Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 33


On the lee-beam lies the land, boys,

See all clear to reef each course;

Let the fore-sheet go, don’t mind, boys,

Though the weather should be worse.

The Storm.

“It darkens round me like a tempest,” thought Lord Etherington, as, with slow step, folded arms, and his white hat slouched over his brows, he traversed the short interval of space betwixt his own apartments and those of the Lady Penelope. In a buck of the old school, one of Congreve’s men of wit and pleasure about town, this would have been a departure from character; but the present fine man does not derogate from his quality, even by exhibiting all the moody and gentlemanlike solemnity of Master Stephen.E10 So, Lord Etherington was at liberty to carry on his reflections, without attracting observation. —“I have put a stopper into the mouth of that old vinegar-cruet of quality, but the acidity of her temper will soon dissolve the charm — And what to do?”

As he looked round him, he saw his trusty valet Solmes, who, touching his hat with due respect, said, as he passed him, “Your lordship’s letters are in your private dispatch-box.”

Simple as these words were, and indifferent the tone in which they were spoken, their import made Lord Etherington’s heart bound as if his fate had depended on the accents. He intimated no farther interest in the communication, however, than to desire Solmes to be below, in case he should ring; and with these words entered his apartment, and barred and bolted the door, even before he looked on the table where his dispatch-box was placed.

Lord Etherington had, as is usual, one key to the box which held his letters, his confidential servant being intrusted with the other; so that, under the protection of a patent lock, his dispatches escaped all risk of being tampered with — a precaution not altogether unnecessary on the part of those who frequent hotels and lodging-houses.

“By your leave, Mr. Bramah,” said the Earl, as he applied the key, jesting, as it were, with his own agitation, as he would have done with that of a third party. The lid was raised, and displayed the packet, the appearance and superscription of which had attracted his observation but a short while before in the post-office. Then he would have given much to be possessed of the opportunity which was now in his power; but many pause on the brink of a crime, who have contemplated it at a distance without scruple. Lord Etherington’s first impulse had led him to poke the fire; and he held in his hand the letter which he was more than half tempted to commit, without even breaking the seal, to the fiery element. But, though sufficiently familiarized with guilt, he was not as yet acquainted with it in its basest shapes — he had not yet acted with meanness, or at least with what the world terms such. He had been a duellist, the manners of the age authorized it — a libertine, the world excused it to his youth and condition — a bold and successful gambler, for that quality he was admired and envied; and a thousand other inaccuracies, to which these practices and habits lead, were easily slurred over in a man of quality, with fortune and spirit to support his rank. But his present meditated act was of a different kind. Tell it not in Bond Street, whisper it not on St. James’s pavement! — it amounted to an act of petty larceny, for which the code of honour would admit of no composition.

Lord Etherington, under the influence of these recollections, stood for a few minutes suspended — But the devil always finds logic to convince his followers. He recollected the wrong done to his mother, and to himself, her offspring, to whom his father had, in the face of the whole world, imparted the hereditary rights, of which he was now, by a posthumous deed, endeavouring to deprive the memory of the one and the expectations of the other. Surely, the right being his own, he had a full title, by the most effectual means, whatever such means might be, to repel all attacks on that right, and even destroy, if necessary, the documents by which his enemies were prosecuting their unjust plans against his honour and interest.

This reasoning prevailed, and Lord Etherington again held the devoted packet above the flames; when it occurred to him, that, his resolution being taken, he ought to carry it into execution as effectually as possible; and to do so, it was necessary to know, that the packet actually contained the papers which he was desirous to destroy.

Never did a doubt arise in juster time; for no sooner had the seal burst, and the envelope rustled under his fingers, than he perceived, to his utter consternation, that he held in his hand only the copies of the deeds for which Francis Tyrrel had written, the originals of which he had too sanguinely concluded would be forwarded according to his requisition. A letter from a partner of the house with which they were deposited, stated, that they had not felt themselves at liberty, in the absence of the head of their firm, to whom these papers had been committed, to part with them even to Mr. Tyrrel, though they had proceeded so far as to open the parcel, and now transmitted to him formal copies of the papers contained in it, which, they presumed, would serve Mr. Tyrrel’s purpose for consulting counsel, or the like. They themselves, in a case of so much delicacy, and in the absence of their principal partner, were determined to retain the originals, unless called to produce them in a court of justice.

With a solemn imprecation on the formality and absurdity of the writer, Lord Etherington let the letter of advice drop from his hand into the fire, and throwing himself into a chair, passed his hand across his eyes, as if their very power of sight had been blighted by what he had read. His title, and his paternal fortune, which he thought but an instant before might be rendered unchallengeable by a single movement of his hand, seemed now on the verge of being lost for ever. His rapid recollection failed not to remind him of what was less known to the world, that his early and profuse expenditure had greatly dilapidated his maternal fortune; and that the estate of Nettlewood, which five minutes ago he only coveted as a wealthy man desires increase of his store, must now be acquired, if he would avoid being a poor and embarrassed spendthrift. To impede his possessing himself of this property, fate had restored to the scene the penitent of the morning, who, as he had too much reason to believe, was returned to this neighbourhood, to do justice to Clara Mowbray, and who was not unlikely to put the whole story of the marriage on its right footing. She, however, might be got rid of; and it might still be possible to hurry Miss Mowbray, by working on her fears, or through the agency of her brother, into a union with him while he still preserved the title of Lord Etherington. This, therefore, he resolved to secure, if effort or if intrigue could carry the point; nor was it the least consideration, that, should he succeed, he would obtain over Tyrrel, his successful rival, such a triumph, as would be sufficient to embitter the tranquillity of his whole life.

In a few minutes, his rapid and contriving invention had formed a plan for securing the sole advantage which seemed to remain open for him; and conscious that he had no time to lose, he entered immediately upon the execution.

The bell summoned Solmes to his lordship’s apartment, when the Earl, as coolly as if he had hoped to dupe his experienced valet by such an assertion, said, “You have brought me a packet designed for some man at the Aultoun — let it be sent to him — Stay — I will re-seal it first.”

He accordingly re-sealed the packet, containing all the writings, excepting the letter of advice, (which he had burnt,) and gave it to the valet, with the caution, “I wish you would not make such blunders in future.”

“I beg your lordship’s pardon — I will take better care again — thought it was addressed to your lordship.”

So answered Solmes, too knowing to give the least look of intelligence, far less to remind the Earl that his own directions had occasioned the mistake of which he complained.

“Solmes,” continued the Earl, “you need not mention your blunder at the post-office; it would only occasion tattle in this idle place — but be sure that the gentleman has his letter. — And, Solmes, I see Mr. Mowbray walk across — ask him to dine with me today at five. I have a headache, and cannot face the clamour of the savages who feed at the public table. — And let me see — make my compliments to Lady Penelope Penfeather — I will certainly have the honour of waiting on her ladyship this evening to tea, agreeably to her very boring invitation received — write her a proper card, and word it your own way. Bespeak dinner for two, and see you have some of that batch of Burgundy.” The servant was retiring, when his master added, “Stay a moment — I have a more important business than I have yet mentioned. — Solmes, you have managed devilish ill about the woman Irwin!”

“I, my lord?” answered Solmes.

“Yes, you, sir — did you not tell me she had gone to the West Indies with a friend of yours, and did not I give them a couple of hundred pounds for passage-money?”

“Yes, my lord,” replied the valet.

“Ay, but now it proves no, my lord,” said Lord Etherington; “for she has found her way back to this country in miserable plight — half-starved, and, no doubt, willing to do or say any thing for a livelihood — How has this happened?”

“Biddulph must have taken her cash, and turned her loose, my lord,” answered Solmes, as if he had been speaking of the most commonplace transaction in the world; “but I know the woman’s nature so well, and am so much master of her history, that I can carry her off the country in twenty-four hours, and place her where she will never think of returning, provided your lordship can spare me so long.”

“About it directly — but I can tell you, that you will find the woman in a very penitential humour, and very ill in health to boot.”

“I am sure of my game,” answered Solmes; “with submission to your lordship, I think if death and her good angel had hold of one of that woman’s arms, the devil and I could make a shift to lead her away by the other.”

“Away and about it, then,” said Etherington. “But, hark ye, Solmes, be kind to her, and see all her wants relieved. I have done her mischief enough — though nature and the devil had done half the work to my hand.”

Solmes at length was permitted to withdraw to execute his various commissions, with an assurance that his services would not be wanted for the next twenty-four hours.

“Soh!” said the Earl, as his agent withdrew, “there is a spring put in motion, which, well oiled, will move the whole machine — And here, in lucky time, comes Harry Jekyl — I hear his whistle on the stairs. — There is a silly lightness of heart about that fellow, which I envy, while I despise it; but he is welcome now, for I want him.”

Jekyl entered accordingly, and broke out with “I am glad to see one of your fellows laying a cloth for two in your parlour, Etherington — I was afraid you were going down among these confounded bores again today.”

You are not to be one of the two, Hal,” answered Lord Etherington.

“No? — then I may be a third, I hope, if not second?”

“Neither first, second, nor third, Captain. — The truth is, I want a tête-à-tête with Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan’s,” replied the Earl; “and, besides, I have to beg the very particular favour of you to go again to that fellow Martigny. It is time that he should produce his papers, if he has any — of which, for one, I do not believe a word. He has had ample time to hear from London; and I think I have delayed long enough in an important matter upon his bare assertion.”

“I cannot blame your impatience,” said Jekyl, “and I will go on your errand instantly. As you waited on my advice, I am bound to find an end to your suspense. — At the same time, if the man is not possessed of such papers as he spoke of, I must own he is happy in a command of consummate assurance, which might set up the whole roll of attorneys.”

“You will be soon able to judge of that,” said Lord Etherington; “and now, off with you — Why do you look at me so anxiously?”

“I cannot tell — I have strange forebodings about this tête-à-tête with Mowbray. You should spare him, Etherington — he is not your match — wants both judgment and temper.”

“Tell him so, Jekyl,” answered the Earl, “and his proud Scotch stomach will be up in an instant, and he will pay you with a shot for your pains. — Why, he thinks himself cock of the walk, this strutting bantam, notwithstanding the lesson I gave him before — And what do you think? — He has the impudence to talk about my attentions to Lady Binks as inconsistent with the prosecution of my suit to his sister! Yes, Hal — this awkward Scotch laird, that has scarce tact enough to make love to a ewe-milker, or, at best, to some daggletailed soubrette, has the assurance to start himself as my rival!”

“Then, good-night to St. Ronan’s! — this will be a fatal dinner to him. — Etherington, I know by that laugh you are bent on mischief — I have a great mind to give him a hint.”

“I wish you would,” answered the Earl; “it would all turn to my account.”

“Do you defy me? — Well, if I meet him, I will put him on his guard.”

The friends parted; and it was not long ere Jekyl encountered Mowbray on one of the public walks.

“You dine with Etherington today?” said the Captain —“Forgive me, Mr. Mowbray, if I say one single word — Beware.”

“Of what should I beware, Captain Jekyl,” answered Mowbray, “when I dine with a friend of your own, and a man of honour?”

“Certainly Lord Etherington is both, Mr. Mowbray; but he loves play, and is too hard for most people.”

“I thank you for your hint, Captain Jekyl — I am a raw Scotchman, it is true; but yet I know a thing or two. Fair play is always presumed amongst gentlemen; and that taken for granted, I have the vanity to think I need no one’s caution on the subject, not even Captain Jekyl’s, though his experience must needs be so much superior to mine.”

“In that case, sir,” said Jekyl, bowing coldly, “I have no more to say, and I hope there is no harm done. — Conceited coxcomb!” he added, mentally, as they parted, “how truly did Etherington judge of him, and what an ass was I to intermeddle! — I hope Etherington will strip him of every feather!”

He pursued his walk in quest of Tyrrel, and Mowbray proceeded to the apartments of the Earl, in a temper of mind well suited to the purposes of the latter, who judged of his disposition accurately when he permitted Jekyl to give his well-meant warning. To be supposed, by a man of acknowledged fashion, so decidedly inferior to his antagonist — to be considered as an object of compassion, and made the subject of a good-boy warning, was gall and bitterness to his proud spirit, which, the more that he felt a conscious inferiority in the arts which they all cultivated, struggled the more to preserve the footing of at least apparent equality.

Since the first memorable party at piquet, Mowbray had never hazarded his luck with Lord Etherington, except for trifling stakes; but his conceit led him to suppose that he now fully understood his play, and, agreeably to the practice of those who have habituated themselves to gambling, he had every now and then felt a yearning to try for his revenge. He wished also to be out of Lord Etherington’s debt, feeling galled under a sense of pecuniary obligation, which hindered his speaking his mind to him fully upon the subject of his flirtation with Lady Binks, which he justly considered as an insult to his family, considering the footing on which the Earl seemed desirous to stand with Clara Mowbray. From these obligations a favourable evening might free him, and Mowbray was, in fact, indulging in a waking dream to this purpose, when Jekyl interrupted him. His untimely warning only excited a spirit of contradiction, and a determination to show the adviser how little he was qualified to judge of his talents; and in this humour, his ruin, which was the consequence of that afternoon, was far from seeming to be the premeditated, or even the voluntary work of the Earl of Etherington.

On the contrary, the victim himself was the first to propose play — deep play — double stakes; while Lord Etherington, on the other hand, often proposed to diminish their game, or to break off entirely; but it was always with an affectation of superiority which only stimulated Mowbray to farther and more desperate risks; and, at last, when Mowbray became his debtor to an overwhelming amount, (his circumstances considered,) the Earl threw down the cards, and declared he should be too late for Lady Penelope’s tea-party, to which he was positively engaged.

“Will you not give me my revenge?” said Mowbray, taking up the cards, and shuffling them with fierce anxiety.

“Not now, Mowbray; we have played too long already — you have lost too much — more than perhaps is convenient for you to pay.”

Mowbray gnashed his teeth, in spite of his resolution to maintain an exterior, at least, of firmness.

“You can take your time, you know,” said the Earl; “a note of hand will suit me as well as the money.”

“No, by G—!” answered Mowbray, “I will not be so taken in a second time — I had better have sold myself to the devil than to your lordship — I have never been my own man since.”

“These are not very kind expressions, Mowbray,” said the Earl; “you would play, and they that will play must expect sometimes to lose”——

“And they who win will expect to be paid,” said Mowbray, breaking in. “I know that as well as you, my lord, and you shall be paid — I will pay you — I will pay you, by G—! Do you make any doubt that I will pay you, my lord?”

“You look as if you thought of paying me in sharp coin,” said Lord Etherington; “and I think that would scarce be consistent with the terms we stand upon towards each other.”

“By my soul, my lord,” said Mowbray, “I cannot tell what these terms are; and to be at my wit’s end at once, I should be glad to know. You set out upon paying addresses to my sister, and with your visits and opportunities at Shaws-Castle, I cannot find the matter makes the least progress — it keeps moving without advancing, like a child’s rocking-horse. Perhaps you think that you have curbed me up so tightly, that I dare not stir in the matter; but you will find it otherwise. — Your lordship may keep a haram if you will, but my sister shall not enter it.”

“You are angry, and therefore you are unjust,” said Etherington; “you know well enough it is your sister’s fault that there is any delay. I am most willing — most desirous — to call her Lady Etherington — nothing but her unlucky prejudices against me have retarded a union which I have so many reasons for desiring.”

“Well,” replied Mowbray, “that shall be my business. I know no reason she can pretend to decline a marriage so honourable to her house, and which is approved of by me, that house’s head. That matter shall be arranged in twenty-four hours.”

“It will do me the most sensible pleasure,” said Lord Etherington; “you shall soon see how sincerely I desire your alliance; and as for the trifle you have lost”——

“It is no trifle to me, my lord — it is my ruin — but it shall be paid — and let me tell your lordship, you may thank your good luck for it more than your good play.”

“We will say no more of it at present, if you please,” said Lord Etherington, “tomorrow is a new day; and if you will take my advice, you will not be too harsh with your sister. A little firmness is seldom amiss with young women, but severity”——

“I will pray your lordship to spare me your advice on this subject. However valuable it may be in other respects, I can, I take it, speak to my own sister in my own way.”

“Since you are so caustically-disposed, Mowbray,” answered the Earl, “I presume you will not honour her ladyship’s tea-table to-night, though I believe it will be the last of the season?”

“And why should you think so, my lord?” answered Mowbray, whose losses had rendered him testy and contradictory upon every subject that was started. “Why should not I pay my respects to Lady Penelope, or any other tabby of quality? I have no title, indeed; but I suppose that my family”——

“Entitles you to become a canon of StrasburghE11 doubtless — But you do not seem in a very Christian mood for taking orders. All I meant to say was, that you and Lady Pen were not used to be on such a good footing.”

“Well, she sent me a card for her blow-out,” said Mowbray; “and so I am resolved to go. When I have been there half an hour, I will ride up to Shaws-Castle, and you shall hear of my speed in wooing for you tomorrow morning.”

E10 p. 220. “Master Stephen.” A character of Ben Jonson’s already referred to — he who wished for a stool to be sad upon. — A.L.

E11 p. 223. “A Canon of Strasburgh.” Scott frequently refers, in accounts of the roof of the hall of Abbotsford, which he blazoned with his quarterings, to his deficiency in the sixteen necessary for a Canonry. Three shields, those connected with the Rutherfords of Hunthill, are vacant, or rather are painted with clouds. — A.L.

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