Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 3


There must be government in all society —

Bees have their Queen, and stag-herds have their leader;

Rome had her Consuls, Athens had her Archons,

And we, sir, have our Managing Committee.

The Album of St. Ronan’s.

Francis Tyrrel was, in the course of the next day, formally settled in his old quarters, where he announced his purpose of remaining for several days. The old-established carrier of the place brought his fishing-rod and travelling-trunk, with a letter to Meg, dated a week previously, desiring her to prepare to receive an old acquaintance. This annunciation, though something of the latest, Meg received with great complacency, observing it was a civil attention in Maister Tirl; and that John Hislop, though he was not just sae fast, was far surer than ony post of them a’, or express either. She also observed with satisfaction, that there was no gun-case along with her guest’s baggage; “for that weary gunning had brought him and her into trouble — the lairds had cried out upon’t, as if she made her house a howff for common fowlers and poachers; and yet how could she hinder twa daft hempie callants from taking a start and an ower-loup?10 They had been ower the neighbour’s ground they had leave on up to the march, and they werena just to ken meiths when the moorfowl got up.”

In a day or two, her guest fell into such quiet and solitary habits, that Meg, herself the most restless and bustling of human creatures, began to be vexed, for want of the trouble which she expected to have had with him, experiencing, perhaps, the same sort of feeling from his extreme and passive indifference on all points, that a good horseman has for the over-patient steed, which he can scarce feel under him. His walks were devoted to the most solitary recesses among the neighbouring woods and hills — his fishing-rod was often left behind him, or carried merely as an apology for sauntering slowly by the banks of some little brooklet — and his success so indifferent, that Meg said the piper of Peebles11 would have caught a creelfu’ before Maister Francie made out the half-dozen; so that he was obliged, for peace’s sake, to vindicate his character, by killing a handsome salmon.

Tyrrel’s painting, as Meg called it, went on equally slowly: He often, indeed, showed her the sketches which he brought from his walks, and used to finish at home; but Meg held them very cheap. What signified, she said, a wheen bits of paper, wi’ black and white scarts upon them, that he ca’d bushes, and trees, and craigs? — Couldna he paint them wi’ green, and blue, and yellow, like the other folk? “Ye will never mak your bread that way, Maister Francie. Ye suld munt up a muckle square of canvass, like Dick Tinto, and paint folks ainsells, that they like muckle better to see than ony craig in the haill water; and I wadna muckle objeck even to some of the Wallers coming up and sitting to ye. They waste their time waur, I wis — and, I warrant, ye might make a guinea a-head of them. Dick made twa, but he was an auld used hand, and folk maun creep before they gang.”

In answer to these remonstrances, Tyrrel assured her, that the sketches with which he busied himself were held of such considerable value, that very often an artist in that line received much higher remuneration for these, than for portraits or coloured drawings. He added, that they were often taken for the purpose of illustrating popular poems, and hinted as if he himself were engaged in some labour of that nature.

Eagerly did Meg long to pour forth to Nelly Trotter, the fishwoman — whose cart formed the only neutral channel of communication between the Auld Town and the Well, and who was in favour with Meg, because, as Nelly passed her door in her way to the Well, she always had the first choice of her fish — the merits of her lodger as an artist. Luckie Dods had, in truth, been so much annoyed and bullied, as it were, with the report of clever persons, accomplished in all sorts of excellence, arriving day after day at the Hotel, that she was overjoyed in this fortunate opportunity to triumph over them in their own way; and it may be believed, that the excellences of her lodger lost nothing by being trumpeted through her mouth.

“I maun hae the best of the cart, Nelly — if you and me can gree — for it is for ane of the best of painters. Your fine folk down yonder would gie their lugs to look at what he has been doing — he gets gowd in goupins, for three downright skarts and three cross anes — And he is no an ungrateful loon, like Dick Tinto, that had nae sooner my good five-and-twenty shillings in his pocket, than he gaed down to birl it awa at their bonny hottle yonder, but a decent quiet lad, that kens when he is weel aff, and bides still at the auld howff — And what for no? — Tell them all this, and hear what they will say till’t.”

“Indeed, mistress, I can tell ye that already, without stirring my shanks for the matter,” answered Nelly Trotter; “they will e’en say that ye are ae auld fule, and me anither, that may hae some judgment in cock-bree or in scate-rumples, but mauna fash our beards about ony thing else.”

“Wad they say sae, the frontless villains! and me been a housekeeper this thirty year!” exclaimed Meg; “I wadna hae them say it to my face! But I am no speaking without warrant — for what an I had spoken to the minister, lass, and shown him ane of the loose skarts of paper that Maister Tirl leaves fleeing about his room? — and what an he had said he had kend Lord Bidmore gie five guineas for the waur on’t? and a’ the warld kens he was lang tutor in the Bidmore family.”

“Troth,” answered her gossip, “I doubt if I was to tell a’ this they would hardly believe me, mistress; for there are sae mony judges amang them, and they think sae muckle of themsells, and sae little of other folk, that unless ye were to send down the bit picture, I am no thinking they will believe a word that I can tell them.”

“No believe what an honest woman says — let abee to say twa o’ them?” exclaimed Meg; “O the unbelieving generation! — Weel, Nelly, since my back is up, ye sall tak down the picture, or sketching, or whatever it is, (though I thought sketchers12 were aye made of airn,) and shame wi’ it the conceited crew that they are. — But see and bring’t back wi’ ye again, Nelly, for it’s a thing of value; and trustna it out o’ your hand, that I charge you, for I lippen no muckle to their honesty. — And, Nelly, ye may tell them he has an illustrated poem — illustrated — mind the word, Nelly — that is to be stuck as fou o’ the like o’ that, as ever turkey was larded wi’ dabs o’ bacon.”

Thus furnished with her credentials, and acting the part of a herald betwixt two hostile countries, honest Nelly switched her little fish-cart downwards to St. Ronan’s Well.

In watering-places, as in other congregated assemblies of the human species, various kinds of government have been dictated, by chance, caprice, or convenience; but in almost all of them, some sort of direction has been adopted, to prevent the consequences of anarchy. Sometimes the sole power has been vested in a Master of Ceremonies; but this, like other despotisms, has been of late unfashionable, and the powers of this great officer have been much limited even at Bath, where Nash once ruled with undisputed supremacy. Committees of management, chosen from among the most steady guests, have been in general resorted to, as a more liberal mode of sway, and to such was confided the administration of the infant republic of St. Ronan’s Well. This little senate, it must be observed, had the more difficult task in discharging their high duties, that, like those of other republics, their subjects were divided into two jarring and contending factions, who every day eat, drank, danced, and made merry together, hating each other all the while with all the animosity of political party, endeavouring by every art to secure the adherence of each guest who arrived, and ridiculing the absurdities and follies of each other, with all the wit and bitterness of which they were masters.

At the head of one of these parties was no less a personage than Lady Penelope Penfeather, to whom the establishment owed its fame, nay, its existence; and whose influence could only have been balanced by that of the Lord of the Manor, Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan’s, or, as he was called usually by the company who affected what Meg called knapping English, The Squire, who was leader of the opposite faction.

The rank and fortune of the lady, her pretensions to beauty as well as talent, (though the former was something faded,) and the consequence which she arrogated to herself as a woman of fashion, drew round her painters and poets, and philosophers, and men of science, and lecturers, and foreign adventurers, et hoc genus omne.

On the contrary, the Squire’s influence, as a man of family and property in the immediate neighbourhood, who actually kept greyhounds and pointers, and at least talked of hunters and of racers, ascertained him the support of the whole class of bucks, half and whole bred, from the three next counties; and if more inducements were wanting, he could grant his favourites the privilege of shooting over his moors, which is enough to turn the head of a young Scottishman at any time. Mr. Mowbray was of late especially supported in his pre-eminence, by a close alliance with Sir Bingo Binks, a sapient English Baronet, who, ashamed, as many thought, to return to his own country, had set him down at the Well of St. Ronan’s, to enjoy the blessing which the Caledonian Hymen had so kindly forced on him in the person of Miss Rachel Bonnyrigg. As this gentleman actually drove a regular-built mail-coach, not in any respect differing from that of his Majesty, only that it was more frequently overturned, his influence with a certain set was irresistible, and the Squire of St. Ronan’s, having the better sense of the two, contrived to reap the full benefit of the consequence attached to his friendship.

These two contending parties were so equally balanced, that the predominance of the influence of either was often determined by the course of the sun. Thus, in the morning and forenoon, when Lady Penelope led forth her herd to lawn and shady bower, whether to visit some ruined monument of ancient times, or eat their pic-nic luncheon, to spoil good paper with bad drawings, and good verses with repetition — in a word,

“To rave, recite, and madden round the land,”

her ladyship’s empire over the loungers seemed uncontrolled and absolute, and all things were engaged in the tourbillon, of which she formed the pivot and centre. Even the hunters, and shooters, and hard drinkers, were sometimes fain reluctantly to follow in her train, sulking, and quizzing, and flouting at her solemn festivals, besides encouraging the younger nymphs to giggle when they should have looked sentimental. But after dinner the scene was changed, and her ladyship’s sweetest smiles, and softest invitations, were often insufficient to draw the neutral part of the company to the tea-room; so that her society was reduced to those whose constitution or finances rendered early retirement from the dining-parlour a matter of convenience, together with the more devoted and zealous of her own immediate dependents and adherents. Even the faith of the latter was apt to be debauched. Her ladyship’s poet-laureate, in whose behalf she was teazing each new-comer for subscriptions, got sufficiently independent to sing in her ladyship’s presence, at supper, a song of rather equivocal meaning; and her chief painter, who was employed upon an illustrated copy of the Loves of the Plants, was, at another time, seduced into such a state of pot-valour, that, upon her ladyship’s administering her usual dose of criticism upon his works, he not only bluntly disputed her judgment, but talked something of his right to be treated like a gentleman.

These feuds were taken up by the Managing Committee, who interceded for the penitent offenders on the following morning, and obtained their re-establishment in Lady Penelope’s good graces, upon moderate terms. Many other acts of moderating authority they performed, much to the assuaging of faction, and the quiet of the Wellers; and so essential was their government to the prosperity of the place, that, without them, St. Ronan’s spring would probably have been speedily deserted. We must, therefore, give a brief sketch of that potential Committee, which both factions, acting as if on a self-denying ordinance, had combined to invest with the reins of government.

Each of its members appeared to be selected, as Fortunio, in the fairy-tale,E4 chose his followers, for his peculiar gifts. First on the list stood the MAN OF MEDICINE, Dr. Quentin Quackleben, who claimed right to regulate medical matters at the spring, upon the principle which, of old, assigned the property of a newly discovered country to the bucanier who committed the earliest piracy on its shores. The acknowledgment of the Doctor’s merit as having been first to proclaim and vindicate the merits of these healing fountains, had occasioned his being universally installed First Physician and Man of Science, which last qualification he could apply to all purposes, from the boiling of an egg to the giving a lecture. He was, indeed, qualified, like many of his profession, to spread both the bane and antidote before a dyspeptic patient, being as knowing a gastronome as Dr. Redgill himself, or any other worthy physician who has written for the benefit of the cuisine, from Dr. Moncrieff of Tippermalloch, to the late Dr. Hunter of York, and the present Dr. Kitchiner of London. But pluralities are always invidious, and therefore the Doctor prudently relinquished the office of caterer and head-carver to the Man of Taste, who occupied regularly, and ex officio, the head of the table, reserving to himself the occasional privilege of criticising, and a principal share in consuming, the good things which the common entertainment afforded. We have only to sum up this brief account of the learned Doctor, by informing the reader that he was a tall, lean, beetle-browed man, with an ill-made black scratch-wig, that stared out on either side from his lantern jaws. He resided nine months out of the twelve at St. Ronan’s, and was supposed to make an indifferent good thing of it — especially as he played whist to admiration.

First in place, though perhaps second to the Doctor in real authority, was Mr. Winterblossom; a civil sort of person, who was nicely precise in his address, wore his hair cued, and dressed with powder, had knee-buckles set with Bristol stones, and a seal-ring as large as Sir John Falstaff’s. In his heyday he had a small estate, which he had spent like a gentleman, by mixing with the gay world. He was, in short, one of those respectable links that connect the coxcombs of the present day with those of the last age, and could compare, in his own experience, the follies of both. In latter days, he had sense enough to extricate himself from his course of dissipation, though with impaired health and impoverished fortune.

Mr. Winterblossom now lived upon a moderate annuity, and had discovered a way of reconciling his economy with much company and made dishes, by acting as perpetual president of the table-d’hote at the Well. Here he used to amuse the society by telling stories about Garrick, Foote, Bonnel Thornton, and Lord Kelly, and delivering his opinions in matters of taste and vertu. An excellent carver, he knew how to help each guest to what was precisely his due; and never failed to reserve a proper slice as the reward of his own labours. To conclude, he was possessed of some taste in the fine arts, at least in painting and music, although it was rather of the technical kind, than that which warms the heart and elevates the feelings. There was, indeed, about Winterblossom, nothing that was either warm or elevated. He was shrewd, selfish, and sensual; the last two of which qualities he screened from observation, under a specious varnish of exterior complaisance. Therefore, in his professed and apparent anxiety to do the honours of the table, to the most punctilious point of good breeding, he never permitted the attendants upon the public taste to supply the wants of others, until all his own private comforts had been fully arranged and provided for.

Mr. Winterblossom was also distinguished for possessing a few curious engravings, and other specimens of art, with the exhibition of which he occasionally beguiled a wet morning at the public room. They were collected, “viis et modis,” said the Man of Law, another distinguished member of the Committee, with a knowing cock of his eye to his next neighbour.

Of this person little need be said. He was a large-boned, loud-voiced, red-faced man, named Meiklewham; a country writer, or attorney, who managed the matters of the Squire much to the profit of one or other — if not of both. His nose projected from the front of his broad vulgar face, like the stile of an old sun-dial, twisted all of one side. He was as great a bully in his profession, as if it had been military instead of civil: conducted the whole technicalities concerning the cutting up the Saint’s-Well-haugh, so much lamented by Dame Dods, into building-stances, and was on excellent terms with Doctor Quackleben, who always recommended him to make the wills of his patients.

After the Man of Law comes Captain Mungo MacTurk, a Highland lieutenant on half-pay, and that of ancient standing; one who preferred toddy of the strongest to wine, and in that fashion and cold drams finished about a bottle of whisky per diem, whenever he could come by it. He was called the Man of Peace, on the same principle which assigns to constables, Bow-street runners, and such like, who carry bludgeons to break folk’s heads, and are perpetually and officially employed in scenes of riot, the title of peace-officers — that is, because by his valour he compelled others to act with discretion. The Captain was the general referee in all those abortive quarrels, which, at a place of this kind, are so apt to occur at night, and to be quietly settled in the morning; and occasionally adopted a quarrel himself, by way of taking down any guest who was unusually pugnacious. This occupation procured Captain MacTurk a good deal of respect at the Well; for he was precisely that sort of person who is ready to fight with any one — whom no one can find an apology for declining to fight with — in fighting with whom considerable danger was incurred, for he was ever and anon showing that he could snuff a candle with a pistol ball — and lastly, through fighting with whom no eclat or credit could redound to the antagonist. He always wore a blue coat and red collar, had a supercilious taciturnity of manner, ate sliced leeks with his cheese, and resembled in complexion a Dutch red-herring.

Still remains to be mentioned the Man of Religion — the gentle Mr. Simon Chatterly, who had strayed to St. Ronan’s Well from the banks of Cam or Isis, and who piqued himself, first on his Greek, and secondly, on his politeness to the ladies. During all the week days, as Dame Dods has already hinted, this reverend gentleman was the partner at the whist-table, or in the ball-room, to what maid or matron soever lacked a partner at either; and on the Sundays, he read prayers in the public room to all who chose to attend. He was also a deviser of charades, and an unriddler of riddles; he played a little on the flute, and was Mr. Winterblossom’s principal assistant in contriving those ingenious and romantic paths, by which, as by the zig-zags which connect military parallels, you were enabled to ascend to the top of the hill behind the hotel, which commands so beautiful a prospect, at exactly that precise angle of ascent, which entitles a gentleman to offer his arm, and a lady to accept it, with perfect propriety.

There was yet another member of this Select Committee, Mr. Michael Meredith, who might be termed the Man of Mirth, or, if you please, the Jack Pudding to the company, whose business it was to crack the best joke, and sing the best song — he could. Unluckily, however, this functionary was for the present obliged to absent himself from St. Ronan’s; for, not recollecting that he did not actually wear the privileged motley of his profession, he had passed some jest upon Captain MacTurk, which cut so much to the quick, that Mr. Meredith was fain to go to goat-whey quarters, at some ten miles’ distance, and remain there in a sort of concealment, until the affair should be made up through the mediation of his brethren of the Committee.

Such were the honest gentlemen who managed the affairs of this rising settlement, with as much impartiality as could be expected. They were not indeed without their own secret predilections; for the lawyer and the soldier privately inclined to the party of the Squire, while the parson, Mr. Meredith, and Mr. Winterblossom, were more devoted to the interests of Lady Penelope; so that Doctor Quackleben alone, who probably recollected that the gentlemen were as liable to stomach complaints, as the ladies to nervous disorders, seemed the only person who preserved in word and deed the most rigid neutrality. Nevertheless, the interests of the establishment being very much at the heart of this honourable council, and each feeling his own profit, pleasure, or comfort, in some degree involved, they suffered not their private affections to interfere with their public duties, but acted, every one in his own sphere, for the public benefit of the whole community.

10 The usual expression for a slight encroachment on a neighbour’s property.

11 The said piper was famous at the mystery.

12 Skates are called sketchers in Scotland.

E4 p. 47. “Fortunio, in the fairy-tale.” The gifted companions of Fortunio, Keen-eye, Keen-ear, and so forth, are very old stock characters in Märchen: their first known appearance is in the saga of Jason and the Fleece of Gold. — A.L.

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