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being unjust, we have very little evidence of any improvement in Scott's
work due to James, while we know that he did harm not once only. But, as
it stands, the book no doubt exhibits the usual faults, that languishing
of the middle action, for instance, which injures _The Bride of
Lammermoor_ and _The Monastery_, together with the much more common
huddling and improbability of the conclusion. But we know that this last
was put on hurriedly, against the grain, and after the author, disgusted
by the grumblings of others, had relinquished his work; so that we
cannot greatly wonder.

It is impossible here to depict in detail Scott's domestic life during
the years which passed since we last noticed it, and which represent the
most flourishing time of his worldly circumstances. The estate of
Abbotsford gradually grew, always at fancy prices, till the catastrophe
itself finally prevented an expenditure of £40,000 in a lump on more
land. The house grew likewise to its hundred and fifty feet of front,
its slightly confused but not disagreeable external muddle of styles,
and reproductions, and incorporated fragments, and its internal blend of
museum and seignorial hall. It was practically completed and splendidly
'house-warmed' to celebrate the marriage (3rd February 1825) of the
heir, on whom both house and estate were settled, with no very fortunate
result. Between it and Castle Street the family oscillated as usual,
when summer and winter, term and vacation, called them. At Abbotsford
open house was always kept to a Noah's ark-full of visitors, invited and
uninvited, high and low, and Castle Street saw more modest but equally
cordial and constant hospitalities, in which the Lockharts were pretty
frequent participators; while their country home at Chiefswood was a
sort of escaping place for Sir Walter when visitors made Abbotsford
unbearable. The 'Abbotsford Hunt' yearly rejoiced the neighbours; and
though, as his health grew weaker, Scott's athletic and sporting
exercises were necessarily and with insidious encroachment curtailed, he
still did all he could in this way. In 1822 there was the great visit of
George IV. to Scotland, wherein Sir Walter took a part which was only
short, if short at all, of principal; and of this Lockhart has left one
of his liveliest and most pleasantly subacid accounts. Visits to England
were not unfrequent; and at last, in the summer of 1825, Scott made a
journey, which was a kind of triumphal progress, to Ireland, with his
daughter Anne and Lockhart as companions. The party returned by way of
the Lakes, and the triumph was, as it were, formally wound up at
Windermere in a regatta, with Wilson for admiral of the lake and Canning
for joint-occupant of the triumphal boat. 'It was roses, roses all the
way,' till in the autumn of the year the rue began, according to its
custom, to take their place.

The immediate cause of the disaster was Scott's secret partnership in
the house of Ballantyne & Co., which, dragged down by the greater
concerns of Constable & Co. in Edinburgh and Hurst, Robinson, & Co. in
London, failed for the nominal amount of £117,000 at the end of January
1826.[34] Their assets were, in the first place, claims on the two other
firms, which realised a mere trifle; and, in the second place, the
property, the genius, the life, and the honour of Sir Walter Scott.

When one has to deal briefly with very complicated and much-debated
matters, there is nothing more important than to confine the dealing to
as few points as possible. We may, I think, limit the number here to
two, - the nature and amount of the indebtedness itself, and the manner
in which it was met. The former, except so far as the total figures on
the debtor side are concerned, is the question most in dispute. That the
printing business of Ballantyne & Co. (the publishing business had lost
heavily, but it had long ceased to be a drain), in the ordinary literal
sense owed £117,000 - that is to say, that it had lost that sum in
business, or that the partners had overdrawn to that amount - nobody
contends. Lockhart's account, based on presumably accurate information,
not merely from his father-in-law's papers, but from Cadell, Constable's
partner, is that the losses were due partly to the absolutely
unbusinesslike conduct of the concern, and the neglect for many years to
come to a clear understanding what its profits were and what they were
not; partly to the ruinous system of eternally interchanged and renewed
bills, so that, for instance, sums which Constable nominally paid years
before were not actually liquidated at the time of the smash; but most
of all to a proceeding which seems to pass the bounds of recklessness on
one side, and to enter pretty deeply into those of fraud on the other.
This is the celebrated affair of the counter-bills, things, according to
Lockhart, representing no consideration or value received of any kind,
but executed as a sort of collateral security to Constable when he
discounted any of John Ballantyne's innumerable acceptances, and
intended for use only if the real and original bills were not met.
Still, according to Lockhart, this system was continued long after there
was any special need for it, and a mass of counter-bills, for which the
Ballantynes had never had the slightest value, and the amount of which
they had either discharged or stood accountable for already on other
documents, was in whole or part flung upon the market by Constable in
the months of struggle which preceded his fall, and ranked against
Ballantyne & Co., that is to say, Scott, when that fall came.

This account, when published in the first edition of Lockhart's _Life_,
provoked strong protests from the representatives of the Ballantynes,
and a rather acrimonious pamphlet war followed, in which Lockhart is
accused by some not merely of acrimony, but of a supercilious and
contemptuous fashion of dealing with his opponents. He made, however, no
important retractations later, and it is fair to say that not one of his
allegations has ever been disproved by documentary evidence, as
certainly ought to have been possible while all the documents were at
hand. Nor did the _Memoirs_ of Constable, published many years later,
supply what was and is missing; nor does Mr. Lang, with all his pains,
seem to have found anything decisive. The assertions opposed to
Lockhart's are that the 'counter-bill' story is not true, and that the
distresses of Ballantyne & Co., and the dangerous extent to which they
were involved in complicated bill transactions with Constable, were at
least partly due to reckless drawings by the senior partner for his land
purchases and other private expenses. Between the two it is impossible
to decide with absolute certainty.[32] All that can be said is this.
First, considering that the whole original capital of the firm was
Scott's, that he had repeatedly saved it from ruin by his own exertions
and credit, and that a very large part of the legitimate grist that came
to its mill was supplied by his introduction of work to be printed, he
was certainly entitled to the lion's share of any profit that was
actually earned. Secondly, the neglect to balance accounts, and the
reckless fashion of interweaving acceptance with drawing and drawing
with acceptance, had, as we know, been repeatedly protested against by
him. Thirdly, his private expenditure, very moderate at Castle Street,
and not recklessly lavish even at Abbotsford, must have been amply
covered by his official and private income _plus_ no great proportion of
the always large and latterly immense supplies which for nearly twenty
years he derived from his pen. It is impossible to see that, except by
his carelessness in neglecting to ascertain from time to time the exact
liabilities of the firm, he had added to the original fault of joining
it, or had in any other way deserved the blow that fell upon him. No
one can believe, certainly no one has ever proved, that his earnings,
and his salaries, and the value of his property, if capitalised, would
not have covered, and far more than covered, the cost of Abbotsford,
land and house, the settlements on his children, and the household
expenses of the whole fifteen years and more since he became a
housekeeper there. While, as for the printing business itself, it
admittedly ought to have made a handsome profit from first to last, and
certainly did make a handsome profit as soon as it fell under reasonably
business-like management afterwards.

There remains the said 'original fault' of engaging in the business at
all, and that, I think, can never be denied. The very introduction of
joint-stock companies, to which, in part, Scott owed his ruin, has made
a confusion between professional and commercial occupations which did
not then exist; but even now I think it would hardly be considered
decent for a public servant, discharging judicial functions, to carry on
actual business in a private trading concern. Moreover, the secrecy
which Scott observed - to such an extent that his family and his most
intimate friends did not know the facts - could come from nothing but a
sense of something amiss, and certainly led to the commission of not a
little that was so. Scott had to conceal the actual and very material
truth when he applied to the Duke of Buccleuch for the guarantee that
saved him a dozen years earlier. He had to conceal it from the various
persons who employed Ballantyne & Co., and were induced to do so by him.
He had to conceal it when he executed those settlements on his son's
marriage, which certainly would have been affected had it been known
that the whole of his fortune was subject to an unlimited liability. The
mystery of his unconsciousness of all this may be left pretty much
where Lockhart, with full acknowledgment, left it. I have said that his
action seems to have originated partly in a blind and causeless fear of
poverty, which, as blind and causeless fear so often does, made him run
into the very danger he tried to avoid, partly in an incomprehensible
partiality for the Ballantynes.[30] We have no evidence, in any degree
trustworthy, that during the entire term of his connection with the firm
he derived any positive profit from it at all commensurate with his
actual sinkings of money and his sacrifices and exertions of various
kinds. The whole thing is, once more, a mystery, and the best comment is
perhaps the simple one that the means which a man takes to ruin or
seriously damage himself generally do seem a mystery to others, and
probably are so to himself. Nor is there anything more unusual in the
colossal irony of the situation, when we find Scott, just before his own
ruin, and in the act of giving his friend Terry the actor a guarantee
(which, as it happened, he had to pay), writing[36] words of the most
excellent sense on the rashness of engaging in commercial undertakings
without sufficient capital, the madness of dealing in bills, and his own
resolve to have nothing to do with any business carried on 'by discounts
and renewals.' The irony, let it be repeated, is colossal; yet we meet
it, we commit it, every day.

It is painful to read that during the months of uncertainty which
preceded the actual crash, Scott threw the helve after the hatchet by
charging himself personally, first, with an advance, or, at least, bond
for £5000, and then for another of double that amount,[29] to help two
firms, Constable and Hurst & Robinson, whose combined indebtedness was
over half a million. But the fact of his doing so was sufficient
indication of the spirit in which he would meet the crash of Ballantyne
& Co. itself. The whole of the _Diary_ (_v. infra_) of the period is one
long illustration (without the slightest pretentiousness or
self-consciousness) of the famous line of perhaps his own greatest
poetical passage -

'No thought was there of dastard flight.'

He had made up his mind, before it was certainly imminent, that
bankruptcy was not to be accepted; evasion of any more thorough kind, if
it occurred, he dismissed at once as not even to be thought of. Yet it
is perhaps to be regretted that the mode in which the disaster was
actually met, heroic as it was, was substituted for that of which he had
at first thought - the simple throwing up of every scrap of his property,
including all but a bare subsistence out of his official incomes, which
could not have been touched without difficulty. Had he done, or been
able to do this, had he shaken off the vampire in stone and lime and
hungry soil which had so long sucked his blood, had he sold the library,
and the 'Gabions of Jonathan Oldbuck,'[35] and the Japanese papers, and
the Byron vase, and the armour, had he mortgaged his incomes by help of
insurance, sold his copyrights outright, and, in short, realised
everything, it does not seem absolutely certain that he might not have
paid off his creditors in full, or, at least, left but a small balance
to be discharged by less superhuman and fatal exertions than those
actually made. The time was not a good time for selling, no doubt; but,
on the other hand, the interest in Abbotsford and its master was still
at its height, and the enthusiasm, which actually inspired one anonymous
offer of thirty thousand pounds on loan in a lump, would probably have
made good bargains for him on sales. He would then have been a free, or
nearly a free man, with his own exertions untrammelled, or nearly so;
and, serious as were the warnings that his health had given or received,
the actual history of the next six or seven years seems to show that,
had the machine been driven with less unsparing ferocity, and at a more
moderate rate, it might have lasted for years, and even restored its
master to competence, if not to wealth.

Unfortunately, if nothing else - family affection and perhaps also family
pride did still, it may be feared, supply something else - the unlucky
settlement of Abbotsford stood in the way. Legally, it is true or at
least probable, this settlement might have been upset; but the trustees
of Mrs. Walter Scott would probably also have felt bound to resist this,
and leave to unsettle could only have been obtained on the humiliating
and even slightly disgraceful plea that the granter, being practically
insolvent at the time, was acting beyond his rights. It seems to have
been proposed by the Bank of Scotland, during the negotiations for the
arrangement which followed, that this should be done; and the reasons
which dictated Scott's refusal would have equally, no doubt, prevented
him from doing it in the other case.

Accordingly, it was resolved, as he declined to go into bankruptcy, that
his whole property should, under a procedure half legal, half amicable,
be vested in trustees for the benefit of his creditors; nothing except
the Castle Street house and some minor chattels being actually sold. He,
on the other hand, undertook to devote to the liquidation of the balance
of his debts all the proceeds of his future work, except a bare
maintenance for himself and (on a reduced scale) for Abbotsford. How
'this fatal venture of mistaken chivalry' (to borrow a most applicable
phrase of Kingsley's about another matter) was carried out we shall see,
but how grossly unfair it was to Scott himself must appear at once. In
return for his sacrifices he had no real legal protection; any creditor
could, as a Jew named Abud actually did, threaten at any time to force
bankruptcy unless he were paid at once and in full. Instead of retaining
(as he would have done had the whole of his property been actually
surrendered, and had he allowed the debts which came with the law to go
with it) complete control of his future earnings and exertions, and
making, as he might have made, restitution by instalments as a free
gift, he was in such a plight that any creditor was entitled to regard
him as a kind of thrall, paying debt by service as a matter of course,
and deserving neither rest, nor gratitude, nor commendation. One really
sometimes feels inclined to regret that Abud or somebody else was not
more relentless - to pray for a Sir Giles Overreach or a Shylock among
the creditors. For such a one, by his apparently malevolent but really
beneficent grasping, would have in effect liberated the bondsman, who,
as it was, was compelled to toil at a hopeless task to his dying day,
and to hasten that dying day by the attempt.

Mention has been made above of a certain _Diary_ which is our main
authority, and, indeed, makes other authorities merely illustrative for
a great part of the few and evil last years of Sir Walter's life. It was
begun before the calamities, and just after the return from Ireland,
being pleasantly christened 'Gurnal,' after a slight early phonetic
indulgence of his daughter Sophia's. It was suggested - and Lockhart
seems to think that it was effective - as a relief from the labour of
_Napoleon_, which went slightly against the grain, even before it became
bond-work. It may have been a doubtful prescription, for 'the cud[28] of
sweet and bitter fancy' is dangerous food. But it has certainly done
_us_ good. When Mr. Douglas obtained leave to publish it as a whole,
there were, I believe, wiseacres who dreaded the effect of the
publication, thinking that the passages which Lockhart himself had left
out might in some way diminish and belittle our respect for Scott. They
had no need to trouble themselves. It was already, as published in part
in the Life, one of the most pathetically interesting things in
biographical literature. This quality was increased by the complete
publication, while it also became a new proof that 'good blood cannot
lie,' that the hero is a hero even in utterances kept secret from the
very valet. If, as has happened before and might conceivably happen
again, some cataclysm destroyed all Scott's other work, we should still
have in this not merely an admirable monument of literature, but the
picture of a character not inhumanly flawless, yet almost superhumanly
noble; of the good man struggling against adversity, not, indeed, with a
sham pretence of stoicism, but with that real fortitude of which
stoicism is too often merely a caricature and a simulation. It is
impossible not to recur to the _Marmion_ passage already quoted as one
reads the account of the successive misfortunes, the successive
expedients resorted to, the absolute determination never to cry

It is from the _Diary_ that we learn his own complete knowledge of the
fact urged above, that it would have been better for him if his
creditors had been in appearance less kind. 'If they drag me into
court,' he says,[31] 'instead of going into this scheme of arrangement,
they would do themselves a great injury, and _perhaps eventually do the
good, though it would give me great pain_.' The _Diary_, illustrated as
it is by the excellent selections from Skene's _Reminiscences_ and other
scattered or unpublished matter which Mr. Douglas has appended, exhibits
the whole history of this period with a precision that could not
otherwise have been hoped for, especially as pecuniary misfortunes were
soon, according to the fashion of this world, to be complicated by
others. For some two years before the catastrophe Lady Scott had been in
weak health; and though the misfortune itself does not seem to have
affected her much after the first shock, she grew rapidly worse in the
spring of 1826, and, her asthma changing into dropsy, died at Abbotsford
during Scott's absence in Edinburgh, when his work began in May. His
successive references to her illness, and the final and justly-famous
passage on her death, are excellent examples of the spirit which
pervades this part of the _Diary_. This spirit is never unmanly, but
displays throughout, and occasionally, as we see, to his own
consciousness, that strange yet not uncommon phenomenon which is well
expressed in a French phrase, _il y a quelque chose de cassé_, and which
frequently comes upon men after or during the greater misfortunes of
life. Neither in his references to this, nor in those to another
threatened, though as yet deferred blow, expected from the
ever-declining health of the Lockharts' eldest child, the 'Hugh
Littlejohn' of the _Tales of a Grandfather_, is there any tone of
whining on the one hand, or any mark of insensibility on the other. But
there is throughout something like a confession, stoutly avoided in
words, but hinted in tone and current of quotation and sentiment, that
the strength, though not the courage, is hardly equal to the day. The
_Diary_, both here and elsewhere, is full of good things, pleasant wit
still, shrewd criticism of life, quaint citation of wise old Scots saws
and good modern instances, happy judgment of men and books, - above all,
that ever-present touch of literature, without mere bookishness, which
is as delightful to those who can taste it as any of Scott's gifts. And
perhaps, too, we may trace, even behind this, a secret sense that, as
his own Habakkuk Mucklewrath has it in the dying curse on Claverhouse,
the wish of his heart had indeed been granted to his loss, and that the
hope of his own pride had gone too near to destroy him.


[28] Some say £130,000, but this seems to include the £10,000 mortgage
on Abbotsford. This, however, was a private affair of Scott's own, not a
transaction of the firm.

[29] I have consulted high authority on the legal side of this
counter-bill story, and have been informed (with the expected caution
that, the facts being so doubtful, the law is hard to give) that under
Scots law these counter-bills, if they existed, would probably be
allowed to rank, supposing that twenty shillings in the pound had not
been paid on the first set, and to an extent sufficient to make up that
sum. But Lockhart's allegation clearly is that they were so used as to
charge Scott's estate to the extent of _forty_ shillings in the pound.

[30] John Ballantyne had died in 1821, before the mischief was punished,
but after it was done.

[31] _Lockhart_, vii. 370, 371.

[32] I am not certain whether the second advance, which was secured by
mortgage on Abbotsford, included the first or not. Probably it did.

[33] A pet name for his 'curios.'

[34] Our now-accepted texts, of course, read 'food'; but no one who
remembers the pleasant use which Sir Walter himself has made of the
other reading in the Introduction to _Quentin Durward_ will readily give
it up.

[35] As Scott, like Swift and Shakespeare, like Thackeray and Fielding,
never hesitated at a touch of grim humour even though it might border on
grotesque, he himself would probably not have missed the coincidence
of -

'Though _bill_men ply the ghastly blow,'

which suggests itself only too tragi-comically.

[36] _Journal_, Feb. 3, 1826, p. 103, ed. Douglas; _Lockhart_, viii.
216, 217.



It has been mentioned that when Scott returned from Ireland, and before
his misfortunes came upon him, he had already engaged in two works of
magnitude, a new novel, _Woodstock_, and a _Life of Napoleon_, planned
upon a very large scale, for which Constable made great preparations,
and from which he expected enormous profits. After the catastrophe it
became a question whether Constable's estate could claim the fulfilment
of these contracts, or whether the profits of them could be devoted
wholly to the liquidation of Scott's, or rather Ballantyne & Co.'s, own
debts. The completion of _Woodstock_ was naturally delayed until this
point was settled. But from the very moment when Sir Walter had resolved
to devote himself to the heroic but apparently hopeless task of paying
off his nominal liabilities in full, he arranged a system of work upon
these two books, and especially upon the _Napoleon_, which exceeded in
dogged determination anything that even he had hitherto done. The novel
was, of course, to him comparative child's play: he had written novels
before in six weeks or thereabouts all told, though his impaired vigour,
the depression of his spirits, and the sense of labouring for the mere
purpose of pouring the results into a sieve, made things harder now. But
the _Napoleon_, though he had made some preparation for this kind of
writing by his elaborate and multifarious editorial work, especially by
that on Dryden and Swift, was to a great extent new; and it required,
what was always irksome to him, elaborate reading up of books and
documents for the special purpose. No man has ever utilised the results
of previous reading for his own pleasure better than Scott, and few men,
not mere professed book-grubbers, have ever had vaster stores of it. But

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Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 8 of 12)