Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 22

Expostulation.

Seek not the feast in these irreverent robes;

Go to my chamber — put on clothes of mine.

The Taming of the Shrew.

It was with a mixture of anxiety, vexation, and resentment, that Mowbray, just when he had handed Lady Penelope into the apartment where the tables were covered, observed that his sister was absent, and that Lady Binks was hanging on the arm of Lord Etherington, to whose rank it would properly have fallen to escort the lady of the house. An anxious and hasty glance cast through the room, ascertained that she was absent, nor could the ladies present give any account of her after she had quitted the gardens, except that Lady Penelope had spoken a few words with her in her own apartment, immediately after the scenic entertainment was concluded.

Thither Mowbray hurried, complaining aloud of his sister’s laziness in dressing, but internally hoping that the delay was occasioned by nothing of a more important character.

He hastened up stairs, entered her sitting-room without ceremony, and knocking at the door of her dressing-room, begged her to make haste.

“Here is the whole company impatient,” he said, assuming a tone of pleasantry; “and Sir Bingo Binks exclaiming for your presence, that he may be let loose on the cold meat.”

“Paddock calls,” said Clara from within; “anon — anon!”

“Nay, it is no jest, Clara,” continued her brother; “for here is Lady Penelope miauling like a starved cat!”

“I come — I come, greymalkin,” answered Clara, in the same vein as before, and entered the parlour as she spoke, her finery entirely thrown aside, and dressed in the riding-habit which was her usual and favourite attire.

Her brother was both surprised and offended. “On my soul,” he said, “Clara, this is behaving very ill. I indulge you in every freak upon ordinary occasions, but you might surely on this day, of all others, have condescended to appear something like my sister, and a gentlewoman receiving company in her own house.”

“Why, dearest John,” said Clara, “so that the guests have enough to eat and drink, I cannot conceive why I should concern myself about their finery, or they trouble themselves about my plain clothes.”

“Come, come, Clara, this will not do,” answered Mowbray; “you must positively go back into your dressing-room, and huddle your things on as fast as you can. You cannot go down to the company dressed as you are.”

“I certainly can, and I certainly will, John — I have made a fool of myself once this morning to oblige you, and for the rest of the day I am determined to appear in my own dress; that is, in one which shows I neither belong to the world, nor wish to have any thing to do with its fashions.”

“By my soul, Clara, I will make you repent this!” said Mowbray, with more violence than he usually exhibited where his sister was concerned.

“You cannot, dear John,” she coolly replied, “unless by beating me; and that I think you would repent of yourself.”

“I do not know but what it were the best way of managing you,” said Mowbray, muttering between his teeth; but, commanding his violence, he only said aloud, “I am sure, from long experience, Clara, that your obstinacy will at the long run beat my anger. Do let us compound the point for once — keep your old habit, since you are so fond of making a sight of yourself, and only throw the shawl round your shoulders — it has been exceedingly admired, and every woman in the house longs to see it closer — they can hardly believe it genuine.”

“Do be a man, Mowbray,” answered his sister; “meddle with your horse-sheets, and leave shawls alone.”

“Do you be a woman, Clara, and think a little on them, when custom and decency render it necessary. — Nay, is it possible! — Will you not stir — not oblige me in such a trifle as this?”

“I would indeed if I could,” said Clara; “but since you must know the truth — do not be angry — I have not the shawl. I have given it away — given it up, perhaps I should say, to the rightful owner. — She has promised me something or other in exchange for it, however. I have given it to Lady Penelope.”

“Yes,” answered Mowbray, “some of the work of her own fair hands, I suppose, or a couple of her ladyship’s drawings, made up into fire-screens. — On my word — on my soul, this is too bad! — It is using me too ill, Clara — far too ill. If the thing had been of no value, my giving it to you should have fixed some upon it. — Good-even to you; we will do as well as we can without you.”

“Nay, but, my dear John — stay but a moment,” said Clara, taking his arm as he sullenly turned towards the door; “there are but two of us on the earth — do not let us quarrel about a trumpery shawl.”

“Trumpery!” said Mowbray; “It cost fifty guineas, by G — which I can but ill spare — trumpery!”

“O, never think of the cost,” said Clara; “it was your gift, and that should, I own, have been enough to have made me keep to my death’s day the poorest rag of it. But really Lady Penelope looked so very miserable, and twisted her poor face into so many odd expressions of anger and chagrin, that I resigned it to her, and agreed to say she had lent it to me for the performance. I believe she was afraid that I would change my mind, or that you would resume it as a seignorial waif; for, after she had walked a few turns with it wrapped around her, merely by way of taking possession, she dispatched it by a special messenger to her apartment at the Well.”

“She may go to the devil,” said Mowbray, “for a greedy unconscionable jade, who has varnished over a selfish, spiteful heart, that is as hard as a flint, with a fine glossing of taste and sensibility!”

“Nay, but, John,” replied his sister, “she really had something to complain of in the present case. The shawl had been bespoken on her account, or very nearly so — she showed me the tradesman’s letter — only some agent of yours had come in between with the ready money, which no tradesman can resist. — Ah, John! I suspect half of your anger is owing to the failure of a plan to mortify poor Lady Pen, and that she has more to complain of than you have. — Come, come, you have had the advantage of her in the first display of this fatal piece of finery, if wearing it on my poor shoulders can be called a display — e’en make her welcome to the rest for peace’s sake, and let us go down to these good folks, and you shall see how pretty and civil I shall behave.”

Mowbray, a spoiled child, and with all the petted habits of indulgence, was exceedingly fretted at the issue of the scheme which he had formed for mortifying Lady Penelope; but he saw at once the necessity of saying nothing more to his sister on the subject. Vengeance he privately muttered against Lady Pen, whom he termed an absolute harpy in blue-stockings; unjustly forgetting, that in the very important affair at issue, he himself had been the first to interfere with and defeat her ladyship’s designs on the garment in question.

“But I will blow her,” he said, “I will blow her ladyship’s conduct in the business! She shall not outwit a poor whimsical girl like Clara, without hearing it on more sides than one.”

With this Christian and gentlemanlike feeling towards Lady Penelope, he escorted his sister into the eating-room, and led her to her proper place at the head of the table. It was the negligence displayed in her dress, which occasioned the murmur of surprise that greeted Clara on her entrance. Mowbray, as he placed his sister in her chair, made her general apology for her late appearance, and her riding-habit. “Some fairies,” he supposed, “Puck, or such like tricksy goblin, had been in her wardrobe, and carried off whatever was fit for wearing.”

There were answers from every quarter — that it would have been too much to expect Miss Mowbray to dress for their amusement a second time — that nothing she chose to wear could misbecome Miss Mowbray — that she had set like the sun, in her splendid scenic dress, and now rose like the full moon in her ordinary attire, (this flight was by the Reverend Mr. Chatterly,)— and that “Miss Mowbray being at hame, had an unco gude right to please hersell;” which last piece of politeness, being at least as much to the purpose as any that had preceded it, was the contribution of honest Mrs. Blower; and was replied to by Miss Mowbray with a particular and most gracious bow.

Mrs. Blower ought to have rested her colloquial fame, as Dr. Johnson would have said, upon a compliment so evidently acceptable, but no one knows where to stop. She thrust her broad, good-natured, delighted countenance forward, and sending her voice from the bottom to the top of the table, like her umquhile husband when calling to his mate during a breeze, wondered “why Miss Clara Moubrie didna wear that grand shawl she had on at the play-making, and her just sitting upon the wind of a door. Nae doubt it was for fear of the soup, and the butter-boats, and the like; — but she had three shawls, which she really fand was ane ower mony — if Miss Moubrie wad like to wear ane o’ them — it was but imitashion, to be sure — but it wad keep her shouthers as warm as if it were real Indian, and if it were dirtied it was the less matter.”

“Much obliged, Mrs. Blower,” said Mowbray unable to resist the temptation which this speech offered; “but my sister is not yet of quality sufficient, to entitle her to rob her friends of their shawls.”

Lady Penelope coloured to the eyes, and bitter was the retort that arose to her tongue; but she suppressed it, and nodding to Miss Mowbray in the most friendly way in the world, yet with a very particular expression, she only said, “So you have told your brother of the little transaction which we have had this morning? — Tu me lo pagherai — I give you fair warning, take care none of your secrets come into my keeping — that’s all.”

Upon what mere trifles do the important events of human life sometimes depend! If Lady Penelope had given way to her first movements of resentment, the probable issue would have been some such half-comic half-serious skirmish, as her ladyship and Mr. Mowbray had often amused the company withal. But revenge which is suppressed and deferred, is always most to be dreaded; and to the effects of the deliberate resentment which Lady Penelope cherished upon this trifling occasion, must be traced the events which our history has to record. Secretly did she determine to return the shawl, which she had entertained hopes of making her own upon very reasonable terms; and as secretly did she resolve to be revenged both upon brother and sister, conceiving herself already possessed, to a certain degree, of a clew to some part of their family history, which might serve for a foundation on which to raise her projected battery. The ancient offences and emulation of importance of the Laird of St. Ronan’s, and the superiority which had been given to Clara in the exhibition of the day, combined with the immediate cause of resentment; and it only remained for her to consider how her revenge should be most signally accomplished.

Whilst such thoughts were passing through Lady Penelope’s mind, Mowbray was searching with his eyes for the Earl of Etherington, judging that it might be proper, in the course of the entertainment, or before the guests had separated, to make him formally acquainted with his sister, as a preface to the more intimate connexion which must, in prosecution of the plan agreed upon, take place betwixt them. Greatly to his surprise, the young Earl was no where visible, and the place which he had occupied by the side of Lady Binks had been quietly appropriated by Winterblossom, as the best and softest chair in the room, and nearest to the head of the table, where the choicest of the entertainment is usually arranged. This honest gentleman, after a few insipid compliments to her ladyship upon her performance as Queen of the Amazons, had betaken himself to the much more interesting occupation of ogling the dishes, through the glass which hung suspended at his neck by a gold chain of Maltese workmanship. After looking and wondering for a few seconds, Mowbray addressed himself to the old beau-garçon, and asked him what had become of Etherington.

“Retreated,” said Winterblossom, “and left but his compliments to you behind him — a complaint, I think, in his wounded arm. — Upon my word, that soup has a most appetizing flavour! — Lady Penelope, shall I have the honour to help you? — no! — nor you, Lady Binks? — you are too cruel! — I must comfort myself, like a heathen priest of old, by eating the sacrifice which the deities have scorned to accept of.”

Here he helped himself to the plate of soup which he had in vain offered to the ladies, and transferred the further duty of dispensing it to Mr. Chatterly; “it is your profession, sir, to propitiate the divinities — ahem!”

“I did not think Lord Etherington would have left us so soon,” said Mowbray; “but we must do the best we can without his countenance.”

So saying, he assumed his place at the bottom of the table, and did his best to support the character of a hospitable and joyous landlord, while on her part, with much natural grace, and delicacy of attention calculated to set every body at their ease, his sister presided at the upper end of the board. But the vanishing of Lord Etherington in a manner so sudden and unaccountable — the obvious ill-humour of Lady Penelope — and the steady, though passive, sullenness of Lady Binks, spread among the company a gloom like that produced by an autumnal mist upon a pleasing landscape. The women were low-spirited, dull, nay, peevish, they did not well know why; and the men could not be joyous, though the ready resource of old hock and champagne made some of them talkative. — Lady Penelope broke up the party by well-feigned apprehension of the difficulties, nay, dangers, of returning by so rough a road. Lady Binks begged a seat with her ladyship, as Sir Bingo, she said, judging from his devotion to the green flask, was likely to need their carriage home. From the moment of their departure, it became bad tone to remain behind; and all, as in a retreating army, were eager to be foremost, excepting MacTurk and a few stanch topers, who, unused to meet with such good cheer every day of their lives, prudently determined to make the most of the opportunity.

We will not dwell on the difficulties attending the transportation of a large company by few carriages, though the delay and disputes thereby occasioned were of course more intolerable than in the morning, for the parties had no longer the hopes of a happy day before them, as a bribe to submit to temporary inconvenience. The impatience of many was so great, that, though the evening was raw, they chose to go on foot rather than await the dull routine of the returning carriages; and as they retired they agreed, with one consent, to throw the blame of whatever inconvenience they might sustain on their host and hostess, who had invited so large a party before getting a shorter and better road made between the Well and Shaws-Castle.

“It would have been so easy to repair the path by the Buck-stane!”

And this was all the thanks which Mr. Mowbray received for an entertainment which had cost him so much trouble and expense, and had been looked forward to by the good society at the Well with such impatient expectation.

“It was an unco pleasant show,” said the good-natured Mrs. Blower, “only it was a pity it was sae tediousome; and there was surely an awfu’ waste of gauze and muslin.”

But so well had Dr. Quackleben improved his numerous opportunities, that the good lady was much reconciled to affairs in general, by the prospect of coughs, rheumatisms, and other maladies acquired upon the occasion, which were likely to afford that learned gentleman, in whose prosperity she much interested herself, a very profitable harvest.

Mowbray, somewhat addicted to the service of Bacchus, did not find himself freed, by the secession of so large a proportion of the company, from the service of the jolly god, although, upon the present occasion, he could well have dispensed with his orgies. Neither the song, nor the pun, nor the jest, had any power to kindle his heavy spirit, mortified as he was by the event of his party being so different from the brilliant consummation which he had anticipated. The guests, stanch boon companions, suffered not, however, their party to flag for want of the landlord’s participation, but continued to drink bottle after bottle, with as little regard for Mr. Mowbray’s grave looks, as if they had been carousing at the Mowbray Arms, instead of the Mowbray mansion-house. Midnight at length released him, when, with an unsteady step, he sought his own apartment; cursing himself and his companions, consigning his own person with all dispatch to his bed, and bequeathing those of the company to as many mosses and quagmires, as could be found betwixt Shaws-Castle and St. Ronan’s Well.

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