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Book of Scottish Story
The Ladder-Dancer


“Man should know why
They write, and for what end; but note or text,
I never know the word which will come next;
So on I ramble, now and then narrating,
Now pondering.” – Byron

It was a lovely evening in summer, when a crowd hallooing and shouting in the street of L——, a village of the north of Scotland, at once disturbed my reveries, and left me little leisure again to yield myself to their wayward dominion. In sooth, I had no pretence for indifference to a very singular spectacle of a something-like human being moving in mid—air ; and although its saltatory gambols in this unusual situation could scarcely be called dancing, it was certainly intended to be like it, however little the resemblance might be approved. A something between a male and female in point of dress—a perfect hermaphrodite in regard to costume—had mounted herself on gigantic stilts, on which she hopped about, defying the secrecy even of the middle floors of the surrounding houses, and in some cases giving her a peep into the attic regions of less lofty domiciles. In this manner, stalking about from side to side, like a crane among the reeds, the very Diable Boiteux himself was never more inquisitive after the domestic concerns of his neighbours, or better fitted to explore them by his invisibility, than she was by her altitude. Her presence in mid-air, in more than one instance, was the subject of alarm to the sober inmates of the street, who, little suspicious of such intrusion, might perhaps be engaged in household cares which did not court observation, or had sunk into the relaxations of an undress, after the fatigues and heat of the day. Everywhere the windows might be heard thrown up with impatient haste,—the sash skirling and creaking in its ascent with the violence of the effort, and immediately after, a head might be seen poked forward to explore the "whence”` and "wherefore,”—in short, to ask in one word, if it could be so condensed, the meaning and purpose of this aerial visitor.

The more desultory occupations of a little village hold but loosely together the different classes of it. Master and servant approach more nearly,—the one is less elevated, and the other less depressed, than in great towns,—a show is at least as great a treat to the one as to the other, and there is nothing in their respective notions of decorum to repress their joyous feelings, while under the irresistible impulse of the inimitable Mr Punch, or of the demure and clumsy bear, treading a measure with the graces of a ‘Mercandotti’.  In short, the more simple elements of a villager’s mind are, like their own more robust frames, more easily inflamed;—there—is more excitable stuff about them, because they are less frequently subjected to the tear and wear of novelty, which towns constantly afford. The schoolmaster and the schoolboy alike pour out from the lowly straw-roofed "academy," with the same eager and breathless haste, to catch a first glance, or secure a favourable post. Syntax and arithmetic--blessed oblivion!--are for the moment forgotten. Think of the ecstacies of the little culprit, who was perhaps under the rod, if at that awful moment a troop of dancing dogs, with their full accompaniment of pipe and tabor, came under the school window, and was at once gladdened with a respite and a show. One moment watching the grim smile of the pedagogue; next lost in wonder at the accomplished puppets--nothing to disturb his bliss but the trammels of Concordance, or the intricacies of the Rule of Three.

But if mere novelty has such delights for the younger portion, to escape from the monotony of village life has not less charms for the graver class of its inhabitants. An old gentleman, evidently unmindful of his dishabille, popped his head forth of his casement, heedless of the red Kilmarnock in which it was bedight, and gazed with eager curiosity on the ambitious female who had now passed his lattice. He seemed to have caught a hint of the dereglement of his own costume, by remarking that of his female neighbour at the adjoining window, who exposed courageously the snowy ringlets which begirt the region of bumps and qualities, in place of the brown and glossy curls, which, till that ill-fated moment, were supposed I to have belonged to it.*

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*I love to luxuriate in a note; it is like hunting in an unenclosed country. One word about the affectations of Graybeards. Among all the ten thousand reasons for their gray hairs, no one ever thought of years as being at least a probable cause. It is one of the very few hereditary peculiarities of physical constitution, which are loudly proclaimed and gladly seized, to apologise for the sin of hoary locks. Acute sorrow, or sudden surprise ;-indigestion—that talismanic thing, the nerves—love, speculation—or anything, in short, are all approved theories to explain their first intrusion among the legitimate ringlets of male and female persons of “no particular age." Even it is said that people have awoke gray who lay down under very different colours; of course, they had had a bad dream, or lain on the wrong side, but no conscientious perruquier could have sworn to their identity under such a metamorphosis. In short, gray hairs are purely accidental; they have nothing to do with years; and being deemed a misfortune, have from time immemorial been always spoken of with reverence, but nowhere that I can recollect are they spoken of with affection, save in the beautiful song, "John Anderson, my Jo,” where the kind-hearted wife invokes blessings on the frosty pow of her aged partner.

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He withdrew from sight with some precipitation, but whether in horror of his own recklessness, or in deference to the heedlessness of his neighbour, must for ever remain in doubt. Is it then strange if there was quite a revel-rout in the streets of the little village, when old and young alike responded to the wonder of the scene? To whatever quarter she passed, not a window was down; labour was suspended to witness feats which no labour of theirs could accomplish. Women, bearing with them the marks of the household toils in which they had been last engaged, stood at their doors, some with sarcastic, but all with curious gaze; while the sunburnt Piedmontoise at times danced on her stilts a kind of mock waltz, or hobbled from side to side, in ridicule, as it would seem, of the livelier measure and footing of the quadrille. When, mounted on the highest point of her stilts, she strided across the way, to collect or to solicit pence, the little urchins hanging about their mothers, clung more closely to them as she approached, and looked up to her, doubting and fearful, as fish are said to be scared by a passing cloud. She was most successful among the male spectators of the village. Her feats with them excited no feelings of rivalry, and their notions of decorum were not so easily disturbed as those of their helpmates, who, in refusing their contribution, never withhold their reprobation of such anti-Christian gambols.

"Gae awa wi’ you, ye idle randie! Weel sets the like o’ sic misleard queans to gang about the country playing antics like a fule, to fules like yoursel," was the answer given by a middle-aged woman, who stood near me, to the boy who carried round a wooden platter for the halfpence, and who instantly retired, to save herself from the latter part of her own reproach, dragging with her a ragged little rogue, who begged hard to remain till the end of the exhibition. By this time the procession had reached the end of the street, where some of the better class of the inhabitants resided, and some preparations were made for a more elaborate spectacle. The swarthy Savoyard, who accompanied the ladder-dancer, after surveying the field, seemed to fix his station opposite to a respectable-looking house, whose liberality he evidently measured by its outward pretensions.

There is no state of helplessness equal to that of ignorance of the language in which a favour is to be craved, and you may estimate the proficiency of the foreigner in the intricacies of our own dialect by the obsequiousness of his smile, which he at once adapts to the purposes of solicitation, and of defence against insult and ridicule. While with a look of preparation he bustled about, to gain attention, he grinned and nodded to the windows which were occupied, while he held a ladder upright, and placing his hat at the bottom of it to receive the niggard bounty of the spectators, he stood at the back of it, supporting it with both his hands. The lady of the stilts now advanced, and resting on one of them, with considerable address lifted up the other and pushed it forward, with an action that seemed to denote something like a salutation, or obeisance,—a kind of aerial salaam. At this moment the hall-door was opened, and a portly·lo0king woman of middle-age, evidently the mistress of the household, came forward and planted herself on the broad landing-place of the stair. There was about this personage the round, full look which betokens ease and affluence ; and the firm, steady step which argues satisfaction with our condition. She fixed herself on the door-step with the solid perpendicularity of Pompey’s Pillar, and now and then turned round to some young girls who attended her, as if to chide them for mixing her up with so silly an exhibition.

I had supposed that the Piedmontoise would have laid aside her stilts when she ascended the ladder, but far from it, for in this consisted the singularity of the exhibition. She climbed the ladder, still mounted on them, then descended like a cat on the other side of it; she hopped down as she had hopped up, ‘with equal steadiness and agility, and thought to crown her efforts by a notable feat, which was no less than standing on her head on the top of the ladder, and brandishing the two stilts, from which she had disengaged herself, round about her, like the arms of a windmill.

lt required no great skill to see that the old lady was very much offended with this last performance, for when the little dish was carried to her, and the ladder-dancer directed a beseeching look accompanied by an attitude which seemed to imply that there were other feats yet in reserve, if encouragement was held out, the patroness of the stair-head could restrain herself no longer, but poured out a torrent partaking both of objurgation and admonition.

"Ne’er-do-weel hussie,” and "vagrant gipsy," were some of the sharp missiles shot at the unsuspecting figurante, who, as little aware of the meaning of all this “sharp-toothed violence,” as the bird is of the mischief aimed at him by the fowler, sadly misapprehended its import, and thinking it conveyed encouragement and approbation, ducked her head in acknowledgment, while the thunder of the old lady’s reprobation rolled about her in the most ceaseless rapidity of vituperation.

"Ye’re a pretty ane indeed, to play sic antics afore ony body's house! Hae ye naebody to learn ye better manners that to rin up and down a ladder like a squirrel, twisting and turning yoursel till my banes are sair to look at you? Muckle fitter gin ye would read your Bible, if as much grace be left to ye; or maybe a religious tract, to begin wi', for I doubt ye wad need preparation afore ye could drink at the spring-head wi' ony special profit."

The last part was conveyed with a kind of smile of self-approbation; for of all tasks, to reclaim a sinner is the most pleasing and soothing to religious vanity;—so comfortable it is to be allowed to scold on any terms, but doubly delightful, because it always implies superiority. But the ladder-dancer and her attendant were aware of no part of what was passing in the mind of the female lecturer, and fully as ignorant of the eloquent address I have just repeated; she only saw, in the gracious looks in which her feats were condemned, an approval of her labours, for it passed her philosophy to comprehend the ungodly qualities of standing on the head, or whirling like a top. Again the ladder-dancer cringed and bowed to her of the stair-head; and her male supporter, who acted as a kind of pedestal to her elevation, bowed and grinned a little, more grimly, while the boy held out his plate to receive the results of all this assiduity. But they could not command a single word of broad English among them. Theirs only was the eloquence of nods and grimaces; a monkey could have done as much, and in the present humour of the old lady, would have been as much approved. The ladder-dancer grew impatient, and seemed determined on an effort to close her labours.

"Ah, Madame" she exclaimed;

"Madame" was repeated by the man, and" Madame " was re-echoed by the boy.

"Nane o' your nonsense wi' me," was the response from the stair-head; "your madam’ing, and I dinna ken what mair havers. Ye needna fash your head to stand there a’ day girning at me, and making sic outlandish sport. I’m mair fule than you, that hides to look at you; a fine tale they’d hae to tell that could say they saw me here, idling my precious time on the like o` you."

She now whispered to one of the girls, who retired, and soon after returned, giving her a small parcel, which she examined, and seemed to say all was right. She beckoned the ladder-dancer, who slid down with cat-like agility, and was instantly with her, standing a step lower, in deference to the doughty dame.

"Here," said she, with a gruff air, which was rather affected than real, " tak these precious gifts," handing her a bunch of religious tracts. "See if ye canna find out your spiritual wants, and learn to seek for the ‘Pearl of Price.’ My certie, but ye're a weel-faured hussie,” examining her more narrowly, "but your gaits are no that commendable ; but for a’ that, a mair broken ship has reached the land."

I could observe that she slipped a l half-crown into the hand of the Piedmontoise; and as she turned away to avoid thanks, an elderly gentleman (perhaps her husband), who stood by, said in a low voice,—

"That’s like yoursel, Darsie; your bark was aye waur than your bite, ony day!"

— Blackwood’s Magazine.  1826.


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