(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Meg Dods, the proprietress, welcomed Francis Tyrrel, a young Englishman, to her inn at old St. Ronan’s, after she had recognized him as a former visitor to the village and not a traveling salesman. She gladly answered his questions about the Mowbray family, telling him that John had inherited his father’s title of Laird of St. Ronan’s and now spent much of his time gambling at the Well, the fashionable watering place whose growth had caused the old town to fall into ruins. Clara Mowbray, reported to be a little strange, lived with her brother.

Tyrrel saw these old acquaintances a few weeks later when he was invited to tea by Lady Penelope Penfeather, who was delighted to learn that an artist had come into the neighborhood. Her hope that he would be an asset to her social circle was thwarted, for she found him commonplace and was offended that he presumed to sit by her at dinner, far above what she considered his rightful position. Tyrrel was angered to discover that his activities had been the subject of a bet between Sir Bingo Binks and John Mowbray, and only a familiar voice in his ear stopped him from coming to blows with the boorish Sir Bingo.

Leaving the Well, Tyrrel waited in a nearby wood for Clara Mowbray, whose voice he had recognized. When they met, they alluded to mysterious and dreadful past events that the young man immediately realized had unhinged the girl’s mind. Controlling her emotions enough to ask that they meet as friends, Clara invited Tyrrel to a party she and her brother were planning to give at Shaws Castle.

Sir Bingo smarted under Tyrrel’s supposed insult. Encouraged by his friend Captain MacTurk, he sent a challenge to Tyrrel, who accepted it and agreed to a time for an encounter. When Sir Bingo and MacTurk appeared at the appointed place, however, they waited in vain. Although a public statement was issued at the Well to raise Sir Bingo’s status and blacken Tyrrel’s name, the young Englishman failed to come forward to defend his reputation.

Upset by her lodger’s disappearance and convinced that Tyrrel had been murdered by his dueling opponents, Meg Dods went to consult the sheriff at a nearby town. Her attention was diverted from Tyrrel by the entrance into the sheriff’s office of Mr. Touchwood, who told her that he was thoroughly disgusted with the foolish society at the Well, where he had been staying. When Mrs. Dods promised him better service at her own inn, he agreed to move there.

Once he had given detailed instructions about the angle of his bed and the cooking of his food, Mr. Touchwood set out to make new acquaintances. First, he sought out the Reverend Josiah Cargill, an absentminded scholar, but a kind and charitable man. Mr. Cargill, generally vague about the affairs of his parishioners, became unexpectedly agitated when, during a discussion of the Mowbrays’ forthcoming fete, he heard the rumor that Clara was to wed a young nobleman. He agreed to join his friend, Mr. Touchwood, for the party and insisted that he must talk to the girl.

The rumored bridegroom, the Earl of Etherington, had been welcomed at St. Ronan’s Well with special cordiality because of the wounds he claimed he had received at the hands of a highwayman. John Mowbray often gambled with Etherington during his convalescence and would have lost his own fortune and the money he had borrowed from his sister if the earl had not deliberately allowed his opponent to win. He then asked John’s permission to marry his sister and explained that under the will of an eccentric relative, a large fortune would be his if he wed a Mowbray. John gave his consent with the provision that Clara must agree to the match.

The mystery of Tyrrel’s disappearance was partially explained in a letter that Etherington wrote to a friend, Captain Harry Jekyl. The artist and the earl, bitter enemies who were obviously connected in some way, had met in a wood near St. Ronan’s. There they had fought a duel in which Tyrrel had been injured. Etherington said that he knew nothing of Tyrrel’s present whereabouts.

Mr. Touchwood and Mr. Cargill went together to Shaws Castle. They were entertained there with tableaux from A MIDSUMMER...

(The entire section is 1726 words.)