Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

HENRY WEBER, a poor German scholar, . . . escaping to this country in 1804 from misfortunes in his own, excited Scott's compassion, and was thenceforth furnished, through his means, with literary employment of various sorts. Weber was a man of considerable learning; but Scott, as was his custom, appears to have formed an exaggerated notion of his capacity, and certainly countenanced him, to his own severe cost, in several most unfortunate undertakings. When not engaged in things of a more ambitious character, he had acted for ten years as his protector's amanuensis, and when the family was in Edinburgh, he very often dined with them. There was something very interesting in his appearance and manners; he had a fair, open countenance, in which the honesty and the enthusiasm of his nation were alike visible; his demeanour was gentle and modest; and he had not only a stock of curious antiquarian knowledge, but the reminiscences, which he detailed with amusing simplicity, of an early life chequered with many strange enough adventures. He was, in short, much a favourite with Scott and all the household, and was invited to dine with them so frequently, chiefly because his friend was aware that he had an unhappy propensity to drinking, and was anxious to keep him away from places where he might have been more likely to indulge it. This vice, however, had been growing on him; and of late Scott had found it necessary to make some rather severe remonstrances about habits which were at once injuring his health and interrupting his literary industry.

They had, however, parted kindly when Scott left Edinburgh at Christmas 1813 — and the day after his return Weber attended him as usual in his library, being employed in transcribing extracts during several hours, while his friend, seated over against him, continued working at the Life of Swift. The light beginning to fail, Scott threw himself back in his chair, and was about to ring for candles, when he observed the German's eyes fixed upon him with an unusual solemnity of expression.

'Weber,' he said, 'what's the matter with you?' 'Mr. Scott,' said Weber rising, 'you have long insulted me, and I can bear it no longer. I have brought a pair of pistols with me, and must insist on your taking one of them instantly;'

and with that he produced the weapons, which had been deposited under his chair, and laid one of them on Scott's manuscript.

'You are mistaken, I think', said Scott, 'in your way of setting about this affair — but no matter. It can, however, be no part of your object to annoy Mrs. Scott and the children; therefore, if you please, we will put the pistols into the drawer till after dinner, and then arrange to go out together like gentlemen.'

Weber answered with equal coolness, 'I believe that will be better', and laid the second pistol also on the table. Scott locked them both in his desk, and said,

'I am glad you have felt the propriety of what I suggested — let me only request further that nothing may occur while we are at dinner to give my wife any suspicion of what has been passing.'

Weber again assented, and Scott withdrew to his dressing room, from which he immediately dispatched a message to one of Weber's intimate companions — and then dinner was served, and Weber joined the family circle as usual. He conducted himself with perfect composure, and everything seemed to go on in the ordinary way, until whisky and hot water being produced, Scott, instead of inviting his guest to help himself, mixed two moderate tumblers of toddy, and handed one of them to Weber, who, upon that, started up with a furious countenance, but instantly sat down again, and when Mrs. Scott expressed her fear that he was ill, answered placidly that he was liable to spasms, but that the pain was gone. He then took the glass, eagerly gulped down its contents, and pushed it back to Scott. At this moment the friend who had been sent for made his appearance, and Weber, on seeing him enter the room, rushed past him and out of the house, without stopping to put on his hat. The friend, who pursued instantly, came up with him at the end of the street, and did all he could to soothe his agitation, but in vain. The same evening he was obliged to be put into a strait waistcoat; and though, in a few days, he exhibited such symptoms of recovery that he was allowed to go by himself to pay a visit in the north of England, he there soon relapsed, and continued afterwards a hopeless lunatic, being supported to the end of his life in June 1818, at Scott's expense in an asylum at York.

Lockhart, Scott, iii. 109-111.

HAPPENING to pass through Edinburgh in June 1814 I dined one day with William Menzies (now the Honourable William Menzies, one of the Supreme judges at the Cape of Good Hope), whose residence was then in George Street, situated very near to, and at right angles with, North Castle Street. It was a party of very young persons, most of them, like Menzies and myself, destined for the bar of Scotland, all gay and thoughtless, enjoying the first flush of manhood, with little remembrance of the yesterday or care of the morrow. When my companion's worthy father and uncle, after seeing two or three bottle go round, left the juveniles to themselves, the weather being hot, we adjourned to a library which had one large window looking northwards. After carousing here for an hour or more, I observed that a shade had come over the aspect of my friend, who happened to be placed immediately opposite to myself, and said something that intimated a fear of his being unwell.

'No,' said he, 'I shall be well enough presently, if you will only let me sit where you are, and take my chair; for there is a confounded hand in sight of me here, which has often bothered me before, and now it won't let me fill my glass with a good will.'

I rose to change places with him accordingly, and he pointed out this hand which, like the writing on Belshazzar's wall, disturbed his hour of hilarity.

'Since we sat down,' he said, 'I have been watching it — it fascinates my eyes — it never stops — page after page is finished and thrown on that heap of MS., and still it goes on unwearied — and so it will be till candles are brought in, and God knows how long after that. It is the same every night — I can't stand the sight of it when I am not at my books.'
'Some stupid, dogged engrossing clerk, probably,' exclaimed myself, or some other giddy youth in our society.
'No, boys,' said our host, 'I well know what hand it is — 'tis Walter Scott's.'

This was the hand that, in the evenings of three summer weeks, wrote the two last volumes of Waverley.

Lockhart, Scott,. iii. 128-129.

BEFORE breakfast was over the post-bag arrived, and its contents were so numerous that Lord Melville asked Scott what election was on hand, not doubting that there must be some very particular reason for such a shoal of letters. He answered that it was much the same most days, and added,

'Though no one has kinder friends in the franking line, and though Freeling and Croker especially are always ready to stretch the point of privilege in my favour, I am nevertheless a fair contributor to the revenue, for I think my bill for letters seldom comes under £150 a year; and as to coach-parcels, they are a perfect ruination.'

He then told with high merriment a disaster that had lately befallen him.

'One morning last spring', he said, 'I opened a huge lump of a dispatch, without looking how it was addressed, never doubting that it had travelled under some omnipotent frank like the First Lord of the Admiralty's, when, lo and behold, the contents proved to be a MS. play, by a young lady of New York, who kindly requested me to read and correct it, equip it with prologue and epilogue, procure for it a favourable reception from the manager of Drury Lane, and make Murray or Constable bleed handsomely for the copyright; and on inspecting the cover, I found that I had been charged five pounds odd for the postage. This was bad enough, but there was no help, so I groaned and submitted. A fortnight or so after, another packet of not less formidable bulk arrived, and I was absent enough to break its seal too without examination. Conceive my horror when out jumped the same identical tragedy of The Cherokee Lovers, with a second epistle from the authoress, stating that, as the winds had been boisterous, she feared the vessel entrusted with her former communication might have foundered, and therefore judged it prudent to forward a duplicate.'

Lockhart, Scott,. iv. 195-196.

THE accounts of Scott's condition circulated in Edinburgh in the course of this April were so alarming that I should not have thought of accepting his invitation to revisit Abbotsford unless John Ballantyne had given me better tidings about the end of the month. He informed me that his 'illustrious friend' (for so both the Ballantynes usually spoke of him) was so much recovered as to have resumed his usual literary tasks, though with this difference, that he now, for the first time in his life, found it necessary to employ the hand of another. I have now before me a letter of the 8th April, in which Scott says to Constable,

'Yesterday I began to dictate, and did it easily and with comfort. This is a great point, but I must proceed by little and little; last night I had a slight return of the enemy, but baffled him;' and he again writes to the bookseller on the 11th — 'John Ballantyne is here, and returns with copy, which my increasing strength permits me to hope I may now furnish regularly.'

The copy (as MS. for the press is technically called) which Scott was thus dictating, was that of The Bride of Lammermoor; and his amanuenses were William Laidlaw and John Ballantyne, of whom he preferred the latter when he could be at Abbotsford, on account of the superior rapidity of his pen, and also because John kept his pen to the paper without interruption, and though with many an arch twinkle in his eyes, and now and then an audible smack of his lips, had resolution to work on like a well-trained clerk; whereas good Laidlaw entered with such keen zest into the interest of the story as it flowed from the author's lips, that he could not suppress exclamations of surprise and delight 'Gude keep us a'!— the like o' that!—eh sirs!'— and so forth, which did not promote dispatch. I have often, however, in the sequel, heard both these secretaries describe the astonishment with which they were equally affected when Scott began this experiment. The affectionate Laidlaw beseeching him to stop dictating, when his audible suffering filled every pause,

'Nay, Willie,' he answered, 'only see that the doors are fast. I would fain keep all the cry as well as all the wool to ourselves; but as to giving over work, that can only be when I am in woolen.'

John Ballantyne told me that after the first day he always took care to have a dozen of pens made before he seated himself opposite to the sofa on which Scott lay, and that though he often turned himself on his pillow with a groan of torment, he usually continued the sentence in the same breath. But when dialogue of peculiar animation was in progress, spirit seemed to triumph altogether over matter; he arose from his couch and walked up and down the room, raising and lowering his voice, and as it were acting the parts. It was in this fashion that Scott produced the far greater portion of The Bride of Lammermoor, the whole of The Legend of Montrose, and almost the whole of Ivanhoe.

Lockhart, Scott,. iv. 256.

On receiving the poet on the quarter-deck, his Majesty called for a bottle of Highland whisky, and having drunk his health in this national liquor, desired a glass to be filled for him. Sir Walter, after draining his own bumper, made a request that the King would condescend to bestow on him the glass out of which his Majesty had just drunk his health; and this being granted, the precious vessel was immediately wrapped up and carefully deposited in what he conceived to be the safest part of his dress. So he returned with it to Castle Street; but, to say nothing at this moment of graver distractions, on reaching his house he found a guest established there of a sort rather different from the usual visitors of the time. The poet Crabbe, to whom he had been introduced when last in London by Mr. Murray of Albermarle Street, after repeatedly promising to follow up the acquaintance by an excursion to the north, had at last arrived in the midst of these tumultuous preparations for the royal advent. Notwithstanding all such impediments, he found his quarters ready for him, and Scott entering, wet and hurried, embraced the venerable man with brotherly affection. The royal gift was forgotten — the ample skirt of the coat within which it had been packed, and which he had hitherto held cautiously in front of his person, slipped back to its more usual position — he sat down beside Crabbe, and the glass was crushed to atoms. His scream and gesture made his wife conclude that he had sat down on a pair of scissors, or the like; but very little harm had been done except the breaking of the glass, of which alone he had been thinking.

Lockhart, Scott,. v. 195.

SOON after his arrival at Naples, Sir Walter went with his physician and one or two friends to the great museum. It happened that on the same day a large collection of students and Italian literati were assembled in one of the rooms to discuss some newly discovered manuscripts. It was soon known that the 'Wizard of the North' was there, and a deputation was sent immediately to request him to honour them by presiding at their session. At this time Scott was a wreck, with a memory that retained nothing for a moment, and limbs almost as helpless as an infant's. He was dragging about among the relics of Pompeii, taking no interest in any thing he saw, when the request was made known to him through his physician.

'No, no,' said he, 'I know nothing of their lingo. Tell them I am not well enough to come.'

He loitered on, and in about half an hour he turned to Dr. H, and said, 'Who was that you said wanted to see me?'The doctor explained. 'I'll go,' said he, 'they shall see me if they wish it;' and against the advice of his friends, who feared it would be too much for his strength, he mounted the staircase, and made his appearance at the door. A burst of enthusiastic cheers welcomed him on the threshold, and forming two lines, many of them on their knees, they seized his hands as he passed, kissed them, thanked him in their passionate language far the delight with which he had filled the world, and placed him in the chair with the most fervent expressions of gratitude for his condescension. The discussion went on; but not understanding a syllable of the language Scott was soon wearied, and his friends observing it, pleaded the state of his health as an apology, and he rose to take his leave. These enthusiastic children of the south crowded once more around him, and with exclamations of affection and even tears kissed his hands once more, assisted his tottering steps, and sent after him a confused murmur of blessings as the door closed on his retiring form. It is described by the writer as the most affecting scene he had ever witnessed.

N. P. Willis, Pencillings by the Way (1835), iii. 97-99.

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