Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 25


—— By your leave, gentle wax.


In the hall of Shaws-Castle the Earl of Etherington met Mowbray, returned from his fruitless chase after the bearer of the anonymous epistle before recited; and who had but just learned, on his return, that the Earl of Etherington was with his sister. There was a degree of mutual confusion when they met; for Mowbray had the contents of the anonymous letter fresh in his mind, and Lord Etherington, notwithstanding all the coolness which he had endeavoured to maintain, had not gone through the scene with Clara without discomposure. Mowbray asked the Earl whether he had seen his sister, and invited him, at the same time, to return to the parlour; and his lordship replied, in a tone as indifferent as he could assume, that he had enjoyed the honour of the lady’s company for several minutes, and would not now intrude farther upon Miss Mowbray’s patience.

“You have had such a reception as was agreeable, my lord, I trust?” said Mowbray. “I hope Clara did the honours of the house with propriety during my absence?”

“Miss Mowbray seemed a little fluttered with my sudden appearance,” said the Earl; “the servant showed me in rather abruptly; and, circumstanced as we were, there is always awkwardness in a first meeting, where there is no third party to act as master of the ceremonies. — I suspect, from the lady’s looks, that you have not quite kept my secret, my good friend. I myself, too, felt a little consciousness in approaching Miss Mowbray — but it is over now; and, the ice being fairly broken, I hope to have other and more convenient opportunities to improve the advantage I have just gained in acquiring your lovely sister’s personal acquaintance.”

“So be it,” said Mowbray; “but, as you declare for leaving the castle just now, I must first speak a single word with your lordship, for which this place is not altogether convenient.”

“I can have no objections, my dear Jack,” said Etherington, following him with a thrill of conscious feeling, somewhat perhaps like that of the spider when he perceives his deceitful web is threatened with injury, and sits balanced in the centre, watching every point, and uncertain which he may be called upon first to defend. Such is one part, and not the slightest part, of the penance which never fails to wait on those, who, abandoning the “fair play of the world,” endeavour to work out their purposes by a process of deception and intrigue.

“My lord,” said Mowbray, when they had entered a little apartment, in which the latter kept his guns, fishing-tackle, and other implements of sport, “you have played on the square with me; nay, more — I am bound to allow you have given me great odds. I am therefore not entitled to hear any reports to the prejudice of your lordship’s character, without instantly communicating them. There is an anonymous letter which I have just received. Perhaps your lordship may know the hand, and thus be enabled to detect the writer.”

“I do know the hand,” said the Earl, as he received the note from Mowbray; “and, allow me to say, it is the only one which could have dared to frame any calumny to my prejudice. I hope, Mr. Mowbray, it is impossible for you to consider this infamous charge as any thing but a falsehood?”

“My placing it in your lordship’s hands, without farther enquiry, is a sufficient proof that I hold it such, my lord; at the same time that I cannot doubt for a moment that your lordship has it in your power to overthrow so frail a calumny by the most satisfactory evidence.”

“Unquestionably I can, Mr. Mowbray,” said the Earl; “for, besides my being in full possession of the estate and title of my father, the late Earl of Etherington, I have my father’s contract of marriage, my own certificate of baptism, and the evidence of the whole country, to establish my right. All these shall be produced with the least delay possible. You will not think it surprising that one does not travel with this sort of documents in one’s post-chaise.”

“Certainly not, my lord,” said Mowbray; “it is sufficient they are forthcoming when called for. But, may I enquire, my lord, who the writer of this letter is, and whether he has any particular spleen to gratify by this very impudent assertion, which is so easily capable of being disproved?”

“He is,” said Etherington, “or, at least, has the reputation of being, I am sorry to say, a near — a very near relation of my own — in fact, a brother by the father’s side, but illegitimate. — My father was fond of him — I loved him also, for he has uncommonly fine parts, and is accounted highly accomplished. But there is a strain of something irregular in his mind — a vein, in short, of madness, which breaks out in the usual manner, rendering the poor young man a dupe to vain imaginations of his own dignity and grandeur, which is perhaps the most ordinary effect of insanity, and inspiring the deepest aversion against his nearest relatives, and against myself in particular. He is a man extremely plausible, both in speech and manners; so much so, that many of my friends think there is more vice than insanity in the irregularities which he commits; but I may, I hope, be forgiven, if I have formed a milder judgment of one supposed to be my father’s son. Indeed, I cannot help being sorry for poor Frank, who might have made a very distinguished figure in the world.”

“May I ask the gentleman’s name, my lord?” said Mowbray.

“My father’s indulgence gave him our family name of Tyrrel, with his own Christian name Francis; but his proper name, to which alone he has a right, is Martigny.”

“Francis Tyrrel!” exclaimed Mowbray; “why, that is the name of the very person who made some disturbance at the Well just before your lordship arrived. — You may have seen an advertisement — a sort of placard.”

“I have, Mr. Mowbray,” said the Earl. “Spare me on that subject, if you please — it has formed a strong reason why I did not mention my connexion with this unhappy man before; but it is no unusual thing for persons, whose imaginations are excited, to rush into causeless quarrels, and then to make discreditable retreats from them.”

“Or,” said Mr. Mowbray, “he may have, after all, been prevented from reaching the place of rendezvous — it was that very day on which your lordship, I think, received your wound; and, if I mistake not, you hit the man from whom you got the hurt.”

“Mowbray,” said Lord Etherington, lowering his voice, and taking him by the arm, “it is true that I did so — and truly glad I am to observe, that, whatever might have been the consequences of such an accident, they cannot have been serious. — It struck me afterwards, that the man by whom I was so strangely assaulted, had some resemblance to the unfortunate Tyrrel — but I had not seen him for years. — At any rate, he cannot have been much hurt, since he is now able to resume his intrigues to the prejudice of my character.”

“Your lordship views the thing with a firm eye,” said Mowbray; “firmer than I think most people would be able to command, who had so narrow a chance of a scrape so uncomfortable.”

“Why, I am, in the first place, by no means sure that the risk existed,” said the Earl of Etherington; “for, as I have often told you, I had but a very transient glimpse of the ruffian; and, in the second place, I am sure that no permanent bad consequences have ensued. I am too old a fox-hunter to be afraid of a leap after it is cleared, as they tell of the fellow who fainted in the morning at the sight of the precipice he had clambered over when he was drunk on the night before. The man who wrote that letter,” touching it with his finger, “is alive, and able to threaten me; and if he did come to any hurt from my hand, it was in the act of attempting my life, of which I shall carry the mark to my grave.”

“Nay, I am far from blaming your lordship,” said Mowbray, “for what you did in self-defence, but the circumstance might have turned out very unpleasant. — May I ask what you intend to do with this unfortunate gentleman, who is in all probability in the neighbourhood?”

“I must first discover the place of his retreat,” said Lord Etherington, “and then consider what is to be done both for his safety, poor fellow, and my own. It is probable, too, that he may find sharpers to prey upon what fortune he still possesses, which, I assure you, is sufficient to attract a set of folk, who may ruin while they humour him. — May I beg that you, too, will be on the outlook, and let me know if you hear or see more of him?”

“I shall, most certainly, my lord,” answered Mowbray; “but the only one of his haunts which I know, is the old Cleikum Inn, where he chose to take up his residence. He has now left it, but perhaps the old crab-fish of a landlady may know something of him.”

“I will not fail to enquire,” said Lord Etherington; and, with these words, he took a kind farewell of Mowbray, mounted his horse, and rode up the avenue.

“A cool fellow,” said Mowbray, as he looked after him, “a d — d cool fellow, this brother-inlaw of mine, that is to be — takes a shot at his father’s son with as little remorse as at a blackcock — what would he do with me, were we to quarrel? — Well, I can snuff a candle, and strike out the ace of hearts; and so, should things go wrong, he has no Jack Raw to deal with, but Jack Mowbray.”

Meanwhile the Earl of Etherington hastened home to his own apartments at the Hotel; and, not entirely pleased with the events of the day, commenced a letter to his correspondent, agent, and confidant, Captain Jekyl, which we have fortunately the means of presenting to our readers. —

“Friend Harry — They say a falling house is best known by the rats leaving it — a falling state, by the desertion of confederates and allies — and a falling man, by the desertion of his friends. If this be true augury; your last letter may be considered as ominous of my breaking down. Methinks, you have gone far enough, and shared deep enough with me, to have some confidence in my savoir faire — some little faith both in my means and management. What crossgrained fiend has at once inspired you with what I suppose you wish me to call politic doubts and scruples of conscience, but which I can only regard as symptoms of fear and disaffection? You can have no idea of ‘duels betwixt relations so nearly connected’— and ‘the affair seems very delicate and intricate’— and again, ‘the matter has never been fully explained to you’— and, moreover, ‘if you are expected to take an active part in the business, it must be when you are honoured with my full and unreserved confidence, otherwise how could you be of the use to me which I might require?’ Such are your expressions.

“Now, as to scruples of conscience about near relations, and so forth, all that has blown by without much mischief, and certainly is not likely to occur again — besides, did you never hear of friends quarrelling before? And are they not to exercise the usual privileges of gentlemen when they do? Moreover, how am I to know that this plaguy fellow is actually related to me? — They say it is a wise child knows its own father; and I cannot be expected wise enough to know to a certainty my father’s son. — So much for relationship. — Then, as to full and unreserved confidence — why, Harry, this is just as if I were to ask you to look at a watch, and tell what it was o’clock, and you were to reply, that truly you could not inform me, because you had not examined the springs, the counter-balances, the wheels, and the whole internal machinery of the little timepiece. — But the upshot of the whole is this. Harry Jekyl, who is as sharp a fellow as any other, thinks he has his friend Lord Etherington at a dead lock, and that he knows already so much of the said noble lord’s history as to oblige his lordship to tell him the whole. And perhaps he not unreasonably concludes, that the custody of a whole secret is more creditable, and probably more lucrative, than that of a half one; and, in short — he is resolved to make the most of the cards in his hand. Another, mine honest Harry, would take the trouble to recall to your mind past times and circumstances, and conclude with expressing a humble opinion, that if Harry Jekyl were asked now to do any service for the noble lord aforesaid, Harry had got his reward in his pocket aforehand. But I do not argue thus, because I would rather be leagued with a friend who assists me with a view to future profit, than from respect to benefits already received. The first lies like the fox’s scent when on his last legs, increasing every moment; the other is a back-scent, growing colder the longer you follow it, until at last it becomes impossible to puzzle it out. I will, therefore, submit to circumstances, and tell you the whole story, though somewhat tedious, in hopes that I can conclude with such a trail as you will open upon breast-high.

“Thus then it was. — Francis, fifth Earl of Etherington, and my much-honoured father, was what is called a very eccentric man — that is, he was neither a wise man nor a fool — had too much sense to walk into a well, and yet in some of the furious fits which he was visited with, I have seen him quite mad enough to throw any one else into it. — Men said there was a lurking insanity — but it is an ill bird, &c., and I will say no more about it. This shatterbrained peer was, in other respects, a handsome accomplished man, with an expression somewhat haughty, yet singularly pleasing when he chose it — a man, in short, who might push his fortune with the fair sex.

“Lord Etherington, such as I have described him, being upon his travels in France, formed an attachment of the heart — ay, and some have pretended, of the hand also, with a certain beautiful orphan, Marie de Martigny. Of this union is said to have sprung (for I am determined not to be certain on that point) that most incommodious person, Francis Tyrrel, as he calls himself, but as I would rather call him, Francis Martigny; the latter suiting my views, as perhaps the former name agrees better with his pretensions. Now, I am too good a son to subscribe to the alleged regularity of the marriage between my right honourable and very good lord father, because my said right honourable and very good lord did, on his return to England, become wedded, in the face of the church, to my very affectionate and well-endowed mother, Ann Bulmer of Bulmer-hall, from which happy union sprung I, Francis Valentine Bulmer Tyrrel, lawful inheritor of my father and mother’s joint estates, as I was the proud possessor of their ancient names. But the noble and wealthy pair, though blessed with such a pledge of love as myself, lived mighty ill together, and the rather, when my right honourable father, sending for this other Sosia, this unlucky Francis Tyrrel, senior, from France, insisted, in the face of propriety, that he should reside in his house, and share, in all respects, in the opportunities of education by which the real Sosia, Francis Valentine Bulmer Tyrrel, then commonly called Lord Oakendale, hath profited in such an uncommon degree.

“Various were the matrimonial quarrels which arose between the honoured lord and lady, in consequence of this unseemly conjunction of the legitimate and illegitimate; and to these, we, the subjects of the dispute, were sometimes very properly, as well as decorously, made the witnesses. On one occasion, my right honourable mother, who was a free-spoken lady, found the language of her own rank quite inadequate to express the strength of her generous feelings, and borrowing from the vulgar two emphatic words, applied them to Marie de Martigny, and her son Francis Tyrrel. Never did Earl that ever wore coronet fly into a pitch of more uncontrollable rage, than did my right honourable father: and in the ardour of his reply, he adopted my mother’s phraseology, to inform her, that if there was a whore and bastard connected with his house, it was herself and her brat.

“I was even then a sharp little fellow, and was incredibly struck with the communication, which, in this hour of ungovernable irritation, had escaped my right honourable father. It is true, he instantly gathered himself up again; and, he perhaps recollecting such a word as bigamy, and my mother, on her side, considering the consequences of such a thing as a descent from the Countess of Etherington into Mrs. Bulmer, neither wife, maid, nor widow, there was an apparent reconciliation between them, which lasted for some time. But the speech remained deeply imprinted on my remembrance; the more so, that once, when I was exerting over my friend Francis Tyrrel, the authority of a legitimate brother, and Lord Oakendale, old Cecil, my father’s confidential valet, was so much scandalized, as to intimate a possibility that we might one day change conditions. These two accidental communications seemed to me a key to certain long lectures, with which my father used to regale us boys, but me in particular, upon the extreme mutability of human affairs — the disappointment of the best-grounded hopes and expectations — and the necessity of being so accomplished in all useful branches of knowledge, as might, in case of accidents, supply any defalcation in our rank and fortune; — as if any art or science could make amends for the loss of an Earldom, and twelve thousand a-year! All this prosing seemed to my anxious mind designed to prepare me for some unfortunate change; and when I was old enough to make such private enquiries as lay in my power, I became still more persuaded that my right honourable father nourished some thoughts of making an honest woman of Marie de Martigny, and a legitimate elder brother of Francis, after his death at least, if not during his life. I was the more convinced of this, when a little affair, which I chanced to have with the daughter of my Tu — — drew down my father’s wrath upon me in great abundance, and occasioned my being banished to Scotland, along with my brother, under a very poor allowance, without introductions, except to one steady, or call it rusty, old Professor, and with the charge that I should not assume the title of Lord Oakendale, but content myself with my maternal grandfather’s name of Valentine Bulmer, that of Francis Tyrrel being pre-occupied.

“Upon this occasion, notwithstanding the fear which I entertained of my father’s passionate temper, I did venture to say, that since I was to resign my title, I thought I had a right to keep my family name, and that my brother might take his mother’s. I wish you had seen the look of rage with which my father regarded me when I gave him this spirited hint. ‘Thou art,’ he said, and paused, as if to find out the bitterest epithet to supply the blank —‘thou art thy mother’s child, and her perfect picture’—(this seemed the severest reproach that occurred to him.)—‘Bear her name then, and bear it with patience and in secrecy; or, I here give you my word, you shall never bear another the whole days of your life.’ This sealed my mouth with a witness; and then, in allusion to my flirtation with the daughter of my Tu —— aforesaid, he enlarged on the folly and iniquity of private marriages, warned me that in the country I was going to, the matrimonial noose often lies hid under flowers, and that folks find it twitched round their neck when they least expect such a cravat; assured me, that he had very particular views for settling Francis and me in life, and that he would forgive neither of us who should, by any such rash entanglements, render them unavailing.

“This last minatory admonition was the more tolerable, that my rival had his share of it; and so we were bundled off to Scotland, coupled up like two pointers in a dog-cart, and — I can speak for one at least — with much the same uncordial feelings towards each other. I often, indeed, detected Francis looking at me with a singular expression, as of pity and anxiety, and once or twice he seemed disposed to enter on something respecting the situation in which we stood towards each other; but I felt no desire to encourage his confidence. Meantime, as we were called, by our father’s directions, not brothers, but cousins, so we came to bear towards each other the habits of companionship, though scarcely of friendship. What Francis thought, I know not; for my part, I must confess, that I lay by on the watch for some opportunity when I might mend my own situation with my father, though at the prejudice of my rival. And Fortune, while she seemed to prevent such an opportunity, involved us both in one of the strangest and most entangled mazes that her capricious divinityship ever wove, and out of which I am even now struggling, by sleight or force, to extricate myself. I can hardly help wondering, even yet, at the odd conjunction, which has produced such an intricacy of complicated incidents.

“My father was a great sportsman, and Francis and I had both inherited his taste for field-sports; but I in a keener and more ecstatic degree. Edinburgh, which is a tolerable residence in winter and spring, becomes disagreeable in summer, and in autumn is the most melancholy sejour that ever poor mortals were condemned to. No public places are open, no inhabitant of any consideration remains in the town; those who cannot get away, hide themselves in obscure corners, as if ashamed to be seen in the streets. The gentry go to their country-houses — the citizens to their sea-bathing quarters — the lawyers to their circuits — the writers to visit their country clients — and all the world to the moors to shoot grouse. We, who felt the indignity of remaining in town during this deserted season, obtained, with some difficulty, permission from the Earl to betake ourselves to any obscure corner, and shoot grouse, if we could get leave to do so on our general character of English students at the University of Edinburgh, without quoting any thing more.

“The first year of our banishment we went to the neighbourhood of the Highlands; but finding our sport interrupted by gamekeepers and their gillies, on the second occasion we established ourselves at this little village of St. Ronan’s, where there were then no Spa, no fine people, no card tables, no quizzes, excepting the old quiz of a landlady with whom we lodged. We found the place much to our mind; the old landlady had interest with some old fellow, agent of a non-residing nobleman, who gave us permission to sport over his moors, of which I availed myself keenly, and Francis with more moderation. He was, indeed, of a grave musing sort of habit, and often preferred solitary walks, in the wild and beautiful scenery with which the village is surrounded, to the use of the gun. He was attached to fishing, moreover, that dullest of human amusements, and this also tended to keep us considerably apart. This gave me rather pleasure than concern; — not that I hated Francis at that time; nay, not that I greatly disliked his society; but merely because it was unpleasant to be always with one, whose fortunes I looked upon as standing in direct opposition to my own. I also rather despised the indifference about sport, which indeed seemed to grow upon him; but my gentleman had better taste than I was aware of. If he sought no grouse on the hill, he had flushed a pheasant in the wood.

“Clara Mowbray, daughter of the Lord of the more picturesque than wealthy domain of St. Ronan’s, was at that time scarce sixteen years old, and as wild and beautiful a woodland nymph as the imagination can fancy — simple as a child in all that concerned the world and its ways, acute as a needle in every point of knowledge which she had found an opportunity of becoming acquainted with; fearing harm from no one, and with, a lively and natural strain of wit, which brought amusement and gaiety wherever she came. Her motions were under no restraint, save that of her own inclination; for her father, though a cross, peevish, old man, was confined to his chair with the gout, and her only companion, a girl of somewhat inferior caste, bred up in the utmost deference to Miss Mowbray’s fancies, served for company indeed in her strolls through the wild country on foot and on horseback, but never thought of interfering with her will and pleasure.

“The extreme loneliness of the country, (at that time,) and the simplicity of its inhabitants, seemed to render these excursions perfectly safe. Francis, happy dog, became the companion of the damsels on such occasions through the following accident. Miss Mowbray had dressed herself and her companion like country wenches, with a view to surprise the family of one of their better sort of farmers. They had accomplished their purpose greatly to their satisfaction, and were hying home after sunset, when they were encountered by a country fellow — a sort of Harry Jekyl in his way — who, being equipped with a glass or two of whisky, saw not the nobility of blood through her disguise, and accosted the daughter of a hundred sires as he would have done a ewe-milker. Miss Mowbray remonstrated — her companion screamed — up came cousin Francis with a fowlingpiece on his shoulder, and soon put the sylvan to flight.

“This was the beginning of an acquaintance, which had gone great lengths before I found it out. The fair Clara, it seems, found it safer to roam in the woods with an escort than alone, and my studious and sentimental relative was almost her constant companion. At their age, it was likely that some time might pass ere they came to understand each other; but full confidence and intimacy was established between them ere I heard of their amour.

“And here, Harry, I must pause till next morning, and send you the conclusion under a separate cover. The rap which I had over the elbow the other day, is still tingling at the end of my fingers, and you must not be critical with my manuscript.”

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