A Comic Chesterfield
A COMIC CHESTERFIELD
To one who loves the bypaths and blind alleys of character there are some periods which have a fascination above others. A biographer's judgment of an epoch is not that of the serious historian. Certain centuries are museums of instructive tendencies and movements, where every hero is a type to be analyzed and docketed; others, again, are a poor harvest field for the earnest inquirer, but an excellent hunting ground for the connoisseur. These last are indeed times of stagnation, when the life of a nation turns, as it were, upon itself, and gives rise to a crop of eccentricities. But the division is not absolute; for in an industrious epoch, when new things are in the air and men are busy reforming the world, one may come suddenly upon a tare in the wheat in the shape of an idle and farcical gentleman who is cast only for comedy.
Few periods in the history of England give such honest pleasure to all schools of historians as the eighteenth century. There are tendencies and movements enough to please the most philosophic. There are sounding wars over the whole globe for the tactician, and there are essays in reform for the constitutionalist; and above all, there is the social life, where elegance reached its perfection, from Sir Pertinax and Lady Prue under Queen Anne to the Whig salons, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, and the court of Carleton House. At last the century dies out in the smoke of revolution. The old universal elegance is discredited, and there is an unrest abroad which gives birth to romanticism, fanaticism, and a new philosophy. The comic is out of season in the period of strenuous earnestness, and when a belated exponent arises, he takes the color of his times, and is as earnest in his absurdities as his fellows are in their wisdom.
Such a comedian out of season we find in that Earl of Buchan whose vagaries for long delighted the polite Scots world. He had the misfortune to be overshadowed by two famous brothers, and his considerable talents were rated below their proper value. "A curious, irascible, pompous ass," Mr. Henley has called him; and even Sir Walter, who had an unfailing tenderness toward his fellows, can speak of him only as "a trumpery body." Trumpery, indeed, he was, but he was a fool of parts and distinction. He toiled at his trifling business more than most great men at their work, and he had that finest perquisite of folly, an unfailing self-deception. He aspired to play all parts. He must be the grand seigneur of the house of Buchan, the literary dictator of his time, the patron of the arts, the friend of princes, and the complete gentleman. It is this belated activity, this itch after greatness, which redeems him from insignificance, and gives the story of his life the quaintness of a moral fable.
He was born in 1742, the son of the tenth Earl of Buchan and Agnes, daughter of Sir James Steuart of Coltness. The poverty of his family must have been great, though Lord Campbell, in his Lives of the Chancellors, seems to have exaggerated it. As a child, judging from his later character, he must have been an intolerable prig. He picked up his education at random, partly under a private tutor, partly at the universities of Glasgow and Leyden. At Glasgow he was the pupil of Foulis, the printer, where he added etching and designing to his already numerous hobbies. But we know little of those early years. The family seem to have kept to themselves in their poverty, and the most we hear of the young Cardross is in a charming letter from his younger brother, Thomas Erskine, at St. Andrews, who writes with a simplicity and vigor which the head of the house would have done well to imitate.
At Leyden he had met Lord Chatham, and struck up a friendship with him. Meantime, he failed to gain a commission in the Guards, and served for a few years in the 32d Cornwall regiment of foot. In 1766 Chatham offered to make him secretary to the embassy at Lisbon (a post which two years later was given to the future Lord Malmesbury), but he is said to have declined it on the ground of his rank. It would ill become him, he said, to serve under Sir James Gray, who was only a baronet. Dr. Johnson once applauded this folly: "Sir, had he gone secretary while his inferior was ambassador, he would have been a traitor to his rank and his family." But it may very well be that he was, for at the time his thoughts were far above mundane rank. The family had removed to Bath, and the old earl had become a Methodist. The young Cardross followed his father's example, and for a time was the darling of devout ladies. The Erskine stock had before this bred a religious enthusiast. His great-great-grandfather had suffered in the Covenanting cause, and Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, those pioneers of nonconformity, were far-away cousins. In Edinburgh his mother had given him a strict Presbyterian upbringing, and now at Bath a bevy of pious women of the Lady Huntingdon school hailed him as a youthful Timothy. After his father's death, in 1767, he had "the courage to make public profession of his opinions, which drew upon him the laugh and lash of all the witlings of the Rooms." Three ministers were nominated as his chaplains, and one wonders if the poor gentlemen were paid. But the dévot was not the part which he aspired long to play, and with his return to Scotland we find that the secular speedily triumphed over the religious.
For the rest of his long life Buchan was content to remain a Scots magnate, and confine his energies to his own corner of the land. At first he lived in Edinburgh, at a house in St. Andrew Square, but in 1786 he bought the estate of Dryburgh, and retired to Tweedside. His ambition was to be a Scots Mæcenas, and for this he must have his country villa. Here he filled the part of the great man in retreat, cultivating his hobbies, maintaining a huge correspondence, and issuing now and then to patronize Edinburgh society. To begin with he was wretchedly poor; but, by a parsimony which seems scarcely indigenous to his nature, he paid off his father's debts, and in half a century raised his own income from two hundred to two thousand pounds. The habit of economy in time became a disease, and this "Mæcenas à bon marché," as Scott called him, won a reputation for meanness. Yet the quality hardly deserves the name, for it was far indeed from ordinary avarice. He had in the highest degree the instinct of spending; he loved to figure as a philanthropist; but he must do everything with a stint, and get the best value for his money. He was the opposite of Aristotle's magnificent man, for he spoiled his parade of magnanimity by a comic littleness in its details. He would encourage the humanities, so he presented a silver pen for competition among the students in Aberdeen. The unhappy boys were to be examined all night, and the happy winner was not to receive the pen, but merely have his name inscribed on a small medallion to be hung on the prize.
His home was Scotland, and he affected a patriotism; but he was too great for a province, and must needs be a citizen of the world. If we are to believe his letters, his countrymen were as little to his liking as the inhabitants of Tomi to Ovid's. "I have been ungenerously requited by my countrymen," he wrote, "for endeavoring to make them happier and more respectable. This is the common lot of men who have a spirit above that of the age and country in which they act, and I appeal to posterity for my vindication. I could have passed my time much more agreeably among Englishmen, whose character I preferred to that of my own countrymen,—in a charming country, too, where my alliance with the noblest and best families in it, and my political sentiments, would have added much to lay domestic as well as civil enjoyments; but I chose rather to forego my own happiness for the improvement of my native country, and expect hereafter that the children of those who have not known me, or received me as they ought to have done, will express their concern and blush on account of the conduct of their parents." And he concludes in proud Latin: "Præclara conscientia igitur sustentor, cum cogito me de republica aut meruisse quum potuerim, aut certe nunquam nisi divine cogitasse."
The Buchan family was Whig, and in this poor nobleman there was a strain of genuine radical independence, which in his greater brothers made the Lord Chancellor Erskine the friend of the Revolution and the foe of prerogative, and Harry Erskine the "advocate of the people." He did his best to reform the method of electing Scots peers, and in 1780 published a "Speech intended to be spoken at the Meeting of the Peers for Scotland for the General Election of Her Representatives, in which a plan is proposed for the better Representation of the Peerage of Scotland." His thoughts on the matter seem, indeed, to have wavered. Sometimes he pleases to talk of himself as a "discarded courtier with a little estate." He apologizes for not making more of his "insatiable thirst of knowledge, and genius prone to the splendid sciences and the fine arts," by calling himself "a nobleman,—a piece of ornamental china, as it were." But he claimed kinship with Washington, whom he called " the American Buchan," and sent him a snuffbox made from the oak which sheltered Wallace after the battle of Falkirk. In return Washington sent him his portrait, and "accepted the significant present of the box with sensibility and satisfaction." An intense pride in his own order and his long descent was joined with a contempt for others of the same persuasion. "I dined two days ago tête-à-tête with Lord Buchan," writes Scott. "Heard a history of all his ancestors whom he has hung round his chimney-piece. From counting of pedigrees, good Lord, deliver us!" But he had also not a little of the proud humility of his brother the chancellor, who, when a young man, used to declare, "Thank fortune, out of my Own family I don't know a lord!"
The first and most earnest of the earl's hobbies was the cultivation of his own domains. He published in the Bee some curious essays on the art of idleness, in which the hero is invariably a gentleman of good family, who, after racketing in town, repents of his ways, and returns to respectability and agriculture. From the world of Brooks' and Almack's our hero flies to the planting of timber and the culture of fruit trees, till "he becomes so much master of the principles, practice, and duties of husbandry that he is soon able to originate and direct in all the operations, as the paterfamilias of Columella, and becomes quite independent of his land steward, bailiffs, and old experienced servants." He has essays on country life with a far-away hint of Gilbert White, essays in an absurd rococo style, but now and then full of real observation and genuine feeling. One piece. To the Daughters of Sophia on the Dawning of Spring, begins: "Alathea, Isabella, Sophia, my dear girls, the daughters of my dearest friends! the delightful season of verdure is come. Rise up, my fair ones, and come away; for, lo! the winter is past, the rain is over and gone the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land." Then comes a vivid little piece of genre painting, though to be sure the style is execrable, and the essay concludes with a kind of farmer's diary, exactly in the Selborne manner. His Letters in Imitation of the Ancients have the same honest country note amid their sham classicalism. Dryburgh and Melrose and the Eildons are strangely unrecognizable, but the good Tweedside birds and flowers and skies are there, though he calls a planting a "vernal thicket," and the Cheviots "undulatory forms of mountain."
After agriculture, antiquities were his special province. In 1780 he founded the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, at a meeting held in his house in St. Andrew Square. The first idea was a sort of académie Ecossaise, to be called the Caledonian Temple of Fame, which, through a complex system of balloting, was to canonize the names of famous Scots, living or dead. The university authorities and the Advocates' Library saw their occupation gone, and opposed the petition for a royal charter of incorporation; but the charter was granted through Buchan's influence at court. The earl's own antiquarian studies are numerous,—a memoir of Sir James Steuart Denham, an Account of the Parish of Uphall, an Account of the Abbey of Dryburgh in Grose's Antiquities, and sketches of George Heriot, Lord Mar the son of the Regent, and Drummond of Hawthornden. He kept up a lengthy correspondence on antiquarian matters with Nichols, and sent him Some Remarks on the Progress of the Roman Arms in Scotland during the Sixth Campaign of Africanus, which were published in vol. xxxv. of the Topographia Britannica. Sometimes the poor man was sadly duped. John Clerk of Eldin had a great passion for curiosities, and his unprincipled son, who was afterward the famous judge, used to amuse himself with manufacturing mutilated heads, which he buried in the ground. Then, some time or other, they would be accidentally discovered, and added to the ancestral museum. In an evil hour Lord Buchan came along, saw one of the heads, and, filled with admiration, carried it off and presented it to his new society. It is said that it remained for long in the collection of that excellent body.
But while he valued his agricultural and antiquarian achievements at their proper worth, it was as a patron of letters that my lord hoped to appeal to the admiration of posterity. His was the task to bring forth retiring merit, and to seal the fame of the great with his approbation. He appointed himself the special trumpeter of the poet Thomson, and he would fain have done the same for Burns and Scott. He erected at Dryburgh an Ionic temple, with a statue of Apollo inside and a bust of Thomson on the dome; and in 1791 he instituted an annual festival in commemoration of the poet, at which he solemnly crowned his bust with a wreath of bays. He asked Burns to attend; but the poet was harvesting, and sent a frigid Address to the Shade of Thomson, in imitation of Collins. Buchan distinguished himself by a silly pompous speech which seems to have irritated Burns, for two years later we find him sending a poem on Some Commemorations of Thomson to the Edinburgh Gazette:—
"Helpless, alane, thou clamb the brae
Wi' meikle honest toil,
And claucht th' unfading garland there,
Thy sair-won, rightful spoil.
"And wear it there! and call aloud
This axiom undoubled:—
Would thou have Nobles' patronage?
First learn to live without it.
" 'To whom hae much, more shall be given'
Is every great man's faith;
But he, the helpless, needful wretch.
Shall lose the mite he hath."
Which is perhaps scarcely fair, for in all Buchan's folly there was little of this vulgarity. The Erskines had learned the lessons of adversity too well in their own lives to be mere patrons of success. Later Burns seems to have forgotten his bitterness, for he sent a copy of "Scots wha hae," and a respectful and somewhat dithyrambic letter on the beauties of liberty,—which must indeed have charmed our gentleman's heart, for such fine sentiments were meat and drink to the dilettante radical. When the poet died, the earl added his bust (in Parian marble!) to his Ionic temple.
His essays in statuary were not all equally fortunate. The worst performance was the erection of a colossal statue of Wallace on a bank above the Tweed, on the day of the anniversary of Stirling Bridge,—a monstrosity which Scott prayed for lightning to annihilate. On its base was an inscription in Buchan's best style:—
"In the name of my brave and worthy country, I dedicate this monument as sacred to the memory of Wallace,—
'The peerless Knight of Ellerslie,
Who woo'd on Ayr's romantic shore
The beaming torch of liberty;
And roaming round from sea to sea,
From glade obscure or gloomy rock,
His bold compatriots called to free
The realm from Edward's iron yoke.' "
The unveiling was disastrous. The earl appeared before the statue with the speech in his hand and destiny on his brow, and at the discharge of a cannon the curtain was dropped. But to the horror of the honest enthusiast and the delight of the audience, the peerless Knight of Ellerslie was revealed smoking a huge German pipe, which some humorist had stuck in his mouth.
Buchan's relations with Sir Walter extended over many years, and were, on the whole, the most pleasing we have to record. Once when he examined a high-school class he praised young Scott's recitation, which the poet remembered to the end as the first commendation he ever received. In 1819, when Scott lay seriously ill, Buchan hurried to the house in Castle Street, found the knocker tied up, and concluded that the great man was on the point of death. He succeeded in elbowing his way upstairs to the sick-chamber, and was only dissuaded from entering by a shove downstairs from Peter Mathieson, the coachman. Scott heard the noise, and, fearing for the person of the feeble old man, sent James Ballantyne to follow him home and inquire his purpose. He found the earl strutting about his library in a towering passion.
"I wished," he cried, "to embrace Walter Scott before he died, and inform him that I had long considered it as a satisfactory circumstance that he and I were destined to rest together in the same place of sepulture. The principal thing, however, was to relieve his mind as to the arrangements of his funeral; to show him a plan which I had prepared for the procession; and, in a word, to assure him that I took upon myself the whole conduct of the ceremony at Dryburgh." The good man's hopes were disappointed. He died before Sir Walter, and his great eulogium, in the style of the French Academicians, remained unspoken.
The earl's own works—such, at least, as he wished to preserve for posterity—are contained in a little volume called Anonymous and Fugitive Essays, published at Edinburgh in 1816. The preface is magnificently impersonal: "The Earl of Buchan, considering his advanced age, has thought proper to publish this volume, and to meditate the publication of others, containing his anonymous writings; that no person may hereafter ascribe to him any other than are by him, in this manner, avowed, described, or enumerated." The book begins with a series on the Art of Idleness, which contains some exalted thoughts on female education. A saying of his, "Women must be flattered grossly or not spoken to at all," is recorded by Burns, and was the subject of an indignant epigram; but here his lordship is an enthusiast for sterling qualities, and sets common sense and housewifely virtues far above prettiness. His manner is sensibility run mad, as witness this sketch of the young Alathea:—
"Mamma, said Alathea one day, what is the reason that my pretty crested hen has forgotten her chickens that she was so fond of long ago, and is going along, like a fool, with the ducklings? My dear, I will tell you how this happens: the hen-wife cheated her, and put the duck's eggs into her nest, and she thought the eggs were her own and hatched them; by and by the ducks will take the water, and the hen will forsake them. A hen would not do this if she were at home, and had learnt to shift for herself in the fields by gathering seeds and corn; but we have brought hens about the house, and by having everything done for them by the servants, they have become silly and helpless. O mamma, what a terrible thing is this! Will you teach me to do everything for myself? Yes, my dear, I will with all my heart. … Thus I initiated my Alathea in the history of nations and in general politics, beginning with her at five years old. … I found one day Alathea in tears for the loss of one of her garters; I condoled with her, but told her that one of my own garters was worn through, so that I wanted one as well as herself, but that I was busy making another in its stead. I took out of my pocket a worsted garter half-wrought upon quills, and began to knit, saying it should not be long before I cured my misfortune. O mamma, will you teach me to make garters?"
And so on in the style of the Young Ladies' Companion. So much for the earl as an instructor of youth.
His classical imitations, which take up a great part of the book, have a very doubtful value. As became a liberal nobleman, he must profess an admiration for the republican bores of the early empire, especially Helvidius Priscus, whose statue, he says, stands in his hall. We may conjecture that his lordship's scholarship was not exact. He imitates Petronius Arbiter very clumsily, and he has many long letters purporting to be from Roman republicans, criticising the new régime, which are chiefly remarkable for their ineptness. Quintus Cicero writes an amusing letter to his brother Marcus in Britain, and Seneca has a fragment on the conduct of life. But such exercises are not without their humors, and now and then by a quaint phrase the author is betrayed. Petronius talks of "poor but elegant provincials," and the phrase in the earl's mouth is self-descriptive. "The Greeks," he says, "when they transgressed, sinned (as I may say) in a superior style,"—which is exactly his lordship's code of ethics. He has some curious remarks on English prose style. Gibbon, Burke, and Junius have a "quaint, flippant, pointed manner;" Swift, Atterbury, and Hume, on the other hand, "remain in our age possessed of the chaste propriety and dignity of those who have set up the Greek historians for their models." "How glorious," he exclaims, "would it be for a band of such men to associate in Britain for chastising the meretricious innovators, who are encouraged by the tasteless people of the age to enervate our language and our manners!" But when we come to the Bacon imitations we find a really tolerable level of excellence. They are introduced by a circumstantial account of their finding which is in itself a pretty piece of romance. "Goodly senectude" is quite in the Baconian manner, and he has the trick of an apt display of learning. Sometimes we catch the note of a very modern sensibility which is out of place: "Wherefore my father, with a smile of amiable complacency and strict intelligence of my thought, did thus with great condescension apply himself to the train of my reflections." Among the Literary Olla he has a curious discussion of the character of a gentleman, in which he limits the application of the title to landed proprietors. He seems to have hated the young man about town with all the bitterness of a poor Scots magnate.
"They, then, go abroad, to take what is called the tour of Europe, with a selfish, slavish, pedantic compagnon de voyage, commonly called a leader of bears; and after having played monkey tricks at all the fashionable courts in Europe, and been plucked and fleeced by sharpers and opera girls, they come home when of age to join in recognizances with their worthy fathers; and, as a reward, are introduced into all the fashionable clubs as promising young men, tout à fait aimables et polis. Then you see them almost every night drunk in the boxes of the playhouse and opera house, flirting with the beauties of the day, who declare them to be 'Charming young men; but, good la! Charlotte, how naughty and roguish! I declare they flurry me exceedingly.' "
Finally, there are certain essays on taste, the inevitable subject of his age, where he shows a sanity and an acuteness little to be expected from the sentimentalist of the earlier letters.
His other excursions in literature are to be found mainly in his indefatigable correspondence. He established what he called his Commercium Epistolicum Literarium, a portion of which is now in the University library of Edinburgh. He worried Horace Walpole past endurance with his letters, till he "tried everything but being rude to break off the intercourse." Of his poetry we know only four lines, which he wrote with his own hand on the wall of St. Bernard's Well:—
"O drink of me only; O drink of this well,
And fly from Tile whiskey, that lighter of hell.
If you drink of me only—or drink of good ale—
Long life will attend you—good spirits prevail.
Quoth the Earl of Buchan."
It is a small output for so busy a man, but literature was his hobby for a long lifetime. While Harry Erskine was winning the reputation of the greatest advocate at the Scots bar, and Thomas was drawing nearer to the woolsack, my lord remained peacefully in his shadowed garden, cultivating the insipid Muse.
His life was happy, if to feel confidence in one's worth and greatness be happiness. In the curious bundle of extravagancies which made up his character, not the least was this overweening pride. A subtle quality it was, compounded of glory of race and a consciousness of private preëminence. He felt himself a standard bearer in the van of European progress, the intellectual heir of the ages, and the equal of any great man of the past. He had no family, so he consoled himself with a reflection. "According to Bacon," he used to say, " 'great men have no continuance,' and in the present generation there are three examples of it,—Frederick of Prussia, George Washington, and myself." He had no jealousy of his distinguished brothers. They were but broken lights of himself, faint reflections to show the full glory of the head of the house. Now and then he had a taste of plain speaking, but his armor of self-love was proof against it. Once he told the Duchess of Gordon, "We inherit all our cleverness from our mother;" to which the witty lady retorted, "Then I fear that, as is usually the case with the mother's fortune, it has all been settled on the younger children." It was a concession for him to admit that merit did not descend in unbroken line from the Erskine stock, but it only illustrates more fully his curious pride. He was greater than his race. He was no mere scion of a great house, but something beyond it, combining the virtues of a long ancestry with an alien virtue from the mother's side. His brothers had won distinction by following a trade,—a bitter thought ever to this Whig lord; but he comforted himself and took a modest pleasure in their success. Was he not the fons et origo of their prosperity? Once he told a guest, "My brothers Harry and Tom are certainly extraordinary men, but they owe everything to me." His friend looked his surprise. "Yes, it is true; they owe everything to me. On my father's death they pressed me for a small annual allowance. I knew that this would have been their ruin by relaxing their industry. So, making a sacrifice of my inclination to gratify them, I refused to give them a farthing. And they have both thriven ever since,—owing everything to me."
If he was a fool, he was at least above any vulgar folly. The connection which gave him pride was with the great of past times, and it was only in the second place that he claimed kin with contemporary notables. Apparently, he was remotely related to Sir Thomas Browne, and he was never tired of calling him his "grandfather." Washington he used to call his "illustrious and excellent cousin." He believed that he contained all his ancestry in himself, and that the house of Buchan, as Lord Campbell has put it, "was a corporation never visited by death." "Nam genus et proavos et quae non fecimus ipsi vix ea nostra voco " was a maxim which he could never acknowledge. He spoke of his ancestors' doings as his own, and used to amaze strangers at dinner by some such remark as "I remember I remonstrated strongly before it took place against the execution of Charles I." He patronized the King as he had never been patronized before, on the ground of "consanguinity to your Majesty," but always with a hint that the royal house was little better than a cadet branch of his own. George, with a humor rare in that pedestrian nature, took it in good part, and apparently was sincerely flattered by the emphasis laid on his Stuart descent. Buchan showered letters of advice upon him, and when by any chance the royal action met with his approval he was graciously pleased to signify his satisfaction.
In all this we are repeatedly reminded of Sir Thomas Urquhart. A little more genius, a little less providence, would have made Buchan a second Knight of Cromarty. The same insane pride of family which produced the Pantochronoxanon finds its parallel in the Erskine pedigrees. But Buchan was less mythologically and scripturally inclined. His ambitions did not reach to King Arthur, Hercules, Hypermnestra, and Noah; sufficient for him a decent Scots descent. Both had their imagination hagridden by historic figures: Urquhart by the Admirable Crichton, Buchan by half a score of heroes. He always thinks of himself in a historic setting, cutting a fine figure after some accepted pattern: sometimes it is Helvidius Priscus, or Brutus, or Pliny, or Lord Bacon; in his younger days it was Sir Philip Sidney. In an absurd preface to an edition of Callimachus he talks of "having endeavored from my earliest youth (though secluded from the honors of the state and the brilliant situation incident to my rank) to imitate the example of that rare and famous English character, in whom every compatriot of extraordinary merit found a friend without hire and a common rendezvous of worth." This, indeed, was the honest gentleman's ideal, and who shall scorn it? He wished to be a kind of dashing Maecenas, a scholarly man of the world, a polite enthusiast,—and all on a scanty income and an inheritance of debt.
The result, had he been a man of sensitive nature, would have disappointed him; for he became a prince of bores, the walking terror of his generation. Even Scott, who hated unkindness, is betrayed into irritation. We find an entry in the Journal under September 13, 1826: "Dined at Major Scott, my cousin's, where was old Lord Buchan. He too is a prince of bores; but age has tamed him a little, and, like the giant Pope in the Pilgrim's Progress, he can only sit and grin at pilgrims as they go past, and is not able to cast a faule over them, as formerly. A few quiet puns seem his most formidable infliction nowadays." And again under December 26: "Returned to Abbotsford this morning. I heard it reported that Lord B. is very ill. If that be true, it affords ground for hope that Sir John——is not immortal. Both great bores. But the earl has something of a wild cleverness, far exceeding the ponderous stupidity of the Cavaliero Jackasso." A bore is frequently a wit out of season, and when "wild cleverness" is joined with an egotism beyond Sir Willoughby Patterne's, and the whole with utter tactlessness and the persistence of the horse-leech, the result is tragic for a man's friends.
Vanity will always provide for the perpetuation of its features. Buchan's busts and portraits are scattered broadcast throughout Scotland. Like Mr. Austin Dobson's gentleman of the old school,
"Reynolds has painted him,—a face
Filled with a fine, old-fashioned grace;"
and the picture, in Vandyke dress, still hangs in the hall of the Society of Antiquaries. Once he had himself done in crayons, and presented the portrait, with a eulogistic description written by himself, to the Faculty of Advocates; and in Kay's Edinburgh Portraits there is an excellent caricature in Highland costume. Lockhart has described his appearance in Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk: "I do not remember to have seen a more exquisite old head, and think it no wonder that so many portraits have been painted of him. The features are all perfect, but the greatest beauty is in the clear blue eyes, which are chased in his head in a way that might teach something to the best sculptors in the world. Neither is there any want of expression in those fine features, although indeed they are very far from conveying the same ideas of power and penetration which fall from the overhanging shaggy eyebrows of his brother."
Two years after the last entry quoted from Scott, the earl was gathered to the fathers who had been the glory of his life. He was buried at Dryburgh, and Sir Walter had the satisfaction of attending the funeral of one who had hoped to outlive him. "His lordship's funeral," he writes in his diary under April 25, "took place in a chapel amongst the ruins. His body was in the grave with its feet pointing westward. My cousin Maxpopple was for taking notice of it, but I assured him that a man who had been wrong in the head all his life would scarce become right-headed after death." And then in a kinder vein: "I felt something at parting with this old man, though but a trumpery body." Elsewhere Sir Walter has sketched the character of the dead. He had a Tory dislike of the Erskine politics, and in particular he could never abide the lord chancellor, so it is possible that his judgment of the Mæcenas who was so unlike the others is more tolerant than critical. "Lord Buchan is dead," he wrote, "a person whose immense vanity, bordering upon insanity, obscured, or rather eclipsed, very considerable talent. His imagination was so fertile that he seemed really to believe the extraordinary things he delighted in telling. … The two great lawyers, his brothers, were not more gifted by nature than I think he was; but the restraints of a profession kept the eccentricity of the family in order. Henry Erskine was the best-natured man I ever knew,—thoroughly a gentleman,—and with but one fault: he could not say 'No,' and thus sometimes misled those who trusted him. Tom Erskine was positively mad. I have heard him tell a cock-and-bull story of having seen the ghost of his father's servant, John Barnett, with as much gravity as if he believed every word he was saying. Both Henry and Thomas were saving men, yet both died very poor: the latter at one time possessed two hundred thousand pounds; the other had a considerable fortune. The earl alone has died wealthy. It is saving, not getting, that is the mother of riches. They all had wit. The earl's was crack-brained, and sometimes caustic; Henry's was of the very kindest, best-humored, and gayest sort that ever cheered society; that of Lord Erskine moody and muddish. But I never saw him in his best days."
So wrote Sir Walter in his sick and weary latter years, and it is in the main the truth. We cannot sum up our comic Chesterfield save in a bundle of paradoxes. He had the mad Erskine blood and a more than Scots thriftiness. He was magnificent, but with a prudent aim; a lover of letters, with little real aptitude and an uncertain taste; a radical, with the soundest Tory instincts; a Scot, but itching always to be esteemed cosmopolitan; a parochial magnate, yet with an eye on the two hemispheres. A laughingstock to his contemporaries and a bore to his friends, his egotism shielded him from pain, and he lived happily among his books and prints and stuccoed gardens.