Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 15

A Praiser of Past Times.

—— Now your traveller,

He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess.

King John.

The noise stated at the conclusion of last chapter to have disturbed Mr. Bindloose, was the rapping of one, as in haste and impatience, at the Bank-office door, which office was an apartment of the Banker’s house, on the left hand of his passage, as the parlour in which he had received Mrs. Dods was upon the right.

In general, this office was patent to all having business there; but at present, whatever might be the hurry of the party who knocked, the clerks within the office could not admit him, being themselves made prisoners by the prudent jealousy of Mr. Bindloose, to prevent them from listening to his consultation with Mrs. Dods. They therefore answered the angry and impatient knocking of the stranger only with stifled giggling from within, finding it no doubt an excellent joke, that their master’s precaution was thus interfering with their own discharge of duty.

With one or two hearty curses upon them, as the regular plagues of his life, Mr. Bindloose darted into the passage, and admitted the stranger into his official apartment. The doors both of the parlour and office remaining open, the ears of Luckie Dods (experienced, as the reader knows, in collecting intelligence) could partly overhear what passed. The conversation seemed to regard a cash transaction of some importance, as Meg became aware when the stranger raised a voice which was naturally sharp and high, as he did when uttering the following words, towards the close of a conversation which had lasted about five minutes —“Premium? — Not a pice, sir — not a courie — not a farthing — premium for a Bank of England bill? — d’ye take me for a fool, sir? — do not I know that you call forty days par when you give remittances to London?”

Mr. Bindloose was here heard to mutter something indistinctly about the custom of the trade.

“Custom!” retorted the stranger, “no such thing — damn’d bad custom, if it is one — don’t tell me of customs —‘Sbodikins, man, I know the rate of exchange all over the world, and have drawn bills from Timbuctoo — My friends in the Strand filed it along with Bruce’s from Gondar — talk to me of premium on a Bank of England post-bill! — What d’ye look at the bill for? — D’ye think it doubtful — I can change it.”

“By no means necessary,” answered Bindloose, “the bill is quite right; but it is usual to indorse, sir.”

“Certainly — reach me a pen — d’ye think I can write with my rattan? — What sort of ink is this? — yellow as curry sauce — never mind — there is my name — Peregrine Touchwood — I got it from the Willoughbies, my Christian name — Have I my full change here?”

“Your full change, sir,” answered Bindloose.

“Why, you should give me a premium, friend, instead of me giving you one.”

“It is out of our way, I assure you, sir,” said the Banker, “quite out of our way — but if you would step into the parlour and take a cup of tea”——

“Why, ay,” said the stranger, his voice sounding more distinctly as (talking all the while, and ushered along by Mr. Bindloose) he left the office and moved towards the parlour, “a cup of tea were no such bad thing, if one could come by it genuine — but as for your premium”—— So saying, he entered the parlour and made his bow to Mrs. Dods, who, seeing what she called a decent, purpose-like body, and aware that his pocket was replenished with English and Scottish paper currency, returned the compliment with her best curtsy.

Mr. Touchwood, when surveyed more at leisure, was a short, stout, active man, who, though sixty years of age and upwards, retained in his sinews and frame the elasticity of an earlier period. His countenance expressed self-confidence, and something like a contempt for those who had neither seen nor endured so much as he had himself. His short black hair was mingled with grey, but not entirely whitened by it. His eyes were jet-black, deep-set, small, and sparkling, and contributed, with a short turned-up nose, to express an irritable and choleric habit. His complexion was burnt to a brick-colour by the vicissitudes of climate, to which it had been subjected; and his face, which at the distance of a yard or two seemed hale and smooth, appeared, when closely examined, to be seamed with a million of wrinkles, crossing each other in every direction possible, but as fine as if drawn by the point of a very small needle.20 His dress was a blue coat and buff waistcoat, half boots remarkably well blacked, and a silk handkerchief tied with military precision. The only antiquated part of his dress was a cocked hat of equilateral dimensions, in the button-hole of which he wore a very small cockade. Mrs. Dods, accustomed to judge of persons by their first appearance, said, that in the three steps which he made from the door to the tea-table, she recognised, without the possibility of mistake, the gait of a person who was well to pass in the world; “and that,” she added with a wink, “is what we victuallers are seldom deceived in. If a gold-laced waistcoat has an empty pouch, the plain swan’s-down will be the brawer of the twa.”

“A drizzling morning, good madam,” said Mr. Touchwood, as with a view of sounding what sort of company he had got into.

“A fine saft morning for the crap, sir,” answered Mrs. Dods, with equal solemnity.

“Right, my good madam; soft is the very word, though it has been some time since I heard it. I have cast a double hank about the round world since I last heard of a soft21 morning.”

“You will be from these parts, then?” said the writer, ingeniously putting a case, which, he hoped, would induce the stranger to explain himself. “And yet, sir,” he added, after a pause, “I was thinking that Touchwood is not a Scottish name, at least that I ken of.”

“Scottish name? — no,” replied the traveller; “but a man may have been in these parts before, without being a native — or, being a native, he may have had some reason to change his name — there are many reasons why men change their names.”

“Certainly, and some of them very good ones,” said the lawyer; “as in the common case of an heir of entail, where deed of provision and tailzie is maist ordinarily implemented by taking up name and arms.”

“Ay, or in the case of a man having made the country too hot for him under his own proper appellative,” said Mr. Touchwood.

“That is a supposition, sir,” replied the lawyer, “which it would ill become me to put. — But at any rate, if you knew this country formerly, ye cannot but be marvellously pleased with the change we have been making since the American war — hill-sides bearing clover instead of heather — rents doubled, trebled, quadrupled — the auld reekie dungeons pulled down, and gentlemen living in as good houses as you will see any where in England.”

“Much good may it do them, for a pack of fools!” replied Mr. Touchwood, hastily.

“You do not seem much delighted with our improvements, sir?” said the banker, astonished to hear a dissentient voice where he conceived all men were unanimous.

“Pleased!” answered the stranger —“Yes, as much pleased as I am with the devil, who I believe set many of them agoing. Ye have got an idea that every thing must be changed — Unstable as water, ye shall not excel — I tell ye, there have been more changes in this poor nook of yours within the last forty years, than in the great empires of the East for the space of four thousand, for what I know.”

“And why not,” replied Bindloose, “if they be changes for the better?”

“But they are not for the better,” replied Mr. Touchwood, eagerly. “I left your peasantry as poor as rats indeed, but honest and industrious, enduring their lot in this world with firmness, and looking forward to the next with hope — Now they are mere eye-servants — looking at their watches, forsooth, every ten minutes, lest they should work for their master half an instant after loosing-time — And then, instead of studying the Bible on the work days, to kittle the clergymen with doubtful points of controversy on the Sabbath, they glean all their theology from Tom Paine and Voltaire.”

“Weel I wot the gentleman speaks truth,” said Mrs. Dods. “I fand a bundle of their bawbee blasphemies in my ain kitchen — But I trow I made a clean house of the packman loon that brought them! — No content wi’ turning the tawpies’ heads wi’ ballants, and driving them daft wi’ ribands, to cheat them out of their precious souls, and gie them the deevil’s ware, that I suld say sae, in exchange for the siller that suld support their puir father that’s aff wark and bedridden!”

“Father! madam,” said the stranger; “they think no more of their father than Regan or Goneril.”

“In gude troth, ye have skeel of our sect, sir,” replied the dame; “they are gomerils, every one of them — I tell them sae every hour of the day, but catch them profiting by the doctrine.”

“And then the brutes are turned mercenary, madam,” said Mr. Touchwood, “I remember when a Scottishman would have scorned to touch a shilling that he had not earned, and yet was as ready to help a stranger as an Arab of the desert. And now, I did but drop my cane the other day as I was riding — a fellow who was working at the hedge made three steps to lift it — I thanked him, and my friend threw his hat on his head, and ‘damned my thanks, if that were all’— Saint Giles could not have excelled him.”

“Weel, weel,” said the banker, “that may be a’ as you say, sir, and nae doubt wealth makes wit waver; but the country’s wealthy, that cannot be denied, and wealth, sir, ye ken”——

“I know wealth makes itself wings,” answered the cynical stranger; “but I am not quite sure we have it even now. You make a great show, indeed, with building and cultivation; but stock is not capital, any more than the fat of a corpulent man is health or strength.”

“Surely, Mr. Touchwood,” said Bindloose, who felt his own account in the modern improvements, “a set of landlords, living like lairds in good earnest, and tenants with better housekeeping than the lairds used to have, and facing Whitsunday and Martinmas as I would face my breakfast — if these are not signs of wealth, I do not know where to seek for them.”

“They are signs of folly, sir,” replied Touchwood; “folly that is poor, and renders itself poorer by desiring to be thought rich; and how they come by the means they are so ostentatious of, you, who are a banker, perhaps can tell me better than I can guess.”

“There is maybe an accommodation bill discounted now and then, Mr. Touchwood; but men must have accommodation, or the world would stand still — accommodation is the grease that makes the wheels go.”

“Ay, makes them go down hill to the devil,” answered Touchwood. “I left you bothered about one Ayr bank, but the whole country is an Air bank now, I think — And who is to pay the piper? — But it’s all one — I will see little more of it — it is a perfect Babel, and would turn the head of a man who has spent his life with people who love sitting better than running, silence better than speaking, who never eat but when they are hungry, never drink but when thirsty, never laugh without a jest, and never speak but when they have something to say. But here, it is all run, ride, and drive — froth, foam, and flippancy — no steadiness — no character.”

“I’ll lay the burden of my life,” said Dame Dods, looking towards her friend Bindloose, “that the gentleman has been at the new Spaw-waal yonder!”

“Spaw do you call it, madam? — If you mean the new establishment that has been spawned down yonder at St. Ronan’s, it is the very fountain-head of folly and coxcombry — a Babel for noise, and a Vanity-fair for nonsense — no well in your swamps tenanted by such a conceited colony of clamorous frogs.”

“Sir, sir!” exclaimed Dame Dods, delighted with the unqualified sentence passed upon her fashionable rivals, and eager to testify her respect for the judicious stranger who had pronounced it — “will you let me have the pleasure of pouring you out a dish of tea?” And so saying, she took bustling possession of the administration which had hitherto remained in the hands of Mr. Bindloose himself.

“I hope it is to your taste, sir,” she continued, when the traveller had accepted her courtesy with the grateful acknowledgment, which men addicted to speak a great deal usually show to a willing auditor.

“It is as good as we have any right to expect, ma’am,” answered Mr. Touchwood; “not quite like what I have drunk at Canton with old Fong Qua — but the Celestial Empire does not send its best tea to Leadenhall Street, nor does Leadenhall Street send its best to Marchthorn.”

“That may be very true, sir,” replied the dame; “but I will venture to say that Mr. Bindloose’s tea is muckle better than you had at the Spaw-waal yonder.”

“Tea, madam! — I saw none — Ash leaves and black-thorn leaves were brought in in painted canisters, and handed about by powder-monkeys in livery, and consumed by those who liked it, amidst the chattering of parrots and the squalling of kittens. I longed for the days of the Spectator, when I might have laid my penny on the bar, and retired without ceremony — But no — this blessed decoction was circulated under the auspices of some half-crazed blue-stocking or other, and we were saddled with all the formality of an entertainment, for this miserable allowance of a cockle-shell full of cat-lap per head.”

“Weel, sir,” answered Dame Dods, “all I can say is, that if it had been my luck to have served you at the Cleikum Inn, which our folk have kept for these twa generations, I canna pretend to say ye should have had such tea as ye have been used to in foreign parts where it grows, but the best I had I wad have gi’en it to a gentleman of your appearance, and I never charged mair than six-pence in all my time, and my father’s before me.”

“I wish I had known the Old Inn was still standing, madam,” said the traveller; “I should certainly have been your guest, and sent down for the water every morning — the doctors insist I must use Cheltenham, or some substitute, for the bile — though, d — n them, I believe it’s only to hide their own ignorance. And I thought this Spaw would have been the least evil of the two; but I have been fairly overreached — one might as well live in the inside of a bell. I think young St. Ronan’s must be mad, to have established such a Vanity-fair upon his father’s old property.”

“Do you ken this St. Ronan’s that now is?” enquired the dame.

“By report only,” said Mr. Touchwood; “but I have heard of the family, and I think I have read of them, too, in Scottish history. I am sorry to understand they are lower in the world than they have been. This young man does not seem to take the best way to mend matters, spending his time among gamblers and black-legs.”

“I should be sorry if it were so,” said honest Meg Dods, whose hereditary respect for the family always kept her from joining in any scandal affecting the character of the young Laird —“My forbears, sir, have had kindness frae his; and although maybe he may have forgotten all about it, it wad ill become me to say ony thing of him that should not be said of his father’s son.”

Mr. Bindloose had not the same motive for forbearance; he declaimed against Mowbray as a thoughtless dissipater of his own fortune, and that of others. “I have some reason to speak,” he said, “having two of his notes for L.100 each, which I discounted out of mere kindness and respect for his ancient family, and which he thinks nae mair of retiring, than he does of paying the national debt — And here has he been raking every shop in Marchthorn, to fit out an entertainment for all the fine folk at the Well yonder; and tradesfolk are obliged to take his acceptances for their furnishings. But they may cash his bills that will; I ken ane that will never advance a bawbee on ony paper that has John Mowbray either on the back or front of it. He had mair need to be paying the debts which he has made already, than making new anes, that he may feed fules and flatterers.”

“I believe he is likely to lose his preparations, too,” said Mr. Touchwood, “for the entertainment has been put off, as I heard, in consequence of Miss Mowbray’s illness.”

“Ay, ay, puir thing!” said Dame Margaret Dods: “her health has been unsettled for this mony a day.”

“Something wrong here, they tell me,” said the traveller, pointing to his own forehead significantly.

“God only kens,” replied Mrs. Dods; “but I rather suspect the heart than the head — the puir thing is hurried here and there, and down to the Waal, and up again, and nae society or quiet at hame; and a’ thing ganging this unthrifty gait — nae wonder she is no that weel settled.”

“Well,” replied Touchwood, “she is worse they say than she has been, and that has occasioned the party at Shaws-Castle having been put off. Besides, now this fine young lord has come down to the Well, undoubtedly they will wait her recovery.”

“A lord!” ejaculated the astonished Mrs. Dods; “a lord come down to the Waal — they will be neither to haud nor to bind now — ance wud and aye waur — a lord! — set them up and shute them forward — a lord! — the Lord have a care o’ us! — a lord at the hottle! — Maister Touchwood, it’s my mind he will only prove to be a Lord o’ Session.”

“Nay, not so, my good lady,” replied the traveller “he is an English lord, and, as they say, a Lord of Parliament — but some folk pretend to say there is a flaw in the title.”

“I’ll warrant is there — a dozen of them!” said Meg, with alacrity — for she could by no means endure to think on the accumulation of dignity likely to accrue to the rival establishment, from its becoming the residence of an actual nobleman. “I’ll warrant he’ll prove a landlouping lord on their hand, and they will be e’en cheap o’ the loss — And he has come down out of order it’s like, and nae doubt he’ll no be lang there before he will recover his health, for the credit of the Spaw.”

“Faith, madam, his present disorder is one which the Spaw will hardly cure — he is shot in the shoulder with a pistol-bullet — a robbery attempted, it seems — that is one of your new accomplishments — no such thing happened in Scotland in my time — men would have sooner expected to meet with the phoenix than with a highwayman.”

“And where did this happen, if you please, sir?” asked the man of bills.

“Somewhere near the old village,” replied the stranger; “and, if I am rightly informed, on Wednesday last.”

“This explains your twa shots, I am thinking, Mrs. Dods,” said Mr. Bindloose; “your groom heard them on the Wednesday — it must have been this attack on the stranger nobleman.”

“Maybe it was, and maybe it was not,” said Mrs. Dods; “but I’ll see gude reason before I give up my ain judgment in that case. — I wad like to ken if this gentleman,” she added, returning to the subject from which Mr. Touchwood’s interesting conversation had for a few minutes diverted her thoughts, “has heard aught of Mr. Tirl?”

“If you mean the person to whom this paper relates,” said the stranger, taking a printed handbill from his pocket, “I heard of little else — the whole place rang of him, till I was almost as sick of Tyrrel as William Rufus was. Some idiotical quarrel which he had engaged in, and which he had not fought out, as their wisdom thought he should have done, was the principal cause of censure. That is another folly now, which has gained ground among you. Formerly, two old proud lairds, or cadets of good family, perhaps, quarrelled, and had a rencontre, or fought a duel after the fashion of their old Gothic ancestors; but men who had no grandfathers never dreamt of such folly — And here the folk denounce a trumpery dauber of canvass, for such I understand to be this hero’s occupation, as if he were a field-officer, who made valour his profession; and who, if you deprived him of his honour, was like to be deprived of his bread at the same time. — Ha, ha, ha! it reminds one of Don Quixote, who took his neighbour, Samson Carrasco, for a knight-errant.”

The perusal of this paper, which contained the notes formerly laid before the reader, containing the statement of Sir Bingo, and the censure which the company at the Well had thought fit to pass upon his affair with Mr. Tyrrel, induced Mr. Bindloose to say to Mrs. Dods, with as little exultation on the superiority of his own judgment as human nature would permit —

“Ye see now that I was right, Mrs. Dods, and that there was nae earthly use in your fashing yoursell wi’ this lang journey — The lad had just ta’en the bent rather than face Sir Bingo; and troth, I think him the wiser of the twa for sae doing — There ye hae print for it.”

Meg answered somewhat sullenly, “Ye may be mista’en, for a’ that, your ainsell, for as wise as ye are, Mr. Bindloose; I shall hae that matter mair strictly enquired into.”

This led to a renewal of the altercation concerning the probable fate of Tyrrel, in the course of which the stranger was induced to take some interest in the subject.

At length Mrs. Dods, receiving no countenance from the experienced lawyer for the hypothesis she had formed, rose, in something like displeasure, to order her whiskey to be prepared. But hostess as she was herself, when in her own dominions, she reckoned without her host in the present instance; for the humpbacked postilion, as absolute in his department as Mrs. Dods herself, declared that the cattle would not be fit for the road these two hours yet. The good lady was therefore obliged to wait his pleasure, bitterly lamenting all the while the loss which a house of public entertainment was sure to sustain by the absence of the landlord or landlady, and anticipating a long list of broken dishes, miscalculated reckonings, unarranged chambers, and other disasters, which she was to expect at her return. Mr. Bindloose, zealous to recover the regard of his good friend and client, which he had in some degree forfeited by contradicting her on a favourite subject, did not choose to offer the unpleasing, though obvious topic of consolation, that an unfrequented inn is little exposed to the accidents she apprehended. On the contrary, he condoled with her very cordially, and went so far as to hint, that if Mr. Touchwood had come to Marchthorn with post-horses, as he supposed from his dress, she could have the advantage of them to return with more despatch to St. Ronan’s.

“I am not sure,” said Mr. Touchwood, suddenly, “but I may return there myself. In that case I will be glad to set this good lady down, and to stay a few days at her house if she will receive me. — I respect a woman like you, ma’am, who pursue the occupation of your father — I have been in countries, ma’am, where people have followed the same trade, from father to son, for thousands of years — And I like the fashion — it shows a steadiness and sobriety of character.”

Mrs. Dods put on a joyous countenance at this proposal, protesting that all should be done in her power to make things agreeable; and while her good friend, Mr. Bindloose, expatiated upon the comfort her new guest would experience at the Cleikum, she silently contemplated with delight the prospect of a speedy and dazzling triumph, by carrying off a creditable customer from her showy and successful rival at the Well.

“I shall be easily accommodated, ma’am,” said the stranger; “I have travelled too much and too far to be troublesome. A Spanish venta, a Persian khan, or a Turkish caravanserail, is all the same to me — only, as I have no servant — indeed, never can be plagued with one of these idle loiterers — I must beg you will send to the Well for a bottle of the water on such mornings as I cannot walk there myself — I find it is really of some service to me.”

Mrs. Dods readily promised compliance with this reasonable request; graciously conceding, that there “could be nae ill in the water itsell, but maybe some gude — it was only the New Inn, and the daft haverils that they caa’d the Company, that she misliked. Folk had a jest that St. Ronan dookit the Deevil in the Waal, which garr’d it taste aye since of brimstane — but she dared to say that was a’ papist nonsense, for she was tell’t by him that kend weel, and that was the minister himsell, that St. Ronan was nane of your idolatrous Roman saunts, but a Chaldee,” (meaning probably a Culdee,) “whilk was doubtless a very different story.”

Matters being thus arranged to the satisfaction of both parties, the post-chaise was ordered, and speedily appeared at the door of Mr. Bindloose’s mansion. It was not without a private feeling of reluctance, that honest Meg mounted the step of a vehicle, on the door of which was painted, “FOX INN AND HOTEL, ST. RONAN’S WELL;” but it was too late to start such scruples.

“I never thought to have entered ane o’ their hurley-hackets,” she said, as she seated herself; “and sic a like thing as it is — scarce room for twa folk! — Weel I wot, Mr. Touchwood, when I was in the hiring line, our twa chaises wad hae carried, ilk ane o’ them, four grown folk and as mony bairns. I trust that doited creature Anthony will come awa back wi’ my whiskey and the cattle, as soon as they have had their feed. — Are ye sure ye hae room eneugh, sir? — I wad fain hotch mysell farther yont.”

“O, ma’am,” answered the Oriental, “I am accustomed to all sorts of conveyances — a dooly, a litter, a cart, a palanquin, or a post-chaise, are all alike to me — I think I could be an inside with Queen Mab in a nutshell, rather than not get forward. — Begging you many pardons, if you have no particular objections, I will light my sheroot,” &c. &c. &c.

20 This was a peculiarity in the countenance of the celebrated Cossack leader, Platoff.

21 An epithet which expresses, in Scotland, what the barometer calls rainy.

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