Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 17

The Acquaintance.

‘Twixt us thus the difference trims:—

Using head instead of limbs,

You have read what I have seen;

Using limbs instead of head,

I have seen what you have read —

Which way does the balance lean?


Our traveller, rapid in all his resolutions and motions, strode stoutly down the street, and arrived at the Manse, which was, as we have already described it, all but absolutely ruinous. The total desolation and want of order about the door, would have argued the place uninhabited, had it not been for two or three miserable tubs with suds, or such like sluttish contents, which were left there, that those who broke their shins among them might receive a sensible proof, that “here the hand of woman had been.” The door being half off its hinges, the entrance was for the time protected by a broken harrow, which must necessarily be removed before entry could be obtained. The little garden, which might have given an air of comfort to the old house had it been kept in any order, was abandoned to a desolation, of which that of the sluggard was only a type; and the minister’s man, an attendant always proverbial for doing half work, and who seemed in the present instance to do none, was seen among docks and nettles, solacing himself with the few gooseberries which remained on some moss-grown bushes. To him Mr. Touchwood called loudly, enquiring after his master; but the clown, conscious of being taken in flagrant delict, as the law says, fled from him like a guilty thing, instead of obeying his summons, and was soon heard hupping and geeing to the cart, which he had left on the other side of the broken wall.

Disappointed in his application to the man-servant, Mr. Touchwood knocked with his cane, at first gently, then harder, holloaed, bellowed, and shouted, in the hope of calling the attention of some one within doors, but received not a word in reply. At length, thinking that no trespass could be committed upon so forlorn and deserted an establishment, he removed the obstacles to entrance with such a noise as he thought must necessarily have alarmed some one, if there was any live person about the house at all. All was still silent; and, entering a passage where the damp walls and broken flags corresponded to the appearance of things out of doors, he opened a door to the left, which, wonderful to say, still had a latch remaining, and found himself in the parlour, and in the presence of the person whom he came to visit.

Amid a heap of books and other literary lumber, which had accumulated around him, sat, in his well-worn leathern elbow chair, the learned minister of St. Ronan’s; a thin, spare man, beyond the middle age, of a dark complexion, but with eyes which, though now obscured and vacant, had been once bright, soft, and expressive, and whose features seemed interesting, the rather that, notwithstanding the carelessness of his dress, he was in the habit of performing his ablutions with Eastern precision; for he had forgot neatness, but not cleanliness. His hair might have appeared much more disorderly, had it not been thinned by time, and disposed chiefly around the sides of his countenance and the back part of his head; black stockings, ungartered, marked his professional dress, and his feet were thrust into the old slipshod shoes, which served him instead of slippers. The rest of his garments, as far as visible, consisted in a plaid nightgown wrapt in long folds round his stooping and emaciated length of body, and reaching down to the slippers aforesaid. He was so intently engaged in studying the book before him, a folio of no ordinary bulk, that he totally disregarded the noise which Mr. Touchwood made in entering the room, as well as the coughs and hems with which he thought it proper to announce his presence.

No notice being taken of these inarticulate signals, Mr. Touchwood, however great an enemy he was to ceremony, saw the necessity of introducing his business, as an apology for his intrusion.

“Hem! sir — Ha, hem! — You see before you a person in some distress for want of society, who has taken the liberty to call on you as a good pastor, who may be, in Christian charity, willing to afford him a little of your company, since he is tired of his own.”

Of this speech Mr. Cargill only understood the words “distress” and “charity,” sounds with which he was well acquainted, and which never failed to produce some effect on him. He looked at his visitor with lack-lustre eye, and, without correcting the first opinion which he had formed, although the stranger’s plump and sturdy frame, as well as his nicely-brushed coat, glancing cane, and, above all, his upright and self-satisfied manner, resembled in no respect the dress, form, or bearing of a mendicant, he quietly thrust a shilling into his hand, and relapsed into the studious contemplation which the entrance of Touchwood had interrupted.

“Upon my word, my good sir,” said his visitor, surprised at a degree of absence of mind which he could hardly have conceived possible, “you have entirely mistaken my object.”

“I am sorry my mite is insufficient, my friend,” said the clergyman, without again raising his eyes, “it is all I have at present to bestow.”

“If you will have the kindness to look up for a moment, my good sir,” said the traveller, “you may possibly perceive that you labour under a considerable mistake.”

Mr. Cargill raised his head, recalled his attention, and, seeing that he had a well-dressed, respectable-looking person before him, he exclaimed in much confusion, “Ha! — yes — on my word, I was so immersed in my book — I believe — I think I have the pleasure to see my worthy friend, Mr. Lavender?”

“No such thing, Mr. Cargill,” replied Mr Touchwood. “I will save you the trouble of trying to recollect me — you never saw me before. — But do not let me disturb your studies — I am in no hurry, and my business can wait your leisure.”

“I am much obliged,” said Mr. Cargill; “have the goodness to take a chair, if you can find one — I have a train of thought to recover — a slight calculation to finish — and then I am at your command.”

The visitor found among the broken furniture, not without difficulty, a seat strong enough to support his weight, and sat down, resting upon his cane, and looking attentively at his host, who very soon became totally insensible of his presence. A long pause of total silence ensued, only disturbed by the rustling leaves of the folio from which Mr. Cargill seemed to be making extracts, and now and then by a little exclamation of surprise and impatience, when he dipped his pen, as happened once or twice, into his snuff-box, instead of the inkstandish which stood beside it. At length, just as Mr. Touchwood began to think the scene as tedious as it was singular, the abstracted student raised his head, and spoke as if in soliloquy, “From Acon, Accor, or St. John d’Acre, to Jerusalem, how far?”

“Twenty-three miles north north-west,” answered his visitor, without hesitation.

Mr. Cargill expressed no more surprise at a question which he had put to himself being answered by the voice of another, than if he had found the distance on the map, and indeed, was not probably aware of the medium through which his question had been solved; and it was the tenor of the answer alone which he attended to in his reply. —“Twenty-three miles — Ingulphus,” laying his hand on the volume, “and Jeffrey Winesauf, do not agree in this.”

“They may both be d —— d, then, for lying block-heads,” answered the traveller.

“You might have contradicted their authority, sir, without using such an expression,” said the divine, gravely.

“I cry you mercy, Doctor,” said Mr. Touchwood; “but would you compare these parchment fellows with me, that have made my legs my compasses over great part of the inhabited world?”

“You have been in Palestine, then?” said Mr. Cargill, drawing himself upright in his chair, and speaking with eagerness and with interest.

“You may swear that, Doctor, and at Acre too. Why, I was there the month after Boney had found it too hard a nut to crack. — I dined with Sir Sydney’s chum, old Djezzar Pacha, and an excellent dinner we had, but for a dessert of noses and ears brought on after the last remove, which spoiled my digestion. Old Djezzar thought it so good a joke, that you hardly saw a man in Acre whose face was not as flat as the palm of my hand — Gad, I respect my olfactory organ, and set off the next morning as fast as the most cursed hard-trotting dromedary that ever fell to poor pilgrim’s lot could contrive to tramp.”

“If you have really been in the Holy Land, sir,” said Mr. Cargill, whom the reckless gaiety of Touchwood’s manner rendered somewhat suspicious of a trick, “you will be able materially to enlighten me on the subject of the Crusades.”

“They happened before my time, Doctor,” replied the traveller.

“You are to understand that my curiosity refers to the geography of the countries where these events took place,” answered Mr. Cargill.

“O! as to that matter, you are lighted on your feet,” said Mr. Touchwood; “for the time present I can fit you. Turk, Arab, Copt, and Druse, I know every one of them, and can make you as well acquainted with them as myself. Without stirring a step beyond your threshold, you shall know Syria as well as I do. — But one good turn deserves another — in that case, you must have the goodness to dine with me.”

“I go seldom abroad, sir,” said the minister, with a good deal of hesitation, for his habits of solitude and seclusion could not be entirely overcome, even by the expectation raised by the traveller’s discourse; “yet I cannot deny myself the pleasure of waiting on a gentleman possessed of so much experience.”

“Well then,” said Mr. Touchwood, “three be the hour — I never dine later, and always to a minute — and the place, the Cleikum Inn, up the way; where Mrs. Dods is at this moment busy in making ready such a dinner as your learning has seldom seen, Doctor, for I brought the receipts from the four different quarters of the globe.”

Upon this treaty they parted; and Mr. Cargill, after musing for a short while upon the singular chance which had sent a living man to answer those doubts for which he was in vain consulting ancient authorities, at length resumed, by degrees, the train of reflection and investigation which Mr. Touchwood’s visit had interrupted, and in a short time lost all recollection of his episodical visitor, and of the engagement which he had formed.

Not so Mr. Touchwood, who, when not occupied with business of real importance, had the art, as the reader may have observed, to make a prodigious fuss about nothing at all. Upon the present occasion, he bustled in and out of the kitchen, till Mrs. Dods lost patience, and threatened to pin the dish-clout to his tail; a menace which he pardoned, in consideration, that in all the countries which he had visited, which are sufficiently civilized to boast of cooks, these artists, toiling in their fiery element, have a privilege to be testy and impatient. He therefore retreated from the torrid region of Mrs. Dods’s microcosm, and employed his time in the usual devices of loiterers, partly by walking for an appetite, partly by observing the progress of his watch towards three o’clock, when he had happily succeeded in getting an employment more serious. His table, in the blue parlour, was displayed with two covers, after the fairest fashion of the Cleikum Inn; yet the landlady, with a look “civil but sly,” contrived to insinuate a doubt whether the clergyman would come, “when a’ was dune.”

Mr. Touchwood scorned to listen to such an insinuation until the fated hour arrived, and brought with it no Mr. Cargill. The impatient entertainer allowed five minutes for difference of clocks, and variation of time, and other five for the procrastination of one who went little into society. But no sooner were the last five minutes expended, than he darted off for the Manse, not, indeed, much like a greyhound or a deer, but with the momentum of a corpulent and well-appetized elderly gentleman, who is in haste to secure his dinner. He bounced without ceremony into the parlour, where he found the worthy divine clothed in the same plaid nightgown, and seated in the very elbow-chair, in which he had left him five hours before. His sudden entrance recalled to Mr. Cargill, not an accurate, but something of a general, recollection, of what had passed in the morning, and he hastened to apologize with “Ha! — indeed — already? — upon my word, Mr. A— a — I mean my dear friend — I am afraid I have used you ill — I forgot to order any dinner — but we will do our best. — Eppie — Eppie!”

Not at the first, second, nor third call, but ex intervallo, as the lawyers express it, Eppie, a bare-legged, shock-headed, thick-ankled, red-armed wench, entered, and announced her presence by an emphatic “What’s your wull?”

“Have you got any thing in the house for dinner, Eppie?”

“Naething but bread and milk, plenty o’t — what should I have?”

“You see, sir,” said Mr. Cargill, “you are like to have a Pythagorean entertainment; but you are a traveller, and have doubtless been in your time thankful for bread and milk.”

“But never when there was any thing better to be had,” said Mr. Touchwood. “Come, Doctor, I beg your pardon, but your wits are fairly gone a wool-gathering; it was I invited you to dinner, up at the inn yonder, and not you me.”

“On my word, and so it was,” said Mr. Cargill; “I knew I was quite right — I knew there was a dinner engagement betwixt us, I was sure of that, and that is the main point. — Come, sir, I wait upon you.”

“Will you not first change your dress?” said the visitor, seeing with astonishment that the divine proposed to attend him in his plaid nightgown; “why, we shall have all the boys in the village after us — you will look like an owl in sunshine, and they will flock round you like so many hedge-sparrows.”

“I will get my clothes instantly,” said the worthy clergyman; “I will get ready directly — I am really ashamed to keep you waiting, my dear Mr. — eh — eh — your name has this instant escaped me.”

“It is Touchwood, sir, at your service; I do not believe you ever heard it before,” answered the traveller.

“True — right — no more I have — well, my good Mr. Touchstone, will you sit down an instant until we see what we can do? — strange slaves we make ourselves to these bodies of ours, Mr. Touchstone — the clothing and the sustaining of them costs us much thought and leisure, which might be better employed in catering for the wants of our immortal spirits.”

Mr. Touchwood thought in his heart that never had Bramin or Gymnosophist less reason to reproach himself with excess in the indulgence of the table, or of the toilet, than the sage before him; but he assented to the doctrine, as he would have done to any minor heresy, rather than protract matters by farther discussing the point at present. In a short time the minister was dressed in his Sunday’s suit, without any farther mistake than turning one of his black stockings inside out; and Mr. Touchwood, happy as was Boswell when he carried off Dr. Johnson in triumph to dine with Strahan and John Wilkes, had the pleasure of escorting him to the Cleikum Inn.

In the course of the afternoon they became more familiar, and the familiarity led to their forming a considerable estimate of each other’s powers and acquirements. It is true, the traveller thought the student too pedantic, too much attached to systems, which, formed in solitude, he was unwilling to renounce, even when contradicted by the voice and testimony of experience; and, moreover, considered his utter inattention to the quality of what he eat and drank, as unworthy of a rational, that is, of a cooking creature, or of a being who, as defined by Johnson, holds his dinner as the most important business of the day. Cargill did not act up to this definition, and was, therefore, in the eyes of his new acquaintance, so far ignorant and uncivilized. What then? He was still a sensible, intelligent man, however abstemious and bookish.

On the other hand, the divine could not help regarding his new friend as something of an epicure or belly-god, nor could he observe in him either the perfect education, or the polished bearing, which mark the gentleman of rank, and of which, while he mingled with the world, he had become a competent judge. Neither did it escape him, that in the catalogue of Mr. Touchwood’s defects, occurred that of many travellers, a slight disposition to exaggerate his own personal adventures, and to prose concerning his own exploits. But then, his acquaintance with Eastern manners, existing now in the same state in which they were found during the time of the Crusades, formed a living commentary on the works of William of Tyre, Raymund of Saint Giles, the Moslem annals of Abulfaragi, and other historians of the dark period, with which his studies were at present occupied.

A friendship, a companionship at least, was therefore struck up hastily betwixt these two originals; and to the astonishment of the whole parish of St. Ronan’s, the minister thereof was seen once more leagued and united with an individual of his species, generally called among them the Cleikum Nabob. Their intercourse sometimes consisted in long walks, which they took in company, traversing, however, as limited a space of ground, as if it had been actually roped in for their pedestrian exercise. Their parade was, according to circumstances, a low haugh at the nether end of the ruinous hamlet, or the esplanade in the front of the old castle; and, in either case, the direct longitude of their promenade never exceeded a hundred yards. Sometimes, but rarely, the divine took share of Mr. Touchwood’s meal, though less splendidly set forth than when he was first invited to partake of it; for, like the owner of the gold cup in Parnell’s Hermit, when cured of his ostentation,

——“Still he welcomed, but with less of cost.”

On these occasions, the conversation was not of the regular and compacted nature, which passes betwixt men, as they are ordinarily termed, of this world. On the contrary, the one party was often thinking of Saladin and Coeur de Lion, when the other was haranguing on Hyder Ali and Sir Eyre Coote. Still, however, the one spoke, and the other seemed to listen; and, perhaps, the lighter intercourse of society, where amusement is the sole object, can scarcely rest on a safer and more secure basis.

It was on one of the evenings when the learned divine had taken his place at Mr. Touchwood’s social board, or rather at Mrs. Dods’s — for a cup of excellent tea, the only luxury which Mr. Cargill continued to partake of with some complacence, was the regale before them — that a card was delivered to the Nabob.

“Mr. and Miss Mowbray see company at Shaws-Castle on the twentieth current, at two o’clock — a déjeûner — dresses in character admitted — A dramatic picture.”

“See company? the more fools they,” he continued by way of comment. “See company? — choice phrases are ever commendable — and this piece of pasteboard is to intimate that one may go and meet all the fools of the parish, if they have a mind — in my time they asked the honour, or the pleasure, of a stranger’s company. I suppose, by and by, we shall have in this country the ceremonial of a Bedouin’s tent, where every ragged Hadgi, with his green turban, comes in slap without leave asked, and has his black paw among the rice, with no other apology than Salam Alicum. —‘Dresses in character — Dramatic picture’— what new tomfoolery can that be? — but it does not signify. — Doctor! I say Doctor! — but he is in the seventh heaven — I say, Mother Dods, you who know all the news — Is this the feast that was put off until Miss Mowbray should be better?”

“Troth is it, Maister Touchwood — they are no in the way of giving twa entertainments in one season — no very wise to gie ane maybe — but they ken best.”

“I say, Doctor, Doctor! — Bless his five wits, he is charging the Moslemah with stout King Richard — I say, Doctor, do you know any thing of these Mowbrays?”

“Nothing extremely particular,” answered Mr. Cargill, after a pause; “it is an ordinary tale of greatness, which blazes in one century, and is extinguished in the next. I think Camden says, that Thomas Mowbray, who was Grand-Marshal of England, succeeded to that high office, as well as to the Dukedom of Norfolk, as grandson of Roger Bigot, in 1301.”

“Pshaw, man, you are back into the 14th century — I mean these Mowbrays of St. Ronan’s — now, don’t fall asleep again until you have answered my question — and don’t look so like a startled hare — I am speaking no treason.”

The clergyman floundered a moment, as is usual with an absent man who is recovering the train of his ideas, or a somnambulist when he is suddenly awakened, and then answered, still with hesitation —

“Mowbray of St. Ronan’s? — ha — eh — I know — that is — I did know the family.”

“Here they are going to give a masquerade, a bal paré, private theatricals, I think, and what not,” handing him the card.

“I saw something of this a fortnight ago,” said Mr. Cargill; “indeed, I either had a ticket myself, or I saw such a one as that.”

“Are you sure you did not attend the party, Doctor?” said the Nabob.

“Who attend? I? you are jesting, Mr. Touchwood.”

“But are you quite positive?” demanded Mr. Touchwood, who had observed, to his infinite amusement, that the learned and abstracted scholar was so conscious of his own peculiarities, as never to be very sure on any such subject.

“Positive!” he repeated with embarrassment; “my memory is so wretched that I never like to be positive — but had I done any thing so far out of my usual way, I must have remembered it, one would think — and — I am positive I was not there.”

“Neither could you, Doctor,” said the Nabob, laughing at the process by which his friend reasoned himself into confidence, “for it did not take place — it was adjourned, and this is the second invitation — there will be one for you, as you had a card to the former. — Come, Doctor, you must go — you and I will go together — I as an Imaum — I can say my Bismillah with any Hadgi of them all — You as a cardinal, or what you like best.”

“Who, I? — it is unbecoming my station, Mr. Touchwood,” said the clergyman —“a folly altogether inconsistent with my habits.”

“All the better — you shall change your habits.”

“You had better gang up and see them, Mr. Cargill,” said Mrs. Dods; “for it’s maybe the last sight ye may see of Miss Mowbray — they say she is to be married and off to England ane of thae odd-come-shortlies, wi’ some of the gowks about the Waal down-by.”

“Married!” said the clergyman; “it is impossible!”

“But where’s the impossibility, Mr. Cargill, when ye see folk marry every day, and buckle them yoursell into the bargain? — Maybe ye think the puir lassie has a bee in her bannet; but ye ken yoursell if naebody but wise folk were to marry, the warld wad be ill peopled. I think it’s the wise folk that keep single, like yoursell and me, Mr. Cargill. — Gude guide us! — are ye weel? — will ye taste a drap o’ something?”

“Sniff at my ottar of roses,” said Mr. Touchwood; “the scent would revive the dead — why, what in the devil’s name is the meaning of this? — you were quite well just now.”

“A sudden qualm,” said Mr. Cargill, recovering himself.

“Oh! Mr. Cargill,” said Dame Dods, “this comes of your lang fasts.”

“Right, dame,” subjoined Mr. Touchwood; “and of breaking them with sour milk and pease bannock — the least morsel of Christian food is rejected by stomach, just as a small gentleman refuses the visit of a creditable neighbour, lest he see the nakedness of the land — ha! ha!”

“And there is really a talk of Miss Mowbray of St Ronan’s being married?” said the clergyman.

“Troth is there,” said the dame; “it’s Trotting Nelly’s news; and though she likes a drappie, I dinna think she would invent a lee or carry ane — at least to me, that am a gude customer.”

“This must be looked to,” said Mr. Cargill, as if speaking to himself.

“In troth, and so it should,” said Dame Dods; “it’s a sin and a shame if they should employ the tinkling cymbal they ca’ Chatterly, and sic a Presbyterian trumpet as yoursell in the land, Mr. Cargill; and if ye will take a fule’s advice, ye winna let the multure be ta’en by your ain mill, Mr. Cargill.”

“True, true, good Mother Dods,” said the Nabob; “gloves and hatbands are things to be looked after, and Mr. Cargill had better go down to this cursed festivity with me, in order to see after his own interest.”

“I must speak with the young lady,” said the clergyman, still in a brown study.

“Right, right, my boy of black-letter,” said the Nabob; “with me you shall go, and we’ll bring them to submission to mother-church, I warrant you — Why, the idea of being cheated in such a way, would scare a Santon out of his trance. — What dress will you wear?”

“My own, to be sure,” said the divine, starting from his reverie.

“True, thou art right again — they may want to knit the knot on the spot, and who would be married by a parson in masquerade? — We go to the entertainment though — it is a done thing.”

The clergyman assented, provided he should receive an invitation; and as that was found at the Manse, he had no excuse for retracting, even if he had seemed to desire one.

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