna aye bear through the flesh, Mrs. Dods; ye should remember that your life is a precious one, and ye should take care of your health, Mrs. Dods.”

“My life precious!” exclaimed Meg Dods; “nane o’ your whullywhaing, Mr. Bindloose — Deil ane wad miss the auld girning alewife, Mr. Bindloose, unless it were here and there a puir body, and maybe the auld house-tyke, that wadna be sae weel guided, puir fallow.”

“Fie, fie! Mrs. Dods,” said the Clerk, in a tone of friendly rebuke; “it vexes an auld friend to hear ye speak of yourself in that respectless sort of a way; and, as for quitting us, I bless God I have not seen you look better this half score of years. But maybe you will be thinking of setting your house in order, which is the act of a carefu’ and of a Christian woman — O! it’s an awfu’ thing to die intestate, if we had grace to consider it.”

“Aweel, I daur say I’ll consider that some day soon, Mr. Bindloose; but that’s no my present errand.”

“Be it what it like, Mrs. Dods, ye are right heartily welcome here, and we have a’ the day to speak of the business in hand — festina lente, that is the true law language — hooly and fairly, as one may say — ill treating of business with an empty stomach — and here comes your tea, and I hope Hannah has made it to your taste.”

Meg sipped her tea — confessed Hannah’s skill in the mysteries of the Chinese herb — sipped again, then tried to eat a bit of bread and butter, with very indifferent success; and notwithstanding the lawyer’s compliments to her good looks, seemed in reality, on the point of becoming ill.

“In the deil’s name, what is the matter!” said the lawyer, too well read in a profession where sharp observation is peculiarly necessary, to suffer these symptoms of agitation to escape him. “Ay, dame? ye are taking this business of yours deeper to heart than ever I kend you take ony thing. Ony o’ your banded debtors failed, or like to fail? What then! cheer ye up — you can afford a little loss, and it canna be ony great matter, or I would doubtless have heard of it.”

“In troth, but it is a loss, Mr. Bindloose; and what say ye to the loss of a friend?”

This was a possibility which had never entered the lawyer’s long list of calamities, and he was at some loss to conceive what the old lady could possibly mean by so sentimental a prolusion. But just as he began to come out with his “Ay, ay, we are all mortal, Vita incerta, mors certissima!” and two or three more pithy reflections, which he was in the habit of uttering after funerals, when the will of the deceased was about to be opened — just then Mrs. Dods was pleased to become the expounder of her own oracle.

“I see how it is, Mr. Bindloose,” she said; “I maun tell my ain ailment, for you are no likely to guess it; and so, if ye will shut the door, and see that nane of your giggling callants are listening in the passage, I will e’en tell you how things stand with me.”

Mr. Bindloose hastily arose to obey her commands, gave a cautionary glance into the Bank-office, and saw that his idle apprentices were fast at their desks — turned the key upon them, as if it were in a fit of absence, and then returned, not a little curious to know what could be the matter with his old friend; and leaving off all further attempts to put cases, quietly drew his chair near hers, and awaited her own time to make her communication.

“Mr. Bindloose,” said she, “I am no sure that you may mind, about six or seven years ago, that there were twa daft English callants, lodgers of mine, that had some trouble from auld St. Ronan’s about shooting on the Springwell-head muirs.”

“I mind it as weel as yesterday, Mistress,” said the Clerk; “by the same token you gave me a note for my trouble, (which wasna worth speaking about,) and bade me no bring in a bill against the puir bairns — ye had aye a kind heart, Mrs. Dods.”

“Maybe, and maybe no, Mr. Bindloose — that is just as I find folk. — But concerning these lads, they baith left the country, and, as I think, in some ill blude wi’ ane another, and now the auldest and the doucest of the twa came back again about a fortnight sin’ syne, and has been my guest ever since.”

“Aweel, and I trust he is not at his auld tricks again, goodwife?” answered the Clerk. “I havena sae muckle to say either wi’ the new Sheriff or the Bench of Justices as I used to hae, Mrs. Dods — and the Procurator-fiscal is very severe on poaching, being borne out by the new Association — few of our auld friends of the Killnakelty are able to come to the sessions now, Mrs. Dods.”

“The waur for the country, Mr. Bindloose,” replied the old lady —“they were decent, considerate men, that didna plague a puir herd callant muckle about a moorfowl or a mawkin, unless he turned common fowler — Sir Robert Ringhorse used to say, the herd lads shot as mony gleds and pyots as they did game. — But new lords new laws — naething but fine and imprisonment, and the game no a feather the plentier. If I wad hae a brace or twa of birds in the house, as every body looks for them after the twelfth — I ken what they are like to cost me — And what for no? — risk maun be paid for. — There is John Pirner himsell, that has keepit the muir-side thirty year in spite of a’ the lairds in the country, shoots, he tells me, now-a-days, as if he felt a rape about his neck.”

“It wasna about ony game business, then, that you wanted advice?” said Bindloose, who, though somewhat of a digresser himself, made little allowance for the excursions of others from the subject in hand.

“Indeed is it no, Mr. Bindloose,” said Meg; “but it is e’en about this unhappy callant that I spoke to you about. — Ye maun ken I have cleiket a particular fancy to this lad, Francis Tirl — a fancy that whiles surprises my very sell, Mr. Bindloose, only that there is nae sin in it.”

“None — none in the world, Mrs. Dods,” said the lawyer, thinking at the same time within his own mind, “Oho! the mist begins to clear up — the young poacher has hit the mark, I see — winged the old barren grey hen! — ay, ay — a marriage-contract, no doubt — but I maun gie her line. — Ye are a wise woman, Mrs. Dods,” he continued aloud, “and can doubtless consider the chances and the changes of human affairs.”

“But I could never have considered what has befallen this puir lad, Mr. Bindloose,” said Mrs. Dods, “through the malice of wicked men. — He lived, then, at the Cleikum, as I tell you, for mair than a fortnight, as quiet as a lamb on a lea-rig — a decenter lad never came within my door — ate and drank eneugh for the gude of the house, and nae mair than was for his ain gude, whether of body or soul — cleared his bills ilka Saturday at e’en, as regularly as Saturday came round.”

“An admirable customer, no doubt, Mrs. Dods,” said the lawyer.

“Never was the like of him for that matter,” answered the honest dame. “But to see the malice of men! — some of thae landloupers and gill-flirts down at the filthy puddle yonder, that they ca’ the Waal, had heard of this puir lad, and the bits of pictures that he made fashion of drawing, and they maun cuitle him awa doun to the bottle, where mony a bonny story they had clecked, Mr. Bindloose, baith of Mr. Tirl and of mysell.”

“A Commissary Court business,” said the writer, going off again upon a false scent. “I shall trim their jackets for them, Mrs. Dods, if you can but bring tight evidence of the facts — I will soon bring them to fine and palinode — I will make them repent meddling with your good name.”

“My gude name! What the sorrow is the matter wi’ my name, Mr. Bindloose?” said the irritable client. “I think ye hae been at the wee cappie this morning, for as early as it is — My gude name! — if ony body touched my gude name, I would neither fash counsel nor commissary — I wad be down amang them, like a jer-falcon amang a wheen wild-geese, and the best amang them that dared to say ony thing of Meg Dods by what was honest and civil, I wad sune see if her cockernonnie was made of her ain hair or other folk’s. My gude name, indeed!”

“Weel, weel, Mrs. Dods, I was mista’en, that’s a’,” said the writer, “I was mista’en; and I dare to say you would haud your ain wi’ your neighbours as weel as ony woman in the land — But let us hear now what the grief is, in one word.”

“In one word, then, Clerk Bindloose, it is little short of — murder,” said Meg, in a low tone, as if the very utterance of the word startled her.

“Murder! murder, Mrs. Dods? — it cannot be — there is not a word of it in the Sheriff-office — the Procurator-fiscal kens nothing of it — there could not be murder in the country, and me not hear of it — for God’s sake, take heed what you say, woman, and dinna get yourself into trouble.”

“Mr. Bindloose, I can but speak according to my lights,” said Mrs. Dods; “you are in a sense a judge in Israel, at least you are one of the scribes having authority — and I tell you, with a wae and bitter heart, that this puir callant of mine that was lodging in my house has been murdered or kidnapped awa amang thae banditti folk down at the New Waal; and I’ll have the law put in force against them, if it should cost me a hundred pounds.”

The Clerk stood much astonished at the nature of Meg’s accusation, and the pertinacity with which she seemed disposed to insist upon it.

“I have this comfort,” she continued, “that whatever has happened, it has been by no fault of mine, Mr. Bindloose; for weel I wot, before that bloodthirsty auld half-pay Philistine, MacTurk, got to speech of him, I clawed his cantle to some purpose with my hearth-besom. — But the poor simple bairn himsell, that had nae mair knowledge of the wickedness of human nature than a calf has of a flesher’s gully, he threepit to see the auld hardened bloodshedder, and trysted wi’ him to meet wi’ some of the gang at an hour certain that same day, and awa he gaed to keep tryst, but since that hour naebody ever has set een on him. — And the mansworn villains now want to put a disgrace on him, and say that he fled the country rather than face them! — a likely story — fled the country for them! — and leave his bill unsettled — him that was sae regular — and his portmantle and his fishing-rod and the pencils and pictures he held sic a wark about! — It’s my faithful belief, Mr. Bindloose — and ye may trust me or no as ye like — that he had some foul play between the Cleikum and the Buck-stane. I have thought it, and I have dreamed it, and I will be at the bottom of it, or my name is not Meg Dods, and that I wad have them a’ to reckon on. — Ay, ay, that’s right, Mr. Bindloose, tak out your pen and inkhorn, and let us set about it to purpose.”

With considerable difficulty, and at the expense of much cross-examination, Mr. Bindloose extracted from his client a detailed account of the proceedings of the company at the Well towards Tyrrel, so far as they were known to, or suspected by Meg, making notes, as the examination proceeded, of what appeared to be matter of consequence. After a moment’s consideration, he asked the dame the very natural question, how she came to be acquainted with the material fact, that a hostile appointment was made between Captain MacTurk and her lodger, when, according to her own account, it was made intra parietes, and remotis testibus?

“Ay, but we victuallers ken weel eneugh what goes on in our ain houses,” said Meg —“And what for no? — If ye maun ken a’ about it, I e’en listened through the keyhole of the door.”

“And do you say you heard them settle an appointment for a duel?” said the Clerk; “and did you no take ony measures to hinder mischief, Mrs. Dods, having such a respect for this lad as you say you have, Mrs. Dods? — I really wadna have looked for the like o’ this at your hands.”

“In truth, Mr. Bindloose,” said Meg, putting her apron to her eyes, “and that’s what vexes me mair than a’ the rest, and ye needna say muckle to ane whose heart is e’en the sairer that she has been a thought to blame. But there has been mony a challenge, as they ca’ it, passed in my house, when thae daft lads of the Wildfire Club and the Helter-skelter were upon their rambles; and they had aye sense eneugh to make it up without fighting, sae that I really did not apprehend ony thing like mischief. — And ye maun think, moreover, Mr. Bindloose, that it would have been an unco thing if a guest, in a decent and creditable public like mine, was to have cried coward before ony of thae landlouping blackguards that live down at the hottle yonder.”

“That is to say, Mrs. Dods, you were desirous your guest should fight for the honour of your house,” said Bindloose.

“What for no, Mr. Bindloose? — Isna that kind of fray aye about honour? and what for should the honour of a substantial, four-nooked, sclated house of three stories, no be foughten for, as weel as the credit of ony of these feckless callants that make such a fray about their reputation? — I promise you my house, the Cleikum, stood in the Auld Town of St. Ronan’s before they were born, and it will stand there after they are hanged, as I trust some of them are like to be.”

“Well, but perhaps your lodger had less zeal for the honour of the house, and has quietly taken himself out of harm’s way,” said Mr. Bindloose; “for if I understand your story, this meeting never took place.”

“Have less zeal!” said Meg, determined to be pleased with no supposition of her lawyer, “Mr. Bindloose, ye little ken him — I wish ye had seen him when he was angry! — I dared hardly face him mysell, and there are no mony folk that I am feared for — Meeting! there was nae meeting, I trow — they never dared to meet him fairly — but I am sure waur came of it than ever would have come of a meeting; for Anthony heard twa shots gang off as he was watering the auld naig down at the burn, and that is not far frae the footpath that leads to the Buck-stane. I was angry at him for no making on to see what the matter was, but he thought it was auld Pirner out wi’ the double barrel, and he wasna keen of making himself a witness, in case he suld have been caa’d on in the Poaching Court.”

“Well,” said the Sheriff-clerk, “and I dare say he did hear a poacher fire a couple of shots — nothing more likely. Believe me, Mrs. Dods, your guest had no fancy for the party Captain MacTurk invited him to — and being a quiet sort of man, he has just walked away to his own home, if he has one — I am really sorry you have given yourself the trouble of this long journey about so simple a matter.”

Mrs. Dods remained with her eyes fixed on the ground in a very sullen and discontented posture, and when she spoke, it was in a tone of corresponding displeasure.

“Aweel — aweel — live and learn, they say — I thought I had a friend in you, Mr. Bindloose — I am sure I aye took your part when folk miscaa’d ye, and said ye were this, that, and the other thing, and little better than an auld sneck-drawing loon, Mr. Bindloose. — And ye have aye keepit my penny of money, though, nae doubt, Tam Turnpenny lives nearer me, and they say he allows half a per cent mair than ye do if the siller lies, and mine is but seldom steered.”

“But ye have not the Bank’s security, madam,” said Mr. Bindloose, reddening. “I say harm of nae man’s credit — ill would it beseem me — but there is a difference between Tam Turnpenny and the Bank, I trow.”

“Weel, weel, Bank here Bank there, I thought I had a friend in you, Mr. Bindloose; and here am I, come from my ain house all the way to yours for sma’ comfort, I think.”

“My stars, madam,” said the perplexed scribe, “what would you have me to do in such a blind story as yours, Mrs. Dods? — Be a thought reasonable — consider that there is no Corpus delicti.”

“Corpus delicti? and what’s that?” said Meg; “something to be paid for, nae doubt, for your hard words a’ end in that. — And what for suld I no have a Corpus delicti, or a Habeas Corpus, or ony other Corpus that I like, sae lang as I am willing to lick and lay down the ready siller?”

“Lord help and pardon us, Mrs. Dods,” said the distressed agent, “ye mistake the matter a’thegether! When I say there is no Corpus delicti, I mean to say there is no proof that a crime has been committed.”19

“And does the man say that murder is not a crime, than?” answered Meg, who had taken her own view of the subject far too strongly to be converted to any other —“Weel I wot it’s a crime, baith by the law of God and man, and mony a pretty man has been strapped for it.”

“I ken all that very weel,” answered the writer; “but, my stars, Mrs. Dods, there is nae evidence of murder in this case — nae proof that a man has been slain — nae production of his dead body — and that is what we call the Corpus delicti.”

“Weel, than, the deil lick it out of ye,” said Meg, rising in wrath, “for I will awa hame again; and as for the puir lad’s body, I’ll hae it fund, if it cost me turning the earth for three miles round wi’ pick and shool — if it were but to give the puir bairn Christian burial, and to bring punishment on MacTurk and the murdering crew at the Waal, and to shame an auld doited fule like yoursell, John Bindloose.”

She rose in wrath to call her vehicle; but it was neither the interest nor the intention of the writer that his customer and he should part on such indifferent terms. He implored her patience, and reminded her that the horses, poor things, had just come off their stage — an argument which sounded irresistible in the ears of the old she-publican, in whose early education due care of the post-cattle mingled with the most sacred duties. She therefore resumed her seat again in a sullen mood, and Mr. Bindloose was cudgelling his brains for some argument which might bring the old lady to reason, when his attention was drawn by a noise in the passage.

19 For example, a man cannot be tried for murder merely in the case of the non-appearance of an individual; there must be proof that the party has been murdered.

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