Saint Ronan's Well, by Walter Scott

Chapter 4

The Invitation.

Thus painters write their names at Co.


The clamour which attends the removal of dinner from a public room had subsided; the clatter of plates, and knives and forks — the bustling tread of awkward boobies of country servants, kicking each other’s shins, and wrangling, as they endeavour to rush out of the door three abreast — the clash of glasses and tumblers, borne to earth in the tumult — the shrieks of the landlady — the curses, not loud, but deep, of the landlord — had all passed away; and those of the company who had servants, had been accommodated by their respective Ganymedes with such remnants of their respective bottles of wine, spirits, &c., as the said Ganymedes had not previously consumed, while the rest, broken in to such observance by Mr. Winterblossom, waited patiently until the worthy president’s own special and multifarious commissions had been executed by a tidy young woman and a lumpish lad, the regular attendants belonging to the house, but whom he permitted to wait on no one, till, as the hymn says,

“All his wants were well supplied.”

“And, Dinah — my bottle of pale sherry, Dinah — place it on this side — there’s a good girl; — and, Toby — get my jug with the hot water — and let it be boiling — and don’t spill it on Lady Penelope, if you can help it, Toby.”

“No — for her ladyship has been in hot water today already,” said the Squire; a sarcasm to which Lady Penelope only replied with a look of contempt.

“And, Dinah, bring the sugar — the soft East India sugar, Dinah — and a lemon, Dinah, one of those which came fresh today — Go fetch it from the bar, Toby — and don’t tumble down stairs, if you can help it. — And, Dinah — stay, Dinah — the nutmeg, Dinah, and the ginger, my good girl — And, Dinah — put the cushion up behind my back — and the footstool to my foot, for my toe is something the worse of my walk with your ladyship this morning to the top of Belvidere.”

“Her ladyship may call it what she pleases in common parlance,” said the writer; “but it must stand Munt-grunzie in the stamped paper, being so nominated in the ancient writs and evidents thereof.”

“And, Dinah,” continued the president, “lift up my handkerchief — and — a bit of biscuit, Dinah — and — and I do not think I want any thing else — Look to the company, my good girl. — I have the honour to drink the company’s very good health — Will your ladyship honour me by accepting a glass of negus? — I learned to make negus from old Dartineuf’s son. — He always used East India sugar and added a tamarind — it improves the flavour infinitely. — Dinah, see your father sends for some tamarinds — Dartineuf knew a good thing almost as well as his father — I met him at Bath in the year — let me see — Garrick was just taking leave, and that was in,” &c. &c. &c. —“And what is this now, Dinah?” he said, as she put into his hand a roll of paper.

“Something that Nelly Trotter” (Trotting Nelly, as the company called her) “brought from a sketching gentleman that lives at the woman’s” (thus bluntly did the upstart minx describe the reverend Mrs. Margaret Dods) “at the Cleikum of Aultoun yonder”— A name, by the way, which the inn had acquired from the use which the saint upon the sign-post was making of his pastoral crook.

“Indeed, Dinah?” said Mr. Winterblossom, gravely taking out his spectacles, and wiping them before he opened the roll of paper; “some boy’s daubing, I suppose, whose pa and ma wish to get him into the Trustees’ School, and so are beating about for a little interest. — But I am drained dry — I put three lads in last season; and if it had not been my particular interest with the secretary, who asks my opinion now and then, I could not have managed it. But giff-gaff, say I. — Eh! What, in the devil’s name, is this? — Here is both force and keeping — Who can this be, my lady? — Do but see the sky-line — why, this is really a little bit — an exquisite little bit — Who the devil can it be? and how can he have stumbled upon the dog-hole in the Old Town, and the snarling b —— I beg your ladyship ten thousand pardons — that kennels there?”

“I dare say, my lady,” said a little miss of fourteen, her eyes growing rounder and rounder, and her cheeks redder and redder, as she found herself speaking, and so many folks listening —“O la! I dare say it is the same gentleman we met one day in the Low-wood walk, that looked like a gentleman, and yet was none of the company, and that you said was a handsome man.”

“I did not say handsome, Maria,” replied her ladyship; “ladies never say men are handsome — I only said he looked genteel and interesting.”

“And that, my lady,” said the young parson, bowing and smiling, “is, I will be judged by the company, the more flattering compliment of the two — We shall be jealous of this Unknown presently.”

“Nay, but,” continued the sweetly communicative Maria, with some real and some assumed simplicity, “your ladyship forgets — for you said presently after, you were sure he was no gentleman, for he did not run after you with your glove which you had dropped — and so I went back myself to find your ladyship’s glove, and he never offered to help me, and I saw him closer than your ladyship did, and I am sure he is handsome, though he is not very civil.”

“You speak a little too much and too loud, miss,” said Lady Penelope, a natural blush reinforcing the nuance of rouge by which it was usually superseded.

“What say you to that, Squire Mowbray?” said the elegant Sir Bingo Binks.

“A fair challenge to the field, Sir Bingo,” answered the squire; “when a lady throws down the gauntlet, a gentleman may throw the handkerchief.”

“I have always the benefit of your best construction, Mr. Mowbray,” said the lady, with dignity. “I suppose Miss Maria has contrived this pretty story for your amusement. I can hardly answer to Mr. Digges, for bringing her into company where she receives encouragement to behave so.”

“Nay, nay, my lady,” said the president, “you must let the jest pass by; and since this is really such an admirable sketch, you must honour us with your opinion, whether the company can consistently with propriety make any advances to this man.”

“In my opinion,” said her ladyship, the angry spot still glowing on her brow, “there are enough of men among us already — I wish I could say gentlemen — As matters stand, I see little business ladies can have at St. Ronan’s.”

This was an intimation which always brought the Squire back to good-breeding, which he could make use of when he pleased. He deprecated her ladyship’s displeasure, until she told him, in returning good humour, that she really would not trust him unless he brought his sister to be security for his future politeness.

“Clara, my lady,” said Mowbray, “is a little wilful; and I believe your ladyship must take the task of unharbouring her into your own hands. What say you to a gipsy party up to my old shop? — It is a bachelor’s house — you must not expect things in much order; but Clara would be honoured”——

The Lady Penelope eagerly accepted the proposal of something like a party, and, quite reconciled with Mowbray, began to enquire whether she might bring the stranger artist with her; “that is,” said her ladyship, looking to Dinah, “if he be a gentleman.”

Here Dinah interposed her assurance, “that the gentleman at Meg Dods’s was quite and clean a gentleman, and an illustrated poet besides.”

“An illustrated poet, Dinah?” said Lady Penelope; “you must mean an illustrious poet.”

“I dare to say your ladyship is right,” said Dinah, dropping a curtsy.

A joyous flutter of impatient anxiety was instantly excited through all the blue-stocking faction of the company, nor were the news totally indifferent to the rest of the community. The former belonged to that class, who, like the young Ascanius, are ever beating about in quest of a tawny lion, though they are much more successful in now and then starting a great bore;13 and the others, having left all their own ordinary affairs and subjects of interest at home, were glad to make a matter of importance of the most trivial occurrence. A mighty poet, said the former class — who could it possibly be? — All names were recited — all Britain scrutinized, from Highland hills to the Lakes of Cumberland — from Sydenham Common to St. James’s Place — even the Banks of the Bosphorus were explored for some name which might rank under this distinguished epithet. — And then, besides his illustrious poesy, to sketch so inimitably! — who could it be? And all the gapers, who had nothing of their own to suggest, answered with the antistrophe, “Who could it be?”

The Claret-Club, which comprised the choicest and firmest adherents of Squire Mowbray and the Baronet — men who scorned that the reversion of one bottle of wine should furnish forth the feast of tomorrow, though caring nought about either of the fine arts in question, found out an interest of their own, which centred in the same individual.

“I say, little Sir Bingo,” said the Squire, “this is the very fellow that we saw down at the Willow-slack on Saturday — he was tog’d gnostically enough, and cast twelve yards of line with one hand — the fly fell like a thistledown on the water.”

“Uich!” answered the party he addressed, in the accents of a dog choking in the collar.

“We saw him pull out the salmon yonder,” said Mowbray; “you remember — clean fish — the tide-ticks on his gills — weighed, I dare say, a matter of eighteen pounds.”

“Sixteen!” replied Sir Bingo, in the same tone of strangulation.

“None of your rigs, Bing!” said his companion, “— nearer eighteen than sixteen!”

“Nearer sixteen, by ——!”

“Will you go a dozen of blue on it to the company?” said the Squire.

“No, d —— me!” croaked the Baronet —“to our own set I will.”

“Then, I say done!” quoth the Squire.

And “Done!” responded the Knight; and out came their red pocketbooks.

“But who shall decide the bet?” said the Squire, “The genius himself, I suppose; they talk of asking him here, but I suppose he will scarce mind quizzes like them.”

“Write myself — John Mowbray,” said the Baronet.

“You, Baronet! — you write!” answered the Squire, “d —— me, that cock won’t fight — you won’t.”

“I will,” growled Sir Bingo, more articulately than usual.

“Why, you can’t!” said Mowbray. “You never wrote a line in your life, save those you were whipped for at school.”

“I can write — I will write!” said Sir Bingo. “Two to one I will.”

And there the affair rested, for the council of the company were in high consultation concerning the most proper manner of opening a communication with the mysterious stranger; and the voice of Mr. Winterblossom, whose tones, originally fine, age had reduced to falsetto, was calling upon the whole party for “Order, order!” So that the bucks were obliged to lounge in silence, with both arms reclined on the table, and testifying, by coughs and yawns, their indifference to the matters in question, while the rest of the company debated upon them, as if they were matters of life and death.

“A visit from one of the gentlemen — Mr. Winterblossom, if he would take the trouble — in name of the company at large — would, Lady Penelope Penfeather presumed to think, be a necessary preliminary to an invitation.”

Mr. Winterblossom was “quite of her ladyship’s opinion, and would gladly have been the personal representative of the company at St. Ronan’s Well — but it was up hill — her ladyship knew his tyrant, the gout, was hovering upon the frontiers — there were other gentlemen, younger and more worthy to fly at the lady’s command than an ancient Vulcan like him — there was the valiant Mars and the eloquent Mercury.”

Thus speaking, he bowed to Captain MacTurk and the Rev. Mr. Simon Chatterly, and reclined on his chair, sipping his negus with the self-satisfied smile of one, who, by a pretty speech, has rid himself of a troublesome commission. At the same time, by an act probably of mental absence, he put in his pocket the drawing, which, after circulating around the table, had returned back to the chair of the president, being the point from which it had set out.

“By Cot, madam,” said Captain MacTurk, “I should be proud to obey your leddyship’s commands — but, by Cot, I never call first on any man that never called upon me at all, unless it were to carry him a friend’s message, or such like.”

“Twig the old connoisseur,” said the Squire to the Knight. —“He is condiddling the drawing.”

“Go it, Johnnie Mowbray — pour it into him,” whispered Sir Bingo.

“Thank ye for nothing, Sir Bingo,” said the Squire, in the same tone. “Winterblossom is one of us — was one of us at least — and won’t stand the ironing. He has his Wogdens still, that were right things in his day, and can hit the hay-stack with the best of us — but stay, they are hallooing on the parson.”

They were indeed busied on all hands, to obtain Mr. Chatterly’s consent to wait on the Genius unknown; but though he smiled and simpered, and was absolutely incapable of saying No, he begged leave, in all humility, to decline that commission. “The truth was,” he pleaded in his excuse, “that having one day walked to visit the old Castle of St. Ronan’s, and returning through the Auld Town, as it was popularly called, he had stopped at the door of the Cleikum,” (pronounced Anglicé, with the open diphthong,) “in hopes to get a glass of syrup of capillaire, or a draught of something cooling; and had in fact expressed his wishes, and was knocking pretty loudly, when a sash-window was thrown suddenly up, and ere he was aware what was about to happen, he was soused with a deluge of water,” (as he said,) “while the voice of an old hag from within assured him, that if that did not cool him there was another biding him — an intimation which induced him to retreat in all haste from the repetition of the shower-bath.”

All laughed at the account of the chaplain’s misfortune, the history of which seemed to be wrung from him reluctantly, by the necessity of assigning some weighty cause for declining to execute the ladies’ commands. But the Squire and Baronet continued their mirth far longer than decorum allowed, flinging themselves back in their chairs, with their hands thrust into their side-pockets, and their mouths expanded with unrestrained enjoyment, until the sufferer, angry, disconcerted, and endeavouring to look scornful, incurred another general burst of laughter on all hands.

When Mr. Winterblossom had succeeded in restoring some degree of order, he found the mishaps of the young divine proved as intimidating as ludicrous. Not one of the company chose to go Envoy Extraordinary to the dominions of Queen Meg, who might be suspected of paying little respect to the sanctity of an ambassador’s person. And what was worse, when it was resolved that a civil card from Mr. Winterblossom, in the name of the company, should be sent to the stranger, instead of a personal visit, Dinah informed them that she was sure no one about the house could be bribed to carry up a letter of the kind; for, when such an event had taken place two summers since, Meg, who construed it into an attempt to seduce from her tenement the invited guest, had so handled a ploughboy who carried the letter, that he fled the country-side altogether, and never thought himself safe till he was at a village ten miles off, where it was afterwards learned he enlisted with a recruiting party, choosing rather to face the French than to return within the sphere of Meg’s displeasure.

Just while they were agitating this new difficulty, a prodigious clamour was heard without, which, to the first apprehensions of the company, seemed to be Meg, in all her terrors, come to anticipate the proposed invasion. Upon enquiry, however, it proved to be her gossip, Trotting Nelly, or Nelly Trotter, in the act of forcing her way up stairs, against the united strength of the whole household of the hotel, to reclaim Luckie Dods’s picture, as she called it. This made the connoisseur’s treasure tremble in his pocket, who, thrusting a half-crown into Toby’s hand, exhorted him to give it her, and try his influence in keeping her back. Toby, who knew Nelly’s nature, put the half-crown into his own pocket, and snatched up a gill-stoup of whisky from the sideboard. Thus armed, he boldly confronted the virago, and interposing a remora, which was able to check poor Nelly’s course in her most determined moods, not only succeeded in averting the immediate storm which approached the company in general, and Mr. Winterblossom in particular, but brought the guests the satisfactory information, that Trotting Nelly had agreed, after she had slept out her nap in the barn, to convey their commands to the Unknown of Cleikum of Aultoun.

Mr. Winterblossom, therefore, having authenticated his proceedings, by inserting in the Minutes of the Committee, the authority which he had received, wrote his card in the best style of diplomacy, and sealed it with the seal of the Spa, which bore something like a nymph, seated beside what was designed to represent an urn.

The rival factions, however, did not trust entirely to this official invitation. Lady Penelope was of opinion that they should find some way of letting the stranger — a man of talent unquestionably — understand that there were in the society to which he was invited, spirits of a more select sort, who felt worthy to intrude themselves on his solitude.

Accordingly, her ladyship imposed upon the elegant Mr. Chatterly the task of expressing the desire of the company to see the unknown artist, in a neat occasional copy of verses. The poor gentleman’s muse, however, proved unpropitious; for he was able to proceed no farther than two lines in half an hour, which, coupled with its variations, we insert from the blotted manuscript, as Dr. Johnson has printed the alterations in Pope’s version of the Iliad:

1. Maids. 2. Dames. unity joining.
The [nymphs] of St. Ronan’s [in purpose combining]

1. Swain. 2. Man.
To the [youth] who is great both in verse and designing,
. . . . . . . . . dining.

The eloquence of a prose billet was necessarily resorted to in the absence of the heavenly muse, and the said billet was secretly intrusted to the care of Trotting Nelly. The same trusty emissary, when refreshed by her nap among the pease-straw, and about to harness her cart for her return to the seacoast, (in the course of which she was to pass the Aultoun,) received another card, written, as he had threatened, by Sir Bingo Binks himself, who had given himself this trouble to secure the settlement of the bet; conjecturing that a man with a fashionable exterior, who could throw twelve yards of line at a cast with such precision, might consider the invitation of Winterblossom as that of an old twaddler, and care as little for the good graces of an affected blue-stocking and her côterie, whose conversation, in Sir Bingo’s mind, relished of nothing but of weak tea and bread and butter. Thus the happy Mr. Francis Tyrrel received, considerably to his surprise, no less than three invitations at once from the Well of St. Ronan’s.

13 The one or the other was equally in votis to Ascanius —

“Optat aprum, aut fulvum descendere monte leonem.”

Modern Trojans make a great distinction betwixt these two objects of chase.

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