Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 6

Table-Talk.

And, sir, if these accounts be true,

The Dutch have mighty things in view;

The Austrians — I admire French beans,

Dear ma’am, above all other greens.

* * * * *

And all as lively and as brisk

As — Ma’am, d’ye choose a game at whisk?

Table-Talk.

When they were about to leave the room, Lady Penelope assumed Tyrrel’s arm with a sweet smile of condescension, meant to make the honoured party understand in its full extent the favour conferred. But the unreasonable artist, far from intimating the least confusion at an attention so little to be expected, seemed to consider the distinction as one which was naturally paid to the greatest stranger present; and when he placed Lady Penelope at the head of the table, by Mr. Winterblossom the president, and took a chair for himself betwixt her ladyship and Lady Binks, the provoking wretch appeared no more sensible of being exalted above his proper rank in society, than if he had been sitting at the bottom of the table by honest Mrs. Blower from the Bow-head, who had come to the Well to carry off the dregs of the Inflienzie, which she scorned to term a surfeit.

Now this indifference puzzled Lady Penelope’s game extremely, and irritated her desire to get at the bottom of Tyrrel’s mystery, if there was one, and secure him to her own party. If you were ever at a watering-place, reader, you know that while the guests do not always pay the most polite attention to unmarked individuals, the appearance of a stray lion makes an interest as strong as it is reasonable, and the Amazonian chiefs of each coterie, like the hunters of Buenos-Ayres, prepare their lasso, and manoeuvre to the best advantage they can, each hoping to noose the unsuspicious monster, and lead him captive to her own menagerie. A few words concerning Lady Penelope Penfeather will explain why she practised this sport with even more than common zeal.

She was the daughter of an earl, possessed a showy person, and features which might be called handsome in youth, though now rather too much prononcés to render the term proper. The nose was become sharper; the cheeks had lost the roundness of youth; and as, during fifteen years that she had reigned a beauty and a ruling toast, the right man had not spoken, or, at least, had not spoken at the right time, her ladyship, now rendered sufficiently independent by the inheritance of an old relation, spoke in praise of friendship, began to dislike the town in summer, and to “babble of green fields.”

About the time Lady Penelope thus changed the tenor of her life, she was fortunate enough, with Dr. Quackleben’s assistance, to find out the virtues of St Ronan’s spring; and having contributed her share to establish the urbs in rure, which had risen around it, she sat herself down as leader of the fashions in the little province which she had in a great measure both discovered and colonized. She was, therefore, justly desirous to compel homage and tribute from all who should approach the territory.

In other respects, Lady Penelope pretty much resembled the numerous class she belonged to. She was at bottom a well-principled woman, but too thoughtless to let her principles control her humour, therefore not scrupulously nice in her society. She was good-natured, but capricious and whimsical, and willing enough to be kind or generous, if it neither thwarted her humour, nor cost her much trouble; would have chaperoned a young friend any where, and moved the world for subscription tickets; but never troubled herself how much her giddy charge flirted, or with whom; so that, with a numerous class of Misses, her ladyship was the most delightful creature in the world. Then Lady Penelope had lived so much in society, knew so exactly when to speak, and how to escape from an embarrassing discussion by professing ignorance, while she looked intelligence, that she was not generally discovered to be a fool, unless when she set up for being remarkably clever. This happened more frequently of late, when, perhaps, as she could not but observe that the repairs of the toilet became more necessary, she might suppose that new lights, according to the poet, were streaming on her mind through the chinks that Time was making. Many of her friends, however, thought that Lady Penelope would have better consulted her genius by remaining in mediocrity, as a fashionable and well-bred woman, than by parading her new-founded pretensions to taste and patronage; but such was not her own opinion, and doubtless, her ladyship was the best judge.

On the other side of Tyrrel sat Lady Binks, lately the beautiful Miss Bonnyrigg, who, during the last season, had made the company at the Well alternately admire, smile, and stare, by dancing the highest Highland fling, riding the wildest pony, laughing the loudest laugh at the broadest joke, and wearing the briefest petticoat of any nymph of St. Ronan’s. Few knew that this wild, hoydenish, half-mad humour, was only superinduced over her real character, for the purpose of — getting well married. She had fixed her eyes on Sir Bingo, and was aware of his maxim, that to catch him, “a girl must be,” in his own phrase, “bang up to every thing;” and that he would choose a wife for the neck-or-nothing qualities which recommend a good hunter. She made out her catch-match, and she was miserable. Her wild good-humour was entirely an assumed part of her character, which was passionate, ambitious, and thoughtful. Delicacy she had none — she knew Sir Bingo was a brute and a fool, even while she was hunting him down; but she had so far mistaken her own feelings, as not to have expected that when she became bone of his bone, she should feel so much shame and anger when she saw his folly expose him to be laughed at and plundered, or so disgusted when his brutality became intimately connected with herself. It is true, he was on the whole rather an innocent monster; and between bitting and bridling, coaxing and humouring, might have been made to pad on well enough. But an unhappy boggling which had taken place previous to the declaration of their private marriage, had so exasperated her spirits against her helpmate, that modes of conciliation were the last she was likely to adopt. Not only had the assistance of the Scottish Themis, so propitiously indulgent to the foibles of the fair, been resorted to on the occasion, but even Mars seemed ready to enter upon the tapis, if Hymen had not intervened. There was, de par le monde, a certain brother of the lady — an officer — and, as it happened, on leave of absence — who alighted from a hack-chaise at the Fox Hotel, at eleven o’clock at night, holding in his hand a slip of well-dried oak, accompanied by another gentleman, who, like himself, wore a military travelling-cap and a black stock; out of the said chaise, as was reported by the trusty Toby, was handed a small reise-sac, an Andrew Ferrara, and a neat mahogany box, eighteen inches long, three deep, and some six broad. Next morning a solemn palaver (as the natives of Madagascar call their national convention) was held at an unusual hour, at which Captain MacTurk and Mr. Mowbray assisted; and the upshot was, that at breakfast the company were made happy by the information, that Sir Bingo had been for some weeks the happy bridegroom of their general favourite; which union, concealed for family reasons, he was now at liberty to acknowledge, and to fly with the wings of love to bring his sorrowing turtle from the shades to which she had retired, till the obstacles to their mutual happiness could be removed. Now, though all this sounded very smoothly, that gall-less turtle, Lady Binks, could never think of the tenor of the proceedings without the deepest feelings of resentment and contempt for the principal actor, Sir Bingo.

Besides all these unpleasant circumstances, Sir Bingo’s family had refused to countenance her wish that he should bring her to his own seat; and hence a new shock to her pride, and new matter of contempt against poor Sir Bingo, for being ashamed and afraid to face down the opposition of his kins-folk, for whose displeasure, though never attending to any good advice from them, he retained a childish awe.

The manners of the young lady were no less changed than was her temper; and, from being much too careless and free, were become reserved, sullen, and haughty. A consciousness that many scrupled to hold intercourse with her in society, rendered her disagreeably tenacious of her rank, and jealous of every thing that appeared like neglect. She had constituted herself mistress of Sir Bingo’s purse; and, unrestrained in the expenses of dress and equipage, chose, contrary to her maiden practice, to be rather rich and splendid than gay, and to command that attention by magnificence, which she no longer deigned to solicit by rendering herself either agreeable or entertaining. One secret source of her misery was, the necessity of showing deference to Lady Penelope Penfeather, whose understanding she despised, and whose pretensions to consequence, to patronage, and to literature, she had acuteness enough to see through, and to contemn; and this dislike was the more grievous, that she felt she depended a good deal on Lady Penelope’s countenance for the situation she was able to maintain even among the not very select society of St. Ronan’s Well; and that, neglected by her, she must have dropped lower in the scale even there. Neither was Lady Penelope’s kindness to Lady Binks extremely cordial. She partook in the ancient and ordinary dislike of single nymphs of a certain age, to those who made splendid alliances under their very eye — and she more than suspected the secret disaffection of the lady. But the name sounded well; and the style in which Lady Binks lived was a credit to the place. So they satisfied their mutual dislike with saying a few sharp things to each other occasionally, but all under the mask of civility.

Such was Lady Binks; and yet, being such, her dress, and her equipage, and carriages, were the envy of half the Misses at the Well, who, while she sat disfiguring with sullenness her very lovely face, (for it was as beautiful as her shape was exquisite,) only thought she was proud of having carried her point, and felt herself, with her large fortune and diamond bandeau, no fit company for the rest of the party. They gave way, therefore, with meekness to her domineering temper, though it was not the less tyrannical, that in her maiden state of hoyden-hood, she had been to some of them an object of slight and of censure; and Lady Binks had not forgotten the offences offered to Miss Bonnyrigg. But the fair sisterhood submitted to her retaliations, as lieutenants endure the bullying of a rude and boisterous captain of the sea, with the secret determination to pay it home to their underlings, when they shall become captains themselves.

In this state of importance, yet of penance, Lady Binks occupied her place at the dinner-table, alternately disconcerted by some stupid speech of her lord and master, and by some slight sarcasm from Lady Penelope, to which she longed to reply, but dared not.

She looked from time to time at her neighbour Frank Tyrrel, but without addressing him, and accepted in silence the usual civilities which he proffered to her. She had remarked keenly his interview with Sir Bingo, and knowing by experience the manner in which her honoured lord was wont to retreat from a dispute in which he was unsuccessful, as well as his genius for getting into such perplexities, she had little doubt that he had sustained from the stranger some new indignity; whom, therefore, she regarded with a mixture of feeling, scarce knowing whether to be pleased with him for having given pain to him whom she hated, or angry with him for having affronted one in whose degradation her own was necessarily involved. There might be other thoughts — on the whole, she regarded him with much though with mute attention. He paid her but little in return, being almost entirely occupied in replying to the questions of the engrossing Lady Penelope Penfeather.

Receiving polite though rather evasive answers to her enquiries concerning his late avocations, her ladyship could only learn that Tyrrel had been travelling in several remote parts of Europe, and even of Asia. Baffled, but not repulsed, the lady continued her courtesy, by pointing out to him, as a stranger, several individuals of the company to whom she proposed introducing him, as persons from whose society he might derive either profit or amusement. In the midst of this sort of conversation, however, she suddenly stopped short.

“Will you forgive me, Mr. Tyrrel,” she said, “if I say I have been watching your thoughts for some moments, and that I have detected you? All the while that I have been talking of these good folks, and that you have been making such civil replies, that they might be with great propriety and utility inserted in the ‘Familiar Dialogues, teaching foreigners how to express themselves in English upon ordinary occasions’— your mind has been entirely fixed upon that empty chair, which hath remained there opposite betwixt our worthy president and Sir Bingo Binks.”

“I own, madam,” he answered, “I was a little surprised at seeing such a distinguished seat unoccupied, while the table is rather crowded.”

“O, confess more, sir! — Confess that to a poet a seat unoccupied — the chair of Banquo — has more charms than if it were filled even as an alderman would fill it. — What if ‘the Dark Ladye’14 should glide in and occupy it? — would you have courage to stand the vision, Mr. Tyrrel? — I assure you the thing is not impossible.”

What is not impossible, Lady Penelope?” said Tyrrel, somewhat surprised.

“Startled already? — Nay, then, I despair of your enduring the awful interview.”

“What interview? who is expected?” said Tyrrel, unable with the utmost exertion to suppress some signs of curiosity, though he suspected the whole to be merely some mystification of her ladyship.

“How delighted I am,” she said, “that I have found out where you are vulnerable! — Expected — did I say expected? — no, not expected.

‘She glides, like Night, from land to land,

She hath strange power of speech.’

— But come, I have you at my mercy, and I will be generous and explain. — We call — that is, among ourselves, you understand — Miss Clara Mowbray, the sister of that gentleman that sits next to Miss Parker, the Dark Ladye, and that seat is left for her. — For she was expected — no, not expected — I forget again! — but it was thought possible she might honour us today, when our feast was so full and piquant. — Her brother is our Lord of the Manor — and so they pay her that sort of civility to regard her as a visitor — and neither Lady Binks nor I think of objecting — She is a singular young person, Clara Mowbray — she amuses me very much — I am always rather glad to see her.”

“She is not to come hither today,” said Tyrrel; “am I so to understand your ladyship?”

“Why, it is past her time — even her time,” said Lady Penelope —“dinner was kept back half an hour, and our poor invalids were famishing, as you may see by the deeds they have done since. — But Clara is an odd creature, and if she took it into her head to come hither at this moment, hither she would come — she is very whimsical. — Many people think her handsome — but she looks so like something from another world, that she makes me always think of Mat Lewis’s Spectre Lady.”

And she repeated with much cadence,

“There is a thing — there is a thing,

I fain would have from thee;

I fain would have that gay gold ring,

O warrior, give it me!”

“And then you remember his answer:

‘This ring Lord Brooke from his daughter took,

And a solemn oath he swore,

That that ladye my bride should be

When this crusade was o’er.’

You do figures as well as landscapes, I suppose, Mr. Tyrrel? — You shall make a sketch for me — a slight thing — for sketches, I think, show the freedom of art better than finished pieces — I dote on the first coruscations of genius — flashing like lightning from the cloud! — You shall make a sketch for my boudoir — my dear sulky den at Air Castle, and Clara Mowbray shall sit for the Ghost Ladye.”

“That would be but a poor compliment to your ladyship’s friend,” replied Tyrrel.

“Friend? We don’t get quite that length, though I like Clara very well. — Quite sentimental cast of face — I think I saw an antique in the Louvre very like her —(I was there in 1800)— quite an antique countenance — eyes something hollowed — care has dug caves for them, but they are caves of the most beautiful marble, arched with jet — a straight nose, and absolutely the Grecian mouth and chin — a profusion of long straight black hair, with the whitest skin you ever saw — as white as the whitest parchment — and not a shade of colour in her cheek — none whatever — If she would be naughty, and borrow a prudent touch of complexion, she might be called beautiful. Even as it is, many think her so, although surely, Mr. Tyrrel, three colours are necessary to the female face. However, we used to call her the Melpomene of the Spring last season, as we called Lady Binks — who was not then Lady Binks — our Euphrosyne — did we not, my dear?”

“Did we not what, madam?” said Lady Binks, in a tone something sharper than ought to have belonged to so beautiful a countenance.

“I am sorry I have started you out of your reverie, my love,” answered Lady Penelope. “I was only assuring Mr. Tyrrel that you were once Euphrosyne, though now so much under the banners of Il Penseroso.”

“I do not know that I have been either one or the other,” answered Lady Binks; “one thing I certainly am not — I am not capable of understanding your ladyship’s wit and learning.”

“Poor soul,” whispered Lady Penelope to Tyrrel; “we know what we are, we know not what we may be. — And now, Mr. Tyrrel, I have been your sibyl to guide you through this Elysium of ours, I think, in reward, I deserve a little confidence in return.”

“If I had any to bestow, which could be in the slightest degree interesting to your ladyship,” answered Tyrrel.

“Oh! cruel man — he will not understand me!” exclaimed the lady —“In plain words, then, a peep into your portfolio — just to see what objects you have rescued from natural decay, and rendered immortal by the pencil. You do not know — indeed, Mr. Tyrrel, you do not know how I dote upon your ‘serenely silent art,’ second to poetry alone — equal — superior perhaps — to music.”

“I really have little that could possibly be worth the attention of such a judge as your ladyship,” answered Tyrrel; “such trifles as your ladyship has seen, I sometimes leave at the foot of the tree I have been sketching.”

“As Orlando left his verses in the Forest of Ardennes? — Oh, the thoughtless prodigality! — Mr. Winterblossom, do you hear this? — We must follow Mr. Tyrrel in his walks, and glean what he leaves behind him.”

Her ladyship was here disconcerted by some laughter on Sir Bingo’s side of the table, which she chastised by an angry glance, and then proceeded emphatically.

“Mr. Tyrrel — this must not be — this is not the way of the world, my good sir, to which even genius must stoop its flight. We must consult the engraver — though perhaps you etch as well as you draw?”

“I should suppose so,” said Mr. Winterblossom, edging in a word with difficulty, “from the freedom of Mr. Tyrrel’s touch.”

“I will not deny my having spoiled a little copper now and then,” said Tyrrel, “since I am charged with the crime by such good judges; but it has only been by way of experiment.”

“Say no more,” said the lady; “my darling wish is accomplished! — We have long desired to have the remarkable and most romantic spots of our little Arcadia here — spots consecrated to friendship, the fine arts, the loves and the graces, immortalized by the graver’s art, faithful to its charge of fame — you shall labour on this task, Mr. Tyrrel; we will all assist with notes and illustrations — we will all contribute — only some of us must be permitted to remain anonymous — Fairy favours, you know, Mr. Tyrrel, must be kept secret — And you shall be allowed the pillage of the Album — some sweet things there of Mr. Chatterly’s — and Mr. Edgeit, a gentleman of your own profession, I am sure will lend his aid — Dr. Quackleben will contribute some scientific notices. — And for subscription”——

“Financial — financial — your leddyship, I speak to order!” said the writer, interrupting Lady Penelope with a tone of impudent familiarity, which was meant doubtless for jocular ease.

“How am I out of order, Mr. Meiklewham?” said her ladyship, drawing herself up.

“I speak to order! — No warrants for money can be extracted before intimation to the Committee of Management.”

“Pray, who mentioned money, Mr. Meiklewham?” said her ladyship. —“That wretched old pettifogger,” she added in a whisper to Tyrrel, “thinks of nothing else but the filthy pelf.”

“Ye spake of subscription, my leddy, whilk is the same thing as money, differing only in respect of time — the subscription being a contract de futuro, and having a tractus temporis in gremio — And I have kend mony honest folks in the company at the Well, complain of the subscriptions as a great abuse, as obliging them either to look unlike other folk, or to gie good lawful coin for ballants and picture-books, and things they caredna a pinch of snuff for.”

Several of the company, at the lower end of the table, assented both by nods and murmurs of approbation; and the orator was about to proceed, when Tyrrel with difficulty procured a hearing before the debate went farther, and assured the company that her ladyship’s goodness had led her into an error; that he had no work in hand worthy of their patronage, and, with the deepest gratitude for Lady Penelope’s goodness, had it not in his power to comply with her request. There was some tittering at her ladyship’s expense, who, as the writer slyly observed, had been something ultronious in her patronage. Without attempting for the moment any rally, (as indeed the time which had passed since the removal of the dinner scarce permitted an opportunity,) Lady Penelope gave the signal for the ladies’ retreat, and left the gentlemen to the circulation of the bottle.

14 Note II. — The Dark Ladye.

The Dark Ladye is one of those tantalizing fragments, in which Mr. Coleridge has shown us what exquisite powers of poetry he has suffered to remain uncultivated. Let us be thankful for what we have received, however. The unfashioned ore, drawn from so rich a mine, is worth all to which art can add its highest decorations, when drawn from less abundant sources. The verses beginning the poem which are published separately, are said to have soothed the last hours of Mr. Fox. They are the stanzas entitled LOVE.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/ronan/chapter6.html

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