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Memoirs of a Highland Lady
Chapter XVI. 1817-1818


EARLY in July we moved to a large house in Picardy Place, No. 8, with four windows in front, a great many rooms all of a handsome size, and every accommodation, as the advertisements say, for a family of distinction. My father took a lease of it for three years, hiring the furniture from Mr Trotter. It was a sad change to us young people, down in the fogs of Leith, far from any country walk, quite away from all our friends, and an additional mile from Craigcrook too, measuring both ways. We had got very intimate with Mr and Mrs Jeffrey, Jane and I, and we had frequently from Charlotte Square walked out to their beautiful old place on Corstorphine Hill, spent the day there, and returned late when any one was with us, earlier when alone. Mr Jeffrey was enchanted with Jane, he had never seen any girl like her; he liked me too, but he did not find me out till long after. He left me now more to Mrs Jeffrey and their little Charlotte, a pretty child in those days.

We had been at Craigcrook on a visit of some days, and William had come out to walk home with us to Picardy Place, looking strangely sad; on the way he told us there was very little hope of the life of Dr Gordon. What a shock it was! Our intimacy had continued unbroken from the hour of our first acquaintance, William and I more particularly having been very much with him. He had got on in his profession as he deserved to do, and had lately got a Chair in the University and a full class, and they had left the old flat in Buccleuch Place in the Old Town off by the Meadows, and lived in a nice house in Castle Street. All was prospering with them, but he died. It was some kind of fever he had neglected the first symptoms of and I believe he had injured himself by too exclusive a meat diet. He was the first physician who had ever tried checking a certain sort of consumptive tendency by high feeding; he had succeeded so well with patients requiring this extra stimulus that he tried the plan on himself. Deeply we lamented him; William felt the loss most sincerely, nor did any other friend, I think, ever replace him. Mrs Gordon was left with three children, and only tolerably well off: She was unable to remain in Castle Street. She therefore removed soon to some place in Ayrshire, where there was good and cheap education to be had for her boys. Gogaror some such name—her little boy, died; so, I think, did her pretty Jane.

We went late to the Highlands and stayed very quietly there. Kinrara was deserted this season, Belleville less gay than usual, and we did not go to the Meeting. My mother was not in spirits, my father was far away; he went to Ireland to defend some rebels, trials that made a great stir at the time, being made quite a political battlefield. The junior counsel was Erskine Sandford, the Bishop's son, who went with us by the name of Portia, as it was his gown Mrs Henry Siddons borrowed when she acted that character; it fitted her well, for he was only about her size, and she did not look unlike him, as he was handsome, though so small. They were some weeks absent. While in the north of Ireland my father took up his quarters in the house of an old acquaintance, the Marquis of Donegal, whose brother, Lord Spencer Chichester, my mother was once expected to marry. The Marquis was in some perplexity about his own marriage; he was ultimately obliged to go to the serious expense of having an Act of Parliament passed to legalise it, the Marchioness having been under age at the time it was celebrated. She was a natural child, so without a parent, consequently the Chancellor was her guardian. She had been brought up, indeed adopted, by a worthy couple somewhere in Wales; they supposed their consent sufficient, but it was not.

After a very short stay in the Highlands we all came up to Picardy Place the end of October 1817, to meet my father on his return from Ireland. We soon settled ourselves in our spacious house, making ourselves more really at home than we had hitherto felt ourselves to be in town, having the certainty of no removal for three years. Still we younger ones were not soon reconciled to the situation, all our habits being disturbed by the separation from the West End! Three winters we spent here, none of them worthy of particular note, neither indeed can I at this distance of time separate the occurrences of each from the others. The usual routine seemed to be followed in all. My father and his new, very queer clerk, Mr Caw, worked away in their law chambers till my father went up to London late in spring. The second winter he lost his seat for Grimsby, a richer competitor carried all votes, and for a few months he was out of Parliament. How much better it would have been for him had he remained out, stuck to the Bar, at which he really might have done well had he not left ever so many cases in the lurch when attending the House, at which he made no figure. He spoke seldom, said little when he did speak, and never in any way made himself of consequence. Only once, when all his party censured the Speaker, he made a little reputation by the polite severity of his few words, called by Sir Alexander Boswell his "bit of brimstone and butter," a witticism that ran through all coteries, almost turning the laugh against the really clever speech. He dined out everywhere with my mother while he was in Edinburgh, but hardly ever went out in an evening. He seemed, from his letters to my mother, to go a good deal into society while he was in London, dining at Holland House, Lord Lansdowne's, Lord Grey's, all the Whigs in fact, for he got into Parliament again. The Duke of Bedford gave him Tavistock till one of his own Sons should be ready for it.

Five or six dinners, two small evening parties, and one large one, a regular rout, paid my mother's debts in the visiting line each winter. She understood the management of company so well, every assembly of whatever kind always went off admirably at her house. We dined out a great deal, Jane and I taking the dinners in turns. We both went out in the evenings except when I could manage an escape, which was easier than formerly, my mother having given me up as a matrimonial speculation, and Jane really delighting in society. We got into a rather graver set than we had belonged to while in the sunshine of George Street and Charlotte Square, not quite giving up our gayer companions, but the distance from them was so great our easy sociable intercourse was much broken. In our own short street we knew only John Clerk, not then a judge, and his truly agreeable sister Miss Bessy. William, Jane and I half lived in their house. They never gave a dinner without one of us being wanted to fill the place of an apology, and none of us ever shirked the summons, feeling so at home, and meeting always such pleasant people; all the law set of course, judges, barristers, and writers; some of the literary, some of the scientific, and a great many county families. The drawing-rooms—four of them—were just a picture gallery, hung with paintings by the "ancient masters," some of them genuine! There were besides portfolios of prints, clever caricatures, and original sketches, these last undoubted and very valuable. John Clerk was a collector; a thousand curiosities were spread about. He made more of his profession than any man at the Bar, and with his ready money commanded the market to a certain extent. The latest purchase was the favourite always, indeed the only one worth possessing, so that it almost seemed as if the enjoyment was in the acquisition, not in the intrinsic merit of the object. A hideous daub called a Rubens, a crowd of fat children miscalled angels, with as much to spare of "de quoi" as would have supplied the deficiencies of the whole cherubim, was the wonder of the world for ever so long; my wonder too, for if it was a Rubens it must have been a mere sketch and never finished. I think I have heard that at the sale of this museum on Lord Eldin's death, a great many of his best-loved pictures were acknowledged to be trash.

I did not like him; the immorality of his private life was very discreditable; he was cynical too, severe, very, when offended, though of a kindly nature in the main. His talents there was no dispute about, though his reputation certainly was enhanced by his eccentricities and by his personal appearance, which was truly hideous. He was very lame, one leg being much shorter than the other, and his countenance, harsh and heavy when composed, became demoniac when illumined by the mocking smile that sometimes relaxed it. I always thought him the personification of the devil on two sticks, a living, actual Mephistopheles. He spoke but little to his guests, uttering some caustic remark, cruelly applicable, at rare intervals, treasured up by everybody around as another saying of the wise man's deserving of being written in gold, Eastern fashion. When he did rouse up beyond this, his exposition of any subject he warmed on was really luminous, masterly, carried one away. The young men were all frightened to death of him; he did look as if he could bite, and as if the bite would be deadly. The young ladies played with the monster, for he was very gentle to us.

In the Parliament House, as the Courts of Justice are called in Scotland, he was a very tiger, seizing on his adversary with tooth and nail, and demolishing him without mercy, often without justice, for he was a true advocate, heart and soul, right or wrong, in his client's cause. Standing very upright on the long leg, half-adozen pair of spectacles shoved up over his forehead, his wickedest countenance on, beaming with energy, he poured forth in his broad Scotch a torrent of flaming rhetoric too bewildering to be often successfully opposed. There was a story went of his once having mistaken a case, and so in his most vehement manner pleading on the wrong side, the attorneys (called writers with us) in vain whispering and touching and pulling, trying in their agony every possible means of recalling his attention. At last he was made to comprehend the mischief he was doing, so he paused for breath, readjusted his notes, probably never before looked at, held out his hand for the spectacles his old fat clerk Mr George had always a packet of ready, put them on, shoved them up over all the series sent up before, and then turning to the Judge resumed his address thus, "Having now, my lord, to the best of my ability stated my opponent's case as strongly as it is possible for even my learned brother "—bowing to the opposite counsel with a peculiar swing of the short leg—" to argue it, I shall proceed point by point to refute every plea advanced, etc., etc."; and so he did, amid a convulsion of laughter. As a consulting lawyer he was calm and clear, a favourite arbitrator, making indeed most of his fees by chamber practice.

The sort of tart things he said at dinner were like this. Some one having died, a man of birth and fortune in the west country, rather celebrated during his life for drawing pretty freely with the long-bow in conversation, it was remarked that the heir had buried him with much pomp, and had ordered for his remains a handsome monument: "wi' an epitaph," said John Clerk in his broadest Border dialect; "he must hae an epitaph, an appropriate epitaph, an' we'll change the exordium out o' respect. Instead o' the usual Here lies, we'll begin his epitaph wi' Here continues to lie." I wish I could remember more of them ; they were scattered broadcast, and too many of them fell by the wayside. The sister who lived with him and kept his house must in her youth have been a beauty. Indeed she acknowledged this, and told how to enhance it, she had when about fifteen possessed herself of her mother's patch-box, and not content with one or two black spots to brighten her complexion, had stuck on a whole shower, and thus speckled, had set out on a very satisfactory walk, every one she met staring at her admiringly. A deal of such quiet fun enlivened her conversation, adding considerably to the attraction of a well-bred manner. She painted a little, modelling in clay beautifully, sometimes finishing her small groups in ivory. She was well read in French and English classics, had seen much, suffered some, and reflected a great deal. She was a most charming companion, saying often in a few words what one could think over at good length. She was very proud—the Clerks of Eldin had every right so to be—and the patronising pity with which she folded up her ancient skirts from contact with the snobs, as we call them now, whom she met and visited and was studiously polite to, was often my amusement to watch. She never disparaged them by a syllable individually, but she would describe a rather fast family as "the sort of people you never see in mourning," or "so busy trying to push themselves into a place and not succeeding."

Sir Adam Ferguson was the son of the "Roman Antiquities"; another idler. He was fond in the summer of walking excursions in two or three localities where he had friends, in the Perthshire Highlands, along the coasts of Fife and Forfar, and in the Border country, the heights along the Tweed, etc. Mark the points well. His acquaintance were of all ranks. He had eyes, ears, observation of all kinds, a wonderful memory, extraordinary powers of imitation, a pleasure in detailing—acting, in fact—all that occurred to him. He was the bosom friend of Walter Scott; he and William Clerk lived half their time with the great novelist, and it was ungenerous in him and Mr Lockhart to have made so little mention of them in the biography, for most undoubtedly Sir Adam Ferguson was the "nature" from which many of those life-like pictures were drawn. We, who knew all, recognised our old familiar stories—nay, characters—and guessed the rich source that had been so constantly drawn on.

Waverley came out, I think it must have been in the autumn of 1814, just before we went first to Edinburgh. It was brought to us at the Doune, I know, by "little Jemmy Simpson," as that good man, since so famous, was then most irreverently called. Some liked the book, he said; he thought himself it was in parts quite beyond the common run, and the determined mystery as to the author added much to its vogue. I did not like it. The opening English scenes were to me intolerably dull and lengthy, and so prosy, and the persons introduced so uninteresting, the hero contemptible, the two heroines unnatural and disagreeable, and the whole idea given of the Highlands so utterly at variance with truth. I read it again long afterwards, and remained of the same mind. Then burst out Guy Mannering, carrying all the world before it, in spite of the very pitiful setting the gipsies, the smugglers, and Dandie Dinmont are surrounded by. Here again is the copyist, the scenery Dumfries and Galloway, the dialect Forfar. People now began to feel these works could come but from one author, particularly as a few acres began to be added to the recent purchase of the old tower of Abbotsford, and Mrs Scott set up a carriage, a barouche landau built in London, which from the time she got it she was seldom out of.

I was never in company with Walter Scott; he went out very little, and when he did go he was not agreeable, generally sitting very silent, looking dull and listless, unless an occasional flash lighted up his countenance. In his own house, he was another character, especially if he liked his guests. It was odd, but Sir Walter never had the reputation in Edinburgh he had elsewhere—was not the lion, I mean. His wonderful works were looked for, read with avidity, praised on all hands, yet the author made far less noise at home than he did abroad. The fat, vulgar Mrs Jobson, whose low husband had made his large fortune at Dundee by pickling herrings, on being congratulated at the approaching marriage of her daughter to Sir Walter Scott's son, said the young people were attached, otherwise her Jane might have looked higher; "it was only a baronetcy, and quite a late creation."

Another family in the Clerks' set and ours were the Daizels; they lived in a small house just behind Picardy Place, in Albany or Forth Street. They were a Professor's widow, her sister, and her sons and daughters, reduced in the short space of a few years to the one son and one daughter who still survive. Mary DaIzel played well on the pianoforte; there was no other talent among them. The Professor had been a learned but a singularly simple man. He had been tutor to either Lord Lauderdale or his eldest son, and they had a story of him which Lady Mary told us, that at dinner at Dunbar—a large party—a guest alluding to the profligacy of some prominent political character, Mr Daizel broke in with, "There has not been such a rogue unhanged since the days of the wicked Duke of Lauderdale."

In York Place we had only the old Miss Pringles, chiefly remarkable for never in the morning going out together—always different ways, that when they met at dinner there might be more to say; and Miss Kate Sinclair; and two families which, all unguessed by us, were destined to have such close connection with us hereafter, Mrs Henry Siddons and the Gibson Craigs. Mrs Siddons was now a widow, living with her two very nice daughters and her two charming little boys, quietly as became her circumstances. She acted regularly, as main prop of the theatre on which the principal part of her income depended. She went a little into society. She had pleasure in seeing her friends in a morning in her own house, and the friends were always delighted to go to see her, she was so very agreeable. The girls were great friends of my sister Mary's; the little boys were my mother's passion, they were with us for ever, quite little pets. The Gibsons, who were not Craigs then, we got more intimate with after they moved to a fine large house Mr Gibson was building in Picardy Place when we went there. There were two sons, and seven daughters of every age, all of them younger than the brothers.

Jane and I added to our private list of so-called friends Mr Kennedy of Dunare, whose sister wrote Father Clement, whose mother, beautiful at eighty, was sister to the mother of Lord Brougham, who himself married Sir Samuel Romilly's daughter and held for many years a high situation here in Ireland; Archy Alison, now Sir Archibald, heavy, awkward, plain, and yet foredoomed to greatness by the united testimony of every one sufficiently acquainted with him ; his father, one of the Episcopal chaplains and author of a work on Taste, had married Mrs Montague's Miss Gregory, so there was celebrity on all sides.

It was a great addition to the quiet home society we were beginning to prefer to the regular gaiety, the having Mrs Cumming settled near us. Her two elder Sons had already gone out to India, Alexander in the Civil Service, Robert in the Artillery, both to Bengal. The three younger it was necessary to educate better, as it was gradually becoming more difficult to get passed through the examinations, and all were destined for the East. George and Willie, intended for army surgeons, were to study medicine, and were also to have their manners formed by appearing occasionally in society. Willie made his entrance into fashionable life at a large evening party of my mother's. He was a handsome lad, very desirous of being thought a beau, so he dressed himself in his best carefully, and noticing that all the fine young men were scented, he provided himself with a large white cotton pocket-handkerchief of his mother's which he steeped in peppermint water, a large bottle of this useful corrective always standing on the chimney-piece in her room. Thus perfumed, and hair and whiskers oiled and curled, Willie, in a flutter of shyness and happiness, entered our brilliant drawing-room, when he was pounced on by Miss Shearer, the very plain sister of Mrs James Grant, an oldish woman of no sort of fashion and cruelly marked with the smallpox. "We'll keep together, Willie," said Miss Shearer, at every attempt of poor Willie's to shake himself clear of such an encumbrance in the crowd. How Dr Cumming laughed at these recollections when he and I met again after a lifetime's separation! Up and down this ill-assorted pair paraded, Miss Shearer determined to show off her beau. "There's an extraordinary smell of peppermint here," said Lord Erskine to Mrs Henry Siddons, as the couple turned and twirled round to pass them, Willie flourishing the large pocket-handkerchief in most approved style. It was really overpowering, nor could we contrive to get rid of it, nor to detect the offending distributor of such pharmaceutical perfume, till next day, talking over the party with the Lady Logie, she enlightened us, more amused herself by the incident than almost any of the rest of us.

She was right to keep the bottle of peppermint where it could easily be found, as the sort of housekeeping she practised must have made a frequent appeal to it necessary. She bought every Saturday a leg of mutton and a round of beef; when the one was finished, the other was begun ; the leg was roasted, the round was boiled, and after the first day they were eaten cold, and served herself, her daughter, her two sons, and her two maid-servants the week; there were potatoes, and in summer cabbage, and peas that rattled, in winter oranges, and by the help of the peppermint the family throve. We never heard of illness among them; the minds expanded too, after their own queer fashion, even George, the most eccentric of human beings, doing credit to the rearing. He was so very singular in his ways, his mother was really uncertain about his getting through the College of Surgeons. She made cautious inquiries now and then as to his studies, attention to lectures, notes of them, visits to the hospital, preparation for his thesis and so on, and getting unsatisfactory replies, grew very fidgety. One day one of the medical examiners stopped her in the street to congratulate her on the admirable appearance made by her son George when he was passed at Surgeons' Hall; his answers had been remarkable, and his thesis, dedicated to my father, had been No. 2 or 3 out of fifty. She was really amazed. "George," said she, when they met, "when did you get your degree? When did you pass your trials?" "Eh!" said George, looking up with his most vacant expression. "Oh, just when I was ready for them." "You never told me a word about it." "No? Humph! you'd have heard fast enough if I'd failed." That was all she could get out of him; but he told us, that seeing the door of the Surgeons' Hall open and finding it was an examining day, it struck him that he would go in and get the job over; it was very easy to pass, he added. He has since at Madras risen high in his profession, been twice publicly thanked for his care of the troops, made money, married a wife; yet when he was at home on furlough he acted more like Dominie Sampson than any other character ever heard of.

We had an odd family party sometimes—a Carr, a Goodchild, a Gillio, and Grace Baillie who thrice a week at least walked in at dinner-time. My brothers' young men's friends continued popping in morning and evening, when it suited them. Mary, now grown into a very handsome girl, did her part well in all home company. Johnnie also was made a little man of; he had a tutor for Latin, attended the French and drawing classes, read English History with Jane. We had given up all masters except the Italian and the harp, which last taught us in classes, and thereby hangs a tale.

Monsieur Elouis, the harp master, charged so much for his private lessons, that my mother suggested to him to follow the Edinburgh fashion of classes at so much a quarter, three lessons a week. He made quite a fortune. There were eight pupils in a class, the lesson lasting two hours. We three, the two Hunters, Grace Stein (afterwards Lady Don), Amelia Gillio and Catherine Inglis were his best scholars. We played concerted pieces doubling the parts, choruses arranged by him, and sometimes duets or solos, practising in other rooms. The fame of our execution spread over the town, and many persons entreated permission to mount up the long common stair to the poor Frenchman's garret to listen to such a number of harps played by such handsome girls. One or two of the mammas would have had no objection, but my mother and Lady Hunter would not hear of their daughters being part of an exhibition. We went there to learn, not to show off Miss Elphick, too, had her own ideas upon the subject. She always went with us, and was extremely annoyed by the group of young men so frequently happening to pass down the street just at the time our class dispersed, some of them our dancing partners, so that there were bows and speeches and attendance home, much to her disgust. She waited once or twice till the second class assembled, but the beaux waited too. So then she carried us all off a quarter of an hour too soon, leaving our five companions to their fate; and this not answering long, she set to scold M. Elouis, and called the Edinburgh gentlemen all sorts of names. In the midst of her season of wrath the door of our music room opened one day, and a large fine-looking military man, braided and belted and moustached, entered and was invited to be seated. Every harp was silent. "Mesdemoiselles," said M. Elouis with his most polished air of command, "recommence if you please; this gentleman is my most particular friend, a musical amateur, etc." Miss Elphick was all in a flame; up she rose, up she made us rise, gather our music together and driving us and Amelia Gillio before her, we were shawled and bonneted in less time than I am writing of it, and on our way downstairs before poor Monsieur had finished his apologies to the officer and the other young ladies. Never was little woman in such a fury. We never returned to the harp classes, neither did the Hunters, and very soon they were given up. It was certainly an unwarrantable liberty, an impertinence, and the man must either have been totally unaware of the sort of pupils he was to find, or else an ill-bred ignorant person. Poor Elouis never recovered the mistake; he had to leave for want of business.

Mr Loder brought an opera company with him, and gave, not whole operas—he had not strength enough for that—but very well got-up scenes from several most in favour. It was a most agreeable variety in a place where public amusements were but scantily supplied to the inhabitants. We had De Begnis and his wife, and scenes from Figaro, Don Giovanni, etc.; the rest of the artists were very fair, but I forget their names. Going into a music shop we saw on the counter two numbers of a new work—the opera of Don Juan arranged for two performers on the pianoforte; the first attempt in a kind that had such success, and that brought good music within the power of the family circle. We secured our prize, Jane and I, hurried home, tried the first scena, were delighted, gave a week to private, very diligent study, and when we had it all by heart, the first afternoon my father came up to spend the gloaming napping in an easy-chair, we arrested his sleepy fit by "Notte e giorno," to his amazement. He liked our opera better, I think, than "Sul margine d'un rio," or "Ninetta cara," for we had so lately heard all the airs we played that we were quite up to the proper style, and had ourselves all the desire in the world to give the music we loved the expression intended by our then favourite composer, Mozart.

Edinburgh did not afford much public amusement. Except these operas which were a chance, a stray concert now and then—catches and glees being the most popular—and the six Assemblies, there were none other. The Assemblies were very ill attended, the small room never half full, the large, which held with ease twelve hundred people, was never entered except upon occasion of the Caledonian Hunt Ball, when the members presented the tickets, and their friends graciously accepted the free entertainment. The very crowded dances at borne, inconvenient, troublesome and expensive as they were, seemed to be more popular than those easy balls, where for five shillings we had space, spring, a full orchestra, and plenty of light refreshments. I heard afterwards that as private houses became more fully and handsomely furnished, the fashion of attending the Assemblies revived.


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