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    Chapter 2

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    Chapter 2
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    OLD TOWN - THE LANDS.

    THE Old Town, it is pretended, is the chief
    characteristic, and, from a picturesque point of view,
    the liver-wing of Edinburgh. It is one of the most
    common forms of depreciation to throw cold water on the
    whole by adroit over-commendation of a part, since
    everything worth judging, whether it be a man, a work of
    art, or only a fine city, must be judged upon its merits
    as a whole. The Old Town depends for much of its effect
    on the new quarters that lie around it, on the
    sufficiency of its situation, and on the hills that back
    it up. If you were to set it somewhere else by itself,
    it would look remarkably like Stirling in a bolder and
    loftier edition. The point is to see this embellished
    Stirling planted in the midst of a large, active, and
    fantastic modern city; for there the two re-act in a
    picturesque sense, and the one is the making of the
    other.

    The Old Town occupies a sloping ridge or tail of
    diluvial matter, protected, in some subsidence of the
    waters, by the Castle cliffs which fortify it to the
    west. On the one side of it and the other the new towns
    of the south and of the north occupy their lower,
    broader, and more gentle hill-tops. Thus, the quarter of
    the Castle over-tops the whole city and keeps an open
    view to sea and land. It dominates for miles on every
    side; and people on the decks of ships, or ploughing in
    quiet country places over in Fife, can see the banner on
    the Castle battlements, and the smoke of the Old Town
    blowing abroad over the subjacent country. A city that
    is set upon a hill. It was, I suppose, from this distant
    aspect that she got her nickname of AULD REEKIE. Perhaps
    it was given her by people who had never crossed her
    doors: day after day, from their various rustic Pisgahs,
    they had seen the pile of building on the hill-top, and
    the long plume of smoke over the plain; so it appeared to
    them; so it had appeared to their fathers tilling the
    same field; and as that was all they knew of the place,
    it could be all expressed in these two words.

    Indeed, even on a nearer view, the Old Town is
    properly smoked; and though it is well washed with rain
    all the year round, it has a grim and sooty aspect among
    its younger suburbs. It grew, under the law that
    regulates the growth of walled cities in precarious
    situations, not in extent, but in height and density.
    Public buildings were forced, wherever there was room for
    them, into the midst of thoroughfares; thorough - fares
    were diminished into lanes; houses sprang up story after
    story, neighbour mounting upon neighbour's shoulder, as
    in some Black Hole of Calcutta, until the population
    slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction.
    The tallest of these LANDS, as they are locally termed,
    have long since been burnt out; but to this day it is not
    uncommon to see eight or ten windows at a flight; and the
    cliff of building which hangs imminent over Waverley
    Bridge would still put many natural precipices to shame.
    The cellars are already high above the gazer's head,
    planted on the steep hill-side; as for the garret, all
    the furniture may be in the pawn-shop, but it commands a
    famous prospect to the Highland hills. The poor man may
    roost up there in the centre of Edinburgh, and yet have a
    peep of the green country from his window; he shall see
    the quarters of the well-to-do fathoms underneath, with
    their broad squares and gardens; he shall have nothing
    overhead but a few spires, the stone top-gallants of the
    city; and perhaps the wind may reach him with a rustic
    pureness, and bring a smack of the sea or of flowering
    lilacs in the spring.

    It is almost the correct literary sentiment to
    deplore the revolutionary improvements of Mr. Chambers
    and his following. It is easy to be a conservator of the
    discomforts of others; indeed, it is only our good
    qualities we find it irksome to conserve. Assuredly, in
    driving streets through the black labyrinth, a few
    curious old corners have been swept away, and some
    associations turned out of house and home. But what
    slices of sunlight, what breaths of clean air, have been
    let in! And what a picturesque world remains untouched!
    You go under dark arches, and down dark stairs and
    alleys. The way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on
    either wall; so steep that, in greasy winter weather, the
    pavement is almost as treacherous as ice. Washing
    dangles above washing from the windows; the houses bulge
    outwards upon flimsy brackets; you see a bit of sculpture
    in a dark corner; at the top of all, a gable and a few
    crowsteps are printed on the sky. Here, you come into a
    court where the children are at play and the grown people
    sit upon their doorsteps, and perhaps a church spire
    shows itself above the roofs. Here, in the narrowest of
    the entry, you find a great old mansion still erect, with
    some insignia of its former state - some scutcheon, some
    holy or courageous motto, on the lintel. The local
    antiquary points out where famous and well-born people
    had their lodging; and as you look up, out pops the head
    of a slatternly woman from the countess's window. The
    Bedouins camp within Pharaoh's palace walls, and the old
    war-ship is given over to the rats. We are already a far
    way from the days when powdered heads were plentiful in
    these alleys, with jolly, port-wine faces underneath.
    Even in the chief thoroughfares Irish washings flutter at
    the windows, and the pavements are encumbered with
    loiterers.

    These loiterers are a true character of the scene.
    Some shrewd Scotch workmen may have paused on their way
    to a job, debating Church affairs and politics with their
    tools upon their arm. But the most part are of a
    different order - skulking jail-birds; unkempt, bare-foot
    children; big-mouthed, robust women, in a sort of uniform
    of striped flannel petticoat and short tartan shawl;
    among these, a few surpervising constables and a dismal
    sprinkling of mutineers and broken men from higher ranks
    in society, with some mark of better days upon them, like
    a brand. In a place no larger than Edinburgh, and where
    the traffic is mostly centred in five or six chief
    streets, the same face comes often under the notice of an
    idle stroller. In fact, from this point of view,
    Edinburgh is not so much a small city as the largest of
    small towns. It is scarce possible to avoid observing
    your neighbours; and I never yet heard of any one who
    tried. It has been my fortune, in this anonymous
    accidental way, to watch more than one of these downward
    travellers for some stages on the road to ruin. One man
    must have been upwards of sixty before I first observed
    him, and he made then a decent, personable figure in
    broad-cloth of the best. For three years he kept falling
    - grease coming and buttons going from the square-skirted
    coat, the face puffing and pimpling, the shoulders
    growing bowed, the hair falling scant and grey upon his
    head; and the last that ever I saw of him, he was
    standing at the mouth of an entry with several men in
    moleskin, three parts drunk, and his old black raiment
    daubed with mud. I fancy that I still can hear him
    laugh. There was something heart-breaking in this
    gradual declension at so advanced an age; you would have
    thought a man of sixty out of the reach of these
    calamities; you would have thought that he was niched by
    that time into a safe place in life, whence he could pass
    quietly and honourably into the grave.

    One of the earliest marks of these DEGRINGOLADES is,
    that the victim begins to disappear from the New Town
    thoroughfares, and takes to the High Street, like a
    wounded animal to the woods. And such an one is the type
    of the quarter. It also has fallen socially. A
    scutcheon over the door somewhat jars in sentiment where
    there is a washing at every window. The old man, when I
    saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the
    gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave
    him so pre-eminent an air of wretchedness.

    It is true that the over-population was at least as
    dense in the epoch of lords and ladies, and that now-a-
    days some customs which made Edinburgh notorious of yore
    have been fortunately pretermitted. But an aggregation
    of comfort is not distasteful like an aggregation of the
    reverse. Nobody cares how many lords and ladies, and
    divines and lawyers, may have been crowded into these
    houses in the past - perhaps the more the merrier. The
    glasses clink around the china punch-bowl, some one
    touches the virginals, there are peacocks' feathers on
    the chimney, and the tapers burn clear and pale in the
    red firelight. That is not an ugly picture in itself,
    nor will it become ugly upon repetition. All the better
    if the like were going on in every second room; the LAND
    would only look the more inviting. Times are changed.
    In one house, perhaps, two-score families herd together;
    and, perhaps, not one of them is wholly out of the reach
    of want. The great hotel is given over to discomfort
    from the foundation to the chimney-tops; everywhere a
    pinching, narrow habit, scanty meals, and an air of
    sluttishness and dirt. In the first room there is a
    birth, in another a death, in a third a sordid drinking-
    bout, and the detective and the Bible-reader cross upon
    the stairs. High words are audible from dwelling to
    dwelling, and children have a strange experience from the
    first; only a robust soul, you would think, could grow up
    in such conditions without hurt. And even if God tempers
    His dispensations to the young, and all the ill does not
    arise that our apprehensions may forecast, the sight of
    such a way of living is disquieting to people who are
    more happily circumstanced. Social inequality is nowhere
    more ostentatious than at Edinburgh. I have mentioned
    already how, to the stroller along Princes Street, the
    High Street callously exhibits its back garrets. It is
    true, there is a garden between. And although nothing
    could be more glaring by way of contrast, sometimes the
    opposition is more immediate; sometimes the thing lies in
    a nutshell, and there is not so much as a blade of grass
    between the rich and poor. To look over the South Bridge
    and see the Cowgate below full of crying hawkers, is to
    view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of
    an eye.

    One night I went along the Cowgate after every one
    was a-bed but the policeman, and stopped by hazard before
    a tall LAND. The moon touched upon its chimneys, and
    shone blankly on the upper windows; there was no light
    anywhere in the great bulk of building; but as I stood
    there it seemed to me that I could hear quite a body of
    quiet sounds from the interior; doubtless there were many
    clocks ticking, and people snoring on their backs. And
    thus, as I fancied, the dense life within made itself
    faintly audible in my ears, family after family
    contributing its quota to the general hum, and the whole
    pile beating in tune to its timepieces, like a great
    disordered heart. Perhaps it was little more than a
    fancy altogether, but it was strangely impressive at the
    time, and gave me an imaginative measure of the
    disproportion between the quantity of living flesh and
    the trifling walls that separated and contained it.

    There was nothing fanciful, at least, but every
    circumstance of terror and reality, in the fall of the
    LAND in the High Street. The building had grown rotten
    to the core; the entry underneath had suddenly closed up
    so that the scavenger's barrow could not pass; cracks and
    reverberations sounded through the house at night; the
    inhabitants of the huge old human bee-hive discussed
    their peril when they encountered on the stair; some had
    even left their dwellings in a panic of fear, and
    returned to them again in a fit of economy or self-
    respect; when, in the black hours of a Sunday morning,
    the whole structure ran together with a hideous uproar
    and tumbled story upon story to the ground. The physical
    shock was felt far and near; and the moral shock
    travelled with the morning milkmaid into all the suburbs.
    The church-bells never sounded more dismally over
    Edinburgh than that grey forenoon. Death had made a
    brave harvest, and, like Samson, by pulling down one
    roof, destroyed many a home. None who saw it can have
    forgotten the aspect of the gable; here it was plastered,
    there papered, according to the rooms; here the kettle
    still stood on the hob, high overhead; and there a cheap
    picture of the Queen was pasted over the chimney. So, by
    this disaster, you had a glimpse into the life of thirty
    families, all suddenly cut off from the revolving years.
    The LAND had fallen; and with the LAND how much! Far in
    the country, people saw a gap in the city ranks, and the
    sun looked through between the chimneys in an unwonted
    place. And all over the world, in London, in Canada, in
    New Zealand, fancy what a multitude of people could
    exclaim with truth: 'The house that I was born in fell
    last night!'
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