Chronicles of the Canongate

Chronicles of the Canongate

CHRONICLES OF THE CANONGATE SIR WALTER SCOTT "Begin and break off in the middle." I have perhaps said enough on former occasions of the misfortunes which led to the dropping of that mask under which I had for a long series of years enjoyed so large a portion of public favour. Through the success of those literary efforts I had been enabled to indulge most of the tastes which a retired person of my station might be supposed to entertain. In the pen of this nameless romancer I seemed to possess something like the secret fountain of coined gold and pearls vouchsafed to the traveller of the Eastern Tale; and no doubt believed that I might venture without silly imprudence to extend my personal expenditure considerably beyond what I should have thought of had my means been limited to the competence which I derived from inheritance with the moderate income of a professional situation. I bought and built and planted and was considered by myself as by the rest of the world in the safe possession of an easy fortune. My riches however like the other riches of this world were liable to accidents under which they were ultimately destined to make unto themselves wings and fly away. The year 1825 so disastrous to many branches of industry and commerce did not spare the market of literature; and the sudden ruin that fell on so many of the booksellers could scarcely have been expected to leave unscathed one whose career had of necessity connected him deeply and extensively with the pecuniary transactions of that profession. In a word almost without one note of premonition I found myself involved in the sweeping catastrophe of the unhappy time and called on to meet the demands of creditors upon commercial establishments with which my fortunes had long been bound up to the extent of no less a sum than one hundred and twenty thousand pounds. The author having however rashly committed his pledges thus largely to the hazards of trading companies it behoved him of course to abide the consequences of his conduct and with whatever feelings he surrendered on the instant every shred of property which he had been accustomed to call his own. It became vested in the hands of gentlemen whose integrity prudence and intelligence were combined with all possible liberality and kindness of disposition and who readily afforded every assistance towards the execution of plans in the success of which the author contemplated the possibility of his ultimate extrication and which were of such a nature that had assistance of this sort been withheld he could have had little prospect of carrying them into effect. Among other resources which occurred was the project of that complete and corrected edition of his Novels and Romances (whose real parentage had of necessity been disclosed at the moment of the commercial convulsions alluded to) which has now advanced with unprecedented favour nearly to its close; but as he purposed also to continue for the behoof of those to whom he was indebted the exercise of his pen in the same path of literature so long as the taste of his countrymen should seem to approve of his efforts it appeared to him that it would have been an idle piece of affectation to attempt getting up a new incognito after his original visor had been thus dashed from his brow. Hence the personal narrative prefixed to the first work of fiction which he put forth after the paternity of the "Waverley Novels" had come to be publicly ascertained; and though many of the particulars originally avowed in that Notice have been unavoidably adverted to in the Prefaces and Notes to some of the preceding volumes of the present collection it is now reprinted as it stood at the time because some interest is generally attached to a coin or medal struck on a special occasion as expressing perhaps more faithfully than the same artist could have afterwards conveyed the feelings of the moment that gave it birth. The Introduction to the first series of Chronicles of the Canongate ran then in these words:-- INTRODUCTION. All who are acquainted with the early history of the Italian stage are aware that Arlecchino is not in his original conception a mere worker of marvels with his wooden sword a jumper in and out of windows as upon our theatre but as his party-coloured jacket implies a buffoon or clown whose mouth far from being eternally closed as amongst us is filled like that of Touchstone with quips and cranks and witty devices very often delivered extempore. It is not easy to trace how he became possessed of his black vizard which was anciently made in the resemblance of the face of a cat; but it seems that the mask was essential to the performance of the character as will appear from the following theatrical anecdote:-- An actor on the Italian stage permitted at the Foire du St. Germain in Paris was renowned for the wild venturous and extravagant wit the brilliant sallies and fortunate repartees with which he prodigally seasoned the character of the party- coloured jester. Some critics whose good-will towards a favourite performer was stronger than their judgment took occasion to remonstrate with the successful actor on the subject of the grotesque vizard. They went wilily to their purpose observing that his classical and Attic wit his delicate vein of humour his happy turn for dialogue were rendered burlesque and ludicrous by this unmeaning and bizarre disguise and that those attributes would become far more impressive if aided by the spirit of his eye and the expression of his natural features. The actor's vanity was easily so far engaged as to induce him to make the experiment. He played Harlequin barefaced but was considered on all hands as having made a total failure. He had lost the audacity which a sense of incognito bestowed and with it all the reckless play of raillery which gave vivacity to his original acting. He cursed his advisers and resumed his grotesque vizard but it is said without ever being able to regain the careless and successful levity which the consciousness of the disguise had formerly bestowed. Perhaps the Author of Waverley is now about to incur a risk of the same kind and endanger his popularity by having laid aside his incognito. It is certainly not a voluntary experiment like that of Harlequin; for it was my original intention never to have avowed these works during my lifetime and the original manuscripts were carefully preserved (though by the care of others rather than mine) with the purpose of supplying the necessary evidence of the truth when the period of announcing it should arrive. [These manuscripts are at present (August 1831) advertised for public sale which is an addition though a small one to other annoyances.] But the affairs of my publishers having unfortunately passed into a management different from their own I had no right any longer to rely upon secrecy in that quarter; and thus my mask like my Aunt Dinah's in "Tristram Shandy" having begun to wax a little threadbare about the chin it became time to lay it aside with a good grace unless I desired it should fall in pieces from my face which was now become likely. Yet I had not the slightest intention of selecting the time and place in which the disclosure was finally made; nor was there any concert betwixt my learned and respected friend LORD MEADOWBANK and myself upon that occasion. It was as the reader is probably aware upon the 23rd February last at a public meeting called for establishing a professional Theatrical Fund in Edinburgh that the communication took place. Just before we sat down to table Lord Meadowbank [One of the Supreme Judges of Scotland termed Lords of Council and Session.] asked me privately whether I was still anxious to preserve my incognito on the subject of what were called the Waverley Novels? I did not immediately see the purpose of his lordship's question although I certainly might have been led to infer it and replied that the secret had now of necessity become known to so many people that I was indifferent on the subject. Lord Meadowbank was thus induced while doing me the great honour of proposing my health to the meeting to say something on the subject of these Novels so strongly connecting them with me as the author that by remaining silent I must have stood convicted either of the actual paternity or of the still greater crime of being supposed willing to receive indirectly praise to which I had no just title. I thus found myself suddenly and unexpectedly placed in the confessional and had only time to recollect that I had been guided thither by a most friendly hand and could not perhaps find a better public opportunity to lay down a disguise which began to resemble that of a detected masquerader. I had therefore the task of avowing myself to the numerous and respectable company assembled as the sole and unaided author of these Novels of Waverley the paternity of which was likely at one time to have formed a controversy of some celebrity for the ingenuity with which some instructors of the public gave their assurance on the subject was extremely persevering. I now think it further necessary to say that while I take on myself all the merits and demerits attending these compositions I am bound to acknowledge with gratitude hints of subjects and legends which I have received from various quarters and have occasionally used as a foundation of my fictitious compositions or woven up with them in the shape of episodes. I am bound in particular to acknowledge the unremitting kindness of Mr. Joseph Train supervisor of excise at Dumfries to whose unwearied industry I have been indebted for many curious traditions and points of antiquarian interest. It was Mr. Train who brought to my recollection the history of Old Mortality although I myself had ...