The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 33

—-I’ll play the eavesdropper.

Richard III., Act V., Scene 3.

James had no sooner resumed his seat at the council-board than he began to hitch in his chair, cough, use his handkerchief, and make other intimations that he meditated a long speech. The council composed themselves to the beseeming degree of attention. Charles, as strict in his notions of decorum, as his father was indifferent to it, fixed himself in an attitude of rigid and respectful attention, while the haughty favourite, conscious of his power over both father and son, stretched himself more easily on his seat, and, in assuming an appearance of listening, seemed to pay a debt to ceremonial rather than to duty.

“I doubt not, my lords,” said the Monarch, “that some of you may be thinking the hour of refection is past, and that it is time to ask with the slave in the comedy — Quid de symbolo? — Nevertheless, to do justice and exercise judgment is our meat and drink; and now we are to pray your wisdom to consider the case of this unhappy youth, Lord Glenvarloch, and see whether, consistently with our honour, any thing can be done in his favour.”

“I am surprised at your Majesty’s wisdom making the inquiry,” said the Duke; “it is plain this Dalgarno hath proved one of the most insolent villains on earth, and it must therefore be clear, that if Lord Glenvarloch had run him through the body, there would but have been out of the world a knave who had lived in it too long. I think Lord Glenvarloch hath had much wrong; and I regret that, by the persuasions of this false fellow, I have myself had some hand in it.”

“Ye speak like a child, Steenie — I mean my Lord of Buckingham,” answered the king, “and as one that does not understand the logic of the schools; for an action may be inconsequential or even meritorious, quoad hominem, that is, as touching him upon whom it is acted; and yet most criminal, quoad locum, or considering the place wherein it is done; as a man may lawfully dance Chrighty Beardie or any other dance in a tavern, but not inter parietes ecclesiae. So that, though it may have been a good deed to have sticked Lord Dalgarno, being such as he has shown himself, anywhere else, yet it fell under the plain statute, when violence was offered within the verge of the Court. For, let me tell you, my lords, the statute against striking would be of no small use in our Court, if it could be eluded by justifying the person stricken to be a knave. It is much to be lamented that I ken nae Court in Christendom where knaves are not to be found; and if men are to break the peace under pretence of beating them, why, it will rain Jeddart staves26 in our very ante-chamber.”

“What your Majesty says,” replied Prince Charles, “is marked with your usual wisdom — the precincts of palaces must be sacred as well as the persons of kings, which are respected even in the most barbarous nations, as being one step only beneath their divinities. But your Majesty’s will can control the severity of this and every other law, and it is in your power, on consideration of his case, to grant the rash young man a free pardon.”

Rem acu tetigisti, Carole, mi puerule,” answered the king; “and know, my lords, that we have, by a shrewd device and gift of our own, already sounded the very depth of this Lord Glenvarloch’s disposition. I trow there be among you some that remember my handling in the curious case of my Lady Lake, and how I trimmed them about the story of hearkening behind the arras. Now this put me to cogitation, and I remembered me of having read that Dionysius, King of Syracuse, whom historians call Tyrannos, which signifieth not in the Greek tongue, as in ours, a truculent usurper, but a royal king who governs, it may be, something more strictly than we and other lawful monarchs, whom the ancients termed Basileis — Now this Dionysius of Syracuse caused cunning workmen to build for himself a lugg — D’ye ken what that is, my Lord Bishop?”

“A cathedral, I presume to guess,” answered the Bishop.

“What the deil, man — I crave your lordship’s pardon for swearing — but it was no cathedral — only a lurking-place called the king’s lugg, or ear, where he could sit undescried, and hear the converse of his prisoners. Now, sirs, in imitation of this Dionysius, whom I took for my pattern, the rather that he was a great linguist and grammarian, and taught a school with good applause after his abdication, (either he or his successor of the same name, it matters not whilk)— I have caused them to make a lugg up at the state-prison of the Tower yonder, more like a pulpit than a cathedral, my Lord Bishop — and communicating with the arras behind the Lieutenant’s chamber, where we may sit and privily hear the discourse of such prisoners as are pent up there for state-offences, and so creep into the very secrets of our enemies.”

The Prince cast a glance towards the Duke, expressive of great vexation and disgust. Buckingham shrugged his shoulders, but the motion was so slight as to be almost imperceptible.

“Weel, my lords, ye ken the fray at the hunting this morning — I shall not get out of the trembling exies until I have a sound night’s sleep — just after that, they bring ye in a pretty page that had been found in the Park. We were warned against examining him ourselves by the anxious care of those around us; nevertheless, holding our life ever at the service of these kingdoms, we commanded all to avoid the room, the rather that we suspected this boy to be a girl. What think ye, my lords? — few of you would have thought I had a hawk’s eye for sic gear; but we thank God, that though we are old, we know so much of such toys as may beseem a man of decent gravity. Weel, my lords, we questioned this maiden in male attire ourselves, and I profess it was a very pretty interrogatory, and well followed. For, though she at first professed that she assumed this disguise in order to countenance the woman who should present us with the Lady Hermione’s petition, for whom she professed entire affection; yet when we, suspecting anguis in herba, did put her to the very question, she was compelled to own a virtuous attachment for Glenvarlochides, in such a pretty passion of shame and fear, that we had much ado to keep our own eyes from keeping company with hers in weeping. Also, she laid before us the false practices of this Dalgarno towards Glenvarlochides, inveigling him into houses of ill resort, and giving him evil counsel under pretext of sincere friendship, whereby the inexperienced lad was led to do what was prejudicial to himself, and offensive to us. But, however prettily she told her tale, we determined not altogether to trust to her narration, but rather to try the experiment whilk we had devised for such occasions. And having ourselves speedily passed from Greenwich to the Tower, we constituted ourselves eavesdropper, as it is called, to observe what should pass between Glenvarlochides and his page, whom we caused to be admitted to his apartment, well judging that if they were of counsel together to deceive us, it could not be but something of it would spunk out — And what think ye we saw, my lords? — Naething for you to sniggle and laugh at, Steenie — for I question if you could have played the temperate and Christian-like part of this poor lad Glenvarloch. He might be a Father of the Church in comparison of you, man. — And then, to try his patience yet farther, we loosed on him a courtier and a citizen, that is Sir Mungo Malagrowther and our servant George Heriot here, wha dang the poor lad about, and didna greatly spare our royal selves. — You mind, Geordie, what you said about the wives and concubines? but I forgie ye, man — nae need of kneeling, I forgie ye — the readier, that it regards a certain particular, whilk, as it added not much to Solomon’s credit, the lack of it cannot be said to impinge on ours. Aweel, my lords, for all temptation of sore distress and evil ensample, this poor lad never loosed his tongue on us to say one unbecoming word — which inclines us the rather, acting always by your wise advice, to treat this affair of the Park as a thing done in the heat of blood, and under strong provocation, and therefore to confer our free pardon on Lord Glenvarloch.”

“I am happy your gracious Majesty,” said the Duke of Buckingham, “has arrived at that conclusion, though I could never have guessed at the road by which you attained it.”

“I trust,” said Prince Charles, “that it is not a path which your Majesty will think it consistent with your high dignity to tread frequently.”

“Never while I live again, Baby Charles, that I give you my royal word on. They say that hearkeners hear ill tales of themselves — by my saul, my very ears are tingling wi’ that auld sorrow Sir Mungo’s sarcasms. He called us close-fisted, Steenie — I am sure you can contradict that. But it is mere envy in the auld mutilated sinner, because he himself has neither a noble to hold in his loof, nor fingers to close on it if he had.” Here the king lost recollection of Sir Mungo’s irreverence in chuckling over his own wit, and only farther alluded to it by saying — “We must give the old maunderer bos in linguam — something to stop his mouth, or he will rail at us from Dan to Beersheba. — And now, my lords, let our warrant of mercy to Lord Glenvarloch be presently expedited, and he put to his freedom; and as his estate is likely to go so sleaveless a gate, we will consider what means of favour we can show him. — My lords, I wish you an appetite to an early supper — for our labours have approached that term. — Baby Charles and Steenie, you will remain till our couchee. — My Lord Bishop, you will be pleased to stay to bless our meat. — Geordie Heriot, a word with you apart.”

His Majesty then drew the citizen into a corner, while the counsellors, those excepted who had been commanded to remain, made their obeisance, and withdrew. “Geordie,” said the king, “my good and trusty servant”— Here he busied his fingers much with the points and ribbons of his dress — “Ye see that we have granted, from our own natural sense of right and justice, that which yon long-backed fallow, Moniplies I think they ca’ him, proffered to purchase from us with a mighty bribe; whilk we refused, as being a crowned king, who wad neither sell our justice nor our mercy for pecuniar consideration. Now, what think ye should be the upshot of this?”

“My Lord Glenvarloch’s freedom, and his restoration to your Majesty’s favour,” said Heriot.

“I ken that,” said the king, peevishly. “Ye are very dull to-day. I mean, what do you think this fallow Moniplies should think about the matter?”

“Surely that your Majesty is a most good and gracious sovereign,” answered Heriot.

“We had need to be gude and gracious baith,” said the king, still more pettishly, “that have idiots about us that cannot understand what we mint at, unless we speak it out in braid Lowlands. See this chield Moniplies, sir, and tell him what we have done for Lord Glenvarloch, in whom he takes such part, out of our own gracious motion, though we refused to do it on ony proffer of private advantage. Now, you may put it till him, as if of your own mind, whether it will be a gracious or a dutiful part in him, to press us for present payment of the two or three hundred miserable pounds for whilk we were obliged to opignorate our jewels? Indeed, mony men may think ye wad do the part of a good citizen, if you took it on yourself to refuse him payment, seeing he hath had what he professed to esteem full satisfaction, and considering, moreover, that it is evident he hath no pressing need of the money, whereof we have much necessity.”

George Heriot sighed internally. “O my Master,” thought he —“my dear Master, is it then fated you are never to indulge any kingly or noble sentiment, without its being sullied by some afterthought of interested selfishness!”

The king troubled himself not about what he thought, but taking him by the collar, said — “Ye ken my meaning now, Jingler — awa wi’ ye. You are a wise man — manage it your ain gate — but forget not our present straits.” The citizen made his obeisance, and withdrew.

“And now, bairns,” said the king, “what do you look upon each other for — and what have you got to ask of your dear dad and gossip?”

“Only,” said the Prince, “that it would please your Majesty to command the lurking-place at the prison to be presently built up — the groans of a captive should not be brought in evidence against him.”

“What! build up my lugg, Baby Charles? And yet, better deaf than hear ill tales of oneself. So let them build it up, hard and fast, without delay, the rather that my back is sair with sitting in it for a whole hour. — And now let us see what the cooks have been doing for us, bonny bairns.”

26The old-fashioned weapon called the Jeddart staff was a species of battle-axe. Of a very great tempest, it is said, in the south of Scotland, that it rains Jeddart staffs, as in England the common people talk of its raining cats and dogs.

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