Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1405
The threatened loss of his family estates in Scotland sends Nigel Olifaunt, the lord of Glenvarloch, and his servant, Richard Moniplies, to London. Their mission there is to petition King James I for the repayment of large loans made to the crown by Nigel’s late father. After Richie Moniplies makes an unsuccessful attempt to deliver his master’s petition, he is followed from the court by George Heriot, the royal goldsmith, who goes to Nigel and offers to help him gain favor with the king. Heriot gives his friendship with Nigel’s late father as his motive. He succeeds in presenting Nigel’s petition to the king. King James, in royal good humor, orders Heriot to provide Nigel with money needed to outfit himself properly for an appearance at court, so that he can speak in his own behalf. The king gives Heriot a small crown of jewels with instructions that the gems are to remain in Heriot’s possession until the state repays him for the money he will lend to Nigel. The state’s finances are seriously depleted, and the king is forced to do business by warrant.
While dining at Heriot’s house the next day, Nigel meets Margaret Ramsay, Heriot’s godchild and the daughter of David Ramsay, the royal clockmaker. Margaret promptly loses her heart to Nigel, but because he is a nobleman, she is too shy to talk with him. That same night, however, she commissions Dame Suddlechop, a local gossip, to investigate Nigel and his business. The Dame already knows that Nigel has powerful enemies in court, who are interested in seeing that he is prevented from taking rightful possession of his estates. On the promise of more money in the future, the old gossip agrees to learn all she can about Nigel and his affairs.
Dressed in clothing bought by money advanced by Heriot, Nigel goes to the king with his petition. At first, he has difficulty in gaining admittance, but at last, he manages to see the king. The king confesses that there are no funds available for the debt, but he makes a notation on the petition to the Scottish Exchequer and tells Nigel that perhaps he can borrow from moneylenders on the strength of the royal warrant. Nigel leaves the court with Heriot and the earl of Huntinglen, who befriends him because of his father’s name.
Anticipating a session with the moneylenders, the three decide to have a paper drawn up, a document that will allow Nigel ample time to redeem his estates by means of the king’s warrant. Trusting Heriot and the old earl to handle his business, Nigel devotes himself to becoming acquainted with the earl’s young son, Lord Dalgarno. Pretending friendship, Dalgarno in reality begins a campaign to undermine Nigel’s character and reputation and complete his financial ruin. Dalgarno himself hopes to gain possession of Nigel’s estate.
Dalgarno takes Nigel to gaming houses and other questionable places until Nigel’s reputation begins to suffer in the city and at court. At last, even faithful Richie asks for permission to leave his service and return to Scotland. Immediately after Richie’s departure, Nigel receives an anonymous note, telling him of Dalgarno’s plot to ruin him. At first, Nigel refuses to consider such a possibility, but at length he decides to investigate the charges. When he confronts Dalgarno in the park and accuses him of knavery, Dalgarno is so contemptuous of him that Nigel draws his sword and strikes Dalgarno. The young courtier is not injured. There is a severe penalty for drawing swords in the park, however, and Nigel is forced to flee in order to avoid arrest. He is befriended by a young man he met in a gaming house and is hidden in the house of an old usurer named Trapbois. His refuge is in Whitefriars, known as Alsatia, the haunt of bravos, bankrupts, bullyboys, and thieves.
Meanwhile, Margaret is trying to help the young Scottish lord. A mysterious lady stays apart in a secluded apartment in Heriot’s house. She saw Nigel once during his first visit at the house. She is Lady Hermione, who is in seclusion following a tragic affair of the heart. Because she is extremely wealthy, Margaret begs her to help Nigel out of his difficulties. Lady Hermione reveals to Margaret that she is of the House of Glenvarloch and thus a distant relative of Nigel. When Margaret tells her of Dalgarno’s plot to ruin Nigel, Lady Hermione gives her the money but warns her not to lose her heart to Nigel, for he is too highborn for a clockmaker’s daughter.
Margaret arranges with an apprentice for Nigel’s escape. The apprentice is willing to aid her because he is in love with Margaret and was advised by old Dame Suddlechop that he might win the girl’s heart by helping Nigel. In the meantime, Nigel kills one of two Russians who murdered Trapbois. Nigel takes Trapbois’s daughter Martha with him when he escapes from Alsatia with the help of the apprentice sent by Margaret.
Nigel sends Martha to the house of a ship chandler with whom he lodged for a time and then sets out to find the king and present his own account of the quarrel with Dalgarno. Martha has difficulty in gaining admittance to the house where Nigel sends her, for the ship chandler’s wife has disappeared. She is discovered and protected by Richie Moniplies, who returned to London to look for his master and to help him. Nigel, in the meantime, tries to approach the king. James, believing that Nigel wants to kill him, calls out for help. His attendants seize Nigel and carry him off to the Tower. Dalgarno, one of the royal party, is only too glad to see Nigel imprisoned.
In his cell, Nigel is accused by Heriot of adultery with the ship chandler’s wife and of duplicity in the disappearance of Martha. Nigel denies his guilt in both of these affairs. Heriot, while refusing to believe him, nevertheless says that he will again try to help Nigel for his dead father’s sake, and he asks Nigel for the royal warrant. His plan is to collect the money from the state and satisfy the moneylenders who are pressing for the repayment of Nigel’s loan. Nigel falls into despair when he discovers that the royal warrant has been taken from his baggage.
Through a noble friend, Nigel is cleared of the charge of treason—that is, his supposed attempt on the king’s life. Nevertheless, he still has to stand trial for drawing his sword against Dalgarno. Richie goes to Nigel in his cell and promises to help his master out of his troubles.
In the meantime, the king receives a letter from the Lady Hermione, in which she charges that Dalgarno is the man who betrayed her. In an attempt to amend the wrongdoing, the king forces Dalgarno to marry Lady Hermione; after the ceremony, however, Dalgarno informs the king that he now possesses his wife’s wealth and, through her, a claim upon the Glenvarloch estates. He announces that if the redemption money is not paid by noon of the following day, he will take possession of Nigel’s property. Convinced at last that Nigel is the injured party in the affair with Dalgarno, the king informs Richie that his master will be restored to royal favor. Richie, armed with money given to him by Martha, pays the mortgage on Nigel’s estates. After trying to show that the redemption papers were gained unlawfully, Dalgarno proceeds on his way to Scotland to claim the property; but on the way, he is killed by the same ruffian he hired to murder Trapbois some time before. His death restores to Lady Hermione the fortune that Dalgarno, as her husband, claimed. She gives a large portion of her wealth to Margaret and the rest to Nigel, her kinsman. Nigel and Margaret declare their love for each other and are married. During the ceremony, Richie appears with Martha, whom he married. Martha tells Nigel that her father stole his royal warrant, and by returning the paper to him, she makes his estates secure. In gratitude to Richie for his part in restoring honor in the court, the king makes the faithful servant a knight of the land.
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