The ashes here of murder’d kings
Beneath my footsteps sleep;
And yonder lies the scene of death,
Where Mary learn’d to weep.
Every quarter of Edinburgh has its own peculiar boast, so that the city together combines within its precincts, if you take the word of the inhabitants on the subject, as much of historical interest as of natural beauty. Our claims in behalf of the Canongate are not the slightest. The Castle may excel us in extent of prospect and sublimity of site; the Calton had always the superiority of its unrivalled panorama, and has of late added that of its towers, and triumphal arches, and the pillars of its Parthenon. The High Street, we acknowledge, had the distinguished honour of being defended by fortifications, of which we can show no vestiges. We will not descend to notice the claims of more upstart districts, called Old New Town and New New Town, not to mention the favourite Moray Place, which is the Newest New Town of all. We will not match ourselves except with our equals, and with our equals in age only, for in dignity we admit of one. We boast being the court end of the town, possessing the Palace and the sepulchral remains of monarchs, and that we have the power to excite, in a degree unknown to the less honoured quarters of the city, the dark and solemn recollections of ancient grandeur, which occupied the precincts of our venerable Abbey from the time of St. David till her deserted halls were once more made glad, and her long silent echoes awakened, by the visit of our present gracious sovereign.
My long habitation in the neighbourhood, and the quiet respectability of my habits, have given me a sort of intimacy with good Mrs. Policy, the housekeeper in that most interesting part of the old building called Queen Mary’s Apartments. But a circumstance which lately happened has conferred upon me greater privileges; so that, indeed, I might, I believe, venture on the exploit of Chatelet, who was executed for being found secreted at midnight in the very bedchamber of Scotland’s mistress.
It chanced that the good lady I have mentioned was, in the discharge of her function, showing the apartments to a cockney from London — not one of your quiet, dull, commonplace visitors, who gape, yawn, and listen with an acquiescent “umph” to the information doled out by the provincial cicerone. No such thing: this was the brisk, alert agent of a great house in the city, who missed no opportunity of doing business, as he termed it — that is, of putting off the goods of his employers, and improving his own account of commission. He had fidgeted through the suite of apartments, without finding the least opportunity to touch upon that which he considered as the principal end of his existence. Even the story of Rizzio’s assassination presented no ideas to this emissary of commerce, until the housekeeper appealed, in support of her narrative, to the dusky stains of blood upon the floor.
“These are the stains,” she said; “nothing will remove them from the place: there they have been for two hundred and fifty years, and there they will remain while the floor is left standing — neither water nor anything else will ever remove them from that spot.”
Now our cockney, amongst other articles, sold Scouring Drops, as they are called, and a stain of two hundred and fifty years’ standing was interesting to him, not because it had been caused by the blood of a queen’s favourite, slain in her apartment, but because it offered so admirable an opportunity to prove the efficacy of his unequalled Detergent Elixir. Down on his knees went our friend, but neither in horror nor devotion.
“Two hundred and fifty years, ma’am, and nothing take it away? Why, if it had been five hundred, I have something in my pocket will fetch it out in five minutes. D’ye see this elixir, ma’am? I will show you the stain vanish in a moment.”
Accordingly, wetting one end of his handkerchief with the all deterging specific, he began to rub away on the planks, without heeding the remonstrances of Mrs. Policy. She, good soul, stood at first in astonishment, like the abbess of St. Bridget’s, when a profane visitant drank up the vial of brandy which had long passed muster among the relics of the cloister for the tears of the blessed saint. The venerable guardian of St. Bridget probably expected the interference of her patroness — she of Holyrood might, perhaps, hope that David Ruzzio’s spectre would arise to prevent the profanation. But Mrs. Policy stood not long in the silence of horror. She uplifted her voice, and screamed as loudly as Queen Mary herself when the dreadful deed was in the act of perpetration —
“Harrow, now out, and walawa!” she cried.
I happened to be taking my morning walk in the adjoining gallery, pondering in my mind why the kings of Scotland, who hung around me, should be each and every one painted with a nose like the knocker of a door, when lo! the walls once more re-echoed with such shrieks as formerly were as often heard in the Scottish palaces as were sounds of revelry and music. Somewhat surprised at such an alarm in a place so solitary, I hastened to the spot, and found the well meaning traveller scrubbing the floor like a housemaid, while Mrs. Policy, dragging him by the skirts of the coat, in vain endeavoured to divert him from his sacrilegious purpose. It cost me some trouble to explain to the zealous purifier of silk stockings, embroidered waistcoats, broadcloth, and deal planks that there were such things in the world as stains which ought to remain indelible, on account of the associations with which they are connected. Our good friend viewed everything of the kind only as the means of displaying the virtue of his vaunted commodity. He comprehended, however, that he would not be permitted to proceed to exemplify its powers on the present occasion, as two or three inhabitants appeared, who, like me, threatened to maintain the housekeeper’s side of the question. He therefore took his leave, muttering that he had always heard the Scots were a nasty people, but had no idea they carried it so far as to choose to have the floors of their palaces blood boltered, like Banquo’s ghost, when to remove them would have cost but a hundred drops of the Infallible Detergent Elixir, prepared and sold by Messrs. Scrub and Rub, in five shilling and ten shilling bottles, each bottle being marked with the initials of the inventor, to counterfeit which would be to incur the pains of forgery.
Freed from the odious presence of this lover of cleanliness, my good friend Mrs. Policy was profuse in her expressions of thanks; and yet her gratitude, instead of exhausting itself in these declarations, according to the way of the world, continues as lively at this moment as if she had never thanked me at all. It is owing to her recollection of this piece of good service that I have the permission of wandering, like the ghost of some departed gentleman usher, through these deserted halls, sometimes, as the old Irish ditty expresses it —
Thinking upon things that are long enough ago;
— and sometimes wishing I could, with the good luck of most editors of romantic narrative, light upon some hidden crypt or massive antique cabinet, which should yield to my researches an almost illegible manuscript, containing the authentic particulars of some of the strange deeds of those wild days of the unhappy Mary.
My dear Mrs. Baliol used to sympathise with me when I regretted that all godsends of this nature had ceased to occur, and that an author might chatter his teeth to pieces by the seaside without a wave ever wafting to him a casket containing such a history as that of Automates; that he might break his shins in stumbling through a hundred vaults without finding anything but rats and mice; and become the tenant of a dozen sets of shabby tenements without finding that they contained any manuscript but the weekly bill for board and lodging. A dairymaid of these degenerate days might as well wash and deck her dairy in hopes of finding the fairy tester in her shoe.
“It is a sad and too true a tale, cousin,” said Mrs. Baliol, “I am sure we all have occasion to regret the want of these ready supplements to a failing invention. But you, most of all, have right to complain that the fairest have not favoured your researches — you, who have shown the world that the age of chivalry still exists — you, the knight of Croftangry, who braved the fury of the ‘London ‘prentice bold,’ in behalf of the fair Dame Policy, and the memorial of Rizzio’s slaughter! Is it not a pity, cousin, considering the feat of chivalry was otherwise so much according to rule — is it not, I say, a great pity that the lady had not been a little younger, and the legend a little older?”
“Why, as to the age at which a fair dame loses the benefit of chivalry, and is no longer entitled to crave boon of brave knight, that I leave to the statutes of the Order of Errantry; but for the blood of Rizzio I take up the gauntlet, and maintain against all and sundry that I hold the stains to be of no modern date, but to have been actually the consequence and the record of that terrible assassination.”
“As I cannot accept the challenge to the field, fair cousin, I am contented to require proof.”
“The unaltered tradition of the Palace, and the correspondence of the existing state of things with that tradition.”
“Explain, if you please.”
“I will. The universal tradition bears that, when Rizzio was dragged out of the chamber of the Queen, the heat and fury of the assassins, who struggled which should deal him most wounds, despatched him at the door of the anteroom. At the door of the apartment, therefore, the greater quantity of the ill fated minion’s blood was spilled, and there the marks of it are still shown. It is reported further by historians, that Mary continued her entreaties for his life, mingling her prayers with screams and exclamations, until she knew that he was assuredly slain; on which she wiped her eyes and said, ‘I will now study revenge.’”
“All this is granted. But the blood — would it not wash out, or waste out, think you, in so many years?”
“I am coming to that presently. The constant tradition of the Palace says, that Mary discharged any measures to be taken to remove the marks of slaughter, which she had resolved should remain as a memorial to quicken and confirm her purposed vengeance. But it is added that, satisfied with the knowledge that it existed, and not desirous to have the ghastly evidence always under her eye, she caused a traverse, as it is called (that is, a temporary screen of boards), to be drawn along the under part of the anteroom, a few feet from the door, so as to separate the place stained with the blood from the rest of the apartment, and involve it in considerable obscurity. Now this temporary partition still exists, and, by running across and interrupting the plan of the roof and cornices, plainly intimates that it has been intended to serve some temporary purpose, since it disfigures the proportions of the room, interferes with the ornaments of the ceiling, and could only have been put there for some such purpose as hiding an object too disagreeable to be looked upon. As to the objection that the bloodstains would have disappeared in course of time, I apprehend that, if measures to efface them were not taken immediately after the affair happened — if the blood, in other words, were allowed to sink into the wood, the stain would become almost indelible. Now, not to mention that our Scottish palaces were not particularly well washed in those days, and that there were no Patent Drops to assist the labours of the mop, I think it very probable that these dark relics might subsist for a long course of time, even if Mary had not desired or directed that they should be preserved, but screened by the traverse from public sight. I know several instances of similar bloodstains remaining for a great many years, and I doubt whether, after a certain time, anything can remove them save the carpenter’s plane. If any seneschal, by way of increasing the interest of the apartments, had, by means of paint, or any other mode of imitation, endeavoured to palm upon posterity supposititious stigmata, I conceive that the impostor would have chosen the Queen’s cabinet and the bedroom for the scene of his trick, placing his bloody tracery where it could be distinctly seen by visitors, instead of hiding it behind the traverse in this manner. The existence of the said traverse, or temporary partition, is also extremely difficult to be accounted for, if the common and ordinary tradition be rejected. In short, all the rest of this striking locality is so true to the historical fact, that I think it may well bear out the additional circumstance of the blood on the floor.”
“I profess to you,” answered Mrs. Baliol, “that I am very willing to be converted to your faith. We talk of a credulous vulgar, without always recollecting that there is a vulgar incredulity, which, in historical matters as well as in those of religion, finds it easier to doubt than to examine, and endeavours to assume the credit of an esprit fort, by denying whatever happens to be a little beyond the very limited comprehension of the sceptic. And so, that point being settled, and you possessing, as we understand, the open sesamum into these secret apartments, how, if we may ask, do you intend to avail yourself of your privilege? Do you propose to pass the night in the royal bedchamber?”
“For what purpose, my dear lady? If to improve the rheumatism, this east wind may serve the purpose.”
“Improve the rheumatism! Heaven forbid! that would be worse than adding colours to the violet. No, I mean to recommend a night on the couch of the nose of Scotland, merely to improve the imagination. Who knows what dreams might be produced by a night spent in a mansion of so many memories! For aught I know, the iron door of the postern stair might open at the dead hour of midnight, and, as at the time of the conspiracy, forth might sally the phantom assassins, with stealthy step and ghastly look, to renew the semblance of the deed. There comes the fierce fanatic Ruthven, party hatred enabling him to bear the armour which would otherwise weigh down a form extenuated by wasting disease. See how his writhen features show under the hollow helmet, like those of a corpse tenanted by a demon, whose vindictive purpose looks out at the flashing eyes, while the visage has the stillness of death. Yonder appears the tall form of the boy Darnley, as goodly in person as vacillating in resolution; yonder he advances with hesitating step, and yet more hesitating purpose, his childish fear having already overcome his childish passion. He is in the plight of a mischievous lad who has fired a mine, and who now, expecting the explosion in remorse and terror, would give his life to quench the train which his own hand lighted. Yonder — yonder — But I forget the rest of the worthy cutthroats. Help me if you can.”
“Summon up,” said I, “the postulate, George Douglas, the most active of the gang. Let him arise at your call — the claimant of wealth which he does not possess, the partaker of the illustrious blood of Douglas, but which in his veins is sullied with illegitimacy. Paint him the ruthless, the daring, the ambitious — so nigh greatness, yet debarred from it; so near to wealth, yet excluded from possessing it; a political Tantalus, ready to do or dare anything to terminate his necessities and assert his imperfect claims.”
“Admirable, my dear Croftangry! But what is a postulate?”
“Pooh, my dear madam, you disturb the current of my ideas. The postulate was, in Scottish phrase, the candidate for some benefice which he had not yet attained. George Douglas, who stabbed Rizzio, was the postulate for the temporal possessions of the rich abbey of Arbroath.”
“I stand informed. Come, proceed; who comes next?” continued Mrs. Baliol.
“Who comes next? Yon tall, thin made, savage looking man, with the petronel in his hand, must be Andrew Ker of Faldonside, a brother’s son, I believe, of the celebrated Sir David Ker of Cessford; his look and bearing those of a Border freebooter, his disposition so savage that, during the fray in the cabinet, he presented his loaded piece at the bosom of the young and beautiful Queen, that queen also being within a few weeks of becoming a mother.”
“Brave, beau cousin! Well, having raised your bevy of phantoms, I hope you do not intend to send them back to their cold beds to warm them? You will put them to some action, and since you do threaten the Canongate with your desperate quill, you surely mean to novelise, or to dramatise, if you will, this most singular of all tragedies?”
“Worse — that is less interesting — periods of history have been, indeed, shown up, for furnishing amusement to the peaceable ages which, have succeeded but, dear lady, the events are too well known in Mary’s days to be used as vehicles of romantic fiction. What can a better writer than myself add to the elegant and forcible narrative of Robertson? So adieu to my vision. I awake, like John Bunyan, ‘and behold it is a dream.’ Well enough that I awake without a sciatica, which would have probably rewarded my slumbers had I profaned Queen Mary’s bed by using it as a mechanical resource to awaken a torpid imagination.”
“This will never do, cousin,” answered Mrs. Baliol; “you must get over all these scruples, if you would thrive in the character of a romantic historian, which you have determined to embrace. What is the classic Robertson to you? The light which he carried was that of a lamp to illuminate the dark events of antiquity; yours is a magic lantern to raise up wonders which never existed. No reader of sense wonders at your historical inaccuracies, any more than he does to see Punch in the show box seated on the same throne with King Solomon in his glory, or to hear him hallooing out to the patriarch, amid the deluge, ‘Mighty hazy weather, Master Noah.’”
“Do not mistake me, my dear madam,” said I; “I am quite conscious of my own immunities as a tale teller. But even the mendacious Mr. Fag, in Sheridan’s Rivals, assures us that, though he never scruples to tell a lie at his master’s command, yet it hurts his conscience to be found out. Now, this is the reason why I avoid in prudence all well known paths of history, where every one can read the finger posts carefully set up to advise them of the right turning; and the very boys and girls, who learn the history of Britain by way of question and answer, hoot at a poor author if he abandons the highway.”
“Do not be discouraged, however, cousin Chrystal. There are plenty of wildernesses in Scottish history, through which, unless I am greatly misinformed, no certain paths have been laid down from actual survey, but which are only described by imperfect tradition, which fills up with wonders and with legends the periods in which no real events are recognised to have taken place. Even thus, as Mat Prior says:
“Geographers on pathless downs
Place elephants instead of towns.”
“If such be your advice, my dear lady,” said I, “the course of my story shall take its rise upon this occasion at a remote period of history, and in a province removed from my natural sphere of the Canongate.”
It was under the influence of those feelings that I undertook the following historical romance, which, often suspended and flung aside, is now arrived at a size too important to be altogether thrown away, although there may be little prudence in sending it to the press.
I have not placed in the mouth of the characters the Lowland Scotch dialect now spoken, because unquestionably the Scottish of that day resembled very closely the Anglo Saxon, with a sprinkling of French or Norman to enrich it. Those who wish to investigate the subject may consult the Chronicles of Winton and the History of Bruce by Archdeacon Barbour. But supposing my own skill in the ancient Scottish were sufficient to invest the dialogue with its peculiarities, a translation must have been necessary for the benefit of the general reader. The Scottish dialect may be therefore considered as laid aside, unless where the use of peculiar words may add emphasis or vivacity to the composition.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00