Essays in the Art of Writing Part 3

'I remember him acutely; he could not look at me without a pang of reprobation, and he could not feel the pang without betraying it. He was to me a man of a great historical interest, but the interest was not returned.'

'Ah well, we go beyond him,' said Mr. Thomson. 'I daresay old Peter knew as little about this as I do. You see, I succeeded to a prodigious acc.u.mulation of old law-papers and old tin boxes, some of them of Peter's h.o.a.rding, some of his father's, John, first of the dynasty, a great man in his day. Among other collections were all the papers of the Durrisdeers.'

'The Durrisdeers!' cried I. 'My dear fellow, these may be of the greatest interest. One of them was out in the '45; one had some strange pa.s.sages with the devil-you will find a note of it in Law's _Memorials_, I think; and there was an unexplained tragedy, I know not what, much later, about a hundred years ago-'

'More than a hundred years ago,' said Mr. Thomson. 'In 1783.'

'How do you know that? I mean some death.'

'Yes, the lamentable deaths of my lord Durrisdeer and his brother, the Master of Ballantrae (attainted in the troubles),' said Mr. Thomson with something the tone of a man quoting. 'Is that it?'

'To say truth,' said I, 'I have only seen some dim reference to the things in memoirs; and heard some traditions dimmer still, through my uncle (whom I think you knew). My uncle lived when he was a boy in the neighbourhood of St. Bride's; he has often told me of the avenue closed up and grown over with gra.s.s, the great gates never opened, the last lord and his old maid sister who lived in the back parts of the house, a quiet, plain, poor, hum-drum couple it would seem-but pathetic too, as the last of that stirring and brave house-and, to the country folk, faintly terrible from some deformed traditions.'

'Yes,' said Mr. Thomson. Henry Graeme Durie, the last lord, died in 1820; his sister, the Honourable Miss Katherine Durie, in '27; so much I know; and by what I have been going over the last few days, they were what you say, decent, quiet people and not rich. To say truth, it was a letter of my lord's that put me on the search for the packet we are going to open this evening. Some papers could not be found; and he wrote to Jack M'Brair suggesting they might be among those sealed up by a Mr.

Mackellar. M'Brair answered, that the papers in question were all in Mackellar's own hand, all (as the writer understood) of a purely narrative character; and besides, said he, "I am bound not to open them before the year 1889." You may fancy if these words struck me: I inst.i.tuted a hunt through all the M'Brair repositories; and at last hit upon that packet which (if you have had enough wine) I propose to show you at once.'

In the smoking-room, to which my host now led me, was a packet, fastened with many seals and enclosed in a single sheet of strong paper thus endorsed:-

Papers relating to the lives and lamentable deaths of the late Lord Durisdeer, and his elder brother James, commonly called Master of Ballantrae, attainted in the troubles: entrusted into the hands of John M'Brair in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh, W.S.; this 20th day of September Anno Domini 1789; by him to be kept secret until the revolution of one hundred years complete, or until the 20th day of September 1889: the same compiled and written by me,

EPHRAIM MACKELLAR, _For near forty years Land Steward on the_ _estates of His Lordship_.

As Mr. Thomson is a married man, I will not say what hour had struck when we laid down the last of the following pages; but I will give a few words of what ensued.

'Here,' said Mr. Thomson, 'is a novel ready to your hand: all you have to do is to work up the scenery, develop the characters, and improve the style.'

'My dear fellow,' said I, 'they are just the three things that I would rather die than set my hand to. It shall be published as it stands.'

'But it's so bald,' objected Mr. Thomson.

'I believe there is nothing so n.o.ble as baldness,' replied I, 'and I am sure there is nothing so interesting. I would have all literature bald, and all authors (if you like) but one.'

'Well, well,' said Mr. Thomson, 'we shall see.'

Printed by T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to His Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press

FOOTNOTES

{3} First published in the Contemporary Review, April 1885

{21} Milton.

{24} Milton.

{33} Milton.

{34} As PVF will continue to haunt us through our English examples, take, by way of comparison, this Latin verse, of which it forms a chief adornment, and do not hold me answerable for the all too Roman freedom of the sense: 'Hanc volo, quae facilis, quae palliolata vagatur.'

{35} Coleridge.

{36} Antony and Cleopatra.

{37a} Cymbeline.

{37b} The V is in 'of.'

{38} Troilus and Cressida.

{47a} First published in the _Fortnightly Review_, April 1881.

{47b} Mr. James Payn.

{64} A footnote, at least, is due to the admirable example set before all young writers in the width of literary sympathy displayed by Mr.

Swinburne. He runs forth to welcome merit, whether in d.i.c.kens or Trollope, whether in Villon, Milton, or Pope. This is, in criticism, the att.i.tude we should all seek to preserve; not only in that, but in every branch of literary work.

{75a} First published in the _British Weekly_, May 13, 1887.

{75b} Of the _British Weekly_.

{93} First published in the _Magazine of Art_ in 1883.

{111} First published in the _Idler_, August 1894.

{112} _Ne pas confondre_. Not the slim green pamphlet with the imprint of Andrew Elliot, for which (as I see with amazement from the book-lists) the gentlemen of England are willing to pay fancy prices; but its predecessor, a bulky historical romance without a spark of merit, and now deleted from the world.

{145} 1889.

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