The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 19

By this good light, a wench of matchless mettle!

This were a leaguer-lass to love a soldier,

To bind his wounds, and kiss his bloody brow,

And sing a roundel as she help’d to arm him,

Though the rough foeman’s drums were beat so nigh,

They seem’d to bear the burden.

Old Play.

When Mistress Margaret entered the Foljambe apartment, she found the inmates employed in their usual manner; the lady in reading, and her attendant in embroidering a large piece of tapestry, which had occupied her ever since Margaret had been first admitted within these secluded chambers.

Hermione nodded kindly to her visitor, but did not speak; and Margaret, accustomed to this reception, and in the present case not sorry for it, as it gave her an interval to collect her thoughts, stooped over Monna Paula’s frame and observed, in a half whisper, “You were just so far as that rose, Monna, when I first saw you — see, there is the mark where I had the bad luck to spoil the flower in trying to catch the stitch — I was little above fifteen then. These flowers make me an old woman, Monna Paula.”

“I wish they could make you a wise one, my child,” answered Monna Paula, in whose esteem pretty Mistress Margaret did not stand quite so high as in that of her patroness; partly owing to her natural austerity, which was something intolerant of youth and gaiety, and partly to the jealousy with which a favourite domestic regards any one whom she considers as a sort of rival in the affections of her mistress.

“What is it you say to Monna, little one?” asked the lady.

“Nothing, madam,” replied Mistress Margaret, “but that I have seen the real flowers blossom three times over since I first saw Monna Paula working in her canvass garden, and her violets have not budded yet.”

“True, lady-bird,” replied Hermione; “but the buds that are longest in blossoming will last the longest in flower. You have seen them in the garden bloom thrice, but you have seen them fade thrice also; now, Monna Paula’s will remain in blow for ever — they will fear neither frost nor tempest.”

“True, madam,” answered Mistress Margaret; “but neither have they life or odour.”

“That, little one,” replied the recluse, “is to compare a life agitated by hope and fear, and chequered with success and disappointment, and fevered by the effects of love and hatred, a life of passion and of feeling, saddened and shortened by its exhausting alternations, to a calm and tranquil existence, animated but by a sense of duties, and only employed, during its smooth and quiet course, in the unwearied discharge of them. Is that the moral of your answer?”

“I do not know, madam,” answered Mistress Margaret; “but, of all birds in the air, I would rather be the lark, that sings while he is drifting down the summer breeze, than the weathercock that sticks fast yonder upon his iron perch, and just moves so much as to discharge his duty, and tell us which way the wind blows.”

“Metaphors are no arguments, my pretty maiden,” said the Lady Hermione, smiling.

“I am sorry for that, madam,” answered Margaret; “for they are such a pretty indirect way of telling one’s mind when it differs from one’s betters — besides, on this subject there is no end of them, and they are so civil and becoming withal.”

“Indeed?” replied the lady; “let me hear some of them, I pray you.”

“It would be, for example, very bold in me,” said Margaret, “to say to your ladyship, that, rather than live a quiet life, I would like a little variety of hope and fear, and liking and disliking — and — and — and the other sort of feelings which your ladyship is pleased to speak of; but I may say freely, and without blame, that I like a butterfly better than a bettle, or a trembling aspen better than a grim Scots fir, that never wags a leaf — or that of all the wood, brass, and wire that ever my father’s fingers put together, I do hate and detest a certain huge old clock of the German fashion, that rings hours and half hours, and quarters and half quarters, as if it were of such consequence that the world should know it was wound up and going. Now, dearest lady, I wish you would only compare that clumsy, clanging, Dutch-looking piece of lumber, with the beautiful timepiece that Master Heriot caused my father to make for your ladyship, which uses to play a hundred merry tunes, and turns out, when it strikes the hour, a whole band of morrice dancers, to trip the hays to the measure.”

“And which of these timepieces goes the truest, Margaret?” said the lady.

“I must confess the old Dutchman has the advantage in that”— said Margaret. “I fancy you are right, madam, and that comparisons are no arguments; at least mine has not brought me through.”

“Upon my word, maiden Margaret,” said the lady, smiling, “you have been of late thinking very much of these matters.”

“Perhaps too much, madam,” said Margaret, so low as only to be heard by the lady, behind the back of whose chair she had now placed herself. The words were spoken very gravely, and accompanied by a half sigh, which did not escape the attention of her to whom they were addressed. The Lady Hermione turned immediately round, and looked earnestly at Margaret, then paused for a moment, and, finally, commanded Monna Paula to carry her frame and embroidery into the antechamber. When they were left alone, she desired her young friend to come from behind the chair on the back of which she still rested, and sit down beside her upon a stool.

“I will remain thus, madam, under your favour,” answered Margaret, without changing her posture; “I would rather you heard me without seeing me.”

“In God’s name, maiden,” returned her patroness, “what is it you can have to say, that may not be uttered face to face, to so true a friend as I am?”

Without making any direct answer, Margaret only replied, “You were right, dearest lady, when you said, I had suffered my feelings too much to engross me of late. I have done very wrong, and you will be angry with me — so will my godfather, but I cannot help it — he must be rescued.”

He?” repeated the lady, with emphasis; “that brief little word does, indeed, so far explain your mystery; — but come from behind the chair, you silly popinjay! I will wager you have suffered yonder gay young apprentice to sit too near your heart. I have not heard you mention young Vincent for many a day — perhaps he has not been out of mouth and out of mind both. Have you been so foolish as to let him speak to you seriously? — I am told he is a bold youth.”

“Not bold enough to say any thing that could displease me, madam,” said Margaret.

“Perhaps, then, you were not displeased,” said the lady; “or perhaps he has not spoken, which would be wiser and better. Be open-hearted, my love — your godfather will soon return, and we will take him into our consultations. If the young man is industrious, and come of honest parentage, his poverty may be no such insurmountable obstacle. But you are both of you very young, Margaret — I know your godfather will expect, that the youth shall first serve out his apprenticeship.”

Margaret had hitherto suffered the lady to proceed, under the mistaken impression which she had adopted, simply because she could not tell how to interrupt her; but pure despite at hearing her last words gave her boldness at length to say “I crave your pardon, madam; but neither the youth you mention, nor any apprentice or master within the city of London —”

“Margaret,” said the lady, in reply, “the contemptuous tone with which you mention those of your own class, (many hundreds if not thousands of whom are in all respects better than yourself, and would greatly honour you by thinking of you,) is methinks, no warrant for the wisdom of your choice — for a choice, it seems, there is. Who is it, maiden, to whom you have thus rashly attached yourself? — rashly, I fear it must be.”

“It is the young Scottish Lord Glenvarloch, madam,” answered Margaret, in a low and modest tone, but sufficiently firm, considering the subject.

“The young Lord of Glenvarloch!” repeated the lady, in great surprise —“Maiden, you are distracted in your wits.”

“I knew you would say so, madam,” answered Margaret. “It is what another person has already told me — it is, perhaps, what all the world would tell me — it is what I am sometimes disposed to tell myself. But look at me, madam, for I will now come before you, and tell me if there is madness or distraction in my look and word, when I repeat to you again, that I have fixed my affections on this young nobleman.”

“If there is not madness in your look or word, maiden, there is infinite folly in what you say,” answered the Lady Hermione, sharply. “When did you ever hear that misplaced love brought any thing but wretchedness? Seek a match among your equals, Margaret, and escape the countless kinds of risk and misery that must attend an affection beyond your degree. — Why do you smile, maiden? Is there aught to cause scorn in what I say?”

“Surely no, madam,” answered Margaret. “I only smiled to think how it should happen, that, while rank made such a wide difference between creatures formed from the same clay, the wit of the vulgar should, nevertheless, jump so exactly the same length with that of the accomplished and the exalted. It is but the variation of the phrase which divides them. Dame Ursley told me the very same thing which your ladyship has but now uttered; only you, madam, talk of countless misery, and Dame Ursley spoke of the gallows, and Mistress Turner, who was hanged upon it.”

“Indeed?” answered the Lady Hermione; “and who may Dame Ursley be, that your wise choice has associated with me in the difficult task of advising a fool?”

“The barber’s wife at next door, madam,” answered Margaret, with feigned simplicity, but far from being sorry at heart, that she had found an indirect mode of mortifying her monitress. “She is the wisest woman that I know, next to your ladyship.”

“A proper confidant,” said the lady, “and chosen with the same delicate sense of what is due to yourself and others! — But what ails you, maiden — where are you going?”

“Only to ask Dame Ursley’s advice,” said Margaret, as if about to depart; “for I see your ladyship is too angry to give me any, and the emergency is pressing.”

“What emergency, thou simple one?” said the lady, in a kinder tone. — “Sit down, maiden, and tell me your tale. It is true you are a fool, and a pettish fool to boot; but then you are a child — an amiable child, with all your self-willed folly, and we must help you, if we can. — Sit down, I say, as you are desired, and you will find me a safer and wiser counseller than the barber-woman. And tell me how you come to suppose, that you have fixed your heart unalterably upon a man whom you have seen, as I think, but once.”

“I have seen him oftener,” said the damsel, looking down; “but I have only spoken to him once. I should have been able to get that once out of my head, though the impression was so deep, that I could even now repeat every trifling word he said; but other things have since riveted it in my bosom for ever.”

“Maiden,” replied the lady, “for ever is the word which comes most lightly on the lips in such circumstances, but which, not the less, is almost the last that we should use. The fashion of this world, its passions, its joys, and its sorrows, pass away like the winged breeze — there is nought for ever but that which belongs to the world beyond the grave.”

“You have corrected me justly, madam,” said Margaret calmly; “I ought only to have spoken of my present state of mind, as what will last me for my lifetime, which unquestionably may be but short.”

“And what is there in this Scottish lord that can rivet what concerns him so closely in your fancy?” said the lady. “I admit him a personable man, for I have seen him; and I will suppose him courteous and agreeable. But what are his accomplishments besides, for these surely are not uncommon attributes.”

“He is unfortunate, madam — most unfortunate — and surrounded by snares of different kinds, ingeniously contrived to ruin his character, destroy his estate, and, perhaps, to reach even his life. These schemes have been devised by avarice originally, but they are now followed close by vindictive ambition, animated, I think, by the absolute and concentrated spirit of malice; for the Lord Dalgarno —”

“Here, Monna Paula — Monna Paula!” exclaimed the Lady Hermione, interrupting her young friend’s narrative. “She hears me not,” she answered, rising and going out, “I must seek her — I will return instantly.” She returned accordingly very soon after. “You mentioned a name which I thought was familiar to me,” she said; “but Monna Paula has put me right. I know nothing of your lord — how was it you named him?”

“Lord Dalgarno,” said Margaret; —“the wickedest man who lives. Under pretence of friendship, he introduced the Lord Glenvarloch to a gambling-house with the purpose of engaging him in deep play; but he with whom the perfidious traitor had to deal, was too virtuous, moderate, and cautious, to be caught in a snare so open. What did they next, but turn his own moderation against him, and persuade others that — because he would not become the prey of wolves, he herded with them for a share of their booty! And, while this base Lord Dalgarno was thus undermining his unsuspecting countryman, he took every measure to keep him surrounded by creatures of his own, to prevent him from attending Court, and mixing with those of his proper rank. Since the Gunpowder Treason, there never was a conspiracy more deeply laid, more basely and more deliberately pursued.”

The lady smiled sadly at Margaret’s vehemence, but sighed the next moment, while she told her young friend how little she knew the world she was about to live in, since she testified so much surprise at finding it full of villainy.

“But by what means,” she added, “could you, maiden, become possessed of the secret views of a man so cautious as Lord Dalgarno — as villains in general are?”

“Permit me to be silent on that subject,” said the maiden; “I could not tell you without betraying others — let it suffice that my tidings are as certain as the means by which I acquired them are secret and sure. But I must not tell them even to you.”

“You are too bold, Margaret,” said the lady, “to traffic in such matters at your early age. It is not only dangerous, but even unbecoming and unmaidenly.”

“I knew you would say that also,” said Margaret, with more meekness and patience than she usually showed on receiving reproof; “but, God knows, my heart acquits me of every other feeling save that of the wish to assist this most innocent and betrayed man. — I contrived to send him warning of his friend’s falsehood; — alas! my care has only hastened his utter ruin, unless speedy aid be found. He charged his false friend with treachery, and drew on him in the Park, and is now liable to the fatal penalty due for breach of privilege of the king’s palace.”

“This is indeed an extraordinary tale,” said Hermione; “is Lord Glenvarloch then in prison?”

“No, madam, thank God, but in the Sanctuary at Whitefriars — it is matter of doubt whether it will protect him in such a case — they speak of a warrant from the Lord Chief Justice — A gentleman of the temple has been arrested, and is in trouble for having assisted him in his flight. — Even his taking temporary refuge in that base place, though from extreme necessity, will be used to the further defaming him. All this I know, and yet I cannot rescue him — cannot rescue him save by your means.”

“By my means, maiden?” said the lady —“you are beside yourself! — What means can I possess in this secluded situation, of assisting this unfortunate nobleman?”

“You have means,” said Margaret, eagerly; “you have those means, unless I mistake greatly, which can do anything — can do everything, in this city, in this world — you have wealth, and the command of a small portion of it will enable me to extricate him from his present danger. He will be enabled and directed how to make his escape — and I—” she paused.

“Will accompany him, doubtless, and reap the fruits of your sage exertions in his behalf?” said the Lady Hermione, ironically.

“May heaven forgive you the unjust thought, lady,” answered Margaret. “I will never see him more — but I shall have saved him, and the thought will make me happy.”

“A cold conclusion to so bold and warm a flame,” said the lady, with a smile which seemed to intimate incredulity.

“It is, however, the only one which I expect, madam — I could almost say the only one which I wish — I am sure I will use no efforts to bring about any other; if I am bold in his cause, I am timorous enough in my own. During our only interview I was unable to speak a word to him. He knows not the sound of my voice — and all that I have risked, and must yet risk, I am doing for one, who, were he asked the question, would say he has long since forgotten that he ever saw, spoke to, or sat beside, a creature of so little signification as I am.”

“This is a strange and unreasonable indulgence of a passion equally fanciful and dangerous,” said Lady Hermione. “You will not assist me, then?” said Margaret; “have good-day, then, madam — my secret, I trust, is safe in such honourable keeping.”

“Tarry yet a little,” said the lady, “and tell me what resource you have to assist this youth, if you were supplied with money to put it in motion.”

“It is superfluous to ask me the question, madam,” answered Margaret, “unless you purpose to assist me; and, if you do so purpose, it is still superfluous. You could not understand the means I must use, and time is too brief to explain.”

“But have you in reality such means?” said the lady.

“I have, with the command of a moderate sum,” answered Margaret Ramsay, “the power of baffling all his enemies — of eluding the passion of the irritated king — the colder but more determined displeasure of the prince — the vindictive spirit of Buckingham, so hastily directed against whomsoever crosses the path of his ambition — the cold concentrated malice of Lord Dalgarno — all, I can baffle them all!”

“But is this to be done without your own personal risk, Margaret?” replied the lady; “for, be your purpose what it will, you are not to peril your own reputation or person, in the romantic attempt of serving another; and I, maiden, am answerable to your godfather — to your benefactor, and my own — not to aid you in any dangerous or unworthy enterprise.”

“Depend upon my word — my oath — dearest lady,” replied the supplicant, “that I will act by the agency of others, and do not myself design to mingle in any enterprise in which my appearance might be either perilous or unwomanly.”

“I know not what to do,” said the Lady Hermione; “it is perhaps incautious and inconsiderate in me to aid so wild a project; yet the end seems honourable, if the means be sure — what is the penalty if he fall into their power?”

“Alas, alas! the loss of his right hand!” replied Margaret, her voice almost stifled with sobs.

“Are the laws of England so cruel? Then there is mercy in heaven alone,” said the lady, “since, even in this free land, men are wolves to each other. — Compose yourself, Margaret, and tell me what money is necessary to secure Lord Glenvarloch’s escape.”

“Two hundred pieces,” replied Margaret; “I would speak to you of restoring them — and I must one day have the power — only that I know — that is, I think — your ladyship is indifferent on that score.”

“Not a word more of it,” said the lady; “call Monna Paula hither.”

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