The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 28

Ye towers of Julius! London’s lasting shame;

With many a foul and midnight murder fed!


Such is the exclamation of Gray. Bandello, long before him, has said something like it; and the same sentiment must, in some shape or other, have frequently occurred to those, who, remembering the fate of other captives in that memorable state-prison, may have had but too much reason to anticipate their own. The dark and low arch, which seemed, like the entrance to Dante’s Hell, to forbid hope of regress — the muttered sounds of the warders, and petty formalities observed in opening and shutting the grated wicket — the cold and constrained salutation of the Lieutenant of the fortress, who showed his prisoner that distant and measured respect which authority pays as a tax to decorum, all struck upon Nigel’s heart, impressing on him the cruel consciousness of captivity.

“I am a prisoner,” he said, the words escaping from him almost unawares; “I am a prisoner, and in the Tower!”

The Lieutenant bowed —“And it is my duty,” he said, “to show your lordship your chamber, where, I am compelled to say, my orders are to place you under some restraint. I will make it as easy as my duty permits.”

Nigel only bowed in return to this compliment, and followed the Lieutenant to the ancient buildings on the western side of the parade, and adjoining to the chapel, used in those days as a state-prison, but in ours as the mess-room of the officers of the guard upon duty at the fortress. The double doors were unlocked, the prisoner ascended a few steps, followed by the Lieutenant, and a warder of the higher class. They entered a large, but irregular, low-roofed, and dark apartment, exhibiting a very scanty proportion of furniture. The warder had orders to light a fire, and attend to Lord Glenvarloch’s commands in all things consistent with his duty; and the Lieutenant, having made his reverence with the customary compliment, that he trusted his lordship would not long remain under his guardianship, took his leave.

Nigel would have asked some questions of the warder, who remained to put the apartment into order, but the man had caught the spirit of his office. He seemed not to hear some of the prisoner’s questions, though of the most ordinary kind, did not reply to others, and when he did speak, it was in a short and sullen tone, which, though not positively disrespectful, was such as at least to encourage no farther communication.

Nigel left him, therefore, to do his work in silence, and proceeded to amuse himself with the melancholy task of deciphering the names, mottoes, verses, and hieroglyphics, with which his predecessors in captivity had covered the walls of their prison-house. There he saw the names of many a forgotten sufferer mingled with others which will continue in remembrance until English history shall perish. There were the pious effusions of the devout Catholic, poured forth on the eve of his sealing his profession at Tyburn, mingled with those of the firm Protestant, about to feed the fires of Smithfield. There the slender hand of the unfortunate Jane Grey, whose fate was to draw tears from future generations, might be contrasted with the bolder touch which impressed deep on the walls the Bear and Ragged Staff, the proud emblem of the proud Dudleys. It was like the roll of the prophet, a record of lamentation and mourning, and yet not unmixed with brief interjections of resignation, and sentences expressive of the firmest resolution.22

In the sad task of examining the miseries of his predecessors in captivity, Lord Glenvarloch was interrupted by the sudden opening of the door of his prison-room. It was the warder, who came to inform him, that, by order of the Lieutenant of the Tower, his lordship was to have the society and attendance of a fellow-prisoner in his place of confinement. Nigel replied hastily, that he wished no attendance, and would rather be left alone; but the warder gave him to understand, with a kind of grumbling civility, that the Lieutenant was the best judge how his prisoners should be accommodated, and that he would have no trouble with the boy, who was such a slip of a thing as was scarce worth turning a key upon. —“There, Giles,” he said, “bring the child in.”

Another warder put the “lad before him” into the room, and, both withdrawing, bolt crashed and chain clanged, as they replaced these ponderous obstacles to freedom. The boy was clad in a grey suit of the finest cloth, laid down with silver lace, with a buff-coloured cloak of the same pattern. His cap, which was a Montero of black velvet, was pulled over his brows, and, with the profusion of his long ringlets, almost concealed his face. He stood on the very spot where the warder had quitted his collar, about two steps from the door of the apartment, his eyes fixed on the ground, and every joint trembling with confusion and terror. Nigel could well have dispensed with his society, but it was not in his nature to behold distress, whether of body or mind, without endeavouring to relieve it.

“Cheer up,” he said, “my pretty lad. We are to be companions, it seems, for a little time — at least I trust your confinement will be short, since you are too young to have done aught to deserve long restraint. Come, come — do not be discouraged. Your hand is cold and trembles? the air is warm too — but it may be the damp of this darksome room. Place you by the fire. — What! weeping-ripe, my little man? I pray you, do not be a child. You have no beard yet, to be dishonoured by your tears, but yet you should not cry like a girl. Think you are only shut up for playing truant, and you can pass a day without weeping, surely.”

The boy suffered himself to be led and seated by the fire, but, after retaining for a long time the very posture which he assumed in sitting down, he suddenly changed it in order to wring his hands with an air of the bitterest distress, and then, spreading them before his face, wept so plentifully, that the tears found their way in floods through his slender fingers.

Nigel was in some degree rendered insensible to his own situation, by his feelings for the intense agony by which so young and beautiful a creature seemed to be utterly overwhelmed; and, sitting down close beside the boy, he applied the most soothing terms which occurred, to endeavour to alleviate his distress; and, with an action which the difference of their age rendered natural, drew his hand kindly along the long hair of the disconsolate child. The lad appeared so shy as even to shrink from this slight approach to familiarity — yet, when Lord Glenvarloch, perceiving and allowing for his timidity, sat down on the farther side of the fire, he appeared to be more at his ease, and to hearken with some apparent interest to the arguments which from time to time Nigel used, to induce him to moderate, at least, the violence of his grief. As the boy listened, his tears, though they continued to flow freely, seemed to escape from their source more easily, his sobs were less convulsive, and became gradually changed into low sighs, which succeeded each other, indicating as much sorrow, perhaps, but less alarm, than his first transports had shown.

“Tell me who and what you are, my pretty boy,” said Nigel. —“Consider me, child, as a companion, who wishes to be kind to you, would you but teach him how he can be so.”

“Sir — my lord, I mean,” answered the boy, very timidly, and in a voice which could scarce be heard even across the brief distance which divided them, “you are very good — and I— am very unhappy —”

A second fit of tears interrupted what else he had intended to say, and it required a renewal of Lord Glenvarloch’s good-natured expostulations and encouragements, to bring him once more to such composure as rendered the lad capable of expressing himself intelligibly. At length, however, he was able to say —“I am sensible of your goodness, my lord — and grateful for it — but I am a poor unhappy creature, and, what is worse, have myself only to thank for my misfortunes.”

“We are seldom absolutely miserable, my young acquaintance,” said Nigel, “without being ourselves more or less responsible for it — I may well say so, otherwise I had not been here to-day — but you are very young, and can have but little to answer for.”

“O sir! I wish I could say so — I have been self-willed and obstinate — and rash and ungovernable — and now — now, how dearly do I pay the price of it!”

“Pshaw, my boy,” replied Nigel; “this must be some childish frolic — some breaking out of bounds — some truant trick — And yet how should any of these have brought you to the Tower? — There is something mysterious about you, young man, which I must inquire into.”

“Indeed, indeed, my lord, there is no harm about me,” said the boy, more moved it would seem to confession by the last words, by which he seemed considerably alarmed, than by all the kind expostulations and arguments which Nigel had previously used. “I am innocent — that is, I have done wrong, but nothing to deserve being in this frightful place.”

“Tell me the truth, then,” said Nigel, in a tone in which command mingled with encouragement; “you have nothing to fear from me, and as little to hope, perhaps — yet, placed as I am, I would know with whom I speak.”

“With an unhappy — boy, sir — and idle and truantly disposed, as your lordship said,” answered the lad, looking up, and showing a countenance in which paleness and blushes succeeded each other, as fear and shamefacedness alternately had influence. “I left my father’s house without leave, to see the king hunt in the Park at Greenwich; there came a cry of treason, and all the gates were shut — I was frightened, and hid myself in a thicket, and I was found by some of the rangers and examined — and they said I gave no good account of myself — and so I was sent hither.”

“I am an unhappy, a most unhappy being,” said Lord Glenvarloch, rising and walking through the apartment; “nothing approaches me but shares my own bad fate! Death and imprisonment dog my steps, and involve all who are found near me. Yet this boy’s story sounds strangely. — You say you were examined, my young friend — Let me pray you to say whether you told your name, and your means of gaining admission into the Park — if so, they surely would not have detained you?”

“O, my lord,” said the boy, “I took care not to tell them the name of the friend that let me in; and as to my father — I would not he knew where I now am for all the wealth in London!”

“But do you not expect,” said Nigel, “that they will dismiss you till you let them know who and what you are?”

“What good will it do them to keep so useless a creature as myself?” said the boy; “they must let me go, were it but out of shame.”

“Do not trust to that — tell me your name and station — I will communicate them to the Lieutenant — he is a man of quality and honour, and will not only be willing to procure your liberation, but also, I have no doubt, will intercede with your father. I am partly answerable for such poor aid as I can afford, to get you out of this embarrassment, since I occasioned the alarm owing to which you were arrested; so tell me your name, and your father’s name.”

“My name to you? O never, never!” answered the boy, in a tone of deep emotion, the cause of which Nigel could not comprehend.

“Are you so much afraid of me, young man,” he replied, “because I am here accused and a prisoner? Consider, a man may be both, and deserve neither suspicion nor restraint. Why should you distrust me? You seem friendless, and I am myself so much in the same circumstances, that I cannot but pity your situation when I reflect on my own. Be wise; I have spoken kindly to you — I mean as kindly as I speak.”

“O, I doubt it not, I doubt it not, my lord,” said the boy, “and I could tell you all — that is, almost all.”

“Tell me nothing, my young friend, excepting what may assist me in being useful to you,” said Nigel.

“You are generous, my lord,” said the boy; “and I am sure — O sure, I might safely trust to your honour — But yet — but yet — I am so sore beset — I have been so rash, so unguarded — I can never tell you of my folly. Besides, I have already told too much to one whose heart I thought I had moved — yet I find myself here.”

“To whom did you make this disclosure?” said Nigel.

“I dare not tell,” replied the youth.

“There is something singular about you, my young friend,” said Lord Glenvarloch, withdrawing with a gentle degree of compulsion the hand with which the boy had again covered his eyes; “do not pain yourself with thinking on your situation just at present — your pulse is high, and your hand feverish — lay yourself on yonder pallet, and try to compose yourself to sleep. It is the readiest and best remedy for the fancies with which you are worrying yourself.”

“I thank you for your considerate kindness, my lord,” said the boy; “with your leave I will remain for a little space quiet in this chair — I am better thus than on the couch. I can think undisturbedly on what I have done, and have still to do; and if God sends slumber to a creature so exhausted, it shall be most welcome.”

So saying, the boy drew his hand from Lord Nigel’s, and, drawing around him and partly over his face the folds of his ample cloak, he resigned himself to sleep or meditation, while his companion, notwithstanding the exhausting scenes of this and the preceding day, continued his pensive walk up and down the apartment.

Every reader has experienced, that times occur, when far from being lord of external circumstances, man is unable to rule even the wayward realm of his own thoughts. It was Nigel’s natural wish to consider his own situation coolly, and fix on the course which it became him as a man of sense and courage to adopt; and yet, in spite of himself, and notwithstanding the deep interest of the critical state in which he was placed, it did so happen that his fellow-prisoner’s situation occupied more of his thoughts than did his own. There was no accounting for this wandering of the imagination, but also there was no striving with it. The pleading tones of one of the sweetest voices he had ever heard, still rung in his ear, though it seemed that sleep had now fettered the tongue of the speaker. He drew near on tiptoe to satisfy himself whether it were so. The folds of the cloak hid the lower part of his face entirely; but the bonnet, which had fallen a little aside, permitted him to see the forehead streaked with blue veins, the closed eyes, and the long silken eyelashes.

“Poor child,” said Nigel to himself, as he looked on him, nestled up as it were in the folds of his mantle, “the dew is yet on thy eyelashes, and thou hast fairly wept thyself asleep. Sorrow is a rough nurse to one so young and delicate as thou art. Peace be to thy slumbers, I will not disturb them. My own misfortunes require my attention, and it is to their contemplation that I must resign myself.”

He attempted to do so, but was crossed at every turn by conjectures which intruded themselves as before, and which all regarded the sleeper rather than himself. He was angry and vexed, and expostulated with himself concerning the overweening interest which he took in the concerns of one of whom he knew nothing, saving that the boy was forced into his company, perhaps as a spy, by those to whose custody he was committed — but the spell could not be broken, and the thoughts which he struggled to dismiss, continued to haunt him.

Thus passed half an hour, or more; at the conclusion of which, the harsh sound of the revolving bolts was again heard, and the voice of the warder announced that a man desired to speak with Lord Glenvarloch. “A man to speak with me, under my present circumstances! — Who can it be?” And John Christie, his landlord of Paul’s Wharf, resolved his doubts, by entering the apartment. “Welcome — most welcome, mine honest landlord!” said Lord Glenvarloch. “How could I have dreamt of seeing you in my present close lodgings?” And at the same time, with the frankness of old kindness, he walked up to Christie and offered his hand; but John started back as from the look of a basilisk.

“Keep your courtesies to yourself, my lord,” said he, gruffly; “I have had as many of them already as may serve me for my life.”

“Why, Master Christie,” said Nigel, “what means this? I trust I have not offended you?”

“Ask me no questions, my lord,” said Christie, bluntly. “I am a man of peace — I came not hither to wrangle with you at this place and season. Just suppose that I am well informed of all the obligements from your honour’s nobleness, and then acquaint me, in as few words as may be, where is the unhappy woman — What have you done with her?”

“What have I done with her!” said Lord Glenvarloch —“Done with whom? I know not what you are speaking of.”

“Oh, yes, my lord,” said Christie; “play surprise as well as you will, you must have some guess that I am speaking of the poor fool that was my wife, till she became your lordship’s light-o’-love.”

“Your wife! Has your wife left you? and, if she has, do you come to ask her of me?”

“Yes, my lord, singular as it may seem,” returned Christie, in a tone of bitter irony, and with a sort of grin widely discording from the discomposure of his features, the gleam of his eye, and the froth which stood on his lip, “I do come to make that demand of your lordship. Doubtless, you are surprised I should take the trouble; but, I cannot tell, great men and little men think differently. She has lain in my bosom, and drunk of my cup; and, such as she is, I cannot forget that — though I will never see her again — she must not starve, my lord, or do worse, to gain bread, though I reckon your lordship may think I am robbing the public in trying to change her courses.”

“By my faith as a Christian, by my honour as a gentleman,” said Lord Glenvarloch, “if aught amiss has chanced with your wife, I know nothing of it. I trust in Heaven you are as much mistaken in imputing guilt to her, as in supposing me her partner in it.”

“Fie! fie! my lord,” said Christie, “why will you make it so tough? She is but the wife of a clod-pated old chandler, who was idiot enough to marry a wench twenty years younger than himself. Your lordship cannot have more glory by it than you have had already; and, as for advantage and solace, I take it Dame Nelly is now unnecessary to your gratification. I should be sorry to interrupt the course of your pleasure; an old wittol should have more consideration of his condition. But, your precious lordship being mewed up here among other choice jewels of the kingdom, Dame Nelly cannot, I take it, be admitted to share the hours of dalliance which —“Here the incensed husband stammered, broke off his tone of irony, and proceeded, striking his staff against the ground —“O that these false limbs of yours, which I wish had been hamstrung when they first crossed my honest threshold, were free from the fetters they have well deserved! I would give you the odds of your youth, and your weapon, and would bequeath my soul to the foul fiend if I, with this piece of oak, did not make you such an example to all ungrateful, pick-thank courtiers, that it should be a proverb to the end of time, how John Christie swaddled his wife’s fine leman!”

“I understand not your insolence,” said Nigel, “but I forgive it, because you labour under some strange delusion. In so far as I can comprehend your vehement charge, it is entirely undeserved on my part. You seem to impute to me the seduction of your wife — I trust she is innocent. For me, at least, she is as innocent as an angel in bliss. I never thought of her — never touched her hand or cheek, save in honourable courtesy.”

“O, ay — courtesy! — that is the very word. She always praised your lordship’s honourable courtesy. Ye have cozened me between ye, with your courtesy. My lord — my lord, you came to us no very wealthy man — you know it. It was for no lucre of gain I took you and your swash-buckler, your Don Diego yonder, under my poor roof. I never cared if the little room were let or no; I could live without it. If you could not have paid for it, you should never have been asked. All the wharf knows John Christie has the means and spirit to do a kindness. When you first darkened my honest doorway, I was as happy as a man need to be, who is no youngster, and has the rheumatism. Nelly was the kindest and best-humoured wench — we might have a word now and then about a gown or a ribbon, but a kinder soul on the whole, and a more careful, considering her years, till you come — and what is she now! — But I will not be a fool to cry, if I can help it. What she is, is not the question, but where she is; and that I must learn, sir, of you.”

“How can you, when I tell you,” replied Nigel, “that I am as ignorant as yourself, or rather much more so? Till this moment, I never heard of any disagreement betwixt your dame and you.”

“That is a lie,” said John Christie, bluntly.

“How, you base villain!” said Lord Glenvarloch —“do you presume on my situation? If it were not that I hold you mad, and perhaps made so by some wrong sustained, you should find my being weaponless were no protection, I would beat your brains out against the wall.”

“Ay, ay,” answered Christie, “bully as ye list. Ye have been at the ordinaries, and in Alsatia, and learned the ruffian’s rant, I doubt not. But I repeat, you have spoken an untruth, when you said you knew not of my wife’s falsehood; for, when you were twitted with it among your gay mates, it was a common jest among you, and your lordship took all the credit they would give you for your gallantry and gratitude.”

There was a mixture of truth in this part of the charge which disconcerted Lord Glenvarloch exceedingly; for he could not, as a man of honour, deny that Lord Dalgarno, and others, had occasionally jested with him on the subject of Dame Nelly, and that, though he had not played exactly le fanfaron des vices qu’il n’avoit pas, he had not at least been sufficiently anxious to clear himself of the suspicion of such a crime to men who considered it as a merit. It was therefore with some hesitation, and in a sort of qualifying tone, that he admitted that some idle jests had passed upon such a supposition, although without the least foundation in truth. John Christie would not listen to his vindication any longer. “By your own account,” he said, “you permitted lies to be told of you injest. How do I know you are speaking truth, now you are serious? You thought it, I suppose, a fine thing to wear the reputation of having dishonoured an honest family — who will not think that you had real grounds for your base bravado to rest upon? I will not believe otherwise for one, and therefore, my lord, mark what I have to say. You are now yourself in trouble — As you hope to come through it safely, and without loss of life and property, tell me where this unhappy woman is. Tell me, if you hope for heaven — tell me, if you fear hell — tell me, as you would not have the curse of an utterly ruined woman, and a broken-hearted man, attend you through life, and bear witness against you at the Great Day, which shall come after death. You are moved, my lord, I see it. I cannot forget the wrong you have done me. I cannot even promise to forgive it — but — tell me, and you shall never see me again, or hear more of my reproaches.”

“Unfortunate man,” said Lord Glenvarloch, “you have said more, far more than enough, to move me deeply. Were I at liberty, I would lend you my best aid to search out him who has wronged you, the rather that I do suspect my having been your lodger has been in some degree the remote cause of bringing the spoiler into the sheepfold.”

“I am glad your lordship grants me so much,” said John Christie, resuming the tone of embittered irony with which he had opened the, singular conversation; “I will spare you farther reproach and remonstrance — your mind is made up, and so is mine. — So, ho, warder!” The warder entered, and John went on — “I want to get out, brother. Look well to your charge — it were better that half the wild beasts in their dens yonder were turned loose upon Tower Hill, than that this same smooth-faced, civil-spoken gentleman, were again returned to honest men’s company!”

So saying, he hastily left the apartment; and Nigel had full leisure to lament the waywardness of his fate, which seemed never to tire of persecuting him for crimes of which he was innocent, and investing him with the appearances of guilt which his mind abhorred. He could not, however, help acknowledging to himself, that all the pain which he might sustain from the present accusation of John Christie, was so far deserved, from his having suffered himself, out of vanity, or rather an unwillingness to encounter ridicule, to be supposed capable of a base inhospitable crime, merely because fools called it an affair of gallantry; and it was no balsam to the wound, when he recollected what Richie had told him of his having been ridiculed behind his back by the gallants of the ordinary, for affecting the reputation of an intrigue which he had not in reality spirit enough to have carried on. His simulation had, in a word, placed him in the unlucky predicament of being rallied as a braggart amongst the dissipated youths, with whom the reality of the amour would have given him credit; whilst, on the other hand, he was branded as an inhospitable seducer by the injured husband, who was obstinately persuaded of his guilt.

22These memorials of illustrious criminals, or of innocent persons who had the fate of such, are still preserved, though at one time, in the course of repairing the rooms, they were in some danger of being whitewashed. They are preserved at present with becoming respect, and have most of them been engraved. — See BAYLEY’S History and Antiquities of the Tower of London.

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