Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 30


By my troth, I will go with thee to the lane’s-end! — I am a kind of

burr — I shall stick.

Measure for Measure.

It was now far advanced in autumn. The dew lay thick on the long grass, where it was touched by the sun; but where the sward lay in shadow, it was covered with hoar frost, and crisped under Jekyl’s foot, as he returned through the woods of St. Ronan’s. The leaves of the ash-trees detached themselves from the branches, and, without an air of wind, fell spontaneously on the path. The mists still lay lazily upon the heights, and the huge old tower of St. Ronan’s was entirely shrouded with vapour, except where a sunbeam, struggling with the mist, penetrated into its wreath so far as to show a projecting turret upon one of the angles of the old fortress, which, long a favourite haunt of the raven, was popularly called the Corbie’s Tower. Beneath, the scene was open and lightsome, and the robin redbreast was chirping his best, to atone for the absence of all other choristers. The fine foliage of autumn was seen in many a glade, running up the sides of each little ravine, russet-hued and golden-specked, and tinged frequently with the red hues of the mountain-ash; while here and there a huge old fir, the native growth of the soil, flung his broad shadow over the rest of the trees, and seemed to exult in the permanence of his dusky livery over the more showy, but transitory brilliance by which he was surrounded.

Such is the scene, which, so often described in prose and in poetry, yet seldom loses its effect upon the ear or upon the eye, and through which we wander with a strain of mind congenial to the decline of the year. There are few who do not feel the impression; and even Jekyl, though bred to far different pursuits than those most favourable to such contemplation, relaxed his pace to admire the uncommon beauty of the landscape.

Perhaps, also, he was in no hurry to rejoin the Earl of Etherington, towards whose service he felt himself more disinclined since his interview with Tyrrel. It was clear that that nobleman had not fully reposed in his friend the confidence promised; he had not made him aware of the existence of those important documents of proof, on which the whole fate of his negotiation appeared now to hinge, and in so far had deceived him. Yet, when he pulled from his pocket, and re-read Lord Etherington’s explanatory letter, Jekyl could not help being more sensible than he had been on the first perusal, how much the present possessor of that title felt alarmed at his brother’s claims; and he had some compassion for the natural feeling that must have rendered him shy of communicating at once the very worst view of his case, even to his most confidential friend. Upon the whole, he remembered that Lord Etherington had been his benefactor to an unusual extent; that, in return, he had promised the young nobleman his active and devoted assistance, in extricating him from the difficulties with which he seemed at present surrounded; that, in quality of his confidant, he had become acquainted with the most secret transactions of his life; and that it could only be some very strong cause indeed which could justify breaking off from him at this moment. Yet he could not help wishing either that his own obligations had been less, his friend’s cause better, or, at least, the friend himself more worthy of assistance.

“A beautiful morning, sir, for such a foggy, d —— d climate as this,” said a voice close by Jekyl’s ear, which made him at once start out of his contemplation. He turned half round, and beside him stood our honest friend Touchwood, his throat muffled in his large Indian handkerchief, huge gouty shoes thrust upon his feet, his bobwig well powdered, and the gold-headed cane in his hand, carried upright as a sergeant’s halberd. One glance of contemptuous survey entitled Jekyl, according to his modish ideas, to rank the old gentleman as a regular-built quiz, and to treat him as the young gentlemen of his Majesty’s Guards think themselves entitled to use every unfashionable variety of the human species. A slight inclination of a bow, and a very cold “You have the advantage of me, sir,” dropped as it were unconsciously from his tongue, were meant to repress the old gentleman’s advances, and moderate his ambition to be hail fellow well met with his betters. But Mr. Touchwood was callous to the intended rebuke; he had lived too much at large upon the world, and was far too confident of his own merits, to take a repulse easily, or to permit his modesty to interfere with any purpose which he had formed.

“Advantage of you, sir?” he replied; “I have lived too long in the world not to keep all the advantages I have, and get all I can — and I reckon it one that I have overtaken you, and shall have the pleasure of your company to the Well.”

“I should but interrupt your worthier meditations, sir,” said the other; “besides, I am a modest young man, and think myself fit for no better company than my own — moreover, I walk slow — very slow. — Good morning to you, Mr. A— A— I believe my treacherous memory has let slip your name, sir.”

“My name! — Why your memory must have been like Pat Murtough’s greyhound, that let the hare go before he caught it. You never heard my name in your life. Touchwood is my name. What d’ye think of it, now you know it?”

“I am really no connoisseur in surnames,” answered Jekyl: “and it is quite the same to me whether you call yourself Touchwood or Touchstone. Don’t let me keep you from walking on, sir. You will find breakfast far advanced at the Well, sir, and your walk has probably given you an appetite.”

“Which will serve me to luncheon-time, I promise you,” said Touchwood; “I always drink my coffee as soon as my feet are in my pabouches — it’s the way all over the East. Never trust my breakfast to their scalding milk-and-water at the Well, I assure you; and for walking slow, I have had a touch of the gout.”

“Have you,” said Jekyl; “I am sorry for that; because, if you have no mind to breakfast, I have — and so, Mr. Touchstone, good-morrow to you.”

But, although the young soldier went off at double quick time, his pertinacious attendant kept close by his side, displaying an activity which seemed inconsistent with his make and his years, and talking away the whole time, so as to show that his lungs were not in the least degree incommoded by the unusual rapidity of motion.

“Nay, young gentleman, if you are for a good smart walk, I am for you, and the gout may be d — d. You are a lucky fellow to have youth on your side; but yet, so far as between the Aultoun and the Well, I think I could walk you for your sum, barring running — all heel and toe — equal weight, and I would match Barclay himself for a mile.”

“Upon my word, you are a gay old gentleman!” said Jekyl, relaxing his pace; “and if we must be fellow-travellers, though I can see no great occasion for it, I must even shorten sail for you.”

So saying, and as if another means of deliverance had occurred to him, he slackened his pace, took out a morocco case of cigars, and, lighting one with his briquet, said, while he walked on, and bestowed as much of its fragrance as he could upon the face of his intrusive companion, “Vergeben sie, mein herr — ich bin erzogen in kaiserlicher dienst — muss rauchen ein kleine wenig.”29

“Rauchen sie immer fort,” said Touchwood, producing a huge meerschaum, which, suspended by a chain from his neck, lurked in the bosom of his coat, “habe auch mein pfeichen — Sehen sie den lieben topf!”30 and he began to return the smoke, if not the fire, of his companion, in full volumes, and with interest.

“The devil take the twaddle,” said Jekyl to himself, “he is too old and too fat to be treated after the manner of Professor Jackson; and, on my life, I cannot tell what to make of him. — He is a residenter too — I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.”

Accordingly, he walked on, sucking his cigar, and apparently in as abstracted a mood as Mr. Cargill himself, without paying the least attention to Touchwood, who, nevertheless, continued talking, as if he had been addressing the most attentive listener in Scotland, whether it were the favourite nephew of a cross, old, rich bachelor, or the aid-decamp of some old rusty firelock of a general, who tells stories of the American war.

“And so, sir, I can put up with any companion at a pinch, for I have travelled in all sorts of ways, from a caravan down to a carrier’s cart; but the best society is the best every where; and I am happy I have fallen in with a gentleman who suits me so well as you. — That grave, steady attention of yours reminds me of Elfi Bey — you might talk to him in English, or any thing he understood least of — you might have read Aristotle to Elfi, and not a muscle would he stir — give him his pipe, and he would sit on his cushion with a listening air as if he took in every word of what you said.”

Captain Jekyl threw away the remnant of his cigar, with a little movement of pettishness, and began to whistle an opera air.

“There again, now! — That is just so like the Marquis of Roccombole, another dear friend of mine, that whistles all the time you talk to him — He says he learned it in the Reign of Terror, when a man was glad to whistle to show his throat was whole. And, talking of great folk, what do you think of this affair between Lord Etherington and his brother, or cousin, as some folk call him?”

Jekyl absolutely started at the question; a degree of emotion, which, had it been witnessed by any of his fashionable friends, would for ever have ruined his pretensions to rank in the first order.

“What affair?” he asked, so soon as he could command a certain degree of composure.

“Why, you know the news surely? Francis Tyrrel, whom all the company voted a coward the other day, turns out as brave a fellow as any of us; for, instead of having run away to avoid having his own throat cut by Sir Bingo Binks, he was at the very moment engaged in a gallant attempt to murder his elder brother, or his more lawful brother, or his cousin, or some such near relation.”

“I believe you are misinformed, sir,” said Jekyl dryly, and then resumed, as deftly as he could, his proper character of a pococurante.

“I am told,” continued Touchwood, “one Jekyl acted as a second to them both on the occasion — a proper fellow, sir — one of those fine gentlemen whom we pay for polishing the pavement in Bond Street, and looking at a thick shoe and a pair of worsted stockings, as if the wearer were none of their paymasters. However, I believe the Commander-inChief is like to discard him when he hears what has happened.”

“Sir!” said Jekyl, fiercely — then, recollecting the folly of being angry with an original of his companion’s description, he proceeded more coolly, “You are misinformed — Captain Jekyl knew nothing of any such matter as you refer to — you talk of a person you know nothing of — Captain Jekyl is ——(Here he stopped a little, scandalized, perhaps, at the very idea of vindicating himself to such a personage from such a charge.)

“Ay, ay,” said the traveller, filling up the chasm in his own way, “he is not worth our talking of, certainly — but I believe he knew as much of the matter as either you or I do, for all that.”

“Sir, this is either a very great mistake, or wilful impertinence,” answered the officer. “However absurd or intrusive you may be, I cannot allow you, either in ignorance or incivility, to use the name of Captain Jekyl with disrespect. — I am Captain Jekyl, sir.”

“Very like, very like,” said Touchwood, with the most provoking indifference; “I guessed as much before.”

“Then, sir, you may guess what is likely to follow, when a gentleman hears himself unwarrantably and unjustly slandered,” replied Captain Jekyl, surprised and provoked that his annunciation of name and rank seemed to be treated so lightly. “I advise you, sir, not to proceed too far upon the immunities of your age and insignificance.”

“I never presume farther than I have good reason to think necessary, Captain Jekyl,” answered Touchwood, with great composure. “I am too old, as you say, for any such idiotical business as a duel, which no nation I know of practises but our silly fools of Europe — and then, as for your switch, which you are grasping with so much dignity, that is totally out of the question. Look you, young gentleman; four-fifths of my life have been spent among men who do not set a man’s life at the value of a button on his collar — every person learns, in such cases, to protect himself as he can; and whoever strikes me must stand to the consequences. I have always a brace of bull-dogs about me, which put age and youth on a level. So suppose me horsewhipped, and pray, at the same time, suppose yourself shot through the body. The same exertion of imagination will serve for both purposes.”

So saying, he exhibited a very handsome, highly finished, and richly-mounted pair of pistols.

“Catch me without my tools,” said he, significantly buttoning his coat over the arms, which were concealed in a side-pocket, ingeniously contrived for that purpose. “I see you do not know what to make of me,” he continued, in a familiar and confidential tone; “but, to tell you the truth, everybody that has meddled in this St. Ronan’s business is a little off the hooks — something of a tête exaltée, in plain words, a little crazy, or so; and I do not affect to be much wiser than other people.”

“Sir,” said Jekyl, “your manners and discourse are so unprecedented, that I must ask your meaning plainly and decidedly — Do you mean to insult me or no?”

“No insult at all, young gentleman — all fair meaning, and above board — I only wished to let you know what the world may say, that is all.”

“Sir,” said Jekyl, hastily, “the world may tell what lies it pleases; but I was not present at the rencontre between Etherington and Mr. Tyrrel — I was some hundred miles off.”

“There now,” said Touchwood, “there was a rencontre between them — the very thing I wanted to know.”

“Sir,” said Jekyl, aware too late that, in his haste to vindicate himself, he had committed his friend, “I desire you will found nothing on an expression hastily used to vindicate myself from a false aspersion — I only meant to say, if there was an affair such as you talk of, I knew nothing of it.”

“Never mind — never mind — I shall make no bad use of what I have learned,” said Touchwood. “Were you to eat your words with the best fish-sauce, (and that is Burgess’s,) I have got all the information from them I wanted.”

“You are strangely pertinacious, sir,” replied Jekyl.

“O, a rock, a piece of flint for that — What I have learned, I have learned, but I will make no bad use of it. — Hark ye, Captain, I have no malice against your friend — perhaps the contrary — but he is in a bad course, sir — has kept a false reckoning, for as deep as he thinks himself; and I tell you so, because I hold you (your finery out of the question) to be, as Hamlet says, indifferent honest; but, if you were not, why necessity is necessity; and a man will take a Bedouin for his guide in the desert, whom he would not trust with an aspar in the cultivated field; so I think of reposing some confidence in you — have not made up my mind yet, though.”

“On my word, sir, I am greatly flattered both by your intentions and your hesitation,” said Captain Jekyl. “You were pleased to say just now, that every one concerned with these matters was something particular.”

“Ay, ay — something crazy — a little mad, or so. That was what I said, and I can prove it.”

“I should be glad to hear the proof,” said Jekyl —“I hope you do not except yourself?”

“Oh! by no means,” answered Touchwood; “I am one of the maddest old boys ever slept out of straw, or went loose. But you can put fishing questions in your turn, Captain, I see that — you would fain know how much, or how little, I am in all these secrets. Well, that is as hereafter may be. In the meantime, here are my proofs. — Old Scrogie Mowbray was mad, to like the sound of Mowbray better than that of Scrogie; young Scrogie was mad, not to like it as well. The old Earl of Etherington was not sane when he married a French wife in secret, and devilish mad indeed when he married an English one in public. Then for the good folk here, Mowbray of St. Ronan’s is cracked, when he wishes to give his sister to he knows not precisely whom: She is a fool not to take him, because she does know who he is, and what has been between them; and your friend is maddest of all, who seeks her under so heavy a penalty:— and you and I, Captain, go mad gratis, for company’s sake, when we mix ourselves with such a mess of folly and frenzy.”

“Really, sir, all that you have said is an absolute riddle to me,” replied the embarrassed Jekyl.

“Riddles may be read,” said Touchwood, nodding; “if you have any desire to read mine, pray, take notice, that this being our first interview, I have exerted myself faire les frais du conversation, as Jack Frenchman says; if you want another, you may come to Mrs. Dods’s at the Cleikum Inn, any day before Saturday, at four precisely, when you will find none of your half-starved, long-limbed bundles of bones, which you call poultry at the table-d’hôte, but a right Chitty-gong fowl! — I got Mrs. Dods the breed from old Ben Vandewash, the Dutch broker — stewed to a minute, with rice and mushrooms. — If you can eat without a silver fork, and your appetite serves you, you shall be welcome — that’s all. — So, good morning to you, good master lieutenant, for a captain of the Guards is but a lieutenant after all.”

So saying, and ere Jekyl could make any answer, the old gentleman turned short off into a path which led to the healing fountain, branching away from that which conducted to the Hotel.

Uncertain with whom he had been holding a conversation so strange, Jekyl remained looking after him, until his attention was roused by a little boy, who crept out from an adjoining thicket, with a switch in his hand, which he had been just cutting — probably against regulations to the contrary effect made and provided, for he held himself ready to take cover in the copse again, in case any one were in sight who might be interested in chastising his delinquency. Captain Jekyl easily recognised in him one of that hopeful class of imps, who pick up a precarious livelihood about places of public resort, by going errands, brushing shoes, doing the groom’s and coachman’s work in the stables, driving donkeys, opening gates, and so forth, for about one-tenth part of their time, spending the rest in gambling, sleeping in the sun, and otherwise qualifying themselves to exercise the profession of thieves and pickpockets, either separately, or in conjunction with those of waiters, grooms, and postilions. The little outcast had an indifferent pair of pantaloons, and about half a jacket, for, like Pentapolin with the naked arm, he went on action with his right shoulder bare; a third part of what had once been a hat covered his hair, bleached white with the sun, and his face, as brown as a berry, was illuminated by a pair of eyes, which, for spying out either peril or profit, might have rivalled those of the hawk. — In a word, it was the original Puck of the Shaws dramaticals.

“Come hither, ye unhanged whelp,” said Jekyl, “and tell me if you know the old gentleman that passed down the walk just now — yonder he is, still in sight.”

“It is the Naboab,” said the boy; “I could swear to his back among all the backs at the Waal, your honour.”

“What do you call a Nabob, you varlet?”

“A Naboab — a Naboab?” answered the scout; “odd, I believe it is ane comes frae foreign parts, with mair siller than his pouches can haud, and spills it a’ through the country — they are as yellow as orangers, and maun hae a’ thing their ain gate.”

“And what is this Naboab’s name, as you call him?” demanded Jekyl.

“His name is Touchwood,” said his informer; “ye may see him at the Waal every morning.”

“I have not seen him at the ordinary.”

“Na, na,” answered the boy; “he is a queer auld cull, he disna frequent wi’ other folk, but lives upby at the Cleikum. — He gave me half-a-crown yince, and forbade me to play it awa’ at pitch and toss.”

“And you disobeyed him, of course?”

“Na, I didna disobeyed him — I played it awa’ at neevie-neevie-nick-nack.”

“Well, there is sixpence for thee; lose it to the devil in any way thou think’st proper.”

So saying he gave the little galopin his donative, and a slight rap on the pate at the same time, which sent him scouring from his presence. He himself hastened to Lord Etherington’s apartments, and, as luck would have it, found the Earl alone.

29 Forgive me, sir, I was bred in the Imperial service, and must smoke a little.

30 Smoke as much as you please; I have got my pipe, too. — See what a beautiful head!

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