The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 22

Chance will not do the work — Chance sends the breeze;

But if the pilot slumber at the helm,

The very wind that wafts us towards the port

May dash us on the shelves. — The steersman’s part is vigilance,

Blow it or rough or smooth.

Old Play.

We left Nigel, whose fortunes we are bound to trace by the engagement contracted in our title-page, sad and solitary in the mansion of Trapbois the usurer, having just received a letter instead of a visit from his friend the Templar, stating reasons why he could not at that time come to see him in Alsatia. So that it appeared that his intercourse with the better and more respectable class of society, was, for the present, entirely cut off. This was a melancholy, and, to a proud mind like that of Nigel, a degrading reflection.

He went to the window of his apartment, and found the street enveloped in one of those thick, dingy, yellow-coloured fogs, which often invest the lower part of London and Westminster. Amid the darkness, dense and palpable, were seen to wander like phantoms a reveller or two, whom the morning had surprised where the evening left them; and who now, with tottering steps, and by an instinct which intoxication could not wholly overcome, were groping the way to their own homes, to convert day into night, for the purpose of sleeping off the debauch which had turned night into day. Although it was broad day in the other parts of the city, it was scarce dawn yet in Alsatia; and none of the sounds of industry or occupation were there heard, which had long before aroused the slumberers in any other quarter. The prospect was too tiresome and disagreeable to detain Lord Glenvarloch at his station, so, turning from the window, he examined with more interest the furniture and appearance of the apartment which he tenanted.

Much of it had been in its time rich and curious — there was a huge four-post bed, with as much carved oak about it as would have made the head of a man-of-war, and tapestry hangings ample enough to have been her sails. There was a huge mirror with a massy frame of gilt brass-work, which was of Venetian manufacture, and must have been worth a considerable sum before it received the tremendous crack, which, traversing it from one corner to the other, bore the same proportion to the surface that the Nile bears to the map of Egypt. The chairs were of different forms and shapes, some had been carved, some gilded, some covered with damasked leather, some with embroidered work, but all were damaged and worm-eaten. There was a picture of Susanna and the Elders over the chimney-piece, which might have been accounted a choice piece, had not the rats made free with the chaste fair one’s nose, and with the beard of one of her reverend admirers.

In a word, all that Lord Glenvarloch saw, seemed to have been articles carried off by appraisement or distress, or bought as pennyworths at some obscure broker’s, and huddled together in the apartment, as in a sale-room, without regard to taste or congruity.

The place appeared to Nigel to resemble the houses near the sea-coast, which are too often furnished with the spoils of wrecked vessels, as this was probably fitted up with the relics of ruined profligates. — “My own skiff is among the breakers,” thought Lord Glenvarloch, “though my wreck will add little to the profits of the spoiler.”

He was chiefly interested in the state of the grate, a huge assemblage of rusted iron bars which stood in the chimney, unequally supported by three brazen feet, moulded into the form of lion’s claws, while the fourth, which had been bent by an accident, seemed proudly uplifted as if to paw the ground; or as if the whole article had nourished the ambitious purpose of pacing forth into the middle of the apartment, and had one foot ready raised for the journey. A smile passed over Nigel’s face as this fantastic idea presented itself to his fancy. —“I must stop its march, however,” he thought; “for this morning is chill and raw enough to demand some fire.”

He called accordingly from the top of a large staircase, with a heavy oaken balustrade, which gave access to his own and other apartments, for the house was old and of considerable size; but, receiving no answer to his repeated summons, he was compelled to go in search of some one who might accommodate him with what he wanted.

Nigel had, according to the fashion of the old world in Scotland, received an education which might, in most particulars, be termed simple, hardy, and unostentatious; but he had, nevertheless, been accustomed to much personal deference, and to the constant attendance and ministry of one or more domestics. This was the universal custom in Scotland, where wages were next to nothing, and where, indeed, a man of title or influence might have as many attendants as he pleased, for the mere expense of food, clothes, and countenance. Nigel was therefore mortified and displeased when he found himself without notice or attendance; and the more dissatisfied, because he was at the same time angry with himself for suffering such a trifle to trouble him at all, amongst matters of more deep concernment. “There must surely be some servants in so large a house as this,” said he, as he wandered over the place, through which he was conducted by a passage which branched off from the gallery. As he went on, he tried the entrance to several apartments, some of which he found were locked and others unfurnished, all apparently unoccupied; so that at length he returned to the staircase, and resolved to make his way down to the lower part of the house, where he supposed he must at least find the old gentleman, and his ill-favoured daughter. With this purpose he first made his entrance into a little low, dark parlour, containing a well-worn leathern easy-chair, before which stood a pair of slippers, while on the left side rested a crutch-handled staff; an oaken table stood before it, and supported a huge desk clamped with iron, and a massive pewter inkstand. Around the apartment were shelves, cabinets, and other places convenient for depositing papers. A sword, musketoon, and a pair of pistols, hung over the chimney, in ostentatious display, as if to intimate that the proprietor would be prompt in the defence of his premises.

“This must be the usurer’s den,” thought Nigel; and he was about to call aloud, when the old man, awakened even by the slightest noise, for avarice seldom sleeps sound, soon was heard from the inner room, speaking in a voice of irritability, rendered more tremulous by his morning cough.

“Ugh, ugh, ugh — who is there? I say — ugh, ugh — who is there? Why, Martha! — ugh! ugh — Martha Trapbois — here be thieves in the house, and they will not speak to me — why, Martha! — thieves, thieves — ugh, ugh, ugh!”

Nigel endeavoured to explain, but the idea of thieves had taken possession of the old man’s pineal gland, and he kept coughing and screaming, and screaming and coughing, until the gracious Martha entered the apartment; and, having first outscreamed her father, in order to convince him that there was no danger, and to assure him that the intruder was their new lodger, and having as often heard her sire ejaculate —“Hold him fast — ugh, ugh — hold him fast till I come,” she at length succeeded in silencing his fears and his clamour, and then coldly and dryly asked Lord Glenvarloch what he wanted in her father’s apartment.

Her lodger had, in the meantime, leisure to contemplate her appearance, which did not by any means improve the idea he had formed of it by candlelight on the preceding evening. She was dressed in what was called a Queen Mary’s ruff and farthingale; not the falling ruff with which the unfortunate Mary of Scotland is usually painted, but that which, with more than Spanish stiffness, surrounded the throat, and set off the morose head, of her fierce namesake, of Smithfield memory. This antiquated dress assorted well with the faded complexion, grey eyes, thin lips, and austere visage of the antiquated maiden, which was, moreover, enhanced by a black hood, worn as her head-gear, carefully disposed so as to prevent any of her hair from escaping to view, probably because the simplicity of the period knew no art of disguising the colour with which time had begun to grizzle her tresses. Her figure was tall, thin, and flat, with skinny arms and hands, and feet of the larger size, cased in huge high-heeled shoes, which added height to a stature already ungainly. Apparently some art had been used by the tailor, to conceal a slight defect of shape, occasioned by the accidental elevation of one shoulder above the other; but the praiseworthy efforts of the ingenious mechanic, had only succeeded in calling the attention of the observer to his benevolent purpose, without demonstrating that he had been able to achieve it.

Such was Mrs. Martha Trapbois, whose dry “What were you seeking here, sir?” fell again, and with reiterated sharpness, on the ear of Nigel, as he gazed upon her presence, and compared it internally to one of the faded and grim figures in the old tapestry which adorned his bedstead. It was, however, necessary to reply, and he answered, that he came in search of the servants, as he desired to have a fire kindled in his apartment on account of the rawness of the morning.

“The woman who does our char-work,” answered Mistress Martha, “comes at eight o’clock-if you want fire sooner, there are fagots and a bucket of sea-coal in the stone-closet at the head of the stair — and there is a flint and steel on the upper shelf — you can light fire for yourself if you will.”

“No — no — no, Martha,” ejaculated her father, who, having donned his rustic tunic, with his hose all ungirt, and his feet slip-shod, hastily came out of the inner apartment, with his mind probably full of robbers, for he had a naked rapier in his hand, which still looked formidable, though rust had somewhat marred its shine. — What he had heard at entrance about lighting a fire, had changed, however, the current of his ideas. “No — no — no,” he cried, and each negative was more emphatic than its predecessor-“The gentleman shall not have the trouble to put on a fire — ugh — ugh. I’ll put it on myself, for a con- si-de-ra-ti-on.”

This last word was a favourite expression with the old gentleman, which he pronounced in a peculiar manner, gasping it out syllable by syllable, and laying a strong emphasis upon the last. It was, indeed, a sort of protecting clause, by which he guarded himself against all inconveniences attendant on the rash habit of offering service or civility of any kind, the which, when hastily snapped at by those to whom they are uttered, give the profferer sometimes room to repent his promptitude.

“For shame, father,” said Martha, “that must not be. Master Grahame will kindle his own fire, or wait till the char-woman comes to do it for him, just as likes him best.”

“No, child — no, child. Child Martha, no,” reiterated the old miser — “no char-woman shall ever touch a grate in my house; they put — ugh, ugh — the faggot uppermost, and so the coal kindles not, and the flame goes up the chimney, and wood and heat are both thrown away. Now, I will lay it properly for the gentleman, for a consideration, so that it shall last — ugh, ugh — last the whole day.” Here his vehemence increased his cough so violently, that Nigel could only, from a scattered word here and there, comprehend that it was a recommendation to his daughter to remove the poker and tongs from the stranger’s fireside, with an assurance, that, when necessary, his landlord would be in attendance to adjust it himself, “for a consideration.”

Martha paid as little attention to the old man’s injunctions as a predominant dame gives to those of a henpecked husband. She only repeated, in a deeper and more emphatic tone of censure — “For shame, father — for shame!” then, turning to her guest, said, with her usual ungraciousness of manner —“Master Grahame — it is best to be plain with you at first. My father is an old, a very old man, and his wits, as you may see, are somewhat weakened — though I would not advise you to make a bargain with him, else you may find them too sharp for your own. For myself, I am a lone woman, and, to say truth, care little to see or converse with any one. If you can be satisfied with house-room, shelter, and safety, it will be your own fault if you have them not, and they are not always to be found in this unhappy quarter. But, if you seek deferential observance and attendance, I tell you at once you will not find them here.”

“I am not wont either to thrust myself upon acquaintance, madam, or to give trouble,” said the guest; “nevertheless, I shall need the assistance of a domestic to assist me to dress — Perhaps you can recommend me to such?”

“Yes, to twenty,” answered Mistress Martha, “who will pick your purse while they tie your points, and cut your throat while they smooth your pillow.”

“I will be his servant, myself,” said the old man, whose intellect, for a moment distanced, had again, in some measure, got up with the conversation. “I will brush his cloak — ugh, ugh — and tie his points — ugh, ugh — and clean his shoes — ugh — and run on his errands with speed and safety — ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh — for a consideration.”

“Good-morrow to you, sir,” said Martha, to Nigel, in a tone of direct and positive dismissal. “It cannot be agreeable to a daughter that a stranger should hear her father speak thus. If you be really a gentleman, you will retire to your own apartment.”

“I will not delay a moment,” said Nigel, respectfully, for he was sensible that circumstances palliated the woman’s rudeness. “I would but ask you, if seriously there can be danger in procuring the assistance of a serving-man in this place?”

“Young gentleman,” said Martha, “you must know little of Whitefriars to ask the question. We live alone in this house, and seldom has a stranger entered it; nor should you, to be plain, had my will been consulted. Look at the door — see if that of a castle can be better secured; the windows of the first floor are grated on the outside, and within, look to these shutters.”

She pulled one of them aside, and showed a ponderous apparatus of bolts and chains for securing the window-shutters, while her father, pressing to her side, seized her gown with a trembling hand, and said, in a low whisper, “Show not the trick of locking and undoing them. Show him not the trick on’t, Martha — ugh, ugh — on no consideration.” Martha went on, without paying him any attention.

“And yet, young gentleman, we have been more than once like to find all these defences too weak to protect our lives; such an evil effect on the wicked generation around us hath been made by the unhappy report of my poor father’s wealth.”

“Say nothing of that, housewife,” said the miser, his irritability increased by the very supposition of his being wealthy —“Say nothing of that, or I will beat thee, housewife — beat thee with my staff, for fetching and carrying lies that will procure our throats to be cut at last — ugh, ugh. — I am but a poor man,” he continued, turning to Nigel —“a very poor man, that am willing to do any honest turn upon earth, for a modest consideration.”

“I therefore warn you of the life you must lead, young gentleman,” said Martha; “the poor woman who does the char-work will assist you so far as in her power, but the wise man is his own best servant and assistant.”

“It is a lesson you have taught me, madam, and I thank you for it — I will assuredly study it at leisure.”

“You will do well,” said Martha; “and as you seem thankful for advice, I, though I am no professed counsellor of others, will give you more. Make no intimacy with any one in Whitefriars — borrow no money, on any score, especially from my father, for, dotard as he seems, he will make an ass of you. Last, and best of all, stay here not an instant longer than you can help it. Farewell, sir.”

“A gnarled tree may bear good fruit, and a harsh nature may give good counsel,” thought the Lord of Glenvarloch, as he retreated to his own apartment, where the same reflection occurred to him again and again, while, unable as yet to reconcile himself to the thoughts of becoming his own fire-maker, he walked up and down his bedroom, to warm himself by exercise.

At length his meditations arranged themselves in the following soliloquy — by which expression I beg leave to observe once for all, that I do not mean that Nigel literally said aloud with his bodily organs, the words which follow in inverted commas, (while pacing the room by himself,) but that I myself choose to present to my dearest reader the picture of my hero’s mind, his reflections and resolutions, in the form of a speech, rather than in that of a narrative. In other words, I have put his thoughts into language; and this I conceive to be the purpose of the soliloquy upon the stage as well as in the closet, being at once the most natural, and perhaps the only way of communicating to the spectator what is supposed to be passing in the bosom of the scenic personage. There are no such soliloquies in nature, it is true, but unless they were received as a conventional medium of communication betwixt the poet and the audience, we should reduce dramatic authors to the recipe of Master Puff, who makes Lord Burleigh intimate a long train of political reasoning to the audience, by one comprehensive shake of his noddle. In narrative, no doubt, the writer has the alternative of telling that his personages thought so and so, inferred thus and thus, and arrived at such and such a conclusion; but the soliloquy is a more concise and spirited mode of communicating the same information; and therefore thus communed, or thus might have communed, the Lord of Glenvarloch with his own mind.

“She is right, and has taught me a lesson I will profit by. I have been, through my whole life, one who leant upon others for that assistance, which it is more truly noble to derive from my own exertions. I am ashamed of feeling the paltry inconvenience which long habit had led me to annex to the want of a servant’s assistance — I am ashamed of that; but far, far more am I ashamed to have suffered the same habit of throwing my own burden on others, to render me, since I came to this city, a mere victim of those events, which I have never even attempted to influence — a thing never acting, but perpetually acted upon — protected by one friend, deceived by another; but in the advantage which I received from the one, and the evil I have sustained from the other, as passive and helpless as a boat that drifts without oar or rudder at the mercy of the winds and waves. I became a courtier, because Heriot so advised it — a gamester, because Dalgarno so contrived it — an Alsatian, because Lowestoffe so willed it. Whatever of good or bad has befallen me, has arisen out of the agency of others, not from my own. My father’s son must no longer hold this facile and puerile course. Live or die, sink or swim, Nigel Olifaunt, from this moment, shall owe his safety, success, and honour, to his own exertions, or shall fall with the credit of having at least exerted his own free agency. I will write it down in my tablets, in her very words — ‘The wise man is his own best assistant.’”

He had just put his tablets in his pocket when the old charwoman, who, to add to her efficiency, was sadly crippled by rheumatism, hobbled into the room, to try if she could gain a small gratification by waiting on the stranger. She readily undertook to get Lord Glenvarloch’s breakfast, and as there was an eating-house at the next door, she succeeded in a shorter time than Nigel had augured.

As his solitary meal was finished, one of the Temple porters, or inferior officers, was announced, as seeking Master Grahame, on the part of his friend, Master Lowestoffe; and, being admitted by the old woman to his apartment, he delivered to Nigel a small mail-trunk, with the clothes he had desired should be sent to him, and then, with more mystery, put into his hand a casket, or strong-boy, which he carefully concealed beneath his cloak. “I am glad to be rid on’t,” said the fellow, as he placed it on the table.

“Why, it is surely not so very heavy,” answered Nigel, “and you are a stout young man.”

“Ay, sir,” replied the fellow; “but Samson himself would not have carried such a matter safely through Alsatia, had the lads of the Huff known what it was. Please to look into it, sir, and see all is right — I am an honest fellow, and it comes safe out of my hands. How long it may remain so afterwards, will depend on your own care. I would not my good name were to suffer by any after-clap.”

To satisfy the scruples of the messenger, Lord Glenvarloch opened the casket in his presence, and saw that his small stock of money, with two or three valuable papers which it contained, and particularly the original sign-manual which the king had granted in his favour, were in the same order in which he had left them. At the man’s further instance, he availed himself of the writing materials which were in the casket, in order to send a line to Master Lowestoffe, declaring that his property had reached him in safety. He added some grateful acknowledgments for Lowestoffe’s services, and, just as he was sealing and delivering his billet to the messenger, his aged landlord entered the apartment. His threadbare suit of black clothes was now somewhat better arranged than they had been in the dishabille of his first appearance, and his nerves and intellects seemed to be less fluttered; for, without much coughing or hesitation, he invited Nigel to partake of a morning draught of wholesome single ale, which he brought in a large leathern tankard, or black-jack, carried in the one hand, while the other stirred it round with a sprig of rosemary, to give it, as the old man said, a flavour.

Nigel declined the courteous proffer, and intimated by his manner, while he did so, that he desired no intrusion on the privacy of his own apartment; which, indeed, he was the more entitled to maintain, considering the cold reception he had that morning met with when straying from its precincts into those of his landlord. But the open casket contained matter, or rather metal, so attractive to old Trapbois, that he remained fixed, like a setting-dog at a dead point, his nose advanced, and one hand expanded like the lifted forepaw, by which that sagacious quadruped sometimes indicates that it is a hare which he has in the wind. Nigel was about to break the charm which had thus arrested old Trapbois, by shutting the lid of the casket, when his attention was withdrawn from him by the question of the messenger, who, holding out the letter, asked whether he was to leave it at Mr. Lowestoffe’s chambers in the Temple, or carry it to the Marshalsea?

“The Marshalsea?” repeated Lord Glenvarloch; “what of the Marshalsea?”

“Why, sir,” said the man, “the poor gentleman is laid up there in lavender, because, they say, his own kind heart led him to scald his fingers with another man’s broth.”

Nigel hastily snatched back the letter, broke the seal, joined to the contents his earnest entreaty that he might be instantly acquainted with the cause of his confinement, and added, that, if it arose out of his own unhappy affair, it would be of a brief duration, since he had, even before hearing of a reason which so peremptorily demanded that he should surrender himself, adopted the resolution to do so, as the manliest and most proper course which his ill fortune and imprudence had left in his own power. He therefore conjured Mr. Lowestoffe to have no delicacy upon this score, but, since his surrender was what he had determined upon as a sacrifice due to his own character, that he would have the frankness to mention in what manner it could be best arranged, so as to extricate him, Lowestoffe, from the restraint to which the writer could not but fear his friend had been subjected, on account of the generous interest which he had taken in his concerns. The letter concluded, that the writer would suffer twenty-four hours to elapse in expectation of hearing from him, and, at the end of that period, was determined to put his purpose in execution. He delivered the billet to the messenger, and, enforcing his request with a piece of money, urged him, without a moment’s delay, to convey it to the hands of Master Lowestoffe.

“I— I— I— will carry it to him myself,” said the old usurer, “for half the consideration.”

The man who heard this attempt to take his duty and perquisites over his head, lost no time in pocketing the money, and departed on his errand as fast as he could.

“Master Trapbois,” said Nigel, addressing the old man somewhat impatiently, “had you any particular commands for me?”

“I— I— came to see if you rested well,” answered the old man; “and — if I could do anything to serve you, on any consideration.”

“Sir, I thank you,” said Lord Glenvarloch — I thank you;” and, ere he could say more, a heavy footstep was heard on the stair.

“My God!” exclaimed the old man, starting up —“Why, Dorothy — char-woman — why, daughter — draw bolt, I say, housewives — the door hath been left a-latch!”

The door of the chamber opened wide, and in strutted the portly bulk of the military hero whom Nigel had on the preceding evening in vain endeavoured to recognise.

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