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Book of Scottish Story
A Tale of the Plague in Edinburgh

by Robert Chambers

In several parts of Scotland, such things are to be found as "tales" of the Plague. Amidst so much human suffering as the events of a pestilence necessarily involved, it is of course to be supposed that, occasionally, circumstances would occur of a peculiarly disastrous and affecting description,— that many loving hearts would be torn asunder, or laid side by side in the grave, many orphans left desolate, and patriarchs bereft of all their descendants, and that cases of so painful a sort as called forth greater compassion at the time, would be remembered, after much of the ordinary details was generally forgotten. The celebrated story of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray is a case in point. So romantic, so mournful a tale, appealing as it does to every bosom, could not fail to be commemorated, even though it had been destitute of the great charm of locality. Neither could such a tale of suffering and horror as that of the Teviotdale shepherd's family ever be forgotten in the district where it occurred,—interesting at it is, has been, and will be, to every successive generation of mothers, and duly listened to and shuddered at by so many infantine audiences. In the course of our researches, we have likewise picked up a few extraordinary circumstances connected with the last visit paid by the plague to Edinburgh; which, improbable as they may perhaps appear, we believe to be, to a certain extent, allied to truth, and shall now submit them to our readers.

When Edinburgh was afflicted, for the last time, with the pestilence, such was its effect upon the energies of the citizens, and so long was its continuance, that the grass grew on the principal street, and even at the Cross, though that Scottish Rialto was then perhaps the most crowded thoroughfare in Britain. Silence, more than that of the stillest midnight, pervaded the streets during the day. The sunlight fell upon the quiet houses as it falls on a line of sombre and neglected tombstones in some sequestered churchyard —gilding, but not altering, their desolate features. The area of the High Street, on being entered by a stranger, might have been contemplated with feelings similar to those with which Christian, in the "Pilgrim's Progress," viewed the awful court-yard of Giant Despair; for, as in that well-imagined scene, the very ground bore the marks of wildness and desolation; every window around, like the loopholes of the dungeons in Doubting Castle, seemed to tell its tale of misery within, and the whole seemed to lie prostrate and powerless under the dominion of an unseen demon, which fancy might have conceived as stalking around in a bodily form, leisurely dooming its subjects to successive execution.

When the pestilence was at its greatest height, a strange perplexity began, and not without reason, to take possession of the few physicians and nurses who attended the sick. It was customary for the distempered to die, or, as the rare case happened, to recover, on a particular day after having first exhibited symptoms of illness. This was an understood rule of the plague, which had never been known to fail. All at once, it began to appear that a good many people, especially those who were left alone in their houses by the death or desertion of friends, died before the arrival of the critical day. In some of these cases, not only was the rule of the disease broken, but, what vexed the physicians more, the powers of medicine seemed to have been set at defiance; for several patients of distinction, who had been able to purchase good attendance and were therefore considered as in less than ordinary danger, were found to have expired after taking salutary drugs, and being left with good hopes by their physicians. It almost seemed as if some new disease were beginning to engraft itself upon the pestilence—a new feature rising upon its horrid aspect. Subtle and fatal as it formerly was, it was now inconceivably more so. It could formerly be calculated upon; but it was now quite arbitrary and precarious, Medicine had lost its power over it. God, who created it in its first monstrous form, appeared to have endowed it with an additional sling, against which feeble mortality could present no competent shield. Physicians beheld its new ravages with surprise and despair; and a deeper shade of horror was spread, in consequence, over the public mind.

As an air of more than natural mystery seemed to accompany this truly calamitous turn of affairs, it was, of course, to be expected, in that superstitious age, that many would attribute it to a more than natural cause. By the ministers, it was taken for an additional manifestation of Gods wrath, and as such held forth in not a few pulpits, accompanied with all the due exhortations to a better life, which it was not unlikely would be attended with good effect among the thin congregations of haggard and terrified scarecrows, who persisted in meeting regularly at places of worship. The learned puzzled themselves with conjectures as to its probable causes and cures; while the common people gave way to the most wild and fanciful surmises, almost all of which were as far from the truth. The only popular observation worthy of any attention, was that the greater part of those who suffered from this new disease died luring the night, and all of them while unattended.

Not many days after the alarm first arose, a poor woman arrested a physician in the street, and desired to confer with him a brief space. He at first shook her off, saying he was at present completely engaged, and could take no new patients. But when she informed him that she did not desire his attendance, and only wished to communicate something which might help to clear up the mystery of the late premature deaths, he stopped and lent a patient ear. She told him that on the previous night, having occasion to leave her house, in order to visit a sick neighbour, who lay upon a lonely death-bed in the second flat below her own garret, she took a lamp in her hand, that she might the better find her way down. As she descended the stair, which she described as a "turnpike," or spiral one, she heard a low and inexpressibly doleful moan, as if proceeding from the house of her neighbour,— such a moan, she said, as she had ever heard proceed from any of the numerous death-beds it had been her lot to attend. She hastened faster down the stair than her limbs were well able to carry her, under the idea that her friend was undergoing some severe suffering, which she might be able to alleviate. Before, however, she had reached the first landing-place, a noise, as of footsteps, arose from the house of pain, and caused her to apprehend that all was not right in a house which she knew no one ever visited, in that time of desolation, but herself. She quickened her pace still more than before, and soon reached the landing-place at her neighbour's door. Something, as she expressed it, seeming to "swoof" down the stair, like the noise of a full garment brushing the walls of a narrow passage, she drew in the lamp, and looking down beyond it, saw what she conceived to be the dark drapery of the back of a tall human figure, loosely clad, moving, or rather gliding, out of sight, and in a moment gone. So uncertain was she at first of the reality of what she saw, that she believed it to be the shadow of the central pile of the stair gliding downwards as she brought round the light; but the state of matters in the inside of the house soon convinced her, to her horror, that it must have been something more dreadful and real—the unfortunate woman being dead ; though as yet it was three days till the time when, according to the old rules of the disease, she might have lived or died. The physician heard this story with astonishment; but as it only informed his mind, which was not free from superstition, that the whole matter was becoming more and more mysterious, he drew no conclusions from it; but simply observing, with a professional shake of the head, that all was not right in the town, went upon his way.

The old woman, who, of course, could not be expected to let so good a subject of gossip and wonderment lie idle in her mind, like the guinea kept by the Vicar of Wakefield's daughters, forthwith proceeded to dissipate it abroad among her neighbours, who soon (to follow out the idea of the coin) reduced it into still larger and coarser pieces, and paid it away, in that exaggerated form, to a wider circle of neighbours, by whom it was speedily dispersed in various shapes over the whole town. The popular mind, like the ear of a sick man, being then peculiarly sensitive, received the intelligence with a degree of alarm, such as the news of a lost battle has not always occasioned amongst a people; and, as the atmosphere is best calculated for the conveyance of sound during the time of frost, so did the air of the plague seem peculiarly well fitted for the propagation of this fearful report. The whole of the people were impressed, on hearing the story, with a feeling of undefined awe, mixed with horror. The back of a tall figure, in dark long clothes, seen but for a moment! There was a picturesque indistinctness in the description, which left room for the imagination; taken in conjunction, too, with the moan heard at first by the old woman on the stair, and the demise of the sick woman at the very time, it was truly startling. To add to the panic, a report arose next day, that the figure had been seen on the preceding evening, by different persons, flitting about various stairs and alleys, always in the shade, and disappearing immediately after being first perceived. An idea began to prevail that it was the image of Death—Death, who had thus come in his personated form, to a city which seemed to have been placed so peculiarly under his dominion, in order to execute his office with the greater promptitude. It was thought, if so fantastic a dream may be assigned to the thinking faculty, that the grand destroyer, who, in ordinary times is invisible, might, perhaps, have the power of rendering himself palpable to the sight in cases where he approached his victims under circumstances of peculiar horror; and this wild imagination was the more fearful, inasmuch as it was supposed that, with the increase of the mortality, he would become more and more distinctly visible, till, perhaps, after having despatched all, he would burst forth in open triumph, and roam at large throughout a city of desolation.

It happened on the second day after the rise of this popular fancy, that an armed ship, of a very singular construction, and manned by a crew of strangely foreign-looking men, entered Leith harbour. It was a Barbary rover; but the crew showed no intention of hostility to the town of Leith, though at the present pass it would have fallen an easy prey to their arms, being quite as much afflicted with the pestilence as its metropolitan neighbour. A detachment of the crew, comprising one who appeared to be the commander, immediately landed, and proceeded to Edinburgh, which they did not scruple to enter. They inquired for the provost, and, on being conducted to the presence of that dignitary, their chief disclosed their purpose in thus visiting Edinburgh, which was the useful one of supplying it in its present distress with a cargo of drugs, approved in the East for their efficacy against the plague, and a few men who could undertake to administer them properly to the sick. The provost heard this intelligence with overflowing eyes; for, besides the anxiety he felt about the welfare of the city, he was especially interested in the health of his daughter, an only child, who happened to be involved in the' common calamity. The terms proposed by the Africans were somewhat exorbitant. They demanded to have the half of the wealth of those whom they restored to health. But the provost told them that he believed many of the most wealthy citizens would be glad .to employ them on these terms; and, for his own part, he was willing to sacrifice anything he had, short of his salvation, for the benefit of his daughter. Assured of at least the safety of their persons and goods, the strangers drew from the ship a large quantity of medicines, and began that very evening to attend as physicians those who chose to call them in. The captain—a man in the prime of life, and remarkable amongst the rest for his superior dress and bearing—engaged himself to attend the provost's daughter, who had now nearly reached the crisis of the distemper, and hitherto had not been expected to survive.

The house of Sir John Smith, the provost of Edinburgh, in the year 1645, was situated in the Cap-and-Feather close, an alley occupying the site of the present North Bridge. The bottom of this alley being closed, there was no thoroughfare or egress towards the North Loch; but the provost's house possessed this convenience, being the tenement which closed the lower extremity, and having a back-door that opened upon an alley to the eastward, namely, Halkerston's Wynd. This house was, at the time we speak of, crammed full of valuable goods, plate, &c, which had been deposited in the provost's hands by many of his afflicted fellow-citizens, under the impression that, if they survived, he was honest though to restore them unimpaired, and, if otherwise, he was worthy to inherit them. His daughter, who had been seized before it was found possible to remove her from the town, lay in a little room at the back of the house, which, besides one door opening from the large staircase in the front, had also a more private entry communicating with the narrower and obsolete "turnpike" behind. At that time, little precaution was taken anywhere in Scotland about the locking of doors. To have the door simply closed, so that the fairies could not enter, was in general considered sufficient, as it is at the present day in many remote parts. In Edinburgh, during the time of the plague, the greatest indifference to security of this sort prevailed. In general, the doors were left unlocked from within, in order to admit the cleansers, or any charitable neighbour who might come to minister to the bed-rid sick. This was not exactly the case in Sir John Smith's house; for the main-door was scrupulously locked, with a view to the safety of the goods committed to his charge. Nevertheless, from neglect, or from want of apprehension, the posterior entrance was afterwards found to have been not so well secured.

The Barbary physician had administered a potion to his patient soon after his admission into the house. He knew that symptoms either favourable or unfavourable would speedily appear, and he therefore resolved to remain in the room in order to watch the result. About midnight, as he sat in a remote corner of the room, looking towards the bed upon which his charge was extended, while a small lamp burned upon a low table between, he was suddenly surprised to observe something like a dark cloud, unaccompanied by any noise, interpose itself slowly and gradually between his eyes and the bed. He at first thought that he was deceived,—that he was beginning to fall asleep,—or that the strange appearance was occasioned by some peculiarity of the light, which, being placed almost directly between him and the bed,

caused him to see the latter object very indistinctly. He was soon undeceived by hearing a noise,—the slightest possible,—and perceiving something like motion in the ill-defined lineaments of the apparition. "Gracious Heaven!" thought he, "can this be the angel of death hovering over his victim, preparing to strike the mortal blow, and ready to receive the departing soul into the inconceivable recesses of its awful form?" It almost appeared as if the cloud stooped over the bed for the performance of this task. Presently, the patient uttered a half-suppressed sigh, and then altogether ceased the regular respirations, which had hitherto been monotonous and audible throughout the room. The awe-struck attendant could contain himself no longer, but permitted a sort of cry to escape him, and started to his feet. The cloud instantly, as it were, rose from its inclined posture over the bed, turned hastily round, and, in a moment contracting itself into a human shape, glided softly, but hastily, from the apartment. "Ha!" thought the African, "I have known such personages as this in Aleppo. These angels of death are sometimes found to be mortal themselves—I shall pursue and try." He, therefore, quickly allowed the phantom through the private door by which it had escaped, not forgetting to seize his semicircular sword in passing the table where it lay. The stair was dark and steep; but he kept his feet till he reached the bottom. Casting, then, a hasty glance around him, he perceived a shadow vanish from the moon-lit ground, at an angle of the house, and instantly started forward in the pursuit. He soon found himself in the open wynd above-mentioned, along which he supposed the mysterious object to have gone. All here was dark; but being certain of the course adopted by the pursued party, he did not hesitate a moment in plunging headlong down its steep profundity. He was confirmed in his purpose by immediately afterwards observing, at some distance in advance, a small jet of moonlight, proceeding from a side alley, obscured for a second by what he conceived to be the transit of a large dark object. This he soon also reached, and finding that his own person caused a similar obscurity, he was confirmed in his conjecture that the apparition bore a substantial form. Still forward and downward he boldly rushed, till, reaching an open area at the bottom, part of which was lighted by the moon, he plainly saw, at the distance of about thirty yards before him, the figure as of a tall man, loosely enveloped in a prodigious cloak, gliding along the ground, and apparently making for a small bridge, which at this particular place crossed the drain of the North Loch, and served as a communication with the village called the Mutries Hill. He made directly for the fugitive, thinking to overtake him almost before he could reach the bridge. But what was his surprise, when in a moment the flying object vanished from his sight, as if it had sunk into the ground, and left him alone and objectless in his headlong pursuit. It was possible that it had fallen into some concealed well or pit, but this he was never able to discover.

Bewildered and confused, he at length returned to the provost's house, and re-entered the apartment of the sick maiden. To his delight and astonishment he found her already in a state of visible convalescence, with a gradually deepening glow of health diffusing itself over her cheek. Whether his courage and fidelity had been the means of scaring away the evil demon it is impossible to say; but certain it is, that the ravages of the plague began soon afterwards to decline in Edinburgh, and at length died away altogether.

The conclusion of this singular traditionary story bears that the provost's daughter, being completely restored to health, was married to the foreigner who had saved her life. This seems to have been the result of an affection which they had conceived for each other during the period of her convalescence. The African, becoming joint-heir with his wife of the provost's vast property, abandoned his former piratical life, became, it is said, a douce Presbyterian, and settled down for the remainder of his days in Edinburgh. The match turned out exceedingly well; and it is even said that the foreigner became so assimilated with the people of Edinburgh, to whom he had proved so memorable a benefactor, that he held at one time an office of considerable civic dignity and importance. Certain it is, that he built for his residence a magnificent "land" near the head of the Canongate. upon the front of which he caused to be erected a statue of the emperor of Barbary, in testimony of the respect he still cherished for his native country; and this memorial yet remains in its original niche, as a subsidiary proof of the verity of the above relation.

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