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Walter Scott: The Keepsake Stories

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[1. My Aunt Margaret's Mirror]


 The species of publication which has come
to be generally known by the title of _Annual_,
being a miscellany of prose and verse, equipped
with numerous engravings, and put forth every
year about Christmas, had flourished for a long
while in Germany, before it was imitated in
this country by an enterprising bookseller, a
German by birth, Mr Ackermann. The rapid
success of his work, as is the custom of the
time, gave birth to a host of rivals, and, among
others, to an Annual styled The Keepsake,
the first volume of which appeared in 1828,
and attracted much notice, chiefly in consequence
of the very uncommon splendour of
its illustrative accompaniments. The expenditure
which the spirited proprietors lavished
on this magnificent volume, is understood to
have been not less than from ten to twelve
thousand pounds sterling!

 Various gentlemen of such literary reputation
that any one might think it an honour to be
associated with them, had been announced as
contributors to this Annual, before application
was made to me to assist in it; and I accordingly
placed with much pleasure at the Editor's
disposal a few fragments, originally designed
to have been worked into the Chronicles
of the Canongate, besides a MS. Drama, the
long-neglected performance of my youthful
days---The House of Aspen.

 The Keepsake for 1828 included, however,
only three of these little prose tales---of which
the first in order was that entitled ``My Aunt
Margaret's Mirror.'' By way of _introduction_
to this, when now included in a general collection
of my lucubrations, I have only to say, that
it is a mere transcript, or at least with very little
embellishment, of a story that I remembered
being struck with in my childhood, when told
at the fireside by a lady of eminent virtues,
and no inconsiderable share of talent, one of
the ancient and honourable house of Swinton.
She was a kind relation of my own, and met
her death in a manner so shocking, being killed
in a fit of insanity by a female attendant who
had been attached to her person for half a lifetime,
that I cannot now recall her memory,
child as I was when the catastrophe occurred,
without a painful re-awakening of perhaps the
first images of horror that the scenes of real
life stamped on my mind.

 This good spinster had in her composition a
strong vein of the superstitious, and was pleased,
among other fancies, to read alone in her
chamber by a taper fixed in a candlestick which
she had had formed out of a human skull.
One night this strange piece of furniture acquired
suddenly the power of locomotion, and,
after performing some odd circles on her chimney-piece,
fairly leaped on the floor, and continued
to roll about the apartment. Mrs Swinton
calmly proceeded to the adjoining room
for another light, and had the satisfaction to
penetrate the mystery on the spot. Rats
abounded in the ancient building she inhabited,
and one of these had managed to ensconce
itself within her favourite _memento mori_. Though
thus endowed with a more than feminine share
of nerve, she entertained largely that belief in
supernaturals, which in those times was not
considered as sitting ungracefully on the grave
and aged of her condition; and the story of
the Magic Mirror was one for which she vouched
with particular confidence, alleging indeed
that one of her own family had been an eye-witness
of the incidents recorded in it.

  ``I tell the tale as it was told to me.''

 Stories enow of much the same cast will
present themselves to the recollection of such
of my readers as have ever dabbled in a species
of lore to which I certainly gave more hours,
at one period of my life, than I should gain any
credit by confessing.

_August_, 1831.


                   ``There are times
 When Fancy plays her gambols, in despite
 Even of our watchful senses, when in sooth
 Substance seems shadow, shadow substance seems,
 When the broad, palpable, and mark'd partition,
 'Twixt that which is and is not, seems dissolved,
 As if the mental eye gain'd power to gaze
 Beyond the limits of the existing world.
 Such hours of shadowy dreams I better love
 Than all the gross realities of life.''

 My Aunt Margaret was one of that respected
sisterhood, upon whom devolve all the trouble and
solicitude incidental to the possession of children,
excepting only that which attends their entrance
into the world. We were a large family, of very
different dispositions and constitutions. Some were
dull and peevish---they were sent to Aunt Margaret
to be amused; some were rude, romping, and
boisterous---they were sent to Aunt Margaret to
be kept quiet, or rather, that their noise might be
removed out of hearing: those who were indisposed
were sent with the prospect of being nursed---
those who were stubborn, with the hope of their
being subdued by the kindness of Aunt Margaret's
discipline; in short, she had all the various duties
of a mother, without the credit and dignity of the
maternal character. The busy scene of her various
cares is now over---of the invalids and the robust,
the kind and the rough, the peevish and pleased
children, who thronged her little parlour from morning
to night, not one now remains alive but myself;
who, afflicted by early infirmity, was one of the
most delicate of her nurselings, yet, nevertheless,
have outlived them all.

 It is still my custom, and shall be so while I have
the use of my limbs, to visit my respected relation
at least three times a-week. Her abode is about
half a mile from the suburbs of the town in which
I reside; and is accessible, not only by the high-road,
from which it stands at some distance, but by
means of a greensward footpath, leading through
some pretty meadows. I have so little left to torment
me in life, that it is one of my greatest vexations
to know that several of these sequestered
fields have been devoted as sites for building. In
that which is nearest the town, wheelbarrows have
been at work for several weeks in such numbers,
that, I verily believe, its whole surface, to the
depth of at least eighteen inches, was mounted in
these monotrochs at the same moment, and in the
act of being transported from one place to another.
Huge triangular piles of planks are also reared in
different parts of the devoted messuage; and a little
group of trees, that still grace the eastern end,
which rises in a gentle ascent, have just received
warning to quit, expressed by a daub of white
paint, and are to give place to a curious grove of

 It would, perhaps, hurt others in my situation to
reflect that this little range of pasturage once belonged
to my father, (whose family was of some
consideration in the world,) and was sold by patches
to remedy distresses in which be involved himself
in an attempt by commercial adventure to redeem
his diminished fortune. While the building scheme
was in full operation, this circumstance was often
pointed out to me by the class of friends who are
anxious that no part of your misfortunes should
escape your observation. ``Such pasture-ground!
---lying at the very town's end---in turnips and potatoes,
the parks would bring L.20 per acre, and if
leased for building---O, it was a gold mine!---And
all sold for an old song out of the ancient possessor's
hands!'' My comforters cannot bring me to
repine much on this subject. If I could be allowed
to look back on the past without interruption, I
could willingly give up the enjoyment of present
income, and the hope of future profit, to those who
have purchased what my father sold. I regret the
alteration of the ground only because it destroys
associations, and I would more willingly (I think)
see the Earl's Closes in the hands of strangers, retaining
their silvan appearance, than know them
for my own, if torn up by agriculture, or covered
with buildings. Mine are the sensations of poor

 ``The horrid slough has rased the green
     Where yet a child I stray'd;
   The axe has fell'd the hawthorn screen,
     The schoolboy's summer shade.''

 I hope, however, the threatened devastation will
not be consummated in my day. Although the
adventurous spirit of times short while since passed
gave rise to the undertaking, I have been encouraged
to think, that the subsequent changes
have so far damped the spirit of speculation, that
the rest of the woodland footpath leading to Aunt
Margaret's retreat will be left undisturbed for her
time and mine. I am interested in this, for every
step of the way, after I have passed through the
green already mentioned, has for me something of
early remembrance:---There is the stile at which I
can recollect a cross child's-maid upbraiding me
with my infirmity, as she lifted me coarsely and
carelessly over the flinty steps, which my brothers
traversed with shout and bound. I remember the
suppressed bitterness of the moment, and, conscious
of my own inferiority, the feeling of envy
with which I regarded the easy movements and
elastic steps of my more happily formed brethren.
Alas! these goodly barks have all perished on life's
wide ocean, and only that which seemed so little
seaworthy, as the naval phrase goes, has reached
the port when the tempest is over. Then there is
the pool, where, manuvring our little navy, constructed
out of the broad water-flags, my elder
brother fell in, and was scarce saved from the
watery element to die under Nelson's banner. There
is the hazel copse also, in which my brother Henry
used to gather nuts, thinking little that he was to
die in an Indian jungle in quest of rupees.

 There is so much more of remembrance about
the little walk, that---as I stop, rest on my crutch-headed
cane, and look round with that species of
comparison between the thing I was and that which
I now am---it almost induces me to doubt my own
identity; until I found myself in face of the honeysuckle
porch of Aunt Margaret's dwelling, with
its irregularity of front, and its odd projecting latticed
windows; where the workmen seem to have
made a study that no one of them should resemble
another, in form, size, or in the old-fashioned stone
entablature and labels which adorn them. This
tenement, once the manor-house of Earl's Closes,
we still retain a slight hold upon; for, in some family
arrangements, it had been settled upon Aunt
Margaret during the term of her life. Upon this
frail tenure depends, in a great measure, the last
shadow of the family of Bothwell of Earl's Closes,
and their last slight connexion with their paternal
inheritance. The only representative will then be
an infirm old man, moving not unwillingly to the
grave, which has devoured all that were dear to
his affections.

 When I have indulged such thoughts for a minute
or two, I enter the mansion, which is said to
have been the gatehouse only of the original building,
and find one being on whom time seems to
have made little impression; for the Aunt Margaret
of to-day bears the same proportional age to
the Aunt Margaret of my early youth, that the
boy of ten years old does to the Man of (by'r
Lady!) some fifty-six years. The old lady's invariable
costume has doubtless some share in confirming
one in the opinion, that time has stood still
with Aunt Margaret.

 The brown or chocolate-coloured silk gown, with
ruffles of the same stuff at the elbow, within which
are others of Mechlin lace---the black silk gloves,
or mitts, the white hair combed back upon a roll,
and the cap of spotless cambric, which closes around
the venerable countenance, as they were not the
costume of 1780, so neither were they that of 1826;
they are altogether a style peculiar to the individual
Aunt Margaret. There she still sits, as she
sat thirty years since, with her wheel or the stocking,
which she works by the fire in winter, and by
the window in summer, or, perhaps, venturing as
far as the porch in an unusually fine summer evening.
Her frame, like some well-constructed piece
of mechanics, still performs the operations for
which it had seemed destined; going its round
with an activity which is gradually diminished, yet
indicating no probability that it will soon come to
a period.

 The solicitude and affection which had made
Aunt Margaret the willing slave to the inflictions
of a whole nursery, have now for their object the
health and comfort of one old and infirm man; the
last remaining relative of her family, and the only
one who can still find interest in the traditional
stores which she hoards; as some miser hides the
gold which he desires that no one should enjoy
after his death.

 My conversation with Aunt Margaret generally
relates little either to the present or to the future:
for the passing day we possess as much as we require,
and we neither of us wish for more; and for
that which is to follow we have on this side of the
grave neither hopes, nor fears, nor anxiety. We
therefore naturally look back to the past; and
forget the present fallen fortunes and declined importance
of our family, in recalling the hours when
it was wealthy and prosperous.

 With this slight introduction, the reader will
know as much of Aunt Margaret and her nephew
as is necessary to comprehend the following conversation
and narrative.

 Last week, when, late in a summer evening, I
went to call on the old lady to whom my reader is
now introduced, I was received by her with all her
usual affection and benignity; while, at the same
time, she seemed abstracted and disposed to silence.
I asked her the reason. ``They have been clearing
out the old chapel,'' she said; ``John Clayhudgeons
having, it seems, discovered that the stuff
within---being, I suppose, the remains of our ancestors---
was excellent for top-dressing the meadows.'''

 Here I started up with more alacrity than I
have displayed for some years; but sat down
while my aunt added, laying her hand upon my
sleeve, ``The chapel has been long considered as
common ground, my dear, and used for a penfold,
and what objection can we have to the man for
employing what is his own, to his own profit?
Besides, I did speak to him, and he very readily
and civilly promised, that if he found bones or
monuments, they should be carefully respected and
reinstated; and what more could I ask? So, the
first stone they found bore the name of Margaret
Bothwell, 1585, and I have caused it to be laid
carefully aside, as I think it betokens death; and
having served my namesake two hundred years, it
has just been cast up in time to do me the same
good turn. My house has been long put in order,
as far as the small earthly concerns require it, but
who shall say that their account with Heaven is
sufficiently revised!''

 ``After what you have said, aunt,'' I replied,
``perhaps I ought to take my hat and go away,
and so I should, but that there is on this occasion
a little alloy mingled with your devotion. To think
of death at all times is a duty---to suppose it nearer,
from the finding an old gravestone, is superstition;
and you, with your strong useful common sense,
which was so long the prop of a fallen family, are
the last person whom I should have suspected of
such weakness.''

 ``Neither would I deserve your suspicions, kinsman,''
answered Aunt Margaret, ``if we were
speaking of any incident occurring in the actual
business of human life. But for all this, I have a
sense of superstition about me, which I do not
wish to part with. It is a feeling which separates
me from this age, and links me with that to which
I am hastening; and even when it seems, as now,
to lead me to the brink of the grave, and bids me
gaze on it, I do not love that it should be dispelled.
It soothes my imagination, without influencing my
reason or conduct.''

 ``I profess, my good lady,'' replied I, ``that had
any one but you made such a declaration, I should
have thought it as capricious as that of the clergyman,
who, without vindicating his false reading,
preferred, from habit's sake, his old Mumpsimus
to the modern Sumpsimus.''

 ``Well,'' answered my aunt, ``I must explain
my inconsistency in this particular, by comparing
it to another. I am, as you know, a piece of that
old-fashioned thing called a Jacobite; but I am so
in sentiment and feeling only; for a more loyal
subject never joined in prayers for the health and
wealth of George the Fourth, whom God long
preserve! But I dare say that kind-hearted sovereign
would not deem that an old woman did him
much injury, if she leaned back in her arm-chair,
just in such a twilight as this, and thought of the
high-mettled men, whose sense of duty called them
to arms against his grandfather; and how, in a
cause which they deemed that of their rightful
prince and country,

 `They fought till their hand to the broadsword was glued,
  They fought against fortune with hearts unsubdued.'

Do not come at such a moment, when my head is
fall of plaids, pibrochs, and claymores, and ask my
reason to admit what, I am afraid, it cannot deny---
I mean, that the public advantage peremptorily
demanded that these things should cease to exist.
I cannot, indeed, refuse to allow the justice of
your reasoning; but yet, being convinced against
my will, you will gain little by your motion. You
might as well read to an infatuated lover the catalogue
of his mistress's imperfections; for, when
he has been compelled to listen to the summary,
you will only get for answer, that, `he lo'es her a'
the better.' ''

 I was not sorry to have changed the gloomy
train of Aunt Margaret's thoughts, and replied in
the same tone, ``Well, I can't help being persuaded
that our good King is the more sure of
Mrs Bothwell's loyal affection, that he has the
Stuart right of birth, as well as the Act of Succession
in his favour.''

 ``Perhaps my attachment, were it source of
consequence, might be found warmer for the union
of the rights you mention,'' said Aunt Margaret;
``but, upon my word, it would be as sincere if the
King's right were founded only on the will of the
nation, as declared at the Revolution. I am none
of your _jure divino_ folks.''

 ``And a Jacobite notwithstanding.''

 ``And a Jacobite notwithstanding; or rather, I
will give you leave to call me one of the part

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