The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 7

Things needful we have thought on; but the thing

Of all most needful — that which Scripture terms,

As if alone it merited regard,

The ONE thing needful — that’s yet unconsider’d.

The Chamberlain.

When the rest of the company had taken their departure from Master Heriot’s house, the young Lord of Glenvarloch also offered to take leave; but his host detained him for a few minutes, until all were gone excepting the clergyman.

“My lord,” then said the worthy citizen, “we have had our permitted hour of honest and hospitable pastime, and now I would fain delay you for another and graver purpose, as it is our custom, when we have the benefit of good Mr. Windsor’s company, that he reads the prayers of the church for the evening before we separate. Your excellent father, my lord, would not have departed before family worship — I hope the same from your lordship.”

“With pleasure, sir,” answered Nigel; “and you add in the invitation an additional obligation to those with which you have loaded me. When young men forget what is their duty, they owe deep thanks to the friend who will remind them of it.”

While they talked together in this manner, the serving-men had removed the folding-tables, brought forward a portable reading-desk, and placed chairs and hassocks for their master, their mistress, and the noble stranger. Another low chair, or rather a sort of stool, was placed close beside that of Master Heriot; and though the circumstance was trivial, Nigel was induced to notice it, because, when about to occupy that seat, he was prevented by a sign from the old gentleman, and motioned to another of somewhat more elevation. The clergyman took his station behind the reading-desk. The domestics, a numerous family both of clerks and servants, including Moniplies, attended, with great gravity, and were accommodated with benches.

The household were all seated, and, externally at least, composed to devout attention, when a low knock was heard at the door of the apartment; Mrs. Judith looked anxiously at her brother, as if desiring to know his pleasure. He nodded his head gravely, and looked to the door. Mrs. Judith immediately crossed the chamber, opened the door, and led into the apartment a beautiful creature, whose sudden and singular appearance might have made her almost pass for an apparition. She was deadly pale-there was not the least shade of vital red to enliven features, which were exquisitely formed, and might, but for that circumstance, have been termed transcendently beautiful. Her long black hair fell down over her shoulders and down her back, combed smoothly and regularly, but without the least appearance of decoration or ornament, which looked very singular at a period when head-gear, as it was called, of one sort or other, was generally used by all ranks. Her dress was of white, of the simplest fashion, and hiding all her person excepting the throat, face, and hands. Her form was rather beneath than above the middle size, but so justly proportioned and elegantly made, that the spectator’s attention was entirely withdrawn from her size. In contradiction of the extreme plainness of all the rest of her attire, she wore a necklace which a duchess might have envied, so large and lustrous were the brilliants of which it was composed; and around her waist a zone of rubies of scarce inferior value.

When this singular figure entered the apartment, she cast her eyes on Nigel, and paused, as if uncertain whether to advance or retreat. The glance which she took of him seemed to be one rather of uncertainty and hesitation, than of bashfulness or timidity. Aunt Judith took her by the hand, and led her slowly forward — her dark eyes, however, continued to be fixed on Nigel, with an expression of melancholy by which he felt strangely affected. Even when she was seated on the vacant stool, which was placed there probably for her accommodation, she again looked on him more than once with the same pensive, lingering, and anxious expression, but without either shyness or embarrassment, not even so much as to call the slightest degree of complexion into her cheek.

So soon as this singular female had taken up the prayer-book, which was laid upon her cushion, she seemed immersed in devotional duty; and although Nigel’s attention to the service was so much disturbed by this extraordinary apparition, that he looked towards her repeatedly in the course of the service, he could never observe that her eyes or her thoughts strayed so much as a single moment from the task in which she was engaged. Nigel himself was less attentive, for the appearance of this lady seemed so extraordinary, that, strictly as he had been bred up by his father to pay the most reverential attention during performance of divine service, his thoughts in spite of himself were disturbed by her presence, and he earnestly wished the prayers were ended, that his curiosity might obtain some gratification. When the service was concluded, and each had remained, according to the decent and edifying practice of the church, concentrated in mental devotion for a short space, the mysterious visitant arose ere any other person stirred; and Nigel remarked that none of the domestics left their places, oreven moved, until she had first kneeled on one knee to Heriot, who seemed to bless her with his hand laid on her head, and a melancholy solemnity of look and action. She then bended her body, but without kneeling, to Mrs. Judith, and having performed these two acts of reverence, she left the room; yet just in the act of her departure, she once more turned her penetrating eyes on Nigel with a fixed look, which compelled him to turn his own aside. When he looked towards her again, he saw only the skirt of her white mantle as she left the apartment.

The domestics then rose and dispersed themselves — wine, and fruit, and spices, were offered to Lord Nigel and to the clergyman, and the latter took his leave. The young lord would fain have accompanied him, in hope to get some explanation of the apparition which he had beheld, but he was stopped by his host, who requested to speak with him in his compting-room.

“I hope, my lord,” said the citizen, “that your preparations for attending Court are in such forwardness that you can go thither the day after to-morrow. It is, perhaps, the last day, for some time, that his Majesty will hold open Court for all who have pretensions by birth, rank, or office to attend upon him. On the subsequent day he goes to Theobald’s, where he is so much occupied with hunting and other pleasures, that he cares not to be intruded on.”

“I shall be in all outward readiness to pay my duty,” said the young nobleman, “yet I have little heart to do it. The friends from whom I ought to have found encouragement and protection, have proved cold and false — I certainly will not trouble them for their countenance on this occasion — and yet I must confess my childish unwillingness to enter quite alone upon so new a scene.”

“It is bold of a mechanic like me to make such an offer to a nobleman,” said Heriot; “but I must attend at Court to-morrow. I can accompany you as far as the presence-chamber, from my privilege as being of the household. I can facilitate your entrance, should you find difficulty, and I can point out the proper manner and time of approaching the king. But I do not know,” he added, smiling, “whether these little advantages will not be overbalanced by the incongruity of a nobleman receiving them from the hands of an old smith.”

“From the hands rather of the only friend I have found in London,” said Nigel, offering his hand.

“Nay, if you think of the matter in that way,” replied the honest citizen, “there is no more to be said — I will come for you to-morrow, with a barge proper to the occasion. — But remember, my good young lord, that I do not, like some men of my degree, wish to take opportunity to step beyond it, and associate with my superiors in rank, and therefore do not fear to mortify my presumption, by suffering me to keep my distance in the presence, and where it is fitting for both of us to separate; and for what remains, most truly happy shall I be in proving of service to the son of my ancient patron.”

The style of conversation led so far from the point which had interested the young nobleman’s curiosity, that there was no returning to it that night. He therefore exchanged thanks and greetings with George Heriot, and took his leave, promising to be equipped and in readiness to embark with him on the second successive morning at ten o’clock.

The generation of linkboys, celebrated by Count Anthony Hamilton, as peculiar to London, had already, in the reign of James I., begun their functions, and the service of one of them with his smoky torch, had been secured to light the young Scottish lord and his follower to their lodgings, which, though better acquainted than formerly with the city, they might in the dark have run some danger of missing. This gave the ingenious Mr. Moniplies an opportunity of gathering close up to his master, after he had gone through the form of slipping his left arm into the handles of his buckler, and loosening his broadsword in the sheath, that he might be ready for whatever should befall.

“If it were not for the wine and the good cheer which we have had in yonder old man’s house, my lord,” said this sapient follower, “and that I ken him by report to be a just living man in many respects, and a real Edinburgh gutterblood, I should have been well pleased to have seen how his feet were shaped, and whether he had not a cloven cloot under the braw roses and cordovan shoon of his.”

“Why, you rascal,” answered Nigel, “you have been too kindly treated, and now that you have filled your ravenous stomach, you are railing on the good gentleman that relieved you.”

“Under favour, no, my lord,” said Moniplies — “I would only like to see something mair about him. I have eaten his meat, it is true — more shame that the like of him should have meat to give, when your lordship and me could scarce have gotten, on our own account, brose and a bear bannock — I have drunk his wine, too.”

“I see you have,” replied his master, “a great deal more than you should have done.”

“Under your patience, my lord,” said Moniplies, “you are pleased to say that, because I crushed a quart with that jolly boy Jenkin, as they call the ‘prentice boy, and that was out of mere acknowledgment for his former kindness — I own that I, moreover, sung the good old song of Elsie Marley, so as they never heard it chanted in their lives ——”

And withal (as John Bunyan says) as they went on their way, he sung —

“O, do ye ken Elsie Marley, honey —

The wife that sells the barley, honey?

For Elsie Marley’s grown sae fine,

She winna get up to feed the swine. —

O, do ye ken ——”

Here in mid career was the songster interrupted by the stern gripe of his master, who threatened to baton him to death if he brought the city-watch upon them by his ill-timed melody.

“I crave pardon, my lord — I humbly crave pardon — only when I think of that Jen Win, as they call him, I can hardly help humming —‘O, do ye ken’— But I crave your honour’s pardon, and will be totally dumb, if you command me so.”

“No, sirrah!” said Nigel, “talk on, for I well know you would say and suffer more under pretence of holding your peace, than when you get an unbridled license. How is it, then? What have you to say against Master Heriot?”

It seems more than probable, that in permitting this license, the young lord hoped his attendant would stumble upon the subject of the young lady who had appeared at prayers in a manner so mysterious. But whether this was the case, or whether he merely desired that Moniplies should utter, in a subdued and under tone of voice, those spirits which might otherwise have vented themselves in obstreperous song, it is certain he permitted his attendant to proceed with his story in his own way.

“And therefore,” said the orator, availing himself of his immunity, “I would like to ken what sort of carle this Maister Heriot is. He hath supplied your lordship with wealth of gold, as I can understand; and if he has, I make it for certain he hath had his ain end in it, according to the fashion of the world. Now, had your lordship your own good lands at your guiding, doubtless this person, with most of his craft — goldsmiths they call themselves — I say usurers — wad be glad to exchange so many pounds of African dust, by whilk I understand gold, against so many fair acres, and hundreds of acres, of broad Scottish land.”

“But you know I have no land,” said the young lord, “at least none that can be affected by any debt which I can at present become obliged for — I think you need not have reminded me of that.”

“True, my lord, most true; and, as your lordship says, open to the meanest capacity, without any unnecessary expositions. Now, therefore, my lord, unless Maister George Heriot has something mair to allege as a motive for his liberality, vera different from the possession of your estate — and moreover, as he could gain little by the capture of your body, wherefore should it not be your soul that he is in pursuit of?”

“My soul, you rascal!” said the young lord; “what good should my soul do him?”

“What do I ken about that?” said Moniplies; “they go about roaring and seeking whom they may devour — doubtless, they like the food that they rage so much about — and, my lord, they say,” added Moniplies, drawing up still closer to his master’s side, “they say that Master Heriot has one spirit in his house already.”

“How, or what do you mean?” said Nigel; “I will break your head, you drunken knave, if you palter with me any longer.”

“Drunken?” answered his trusty adherent, “and is this the story? — why, how could I but drink your lordship’s health on my bare knees, when Master Jenkin began it to me? — hang them that would not — I would have cut the impudent knave’s hams with my broadsword, that should make scruple of it, and so have made him kneel when he should have found it difficult to rise again. But touching the spirit,” he proceeded, finding that his master made no answer to his valorous tirade, “your lordship has seen her with your own eyes.”

“I saw no spirit,” said Glenvarloch, but yet breathing thick as one who expects some singular disclosure, “what mean you by a spirit?”

“You saw a young lady come in to prayers, that spoke not a word to any one, only made becks and bows to the old gentleman and lady of the house — ken ye wha she is?”

“No, indeed,” answered Nigel; “some relation of the family, I suppose.”

“Deil a bit — deil a bit,” answered Moniplies, hastily, “not a blood-drop’s kin to them, if she had a drop of blood in her body — I tell you but what all human beings allege to be truth, that swell within hue and cry of Lombard Street — that lady, or quean, or whatever you choose to call her, has been dead in the body these many a year, though she haunts them, as we have seen, even at their very devotions.”

“You will allow her to be a good spirit at least,” said Nigel Olifaunt, “since she chooses such a time to visit her friends?”

“For that I kenna, my lord,” answered the superstitious follower; “I ken no spirit that would have faced the right down hammer-blow of Mess John Knox, whom my father stood by in his very warst days, bating a chance time when the Court, which my father supplied with butcher-meat, was against him. But yon divine has another airt from powerful Master Rollock, and Mess David Black, of North Leith, and sic like. — Alack-a-day! wha can ken, if it please your lordship, whether sic prayers as the Southron read out of their auld blethering black mess-book there, may not be as powerful to invite fiends, as a right red-het prayer warm fraw the heart, may be powerful to drive them away, even as the Evil Spirit was driven by he smell of the fish’s liver from the bridal-chamber of Sara, the daughter of Raguel? As to whilk story, nevertheless, I make scruple to say whether it be truth or not, better men than I am having doubted on that matter.”

“Well, well, well,” said his master, impatiently, “we are now near home, and I have permitted you to speak of this matter for once, that we may have an end to your prying folly, and your idiotical superstitions, for ever. For whom do you, or your absurd authors or informers, take this lady?”

“I can sae naething preceesely as to that,” answered Moniplies; “certain it is her body died and was laid in the grave many a day since, notwithstanding she still wanders on earth, and chiefly amongst Maister Heriot’s family, though she hath been seen in other places by them that well knew her. But who she is, I will not warrant to say, or how she becomes attached, like a Highland Brownie, to some peculiar family. They say she has a row of apartments of her own, ante-room, parlour, and bedroom; but deil a bed she sleeps in but her own coffin, and the walls, doors, and windows are so chinked up, as to prevent the least blink of daylight from entering; and then she dwells by torchlight —”

“To what purpose, if she be a spirit?” said Nigel Olifaunt.

“How can I tell your lordship?” answered his attendant. “I thank God I know nothing of her likings, or mislikings — only her coffin is there; and I leave your lordship to guess what a live person has to do with a coffin. As little as a ghost with a lantern, I trow.”

“What reason,” repeated Nigel, “can a creature, so young and so beautiful, have already habitually to contemplate her bed of last-long rest?”

“In troth, I kenna, my lord,” answered Moniplies; “but there is the coffin, as they told me who have seen it: it is made of heben-wood, with silver nails, and lined all through with three-piled damask, might serve a princess to rest in.”

“Singular,” said Nigel, whose brain, like that of most active young spirits, was easily caught by the singular and the romantic; “does she not eat with the family?”

“Who! — she!”— exclaimed Moniplies, as if surprised at the question; “they would need a lang spoon would sup with her, I trow. Always there is something put for her into the Tower, as they call it, whilk is a whigmaleery of a whirling-box, that turns round half on the tae side o’ the wa’, half on the tother.”

“I have seen the contrivance in foreign nunneries,” said the Lord of Glenvarloch. “And is it thus she receives her food?”

“They tell me something is put in ilka day, for fashion’s sake,” replied the attendant; “but it’s no to be supposed she would consume it, ony mair than the images of Bel and the Dragon consumed the dainty vivers that were placed before them. There are stout yeomen and chamber-queans in the house, enow to play the part of Lick-it-up-a’, as well as the threescore and ten priests of Bel, besides their wives and children.”

“And she is never seen in the family but when the hour of prayer arrives?” said the master.

“Never, that I hear of,” replied the servant.

“It is singular,” said Nigel Olifaunt, musing. “Were it not for the ornaments which she wears, and still more for her attendance upon the service of the Protestant Church, I should know what to think, and should believe her either a Catholic votaress, who, for some cogent reason, was allowed to make her cell here in London, or some unhappy Popish devotee, who was in the course of undergoing a dreadful penance. As it is, I know not what to deem of it.”

His reverie was interrupted by the linkboy knocking at the door of honest John Christie, whose wife came forth with “quips, and becks, and wreathed smiles,” to welcome her honoured guest on his return to his apartment.

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