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    Chapter 4

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    Chapter 4
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    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?
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