Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 12

The Challenge.

A slight note I have about me, for the delivery of which you must excuse me. It is an office which friendship calls upon me to do, and no way offensive to you, as I desire nothing but right on both sides.

King and No King.

The intelligent reader may recollect, that Tyrrel departed from the Fox Hotel on terms not altogether so friendly towards the company as those under which he entered it. Indeed, it occurred to him, that he might probably have heard something farther on the subject, though, amidst matters of deeper and more anxious consideration, the idea only passed hastily through his mind; and two days having gone over without any message from Sir Bingo Binks, the whole affair glided entirely out of his memory.

The truth was, that although never old woman took more trouble to collect and blow up with her bellows the embers of her decayed fire, than Captain MacTurk kindly underwent for the purpose of puffing into a flame the dying sparkles of the Baronet’s courage; yet two days were spent in fruitless conferences before he could attain the desired point. He found Sir Bingo on these different occasions in all sorts of different moods of mind, and disposed to view the thing in all shades of light, except what the Captain thought was the true one. — He was in a drunken humour — in a sullen humour — in a thoughtless and vilipending humour — in every humour but a fighting one. And when Captain MacTurk talked of the reputation of the company at the Well, Sir Bingo pretended to take offence, said the company might go to the devil, and hinted that he “did them sufficient honour by gracing them with his countenance, but did not mean to constitute them any judges of his affairs. The fellow was a raff, and he would have nothing to do with him.”

Captain MacTurk would willingly have taken measures against the Baronet himself, as in a state of contumacy, but was opposed by Winterblossom and other members of the committee, who considered Sir Bingo as too important and illustrious a member of their society to be rashly expelled from a place not honoured by the residence of many persons of rank; and finally insisted that nothing should be done in the matter without the advice of Mowbray, whose preparations for his solemn festival on the following Thursday had so much occupied him, that he had not lately appeared at the Well.

In the meanwhile, the gallant Captain seemed to experience as much distress of mind, as if some stain had lain on his own most unblemished of reputations. He went up and down upon the points of his toes, rising up on his instep with a jerk which at once expressed vexation and defiance — He carried his nose turned up in the air, like that of a pig when he snuffs the approaching storm — He spoke in monosyllables when he spoke at all; and — what perhaps illustrated in the strongest manner the depth of his feelings — he refused, in face of the whole company, to pledge Sir Bingo in a glass of the Baronet’s peculiar cogniac.

At length, the whole Well was alarmed by the report brought by a smart outrider, that the young Earl of Etherington, reported to be rising on the horizon of fashion as a star of the first magnitude, intended to pass an hour, or a day, or a week, as it might happen, (for his lordship could not be supposed to know his own mind,) at St. Ronan’s Well.

This suddenly put all in motion. Almanacks were opened to ascertain his lordship’s age, enquiries were made concerning the extent of his fortune, his habits were quoted, his tastes were guessed at; and all that the ingenuity of the Managing Committee could devise was resorted to, in order to recommend their Spa to this favourite of fortune. An express was dispatched to Shaws-Castle with the agreeable intelligence, which fired the train of hope that led to Mowbray’s appropriation of his sister’s capital. He did not, however, think proper to obey the summons to the Spring; for, not being aware in what light the Earl might regard the worthies there assembled, he did not desire to be found by his lordship in any strict connexion with them.

Sir Bingo Binks was in a different situation. The bravery with which he had endured the censure of the place began to give way, when he considered that a person of such distinction as that which public opinion attached to Lord Etherington, should find him bodily indeed at St. Ronan’s, but, so far as society was concerned, on the road towards the ancient city of Coventry; and his banishment thither, incurred by that most unpardonable offence in modern morality, a solecism in the code of honour. Though sluggish and inert when called to action, the Baronet was by no means an absolute coward; or, if so, he was of that class which fights when reduced to extremity. He manfully sent for Captain MacTurk, who waited upon him with a grave solemnity of aspect, which instantly was exchanged for a radiant joy, when Sir Bingo, in a few words, empowered him to carry a message to that d —— d strolling artist, by whom he had been insulted three days since.

“By Cot,” said the Captain, “my exceedingly goot and excellent friend, and I am happy to do such a favour for you! And it’s well you have thought of it yourself; because, if it had not been for some of our very goot and excellent friends, that would be putting their spoon into other folk’s dish, I should have been asking you a civil question myself, how you came to dine with us, with all that mud and mire which Mr. Tyrrel’s grasp has left upon the collar of your coat — you understand me. — But it is much better as it is, and I will go to the man with all the speed of light; and though, to be sure, it should have been sooner thought of, yet let me alone to make an excuse for that, just in my own civil way — better late thrive than never do well, you know, Sir Bingo; and if you have made him wait a little while for his morning, you must give him the better measure, my darling.”

So saying, he awaited no reply, lest peradventure the commission with which he was so hastily and unexpectedly charged, should have been clogged with some condition of compromise. No such proposal, however, was made on the part of the doughty Sir Bingo, who eyed his friend as he hastily snatched up his rattan to depart, with a dogged look of obstinacy, expressive, to use his own phrase, of a determined resolution to come up to the scratch; and when he heard the Captain’s parting footsteps, and saw the door shut behind him, he valiantly whistled a few bars of Jenny Sutton, in token he cared not a farthing how the matter was to end.

With a swifter pace than his half-pay leisure usually encouraged, or than his habitual dignity permitted, Captain MacTurk cleared the ground betwixt the Spring and its gay vicinity, and the ruins of the Aultoun, where reigned our friend Meg Dods, the sole assertor of its ancient dignities. To the door of the Cleikum Inn the Captain addressed himself, as one too much accustomed to war to fear a rough reception; although at the very first aspect of Meg, who presented her person at the half opened door, his military experience taught him that his entrance into the place would, in all probability, be disputed.

“Is Mr. Tyrrel at home?” was the question; and the answer was conveyed, by the counter-interrogation, “Wha may ye be that speers?”

As the most polite reply to this question, and an indulgence, at the same time, of his own taciturn disposition, the Captain presented to Luckie Dods the fifth part of an ordinary playing card, much grimed with snuff, which bore on its blank side his name and quality. But Luckie Dods rejected the information thus tendered, with contemptuous scorn.

“Nane of your deil’s play-books for me,” said she; “it’s an ill world since sic prick-my-dainty doings came in fashion — It’s a poor tongue that canna tell its ain name, and I’ll hae nane of your scarts upon pasteboard.”

“I am Captain MacTurk, of the —— regiment,” said the Captain, disdaining further answer.

“MacTurk?” repeated Meg, with an emphasis, which induced the owner of the name to reply, “Yes, honest woman — MacTurk — Hector MacTurk — have you any objections to my name, goodwife?”

“Nae objections have I,” answered Meg; “it’s e’en an excellent name for a heathen. — But, Captain MacTurk, since sae it be that ye are a captain, ye may e’en face about and march your ways hame again, to the tune of Dumbarton drums; for ye are ganging to have nae speech of Maister Tirl, or ony lodger of mine.”

“And wherefore not?” demanded the veteran; “and is this of your own foolish head, honest woman, or has your lodger left such orders?”

“Maybe he has and maybe no,” answered Meg, sturdily; “and I ken nae mair right that ye suld ca’ me honest woman, than I have to ca’ you honest man, whilk is as far frae my thoughts as it wad be from heaven’s truth.”

“The woman is deleerit!” said Captain MacTurk; “but coom, coom — a gentleman is not to be misused in this way when he comes on a gentleman’s business; so make you a bit room on the door-stane, that I may pass by you, or I will make room for myself, by Cot! to your small pleasure.”

And so saying he assumed the air of a man who was about to make good his passage. But Meg, without deigning farther reply, flourished around her head the hearth-broom, which she had been employing to its more legitimate purpose, when disturbed in her housewifery by Captain MacTurk.

“I ken your errand weel eneugh, Captain — and I ken yoursell. Ye are ane of the folk that gang about yonder setting folk by the lugs, as callants set their collies to fight. But ye sall come to nae lodger o’ mine, let a-be Maister Tirl, wi’ ony sic ungodly errand; for I am ane that will keep God’s peace and the King’s within my dwelling.”

So saying, and in explicit token of her peaceable intentions, she again flourished her broom.

The veteran instinctively threw himself under Saint George’s guard, and drew two paces back, exclaiming, “That the woman was either mad, or as drunk as whisky could make her;” an alternative which afforded Meg so little satisfaction, that she fairly rushed on her retiring adversary, and began to use her weapon to fell purpose.

“Me drunk, ye scandalous blackguard!” (a blow with the broom interposed as parenthesis,) “me, that am fasting from all but sin and bohea!” (another whack.)

The Captain, swearing, exclaiming, and parrying, caught the blows as they fell, showing much dexterity in single-stick. The people began to gather; and how long his gallantry might have maintained itself against the spirit of self-defence and revenge, must be left uncertain, for the arrival of Tyrrel, returned from a short walk, put a period to the contest.

Meg, who had a great respect for her guest, began to feel ashamed of her own violence, and slunk into the house; observing, however, that she trewed she had made her hearth-broom and the auld heathen’s pow right weel acquainted. The tranquillity which ensued upon her departure, gave Tyrrel an opportunity to ask the Captain, whom he at length recognised, the meaning of this singular affray, and whether the visit was intended for him; to which the veteran replied very discomposedly, that “he should have known that long enough ago, if he had had decent people to open his door, and answer a civil question, instead of a flyting madwoman, who was worse than an eagle,” he said, “or a mastiff-bitch, or a she-bear, or any other female beast in the creation.”

Half suspecting his errand, and desirous to avoid unnecessary notoriety, Tyrrel, as he showed the Captain to the parlour, which he called his own, entreated him to excuse the rudeness of his landlady, and to pass from the topic to that which had procured him the honour of this visit.

“And you are right, my good Master Tyrrel,” said the Captain, pulling down the sleeves of his coat, adjusting his handkerchief and breast-ruffle, and endeavouring to recover the composure of manner becoming his mission, but still adverting indignantly to the usage he had received —“By Cot! if she had but been a man, if it were the King himself — However, Mr. Tyrrel, I am come on a civil errand — and very civilly I have been treated — the auld bitch should be set in the stocks, and be tamned! — My friend, Sir Bingo — By Cot! I shall never forget that woman’s insolence — if there be a constable or a cat-o’-nine-tails within ten miles”——

“I perceive, Captain,” said Tyrrel, “that you are too much disturbed at this moment to enter upon the business which has brought you here — if you will step into my bedroom, and make use of some cold water and a towel, it will give you the time to compose yourself a little.”

“I shall do no such thing, Mr. Tyrrel,” answered the Captain, snappishly; “I do not want to be composed at all, and I do not want to stay in this house a minute longer than to do my errand to you on my friend’s behalf — And as for this tamned woman Dods”——

“You will in that case forgive my interrupting you, Captain MacTurk, as I presume your errand to me can have no reference to this strange quarrel with my landlady, with which I have nothing to”——

“And if I thought that it had, sir,” said the Captain, interrupting Tyrrel in his turn, “you should have given me satisfaction before you was a quarter of an hour older — Oh, I would give five pounds to the pretty fellow that would say, Captain MacTurk, the woman did right!”

“I certainly will not be that person you wish for, Captain,” replied Tyrrel, “because I really do not know who was in the right or wrong; but I am certainly sorry that you should have met with ill usage, when your purpose was to visit me.”

“Well, sir, if you are concerned,” said the man of peace, snappishly, “so am I, and there is an end of it. — And touching my errand to you — you cannot have forgotten that you treated my friend, Sir Bingo Binks, with singular incivility?”

“I recollect nothing of the kind, Captain,” replied Tyrrel. “I remember that the gentleman, so called, took some uncivil liberties in laying foolish bets concerning me, and that I treated him, from respect to the rest of the company, and the ladies in particular, with a great degree of moderation and forbearance.”

“And you must have very fine ideas of forbearance,” replied the Captain, “when you took my good friend by the collar of the coat, and lifted him out of your way as if he had been a puppy dog! My good Mr. Tyrrel, I can assure you he does not think that you have forborne him at all, and he has no purpose to forbear you; and I must either carry back a sufficient apology, or you must meet in a quiet way, with a good friend on each side. — And this was the errand I came on, when this tamned woman, with the hearth-broom, who is an enemy to all quiet and peaceable proceedings”——

“We will forget Mrs. Dods for the present, if you please, Captain MacTurk,” said Tyrrel —“and, to speak to the present subject, you will permit me to say, that I think this summons comes a little of the latest. You know best as a military man, but I have always understood that such differences are usually settled immediately after they occur — not that I intend to baulk Sir Bingo’s inclinations upon the score of delay, or any other account.”

“I dare say you will not — I dare say you will not, Mr. Tyrrel,” answered the Captain —“I am free to think that you know better what belongs to a gentleman. — And as to time — look you, my good sir, there are different sorts of people in this world, as there are different sorts of fire-arms. There are your hair-trigger’d rifles, that go off just at the right moment, and in the twinkling of an eye, and that, Mr. Tyrrel, is your true man of honour; — and there is a sort of person that takes a thing up too soon, and sometimes backs out of it, like your rubbishy Birmingham pieces, that will at one time go off at half-cock, and at another time burn priming without going off at all; — then again pieces that hang fire — or I should rather say, that are like the matchlocks which the black fellows use in the East Indies — there must be some blowing of the match, and so forth, which occasions delay, but the piece carries true enough after all.”

“And your friend Sir Bingo’s valour is of this last kind, Captain — I presume that is the inference. I should have thought it more like a boy’s cannon, which is fired by means of a train, and is but a pop-gun after all.”

“I cannot allow of such comparisons, sir,” said the Captain; “you will understand that I come here as Sir Bingo’s friend, and a reflection on him will be an affront to me.”

“I disclaim all intended offence to you, Captain — I have no wish to extend the number of my adversaries, or to add to them the name of a gallant officer like yourself,” replied Tyrrel.

“You are too obliging, sir,” said the Captain, drawing himself up with dignity. “By Cot! and that was said very handsomely! — Well, sir, and shall I not have the pleasure of carrying back any explanation from you to Sir Bingo? — I assure you it would give me pleasure to make this matter handsomely up.”

“To Sir Bingo, Captain MacTurk, I have no apology to offer — I think I treated him more gently than his impertinence deserved.”

“Och, Och!” sighed the Captain, with a strong Highland intonation; “then there is no more to be said, but just to settle time and place; for pistols I suppose must be the weapons.”

“All these matters are quite the same to me,” said Tyrrel; “only, in respect of time, I should wish it to be as speedy as possible. — What say you to one, afternoon, this very day? — You may name the place.”

“At one, afternoon,” replied the Captain deliberately, “Sir Bingo will attend you — the place may be the Buck-stane; for as the whole company go to the water-side today to eat a kettle of fish,18 there will be no risk of interruption. — And who shall I speak to, my good friend, on your side of the quarrel?”

“Really, Captain,” replied Tyrrel, “that is a puzzling question — I have no friend here — I suppose you could hardly act for both?”

“It would be totally, absolutely, and altogether out of the question, my good friend,” replied MacTurk. “But if you will trust to me, I will bring up a friend on your part from the Well, who, though you have hardly seen him before, will settle matters for you as well as if you had been intimate for twenty years — and I will bring up the Doctor too, if I can get him unloosed from the petticoat of that fat widow Blower, that he has strung himself upon.”

“I have no doubt you will do every thing with perfect accuracy, Captain. At one o’clock, then, we meet at the Buck-stane — Stay, permit me to see you to the door.”

“By Cot! and it is not altogether so unnecessary,” said the Captain; “for the tamned woman with the besom might have some advantage in that long dark passage, knowing the ground better than I do — tamn her, I will have amends on her, if there be whipping-post, or ducking-stool, or a pair of stocks in the parish!” And so saying, the Captain trudged off, his spirits ever and anon agitated by recollection of the causeless aggression of Meg Dods, and again composed to a state of happy serenity by the recollection of the agreeable arrangement which he had made between Mr. Tyrrel, and his friend Sir Bingo Binks.

We have heard of men of undoubted benevolence of character and disposition, whose principal delight was to see a miserable criminal, degraded alike by his previous crimes, and the sentence which he had incurred, conclude a vicious and wretched life, by an ignominious and painful death. It was some such inconsistency of character which induced honest Captain MacTurk, who had really been a meritorious officer, and was a good-natured, honourable, and well-intentioned man, to place his chief delight in setting his friends by the ears, and then acting as umpire in the dangerous rencontres, which, according to his code of honour, were absolutely necessary to restore peace and cordiality. We leave the explanation of such anomalies to the labours of craniologists, for they seem to defy all the researches of the Ethic philosopher.

18 A kettle of fish is a fête-champêtre of a particular kind, which is to other fêtes-champêtres what the piscatory eclogues of Brown or Sannazario are to pastoral poetry. A large caldron is boiled by the side of a salmon river, containing a quantity of water, thickened with salt to the consistence of brine. In this the fish is plunged when taken, and eaten by the company fronde super viridi. This is accounted the best way of eating salmon, by those who desire to taste the fish in a state of extreme freshness. Others prefer it after being kept a day or two, when the curd melts into oil, and the fish becomes richer and more luscious. The more judicious gastronomes eat no other sauce than a spoonful of the water in which the salmon is boiled, together with a little pepper and vinegar.

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