Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 31

Discussion.

I will converse with iron-witted fools

And unrespective boys — none are for me

That look into me with suspicious eyes.

Richard III.

“How now, Jekyl!” said Lord Etherington, eagerly; “what news from the enemy? — Have you seen him?”

“I have,” replied Jekyl.

“And in what humour did you find him? — in none that was very favourable, I dare say, for you have a baffled and perplexed look, that confesses a losing game — I have often warned you how your hang-dog look betrays you at brag — And then, when you would fain brush up your courage, and put a good face on a bad game, your bold looks always remind me of a standard hoisted only half-mast high, and betraying melancholy and dejection, instead of triumph and defiance.”

“I am only holding the cards for your lordship at present,” answered Jekyl; “and I wish to Heaven there may be no one looking over the hand.”

“How do you mean by that?”

“Why, I was beset, on returning through the wood, by an old bore, a Nabob, as they call him, and Touchwood by name.”

“I have seen such a quiz about,” said Lord Etherington —“What of him?”

“Nothing,” answered Jekyl, “except that he seemed to know much more of your affairs than you would wish or are aware of. He smoked the truth of the rencontre betwixt Tyrrel and you, and what is worse — I must needs confess the truth — he contrived to wring out of me a sort of confirmation of his suspicions.”

“‘Slife! wert thou mad?” said Lord Etherington, turning pale; “His is the very tongue to send the story through the whole country — Hal, you have undone me.”

“I hope not,” said Jekyl; “I trust in Heaven I have not! — His knowledge is quite general — only that there was some scuffle between you — Do not look so dismayed about it, or I will e’en go back and cut his throat, to secure his secrecy.”

“Cursed indiscretion!” answered the Earl —“how could you let him fix on you at all?”

“I cannot tell,” said Jekyl —“he has powers of boring beyond ten of the dullest of all possible doctors — stuck like a limpet to a rock — a perfect double of the Old Man of the Sea, who I take to have been the greatest bore on record.”

“Could you not have turned him on his back like a turtle, and left him there?” said Lord Etherington.

“And had an ounce of lead in my body for my pains? No — no — we have already had footpad work enough — I promise you the old buck was armed, as if he meant to bing folks on the low toby.”31

“Well — well — But Martigny, or Tyrrel, as you call him — what says he?”

“Why, Tyrrel, or Martigny, as your lordship calls him,” answered Jekyl, “will by no means listen to your lordship’s proposition. He will not consent that Miss Mowbray’s happiness shall be placed in your lordship’s keeping; nay, it did not meet his approbation a bit the more, when I hinted at the acknowledgment of the marriage, or the repetition of the ceremony, attended by an immediate separation, which I thought I might venture to propose.”

“And on what grounds does he refuse so reasonable an accommodation?” said Lord Etherington —“Does he still seek to marry the girl himself?”

“I believe he thinks the circumstances of the case render that impossible,” replied his confidant.

“What? then he would play the dog in the manger — neither eat nor let eat? — He shall find himself mistaken. She has used me like a dog, Jekyl, since I saw you; and, by Jove! I will have her, that I may break her pride, and cut him to the liver with the agony of seeing it.”

“Nay, but hold — hold!” said Jekyl; “perhaps I have something to say on his part, that may be a better compromise than all you could have by teasing him. He is willing to purchase what he calls Miss Mowbray’s tranquillity, at the expense of his resignation of his claims to your father’s honours and estate; and he surprised me very much, my lord, by showing me this list of documents, which, I am afraid, makes his success more than probable, if there really are such proofs in existence.” Lord Etherington took the paper, and seemed to read with much attention, while Jekyl proceeded — “He has written to procure these evidences from the person with whom they are deposited.”

“We shall see what like they are when they arrive,” said Lord Etherington. —“They come by post, I suppose?”

“Yes; and may be immediately expected,” answered Jekyl.

“Well — he is my brother on one side of the house, at least,” said Lord Etherington; “and I should not much like to have him lagged for forgery, which I suppose will be the end of his bolstering up an unsubstantial plea by fabricated documents — I should like to see these same papers he talks of.”

“But, my lord,” replied Jekyl, “Tyrrel’s allegation is, that you have seen them; and that copies, at least, were made out for you, and are in your possession — such is his averment.”

“He lies,” answered Lord Etherington, “so far as he pretends I know of such papers. I consider the whole story as froth — foam — fudge, or whatever is most unsubstantial. It will prove such when the papers appear, if indeed they ever will appear. The whole is a bully from beginning to end; and I wonder at thee, Jekyl, for being so thirsty after syllabub, that you can swallow such whipt cream as that stuff amounts to. No, no — I know my advantage, and shall use it so as to make all their hearts bleed. As for these papers, I recollect now that my agent talked of copies of some manuscripts having been sent him, but the originals were not then forthcoming; and I’ll bet the long odds that they never are — mere fabrications — if I thought otherwise, would I not tell you?”

“Certainly, I hope you would, my lord,” said Jekyl; “for I see no chance of my being useful to you, unless I have the honour to enjoy your confidence.”

“You do — you do, my friend,” said Etherington, shaking him by the hand; “and since I must consider your present negotiation as failed, I must devise some other mode of settling with this mad and troublesome fellow.”

“No violence, my lord,” said Jekyl, once more, and with much emphasis.

“None — none — none, by Heaven! — Why, thou suspicious wretch, must I swear, to quell your scruples? — On the contrary, it shall not be my fault, if we are not on decent terms.”

“It would be infinitely to the advantage of both your characters if you could bring that to pass,” answered Jekyl; “and if you are serious in wishing it, I will endeavour to prepare Tyrrel. He comes to the Well or to the ordinary today, and it would be highly ridiculous to make a scene.”

“True, true; find him out, my dear Jekyl, and persuade him how foolish it will be to bring our family quarrels out before strangers, and for their amusement. They shall see the two bears can meet without biting. — Go — go — I will follow you instantly — go, and remember you have my full and exclusive confidence. — Go, half-bred, startling fool!” he continued, the instant Jekyl had left the room, “with just spirits enough to ensure your own ruin, by hurrying you into what you are not up to. — But he has character in the world — is brave — and one of those whose countenance gives a fair face to a doubtful business. He is my creature, too — I have bought and paid for him, and it would be idle extravagance not to make use of him — But as to confidence — no confidence, honest Hal, beyond that which cannot be avoided. If I wanted a confidant, here comes a better than thou by half — Solmes has no scruples — he will always give me money’s worth of zeal and secrecy for money.”

His lordship’s valet at this moment entered the apartment, a grave, civil-looking man, past the middle age, with a sallow complexion, a dark thoughtful eye, slow, and sparing of speech, and sedulously attentive to all the duties of his situation.

“Solmes,”— said Lord Etherington, and then stopped short.

“My lord”— There was a pause; and when Lord Etherington had again said, “Solmes!” and his valet had answered, “Your lordship,” there was a second pause; until the Earl, as if recollecting himself, “Oh! I remember what I wished to say — it was about the course of post here. It is not very regular, I believe?”

“Regular enough, my lord, so far as concerns this place — the people in the Aultoun do not get their letters in course.”

“And why not, Solmes?” said his lordship.

“The old woman who keeps the little inn there, my lord, is on bad terms with the post-mistress — the one will not send for the letters, and the other will not dispatch them to the village; so, betwixt them, they are sometimes lost or mislaid, or returned to the General Post-office.”

“I wish that may not be the case of a packet which I expect in a few days — it should have been here already, or, perhaps, it may arrive in the beginning of the week — it is from that formal ass, Trueman the Quaker, who addresses me by my Christian and family name, Francis Tyrrel. He is like enough to mistake the inn, too, and I should be sorry it fell into Monsieur Martigny’s hands — I suppose you know he is in that neighbourhood? — Look after its safety, Solmes — quietly, you understand; because people might put odd constructions, as if I were wanting a letter which was not my own.”

“I understand perfectly, my lord,” said Solmes, without exhibiting the slightest change in his sallow countenance, though entirely comprehending the nature of the service required.

“And here is a note will pay for postage,” said the Earl, putting into his valet’s hand a bank-bill of considerable value; “and you may keep the balance for occasional expenses.”

This was also fully understood; and Solmes, too politic and cautious even to look intelligence, or acknowledge gratitude, made only a bow of acquiescence, put the note into his pocketbook, and assured his lordship that his commands should be punctually attended to.

“There goes the agent for my money, and for my purpose,” said Lord Etherington, exultingly; “no extorting of confidence, no demanding of explanations, no tearing off the veil with which a delicate manoeuvre is gazé — all excuses are received as argent comptant, provided only, that the best excuse of all, the argent comptant itself, come to recommend them. — Yet I will trust no one — I will out, like a skilful general, and reconnoitre in person.”

With this resolution, Lord Etherington put on his surtout and cap, and sallying from his apartments, took the way to the bookseller’s shop, which also served as post-office and circulating library; and being in the very centre of the parade, (for so is termed the broad terrace walk which leads from the inn to the Well,) it formed a convenient lounging-place for newsmongers and idlers of every description.

The Earl’s appearance created, as usual, a sensation upon the public promenade; but whether it was the suggestion of his own alarmed conscience, or that there was some real cause for the remark, he could not help thinking his reception was of a more doubtful character than usual. His fine figure and easy manners produced their usual effect, and all whom he spoke to received his attention as an honour; but none offered, as usual, to unite themselves to him, or to induce him to join their party. He seemed to be looked on rather as an object of observation and attention, than as making one of the company; and to escape from a distant gaze, which became rather embarrassing, he turned into the little emporium of news and literature.

He entered unobserved, just as Lady Penelope had finished reading some verses, and was commenting upon them with all the alacrity of a femme savante, in possession of something which no one is to hear repeated oftener than once.

“Copy — no indeed!” these were the snatches which reached Lord Etherington’s ear, from the group of which her ladyship formed the centre —“honour bright — I must not betray poor Chatterly — besides, his lordship is my friend, and a person of rank, you know — so one would not — You have not got the book, Mr. Pott? — you have not got Statius? — you never have any thing one longs to see.”

“Very sorry, my lady — quite out of copies at present — I expect some in my next monthly parcel.”

“Good lack, Mr. Pott, that is your never-failing answer,” said Lady Penelope; “I believe if I were to ask you for the last new edition of the Alkoran, you would tell me it was coming down in your next monthly parcel.”

“Can’t say, my lady, really,” answered Mr. Pott; “have not seen the work advertised yet; but I have no doubt, if it is likely to take, there will be copies in my next monthly parcel.”

“Mr. Pott’s supplies are always in the paullo post futurum tense,” said Mr. Chatterly, who was just entering the shop.

“Ah! Mr. Chatterly, are you there?” said Lady Penelope; “I lay my death at your door — I cannot find this Thebaid, where Polynices and his brother”——

“Hush, my lady! — hush, for Heaven’s sake!” said the poetical divine, and looked towards Lord Etherington. Lady Penelope took the hint, and was silent; but she had said enough to call up the traveller Touchwood, who raised his head from the newspaper which he was studying, and, without addressing his discourse to any one in particular, ejaculated, as if in scorn of Lady Penelope’s geography —

“Polynices? — Polly Peachum. — There is no such place in the Thebais — the Thebais is in Egypt — the mummies come from the Thebais — I have been in the catacombs — caves very curious indeed — we were lapidated by the natives — pebbled to some purpose, I give you my word. My janizary thrashed a whole village by way of retaliation.”

While he was thus proceeding, Lord Etherington, as if in a listless mood, was looking at the letters which stood ranged on the chimney-piece, and carrying on a languid dialogue with Mrs. Pott, whose person and manners were not ill adapted to her situation, for she was good-looking, and vastly fine and affected.

“Number of letters here which don’t seem to find owners, Mrs. Pott?”

“Great number, indeed, my lord — it is a great vexation, for we are obliged to return them to the post-office, and the postage is charged against us if they are lost; and how can one keep sight of them all?”

“Any love-letters among them, Mrs. Pott?” said his lordship, lowering his tone.

“Oh, fie! my lord, how should I know?” answered Mrs. Pott, dropping her voice to the same cadence.

“Oh! every one can tell a love-letter — that has ever received one, that is — one knows them without opening — they are always folded hurriedly and sealed carefully — and the direction manifests a kind of tremulous agitation, that marks the state of the writer’s nerves — that now,”— pointing with his switch to a letter upon the chimney-piece, “that must be a love-letter.”

“He, he, he!” giggled Mrs. Pott, “I beg pardon for laughing, my lord — but — he, he, he! — that is a letter from one Bindloose, the banker body, to the old woman Luckie Dods, as they call her, at the change-house in the Aultoun.”

“Depend upon it then, Mrs. Pott, that your neighbour, Mrs. Dods, has got a lover in Mr. Bindloose — unless the banker has been shaking hands with the palsy. Why do you not forward her letter? — you are very cruel to keep it in durance here.”

“Me forward!” answered Mrs. Pott; “the cappernoity, old, girning alewife, may wait long enough or I forward it — She’ll not loose the letters that come to her by the King’s post, and she must go on troking wi’ the old carrier, as if there was no post-house in the neighbourhood. But the solicitor will be about wi’ her one of these days.”

“Oh! you are too cruel — you really should send the love-letter; consider, the older she is, the poor soul has the less time to lose.”

But this was a topic on which Mrs. Pott understood no jesting. She was well aware of our matron’s inveteracy against her and her establishment, and she resented it as a placeman resents the efforts of a radical. She answered something sulkily, “That they that loosed letters should have letters; and neither Luckie Dods, nor any of her lodgers, should ever see the scrape of a pen from the St. Ronan’s office, that they did not call for and pay for.”

It is probable that this declaration contained the essence of the information which Lord Etherington had designed to extract by his momentary flirtation with Mrs. Pott; for when, retreating as it were from this sore subject, she asked him, in a pretty mincing tone, to try his skill in pointing out another love-letter, he only answered carelessly, “that in order to do that he must write her one;” and leaving his confidential station by her little throne, he lounged through the narrow shop, bowed slightly to Lady Penelope as he passed, and issued forth upon the parade, where he saw a spectacle which might well have appalled a man of less self-possession than himself.

Just as he left the shop, little Miss Digges entered almost breathless, with the emotion of impatience and of curiosity. “Oh la! my lady, what do you stay here for? — Mr. Tyrrel has just entered the other end of the parade this moment, and Lord Etherington is walking that way — they must meet each other. — O lord! come, come away, and see them meet! — I wonder if they’ll speak — I hope they won’t fight — Oh la! do come, my lady!”

“I must go with you, I find,” said Lady Penelope; “it is the strangest thing, my love, that curiosity of yours about other folk’s matters — I wonder what your mamma will say to it.”

“Oh! never mind mamma — nobody minds her — papa, nor nobody — Do come, dearest Lady Pen, or I will run away by myself. — Mr. Chatterly, do make her come!”

“I must come, it seems,” said Lady Penelope, “or I shall have a pretty account of you.”

But, notwithstanding this rebuke, and forgetting, at the same time, that people of quality ought never to seem in a hurry, Lady Penelope, with such of her satellites as she could hastily collect around her, tripped along the parade with unusual haste, in sympathy, doubtless, with Miss Digges’s curiosity, as her ladyship declared she had none of her own.

Our friend, the traveller, had also caught up Miss Digges’s information; and, breaking off abruptly an account of the Great Pyramid, which had been naturally introduced by the mention of the Thebais, and echoing the fair alarmist’s words, “hope they won’t fight,” he rushed upon the parade, and bustled along as hard as his sturdy supporters could carry him. If the gravity of the traveller, and the delicacy of Lady Penelope, were surprised into unwonted haste from their eagerness to witness the meeting of Tyrrel and Lord Etherington, it may be well supposed that the decorum of the rest of the company was a slender restraint on their curiosity, and that they hurried to be present at the expected scene, with the alacrity of gentlemen of the fancy hastening to a set-to.

In truth, though the meeting afforded little sport to those who expected dire conclusions, it was, nevertheless, sufficiently interesting to those spectators who are accustomed to read the language of suppressed passion betraying itself at the moment when the parties are most desirous to conceal it.

Tyrrel had been followed by several loiterers so soon as he entered the public walk; and their number was now so much reinforced, that he saw himself with pain and displeasure the centre of a sort of crowd who watched his motions. Sir Bingo and Captain MacTurk were the first to bustle through it, and to address him with as much politeness as they could command.

“Servant, sir,” mumbled Sir Bingo, extending the right hand of fellowship and reconciliation, ungloved. “Servant — sorry that anything should have happened between us — very sorry, on my word.”

“No more need be said, sir,” replied Tyrrel; “the whole is forgotten.”

“Very handsome, indeed — quite the civil thing — hope to meet you often, sir.”— And here the knight was silent.

Meanwhile, the more verbose Captain proceeded, “Och, py Cot, and it was an awfu’ mistake, and I could draw the penknife across my finger for having written the word. — By my sowl, and I scratched it till I scratched a hole in the paper. — Och! that I should live to do an uncivil thing by a gentleman that had got himself hit in an honourable affair! But you should have written, my dear; for how the devil could we guess that you were so well provided in quarrels, that you had to settle two in one day!”

“I was hurt in an unexpected — an accidental manner, Captain MacTurk. I did not write, because there was something, in my circumstances at the moment which required secrecy; but I was resolved, the instant I recovered, to put myself to rights in your good opinion.”

“Och! and you have done that,” said the Captain, nodding sagaciously; “for Captain Jekyl, who is a fine child, has put us all up to your honourable conduct. They are pretty boys, these guardsmen, though they may play a little fine sometimes, and think more of themselves than peradventure they need for to do, in comparison with us of the line. — But he let us know all about it — and, though he said not a word of a certain fine lord, with his footpad, and his hurt, and what not, yet we all knew how to lay that and that together. — And if the law would not right you, and there were bad words between you, why should not two gentlemen right themselves? And as to your being kinsmen, why should not kinsmen behave to each other like men of honour? Only, some say you are father’s sons, and that is something too near. — I had once thoughts of calling out my uncle Dougal myself, for there is no saying where the line should be drawn; but I thought, on the whole, there should be no fighting, as there is no marriage, within the forbidden degrees. As for first cousins — Wheugh! — that’s all fair — fire away, Flanigan! — But here is my lord, just upon us, like a stag of the first head, and the whole herd behind him.”

Tyrrel stepped forward a little before his officious companions, his complexion rapidly changing into various shades, like that of one who forces himself to approach and touch some animal or reptile for which he entertains that deep disgust and abhorrence which was anciently ascribed to constitutional antipathy. This appearance of constraint put upon himself, with the changes which it produced on his face, was calculated to prejudice him somewhat in the opinion of the spectators, when compared with the steady, stately, yet, at the same time, easy demeanour of the Earl of Etherington, who was equal to any man in England in the difficult art of putting a good countenance on a bad cause. He met Tyrrel with an air as unembarrassed, as it was cold; and, while he paid the courtesy of a formal and distant salutation, he said aloud, “I presume, Mr. Tyrrel de Martigny, that, since you have not thought fit to avoid this awkward meeting, you are disposed to remember our family connexion so far as to avoid making sport for the good company?”

“You have nothing to apprehend from my passion, Mr. Bulmer,” replied Tyrrel, “if you can assure yourself against the consequences of your own.”

“I am glad of that,” said the Earl, with the same composure, but sinking his voice so as only to be heard by Tyrrel; “and as we may not again in a hurry hold any communication together, I take the freedom to remind you, that I sent you a proposal of accommodation by my friend, Mr. Jekyl.”

“It was inadmissible,” said Tyrrel —“altogether inadmissible — both from reasons which you may guess, and others which it is needless to detail. — I sent you a proposition, think of it well.”

“I will,” replied Lord Etherington, “when I shall see it supported by those alleged proofs, which I do not believe ever had existence.”

“Your conscience holds another language from your tongue,” said Tyrrel; “but I disclaim reproaches, and decline altercation. I will let Captain Jekyl know when I have received the papers, which, you say, are essential to your forming an opinion on my proposal. — In the meanwhile, do not think to deceive me. I am here for the very purpose of watching and defeating your machinations; and, while I live, be assured they shall never succeed. — And now, sir — or my lord — for the titles are in your choice — fare you well.”

“Hold a little,” said Lord Etherington. “Since we are condemned to shock each other’s eyes, it is fit the good company should know what they are to think of us. You are a philosopher, and do not value the opinion of the public — a poor worldling like me is desirous to stand fair with it. — Gentlemen,” he continued, raising his voice, “Mr. Winterblossom, Captain MacTurk, Mr. — what is his name, Jekyl? — Ay, Micklehen — You have, I believe, all some notion, that this gentleman, my near relation, and I, have some undecided claims on each other, which prevent our living upon good terms. We do not mean, however, to disturb you with our family quarrels; and, for my own part, while this gentleman, Mr. Tyrrel, or whatever he may please to call himself, remains a member of this company, my behaviour to him will be the same as to any stranger who may have that advantage. — Good morrow to you, sir — Good morning, gentlemen — we all meet at dinner, as usual. — Come, Jekyl.”

So saying, he took Jekyl by the arm, and, gently extricating himself from the sort of crowd, walked off, leaving most of the company prepossessed in his favour, by the ease and apparent reasonableness of his demeanour. Sounds of depreciation, forming themselves indistinctly into something like the words, “my eye, and Betty Martin,” did issue from the neckcloth of Sir Bingo, but they were not much attended to; for it had not escaped the observation of the quicksighted gentry at the Well, that the Baronet’s feelings towards the noble Earl were in the inverse ratio of those displayed by Lady Binks, and that, though ashamed to testify, or perhaps incapable of feeling, any anxious degree of jealousy, his temper had been for some time considerably upon the fret; a circumstance concerning which his fair moiety did not think it necessary to give herself any concern.

Meanwhile, the Earl of Etherington walked onward with his confidant, in the full triumph of successful genius.

“You see,” he said, “Jekyl, that I can turn a corner with any man in England. It was a proper blunder of yours, that you must extricate the fellow from the mist which accident had flung around him — you might as well have published the story of our rencontre at once, for every one can guess it, by laying time, place, and circumstance together; but never trouble your brains for a justification. You marked how I assumed my natural superiority over him — towered up in the full pride of legitimacy — silenced him even where the good company most do congregate. This will go to Mowbray through his agent, and will put him still madder on my alliance. I know he looks jealously on my flirtation with a certain lady — the dasher yonder — nothing makes a man sensible of the value of an opportunity, but the chance of losing it.”

“I wish to Heaven you would give up thoughts of Miss Mowbray!” said Jekyl; “and take Tyrrel’s offer, if he has the means of making it good.”

“Ay, if — if. But I am quite sure he has no such rights as he pretends to, and that his papers are all a deception. — Why do you put your eye upon me as fixed as if you were searching out some wonderful secret?”

“I wish I knew what to think of your real bona fide belief respecting these documents,” said Jekyl, not a little puzzled by the steady and unembarrassed air of his friend.

“Why, thou most suspicious of coxcombs,” said Etherington, “what the devil would you have me say to you? — Can I, as the lawyers say, prove a negative? or, is it not very possible, that such things may exist, though I have never seen or heard of them? All I can say is, that of all men I am the most interested to deny the existence of such documents; and, therefore, certainly will not admit of it, unless I am compelled to do so by their being produced; nor then either, unless I am at the same time well assured of their authenticity.”

“I cannot blame you for your being hard of faith, my lord,” said Jekyl; “but still I think if you can cut out with your earldom, and your noble hereditary estate, I would, in your case, pitch Nettlewood to the devil.”

“Yes, as you pitched your own patrimony, Jekyl; but you took care to have the spending of it first. — What would you give for such an opportunity of piecing your fortunes by marriage? — Confess the truth.”

“I might be tempted, perhaps,” said Jekyl, “in my present circumstances; but if they were what they have been, I should despise an estate that was to be held by petticoat tenure, especially when the lady of the manor was a sickly fantastic girl, that hated me, as this Miss Mowbray has the bad taste to hate you.”

“Umph — sickly? — no, no, she is not sickly — she is as healthy as any one in constitution — and, on my word, I think her paleness only renders her more interesting. The last time I saw her, I thought she might have rivalled one of Canova’s finest statues.”

“Yes; but she is indifferent to you — you do not love her,” said Jekyl.

“She is any thing but indifferent to me,” said the Earl; “she becomes daily more interesting — for her dislike piques me; and besides, she has the insolence openly to defy and contemn me before her brother, and in the eyes of all the world. I have a kind of loving hatred — a sort of hating love for her; in short, thinking upon her is like trying to read a riddle, and makes one make quite as many blunders, and talk just as much nonsense. If ever I have the opportunity, I will make her pay for all her airs.”

“What airs?” said Jekyl.

“Nay, the devil may describe them, for I cannot; but, for example — Since her brother has insisted on her receiving me, or I should rather say on her appearing when I visit Shaws-Castle, one would think her invention has toiled in discovering different ways of showing want of respect to me, and dislike to my presence. Instead of dressing herself as a lady should, especially on such occasions, she chooses some fantastic, or old-fashioned, or negligent bedizening, which makes her at least look odd, if it cannot make her ridiculous — such triple tiaras of various-coloured gauze on her head — such pieces of old tapestry, I think, instead of shawls and pelisses — such thick-soled shoes — such tan-leather gloves — mercy upon us, Hal, the very sight of her equipment would drive mad a whole conclave of milliners! Then her postures are so strange — she does so stoop and lollop, as the women call it, so cross her legs and square her arms — were the goddess of grace to look down on her, it would put her to flight for ever!”

“And you are willing to make this awkward, ill-dressed, unmannered dowdy, your Countess, Etherington; you, for whose critical eye half the town dress themselves?” said Jekyl.

“It is all a trick, Hal — all an assumed character to get rid of me, to disgust me, to baffle me; but I am not to be had so easily. The brother is driven to despair — he bites his nails, winks, coughs, makes signs, which she always takes up at cross-purpose. — I hope he beats her after I go away; there would be a touch of consolation, were one but certain of that.”

“A very charitable hope, truly, and your present feelings might lead the lady to judge what she may expect after wedlock. But,” added Jekyl, “cannot you, so skilful in fathoming every mood of the female mind, divine some mode of engaging her in conversation?”

“Conversation!” replied the Earl; “why, ever since the shock of my first appearance was surmounted, she has contrived to vote me a nonentity; and that she may annihilate me completely, she has chosen, of all occupations, that of working a stocking! From what cursed old antediluvian, who lived before the invention of spinning-jennies, she learned this craft, Heaven only knows; but there she sits, with her work pinned to her knee — not the pretty taper silken fabric, with which Jeannette of Amiens coquetted, while Tristram Shandy was observing her progress; but a huge worsted bag, designed for some flat-footed old pauper, with heels like an elephant — And there she squats, counting all the stitches as she works, and refusing to speak, or listen, or look up, under pretence that it disturbs her calculation!”

“An elegant occupation, truly, and I wonder it does not work a cure upon her noble admirer,” said Jekyl.

“Confound her — no — she shall not trick me. And then amid this affectation of vulgar stolidity, there break out such sparkles of exultation, when she thinks she has succeeded in baffling her brother, and in plaguing me, that, by my faith, Hal, I could not tell, were it at my option, whether to kiss or to cuff her.”

“You are determined to go on with this strange affair, then?” said Jekyl.

“On — on — on, my boy! — Clara and Nettlewood for ever!” answered the Earl. “Besides this brother of hers provokes me too — he does not do for me half what he might — what he ought to do. He stands on points of honour, forsooth, this broken-down horse-jockey, who swallowed my two thousand pounds as a pointer would a pat of butter. — I can see he wishes to play fast and loose — has some suspicions, like you, Hal, upon the strength of my right to my father’s titles and estate; as if, with the tithe of the Nettlewood property alone, I would not be too good a match for one of his beggarly family. He must scheme, forsooth, this half-baked Scotch cake! — He must hold off and on, and be cautious, and wait the result, and try conclusions with me, this lump of oatmeal dough! — I am much tempted to make an example of him in the course of my proceedings.”

“Why, this is vengeance horrible and dire,” said Jekyl; “yet I give up the brother to you; he is a conceited coxcomb, and deserves a lesson. But I would fain intercede for the sister.”

“We shall see”— replied the Earl; and then suddenly, “I tell you what it is, Hal; her caprices are so diverting, that I sometimes think out of mere contradiction, I almost love her; at least, if she would but clear old scores, and forget one unlucky prank of mine, it should be her own fault if I did not make her a happy woman.”

31 “Rob as a footpad.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/ronan/chapter31.html

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