Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 23

The Proposal.

Oh! you would be a vestal maid, I warrant,

The bride of Heaven — Come — we may shake your purpose;

For here I bring in hand a jolly suitor

Hath ta’en degrees in the seven sciences

That ladies love best — He is young and noble,

Handsome and valiant, gay, and rich, and liberal.

The Nun.

The morning after a debauch is usually one of reflection, even to the most determined boon companion; and, in the retrospect of the preceding day, the young Laird of St. Ronan’s saw nothing very consolatory, unless that the excess was not, in the present case, of his own seeking, but had arisen out of the necessary duties of a landlord, or what were considered as such by his companions.

But it was not so much his dizzy recollections of the late carouse which haunted him on awakening, as the inexplicability which seemed to shroud the purposes and conduct of his new ally, the Earl of Etherington.

That young nobleman had seen Miss Mowbray, had declared his high satisfaction, had warmly and voluntarily renewed the proposal which he had made ere she was yet known to him — and yet, far from seeking an opportunity to be introduced to her, he had even left the party abruptly, in order to avoid the necessary intercourse which must there have taken place between them. His lordship’s flirtation with Lady Binks had not escaped the attention of the sagacious Mowbray — her ladyship also had been in a hurry to leave Shaws-Castle; and Mowbray promised to himself to discover the nature of this connexion through Mrs. Gingham, her ladyship’s attendant, or otherwise; vowing deeply at the same time, that no peer in the realm should make an affectation of addressing Miss Mowbray a cloak for another and more secret intrigue. But his doubts on this subject were in great measure removed by the arrival of one of Lord Etherington’s grooms with the following letter:—

“My Dear Mowbray — You would naturally be surprised at my escape from the table yesterday before you returned to it, or your lovely sister had graced it with her presence. I must confess my folly; and I may do so the more boldly, for, as the footing on which I first opened this treaty was not a very romantic one, you will scarce suspect me of wishing to render it such. But I did in reality feel, during the whole of yesterday, a reluctance which I cannot express, to be presented to the lady on whose favour the happiness of my future life is to depend, upon such a public occasion, and in the presence of so promiscuous a company. I had my mask, indeed, to wear while in the promenade, but, of course, that was to be laid aside at table, and, consequently, I must have gone through the ceremony of introduction; a most interesting moment, which I was desirous to defer till a fitter season. I trust you will permit me to call upon you at Shaws-Castle this morning, in the hope — the anxious hope — of being allowed to pay my duty to Miss Mowbray, and apologize for not waiting upon her yesterday. I expect your answer with the utmost impatience, being always yours, &c. &c. &c.

“ETHERINGTON.”

“This,” said St. Ronan’s to himself, as he folded the letter deliberately, after having twice read it over, “seems all fair and above board; I could not wish any thing more explicit; and, moreover, it puts into black and white, as old Mick would say, what only rested before on our private conversation. An especial cure for the headache, such a billet as this in a morning.”

So saying, he sat him down and wrote an answer, expressing the pleasure he should have in seeing his lordship as soon as he thought proper. He watched even the departure of the groom, and beheld him gallop off, with the speed of one who knows that his quick return was expected by an impatient master.

Mowbray remained for a few minutes by himself, and reflected with delight upon the probable consequences of this match; — the advancement of his sister — and, above all, the various advantages which must necessarily accrue to himself, by so close an alliance with one whom he had good reason to think deep in the secret, and capable of rendering him the most material assistance in his speculations on the turf and in the sporting world. He then sent a servant to let Miss Mowbray know that he intended to breakfast with her.

“I suppose, John,” said Clara, as her brother entered the apartment, “you are glad of a weaker cup this morning than those you were drinking last night — you were carousing till after the first cock.”

“Yes,” said Mowbray, “that sandbed, old MacTurk, upon whom whole hogsheads make no impression, did make a bad boy of me — but the day is over, and they will scarce catch me in such another scrape. — What did you think of the masks?”

“Supported as well,” said Clara, “as such folk support the disguise of gentlemen and ladies during life; and that is, with a great deal of bustle, and very little propriety.”

“I saw only one good mask there, and that was a Spaniard,” said her brother.

“O, I saw him too,” answered Clara; “but he wore his visor on. An old Indian merchant, or some such thing, seemed to me a better character — the Spaniard did nothing but stalk about and twangle his guitar, for the amusement of my Lady Binks, as I think.”

“He is a very clever fellow, though, that same Spaniard,” rejoined Mowbray —“Can you guess who he is?”

“No, indeed; nor shall I take the trouble of trying. To set to guessing about it, were as bad as seeing the whole mummery over again.”

“Well,” replied her brother, “you will allow one thing at least — Bottom was well acted — you cannot deny that.”

“Yes,” replied Clara, “that worthy really deserved to wear his ass’s head to the end of the chapter — but what of him?”

“Only conceive that he should be the very same person with that handsome Spaniard,” replied Mowbray.

“Then there is one fool fewer than I thought there was,” replied Clara, with the greatest indifference.

Her brother bit his lip.

“Clara,” he said, “I believe you are an excellent good girl, and clever to boot, but pray do not set up for wit and oddity; there is nothing in life so intolerable as pretending to think differently from other people. — That gentleman was the Earl of Etherington.”

This annunciation, though made in what was meant to be an imposing tone, had no impression on Clara.

“I hope he plays the peer better than the Fidalgo,” she replied, carelessly.

“Yes,” answered Mowbray, “he is one of the handsomest men of the time, and decidedly fashionable — you will like him much when you see him in private.”

“It is of little consequence whether I do or no,” answered Clara.

“You mistake the matter,” said Mowbray, gravely; “it may be of considerable consequence.”

“Indeed!” said Clara, with a smile; “I must suppose myself, then, too important a person not to make my approbation necessary to one of your first-rates? He cannot pretend to pass muster at St. Ronan’s without it? — Well, I will depute my authority to Lady Binks, and she shall pass your new recruits instead of me.”

“This is all nonsense, Clara,” said Mowbray. “Lord Etherington calls here this very morning, and wishes to be made known to you. I expect you will receive him as a particular friend of mine.”

“With all my heart — so you will engage, after this visit, to keep him down with your other particular friends at the Well — you know it is a bargain that you bring neither buck nor pointer into my parlour — the one worries my cat, and the other my temper.”

“You mistake me entirely, Clara — this is a very different visitor from any I have ever introduced to you — I expect to see him often here, and I hope you and he will be better friends than you think of. I have more reasons for wishing this, than I have now time to tell you.”

Clara remained silent for an instant, then looked at her brother with an anxious and scrutinizing glance, as if she wished to penetrate into his inmost purpose.

“If I thought,”— she said, after a minute’s consideration, and with an altered and disturbed tone; “but no — I will not think that Heaven intends me such a blow — least of all, that it should come from your hands.” She walked hastily to the window, and threw it open — then shut it again, and returned to her seat, saying, with a constrained smile, “May Heaven forgive you, brother, but you frightened me heartily.”

“I did not mean to do so, Clara,” said Mowbray, who saw the necessity of soothing her; “I only alluded in joke to those chances that are never out of other girls’ heads, though you never seem to calculate on them.”

“I wish you, my dear John,” said Clara, struggling to regain entire composure, “I wish you would profit by my example, and give up the science of chance also — it will not avail you.”

“How d’ye know that? — I’ll show you the contrary, you silly wench,” answered Mowbray —“Here is a banker’s bill, payable to your own order, for the cash you lent me, and something over — don’t let old Mick have the fingering, but let Bindloose manage it for you — he is the honester man between two d —— d knaves.”

“Will not you, brother, send it to the man Bindloose yourself?”

“No — no,” replied Mowbray —“he might confuse it with some of my transactions, and so you forfeit your stake.”

“Well, I am glad you are able to pay me, for I want to buy Campbell’s new work.”

“I wish you joy of your purchase — but don’t scratch me for not caring about it — I know as little of books as you of the long odds. And come now, be serious, and tell me if you will be a good girl — lay aside your whims, and receive this English young nobleman like a lady as you are?”

“That were easy,” said Clara —“but — but — Pray, ask no more of me than just to see him. — Say to him at once, I am a poor creature in body, in mind, in spirits, in temper, in understanding — above all, say that I can receive him only once.”

“I shall say no such thing,” said Mowbray, bluntly; “it is good to be plain with you at once — I thought of putting off this discussion — but since it must come, the sooner it is over the better. — You are to understand, Clara Mowbray, that Lord Etherington has a particular view in this visit, and that his view has my full sanction and approbation.”

“I thought so,” said Clara, in the same altered tone of voice in which she had before spoken; “my mind foreboded this last of misfortunes! — But, Mowbray, you have no child before you — I neither will nor can see this nobleman.”

“How!” exclaimed Mowbray, fiercely; “do you dare return me so peremptory an answer? — Think better of it, for, if we differ, you will find you will have the worst of the game.”

“Rely upon it,” she continued, with more vehemence, “I will see him nor no man upon the footing you mention — my resolution is taken, and threats and entreaties will prove equally unavailing.”

“Upon my word, madam,” said Mowbray, “you have, for a modest and retired young lady, plucked up a goodly spirit of your own! — But you shall find mine equals it. If you do not agree to see my friend Lord Etherington, ay, and to receive him with the politeness due to the consideration I entertain for him, by Heaven! Clara, I will no longer regard you as my father’s daughter. Think what you are giving up — the affection and protection of a brother — and for what? — merely for an idle point of etiquette. — You cannot, I suppose, even in the workings of your romantic brain, imagine that the days of Clarissa Harlowe and Harriet Byron are come back again, when women were married by main force? and it is monstrous vanity in you to suppose that Lord Etherington, since he has honoured you with any thoughts at all, will not be satisfied with a proper and civil refusal — You are no such prize, methinks, that the days of romance are to come back for you.”

“I care not what days they are,” said Clara —“I tell you I will not see Lord Etherington, or any one else, upon such preliminaries as you have stated — I cannot — I will not — and I ought not. — Had you meant me to receive him, which can be a matter of no consequence whatever, you should have left him on the footing of an ordinary visitor — as it is, I will not see him.”

“You shall see and hear him both,” said Mowbray; “you shall find me as obstinate as you are — as willing to forget I am a brother, as you to forget that you have one.”

“It is time, then,” replied Clara, “that this house, once our father’s, should no longer hold us both. I can provide for myself, and may God bless you!”

“You take it coolly, madam,” said her brother, walking through the apartment with much anxiety both of look and gesture.

“I do,” she answered, “for it is what I have often foreseen — Yes, brother, I have often foreseen that you would make your sister the subject of your plots and schemes, so soon as other stakes failed you. That hour is come, and I am, as you see, prepared to meet it.”

“And where may you propose to retire to?” said Mowbray. “I think that I, your only relation and natural guardian, have a right to know that — my honour and that of my family is concerned.”

“Your honour!” she retorted, with a keen glance at him; “your interest, I suppose you mean, is somehow connected with the place of my abode. — But keep yourself patient — the den of the rock, the linn of the brook, should be my choice, rather than a palace without my freedom.”

“You are mistaken, however,” said Mowbray, sternly, “if you hope to enjoy more freedom than I think you capable of making a good use of. The law authorizes, and reason, and even affection, require, that you should be put under restraint for your own safety, and that of your character. You roamed the woods a little too much in my father’s time, if all stories be true.”

“I did — I did indeed, Mowbray,” said Clara, weeping; “God pity me, and forgive you for upbraiding me with my state of mind — I know I cannot sometimes trust my own judgment; but is it for you to remind me of this?”

Mowbray was at once softened and embarrassed.

“What folly is this?” he said; “you say the most cutting things to me — are ready to fly from my house — and when I am provoked to make an angry answer, you burst into tears!”

“Say you did not mean what you said, my dearest brother!” exclaimed Clara; “O say you did not mean it! — Do not take my liberty from me — it is all I have left, and, God knows, it is a poor comfort in the sorrows I undergo. I will put a fair face on every thing — will go down to the Well — will wear what you please, and say what you please — but O! leave me the liberty of my solitude here — let me weep alone in the house of my father — and do not force a broken-hearted sister to lay her death at your door. — My span must be a brief one, but let not your hand shake the sand-glass! — Disturb me not — let me pass quietly — I do not ask this so much for my sake as for your own. I would have you think of me, sometimes, Mowbray, after I am gone, and without the bitter reflections which the recollection of harsh usage will assuredly bring with it. Pity me, were it but for your own sake. — I have deserved nothing but compassion at your hand — There are but two of us on earth, why should we make each other miserable?”

She accompanied these entreaties with a flood of tears, and the most heart-bursting sobs. Mowbray knew not what to determine. On the one hand, he was bound by his promise to the Earl; on the other, his sister was in no condition to receive such a visitor; nay, it was most probable, that if he adopted the strong measure of compelling her to receive him, her behaviour would probably be such as totally to break off the projected match, on the success of which he had founded so many castles in the air. In this dilemma, he had again recourse to argument.

“Clara,” he said, “I am, as I have repeatedly said, your only relation and guardian — if there be any real reason why you ought not to receive, and, at least, make a civil reply to such a negotiation as the Earl of Etherington has thought fit to open, surely I ought to be intrusted with it. You enjoyed far too much of that liberty which you seem to prize so highly during my father’s lifetime — in the last years of it at least — have you formed any foolish attachment during that time, which now prevents you from receiving such a visit as Lord Etherington has threatened?”

“Threatened! — the expression is well chosen,” said Miss Mowbray; “and nothing can be more dreadful than such a threat, excepting its accomplishment.”

“I am glad your spirits are reviving,” replied her brother; “but that is no answer to my question.”

“Is it necessary,” said Clara, “that one must have actually some engagement or entanglement, to make them unwilling to be given in marriage, or even to be pestered upon such a subject? — Many young men declare they intend to die bachelors, why may not I be permitted to commence old maid at three-and-twenty? — Let me do so, like a kind brother, and there were never nephews and nieces so petted and so scolded, so nursed and so cuffed by a maiden aunt, as your children, when you have them, shall be by aunt Clara.”

“And why not say all this to Lord Etherington?” said Mowbray; “wait until he propose such a terrible bugbear as matrimony, before you refuse to receive him. Who knows, the whim that he hinted at may have passed away — he was, as you say, flirting with Lady Binks, and her ladyship has a good deal of address, as well as beauty.”

“Heaven improve both, (in an honest way,) if she will but keep his lordship to herself!” said Clara.

“Well, then,” continued her brother, “things standing thus, I do not think you will have much trouble with his lordship — no more, perhaps, than just to give him a civil denial. After having spoken on such a subject to a man of my condition, he cannot well break off without you give him an apology.”

“If that is all,” said Clara, “he shall, as soon as he gives me an opportunity, receive such an answer as will leave him at liberty to woo any one whatsoever of Eve’s daughters, excepting Clara Mowbray. Methinks I am so eager to set the captive free, that I now wish as much for his lordship’s appearance as I feared it a little while since.”

“Nay, nay, but let us go fair and softly,” said her brother. “You are not to refuse him before he asks the question.”

“Certainly,” said Clara; “but I well know how to manage that — he shall never ask the question at all. I will restore Lady Binks’s admirer, without accepting so much as a civility in ransom.”

“Worse and worse, Clara,” answered Mowbray; “you are to remember he is my friend and guest, and he must not be affronted in my house. Leave things to themselves. — Besides, consider an instant, Clara — had you not better take a little time for reflection in this case? The offer is a splendid one — title — fortune — and, what is more, a fortune which you will be well entitled to share largely in.”

“This is beyond our implied treaty,” said Clara. “I have yielded more than ever I thought I should have done, when I agreed that this Earl should be introduced to me on the footing of a common visitor; and now you talk favourably of his pretensions. This is an encroachment, Mowbray, and now I shall relapse into my obstinacy, and refuse to see him at all.”

“Do as you will,” replied Mowbray, sensible that it was only by working on her affections that he had any chance of carrying a point against her inclination — “Do as you will, my dear Clara; but, for Heaven’s sake, wipe your eyes.”

“And behave myself,” said she, trying to smile as she obeyed him — “behave myself, you would say, like folks of this world; but the quotation is lost on you, who never read either Prior or Shakspeare.”

“I thank Heaven for that,” said Mowbray. “I have enough to burden my brain, without carrying such a lumber of rhymes in it as you and Lady Pen do. — Come, that is right; go to the mirror, and make yourself decent.”

A woman must be much borne down indeed by pain and suffering, when she loses all respect for her external appearance. The madwoman in Bedlam wears her garland of straw with a certain air of pretension; and we have seen a widow whom we knew to be most sincerely affected by a recent deprivation, whose weeds, nevertheless, were arranged with a dolorous degree of grace, which amounted almost to coquetry. Clara Mowbray had also, negligent as she seemed to be of appearances, her own art of the toilet, although of the most rapid and most simple character. She took off her little riding-hat, and, unbinding a lace of Indian gold which retained her locks, shook them in dark and glossy profusion over her very handsome form, which they overshadowed down to her slender waist; and while her brother stood looking on her with a mixture of pride, affection, and compassion, she arranged them with a large comb, and, without the assistance of any femme d’atours, wove them, in the course of a few minutes, into such a natural head-dress as we see on the statues of the Grecian nymphs.

“Now let me but find my best muff,” she said, “come prince and peer, I shall be ready to receive them.”

“Pshaw! your muff — who has heard of such a thing these twenty years? Muffs were out of fashion before you were born.”

“No matter, John,” replied his sister; “when a woman wears a muff, especially a determined old maid like myself, it is a sign she has no intentions to scratch; and therefore the muff serves all the purposes of a white flag, and prevents the necessity of drawing on a glove, so prudentially recommended by the motto of our cousins, the M’Intoshes.”27

“Be it as you will, then,” said Mowbray; “for other than you do will it, you will not suffer it to be. — But how is this! — another billet? — We are in request this morning.”

“Now, Heaven send his lordship may have judiciously considered all the risks which he is sure to encounter on this charmed ground, and resolved to leave his adventure unattempted,” said Miss Mowbray.

Her brother glanced a look of displeasure at her, as he broke the seal of the letter, which was addressed to him with the words, “Haste and secrecy,” written on the envelope. The contents, which greatly surprised him, we remit to the commencement of the next chapter.

27 The well known crest of this ancient race, is a cat rampant with a motto bearing the caution —“Touch not the cat, but [i.e. be out, or without] the glove.”

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