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The Surgeon's Daughter, Page 2

Walter Scott

  Well, every hour has its end. Five o'clock came, and my friend, with his daughters, and his handsome young son, who, though fairly buckled to the desk, is every now and then looking over his shoulder at a smart uniform, set seriously about satisfying the corporeal wants of nature; I, stimulated by a nobler appetite after fame, wished that the touch of a magic wand could, without all the ceremony of picking and choosing, carving and slicing, masticating and swallowing, have transported a quantum sufficit of the good things on my friend's hospitable board, into the stomachs of those who surrounded it, to be there at leisure converted into chyle, while their thoughts were turned on higher matters. At length all was over. But the young ladies sat still, and talked of the music of the Freischutz, for nothing else was then thought of; so we discussed the wild hunter's song, and the tame hunter's song, &c. &c., in all which my young friends were quite at home. Luckily for me, all this horning and hooping drew on some allusion to the Seventh Hussars, which gallant regiment, I observe, is a more favourite theme with both Miss Catherine and her brother than with my old friend, who presently looked at his watch, and said something significantly to Mr. James about office hours. The youth got up with the ease of a youngster that would be thought a man of fashion rather than of business, and endeavoured, with some success, to walk out of the room, as if the locomotion was entirely voluntary; Miss Catherine and her sisters left us at the same time, and now, thought I, my trial comes on.

  Reader, did you ever, in the course of your life, cheat the courts of justice and lawyers, by agreeing to refer a dubious and important question to the decision of a mutual friend? If so, you may have remarked the relative change which the arbiter undergoes in your estimation, when raised, though by your own free choice, from an ordinary acquaintance, whose opinions were of as little consequence to you as yours to him, into a superior personage, on whose decision your fate must depend pro tanto, as my friend Mr. Fairscribe would say. His looks assume a mysterious if not a minatory expression; his hat has a loftier air, and his wig, if he wears one, a more formidable buckle.

  I felt, accordingly, that my good friend Fairscribe, on the present occasion, had acquired something of a similar increase of consequence. But a week since, he had, in my opinion, been indeed an excellent-meaning man, perfectly competent to every thing within his own profession, but immured, at the same time, among its forms and technicalities, and as incapable of judging of matters of taste as any mighty Goth whatsoever, of or belonging to the ancient Senate-House of Scotland. But what of that? I had made him my judge by my own election; and I have often observed, that an idea of declining such a reference, on account of his own consciousness of incompetency, is, as it perhaps ought to be, the last which occurs to the referee himself. He that has a literary work subjected to his judgment by the author, immediately throws his mind into a critical attitude, though the subject be one which he never before thought of. No doubt the author is well qualified to select his own judge, and why should the arbiter whom he has chosen doubt his own talents for condemnation or acquittal, since he has been doubtless picked out by his friend, from his indubitable reliance on their competence? Surely, the man who wrote the production is likely to know the person best qualified to judge of it.

  Whilst these thoughts crossed my brain, I kept my eyes fixed on my good friend, whose motions appeared unusually tardy to me, while he ordered a bottle of particular claret, decanted it with scrupulous accuracy with his own hand, caused his old domestic to bring a saucer of olives, and chips of toasted bread, and thus, on hospitable thoughts intent, seemed to me to adjourn the discussion which I longed to bring on, yet feared to precipitate.

  "He is dissatisfied," thought I, "and is ashamed to show it, afraid doubtless of hurting my feelings. What had I to do to talk to him about any thing save charters and sasines?—Stay, he is going to begin."

  "We are old fellows now, Mr. Croftangry," said my landlord; "scarcely so fit to take a poor quart of claret between us, as we would have been in better days to take a pint, in the old Scottish liberal acceptation of the phrase. Maybe you would have liked me to have kept James to help us. But if it is not a holyday or so, I think it is best he should observe office hours."

  Here the discourse was about to fall. I relieved it by saying, Mr. James was at the happy time of life, when he had better things to do than to sit over the bottle. "I suppose," said I, "your son is a reader."

  "Um—yes—James may be called a reader in a sense; but I doubt there is little solid in his studies—poetry and plays, Mr. Croftangry, all nonsense—they set his head a-gadding after the army, when he should be minding his business."

  "I suppose, then, that romances do not find much more grace in your eyes than dramatic and poetical compositions?"

  "Deil a bit, deil a bit, Mr. Croftangry, nor historical productions either. There is too much fighting in history, as if men only were brought into this world to send one another out of it. It nourishes false notions of our being, and chief and proper end, Mr. Croftangry."

  Still all this was general, and I became determined to bring our discourse to a focus. "I am afraid, then, I have done very ill to trouble you with my idle manuscripts, Mr. Fairscribe; but you must do me the justice to remember, that I had nothing better to do than to amuse myself by writing the sheets I put into your hands the other day. I may truly plead—

  'I left no calling for this idle trade.'"

  "I cry your mercy, Mr. Croftangry," said my old friend, suddenly recollecting—"yes, yes, I have been very rude; but I had forgotten entirely that you had taken a spell yourself at that idle man's trade."

  "I suppose," replied I, "you, on your side, have been too busy a man to look at my poor Chronicles?"

  "No, no," said my friend, "I am not so bad as that neither. I have read them bit by bit, just as I could get a moment's time, and I believe, I shall very soon get through them."

  "Well, my good friend?" said I, interrogatively.

  And "Well, Mr. Croftangry," cried he, "I really think you have got over the ground very tolerably well. I have noted down here two or three bits of things, which I presume to be errors of the press, otherwise it might be alleged, perhaps, that you did not fully pay that attention to the grammatical rules, which one would desire to see rigidly observed."

  I looked at my friend's notes, which, in fact, showed, that in one or two grossly obvious passages, I had left uncorrected such solecisms in grammar.

  "Well, well, I own my fault; but, setting apart these casual errors, how do you like the matter and the manner of what I have been writing, Mr. Fairscribe?"

  "Why," said my friend, pausing, with more grave and important hesitation than I thanked him for, "there is not much to be said against the manner. The style is terse and intelligible, Mr. Croftangry, very intelligible; and that I consider as the first point in every thing that is intended to be understood. There are, indeed, here and there some flights and fancies, which I comprehended with difficulty; but I got to your meaning at last. There are people that are like ponies; their judgments cannot go fast, but they go sure."

  "That is a pretty clear proposition, my friend; but then how did you like the meaning when you did get at it? or was that like some ponies, too difficult to catch, and, when caught, not worth the trouble?"

  "I am far from saying that, my dear sir, in respect it would be downright uncivil; but since you ask my opinion, I wish you could have thought about something more appertaining to civil policy, than all this bloody work about shooting and dirking, and downright hanging. I am told it was the Germans who first brought in such a practice of choosing their heroes out of the Porteous Roll;[3] but, by my faith, we are like to be upsides with them. The first was, as I am credibly informed, Mr. Scolar, as they call him; a scholar-like piece of work he has made of it, with his robbers and thieves."

  "Schiller," said I, "my dear sir, let it be Schiller."

  "Schiller, or what you like," said Mr. Fairscribe; "I found the book where I wish I had found a better one,
and that is, in Kate's work-basket. I sat down, and, like an old fool, began to read; but there, I grant, you have the better of Schiller, Mr. Croftangry."

  "I should be glad, my dear sir, that you really think I have approached that admirable author; even your friendly partiality ought not to talk of my having excelled him."

  "But I do say you have excelled him, Mr. Croftangry, in a most material particular. For surely a book of amusement should be something that one can take up and lay down at pleasure; and I can say justly, I was never at the least loss to put aside these sheets of yours when business came in the way. But, faith, this Schiller, sir, does not let you off so easily. I forgot one appointment on particular business, and I wilfully broke through another, that I might stay at home and finish his confounded book, which, after all, is about two brothers, the greatest rascals I ever heard of. The one, sir, goes near to murder his own father, and the other (which you would think still stranger) sets about to debauch his own wife."

  "I find, then, Mr. Fairscribe, that you have no taste for the romance of real life—no pleasure in contemplating those spirit-rousing impulses, which force men of fiery passions upon great crimes and great virtues?"

  "Why, as to that, I am not just so sure. But then to mend the matter," continued the critic, "you have brought in Highlanders into every story, as if you were going back again, velis et remis, into the old days of Jacobitism. I must speak my plain mind, Mr. Croftangry. I cannot tell what innovations in Kirk and State may now be proposed, but our fathers were friends to both, as they were settled at the glorious Revolution, and liked a tartan plaid as little as they did a white surplice. I wish to Heaven, all this tartan fever bode well to the Protestant succession and the Kirk of Scotland."

  "Both too well settled, I hope, in the minds of the subject," said I, "to be affected by old remembrances, on which we look back as on the portraits of our ancestors, without recollecting, while we gaze on them, any of the feuds by which the originals were animated while alive. But most happy should I be to light upon any topic to supply the place of the Highlands, Mr. Fairscribe. I have been just reflecting that the theme is becoming a little exhausted, and your experience may perhaps supply"——

  "Ha, ha, ha!—my experience supply!" interrupted Mr. Fairscribe, with a laugh of derision;—"why, you might as well ask my son James's experience to supply a case" about thirlage. No, no, my good friend, I have lived by the law, and in the law, all my life; and when you seek the impulses that make soldiers desert and shoot their sergeants and corporals, and Highland drovers dirk English graziers, to prove themselves men of fiery passions, it is not to a man like me you should come. I could tell you some tricks of my own trade, perhaps, and a queer story or two of estates that have been lost and recovered. But, to tell you the truth, I think you might do with your Muse of Fiction, as you call her, as many an honest man does with his own sons in flesh and blood."

  "And how is that, my dear sir?"

  "Send her to India, to be sure. That is the true place for a Scot to thrive in; and if you carry your story fifty years back, as there is nothing to hinder you, you will find as much shooting and stabbing there as ever was in the wild Highlands. If you want rogues, as they are so much in fashion with you, you have that gallant caste of adventurers, who laid down their consciences at the Cape of Good Hope as they went out to India, and forgot to take them up again when they returned. Then, for great exploits, you have in the old history of India, before Europeans were numerous there, the most wonderful deeds, done by the least possible means, that perhaps the annals of the world can afford."

  "I know it," said I, kindling at the ideas his speech inspired. "I remember in the delightful pages of Orme, the interest which mingles in his narratives, from the very small number of English which are engaged. Each officer of a regiment becomes known to you by name, nay, the non-commissioned officers and privates acquire an individual share of interest. They are distinguished among the natives like the Spaniards among the Mexicans. What do I say? They are like Homer's demigods among the warring mortals. Men, like Clive and Caillaud, influenced great events, like Jove himself. Inferior officers are like Mars or Neptune; and the sergeants and corporals might well pass for demigods. Then the various religious costumes, habits, and manners of the people of Hindustan,—the patient Hindhu, the warlike Rajahpoot, the haughty Moslemah, the savage and vindictive Malay—Glorious and unbounded subjects! The only objection is, that I have never been there, and know nothing at all about them."

  "Nonsense, my good friend. You will tell us about them all the better that you know nothing of what you are saying; and come, we'll finish the bottle, and when Katie (her sisters go to the assembly) has given us tea, she will tell you the outline of the story of poor Menie Gray, whose picture you will see in the drawing-room, a distant relation of my father's, who had, however, a handsome part of cousin Menie's succession. There are none living that can be hurt by the story now, though it was thought best to smother it up at the time, as indeed even the whispers about it led poor cousin Menie to live very retired. I mind her well when a child. There was something very gentle, but rather tiresome, about poor cousin Menie."

  When we came into the drawing-room, my friend pointed to a picture which I had before noticed, without, however, its having attracted more than a passing look; now I regarded it with more attention. It was one of those portraits of the middle of the eighteenth century, in which artists endeavoured to conquer the stiffness of hoops and brocades; by throwing a fancy drapery around the figure, with loose folds like a mantle or dressing gown, the stays, however, being retained, and the bosom displayed in a manner which shows that our mothers, like their daughters, were as liberal of their charms as the nature of the dress might permit. To this, the well-known style of the period, the features and form of the individual added, at first sight, little interest. It represented a handsome woman of about thirty, her hair wound simply about her head, her features regular, and her complexion fair. But on looking more closely, especially after having had a hint that the original had been the heroine of a tale, I could observe a melancholy sweetness in the countenance that seemed to speak of woes endured, and injuries sustained, with that resignation which women can and do sometimes display under the insults and ingratitude of those on whom they have bestowed their affections.

  "Yes, she was an excellent and an ill-used woman," said Mr. Fairscribe, his eye fixed like mine on the picture—"She left our family not less, I dare say, than five thousand pounds, and I believe she died worth four times that sum; but it was divided among the nearest of kin, which was all fair."

  "But her history, Mr. Fairscribe," said I—"to judge from her look, it must have been a melancholy one."

  "You may say that, Mr. Croftangry. Melancholy enough, and extraordinary enough too—But," added he, swallowing in haste a cup of the tea which was presented to him, "I must away to my business—we cannot be gowfling all the morning, and telling old stories all the afternoon. Katie knows all the outs and the ins of cousin Menie's adventures as well as I do, and when she has given you the particulars, then I am at your service, to condescend more articulately upon dates or particulars."

  Well, here was I, a gay old bachelor, left to hear a love tale from my young friend Katie Fairscribe, who, when she is not surrounded by a bevy of gallants, at which time, to my thinking, she shows less to advantage, is as pretty, well-behaved, and unaffected a girl as you see tripping the new walks of Prince's Street or Heriot Row. Old bachelorship so decided as mine has its privileges in such a tete-a-tete, providing you are, or can seem for the time, perfectly good-humoured and attentive, and do not ape the manners of your younger years, in attempting which you will only make yourself ridiculous. I don't pretend to be so indifferent to the company of a pretty young woman as was desired by the poet, who wished to sit beside his mistress—

  —"As unconcern'd as when

  Her infant beauty could beget

  Nor happiness nor pain."

  On the cont
rary, I can look on beauty and innocence, as something of which I know and esteem the value, without the desire or hope to make them my own. A young lady can afford to talk with an old stager like me without either artifice or affectation; and we may maintain a species of friendship, the more tender, perhaps, because we are of different sexes, yet with which that distinction has very little to do.

  Now, I hear my wisest and most critical neighbour remark, "Mr. Croftangry is in the way of doing a foolish thing, He is well to pass—Old Fairscribe knows to a penny what he is worth, and Miss Katie, with all her airs, may like the old brass that buys the new pan. I thought Mr. Croftangry was looking very cadgy when he came in to play a rubber with us last night. Poor gentleman, I am sure I should be sorry to see him make a fool of himself."

  Spare your compassion, dear madam, there is not the least danger. The beaux yeux de ma casette are not brilliant enough to make amends for the spectacles which must supply the dimness of my own. I am a little deaf, too, as you know to your sorrow when we are partners; and if I could get a nymph to marry me with all these imperfections, who the deuce would marry Janet McEvoy? and from Janet McEvoy Chrystal Croftangry will not part.

  Miss Katie Fairscribe gave me the tale of Menie Gray with much taste and simplicity, not attempting to suppress the feelings, whether of grief or resentment, which justly and naturally arose from the circumstances of the tale. Her father afterwards confirmed the principal outlines of the story, and furnished me with some additional circumstances, which Miss Katie had suppressed or forgotten. Indeed, I have learned on this occasion, what old Lintot meant when he told Pope, that he used to propitiate the critics of importance, when he had a work in the press, by now and then letting them see a sheet of the blotted proof, or a few leaves of the original manuscript. Our mystery of authorship has something about it so fascinating, that if you admit any one, however little he may previously have been disposed to such studies, into your confidence, you will find that he considers himself as a party interested, and, if success follows, will think himself entitled to no inconsiderable share of the praise.