Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 34

A Tea-Party.

Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round;

And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn

Throws up a steamy column, and the cups

That cheer, but not inebriate, wait on each,

Thus let us welcome peaceful evening in.

Cowper’s Task.

The approach of the cold and rainy season had now so far thinned the company at the Well, that, in order to secure the necessary degree of crowd upon her tea-nights, Lady Penelope was obliged to employ some coaxing towards those whom she had considered as much under par in society. Even the Doctor and Mrs. Blower were graciously smiled upon — for their marriage was now an arranged affair; and the event was of a nature likely to spread the reputation of the Spa among wealthy widows, and medical gentlemen of more skill than practice. So in they came, the Doctor smirking, gallanting, and performing all the bustling parade of settled and arranged courtship, with much of that grace wherewith a turkey-cock goes through the same ceremony. Old Touchwood had also attended her ladyship’s summons, chiefly, it may be supposed, from his restless fidgety disposition, which seldom suffered him to remain absent even from those places of resort of which he usually professed his detestation. There was, besides, Mr. Winterblossom, who, in his usual spirit of quiet epicurism and self-indulgence, was, under the fire of a volley of compliments to Lady Penelope, scheming to secure for himself an early cup of tea. There was Lady Binks also, with the wonted degree of sullenness in her beautiful face, angry at her husband as usual, and not disposed to be pleased with Lord Etherington for being absent, when she desired to excite Sir Bingo’s jealousy. This she had discovered to be the most effectual way of tormenting the Baronet, and she rejoiced in it with the savage glee of a hackney coachman, who has found a raw, where he can make his poor jade feel the whip. The rest of the company were also in attendance as usual. MacTurk himself was present, notwithstanding that he thought it an egregious waste of hot water, to bestow it upon compounding any mixture saving punch. He had of late associated himself a good deal with the traveller; not that they by any means resembled each other in temper or opinions, but rather because there was that degree of difference betwixt them which furnished perpetual subject for dispute and discussion. They were not long, on the present occasion, ere they lighted on a fertile source of controversy.

“Never tell me of your points of honour,” said Touchwood, raising his voice altogether above the general tone of polite conversation —“all humbug, Captain MacTurk — mere hair-traps to springe woodcocks — men of sense break through them.”

“Upon my word, sir,” said the Captain, “and myself is surprised to hear you — for, look you, sir, every man’s honour is the breath of his nostrils — Cot tamn!”

“Then, let men breathe through their mouths, and be d — d,” returned the controversialist. “I tell you, sir, that, besides its being forbidden, both by law and gospel, it’s an idiotical and totally absurd practice, that of duelling. An honest savage has more sense than to practise it — he takes his bow or his gun, as the thing may be, and shoots his enemy from behind a bush. And a very good way; for you see there can, in that case, be only one man’s death between them.”

“Saul of my body, sir,” said the Captain, “gin ye promulgate sic doctrines amang the good company, it’s my belief you will bring somebody to the gallows.”

“Thank ye, Captain, with all my heart; but I stir up no quarrels — I leave war to them that live by it. I only say, that, except our old, stupid ancestors in the north-west here, I know no country so silly as to harbour this custom of duelling. It is unknown in Africa, among the negroes — in America.”

“Don’t tell me that,” said the Captain; “a Yankee will fight with muskets and buck-shot, rather than sit still with an affront. I should know Jonathan, I think.”

“Altogether unknown among the thousand tribes of India.”

“I’ll be tamned, then!” said Captain MacTurk. “Was I not in Tippoo’s prison at Bangalore? and, when the joyful day of our liberation came, did we not solemnize it with fourteen little affairs, whereof we had been laying the foundation in our house of captivity, as holy writ has it, and never went farther to settle them than the glacis of the fort? By my soul, you would have thought there was a smart skirmish, the firing was so close; and did not I, Captain MacTurk, fight three of them myself, without moving my foot from the place I set it on?”

“And pray, sir, what might be the result of this Christian mode of giving thanks for your deliverance?” demanded Mr. Touchwood.

“A small list of casualties, after all,” said the Captain; “one killed on the spot, one died of his wounds — two wounded severely — three ditto slightly, and little Duncan Macphail reported missing. We were out of practice, after such long confinement. So you see how we manage matters in India, my dear friend.”

“You are to understand,” replied Touchwood, “that I spoke only of the heathen natives, who, heathen as they are, live in the light of their own moral reason, and among whom ye shall therefore see better examples of practical morality than among such as yourselves; who, though calling yourselves Christians, have no more knowledge of the true acceptation and meaning of your religion, than if you had left your Christianity at the Cape of Good Hope, as they say of you, and forgot to take it up when you come back again.”

“Py Cot! and I can tell you, sir,” said the Captain, elevating at once his voice and his nostrils, and snuffing the air with a truculent and indignant visage, “that I will not permit you or any man to throw any such scandal on my character. — I thank Cot, I can bring good witness that I am as good a Christian as another, for a poor sinner, as the best of us are; and I am ready to justify my religion with my sword — Cot tamn! — Compare my own self with a parcel of black heathen bodies and natives, that were never in the inner side of a kirk whilst they lived, but go about worshipping stocks and stones, and swinging themselves upon bamboos, like peasts, as they are!”

An indignant growling in his throat, which sounded like the acquiescence of his inward man in the indignant proposition which his external organs thus expressed, concluded this haughty speech, which, however, made not the least impression on Touchwood, who cared as little for angry tones and looks as he did for fine speeches. So that it is likely a quarrel between the Christian preceptor and the peacemaker might have occurred for the amusement of the company, had not the attention of both, but particularly that of Touchwood, been diverted from the topic of debate by the entrance of Lord Etherington and Mowbray.

The former was, as usual, all grace, smiles, and gentleness. Yet, contrary to his wonted custom, which usually was, after a few general compliments, to attach himself particularly to Lady Binks, the Earl, on the present occasion, avoided the side of the room on which that beautiful but sullen idol held her station, and attached himself exclusively to Lady Penelope Penfeather, enduring, without flinching, the strange variety of conceited bavardage, which that lady’s natural parts and acquired information enabled her to pour forth with unparalleled profusion.

An honest heathen, one of Plutarch’s heroes, if I mistake not,E12 dreamed once upon a night, that the figure of Proserpina, whom he had long worshipped, visited his slumbers with an angry and vindictive countenance, and menaced him with vengeance, in resentment of his having neglected her altars, with the usual fickleness of a polytheist, for those of some more fashionable divinity. Not that goddess of the infernal regions herself could assume a more haughty or more displeased countenance than that with which Lady Binks looked from time to time upon Lord Etherington, as if to warn him of the consequence of this departure from the allegiance which the young Earl had hitherto manifested towards her, and which seemed now, she knew not why, unless it were for the purpose of public insult, to be transferred to her rival. Perilous as her eye-glances were, and much as they menaced, Lord Etherington felt at this moment the importance of soothing Lady Penelope to silence on the subject of the invalid’s confession of that morning, to be more pressing than that of appeasing the indignation of Lady Binks. The former was a case of the most urgent necessity — the latter, if he was at all anxious on the subject, might, he perhaps thought, be trusted to time. Had the ladies continued on a tolerable footing together, he might have endeavoured to conciliate both. But the bitterness of their long-suppressed feud had greatly increased, now that it was probable the end of the season was to separate them, in all likelihood for ever; so that Lady Penelope had no longer any motive for countenancing Lady Binks, or the lady of Sir Bingo for desiring Lady Penelope’s countenance. The wealth and lavish expense of the one was no longer to render more illustrious the suit of her right honourable friend, nor was the society of Lady Penelope likely to be soon again useful or necessary to Lady Binks. So that neither were any longer desirous to suppress symptoms of the mutual contempt and dislike which they had long nourished for each other; and whoever should, in this decisive hour, take part with one, had little henceforward to expect from her rival. What farther and more private reasons Lady Binks might have to resent the defection of Lord Etherington, have never come with certainty to our knowledge; but it was said there had been high words between them on the floating report that his lordship’s visits to Shaws-Castle were dictated by the wish to find a bride there.

Women’s wits are said to be quick in spying the surest means of avenging a real or supposed slight. After biting her pretty lips, and revolving in her mind the readiest means of vengeance, fate threw in her way young Mowbray of St. Ronan’s. She looked at him, and endeavoured to fix his attention with a nod and gracious smile, such as in an ordinary mood would have instantly drawn him to her side. On receiving in answer only a vacant glance and a bow, she was led to observe him more attentively, and was induced to believe, from his wavering look, varying complexion, and unsteady step, that he had been drinking unusually deep. Still his eye was less that of an intoxicated than of a disturbed and desperate man, one whose faculties were engrossed by deep and turbid reflection, which withdrew him from the passing scene.

“Do you observe how ill Mr. Mowbray looks?” said she, in a loud whisper; “I hope he has not heard what Lady Penelope was just now saying of his family?”

“Unless he hears it from you, my lady,” answered Mr. Touchwood, who, upon Mowbray’s entrance, had broken off his discourse with MacTurk, “I think there is little chance of his learning it from any other person.”

“What is the matter?” said Mowbray, sharply, addressing Chatterly and Winterblossom; but the one shrunk nervously from the question, protesting, he indeed had not been precisely attending to what had been passing among the ladies, and Winterblossom bowed out of the scrape with quiet and cautious politeness —“he really had not given particular attention to what was passing — I was negotiating with Mrs. Jones for an additional lump of sugar to my coffee. — Egad, it was so difficult a piece of diplomacy,” he added, sinking his voice, “that I have an idea her ladyship calculates the West India produce by grains and pennyweights.”

The innuendo, if designed to make Mowbray smile, was far from succeeding. He stepped forward, with more than usual stiffness in his air, which was never entirely free from self-consequence, and said to Lady Binks, “May I request to know of your ladyship what particular respecting my family had the honour to engage the attention of the company?”

“I was only a listener, Mr. Mowbray,” returned Lady Binks, with evident enjoyment of the rising indignation which she read in his countenance; “not being queen of the night, I am not at all disposed to be answerable for the turn of the conversation.”

Mowbray, in no humour to bear jesting, yet afraid to expose himself by farther enquiry in a company so public, darted a fierce look at Lady Penelope, then in close conversation with Lord Etherington — advanced a step or two towards them — then, as if checking himself, turned on his heel, and left the room. A few minutes afterwards, and when certain satirical nods and winks were circulating among the assembly, a waiter slid a piece of paper into Mrs. Jones’s hand, who, on looking at the contents, seemed about to leave the room.

“Jones — Jones!” exclaimed Lady Penelope, in surprise and displeasure.

“Only the key of the tea-caddie, your ladyship,” answered Jones; “I will be back in an instant.”

“Jones — Jones!” again exclaimed her mistress, “here is enough”— of tea, she would have said; but Lord Etherington was so near her, that she was ashamed to complete the sentence, and had only hope in Jones’s quickness of apprehension, and the prospect that she would be unable to find the key which she went in search of.

Jones, meanwhile, tripped off to a sort of housekeeper’s apartment, of which she was locum tenens for the evening, for the more ready supply of whatever might be wanted on Lady Penelope’s night, as it was called. Here she found Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan’s, whom she instantly began to assail with, “La! now, Mr. Mowbray, you are such another gentleman! — I am sure you will make me lose my place — I’ll swear you will — what can you have to say, that you could not as well put off for an hour?”

“I want to know, Jones,” answered Mowbray, in a different tone, perhaps, from what the damsel expected, “what your lady was just now saying about my family.”

“Pshaw! — was that all?” answered Mrs. Jones. “What should she be saying? — nonsense — Who minds what she says? — I am sure I never do, for one.”

“Nay, but, my dear Jones,” said Mowbray, “I insist upon knowing — I must know, and I will know.”

“La! Mr. Mowbray, why should I make mischief? — As I live, I hear some one coming! and if you were found speaking with me here — indeed, indeed, some one is coming!”

“The devil may come, if he will!” said Mowbray, “but we do not part, pretty mistress, till you tell me what I wish to know.”

“Lord, sir, you frighten me!” answered Jones; “but all the room heard it as well as I— it was about Miss Mowbray — and that my lady would be shy of her company hereafter — for that she was — she was”——

“For that my sister was what?” said Mowbray, fiercely, seizing her arm.

“Lord, sir, you terrify me!” said Jones, beginning to cry; “at any rate, it was not I that said it — it was Lady Penelope.”

“And what was it the old, adder-tongued madwoman dared to say of Clara Mowbray? — Speak out plainly, and directly, or, by Heaven, I’ll make you!”

“Hold, sir — hold, for God’s sake! — you will break my arm,” answered the terrified handmaiden. “I am sure I know no harm of Miss Mowbray; only, my lady spoke as if she was no better than she ought to be. — Lord, sir, there is some one listening at the door!”— and making a spring out of his grasp, she hastened back to the room in which the company were assembled.

Mowbray stood petrified at the news he had heard, ignorant alike what could be the motive for a calumny so atrocious, and uncertain what he were best do to put a stop to the scandal. To his farther confusion, he was presently convinced of the truth of Mrs. Jones’s belief that they had been watched, for, as he went to the door of the apartment, he was met by Mr. Touchwood.

“What has brought you here, sir?” said Mowbray, sternly.

“Hoitie toitie,” answered the traveller, “why, how came you here, if you go to that, squire? — Egad, Lady Penelope is trembling for her souchong, so I just took a step here to save her ladyship the trouble of looking after Mrs. Jones in person, which, I think, might have been a worse interruption than mine, Mr. Mowbray.”

“Pshaw, sir, you talk nonsense,” said Mowbray; “the tea-room is so infernally hot, that I had sat down here a moment to draw breath, when the young woman came in.”

“And you are going to run away, now the old gentleman is come in?” said Touchwood —“Come, sir, I am more your friend than you may think.”

“Sir, you are intrusive — I want nothing that you can give me,” said Mowbray.

“That is a mistake,” answered the senior; “for I can supply you with what most young men want — money and wisdom.”

“You will do well to keep both till they are wanted,” said Mowbray.

“Why, so I would, squire, only that I have taken something of a fancy for your family; and they are supposed to have wanted cash and good counsel for two generations, if not for three.”

“Sir,” said Mowbray, angrily, “you are too old either to play the buffoon, or to get buffoon’s payment.”

“Which is like monkey’s allowance, I suppose,” said the traveller, “more kicks than halfpence. — Well — at least I am not young enough to quarrel with boys for bullying. I’ll convince you, however, Mr. Mowbray, that I know some more of your affairs than what you give me credit for.”

“It may be,” answered Mowbray, “but you will oblige me more by minding your own.”

“Very like; meantime, your losses to-night to my Lord Etherington are no trifle, and no secret neither.”

“Mr. Touchwood, I desire to know where you had your information?” said Mowbray.

“A matter of very little consequence compared to its truth or falsehood, Mr. Mowbray,” answered the old gentleman.

“But of the last importance to me, sir,” said Mowbray. “In a word, had you such information by or through means of Lord Etherington? — Answer me this single question, and then I shall know better what to think on the subject.”

“Upon my honour,” said Touchwood, “I neither had my information from Lord Etherington directly nor indirectly. I say thus much to give you satisfaction, and I now expect you will hear me with patience.”

“Forgive me, sir,” interrupted Mowbray, “one farther question. I understand something was said in disparagement of my sister just as I entered the tea-room?”

“Hem — hem — hem!” said Touchwood, hesitating. “I am sorry your ears have served you so well — something there was said lightly, something that can be easily explained, I dare say; — And now, Mr. Mowbray, let me speak a few serious words with you.”

“And now, Mr. Touchwood, we have no more to say to each other — good evening to you.”

He brushed past the old man, who in vain endeavoured to stop him, and, hurrying to the stable, demanded his horse. It was ready saddled, and waited his orders; but even the short time that was necessary to bring it to the door of the stable was exasperating to Mowbray’s impatience. Not less exasperating was the constant interceding voice of Touchwood, who, in tones alternately plaintive and snappish, kept on a string of expostulations.

“Mr. Mowbray, only five words with you — Mr. Mowbray, you will repent this — Is this a night to ride in, Mr. Mowbray? — My stars, sir, if you would but have five minutes’ patience!”

Curses, not loud but deep, muttered in the throat of the impatient laird, were the only reply, until his horse was brought out, when, staying no farther question, he sprung into the saddle. The poor horse paid for the delay, which could not be laid to his charge. Mowbray struck him hard with his spurs so soon as he was in his seat — the noble animal reared, bolted, and sprung forward like a deer, over stock and stone, the nearest road — and we are aware it was a rough one — to Shaws-Castle. There is a sort of instinct by which horses perceive the humour of their riders, and are furious and impetuous, or dull and sluggish, as if to correspond with it; and Mowbray’s gallant steed seemed on this occasion to feel all the stings of his master’s internal ferment, although not again urged with the spur. The ostler stood listening to the clash of the hoofs, succeeding each other in thick and close gallop, until they died away in the distant woodland.

“If St. Ronan’s reach home this night, with his neck unbroken,” muttered the fellow, “the devil must have it in keeping.”

“Mercy on us!” said the traveller, “he rides like a Bedouin Arab! but in the desert there are neither trees to cross the road, nor cleughs, nor linns, nor floods, nor fords. Well, I must set to work myself, or this gear will get worse than even I can mend. — Here you, ostler, let me have your best pair of horses instantly to Shaws-Castle.”

“To Shaws-Castle, sir?” said the man, with some surprise.

“Yes — do you not know such a place?”

“In troth, sir, sae few company go there, except on the great ball day, that we have had time to forget the road to it — but St. Ronan’s was here even now, sir.”

“Ay, what of that? — he has ridden on to get supper ready — so, turn out without loss of time.”

“At your pleasure, sir,” said the fellow, and called to the postilion accordingly.

E12 p. 238. “One of Plutarch’s heroes, if I mistake not.” It was not a hero of Plutarch’s, but Pindar the poet, who was warned by Persephone that he had neglected to honour her by an ode. — A.L.

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