The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 13

Let the proud salmon gorge the feather’d hook,

Then strike, and then you have him — He will wince;

Spin out your line that it shall whistle from you

Some twenty yards or so, yet you shall have him —

Marry! you must have patience — the stout rock

Which is his trust, hath edges something sharp;

And the deep pool hath ooze and sludge enough

To mar your fishing —‘less you are more careful.

Albion, or the Double Kings.

It is seldom that a day of pleasure, upon review, seems altogether so exquisite as the partaker of the festivity may have felt it while passing over him. Nigel Olifaunt, at least, did not feel it so, and it required a visit from his new acquaintance, Lord Dalgarno, to reconcile him entirely to himself. But this visit took place early after breakfast, and his friend’s discourse was prefaced with a question, How he liked the company of the preceding evening?

“Why, excellently well,” said Lord Glenvarloch; “only I should have liked the wit better had it appeared to flow more freely. Every man’s invention seemed on the stretch, and each extravagant simile seemed to set one half of your men of wit into a brown study to produce something which should out-herod it.”

“And wherefore not?” said Lord Dalgarno, “or what are these fellows fit for, but to play the intellectual gladiators before us? He of them who declares himself recreant, should, d — n him, be restricted to muddy ale, and the patronage of the Waterman’s Company. I promise you, that many a pretty fellow has been mortally wounded with a quibble or a carwitchet at the Mermaid, and sent from thence, in a pitiable estate, to Wit’s hospital in the Vintry, where they languish to this day amongst fools and aldermen.”

“It may be so,” said Lord Nigel; “yet I could swear by my honour, that last night I seemed to be in company with more than one man whose genius and learning ought either to have placed him higher in our company, or to have withdrawn him altogether from a scene, where, sooth to speak, his part seemed unworthily subordinate.”

“Now, out upon your tender conscience,” said Lord Dalgarno; “and the fico for such outcasts of Parnassus! Why, these are the very leavings of that noble banquet of pickled herrings and Rhenish, which lost London so many of her principal witmongers and bards of misrule. What would you have said had you seen Nash or Green, when you interest yourself about the poor mimes you supped with last night? Suffice it, they had their drench and their doze, and they drank and slept as much as may save them from any necessity of eating till evening, when, if they are industrious, they will find patrons or players to feed them. 14 For the rest of their wants, they can be at no loss for cold water while the New River head holds good; and your doublets of Parnassus are eternal in duration.”

“Virgil and Horace had more efficient patronage,” said Nigel.

“Ay,” replied his countryman, “but these fellows are neither Virgil nor Horace; besides, we have other spirits of another sort, to whom I will introduce you on some early occasion. Our Swan of Avon hath sung his last; but we have stout old Ben, with as much learning and genius as ever prompted the treader of sock and buskin. It is not, however, of him I mean now to speak; but I come to pray you, of dear love, to row up with me as far as Richmond, where two or three of the gallants whom you saw yesterday, mean to give music and syllabubs to a set of beauties, with some curious bright eyes among them — such, I promise you, as might win an astrologer from his worship of the galaxy. My sister leads the bevy, to whom I desire to present you. She hath her admirers at Court; and is regarded, though I might dispense with sounding her praise, as one of the beauties of the time.”

There was no refusing an engagement, where the presence of the party invited, late so low in his own regard, was demanded by a lady of quality, one of the choice beauties of the time. Lord Glenvarloch accepted, as was inevitable, and spent a lively day among the gay and the fair. He was the gallant in attendance, for the day, upon his friend’s sister, the beautiful Countess of Blackchester, who aimed at once at superiority in the realms of fashion, of power, and of wit.

She was, indeed, considerably older than her brother, and had probably completed her six lustres; but the deficiency in extreme youth was more than atoned for, in the most precise and curious accuracy in attire, an early acquaintance with every foreign mode, and a peculiar gift in adapting the knowledge which she acquired, to her own particular features and complexion. At Court, she knew as well as any lady in the circle, the precise tone, moral, political, learned, or jocose, in which it was proper to answer the monarch, according to his prevailing humour; and was supposed to have been very active, by her personal interest, in procuring her husband a high situation, which the gouty old viscount could never have deserved by any merit of his own commonplace conduct and understanding.

It was far more easy for this lady than for her brother, to reconcile so young a courtier as Lord Glenvarloch to the customs and habits of a sphere so new to him. In all civilised society, the females of distinguished rank and beauty give the tone to manners, and, through these, even to morals. Lady Blackchester had, besides, interest either in the Court, or over the Court, (for its source could not be well traced,) which created friends, and overawed those who might have been disposed to play the part of enemies.

At one time, she was understood to be closely leagued with the Buckingham family, with whom her brother still maintained a great intimacy; and, although some coldness had taken place betwixt the Countess and the Duchess of Buckingham, so that they were little seen together, and the former seemed considerably to have withdrawn herself into privacy, it was whispered that Lady Blackchester’s interest with the great favourite was not diminished in consequence of her breach with his lady.

Our accounts of the private Court intrigues of that period, and of the persons to whom they were intrusted, are not full enough to enable us to pronounce upon the various reports which arose out of the circumstances we have detailed. It is enough to say, that Lady Blackchester possessed great influence on the circle around her, both from her beauty, her abilities, and her reputed talents for Court intrigue; and that Nigel Olifaunt was not long of experiencing its power, as he became a slave in some degree to that species of habit, which carries so many men into a certain society at a certain hour, without expecting or receiving any particular degree of gratification, or even amusement.

His life for several weeks may be thus described. The ordinary was no bad introduction to the business of the day; and the young lord quickly found, that if the society there was not always irreproachable, still it formed the most convenient and agreeable place of meeting with the fashionable parties, with whom he visited Hyde Park, the theatres, and other places of public resort, or joined the gay and glittering circle which Lady Blackchester had assembled around her. Neither did he entertain the same scrupulous horror which led him originally even to hesitate entering into a place where gaming was permitted; but, on the contrary, began to admit the idea, that as there could be no harm done in beholding such recreation when only indulged in to a moderate degree, so, from a parity of reasoning, there could be no objection to joining in it, always under the same restrictions. But the young lord was a Scotsman, habituated to early reflection, and totally unaccustomed to any habit which inferred a careless risk or profuse waste of money. Profusion was not his natural vice, or one likely to be acquired in the course of his education; and, in all probability, while his father anticipated with noble horror the idea of his son approaching the gaming-table, he was more startled at the idea of his becoming a gaining than a losing adventurer. The second, according to his principles, had a termination, a sad one indeed, in the loss of temporal fortune — the first quality went on increasing the evil which he dreaded, and perilled at once both body and soul.

However the old lord might ground his apprehension, it was so far verified by his son’s conduct, that, from an observer of the various games of chance which he witnessed, he came, by degrees, by moderate hazards, and small bets or wagers, to take a certain interest in them. Nor could it be denied, that his rank and expectations entitled him to hazard a few pieces (for his game went no deeper) against persons, who, from the readiness with which they staked their money, might be supposed well able to afford to lose it.

It chanced, or, perhaps, according to the common belief, his evil genius had so decreed, that Nigel’s adventures were remarkably successful. He was temperate, cautious, cool-headed, had a strong memory, and a ready power of calculation; was besides, of a daring and intrepid character, one upon whom no one that had looked even slightly, or spoken to though but hastily, would readily have ventured to practise any thing approaching to trick, or which required to be supported by intimidation. While Lord Glenvarloch chose to play, men played with him regularly, or, according to the phrase, upon the square; and, as he found his luck change, or wished to hazard his good fortune no farther, the more professed votaries of fortune, who frequented the house of Monsieur le Chevalier de Saint Priest Beaujeu, did not venture openly to express their displeasure at his rising a winner. But when this happened repeatedly, the gamesters murmured amongst themselves equally at the caution and the success of the young Scotsman; and he became far from being a popular character among their society.

It was no slight inducement to the continuance of this most evil habit, when it was once in some degree acquired, that it seemed to place Lord Glenvarloch, haughty as he naturally was, beyond the necessity of subjecting himself to farther pecuniary obligations, which his prolonged residence in London must otherwise have rendered necessary. He had to solicit from the ministers certain forms of office, which were to render his sign-manual effectually useful; and these, though they could not be denied, were delayed in such a manner, as to lead Nigel to believe there was some secret opposition, which occasioned the demur in his business. His own impulse was, to have appeared at Court a second time, with the king’s sign-manual in his pocket, and to have appealed to his Majesty himself, whether the delay of the public officers ought to render his royal generosity unavailing. But the Lord Huntinglen, that good old peer, who had so frankly interfered in his behalf on a former occasion, and whom he occasionally visited, greatly dissuaded him from a similar adventure, and exhorted him quietly to await the deliverance of the ministers, which should set him free from dancing attendance in London.

Lord Dalgarno joined his father in deterring his young friend from a second attendance at Court, at least till he was reconciled with the Duke of Buckingham —“a matter in which,” he said, addressing his father, “I have offered my poor assistance, without being able to prevail on Lord Nigel to make any — not even the least — submission to the Duke of Buckingham.”

“By my faith, and I hold the laddie to be in the right on’t, Malcom!” answered the stout old Scots lord. —“What right hath Buckingham, or, to speak plainly, the son of Sir George Villiers, to expect homage and fealty from one more noble than himself by eight quarters? I heard him myself, on no reason that I could perceive, term Lord Nigel his enemy; and it will never be by my counsel that the lad speaks soft word to him, till he recalls the hard one.”

“That is precisely my advice to Lord Glenvarloch,” answered Lord Dalgarno; “but then you will admit, my dear father, that it would be the risk of extremity for our friend to return into the presence, the duke being his enemy — better to leave it with me to take off the heat of the distemperature, with which some pickthanks have persuaded the duke to regard our friend.”

“If thou canst persuade Buckingham of his error, Malcolm,” said his father, “for once I will say there hath been kindness and honesty in Court service. I have oft told your sister and yourself, that in the general I esteem it as lightly as may be.”

“You need not doubt my doing my best in Nigel’s case,” answered Lord Dalgarno; “but you must think, my dear father, I must needs use slower and gentler means than those by which you became a favourite twenty years ago.”

“By my faith, I am afraid thou wilt,” answered his father. —“I tell thee, Malcolm, I would sooner wish myself in the grave, than doubt thine honesty or honour; yet somehow it hath chanced, that honest, ready service, hath not the same acceptance at Court which it has in my younger time — and yet you rise there.”

“O, the time permits not your old-world service,” said Lord Dalgarno; “we have now no daily insurrections, no nightly attempts at assassination, as were the fashion in the Scottish Court. Your prompt and uncourteous sword-in-hand attendance on the sovereign is no longer necessary, and would be as unbeseeming as your old-fashioned serving-men, with their badges, broadswords, and bucklers, would be at a court-mask. Besides, father, loyal haste hath its inconveniences. I have heard, and from royal lips too, that when you stuck your dagger into the traitor Ruthven, it was with such little consideration, that the point ran a quarter of an inch into the royal buttock. The king never talks of it but he rubs the injured part, and quotes his ’infandum ———-renovare dolorem.‘ But this comes of old fashions, and of wearing a long Liddesdale whinger instead of a poniard of Parma. Yet this, my dear father, you call prompt and valiant service. The king, I am told, could not sit upright for a fortnight, though all the cushions in Falkland were placed in his chair of state, and the Provost of Dunfermline’s borrowed to the boot of all.”

“It is a lie,” said the old earl, “a false lie, forge it who list! — It is true I wore a dagger of service by my side, and not a bodkin like yours, to pick one’s teeth withal — and for prompt service — Odds nouns! it should be prompt to be useful when kings are crying treason and murder with the screech of a half-throttled hen. But you young courtiers know nought of these matters, and are little better than the green geese they bring over from the Indies, whose only merit to their masters is to repeat their own words after them — a pack of mouthers, and flatterers, and ear-wigs. — Well, I am old and unable to mend, else I would break all off, and hear the Tay once more flinging himself over the Campsie Linn.”

“But there is your dinner-bell, father,” said Lord Dalgarno, “which, if the venison I sent you prove seasonable, is at least as sweet a sound.”

“Follow me, then, youngsters, if you list,” said the old earl; and strode on from the alcove in which this conversation was held, towards the house, followed by the two young men.

In their private discourse, Lord Dalgarno had little trouble in dissuading Nigel from going immediately to Court; while, on the other hand, the offers he made him of a previous introduction to the Duke of Buckingham, were received by Lord Glenvarloch with a positive and contemptuous refusal. His friend shrugged his shoulders, as one who claims the merit of having given to an obstinate friend the best counsel, and desires to be held free of the consequences of his pertinacity.

As for the father, his table indeed, and his best liquor, of which he was more profuse than necessary, were at the command of his young friend, as well as his best advice and assistance in the prosecution of his affairs. But Lord Huntinglen’s interest was more apparent than real; and the credit he had acquired by his gallant defence of the king’s person, was so carelessly managed by himself, and so easily eluded by the favourites and ministers of the sovereign, that, except upon one or two occasions, when the king was in some measure taken by surprise, as in the case of Lord Glenvarloch, the royal bounty was never efficiently extended either to himself or to his friends.

“There never was a man,” said Lord Dalgarno, whose shrewder knowledge of the English Court saw where his father’s deficiency lay, “that had it so perfectly in his power to have made his way to the pinnacle of fortune as my poor father. He had acquired a right to build up a staircase, step by step, slowly and surely, letting every boon, which he begged year after year, become in its turn the resting-place for the next annual grant. But your fortunes shall not shipwreck upon the same coast, Nigel,” he would conclude. “If I have fewer means of influence than my father has, or rather had, till he threw them away for butts of sack, hawks, hounds, and such carrion, I can, far better than he, improve that which I possess; and that, my dear Nigel, is all engaged in your behalf. Do not be surprised or offended that you now see me less than formerly. The stag-hunting is commenced, and the prince looks that I should attend him more frequently. I must also maintain my attendance on the duke, that I may have an opportunity of pleading your cause when occasion shall permit.”

“I have no cause to plead before the duke,” said Nigel, gravely; “I have said so repeatedly.”

“Why, I meant the phrase no otherwise, thou churlish and suspicious disputant,” answered Dalgarno, “than as I am now pleading the duke’s cause with thee. Surely I only mean to claim a share in our royal master’s favourite benediction, Beati Pacifici.”

Upon several occasions, Lord Glenvarloch’s conversations, both with the old earl and his son, took a similar turn and had a like conclusion. He sometimes felt as if, betwixt the one and the other, not to mention the more unseen and unboasted, but scarce less certain influence of Lady Blackchester, his affair, simple as it had become, might have been somehow accelerated. But it was equally impossible to doubt the rough honesty of the father, and the eager and officious friendship of Lord Dalgarno; nor was it easy to suppose that the countenance of the lady, by whom he was received with such distinction, would be wanting, could it be effectual in his service.

Nigel was further sensible of the truth of what Lord Dalgarno often pointed out, that the favourite being supposed to be his enemy, every petty officer, through whose hands his affair must necessarily pass, would desire to make a merit of throwing obstacles in his way, which he could only surmount by steadiness and patience, unless he preferred closing the breach, or, as Lord Dalgarno called it, making his peace with the Duke of Buckingham.

Nigel might, and doubtless would, have had recourse to the advice of his friend George Heriot upon this occasion, having found it so advantageous formerly; but the only time he saw him after their visit to Court, he found the worthy citizen engaged in hasty preparations for a journey to Paris, upon business of great importance in the way of his profession, and by an especial commission from the Court and the Duke of Buckingham, which was likely to be attended with considerable profit. The good man smiled as he named the Duke of Buckingham. He had been, he said, pretty sure that his disgrace in that quarter would not be of long duration. Lord Glenvarloch expressed himself rejoiced at that reconciliation, observing, that it had been a most painful reflection to him, that Master Heriot should, in his behalf, have incurred the dislike, and perhaps exposed himself to the ill offices, of so powerful a favourite.

“My lord,” said Heriot, “for your father’s son I would do much; and yet truly, if I know myself, I would do as much and risk as much, for the sake of justice, in the case of a much more insignificant person, as I have ventured for yours. But as we shall not meet for some time, I must commit to your own wisdom the farther prosecution of this matter.”

And thus they took a kind and affectionate leave of each other.

There were other changes in Lord Glenvarloch’s situation, which require to be noticed. His present occupations, and the habits of amusement which he had acquired, rendered his living so far in the city a considerable inconvenience. He may also have become a little ashamed of his cabin on Paul’s Wharf, and desirous of being lodged somewhat more according to his quality. For this purpose, he had hired a small apartment near the Temple. He was, nevertheless, almost sorry for what he had done, when he observed that his removal appeared to give some pain to John Christie, and a great deal to his cordial and officious landlady. The former, who was grave and saturnine in every thing he did, only hoped that all had been to Lord Glenvarloch’s mind, and that he had not left them on account of any unbeseeming negligence on their part. But the tear twinkled in Dame Nelly’s eye, while she recounted the various improvements she had made in the apartment, of express purpose to render it more convenient to his lordship.

“There was a great sea-chest,” she said, “had been taken upstairs to the shopman’s garret, though it left the poor lad scarce eighteen inches of opening to creep betwixt it and his bed; and Heaven knew — she did not — whether it could ever be brought down that narrow stair again. Then the turning the closet into an alcove had cost a matter of twenty round shillings; and to be sure, to any other lodger but his lordship, the closet was more convenient. There was all the linen, too, which she had bought on purpose — But Heaven’s will be done — she was resigned.”

Everybody likes marks of personal attachment; and Nigel, whose heart really smote him,, as if in his rising fortunes he were disdaining the lowly accommodations and the civilities of the humble friends which had been but lately actual favours, failed not by every assurance in his power, and by as liberal payment as they could be prevailed upon to accept, to alleviate the soreness of their feelings at his departure; and a parting kiss from the fair lips of his hostess sealed his forgiveness.

Richie Moniplies lingered behind his master, to ask whether, in case of need, John Christie could help a canny Scotsman to a passage back to his own country; and receiving assurance of John’s interest to that effect, he said at parting, he would remind him of his promise soon. — “For,” said he, “if my lord is not weary of this London life, I ken one that is, videlicet, mysell; and I am weel determined to see Arthur’s Seat again ere I am many weeks older.”

14The condition of men of wit and talents was never more melancholy than about this period. Their lives were so irregular, and their means of living so precarious, that they were alternately rioting in debauchery, or encountering and struggling with the meanest necessities. Two or three lost their lives by a surfeit brought on by that fatal banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herrings, which is familiar to those who study the lighter literature of that age. The whole history is a most melancholy picture of genius, degraded at once by its own debaucheries, and the patronage of heartless rakes and profligates.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00