Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 18

Fortune’s Frolics.

Count Basset. We gentlemen, whose carriages run on the four aces, are apt to have a wheel out of order.

The Provoked Husband.

Our history must now look a little backwards; and although it is rather foreign to our natural style of composition, it must speak more in narrative, and less in dialogue, rather telling what happened, than its effects upon the actors. Our purpose, however, is only conditional, for we foresee temptations which may render it difficult for us exactly to keep it.

The arrival of the young Earl of Etherington at the salutiferous fountain of St. Ronan’s had produced the strongest sensation; especially, as it was joined with the singular accident of the attempt upon his lordship’s person, as he took a short cut through the woods on foot, at a distance from his equipage and servants. The gallantry with which he beat off the highwayman, was only equal to his generosity; for he declined making any researches after the poor devil, although his lordship had received a severe wound in the scuffle.

Of the “three black Graces,” as they have been termed by one of the most pleasant companions of our time, Law and Physic hastened to do homage to Lord Etherington, represented by Mr. Meiklewham and Dr. Quackleben; while Divinity, as favourable, though more coy, in the person of the Reverend Mr. Simon Chatterly, stood on tiptoe to offer any service in her power.

For the honourable reason already assigned, his lordship, after thanking Mr. Meiklewham, and hinting, that he might have different occasion for his services, declined his offer to search out the delinquent by whom he had been wounded; while to the care of the Doctor he subjected the cure of a smart flesh-wound in the arm, together with a slight scratch on the temple; and so very genteel was his behaviour on the occasion, that the Doctor, in his anxiety for his safety, enjoined him a month’s course of the waters, if he would enjoy the comfort of a complete and perfect recovery. Nothing so frequent, he could assure his lordship, as the opening of cicatrized wounds; and the waters of St. Ronan’s spring being, according to Dr. Quackleben, a remedy for all the troubles which flesh is heir to, could not fail to equal those of Barege, in facilitating the discharge of all splinters or extraneous matter, which a bullet may chance to incorporate with the human frame, to its great annoyance. For he was wont to say, that although he could not declare the waters which he patronised to be an absolute panpharmacon, yet he would with word and pen maintain, that they possessed the principal virtues of the most celebrated medicinal springs in the known world. In short, the love of Alpheus for Arethusa was a mere jest, compared to that which the Doctor entertained for his favourite fountain.

The new and noble guest, whose arrival so much illustrated these scenes of convalescence and of gaiety, was not at first seen so much at the ordinary, and other places of public resort, as had been the hope of the worthy company assembled. His health and his wound proved an excuse for making his visits to the society few and far between.

But when he did appear, his manners and person were infinitely captivating; and even the carnation-coloured silk handkerchief, which suspended his wounded arm, together with the paleness and languor which loss of blood had left on his handsome and open countenance, gave a grace to the whole person which many of the ladies declared irresistible. All contended for his notice, attracted at once by his affability, and piqued by the calm and easy nonchalance with which it seemed to be blended. The scheming and selfish Mowbray, the coarse-minded and brutal Sir Bingo, accustomed to consider themselves, and to be considered, as the first men of the party, sunk into comparative insignificance. But chiefly Lady Penelope threw out the captivations of her wit and her literature; while Lady Binks, trusting to her natural charms, endeavoured equally to attract his notice. The other nymphs of the Spa held a little back, upon the principle of that politeness, which, at continental hunting parties, affords the first shot at a fine piece of game, to the person of the highest rank present; but the thought throbbed in many a fair bosom, that their ladyships might miss their aim, in spite of the advantages thus allowed them, and that there might then be room for less exalted, but perhaps not less skilful, markswomen, to try their chance.

But while the Earl thus withdrew from public society, it was necessary, at least natural, that he should choose some one with whom to share the solitude of his own apartment; and Mowbray, superior in rank to the half-pay whisky-drinking Captain MacTurk; in dash to Winterblossom, who was broken down, and turned twaddler; and in tact and sense to Sir Bingo Binks, easily manoeuvred himself into his lordship’s more intimate society; and internally thanking the honest footpad, whose bullet had been the indirect means of secluding his intended victim from all society but his own, he gradually began to feel the way, and prove the strength of his antagonist, at the various games of skill and hazard which he introduced, apparently with the sole purpose of relieving the tedium of a sick-chamber.

Meiklewham, who felt, or affected, the greatest possible interest in his patron’s success, and who watched every opportunity to enquire how his schemes advanced, received at first such favourable accounts as made him grin from ear to ear, rub his hands, and chuckle forth such bursts of glee as only the success of triumphant roguery could have extorted from him. Mowbray looked grave, however, and checked his mirth.

“There was something in it after all,” he said, “that he could not perfectly understand. Etherington, an used hand — d —— d sharp — up to every thing, and yet he lost his money like a baby.”

“And what the matter how he loses it, so you win it like a man?” said his legal friend and adviser.

“Why, hang it, I cannot tell,” replied Mowbray —“were it not that I think he has scarce the impudence to propose such a thing to succeed, curse me but I should think he was coming the old soldier over me, and keeping up his game. — But no — he can scarce have the impudence to think of that. — I find, however, that he has done Wolverine — cleaned out poor Tom — though Tom wrote to me the precise contrary, yet the truth has since come out — Well, I shall avenge him, for I see his lordship is to be had as well as other folk.”

“Weel, Mr. Mowbray,” said the lawyer, in a tone of affected sympathy, “ye ken your own ways best — but the heavens will bless a moderate mind. I would not like to see you ruin this poor lad, funditus, that is to say, out and out. To lose some of the ready will do him no great harm, and maybe give him a lesson he may be the better of as long as he lives — but I wad not, as an honest man, wish you to go deeper — you should spare the lad, Mr. Mowbray.”

“Who spared me, Meiklewham?” said Mowbray, with a look and tone of deep emphasis —“No, no — he must go through the mill — money and money’s worth. — His seat is called Oakendale — think of that, Mick — Oakendale! Oh, name of thrice happy augury! — Speak not of mercy, Mick — the squirrels of Oakendale must be dismounted, and learn to go a-foot. — What mercy can the wandering lord of Troy expect among the Greeks? — The Greeks! — I am a very Suliote — the bravest of Greeks.

‘I think not of pity, I think not of fear,

He neither must know who would serve the Vizier.’

And necessity, Mick,” he concluded, with a tone something altered, “necessity is as unrelenting a leader as any Vizier or Pacha, whom Scanderbeg ever fought with, or Byron has sung.”

Meiklewham echoed his patron’s ejaculation with a sound betwixt a whine, a chuckle, and a groan; the first being designed to express his pretended pity for the destined victim; the second his sympathy with his patron’s prospects of success; and the third being a whistle admonitory of the dangerous courses through which his object was to be pursued.

Suliote as he boasted himself, Mowbray had, soon after this conversation, some reason to admit that,

“When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war.”

The light skirmishing betwixt the parties was ended, and the serious battle commenced with some caution on either side; each perhaps, desirous of being master of his opponent’s system of tactics, before exposing his own. Piquet, the most beautiful game at which a man can make sacrifice of his fortune, was one with which Mowbray had, for his misfortune perhaps, been accounted, from an early age, a great proficient, and in which the Earl of Etherington, with less experience, proved no novice. They now played for such stakes as Mowbray’s state of fortune rendered considerable to him, though his antagonist appeared not to regard the amount. And they played with various success; for, though Mowbray at times returned with a smile of confidence the enquiring looks of his friend Meiklewham, there were other occasions on which he seemed to evade them, as if his own had a sad confession to make in reply.

These alternations, though frequent, did not occupy, after all, many days; for Mowbray, a friend of all hours, spent much of his time in Lord Etherington’s apartment, and these few days were days of battle. In the meantime, as his lordship was now sufficiently recovered to join the Party at Shaws-Castle, and Miss Mowbray’s health being announced as restored, that proposal was renewed, with the addition of a dramatic entertainment, the nature of which we shall afterwards have occasion to explain. Cards were anew issued to all those who had been formerly included in the invitation, and of course to Mr. Touchwood, as formerly a resident at the Well, and now in the neighbourhood; it being previously agreed among the ladies, that a Nabob, though sometimes a dingy or damaged commodity, was not to be rashly or unnecessarily neglected. As to the parson, he had been asked, of course, as an old acquaintance of the Mowbray house, not to be left out when the friends of the family were invited on a great scale; but his habits were well known, and it was no more expected that he would leave his manse on such an occasion, than that the kirk should loosen itself from its foundations.

It was after these arrangements had been made, that the Laird of St. Ronan’s suddenly entered Meiklewham’s private apartment with looks of exultation. The worthy scribe turned his spectacled nose towards his patron, and holding in one hand the bunch of papers which he had been just perusing, and in the other the tape with which he was about to tie them up again, suspended that operation to await with open eyes and ears the communication of Mowbray.

“I have done him!” he said, exultingly, yet in a tone of voice lowered almost to a whisper; “capotted his lordship for this bout — doubled my capital, Mick, and something more. — Hush, don’t interrupt me — we must think of Clara now — she must share the sunshine, should it prove but a blink before a storm. — You know, Mick, these two d —— d women, Lady Penelope and the Binks, have settled that they will have something like a bal paré on this occasion, a sort of theatrical exhibition, and that those who like it shall be dressed in character. — I know their meaning — they think Clara has no dress fit for such foolery, and so they hope to eclipse her; Lady Pen, with her old-fashioned, ill-set diamonds, and my Lady Binks, with the new-fashioned finery which she swopt her character for. But Clara shan’t borne down so, by ——! I got that affected slut, Lady Binks’s maid, to tell me what her mistress had set her mind on, and she is to wear a Grecian habit, forsooth, like one of Will Allan’s Eastern subjects. — But here’s the rub — there is only one shawl for sale in Edinburgh that is worth showing off in, and that is at the Gallery of Fashion. — Now, Mick, my friend, that shawl must be had for Clara, with the other trankums of muslin and lace, and so forth, which you will find marked in the paper there. — Send instantly and secure it, for, as Lady Binks writes by tomorrow’s post, your order can go by to-night’s mail — There is a note for L.100.”

From a mechanical habit of never refusing any thing, Meiklewham readily took the note, but having looked at it through his spectacles, he continued to hold it in his hand as he remonstrated with his patron. —“This is a’ very kindly meant, St. Ronan’s — very kindly meant; and I wad be the last to say that Miss Clara does not merit respect and kindness at your hand; but I doubt mickle if she wad care a bodle for thae braw things. Ye ken yoursell, she seldom alters her fashions. Od, she thinks her riding-habit dress eneugh for ony company; and if you were ganging by good looks, so it is — if she had a thought mair colour, poor dear.”

“Well, well,” said Mowbray, impatiently, “let me alone to reconcile a woman and a fine dress.”

“To be sure, ye ken best,” said the writer; “but, after a’, now, wad it no be better to lay by this hundred pound in Tam Turnpenny’s, in case the young lady should want it afterhend, just for a sair foot?”

“You are a fool, Mick; what signifies healing a sore foot, when there will be a broken heart in the case? — No, no — get the things as I desire you — we will blaze them down for one day at least; perhaps it will be the beginning of a proper dash.”

“Weel, weel, I wish it may be so,” answered Meiklewham; “but this young Earl — hae ye found the weak point? — Can ye get a decerniture against him, with expenses? — that is the question.”

“I wish I could answer it,” said Mowbray, thoughtfully. —“Confound the fellow — he is a cut above me in rank and in society too — belongs to the great clubs, and is in with the Superlatives and Inaccessibles, and all that sort of folk. — My training has been a peg lower — but, hang it, there are better dogs bred in the kennel than in the parlour. I am up to him, I think — at least I will soon know, Mick, whether I am or no, and that is always one comfort. Never mind — do you execute my commission, and take care you name no names — I must save my little Abigail’s reputation.”

They parted, Meiklewham to execute his patron’s commission — his patron to bring to the test those hopes, the uncertainty of which he could not disguise from his own sagacity.

Trusting to the continuance of his run of luck, Mowbray resolved to bring affairs to a crisis that same evening. Every thing seemed in the outset to favour his purpose. They had dined together in Lord Etherington’s apartments — his state of health interfered with the circulation of the bottle, and a drizzly autumnal evening rendered walking disagreeable, even had they gone no farther than the private stable where Lord Etherington’s horses were kept, under the care of a groom of superior skill. Cards were naturally, almost necessarily, resorted to, as the only alternative for helping away the evening, and piquet was, as formerly, chosen for the game.

Lord Etherington seemed at first indolently careless and indifferent about his play, suffering advantages to escape him, of which, in a more attentive state of mind, he could not have failed to avail himself. Mowbray upbraided him with his inattention, and proposed a deeper stake, in order to interest him in the game. The young nobleman complied; and in the course of a few hands, the gamesters became both deeply engaged in watching and profiting by the changes of fortune. These were so many, so varied, and so unexpected, that the very souls of the players seemed at length centred in the event of the struggle; and, by dint of doubling stakes, the accumulated sum of a thousand pounds and upwards, upon each side, came to be staked in the issue of the game. — So large a risk included all those funds which Mowbray commanded by his sister’s kindness, and nearly all his previous winnings, so to him the alternative was victory or ruin. He could not hide his agitation, however desirous to do so. He drank wine to supply himself with courage — he drank water to cool his agitation; and at length bent himself to play with as much care and attention as he felt himself enabled to command.

In the first part of the game their luck appeared tolerably equal, and the play of both befitting gamesters who had dared to place such a sum on the cast. But, as it drew towards a conclusion, fortune altogether deserted him who stood most in need of her favour, and Mowbray, with silent despair, saw his fate depend on a single trick, and that with every odds against him, for Lord Etherington was elder hand. But how can fortune’s favour secure any one who is not true to himself? — By an infraction of the laws of the game, which could only have been expected from the veriest bungler that ever touched a card, Lord Etherington called a point without showing it, and, by the ordinary rule, Mowbray was entitled to count his own — and in the course of that and the next hand, gained the game and swept the stakes. Lord Etherington showed chagrin and displeasure, and seemed to think that the rigour of the game had been more insisted upon than in courtesy it ought to have been, when men were playing for so small a stake. Mowbray did not understand this logic. A thousand pounds, he said, were in his eyes no nutshells; the rules of piquet were insisted on by all but boys and women; and for his part, he had rather not play at all than not play the game.

“So it would seem, my dear Mowbray,” said the Earl; “for on my soul, I never saw so disconsolate a visage as thine during that unlucky game — it withdrew all my attention from my hand; and I may safely say, your rueful countenance has stood me in a thousand pounds. If I could transfer thy long visage to canvass, I should have both my revenge and my money; for a correct resemblance would be worth not a penny less than the original has cost me.”

“You are welcome to your jest, my lord,” said Mowbray, “it has been well paid for; and I will serve you in ten thousand at the same rate. What say you?” he proceeded, taking up and shuffling the cards, “will you do yourself more justice in another game? — Revenge, they say, is sweet.”

“I have no appetite for it this evening,” said the Earl, gravely; “if I had, Mowbray, you might come by the worse. I do not always call a point without showing it.”

“Your lordship is out of humour with yourself for a blunder that might happen to any man — it was as much my good luck as a good hand would have been, and so fortune be praised.”

“But what if with this Fortune had nought to do?” replied Lord Etherington. —“What if, sitting down with an honest fellow and a friend like yourself, Mowbray, a man should rather choose to lose his own money, which he could afford, than to win what it might distress his friend to part with?”

“Supposing a case so far out of supposition, my lord,” answered Mowbray, who felt the question ticklish —“for, with submission, the allegation is easily made, and is totally incapable of proof — I should say, no one had a right to think for me in such a particular, or to suppose that I played for a higher stake than was convenient.”

“And thus your friend, poor devil,” replied Lord Etherington, “would lose his money, and run the risk of a quarrel into the boot! — We will try it another way — Suppose this good-humoured and simple-minded gamester had a favour of the deepest import to ask of his friend, and judged it better to prefer his request to a winner than to a loser?”

“If this applies to me, my lord,” replied Mowbray, “it is necessary I should learn how I can oblige your lordship.”

“That is a word soon spoken, but so difficult to be recalled, that I am almost tempted to pause — but yet it must be said. — Mowbray, you have a sister.”

Mowbray started. —“I have indeed a sister, my lord; but I can conceive no case in which her name can enter with propriety into our present discussion.”

“Again in the menacing mood!” said Lord Etherington, in his former tone; “now, here is a pretty fellow — he would first cut my throat for having won a thousand pounds from me, and then for offering to make his sister a countess!”

“A countess, my lord?” said Mowbray; “you are but jesting — you have never even seen Clara Mowbray.”

“Perhaps not — but what then? — I may have seen her picture, as Puff says in the Critic, or fallen in love with her from rumour — or, to save farther suppositions, as I see they render you impatient, I may be satisfied with knowing that she is a beautiful and accomplished young lady, with a large fortune.”

“What fortune do you mean, my lord?” said Mowbray, recollecting with alarm some claims, which, according to Meiklewham’s view of the subject, his sister might form upon his property. —“What estate? — there is nothing belongs to our family, save these lands of St. Ronan’s, or what is left of them; and of these I am, my lord, an undoubted heir of entail in possession.”

“Be it so,” said the Earl, “for I have no claim on your mountain realms here, which are, doubtless,

——‘renown’d of old

For knights, and squires, and barons bold;’

my views respect a much richer, though less romantic domain — a large manor, hight Nettlewood. House old, but standing in the midst of such glorious oaks — three thousand acres of land, arable, pasture, and woodland, exclusive of the two closes, occupied by Widow Hodge and Goodman Trampclod — manorial rights — mines and minerals — and the devil knows how many good things besides, all lying in the vale of Bever.”

“And what has my sister to do with all this?” asked Mowbray, in great surprise.

“Nothing; but that it belongs to her when she becomes Countess of Etherington.”

“It is, then, your lordship’s property already?”

“No, by Jove! nor can it, unless your sister honours me with her approbation of my suit,” replied the Earl.

“This is a sorer puzzle than one of Lady Penelope’s charades, my lord,” said Mr. Mowbray; “I must call in the assistance of the Reverend Mr. Chatterly.”

“You shall not need,” said Lord Etherington; “I will give you the key, but listen to me with patience. — You know that we nobles of England, less jealous of our sixteen quarters than those on the continent, do not take scorn to line our decayed ermines with the little cloth of gold from the city; and my grandfather was lucky enough to get a wealthy wife, with a halting pedigree — rather a singular circumstance, considering that her father was a countryman of yours. She had a brother, however, still more wealthy than herself, and who increased his fortune by continuing to carry on the trade which had first enriched his family. At length he summed up his books, washed his hands of commerce, and retired to Nettlewood, to become a gentleman; and here my much respected grand-uncle was seized with the rage of making himself a man of consequence. He tried what marrying a woman of family would do; but he soon found that whatever advantage his family might derive from his doing so, his own condition was but little illustrated. He next resolved to become a man of family himself. His father had left Scotland when very young, and bore, I blush to say, the vulgar name of Scrogie. This hapless dissyllable my uncle carried in person to the herald office in Scotland; but neither Lyon, nor Marchmont, nor Islay, nor Snadoun, neither herald nor pursuivant, would patronise Scrogie. — Scrogie! — there could nothing be made out of it — so that my worthy relative had recourse to the surer side of the house, and began to found his dignity on his mother’s name of Mowbray. In this he was much more successful, and I believe some sly fellow stole for him a slip from your own family tree, Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan’s, which, I daresay, you have never missed. At any rate, for his argent and or, he got a handsome piece of parchment, blazoned with a white lion for Mowbray, to be borne quarterly, with three stunted or scrog-bushes for Scrogie, and became thenceforth Mr. Scrogie Mowbray, or rather, as he subscribed himself, Reginald (his former Christian name was Ronald) S. Mowbray. He had a son who most undutifully laughed at all this, refused the honours of the high name of Mowbray, and insisted on retaining his father’s original appellative of Scrogie, to the great annoyance of his said father’s ears, and damage of his temper.”

“Why, faith, betwixt the two,” said Mowbray, “I own I should have preferred my own name, and I think the old gentleman’s taste rather better than the young one’s.”

“True; but both were wilful, absurd originals, with a happy obstinacy of temper, whether derived from Mowbray or Scrogie I know not, but which led them so often into opposition, that the offended father, Reginald S. Mowbray, turned his recusant son Scrogie fairly out of doors; and the fellow would have paid for his plebeian spirit with a vengeance, had he not found refuge with a surviving partner of the original Scrogie of all, who still carried on the lucrative branch of traffic by which the family had been first enriched. I mention these particulars to account, in so far as I can, for the singular predicament in which I now find myself placed.”

“Proceed, my lord,” said Mr. Mowbray; “there is no denying the singularity of your story, and I presume you are quite serious in giving me such an extraordinary detail.”

“Entirely so, upon my honour — and a most serious matter it is, you will presently find. When my worthy uncle, Mr. S. Mowbray, (for I will not call him Scrogie even in the grave,) paid his debt to nature, every body concluded he would be found to have disinherited his son, the unfilial Scrogie, and so far every body was right — But it was also generally believed that he would settle the estate on my father, Lord Etherington, the son of his sister, and therein every one was wrong. For my excellent grand-uncle had pondered with himself, that the favoured name of Mowbray would take no advantage, and attain no additional elevation, if his estate of Nettlewood (otherwise called Mowbray-Park) should descend to our family without any condition; and with the assistance of a sharp attorney, he settled it on me, then a schoolboy, on condition that I should, before attaining the age of twenty-five complete, take unto myself in holy wedlock a young lady of good fame, of the name of Mowbray, and, by preference, of the house of St. Ronan’s, should a damsel of that house exist. — Now my riddle is read.”

“And a very extraordinary one it is,” replied Mowbray, thoughtfully.

“Confess the truth,” said Lord Etherington, laying his hand on his shoulder; “you think the story will bear a grain of a scruple of doubt, if not a whole scruple itself?”

“At least, my lord,” answered Mowbray, “your lordship will allow, that, being Miss Mowbray’s only near relation, and sole guardian, I may, without offence, pause upon a suit for her hand, made under such odd circumstances.”

“If you have the least doubt either respecting my rank or fortune, I can give, of course, the most satisfactory references,” said the Earl of Etherington.

“That I can easily believe, my lord,” said Mowbray; “nor do I in the least fear deception, where detection would be so easy. Your lordship’s proceedings towards me, too,” (with a conscious glance at the bills he still held in his hand,) “have, I admit, been such as to intimate some such deep cause of interest as you have been pleased to state. But it seems strange that your lordship should have permitted years to glide away, without so much as enquiring after the young lady, who, I believe, is the only person qualified as your grand-uncle’s will requires, with whom you can form an alliance. It appears to me, that long before now, this matter ought to have been investigated; and that, even now, it would have been more natural and more decorous to have at least seen my sister before proposing for her hand.”

“On the first point, my dear Mowbray,” said Lord Etherington, “I am free to own to you, that, without meaning your sister the least affront, I would have got rid of this clause if I could; for every man would fain choose a wife for himself, and I feel no hurry to marry at all. But the rogue-lawyers, after taking fees, and keeping me in hand for years, have at length roundly told me the clause must be complied with, or Nettlewood must have another master. So I thought it best to come down here in person, in order to address the fair lady; but as accident has hitherto prevented my seeing her, and as I found in her brother a man who understands the world, I hope you will not think the worse of me, that I have endeavoured in the outset to make you my friend. Truth is, I shall be twenty-five in the course of a month; and without your favour, and the opportunities which only you can afford me, that seems a short time to woo and win a lady of Miss Mowbray’s merit.”

“And what is the alternative if you do not form this proposed alliance, my lord?” said Mowbray.

“The bequest of my grand-uncle lapses,” said the Earl, “and fair Nettlewood, with its old house, and older oaks, manorial rights, Hodge Trampclod, and all, devolves on a certain cousin-german of mine, whom Heaven of his mercy confound!”

“You have left yourself little time to prevent such an event, my lord,” said Mowbray; “but things being as I now see them, you shall have what interest I can give you in the affair. — We must stand, however, on more equal terms, my lord — I will condescend so far as to allow it would have been inconvenient for me at this moment to have lost that game, but I cannot in the circumstances think of acting as if I had fairly won it. We must draw stakes, my lord.”

“Not a word of that, if you really mean me kindly, my dear Mowbray. The blunder was a real one, for I was indeed thinking, as you may suppose, on other things than the showing my point — All was fairly lost and won. — I hope I shall have opportunities of offering real services, which may perhaps give me some right to your partial regard — at present we are on equal footing on all sides — perfectly so.”

“If your lordship thinks so,” said Mowbray — and then passing rapidly to what he felt he could say with more confidence — “Indeed, at any rate, no personal obligation to myself could prevent my doing my full duty as guardian to my sister.”

“Unquestionably, I desire nothing else,” replied the Earl of Etherington.

“I must therefore understand that your lordship is quite serious in your proposal; and that it is not to be withdrawn, even if upon acquaintance with Miss Mowbray, you should not perhaps think her so deserving of your lordship’s attentions, as report may have spoken her.”

“Mr. Mowbray,” replied the Earl, “the treaty between you and me shall be as definite as if I were a sovereign prince, demanding in marriage the sister of a neighbouring monarch, whom, according to royal etiquette, he neither has seen nor could see. I have been quite frank with you, and I have stated to you that my present motives for entering upon negotiation are not personal, but territorial; when I know Miss Mowbray, I have no doubt they will be otherwise. I have heard she is beautiful.”

“Something of the palest, my lord,” answered Mowbray.

“A fine complexion is the first attraction which is lost in the world of fashion, and that which it is easiest to replace.”

“Dispositions, my lord, may differ,” said Mowbray, “without faults on either side. I presume your lordship has enquired into my sister’s. She is amiable, accomplished, sensible, and high-spirited; but yet”——

“I understand you, Mr. Mowbray, and will spare you the pain of speaking out. I have heard Miss Mowbray is in some respects — particular; to use a broader word — a little whimsical. — No matter. She will have the less to learn when she becomes a countess, and a woman of fashion.”

“Are you serious, my lord?” said Mowbray.

“I am — and I will speak my mind still more plainly. I have good temper, and excellent spirits, and can endure a good deal of singularity in those I live with. I have no doubt your sister and I will live happily together — But in case it should prove otherwise, arrangements may be made previously, which will enable us in certain circumstances to live happily apart. My own estate is large, and Nettlewood will bear dividing.”

“Nay, then,” said Mowbray, “I have little more to say — nothing indeed remains for enquiry, so far as your lordship is concerned. But my sister must have free liberty of choice — so far as I am concerned, your lordship’s suit has my interest.”

“And I trust we may consider it as a done thing?”

“With Clara’s approbation — certainly,” answered Mowbray.

“I trust there is no chance of personal repugnance on the young lady’s part?” said the young peer.

“I anticipate nothing of the kind, my lord,” answered Mowbray, “as I presume there is no reason for any; but young ladies will be capricious, and if Clara, after I have done and said all that a brother ought to do, should remain repugnant, there is a point in the exertion of my influence which it would be cruelty to pass.”

The Earl of Etherington walked a turn through the apartment, then paused, and said, in a grave and doubtful tone, “In the meanwhile, I am bound, and the young lady is free, Mowbray. Is this quite fair?”

“It is what happens in every case, my lord, where a gentleman proposes for a lady,” answered Mowbray; “he must remain, of course, bound by his offer, until, within a reasonable time, it is accepted or rejected. It is not my fault that your lordship has declared your wishes to me, before ascertaining Clara’s inclination. But while as yet the matter is between ourselves — I make you welcome to draw back if you think proper. Clara Mowbray needs not push for a catch-match.”

“Nor do I desire,” said the young nobleman, “any time to reconsider the resolution which I have confided to you. I am not in the least fearful that I shall change my mind on seeing your sister, and I am ready to stand by the proposal which I have made to you. — If, however, you feel so extremely delicately on my account,” he continued, “I can see and even converse with Miss Mowbray at this fête of yours, without the necessity of being at all presented to her — The character which I have assumed in a manner obliges me to wear a mask.”

“Certainly,” said the Laird of St. Ronan’s, “and I am glad, for both our sakes, your lordship thinks of taking a little law upon this occasion.”

“I shall profit nothing by it,” said the Earl; “my doom is fixed before I start — but if this mode of managing the matter will save your conscience, I have no objection to it — it cannot consume much time, which is what I have to look to.”

They then shook hands and parted, without any farther discourse which could interest the reader.

Mowbray was glad to find himself alone, in order to think over what had happened, and to ascertain the state of his own mind, which at present was puzzling even to himself. He could not but feel that much greater advantages of every kind might accrue to himself and his family from the alliance of the wealthy young Earl, than could have been derived from any share of his spoils which he had proposed to gain by superior address in play, or greater skill on the turf. But his pride was hurt when he recollected that he had placed himself entirely in Lord Etherington’s power; and the escape from absolute ruin which he had made, solely by the sufferance of his opponent, had nothing in it consolatory to his wounded feelings. He was lowered in his own eyes, when he recollected how completely the proposed victim of his ingenuity had seen through his schemes, and only abstained from baffling them entirely, because to do so suited best with his own. There was a shade of suspicion, too, which he could not entirely eradicate from his mind. — What occasion had this young nobleman to preface, by the voluntary loss of a brace of thousands, a proposal which must have been acceptable in itself, without any such sacrifice? And why should he, after all, have been so eager to secure his accession to the proposed alliance, before he had even seen the lady who was the object of it? However hurried for time, he might have waited the event at least of the entertainment at Shaws-Castle, at which Clara was necessarily obliged to make her appearance. — Yet such conduct, however unusual, was equally inconsistent with any sinister intentions; since the sacrifice of a large sum of money, and the declaration of his views upon a portionless young lady of family, could scarcely be the preface to any unfair practice. So that, upon the whole, Mowbray settled, that what was uncommon in the Earl’s conduct arose from the hasty and eager disposition of a rich young Englishman, to whom money is of little consequence, and who is too headlong in pursuit of the favourite plan of the moment, to proceed in the most rational or most ordinary manner. If, however, there should prove any thing farther in the matter than he could at present discover, Mowbray promised himself that the utmost circumspection on his part could not fail to discover it, and that in full time to prevent any ill consequences to his sister or himself.

Immersed in such cogitations, he avoided the inquisitive presence of Mr. Meiklewham, who, as usual, had been watching for him to learn how matters were going on; and although it was now late, he mounted his horse, and rode hastily to Shaws-Castle. On the way, he deliberated with himself whether to mention to his sister the application which had been made to him, in order to prepare her to receive the young Earl as a suitor, favoured with her brother’s approbation. “But no, no, no;” such was the result of his contemplation. “She might take it into her head that his thoughts were bent less upon having her for a countess, than on obtaining possession of his grand-uncle’s estate. — We must keep quiet,” concluded he, “until her personal appearance and accomplishments may appear at least to have some influence upon his choice. — We must say nothing till this blessed entertainment has been given and received.”

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