Page images
PDF
EPUB

Isles; and it was the sensation which it created in Paris which retrieved its reputation at home.

The period of the story is the close of the Middle Ages, when kings were beginning to throw off the yoke of the feudal nobility by gathering round them a military force whose leaders were entirely dependent on their personal favour, and by employing the services of statesmen whose abilities were more important than their

[graphic][subsumed][merged small]

birth. The ablest of these monarchs was Louis XI. of France, who possessed the nucleus of such a force in his Scottish Guard, and whose most trusted counsellors were a low-born churchman and a barber. Louis's most dangerous rival was the headstrong Duke Charles of Burgundy usually called "The Bold," but more properly "The Rash"; and the only point in which he was not intellectually Charles's superior was in his curious addiction to astrology.

The

climax of the tale is reached when the astute but superstitious King has put himself in the power of his enraged and injured foe in reliance upon the predictions of one who professes a knowledge of the stars; and perhaps its finest scene is that in which the pseudoscientist Galeotti saves his life by persuading Louis that if he puts him to death his own end must according to his horoscope inevitably follow within twenty-four hours.

At the Burgundian frontier fortress of Péronne Charles and Louis meet, and there take place not only the masterly scene just referred to, but also that scarcely less subtly imagined episode, the conference in which the crafty French King plays successfully upon the vanity of the sagacious Philippe de Comines and induces him to stand his friend. Here, too, meet again the Scottish soldier of fortune and his royal employer, whom he had first known at Plessis-les-Tours as the mysterious merchant Maître Pierre, and who, after the youth had saved his life at the boar-hunt, and guarded it at the supper with Balue and Crèvecœur, had sent him to convey Isabelle de Croye and her aunt to Liège. If the wiles of Louis and the characters of his instruments and opponents are the main subjects of interest to the reader, he will not on that account miss the charm of the fictitious love-story, absolutely colourless and characterless though the heroine be, with which they are so deftly interwoven, or fail to take note of the skilful delineation in the imaginary archer of the ideal Scot

that finely compounded amalgam of daring and prudence. Were I to attempt to sum up the merits of this great romance I should say that it was impossible to decide which gives the stronger impression of truth, the presentation of the historical personages and their surroundings, or the knowledge of human nature displayed in the purely imaginary characters. And perhaps the greatest qualities of all are shown when, as in more than one chapter of the book, fictitious incidents and conversations are grafted upon a stem of ascertained

fact.

Scott, we gather, drew on his personal experience for two incidents of the story. His vivid description of Cardinal Balue at the mercy of his horse as he attempted to discuss affairs of State with his malicious. master, leads him to the admission that even so strong a rider as himself had in his time been in similar case; and in relating how Quentin was enabled, by plunging into a stream and thence climbing undiscovered into a tree, to overhear the plan of the ambuscade prepared for him, he tells us that this was how he himself had been wont to approach the nest of the wakeful raven. The Bohemian or Zingaro, too, the intended agent of Louis's treachery and ultimately the victim of his fear, was drawn largely from the Scottish gipsies. Sir Walter himself, except for his short trip to Paris in 1815, had not been in France; and it was to his friend Skene's diary of a recent tour in that country that he was indebted for most of his local colour, and particularly for the ingenious

introduction to the novel which is therein represented as inspired by a visit to the château of a nobleman of the ancien régime. He said that the chroniclers whom he read did not help him much, except Comines; but with the knowledge gained from them he was able, aided by his sympathetic imagination, to make those times live again as no historian had ever yet succeeded in doing.

In St. Ronan's Well we are back again in Scotland and in the modern world. The book was another experiment; but the effort to portray contemporary life at a northern watering-place was scarcely so successful as the preceding excursion into French mediæval history. There is, however, a great deal more to be said for the book than some of its critics have allowed. Innerleithen, whither we are told by his son-in-law that Scott had in his early days sometimes accompanied his mother and sister, has been pretty generally accepted as the original of St. Ronan's. But, although the little Peeblesshire town went so far as to appropriate to itself the title of the novel, its claim has not been altogether unchallenged. Indeed a place much nearer Abbotsford seems to be suggested by this anecdote. One afternoon Scott was riding with Laidlaw and Lockhart on the hills above Melrose, and talking to them about the success of Quentin Durward in Paris. When he remarked that he thought he could "make better play still with something German," his worthy bailiff and sometime amanuensis burst out with, "Na, na, sir-take my word for it,

you are always best like Helen MacGregor, when your foot is on your native heath"; adding, "I have often thought that if you were to write a novel, and lay the scene here in the very year you were writing it, you would exceed yourself."

Scott replied with a smile, "Hame's hame, be it ever sae hamely. There's something in what you say, Willie. Suppose I were to take Captain Clutterbuck for a hero, and never let the story step a yard beyond the village below us yonder?" Whereupon Laidlaw declared that that was the very thing he wanted: "Stick to Melrose in July, 1823." "And what for no?" asks Scott, taking the words from his friend, which in the novel he was to put into the mouth of Meg Dods. And after there had been some talk about local personages who might be introduced with effect, Sir Walter said gravely, "Ay, ay, if one could look into the heart of that little cluster of cottages, no fear but you would find materials enow for tragedy as well as comedy. I undertake to say that there is some real romance at this moment going on down there, that, if it could have justice done to it, would be well worth all the fiction that was ever spun out of human brains"; and he then went on to tell in a most impressive manner "a tale of dark, domestic guilt," which had come to his knowledge as sheriff. The scene, however, was not Melrose, but, says the narrator, "a smaller hamlet on the other side of the Tweed, full in our view," which may possibly have been Innerleithen. Marchthorn is probably Peebles,

« PreviousContinue »