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Good Words 1860
Lady Somerville's Maidens


A FAMOUS humourist, who burlesqued merrily but tenderly the female saints of the Roman Catholic mythology, in company with his St Bridget, who was rewarded for good humour and industry by a lesson in boiling to perfection a real Irish potato,—and his baker's daughter, who toiled morning and night in compounding her father's loaves and rolls, for the better maintenance of her little brothers and sisters, and attained, through the machinations of good spirits, the supreme mystery and triumph of a Twelfth-night cake, — introduced yet another miraculously-gifted woman, the rich man's wife, who might have adorned herself with diamonds, but who wore red and white roses, and fed the poor instead, and the red and white roses bloomed on her cheeks after she had reached her threescore-and-ten, and the fragrance of the red and white roses hovered over her grave for centuries. And so—how Lady Somerville's maiden might have acquired a diamond rose; how she would fain have bestowed it according to the bent of her training and the annals of her city; how she would have kept it for a season and then given it away; and how she would at last have fulfilled her hope and calling, not after the easy fashion of canonised humanity, but after the trying, precious mode of a simple, erring, but God-enlightened and God-fearing woman, these chapters profess to record.

About the year of the Union, the Merchant Maidens' Hospital, and the Trades' Maidens' Hospital, for the shelter and nurture of the daughters of merchants and tradesmen of the city of Edinburgh, deceased in destitute condition, or dragging on life in decayed circumstance's, were founded by sums subscribed by the benevolent, and by gifts from Mrs Janet Erskine, a wealthy widow, descended from the noble house of Mar, and, like Lady Yester, noted for her charitable benefactions to the Scotch capital. Following Mrs Janet's example, other pious ladies of condition and substance would establish similar institutions, without being able to incorporate them by royal charters, or to render them permanent benefits,—not to atone for their sins by good works, but with the desire to relieve the needy on a considerable scale; doubtless, in some cases, in a yearning wish to embalm the name of the testatrix, and preserve it a venerable and cherished memory throughout a succeeding generation. These were the spinsters and the childless widows of the benefactresses of the city; and in this class, but not of it in any selfish sense, was Lady Somerville, of long pedigree and—greater marvel—long purse, widow of an umquhilo provost of the good town, and still active and influential within its bounds. Lady Somerville executed a deed of gift, or, as was said, mortified a sum of money for the maintenance, during a certain number of years, of an hospital, where fifteen young girls, gentlewomen, were to be educated, and whence they were to be started in life, under the name of "Lady Somerville's Maidens."

Lady Somerville's Hospital, like the Merchant Maidens', was in Bristo Street. This Bristo Street was not then the insignificant side street of the present day. It was an important suburb of the West Port, beyond which stretched no stately and flourishing new town, but the Pleasance, the Borough Loch, with its wind-mill, the Borough Moor, stripped of its oak trees, away to the gray, turreted, war-worn Castle of Merchiston, where the great calculator once brooded over his numbers, and condescended to impose on foolish rustics with the tricks of his black cock. It was a natural situation for such foundations, hard by the country, and the country air, and on the other side by the steep, tortuous, and noisy Bow, running from the Bow Street Well and the Grassmarket up to the main line of the High Street. Neither was it without its dignities and distinctions:—the "General's Entry" indicated the reserved court, with its dial-plate, and pale jest, " We shall die-all," and its shield bearing a monkey, and stars in chief, on the lofty house of Viscount Stair, whose daughter Janet was the saddest heroine of Scotch story, whose son and grandson were next her in misery, and whose wife was named, in hatred and fear, "The Witch of Endor." There Monk had lodged when he ruled in the North. Again, the term "Mahogany Land," grafted on a neighbouring wooden structure, implied one of those piles so costly as well as quaint, that the designation of the rare and valuable West Indian wood had been borrowed for their use. At a later period, when growth and custom had begun to tide west, poetry and art loved this quarter, and Burns, Campbell, Scott, Runciman, and Wilkie, lent it "the lights and shades of their fame. At the date of 1/00 and upwards, it was as full of dormar windows, protruding gables, sudden towers and peaks, crow steps, outer stairs to galleries running along the first storey of the building, and furnished with doors into inner turnpike stairs, masses of tall chimneys, like giants, beside squat dwarfs of frail booths, as any fine old street of the past, or brown Flemish or German relic by green oozing canal, or purple vine-festooned river, of the present. Some corners were already dusky with age, and many as rich in story as they ever will be:—the Greyfriars, the royal residence of princes when it was yet a monastery—the haunt of patriots and martyrs when it was a free, stern, devoted kirk; the West Port, with bullet ornaments of fleshless skulls—now of Royalist, now of Covenanter—where sovereigns were hailed and conquerors cheered; Bristo, where men and women stood in pillory, had their ears nailed to a board, were branded on the cheeks occasionally for no greater offence than harbouring the pest-smitten; the Grassmarket, whose gallows were more associated in the people's mind with the prayers and hymns of the faithful than the groans of crime.

If Bristo Street was picturesque, next to the dark old Bow itself, the house of Lady Somerville's maidens was a fair specimen of its architecture. It was an old mansion transformed into its present charitable purpose; and if it had not the original design and exquisite fitness of Trinity Hospital, it had retained what was best in its old style dovetailed into its new. The low arched entrance bore one of those pious inscriptions, so common in devout old Edinburgh that they crowned the very closes, whose superabundance caused a witty English companion of the Duke of York to compare the High Street to the solid bone of a double comb, the yawning closes on each side forming the regular incisions between the teeth; and the most universal of all the prayers and thanksgivings inscribed everywhere in enduring, begrimmed stone letters—"Blissed be God for all His gyftis'—was surely peculiarly appropriate to a charitable foundation. The old hall—on whose ceiling Lady Somerville had caused Norrie the painter, in place of one of his landscapes, to pick out in colours the arms of the Somervilles, rather out of affectionate respect to her husband's memory than from family pride and partiality—proved an excellent charter-room, gymnasium, refectory, chapel to the fifteen girls, from ten to seventeen years of age, fostered in a mass within those walls; and the terraced garden and bowling-green—almost as shady and delightful as the gardens of what strangers called the palaces of the Earls of Moray and Panmure, the Dukes of Roxburgh and Queensberry, up yonder in the Canongate, under the wing of Holyrood—formed a boon which many a city boarding-school in later days might covet in vain, and afforded an ample field for the health and recreation of the young maidens.

There Lady Somerville's maidens dwelt under formal discipline, drawn out in files, marched to and from bed, to prayer, to study, and even to play; and, ah me ! never a spoilt darling amongst them, never a mother's pet except on visiting days, never a privileged loiterer or merry trifler; all in order, all according to rule, all precise, rectilinear, unrelaxing, and unchangeable. And Scotch bairns were bairns in Queen Anne's days as in Victoria's; and mocking their uniform—queer even at that time—their stuff petticoats, white tippets, and mob caps, was nature's genial, fertile, exhaustless variety of feature, complexion, and expression — all the mobile indexes of different constitutions, tempers, and tastes, pressed into one mould, out of which was to be evoked the endless repetition of the same worthy and capable woman, who was to do credit to the wisdom and kindness of the patroness. How would the single-hearted plan answer—not worked out on the strength, hardihood, and independence of boyhood, but exercised npon girlish susceptibility, delicacy, and dependence? How do all generalisations answer? For the weal of some and the hurt of others, but inevitably for the gain of the honest heart which acted them, and the honest heart which suffered them—though not as each heart fondly dreamt, though mutual faith pass through a furnace in the process—else who would have the courage to attempt to aid a multitude?


Without were the distractions and reactions of a convulsed era, settling down in the core of Church and State into a low and somewhat stagnant level, and on the surface into the luxuriant, artificial, unwholesome brilliance of glorious victories, without end or aim; shrewd, time-serving, acquisitive statesmen falsely elevated into a country's great men, chiefs, and heroes; polish without refinement, manners without morals; schemes and manias, Darien expeditions and China closets, with occasional outbreaks of the old fierce hostilities—the massacre of Glencoe, which had sickened the gray beards—the Porteous mob, which was to confound the blooming youth.

Within the Hospital in Bristo Street the fifteen girls were growing up demurely or defiantly into staid or giddy women. Little moderation in them: the thoughtful and gracious very grave and resolute after all that apprenticeship to order, activity, and perseverance; the light-minded, hypocritical or reckless, as the scales of sin might turn, but all the more confirmed in their selfishness, their snatches at self-indulgence, their denial of responsibility and obligation, because they were compelled for seven years to be outwardly painstaking, proper, and punctual.

At the head of the Hospital, at this season, was a matron on whom Janet Lady Somerville set store. She was a Janet too, or Jonet, as the old-fashioned, rigid, and very notable title was then sometimes Scotticised. Mrs Jonet she was termed all throughout the Hospital, except upon the books. Mrs Jonet was what was at that time considered plainly cut out for her situation, and yet she was neither winning nor sympathetic, merely upright, attentive, and firm. However, travel to the ends of the earth, and it is probable that you will feel inclined to give these qualities the preference which Mrs Primrose adjudged to the stout, sober silks in the choice of her wedding gown. Mrs Jonet's very face, though finely cut, was not beautiful, with the ripe, placid beauty of middle age—it was too sharp, meagre, and colourless; picturesque it might be under its Queen Anne's hood, with the little mantle on her shoulders, the mittens on her hands, the clocked stockings and buckled shoes—for Mrs Jonet was gently born in her own right, as well as a woman in authority—but beautiful it could never have been. Mrs Jonet, like Janet Lady Somerville, was a strict Presbyterian, and in her youth had been a stanch and indefatigable attender at conventicles—had hung her kerchief from her window as a signal to proscribed Whigs—had carried food and drink in the double receptacle cunningly inserted beneath her ostentatious, capacious upper pocket to outlaws and fugitives—had entertained thoughts of emigrating to the Indies or America—and had stood wrathful and austere, rising above woman's pity and woman's weakness, in this Grassmarket. Again, Mrs Jonet had sat at her window approving and applauding when the mob "rabbled" out Episcopal clergymen from their benefices, and plundered and destroyed their household goods.

Mrs Jonet possessed some of the virtues of the wise woman of Proverbs; but do not forget that she wanted others. On her lips was the law of truth, but not ordinarily that of kindness. She looked well to the ways of her household, and ate not the bread of idleness ; but if she stretched out her hand to the poor, it was to a very limited circle—old servants, forlorn professors, pinched gentlewomen, helpless infants. The outer rings of that great, weltering sea of misery which surrounds us all, consisted of vagrants and vagabonds who deserved no countenance from Mrs Jonet; prodigals and sinners were prodigals and sinners without modification and mercy to her, as to the elder brother in the wondrous parable. Then Mrs Jonet could never have been compared to a merchant's ship, bringing her food from afar, for she had no originality and undervalued inventions. Instead of considering a field, or planting a vineyard, she eschewed worldly prosperity and superfluity, and clung to being useful on bare necessaries. She would have recoiled from clothing her household with scarlet, as, to do her justice, from making to herself coverings of tapestry, silk, and purple—for that would have been sheer vanity and wantonness in Mrs Jonet's jealous eyes; on the contrary, though furious at the charge of Papistry, she would have inclined to the black garments of Lent and the sackcloth of Ash Wednesday.

In her hood, mantle, and mittens, Mrs Jonet perpetually perambulated the wide stairs, the low corridors, the little sleeping-cells; hovered over the steam of the porridge and the kail, heard the halting catechisms, and darted out upon the greensward into the centre of the cliques, the games, the scandals, the confidences. No question but Mrs Jonet was vigilant; and the faithful, and the pious-minded, and sweet-tempered respected her, and the froward and malcontent hated her, and almost none loved her; but in Queen Anne's reign the mistress of an hospital was not meant to be loved, as we reckon love or fondness.

Of Lady Somerville's maidens who had been born before Malplaquet, and lived long after "the fifteen," two were strong types of opposite classes, though they were alike in this respect—they came of families very well born and very ill off, who held a monopoly of city patronage. Euphame Napier's widow mother was a pensioner in Trinity Hospital, while she had a cousin in George Heriot's palace, where Katie Crichton's brother, Mark, was a companion boy. Occasionally too the Lady Somerville's maidens, in their tippets and caps, passed in array their male relations in the long coats and coarse hose of the munificent Goldsmith's fraternity; and Adie Napier nodded to Euphame under the penalty of bodily punishment; and Mark Crichton walked on, stalwart, impassive for his years, setting Euphame to conjecture, in the first place, that this was a distinct specimen of the Crichton race, and, in the second, that she would not like him better than Katie.

Katie was not singularly bad, she was only incorrigibly idle, pleasure-loving, and wilful. No mere tasks could root out the original sin, any more than the stuff gown could transpose the slender, supple figure into a stout, stiff body, or the mob cap make a plain, sensible face out of the pretty, volatile, unimpressionable features—the straight nose, the small mouth,—or put wisdom into the head crowned by the black, silky hair, combed back and hidden just now, but frizzed, and curled, and flung abroad every half holiday on which Katie escaped to the company of her mother and sisters, in the lodgings which Mrs Crichton kept for quality in the High Street, and did not demean herself according to social notions, for a great Lord Chancellor's father mated on terms of equality with just such another widowed gentlewoman, whose apartments were let out to students, young advocates, and country families coming to town for a little gaiety, if there was gaiety to be found in deserted Edinburgh for long years after the Union.

Euphame Napier, on the other hand, was a big girl for her thirteen years, and her face was at this time too heavy and florid for clearness or correctness of tint or outline; but already there was in the full, but straight mouth, in the deep gray eyes, in the broad brow, from which the ruddy brown hair was so tightly drawn, a remarkable repose, quietness, and power—a very womanly face, and at the same time one to depend upon. Perhaps the negro woman, Mum Bet, who defended her master's house, and who first appealed to the Bill of Rights, and established the slaves' freedom in Massachusetts, was like this Euphame; perhaps the Duke of Argyle's "sonsy lass," Jeanie Deans, resembled her; and it is certain there was another face which approached this old image of one of Lady Somerville's maidens—a mother's face which appeared behind a burning vessel, while she held on by the red-hot, stern chains with one unwavering hand, and in the other bore up a little child; and still the face was a quiet, modest face, even in its horror.

Euphame was candid as crystal, sensible, brave, loving, and pious, as such a nature is prone to be even in ignorance, like the Jews who were baptized to John's baptism, though they had not heard of the Lord — yet Euphame was self-concentrated, withdrawn from her neighbours, obstinate. To Euphame, in the crudeness of her youthful views, Katie Crich-ton was something very disreputable and disgraceful; it was like a solid, busy young bee, regarding a flyaway, painted butterfly. Euphame was very diligent, very obedient to Mrs Jonet—not that she feared punishment, but that she was grateful, loved order, and was fond of occupation, and had a grand indifference to pleasure, except in the shape of her visits to her dear old mother in the Trinity; not that the girl was a stoic either— she had a wonderful capacity for pleasure in simple things—-her narrow studies, her limited observations, her dawning associations were sufficient food for a healthful opening mind. True, Euphame had only one strong cord to her heart-strings, and that was the poor, contented old mother in the Trinity—for Euphame was an only child, and her mother was a widow; but that cord was such a cable in a disposition like Euphame's, that knowing no others she wanted no other. When that cable was cut, the heart would drift in wild, wailing loneliness for a season, until the turbid waters settled again into a calm, and God's goodness, Christ's love, the world of her fellow-men, be reflected so visibly there that the mirror would never seem blank.

(To he continued.)

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