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Chapter 4

LEGENDS.

THE character of a place is often most perfectly
expressed in its associations. An event strikes root and
grows into a legend, when it has happened amongst
congenial surroundings. Ugly actions, above all in ugly
places, have the true romantic quality, and become an
undying property of their scene. To a man like Scott,
the different appearances of nature seemed each to
contain its own legend ready made, which it was his to
call forth: in such or such a place, only such or such
events ought with propriety to happen; and in this spirit
he made the LADY OF THE LAKE for Ben Venue, the HEART OF
MIDLOTHIAN for Edinburgh, and the PIRATE, so
indifferently written but so romantically conceived, for
the desolate islands and roaring tideways of the North.
The common run of mankind have, from generation to
generation, an instinct almost as delicate as that of
Scott; but where he created new things, they only forget
what is unsuitable among the old; and by survival of the
fittest, a body of tradition becomes a work of art. So,
in the low dens and high-flying garrets of Edinburgh,
people may go back upon dark passages in the town's
adventures, and chill their marrow with winter's tales
about the fire: tales that are singularly apposite and
characteristic, not only of the old life, but of the very
constitution of built nature in that part, and singularly
well qualified to add horror to horror, when the wind
pipes around the tall LANDS, and hoots adown arched
passages, and the far-spread wilderness of city lamps
keeps quavering and flaring in the gusts.

Here, it is the tale of Begbie the bank-porter,
stricken to the heart at a blow and left in his blood
within a step or two of the crowded High Street. There,
people hush their voices over Burke and Hare; over drugs
and violated graves, and the resurrection-men smothering
their victims with their knees. Here, again, the fame of
Deacon Brodie is kept piously fresh. A great man in his
day was the Deacon; well seen in good society, crafty
with his hands as a cabinet-maker, and one who could sing
a song with taste. Many a citizen was proud to welcome
the Deacon to supper, and dismissed him with regret at a
timeous hour, who would have been vastly disconcerted had
he known how soon, and in what guise, his visitor
returned. Many stories are told of this redoubtable
Edinburgh burglar, but the one I have in my mind most
vividly gives the key of all the rest. A friend of
Brodie's, nested some way towards heaven in one of these
great LANDS, had told him of a projected visit to the
country, and afterwards, detained by some affairs, put it
off and stayed the night in town. The good man had lain
some time awake; it was far on in the small hours by the
Tron bell; when suddenly there came a creak, a jar, a
faint light. Softly he clambered out of bed and up to a
false window which looked upon another room, and there,
by the glimmer of a thieves' lantern, was his good friend
the Deacon in a mask. It is characteristic of the town
and the town's manners that this little episode should
have been quietly tided over, and quite a good time
elapsed before a great robbery, an escape, a Bow Street
runner, a cock-fight, an apprehension in a cupboard in
Amsterdam, and a last step into the air off his own
greatly-improved gallows drop, brought the career of
Deacon William Brodie to an end. But still, by the
mind's eye, he may be seen, a man harassed below a
mountain of duplicity, slinking from a magistrate's
supper-room to a thieves' ken, and pickeering among the
closes by the flicker of a dark lamp.

Or where the Deacon is out of favour, perhaps some
memory lingers of the great plagues, and of fatal houses
still unsafe to enter within the memory of man. For in
time of pestilence the discipline had been sharp and
sudden, and what we now call 'stamping out contagion' was
carried on with deadly rigour. The officials, in their
gowns of grey, with a white St. Andrew's cross on back
and breast, and a white cloth carried before them on a
staff, perambulated the city, adding the terror of man's
justice to the fear of God's visitation. The dead they
buried on the Borough Muir; the living who had concealed
the sickness were drowned, if they were women, in the
Quarry Holes, and if they were men, were hanged and
gibbeted at their own doors; and wherever the evil had
passed, furniture was destroyed and houses closed. And
the most bogeyish part of the story is about such houses.
Two generations back they still stood dark and empty;
people avoided them as they passed by; the boldest
schoolboy only shouted through the keyhole and made off;
for within, it was supposed, the plague lay ambushed like
a basilisk, ready to flow forth and spread blain and
pustule through the city. What a terrible next-door
neighbour for superstitious citizens! A rat scampering
within would send a shudder through the stoutest heart.
Here, if you like, was a sanitary parable, addressed by
our uncleanly forefathers to their own neglect.

And then we have Major Weir; for although even his
house is now demolished, old Edinburgh cannot clear
herself of his unholy memory. He and his sister lived
together in an odour of sour piety. She was a marvellous
spinster; he had a rare gift of supplication, and was
known among devout admirers by the name of Angelical
Thomas. 'He was a tall, black man, and ordinarily looked
down to the ground; a grim countenance, and a big nose.
His garb was still a cloak, and somewhat dark, and he
never went without his staff.' How it came about that
Angelical Thomas was burned in company with his staff,
and his sister in gentler manner hanged, and whether
these two were simply religious maniacs of the more
furious order, or had real as well as imaginary sins upon
their old-world shoulders, are points happily beyond the
reach of our intention. At least, it is suitable enough
that out of this superstitious city some such example
should have been put forth: the outcome and fine flower
of dark and vehement religion. And at least the facts
struck the public fancy and brought forth a remarkable
family of myths. It would appear that the Major's staff
went upon his errands, and even ran before him with a
lantern on dark nights. Gigantic females, 'stentoriously
laughing and gaping with tehees of laughter' at
unseasonable hours of night and morning, haunted the
purlieus of his abode. His house fell under such a load
of infamy that no one dared to sleep in it, until
municipal improvement levelled the structure to the
ground. And my father has often been told in the nursery
how the devil's coach, drawn by six coal-black horses
with fiery eyes, would drive at night into the West Bow,
and belated people might see the dead Major through the
glasses.

Another legend is that of the two maiden sisters. A
legend I am afraid it may be, in the most discreditable
meaning of the term; or perhaps something worse - a mere
yesterday's fiction. But it is a story of some vitality,
and is worthy of a place in the Edinburgh kalendar. This
pair inhabited a single room; from the facts, it must
have been double-bedded; and it may have been of some
dimensions: but when all is said, it was a single room.
Here our two spinsters fell out - on some point of
controversial divinity belike: but fell out so bitterly
that there was never a word spoken between them, black or
white, from that day forward. You would have thought
they would separate: but no; whether from lack of means,
or the Scottish fear of scandal, they continued to keep
house together where they were. A chalk line drawn upon
the floor separated their two domains; it bisected the
doorway and the fireplace, so that each could go out and
in, and do her cooking, without violating the territory
of the other. So, for years, they coexisted in a hateful
silence; their meals, their ablutions, their friendly
visitors, exposed to an unfriendly scrutiny; and at
night, in the dark watches, each could hear the breathing
of her enemy. Never did four walls look down upon an
uglier spectacle than these sisters rivalling in
unsisterliness. Here is a canvas for Hawthorne to have
turned into a cabinet picture - he had a Puritanic vein,
which would have fitted him to treat this Puritanic
horror; he could have shown them to us in their
sicknesses and at their hideous twin devotions, thumbing
a pair of great Bibles, or praying aloud for each other's
penitence with marrowy emphasis; now each, with kilted
petticoat, at her own corner of the fire on some
tempestuous evening; now sitting each at her window,
looking out upon the summer landscape sloping far below
them towards the firth, and the field-paths where they
had wandered hand in hand; or, as age and infirmity grew
upon them and prolonged their toilettes, and their hands
began to tremble and their heads to nod involuntarily,
growing only the more steeled in enmity with years; until
one fine day, at a word, a look, a visit, or the approach
of death, their hearts would melt and the chalk boundary
be overstepped for ever.

Alas! to those who know the ecclesiastical history
of the race - the most perverse and melancholy in man's
annals - this will seem only a figure of much that is
typical of Scotland and her high-seated capital above the
Forth - a figure so grimly realistic that it may pass
with strangers for a caricature. We are wonderful
patient haters for conscience sake up here in the North.
I spoke, in the first of these papers, of the Parliaments
of the Established and Free Churches, and how they can
hear each other singing psalms across the street. There
is but a street between them in space, but a shadow
between them in principle; and yet there they sit,
enchanted, and in damnatory accents pray for each other's
growth in grace. It would be well if there were no more
than two; but the sects in Scotland form a large family
of sisters, and the chalk lines are thickly drawn, and
run through the midst of many private homes. Edinburgh
is a city of churches, as though it were a place of
pilgrimage. You will see four within a stone-cast at the
head of the West Bow. Some are crowded to the doors;
some are empty like monuments; and yet you will ever find
new ones in the building. Hence that surprising clamour
of church bells that suddenly breaks out upon the Sabbath
morning from Trinity and the sea-skirts to Morningside on
the borders of the hills. I have heard the chimes of
Oxford playing their symphony in a golden autumn morning,
and beautiful it was to hear. But in Edinburgh all
manner of loud bells join, or rather disjoin, in one
swelling, brutal babblement of noise. Now one overtakes
another, and now lags behind it; now five or six all
strike on the pained tympanum at the same punctual
instant of time, and make together a dismal chord of
discord; and now for a second all seem to have conspired
to hold their peace. Indeed, there are not many uproars
in this world more dismal than that of the Sabbath bells
in Edinburgh: a harsh ecclesiastical tocsin; the outcry
of incongruous orthodoxies, calling on every separate
conventicler to put up a protest, each in his own
synagogue, against 'right-hand extremes and left-hand
defections.' And surely there are few worse extremes
than this extremity of zeal; and few more deplorable
defections than this disloyalty to Christian love.
Shakespeare wrote a comedy of 'Much Ado about Nothing.'
The Scottish nation made a fantastic tragedy on the same
subject. And it is for the success of this remarkable
piece that these bells are sounded every Sabbath morning
on the hills above the Forth. How many of them might
rest silent in the steeple, how many of these ugly
churches might be demolished and turned once more into
useful building material, if people who think almost
exactly the same thoughts about religion would condescend
to worship God under the same roof! But there are the
chalk lines. And which is to pocket pride, and speak the
foremost word?

Robert Louis Stevenson

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