Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 5

Epistolary Eloquence.

But how can I answer, since first I must read thee?

PRIOR.

Desirous of authenticating our more important facts, by as many original documents as possible, we have, after much research, enabled ourselves to present the reader with the following accurate transcripts of the notes intrusted to the care of Trotting Nelly. The first ran thus:

“Mr. Winterblossom [of Silverhed] has the commands of Lady Penelope Penfeather, Sir Bingo and Lady Binks, Mr. and Miss Mowbray [of St. Ronan’s], and the rest of the company at the Hotel and Tontine Inn of St. Ronan’s Well, to express their hope that the gentleman lodged at the Cleikum Inn, Old Town of St. Ronan’s, will favour them with his company at the Ordinary, as early and as often as may suit his convenience. The COMPANY think it necessary to send this intimation, because, according to the RULES of the place, the Ordinary can only be attended by such gentlemen and ladies as lodge at St. Ronan’s Well; but they are happy to make a distinction in favour of a gentleman so distinguished for success in the fine arts as Mr. ——— — residing at Cleikum. If Mr. ———— should be inclined, upon becoming further acquainted with the COMPANY and RULES of the Place, to remove his residence to the Well, Mr. Winterblossom, though he would not be understood to commit himself by a positive assurance to that effect, is inclined to hope that an arrangement might be made, notwithstanding the extreme crowd of the season, to accommodate Mr. ———— at the lodging-house, called Lilliput-Hall. It will much conduce to facilitate this negotiation, if Mr. ———— would have the goodness to send an exact note of his stature, as Captain Rannletree seems disposed to resign the folding-bed at Lilliput-Hall, on account of his finding it rather deficient in length. Mr. Winterblossom begs farther to assure Mr. —— —— of the esteem in which he holds his genius, and of his high personal consideration.

“For ——— — Esquire,
Cleikum Inn, Old Town of St. Ronan’s.

The Public Rooms,
Hotel and Tontine, St. Ronan’s Well,
&c. &c. &c.”

The above card was written (we love to be precise in matters concerning orthography) in a neat, round, clerk-like hand, which, like Mr. Winterblossom’s character, in many particulars was most accurate and commonplace, though betraying an affectation both of flourish and of facility.

The next billet was a contrast to the diplomatic gravity and accuracy of Mr. Winterblossom’s official communication, and ran thus, the young divine’s academic jests and classical flowers of eloquence being mingled with some wild flowers from the teeming fancy of Lady Penelope.

“A choir of Dryads and Naiads, assembled at the healing spring of St. Ronan’s, have learned with surprise that a youth, gifted by Apollo, when the Deity was prodigal, with two of his most esteemed endowments, wanders at will among their domains, frequenting grove and river, without once dreaming of paying homage to its tutelary deities. He is, therefore, summoned to their presence, and prompt obedience will insure him forgiveness; but in case of contumacy, let him beware how he again essays either the lyre or the pallet.

Postscript. The adorable Penelope, long enrolled among the Goddesses for her beauty and virtues, gives Nectar and Ambrosia, which mortals call tea and cake, at the Public Rooms, near the Sacred Spring, on Thursday evening, at eight o’clock, when the Muses never fail to attend. The stranger’s presence is requested to participate in the delights of the evening.

Second Postscript. A shepherd, ambitiously aiming at more accommodation than his narrow cot affords, leaves it in a day or two.

‘Assuredly the thing is to be hired.’

As You Like It.

Postscript third. Our Iris, whom mortals know as Trotting Nelly in her tartan cloak, will bring us the stranger’s answer to our celestial summons.”

This letter was written in a delicate Italian hand, garnished with fine hair-strokes and dashes, which were sometimes so dexterously thrown off as to represent lyres, pallets, vases, and other appropriate decorations, suited to the tenor of the contents.

The third epistle was a complete contrast to the other two. It was written in a coarse, irregular, schoolboy half-text, which, however, seemed to have cost the writer as much pains as if it had been a specimen of the most exquisite caligraphy. And these were the contents:—

“SUR— Jack Moobray has betted with me that the samon you killed on Saturday last weyd ni to eiteen pounds — I say nyer sixteen. — So you being a spurtsman, ’tis refer’d. — So hope you will come or send me’t; do not doubt you will be on honour. The bet is a dozen of claret, to be drank at the hotel by our own sett, on Monday next; and we beg you will make one; and Moobray hopes you will come down. — Being, sir, your most humbel servant — Bingo Binks Baronet, and of Block-hall.

Postscript. Have sent some loops of Indian gout, also some black hakkels of my groom’s dressing; hope they will prove killing, as suiting river and season.”

No answer was received to any of these invitations for more than three days; which, while it secretly rather added to than diminished the curiosity of the Wellers concerning the Unknown, occasioned much railing in public against him, as ill-mannered and rude.

Meantime, Francis Tyrrel, to his great surprise, began to find, like the philosophers, that he was never less alone than when alone. In the most silent and sequestered walks, to which the present state of his mind induced him to betake himself, he was sure to find some strollers from the Well, to whom he had become the object of so much solicitous interest. Quite innocent of the knowledge that he himself possessed the attraction which occasioned his meeting them so frequently, he began to doubt whether the Lady Penelope and her maidens — Mr. Winterblossom and his grey pony — the parson and his short black coat and raven-grey pantaloons — were not either actually polygraphic copies of the same individuals, or possessed of a celerity of motion resembling omnipresence and ubiquity; for nowhere could he go without meeting them, and that oftener than once a-day, in the course of his walks. Sometimes the presence of the sweet Lycoris was intimated by the sweet prattle in an adjacent shade; sometimes, when Tyrrel thought himself most solitary, the parson’s flute was heard snoring forth Gramachree Molly; and if he betook himself to the river, he was pretty sure to find his sport watched by Sir Bingo or some of his friends.

The efforts which Tyrrel made to escape from this persecution, and the impatience of it which his manner indicated, procured him, among the Wellers, the name of the Misanthrope; and, once distinguished as an object of curiosity, he was the person most attended to, who could at the ordinary of the day give the most accurate account of where the Misanthrope had been, and how occupied in the course of the morning. And so far was Tyrrel’s shyness from diminishing the desire of the Wellers for his society, that the latter feeling increased with the difficulty of gratification — as the angler feels the most peculiar interest when throwing his fly for the most cunning and considerate trout in the pool.

In short, such was the interest which the excited imaginations of the company took in the Misanthrope, that, notwithstanding the unamiable qualities which the word expresses, there was only one of the society who did not desire to see the specimen at their rooms, for the purpose of examining him closely and at leisure; and the ladies were particularly desirous to enquire whether he was actually a Misanthrope? Whether he had been always a Misanthrope? What had induced him to become a Misanthrope? And whether there were no means of inducing him to cease to be a Misanthrope?

One individual only, as we have said, neither desired to see nor hear more of the supposed Timon of Cleikum, and that was Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan’s. Through the medium of that venerable character John Pirner, professed weaver and practical black-fisher in the Aultoun of St. Ronan’s, who usually attended Tyrrel, to show him the casts of the river, carry his bag, and so forth, the Squire had ascertained that the judgment of Sir Bingo regarding the disputed weight of the fish was more correct than his own. This inferred an immediate loss of honour, besides the payment of a heavy bill. And the consequences might be yet more serious; nothing short of the emancipation of Sir Bingo, who had hitherto been Mowbray’s convenient shadow and adherent, but who, if triumphant, confiding in his superiority of judgment upon so important a point, might either cut him altogether, or expect that, in future, the Squire, who had long seemed the planet of their set, should be content to roll around himself, Sir Bingo, in the capacity of a satellite.

The Squire, therefore, devoutly hoped that Tyrrel’s restive disposition might continue, to prevent the decision of the bet, while, at the same time, he nourished a very reasonable degree of dislike to that stranger, who had been the indirect occasion of the unpleasant predicament in which he found himself, by not catching a salmon weighing a pound heavier. He, therefore, openly censured the meanness of those who proposed taking further notice of Tyrrel, and referred to the unanswered letters, as a piece of impertinence which announced him to be no gentleman.

But though appearances were against him, and though he was in truth naturally inclined to solitude, and averse to the affectation and bustle of such a society, that part of Tyrrel’s behaviour which indicated ill-breeding was easily accounted for, by his never having received the letters which required an answer. Trotting Nelly, whether unwilling to face her gossip, Meg Dods, without bringing back the drawing, or whether oblivious through the influence of the double dram with which she had been indulged at the Well, jumbled off with her cart to her beloved village of Scate-raw, from which she transmitted the letters by the first bare-legged gillie who travelled towards Aultoun of St. Ronan’s; so that at last, but after a long delay, they reached the Cleikum Inn and the hands of Mr. Tyrrel.

The arrival of these documents explained some part of the oddity of behaviour which had surprised him in his neighbours of the Well; and as he saw they had got somehow an idea of his being a lion extraordinary, and was sensible that such is a character equally ridiculous, and difficult to support, he hastened to write to Mr. Winterblossom a card in the style of ordinary mortals. In this he stated the delay occasioned by miscarriage of the letter, and his regret on that account; expressed his intention of dining with the company at the Well on the succeeding day, while he regretted that other circumstances, as well as the state of his health and spirits, would permit him this honour very infrequently during his stay in the country, and begged no trouble might be taken about his accommodation at the Well, as he was perfectly satisfied with his present residence. A separate note to Sir Bingo, said he was happy he could verify the weight of the fish, which he had noted in his diary; (“D— n the fellow, does he keep a diary?” said the Baronet,) and though the result could only be particularly agreeable to one party, he should wish both winner and loser mirth with their wine; — he was sorry he was unable to promise himself the pleasure of participating in either. Enclosed was a signed note of the weight of the fish. Armed with this, Sir Bingo claimed his wine — triumphed in his judgment — swore louder and more articulately than ever he was known to utter any previous sounds, that this Tyrrel was a devilish honest fellow, and he trusted to be better acquainted with him; while the crestfallen Squire, privately cursing the stranger by all his gods, had no mode of silencing his companion but by allowing his loss, and fixing a day for discussing the bet.

In the public rooms the company examined even microscopically the response of the stranger to Mr. Winterblossom, straining their ingenuity to discover, in the most ordinary expressions, a deeper and esoteric meaning, expressive of something mysterious, and not meant to meet the eye. Mr. Meiklewham, the writer, dwelt on the word circumstances, which he read with peculiar emphasis.

“Ah, poor lad!” he concluded, “I doubt he sits cheaper at Meg Dorts’s chimney-corner than he could do with the present company.”

Doctor Quackleben, in the manner of a clergyman selecting a word from his text, as that which is to be particularly insisted upon, repeated in an under tone, the words, “State of health? — umph — state of health? — Nothing acute — no one has been sent for — must be chronic — tending to gout, perhaps. — Or his shyness to society — light wild eye — irregular step — starting when met suddenly by a stranger, and turning abruptly and angrily away — Pray, Mr. Winterblossom, let me have an order to look over the file of newspapers — it’s very troublesome that restriction about consulting them.”

“You know it is a necessary one, Doctor,” said the president; “because so few of the good company read any thing else, that the old newspapers would have been worn to pieces long since.”

“Well, well, let me have the order,” said the Doctor; “I remember something of a gentleman run away from his friends — I must look at the description. — I believe I have a strait-jacket somewhere about the Dispensary.”

While this suggestion appalled the male part of the company, who did not much relish the approaching dinner in company with a gentleman whose situation seemed so precarious, some of the younger Misses whispered to each other —“Ah, poor fellow! — and if it be as the Doctor supposes, my lady, who knows what the cause of his illness may have been? — His spirits he complains of — ah, poor man!”

And thus, by the ingenious commentaries of the company at the Well, on as plain a note as ever covered the eighth part of a sheet of foolscap, the writer was deprived of his property, his reason, and his heart, “all or either, or one or other of them,” as is briefly and distinctly expressed in the law phrase.

In short, so much was said pro and con, so many ideas started and theories maintained, concerning the disposition and character of the Misanthrope, that, when the company assembled at the usual time, before proceeding to dinner, they doubted, as it seemed, whether the expected addition to their society was to enter the room on his hands or his feet; and when “Mr. Tyrrel” was announced by Toby, at the top of his voice, the gentleman who entered the room had so very little to distinguish him from others, that there was a momentary disappointment. The ladies, in particular, began to doubt whether the compound of talent, misanthropy, madness, and mental sensibility, which they had pictured to themselves, actually was the same with the genteel, and even fashionable-looking man whom they saw before them; who, though in a morning-dress, which the distance of his residence, and the freedom of the place, made excusable, had, even in the minute points of his exterior, none of the negligence, or wildness, which might be supposed to attach to the vestments of a misanthropic recluse, whether sane or insane. As he paid his compliments round the circle, the scales seemed to fall from the eyes of those he spoke to; and they saw with surprise, that the exaggerations had existed entirely in their own preconceptions, and that whatever the fortunes, or rank in life, of Mr. Tyrrel might be, his manners, without being showy, were gentlemanlike and pleasing. He returned his thanks to Mr. Winterblossom in a manner which made that gentleman recall his best breeding to answer the stranger’s address in kind. He then escaped from the awkwardness of remaining the sole object of attention, by gliding gradually among the company — not like an owl, which seeks to hide itself in a thicket, or an awkward and retired man, shrinking from the society into which he is compelled, but with the air of one who could maintain with ease his part in a higher circle. His address to Lady Penelope was adapted to the romantic tone of Mr. Chatterly’s epistle, to which it was necessary to allude. He was afraid, he said, he must complain to Juno of the neglect of Iris, for her irregularity in delivery of a certain ethereal command, which he had not dared to answer otherwise than by mute obedience — unless, indeed, as the import of the letter seemed to infer, the invitation was designed for some more gifted individual than he to whom chance had assigned it.

Lady Penelope by her lips, and many of the young ladies with their eyes, assured him there was no mistake in the matter; that he was really the gifted person whom the nymphs had summoned to their presence, and that they were well acquainted with his talents as a poet and a painter. Tyrrel disclaimed, with earnestness and gravity, the charge of poetry, and professed, that, far from attempting the art itself, he “read with reluctance all but the productions of the very first-rate poets, and some of these — he was almost afraid to say — he should have liked better in humble prose.”

“You have now only to disown your skill as an artist,” said Lady Penelope, “and we must consider Mr. Tyrrel as the falsest and most deceitful of his sex, who has a mind to deprive us of the opportunity of benefiting by the productions of his unparalleled endowments. I assure you I shall put my young friends on their guard. Such dissimulation cannot be without its object.”

“And I,” said Mr. Winterblossom, “can produce a piece of real evidence against the culprit.”

So saying, he unrolled the sketch which he had filched from Trotting Nelly, and which he had pared and pasted, (arts in which he was eminent,) so as to take out its creases, repair its breaches, and vamp it as well as my old friend Mrs. Weir could have repaired the damages of time on a folio Shakspeare.

“The vara corpus delicti,” said the writer, grinning and rubbing his hands.

“If you are so good as to call such scratches drawings,” said Tyrrel, “I must stand so far confessed. I used to do them for my own amusement; but since my landlady, Mrs. Dods, has of late discovered that I gain my livelihood by them, why should I disown it?”

This avowal, made without the least appearance either of shame or retenue, seemed to have a striking effect on the whole society. The president’s trembling hand stole the sketch back to the portfolio, afraid doubtless it might be claimed in form, or else compensation expected by the artist. Lady Penelope was disconcerted, like an awkward horse when it changes the leading foot in galloping. She had to recede from the respectful and easy footing on which he had contrived to place himself, to one which might express patronage on her own part, and dependence on Tyrrel’s; and this could not be done in a moment.

The Man of Law murmured, “Circumstances — circumstances — I thought so!”

Sir Bingo whispered to his friend the Squire, “Run out — blown up — off the course — pity — d —— d pretty fellow he has been!”

“A raff from the beginning!” whispered Mowbray. —“I never thought him any thing else.”

“I’ll hold ye a poney of that, my dear, and I’ll ask him.”

“Done, for a poney, provided you ask him in ten minutes,” said the Squire; “but you dare not, Bingie — he has a d —— d cross game look, with all that civil chaff of his.”

“Done,” said Sir Bingo, but in a less confident tone than before, and with a determination to proceed with some caution in the matter. —“I have got a rouleau above, and Winterblossom shall hold stakes.”

“I have no rouleau,” said the Squire; “but I’ll fly a cheque on Meiklewham.”

“See it be better than your last,” said Sir Bingo, “for I won’t be skylarked again. Jack, my boy, you are had.”

“Not till the bet’s won; and I shall see yon walking dandy break your head, Bingie, before that,” answered Mowbray. “Best speak to the Captain before hand — it is a hellish scrape you are running into — I’ll let you off yet, Bingie, for a guinea forfeit. — See, I am just going to start the tattler.”

“Start, and be d —— d!” said Sir Bingo. “You are gotten, I assure you o’ that, Jack.” And with a bow and a shuffle, he went up and introduced himself to the stranger as Sir Bingo Binks.

“Had — honour — write — sir,” were the only sounds which his throat, or rather his cravat, seemed to send forth.

“Confound the booby!” thought Mowbray; “he will get out of leading strings, if he goes on at this rate; and doubly confounded be this cursed tramper, who, the Lord knows why, has come hither from the Lord knows where, to drive the pigs through my game.”

In the meantime, while his friend stood with his stop-watch in his hand, with a visage lengthened under the influence of these reflections, Sir Bingo, with an instinctive tact, which self-preservation seemed to dictate to a brain neither the most delicate nor subtle in the world, premised his enquiry by some general remark on fishing and field-sports. With all these, he found Tyrrel more than passably acquainted. Of fishing and shooting, particularly, he spoke with something like enthusiasm; so that Sir Bingo began to hold him in considerable respect, and to assure himself that he could not be, or at least could not originally have been bred, the itinerant artist which he now gave himself out — and this, with the fast lapse of the time, induced him thus to address Tyrrel. —“I say, Mr. Tyrrel — why, you have been one of us — I say”——

“If you mean a sportsman, Sir Bingo — I have been, and am a pretty keen one still,” replied Tyrrel.

“Why, then, you did not always do them sort of things?”

“What sort of things do you mean, Sir Bingo?” said Tyrrel. “I have not the pleasure of understanding you.”

“Why, I mean them sketches,” said Sir Bingo. “I’ll give you a handsome order for them, if you will tell me. I will, on my honour.”

“Does it concern you particularly, Sir Bingo, to know any thing of my affairs?” said Tyrrel.

“No — certainly — not immediately,” answered Sir Bingo, with some hesitation, for he liked not the dry tone in which Tyrrel’s answers were returned, half so well as a bumper of dry sherry; “only I said you were a d —— d gnostic fellow, and I laid a bet you have not been always professional — that’s all.”

Mr. Tyrrel replied, “A bet with Mr. Mowbray, I suppose?”

“Yes, with Jack,” replied the Baronet —“you have hit it — I hope I have done him?”

Tyrrel bent his brows, and looked first at Mr. Mowbray, then at the Baronet, and, after a moment’s thought, addressed the latter. —“Sir Bingo Binks, you are a gentleman of elegant enquiry and acute judgment. — You are perfectly right — I was not bred to the profession of an artist, nor did I practise it formerly, whatever I may do now; and so that question is answered.”

“And Jack is diddled,” said the Baronet, smiting his thigh in triumph, and turning towards the Squire and the stake-holder, with a smile of exultation.

“Stop a single moment, Sir Bingo,” said Tyrrel; “take one word with you. I have a great respect for bets — it is part of an Englishman’s character to bet on what he thinks fit, and to prosecute his enquiries over hedge and ditch, as if he were steeple-hunting. But as I have satisfied you on the subject of two bets, that is sufficient compliance with the custom of the country; and therefore I request, Sir Bingo, you will not make me or my affairs the subject of any more wagers.”

“I’ll be d —— d if I do,” was the internal resolution of Sir Bingo. Aloud he muttered some apologies, and was heartily glad that the dinner-bell, sounding at the moment, afforded him an apology for shuffling off in a different direction.

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