With a hefty gift certificate from my wife in hand, on Saturday I went to one of my favorite bookstores in town, Elder’s. I came away with a number of books in hand (more on those soon). One of my most valuable finds, though, was a first edition, in very good condition, of William Baxter’s Life of Elder Walter Scott (1874), published by Bosworth, Chase and Hall of Cincinnati, Ohio.
I began reading over the weekend and came across this delightfully told story in the first chapter:
While attending the University an incident took place which is specially note-worthy from the fact that it was eminently characteristic of the man in all his after life–small in itself, yet one of those key-notes to the whole life and conduct ever to be found in the lives of the great and good. Among the Scotch great importance is attached to the individual who first crosses the threshold after the clock has struck twelve at midnight on the 31st of December, or who, as they phrase it, is the “first foot” in a house after the new year has begun. The first visitor or “first foot” stamps the “luck” of the house–the good or evil fortune of its inmates for the year. Hence, every house at that season has its company passing the evening in a pleasant way, enlivened by song or story, and among one class by what they misname good liquor. As soon as the hour of twelve has struck all present rise, shake hands, and wish one another a happy New Year, and not a few drink the health of each other, with some such sentiment as “May the year that’s awa’ be the warst o’ our lives.” But whether there be the drinking or the more temperate greeting and good wishes, in all companies is heard the question, “I wonder who will be our first foot,” or, as we would say, our first caller in the New Year. In consequence of this custom the streets at midnight on the last night of the year are as densely crowded as they usually are at midday, the throng, too, a happy one, each one intent on being “first foot” in the house of some friend, each one hoping to bear with him good luck. On one of these nights Walter, then about sixteen years of age, in company with his brother James, went over the old Edinburgh bridge to put “first foot” in the house of some friend. Having accomplished their object, they went forth on the still crowded streets, and after recrossing the bridge Walter was suddenly missed by his brother, who, supposing that something had for a moment attracted his attention among the crowds they had been constantly meeting, hastened home, expecting to meet him there. Walter, however, had not come, and, after waiting until his fears began to arise, he went to the bridge where he had missed him. Here he found quite a crowd assembled, and from the midst of it came the sound of the clear sweet voice of his brother, singing one of the sweetest of Old Scotia’s songs. Wondering what could have so suddenly converted his youthful and somewhat bashful brother into a street minstrel at midnight, he pressed his way to the midst of the throng, and found a scene which told its own story. The young singer was standing upon the stone steps of one of the shops near the bridge, and a step or two below him stood a blind beggar holding out his hat to receive the pennies which ever and anon in the intervals between the songs the crowd would bestow. All day long the blind man had sat and begged, and, knowing that the street would be crowded that night even more than it had been during the day, he hoped that night would yield him the charity which he had implored almost in vain through the livelong day. But the crowds were intent on pleasure and friendly greetings, and few responded to the appeal of him to whom day brought no light, and whose night was no darker than his day. Young Walter drew near, and his heart was touched by his mute imploring look, which had taken the place of the almost useless appeal, “Give a penny to the blind man.” He had neither gold nor silver to give, but he stopped and inquired as to his success, and found that few had pitied and relieved his wants. His plan was formed in a moment; he took his place by the beggar’s side and began singing, in a voice shrill and sweet, a strain which few Scotchmen could hear unmoved. The steps of nearly all who passed that way were arrested; soon a crowd gathered, and when the song ended he made an appeal for pennies, which brought a shower of them, mingled now and then with silver, such as never had fallen into the blind man’s hat before. Another and another song was called for, and at the close of each the finger of the singer pointed significantly, and not in vain, to the blind man’s hat; and thus he sang far into the night; and when he ceased, the blind beggar implored heaven’s richest blessings on the head of the youthful singer, and bore home with him the means of support and comfort for many a coming day.
We do not remind ourselves of these sorts of stories very often — mostly because we have such a weak grasp on our history to begin with. They are good, I think, for our edification and for the building up of one another. Baxter seems to have thought so.