Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

Scott—"The Wizard of the North"

"T HE army, moving by its right from off the ground on which they had rested, soon entered the path through the morass, conducting their march with astonishing silence and great rapidity. The mist had not risen to the higher grounds, so that for some time they had the advantage of starlight. But this was lost as the stars faded before approaching day, and the head of the marching column, continuing its descent, plunged as it were into the heavy ocean of fog, which rolled its white waves over the whole plain, and over the sea by which it was bounded. Some difficulties were now to be encountered, inseparable from darkness, a narrow, broken, and marshy path, and the necessity of preserving union in the march. These, however, were less inconvenient to Highlanders, from their habits of life, than they would have been to any other troops, and they continued a steady and swift movement.

* * * * * *

"The clan of Fergus had now gained the firm plain, which had lately borne a large crop of corn. But the harvest was gathered in, and the expanse was unbroken by trees, bush, or interruption of any kind. The rest of the army were following fast, when they heard the drums of the enemy beat the general. Surprise, however, had made no part of their plan, so they were not disconcerted by this intimation that the foe was upon his guard and prepared to receive them. It only hastened their dispositions for the combat, which were very simple.

* * * * * *

" 'Down with your plaid, Waverley,' cried Fergus, throwing off his own; 'we'll win silks for our tartans before the sun is above the sea.'

"The clansmen on every side stripped their plaids, prepared their arms, and there was an awful pause of about three minutes, during which the men, pulling off their bonnets, raised their faces to heaven, and uttered a short prayer; then pulled their bonnets over their brows and began to move forward at first slowly. Waverley felt his heart at that moment throb as it would have burst his bosom. It was not fear, it was not ardour—it was a compound of both, a new and deeply energetic impulse, that with its first emotion chilled and astounded, then fevered and maddened his mind. The sounds around him combined to exalt his enthusiasm; the pipes played, and the clans rushed forward, each in its own dark column. As they advanced they mended their pace, and the muttering sounds of the men to each other began to swell into a wild cry. At this moment, the sun, which was not risen above the horizon, dispelled the mist. The vapours rose like a curtain, and showed the two armies in the act of closing. The line of the regulars was formed directly fronting the attack of the Highlanders; it glittered with the appointments of a complete army, and was flanked by cavalry and artillery. But the sight impressed no terror on the assailants.

" 'Forward, sons of Ivor,' cried their chief, 'or the Camerons will draw the first blood!' They rushed on with a tremendous yell.

"The rest is well known. The horses, who were commanded to charge the advancing Highlanders in the flank, received an irregular fire from their fusees as they ran on, and, seized with a disgraceful panic, wavered, halted, disbanded, and galloped from the field. The artillerymen, deserted by the cavalry, fled after discharging their pieces, and the Highlanders, who dropped their guns when fired, and drew their broadswords, rushed with headlong fury against the infantry.

* * * * * *

"The English infantry, trained in the wars in Flanders, stood their ground with great courage. But their extended files were pierced and broken in many places by the close masses of the clans; and in the personal struggle which ensued, the nature of the Highlanders' weapons, and their extraordinary fierceness and activity, gave them a decided superiority over those who had been accustomed to trust much to their array and discipline, and felt that the one was broken and the other useless.

* * * * * *

"Loud shouts now echoed over the whole field. The battle was fought and won, and the whole baggage, artillery, and military stores of the regular army remained a possession of the victors. Never was a victory more complete."

Such is Scott's picture of the battle of Prestonpans. And throughout the whole book we have wonderful pictures of Scottish life as it then was—pictures of robbers' caves, and chieftains' halls, of the chiefs themselves, and their followers, of mountain, loch, and glen, all drawn with such a true and living touch that we cannot forget them.

After Waverley  other novels followed fast, each one adding to the reputation of the unknown author, and now, from the name of the first, we call them all the Waverley Novels.

Scott's was one of the most wonderful successes—perhaps the most wonderful—that has ever been known in our literature. "As long as Sir Walter Scott wrote poetry," said a friend, "there was neither man nor woman ever thought of either reading or writing anything but poetry. But the instant that he gave over writing poetry, there was neither man nor woman ever read it more! All turned to tales and novels."

Everybody read The Novels, from the King to the shepherd. Friends, money, and fame came tumbling in upon the author. He had refused to be made Poet Laureate, and passed the honor on to Southey, but he accepted a baronetcy. He added wing after wing to his beautiful house, and acre after acre to his land, and rejoiced in being laird of Abbotsford.

The speed with which Scott wrote was marvelous. His house was always full of visitors, yet he always had time to entertain them. He was never known to refuse to see a friend, gentle or simple, and was courteous even to the bores who daily invaded his home. He had unbounded energy. He rose early in the morning, and before the rest of the family was astir had finished more than half of his daily task of writing. Thus by twelve o'clock he was free to entertain his guests.

If ever man was happy and successful, Scott seemed to be that man. But suddenly all his fair prospects were darkened over. Sir Walter was in some degree a partner in the business both of his publisher and his printer. Now both publisher and printer failed, and Scott found himself ruined with them. At fifty-five he was not only a ruined man, but loaded with a terrible debt of £117,000.

It was a staggering blow, and most men would have been utterly crushed by it. Not so Scott. He was proud, proud of his old name and of his new-founded baronial hall. He was stout of heart too. At fifty-five he began life again, determined with his pen to wipe out the debt. Many were the hands stretched out to help him; rich men offered their thousands, poor men their scanty savings, but Scott refused help from both rich and poor. His own hand must wipe out the debt, he said. Time was all he asked. So with splendid courage and determination, the like of which has perhaps never been known, he set to work.

But evil days had begun for Sir Walter. Scarcely four months after the crash, his wife died, and so he lost a companion of nearly thirty years. "I think my heart will break," he cries in the first bitterness of sorrow. "Lonely, aged, deprived of my family, an impoverished, an embarrassed man." But dogged courage comes to him again. "Well, that is over, and if it cannot be forgotten must be remembered with patience." So day after day he bent to his work. Every morning saw his appointed task done. Besides novels and articles he wrote a History of Napoleon,  a marvelous book, considering it was written in eighteen months.

Then Scott began the book which will be the first of all his books to interest you, The Tales of a Grandfather.  This is a history of Scotland, and it was written for his grandson John Hugh Lockhart, or Hugh Littlejohn as he is called in The Tales. "I will make," said Scott, "if possible, a book that a child shall understand, yet a man shall feel some temptation to peruse should he chance to take it up."

Hugh Littlejohn was a delicate boy, indeed he had not long to live, but many a happy day he spent, this summer (1827), riding about the woods of Abbotsford with his kind grandfather, listening to the tales he told. For Scott, too, the rides were a joy, and helped to make him forget his troubles. When he had told his tale in such a simple way that Littlejohn understood, he returned home and wrote it down.

In the December of the same year the first part of The Tales  was published, and at once was a tremendous success, a success as great almost as any of the novels. Hugh Littlejohn liked The Tales  too. "Dear Grandpapa," he writes, "I thank you for the books. I like my own picture and the Scottish chief: I am going to read them as fast as I can."

Two more volumes of Tales  followed. Then there was no need to write more for the dearly loved grandson, as a year or two later, when he was only eleven, poor Littlejohn died. But already the kind grandfather was near his end also, the tremendous effort which he made to force himself to work beyond his strength could not be kept up. His health broke down under it. Still he struggled on, but at last, yielding to his friends' entreaties, he went to Italy in search of health and strength. It gives us some idea of the high place Sir Walter had won for himself in the hearts of the people, when we learn that his health seemed a national concern, and that a warship was sent to take him on his journey. But the journey was of no avail. Among the great hills and blue lakes of Italy Scott longed for the lesser hills and grayer lochs of Scotland. So he turned homewards. And at home, in his beloved Abbotsford, in the still splendor of an autumn day, with the meadow-scented air he loved fanning his face, and the sound of rippling Tweed in his ears, he closed his eyes for ever. In the grass-grown ruin of Dryburgh Abbey, not far from his home, he was laid to rest, while the whole countryside mourned Sir Walter.

Before he died Scott had paid 70,000 pounds of his debt, an enormous sum for one man to make by his pen in six years. He died in the happy belief that all was paid, as indeed it all was. For after the author's death, his books still brought in a great deal of money, so that in fifteen years the debt was wiped out.

I have not told you any of Scott's stories here, because, unlike many of the books we have spoken of, they are easily to be had. And the time will soon come, if it has not come already, when you can read Sir Walter's books, just as he wrote them. It is best, I think, that you should read them so, for Sir Walter Scott is perhaps the first of all our great writers nearly the whole of whose books a child can read without help. You will find many long descriptions in them, but do not let them frighten you. You need not read them all the first time, and very likely you will want to read them the second time.

But perhaps before you read his novels you will like to read his Metrical Romances. For when we are children—big children perhaps, but still children—is the time to read them. Long ago in the twelfth century, when the people of England were simple and unlearned, they loved Metrical Romances, and we when we are simple and unlearned may love them too. Many of these old romances, however, are hard to get, and they are written in a language hard for many of us to understand. But Sir Walter Scott, in the nineteenth century, has recreated for us all the charm of those old tales. For this then, let us thank and remember him.

"His legendary song could tell

Of ancient deeds, so long forgot;

Of feuds, whose memory was not;

Of forests, now laid waste and bare;

Of towers, which harbour now the hare;

Of manners, long since chang'd and gone;

Of chiefs, who under their grey stone

So long had slept, that fickle Fame

Had blotted from her rolls their name,

And twin'd round some new minion's head

The fading wreath for which they bled."

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