Heroes of Scotland


Sir Walter Scott,
page 11 of 17

freshness of former days: the characters, like faces seen far off, present less distinct individuality, and the style; while preserving its fine simplicity, rises less naturally to the language of pathos or passion. But in these works of his closing years, Scott is inferior only to himself. With the exception of “The Monastery” and “St. Ronan’s Well,” the novels which he produced during the next six years are works of great artistic merit and historical value. The portrait of Mary in “The Abbot,” and of Elizabeth in “Kenilworth,” enabled readers to compare the two rival queens, while the “Fortunes of Nigel” introduced them to the court and conversation of the pedantic, impecunious James. The “Pirate,” in spite of its feeble plot, charmed the public by its splendid pictures of rock and sea. In turning his attention to French history, it was natural that he should seize on the two most extraordinary human contrasts that ever appeared on one stage side by side—Charles the Bold and Louis XI. In France the popularity of “Quentin Durward” was unbounded. Beyond the Channel, the Scottish novelist found a new world of admirers, not less enthusiastic than the readers of his native land. The tales of the Crusaders prepared readers for fresh triumphs in a field of history comparatively unknown. Scott‘s imagination kindled again in these brilliant pictures of Western chivalry in the glowing East, and his readers rejoiced as the horizon receded and distant tracts of time rose to view.

He had just concluded these Eastern romances when the crash came which involved his fortunes in irreparable ruin. Such a crisis had long been inevitable. Represented by bills, which his publishers were unable to discharge, his wealth had never in fact any real foundation. He was besides, as we have seen, connected with the great printing house of James Ballantyne & Co., which was only kept floating by Scott’s promissory notes. While he was beautifying his Tweedside estate, and dispensing lordly hospitalities to illustrious visitors, invisible agencies were slowly undermining the airy fabric of his prosperity. In the great commercial crisis of 1825-6, Constable, his Edinburgh publisher, became bankrupt, and the world discovered with astonishment and regret that the liabilities of Scott, in connection with this house alone, amounted to £70,000. By the collapse of the great printing establishment of Ballantyne & Co., his personal obligations reached the enormous sum of £117,000. How rapidly the position of the popular author had changed during a short half-century! The poet Goldsmith died £2,000 in debt, and Johnson exclaimed, “Was ever poet so trusted before?” Lockhart, with natural bias, has laboured hard to vindicate his father-in-law‘s share in the disastrous speculations, but impartial posterity admits that Sir Walter‘s ambitious dreams conquered for a time his native sagacity and prudence. Let us confess also that Scott, who had begun and for a time followed literature for its own sake, had, under financial pressure, become the victim of “that last infirmity of noble minds.” The success of a novel enabled him to buy an estate, to equip a museum, or to build a tower, and frequently the costly scheme anticipated the appearance of the book. Scott’s extravagance assumed a more elegant form than that of most men of genius, but it was none the less lavish and baneful. All at once he was awakened from his beautiful dream to look at things in the light.

Thus did he communicate the dread fact to his friend Skene: “Skene, I have something to speak to you about. Be so good as to look in on me as you go to the Parliament House to-morrow.” When Skene called, he found Scott


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