The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 6

O I do know him — tis the mouldy lemon

Which our court wits will wet their lips withal,

When they would sauce their honied conversation

With somewhat sharper flavour — Marry sir,

That virtue’s wellnigh left him — all the juice

That was so sharp and poignant, is squeezed out,

While the poor rind, although as sour as ever,

Must season soon the draff we give our grunters,

For two legg’d things are weary on’t.

The Chamberlain — A Comedy

The good company invited by the hospitable citizen assembled at his house in Lombard Street at the “hollow and hungry hour” of noon, to partake of that meal which divides the day, being about the time when modern persons of fashion, turning themselves upon their pillow, begin to think, not without a great many doubts and much hesitation, that they will by and by commence it. Thither came the young Nigel, arrayed plainly, but in a dress, nevertheless, more suitable to his age and quality than he had formerly worn, accompanied by his servant Moniplies, whose outside also was considerably improved. His solemn and stern features glared forth from under a blue velvet bonnet, fantastically placed sideways on his head — he had a sound and tough coat of English blue broad-cloth, which, unlike his former vestment, would have stood the tug of all the apprentices in Fleet Street. The buckler and broadsword he wore as the arms of his condition, and a neat silver badge, bearing his lord’s arms, announced that he was an appendage of aristocracy. He sat down in the good citizen’s buttery, not a little pleased to find his attendance upon the table in the hall was likely to be rewarded with his share of a meal such as he had seldom partaken of.

Mr. David Ramsay, that profound and ingenious mechanic, was safely conducted to Lombard Street, according to promise, well washed, brushed, and cleaned, from the soot of the furnace and the forge. His daughter, who came with him, was about twenty years old, very pretty, very demure, yet with lively black eyes, that ever and anon contradicted the expression of sobriety, to which silence, reserve, a plain velvet hood, and a cambric ruff, had condemned Mistress Marget, as the daughter of a quiet citizen.

There were also two citizens and merchants of London, men ample in cloak, and many-linked golden chain, well to pass in the world, and experienced in their craft of merchandise, but who require no particular description. There was an elderly clergyman also, in his gown and cassock, a decent venerable man, partaking in his manners of the plainness of the citizens amongst whom he had his cure.

These may be dismissed with brief notice; but not so Sir Mungo Malagrowther, of Girnigo Castle, who claims a little more attention, as an original character of the time in which he flourished.

That good knight knocked at Master Heriot’s door just as the clock began to strike twelve, and was seated in his chair ere the last stroke had chimed. This gave the knight an excellent opportunity of making sarcastic observations on all who came later than himself, not to mention a few rubs at the expense of those who had been so superfluous as to appear earlier.

Having little or no property save his bare designation, Sir Mungo had been early attached to Court in the capacity of whipping-boy, as the office was then called, to King James the Sixth, and, with his Majesty, trained to all polite learning by his celebrated preceptor, George Buchanan. The office of whipping-boy doomed its unfortunate occupant to undergo all the corporeal punishment which the Lord’s Anointed, whose proper person was of course sacred, might chance to incur, in the course of travelling through his grammar and prosody. Under the stern rule, indeed, of George Buchanan, who did not approve of the vicarious mode of punishment, James bore the penance of his own faults, and Mungo Malagrowther enjoyed a sinecure; but James’s other pedagogue, Master Patrick Young, went more ceremoniously to work, and appalled the very soul of the youthful king by the floggings which he bestowed on the whipping-boy, when the royal task was not suitably performed. And be it told to Sir Mungo’s praise, that there were points about him in the highest respect suited to his official situation. He had even in youth a naturally irregular and grotesque set of features, which, when distorted by fear, pain, and anger, looked like one of the whimsical faces which present themselves in a Gothic cornice. His voice also was high-pitched and querulous, so that, when smarting under Master Peter Young’s unsparing inflictions, the expression of his grotesque physiognomy, and the superhuman yells which he uttered, were well suited to produce all the effects on the Monarch who deserved the lash, that could possibly be produced by seeing another and an innocent individual suffering for his delict.

Sir Mungo Malagrowther, for such he became, thus got an early footing at Court, which another would have improved and maintained. But, when he grew too big to be whipped, he had no other means of rendering himself acceptable. A bitter, caustic, and backbiting humour, a malicious wit, and an envy of others more prosperous than the possessor of such amiable qualities, have not, indeed, always been found obstacles to a courtier’s rise; but then they must be amalgamated with a degree of selfish cunning and prudence, of which Sir Mungo had no share. His satire ran riot, his envy could not conceal itself, and it was not long after his majority till he had as many quarrels upon his hands as would have required a cat’s nine lives to answer. In one of these rencontres he received, perhaps we should say fortunately, a wound, which served him as an excuse for answering no invitations of the kind in future. Sir Rullion Rattray, of Ranagullion, cut off, in mortal combat, three of the fingers of his right hand, so that Sir Mungo never could hold sword again. At a later period, having written some satirical verses upon the Lady Cockpen, he received so severe a chastisement from some persons employed for the purpose, that he was found half dead on the spot where they had thus dealt with him, and one of his thighs having been broken, and ill set, gave him a hitch in his gait, with which he hobbled to his grave. The lameness of his leg and hand, besides that they added considerably to the grotesque appearance of this original, procured him in future a personal immunity from the more dangerous consequences of his own humour; and he gradually grew old in the service of the Court, in safety of life and limb, though without either making friends or attaining preferment. Sometimes, indeed, the king was amused with his caustic sallies, but he had never art enough to improve the favourable opportunity; and his enemies (who were, for that matter, the whole Court) always found means to throw him out of favour again. The celebrated Archie Armstrong offered Sir Mungo, in his generosity, a skirt of his own fool’s coat, proposing thereby to communicate to him the privileges and immunities of a professed jester —“For,” said the man of motley, “Sir Mungo, as he goes on just now, gets no more for a good jest than just the king’s pardon for having made it.”

Even in London, the golden shower which fell around him did not moisten the blighted fortunes of Sir Mungo Malagrowther. He grew old, deaf, and peevish — lost even the spirit which had formerly animated his strictures — and was barely endured by James, who, though himself nearly as far stricken in years, retained, to an unusual and even an absurd degree, the desire to be surrounded by young people.

Sir Mungo, thus fallen into the yellow leaf of years and fortune, showed his emaciated form and faded embroidery at Court as seldom as his duty permitted; and spent his time in indulging his food for satire in the public walks, and in the aisles of Saint Paul’s, which were then the general resort of newsmongers and characters of all descriptions, associating himself chiefly with such of his countrymen as he accounted of inferior birth and rank to himself. In this manner, hating and contemning commerce, and those who pursued it, he nevertheless lived a good deal among the Scottish artists and merchants, who had followed the Court to London. To these he could show his cynicism without much offence; for some submitted to his jeers and ill-humour in deference to his birth and knighthood, which in those days conferred high privileges — and others, of more sense, pitied and endured the old man, unhappy alike in his fortunes and his temper.

Amongst the latter was George Heriot, who, though his habits and education induced him to carry aristocratical feelings to a degree which would now be thought extravagant, had too much spirit and good sense to permit himself to be intruded upon to an unauthorized excess, or used with the slightest improper freedom, by such a person as Sir Mungo, to whom he was, nevertheless, not only respectfully civil, but essentially kind, and even generous.

Accordingly, this appeared from the manner in which Sir Mungo Malagrowther conducted himself upon entering the apartment. He paid his respects to Master Heriot, and a decent, elderly, somewhat severe-looking female, in a coif, who, by the name of Aunt Judith, did the honours of his house and table, with little or no portion of the supercilious acidity, which his singular physiognomy assumed when he made his bow successively to David Ramsay and the two sober citizens. He thrust himself into the conversation of the latter, to observe he had heard in Paul’s, that the bankrupt concern of Pindivide, a great merchant — who, as he expressed it, had given the crows a pudding, and on whom he knew, from the same authority, each of the honest citizens has some unsettled claim — was like to prove a total loss —“stock and block, ship and cargo, keel and rigging, all lost, now and for ever.”

The two citizens grinned at each other; but, too prudent to make their private affairs the subject of public discussion, drew their heads together, and evaded farther conversation by speaking in a whisper.

The old Scots knight next attacked the watchmaker with the same disrespectful familiarity. —“Davie,” he said — “Davie, ye donnard auld idiot, have ye no gane mad yet, with applying your mathematical science, as ye call it, to the book of Apocalypse? I expected to have heard ye make out the sign of the beast, as clear as a tout on a bawbee whistle.”

“Why, Sir Mungo,” said the mechanist, after making an effort to recall to his recollection what had been said to him, and by whom, “it may be, that ye are nearer the mark than ye are yoursell aware of; for, taking the ten horns o’ the beast, ye may easily estimate by your digitals —”

“My digits! you d — d auld, rusty, good-for-nothing time-piece!” exclaimed Sir Mungo, while, betwixt jest and earnest, he laid on his hilt his hand, or rather his claw, (for Sir Rullion’s broadsword has abridged it into that form,)—“D’ye mean to upbraid me with my mutilation?”

Master Heriot interfered. “I cannot persuade our friend David,” he said, “that scriptural prophecies are intended to remain in obscurity, until their unexpected accomplishment shall make, as in former days, that fulfilled which was written. But you must not exert your knightly valour on him for all that.”

“By my saul, and it would be throwing it away,” said Sir Mungo, laughing. “I would as soon set out, with hound and horn, to hunt a sturdied sheep; for he is in a doze again, and up to the chin in numerals, quotients, and dividends. — Mistress Margaret, my pretty honey,” for the beauty of the young citizen made even Sir Mungo Malagrowther’s grim features relax themselves a little, “is your father always as entertaining as he seems just now?”

Mistress Margaret simpered, bridled, looked to either side, then straight before her; and, having assumed all the airs of bashful embarrassment and timidity which were necessary, as she thought, to cover a certain shrewd readiness which really belonged to her character, at length replied: “That indeed her father was very thoughtful, but she had heard that he took the habit of mind from her grandfather.”

“Your grandfather!” said Sir Mungo — after doubting if he had heard her aright — “Said she her grandfather! The lassie is distraught! — I ken nae wench on this side of Temple Bar that is derived from so distant a relation.”

“She has got a godfather, however, Sir Mungo,” said George Heriot, again interfering; “and I hope you will allow him interest enough with you, to request you will not put his pretty godchild to so deep a blush.”

“The better — the better,” said Sir Mungo. “It is a credit to her, that, bred and born within the sound of Bow-bell, she can blush for any thing; and, by my saul, Master George,” he continued, chucking the irritated and reluctant damsel under the chin, “she is bonny enough to make amends for her lack of ancestry — at least, in such a region as Cheapside, where, d’ye mind me, the kettle cannot call the porridge-pot —”

The damsel blushed, but not so angrily as before. Master George Heriot hastened to interrupt the conclusion of Sir Mungo’s homely proverb, by introducing him personally to Lord Nigel.

Sir Mungo could not at first understand what his host said — “Bread of Heaven, wha say ye, man?”

Upon the name of Nigel Olifaunt, Lord Glenvarloch, being again hollowed into his ear, he drew up, and, regarding his entertainer with some austerity, rebuked him for not making persons of quality acquainted with each other, that they might exchange courtesies before they mingled with other folks. He then made as handsome and courtly a congee to his new acquaintance as a man maimed in foot and hand could do; and, observing he had known my lord, his father, bid him welcome to London, and hoped he should see him at Court.

Nigel in an instant comprehended, as well from Sir Mungo’s manner, as from a strict compression of their entertainer’s lips, which intimated the suppression of a desire to laugh, that he was dealing with an original of no ordinary description, and accordingly, returned his courtesy with suitable punctiliousness. Sir Mungo, in the meanwhile, gazed on him with much earnestness; and, as the contemplation of natural advantages was as odious to him as that of wealth, or other adventitious benefits, he had no sooner completely perused the handsome form and good features of the young lord, than like one of the comforters of the man of Uz, he drew close up to him, to enlarge on the former grandeur of the Lords of Glenvarloch, and the regret with which he had heard, that their representative was not likely to possess the domains of his ancestry. Anon, he enlarged upon the beauties of the principal mansion of Glenvarloch — the commanding site of the old castle — the noble expanse of the lake, stocked with wildfowl for hawking — the commanding screen of forest, terminating in a mountain-ridge abounding with deer — and all the other advantages of that fine and ancient barony, till Nigel, in spite of every effort to the contrary, was unwillingly obliged to sigh.

Sir Mungo, skilful in discerning when the withers of those he conversed with were wrung, observed that his new acquaintance winced, and would willingly have pressed the discussion; but the cook’s impatient knock upon the dresser with the haft of his dudgeon-knife, now gave a signal loud enough to be heard from the top of the house to the bottom, summoning, at the same time, the serving-men to place the dinner upon the table, and the guests to partake of it.

Sir Mungo, who was an admirer of good cheer — a taste which, by the way, might have some weight in reconciling his dignity to these city visits — was tolled off by the sound, and left Nigel and the other guests in peace, until his anxiety to arrange himself in his due place of pre-eminence at the genial board was duly gratified. Here, seated on the left hand of Aunt Judith, he beheld Nigel occupy the station of yet higher honour on the right, dividing that matron from pretty Mistress Margaret; but he saw this with the more patience, that there stood betwixt him and the young lord a superb larded capon.

The dinner proceeded according to the form of the times. All was excellent of the kind; and, besides the Scottish cheer promised, the board displayed beef and pudding, the statutory dainties of Old England. A small cupboard of plate, very choicely and beautifully wrought, did not escape the compliments of some of the company, and an oblique sneer from Sir Mungo, as intimating the owner’s excellence in his own mechanical craft.

“I am not ashamed of the workmanship, Sir Mungo,” said the honest citizen. “They say, a good cook knows how to lick his own fingers; and, methinks, it were unseemly that I, who have furnished half the cupboards in broad Britain, should have my own covered with paltry pewter.”

The blessing of the clergyman now left the guests at liberty to attack what was placed before them; and the meal went forward with great decorum, until Aunt Judith, in farther recommendation of the capon, assured her company that it was of a celebrated breed of poultry, which she had herself brought from Scotland.

“Then, like some of his countrymen, madam,” said the pitiless Sir Mungo, not without a glance towards his landlord, “he has been well larded in England.”

“There are some others of his countrymen,” answered Master Heriot, “to whom all the lard in England has not been able to render that good office.”

Sir Mungo sneered and reddened, the rest of the company laughed; and the satirist, who had his reasons for not coming to extremity with Master George, was silent for the rest of the dinner.

The dishes were exchanged for confections, and wine of the highest quality and flavour; and Nigel saw the entertainments of the wealthiest burgomasters, which he had witnessed abroad, fairly outshone by the hospitality of a London citizen. Yet there was nothing ostentatious, or which seemed inconsistent with the degree of an opulent burgher.

While the collation proceeded, Nigel, according to the good-breeding of the time, addressed his discourse principally to Mrs. Judith, whom he found to be a woman of a strong Scottish understanding, more inclined towards the Puritans than was her brother George, (for in that relation she stood to him, though he always called her aunt,) attached to him in the strongest degree, and sedulously attentive to all his comforts. As the conversation of this good dame was neither lively nor fascinating, the young lord naturally addressed himself next to the old horologer’s very pretty daughter, who sat upon his left hand. From her, however, there was no extracting any reply beyond the measure of a monosyllable; and when the young gallant had said the best and most complaisant things which his courtesy supplied, the smile that mantled upon her pretty mouth was so slight and evanescent, as scarce to be discernible.

Nigel was beginning to tire of his company, for the old citizens were speaking with his host of commercial matters in language to him totally unintelligible, when Sir Mungo Malagrowther suddenly summoned their attention.

That amiable personage had for some time withdrawn from the company into the recess of a projecting window, so formed and placed as to command a view of the door of the house, and of the street. This situation was probably preferred by Sir Mungo on account of the number of objects which the streets of a metropolis usually offer, of a kind congenial to the thoughts of a splenetic man. What he had hitherto seen passing there, was probably of little consequence; but now a trampling of horse was heard without, and the knight suddenly exclaimed — “By my faith, Master George, you had better go look to shop; for here comes Knighton, the Duke of Buckingham’s groom, and two fellows after him, as if he were my Lord Duke himself.”

“My cash-keeper is below,” said Heriot, without disturbing himself, “and he will let me know if his Grace’s commands require my immediate attention.”

“Umph! — cash-keeper?” muttered Sir Mungo to himself; “he would have had an easy office when I first kend ye. — But,” said he, speaking aloud, “will you not come to the window, at least? for Knighton has trundled a piece of silver-plate into your house — ha! ha! ha! — trundled it upon its edge, as a callan’ would drive a hoop. I cannot help laughing — ha! ha! ha! — at the fellow’s impudence.”

“I believe you could not help laughing,” said George Heriot, rising up and leaving the room, “if your best friend lay dying.”

“Bitter that, my lord — ha?” said Sir Mungo, addressing Nigel. “Our friend is not a goldsmith for nothing — he hath no leaden wit. But I will go down, and see what comes on’t.”

Heriot, as he descended the stairs, met his cash-keeper coming up, with some concern in his face. —“Why, how now, Roberts,” said the goldsmith, “what means all this, man?”

“It is Knighton, Master Heriot, from the Court — Knighton, the Duke’s man. He brought back the salver you carried to Whitehall, flung it into the entrance as if it had been an old pewter platter, and bade me tell you the king would have none of your trumpery.”

“Ay, indeed,” said George Heriot —“None of my trumpery! — Come hither into the compting-room, Roberts. — Sir Mungo,” he added, bowing to the knight, who had joined, and was preparing to follow them, “I pray your forgiveness for an instant.”

In virtue of this prohibition, Sir Mungo, who, as well as the rest of the company, had overheard what passed betwixt George Heriot and his cash-keeper, saw himself condemned to wait in the outer business-room, where he would have endeavoured to slake his eager curiosity by questioning Knighton; but that emissary of greatness, after having added to the uncivil message of his master some rudeness of his own, had again scampered westward, with his satellites at his heels.

In the meanwhile, the name of the Duke of Buckingham, the omnipotent favourite both of the king and the Prince of Wales, had struck some anxiety into the party which remained in the great parlour. He was more feared than beloved, and, if not absolutely of a tyrannical disposition, was accounted haughty, violent, and vindictive. It pressed on Nigel’s heart, that he himself, though he could not conceive how, nor why, might be the original cause of the resentment of the Duke against his benefactor. The others made their comments in whispers, until the sounds reached Ramsay, who had not heard a word of what had previously passed, but, plunged in those studies with which he connected every other incident and event, took up only the catchword, and replied — “The Duke — the Duke of Buckingham — George Villiers — ay — I have spoke with Lambe about him.”

“Our Lord and our Lady! Now, how can you say so, father?” said his daughter, who had shrewdness enough to see that her father was touching upon dangerous ground.

“Why, ay, child,” answered Ramsay; “the stars do but incline, they cannot compel. But well you wot, it is commonly said of his Grace, by those who have the skill to cast nativities, that there was a notable conjunction of Mars and Saturn — the apparent or true time of which, reducing the calculations of Eichstadius made for the latitude of Oranienburgh, to that of London, gives seven hours, fifty-five minutes, and forty-one seconds ——”

“Hold your peace, old soothsayer,” said Heriot, who at that instant entered the room with a calm and steady countenance; “your calculations are true and undeniable when they regard brass and wire, and mechanical force; but future events are at the pleasure of Him who bears the hearts of kings in his hands.”

“Ay, but, George,” answered the watchmaker, “there was a concurrence of signs at this gentleman’s birth, which showed his course would be a strange one. Long has it been said of him, he was born at the very meeting of night and day, and under crossing and contending influences that may affect both us and him.

‘Full moon and high sea,

Great man shalt thou be;

Red dawning, stormy sky,

Bloody death shalt thou die.’”

“It is not good to speak of such things,” said Heriot, “especially of the great; stone walls have ears, and a bird of the air shall carry the matter.”

Several of the guests seemed to be of their host’s opinion. The two merchants took brief leave, as if under consciousness that something was wrong. Mistress Margaret, her body-guard of ‘prentices being in readiness, plucked her father by the sleeve, and, rescuing him from a brown study, (whether referring to the wheels of Time, or to that of Fortune, is uncertain,) wished good-night to her friend Mrs. Judith, and received her godfather’s blessing, who, at the same time, put upon her slender finger a ring of much taste and some value; for he seldom suffered her to leave him without some token of his affection. Thus honourably dismissed, and accompanied by her escort, she set forth on her return to Fleet Street.

Sir Mungo had bid adieu to Master Heriot as he came out from the back compting-room, but such was the interest which he took in the affairs of his friend, that, when Master George went upstairs, he could not help walking into that sanctum sanctorum, to see how Master Roberts was employed. The knight found the cash-keeper busy in making extracts from those huge brass-clasped leathern-bound manuscript folios, which are the pride and trust of dealers, and the dread of customers whose year of grace is out. The good knight leant his elbows on the desk, and said to the functionary in a condoling tone of voice — “What! you have lost a good customer, I fear, Master Roberts, and are busied in making out his bill of charges?”

Now, it chanced that Roberts, like Sir Mungo himself, was a little deaf, and, like Sir Mungo, knew also how to make the most of it; so that he answered at cross purposes — “I humbly crave your pardon, Sir Mungo, for not having sent in your bill of charge sooner, but my master bade me not disturb you. I will bring the items together in a moment.” So saying, he began to turn over the leaves of his book of fate, murmuring, “Repairing ane silver seal-new clasp to his chain of office — ane over-gilt brooch to his hat, being a Saint Andrew’s cross, with thistles — a copper gilt pair of spurs — this to Daniel Driver, we not dealing in the article.”

He would have proceeded; but Sir Mungo, not prepared to endure the recital of the catalogue of his own petty debts, and still less willing to satisfy them on the spot, wished the bookkeeper, cavalierly, good-night, and left the house without farther ceremony. The clerk looked after him with a civil city sneer, and immediately resumed the more serious labours which Sir Mungo’s intrusion had interrupted.

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