The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today’s MS puzzle

with 21 comments

When RLS reached Dunure Castle on his “Winter’s Walk” in January 1876, he wrote the following in his notebook:

This we have transcribed as follows:

snow white beach, clearer sea, snow in

the old vaults, ennui, mediæval graves [?square],

small vices of a-city[?opacity; but n.b. no dot for an ‘i’]; sea with faint

round wrinkles like a feeble forehead.

This shows how difficult it can be sometimes. Anyway, we do have the printed essay to help us. In this case, it helps us with ‘ennui’, but not the mystery word(s) of the third line:

The snow had drifted into the vaults.  The clachan dabbled with snow, the white hills, the black sky, the sea marked in the coves with faint circular wrinkles, the whole world, as it looked from a loop-hole in Dunure, was cold, wretched, and out-at-elbows.  If you had been a wicked baron and compelled to stay there all the afternoon, you would have had a rare fit of remorse.  How you would have heaped up the fire and gnawed your fingers!  I think it would have come to homicide before the evening – if it were only for the pleasure of seeing something red!

Line three of the MS is the problem: neither ‘vices of a city’, not ‘vices of opacity’ mean much, and in addition, there is no dot for an ‘i’, and (as you can see from this small sample) the dot is always there in other cases. Perhaps the second word isn’t ‘vices’.

Any ideas?


Written by rdury

19/02/2012 at 4:31 pm

21 Responses

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  1. aplenty?

    or is that dash a false hyphen or linking line, as was suggested that RLS used between s and small-bowl letters?

    Paul Durrant

    19/02/2012 at 4:50 pm

  2. small ‘rues of a city’ – too much Baudelaire?

    Neil Brown

    19/02/2012 at 6:02 pm

  3. A ‘vice’ is a ‘winding stair or its newel’ in Chambers; just what you would expect in a Scots tower house – another ‘grand stair’ as in Kidnapped? The newel is the central column around which the turnpike winds. Vice here derived from French ‘vis’, screw, and Latin ‘vitis’, vine. Oxford says Old French and M.E., screw.

    So ‘small vices of a …’?

    Neil Brown

    19/02/2012 at 8:10 pm

  4. Now suggest ‘small vices of re-entry[re-entrant?]’, where the re-entrant is the internal angle of the tower.

    Neil Brown

    19/02/2012 at 9:46 pm

  5. ‘environ’ – i.e. surround, referring perhaps to the simple wall which enclosed the hall and tower of Dunure?

    Neil Brown

    19/02/2012 at 10:01 pm

  6. 1) third line, after (what might be) ‘small vices’: Paul’s suggestion of ‘aplenty’ seems very possible: it makes sense (as a phrase – and can be fitted, with some imagination, into the wider context) and more importantly, it accounts for all the strokes on the page: a+ p with bowl clearly made + reduced l + e reduced to what looks like a hyphen + nty.

    The lack of a dot for an i (almost always clearly visible, as the examples of these lines show) makes proposals ending in ‘city’ a bit suspect, not to mention the inexplicable hyphen before (it doesn’t fit into the hypothesis of link-line, as that is used between ‘s’ and small bowl letters where RLS can’t sweep up to the next letter from the ending of the ‘s’ (in contrast ‘a’ and ‘c’ are easily linked without lifting the pencil/pen from the paper, as we can see from ‘beach’ in the first line).

    2) ‘re-entry’: there are only two ‘peaks’ before the ‘t’ in the MS: not enough for ‘en’ (which would need three peaks) – however, thanks to Neil for ‘testing’ this alternative: this is a real puzzle. As for ‘environ’ instead of ‘ennui’ in line two, I can count ‘peaks’ for ‘envir’ – but ‘on’ would need 4 or (with sqaushed o) 3: too many I think to disappear in a squiggle (and there isn’t even a squiggle). And then in the printed text he talks about the boredom the castle-dweller must have felt – this looks like a note for this idea.

    The printed text continues “And the masters of Dunure, it is to be noticed, were remarkable of old for inhumanity…” – this doesn’t quite fit with “small vices aplenty”, unfortunately (as “inhumanity” must surely be a great vice: or is it? cruelty, not mentioned in the Ten Commandments comes under “inhumanity”), but anyway it is in the same area of meaning.

    But experience shows that once one starts making the wrong interpretation one is capable of going lengths rather than abandon it – so let’s keep an open mind about this transcription.


    20/02/2012 at 8:04 am

  7. Convinced it’s ‘small vices of’ – compare with that in ‘spittoons full of buckies’ above. (Apologies to those who don’t have all this.)

    Neil Brown

    20/02/2012 at 8:59 am

  8. if it’s ‘mediaeval graves’ in the line before, then shouldn’t the mystery word also start with ‘gr’? Are they not very close? Could it be ‘gravity’? Not that that would make much sense, but are we sure the first two letters of the mystery word are not ‘gr’?

    Alexia Grosjean

    20/02/2012 at 10:18 am

    • The beginnings of the two words do look alike but if that is ‘graves’ (and not ‘square’) it is a very anomalous ‘g’: normally the loop should be on the left of the down-stroke. That graves/square word seems to have been written while walking along an uneven path while shivvering from the cold!


      20/02/2012 at 10:33 am

  9. ‘mediaeval gnawing’ – if we include what looks like a comma and its run-in?

    Printed piece says ‘How you would have heaped up the fire and gnawed your fingers’ – possibly what RLS himself was doing then on account of the cold!

    Neil Brown

    20/02/2012 at 8:55 pm

  10. ‘small vices’ –

    1. King Lear (reason in madness speech) – ‘Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.’

    2. Bulwer Lytton, Zanoni: ‘She held in abhorrence all levity, all flirtation, all coquetry, – small vices which often ruin domestic happiness’.

    3. G P R James, Arabella Stuart: ‘But small vices have more frequently ruined vast enterprises than even great crimes.’

    Last two writers well read/liked by RLS. Just trying to illuminate matters.

    Neil Brown

    20/02/2012 at 10:05 pm

    • Neil, I think you may have got it! These are all notes of what the place suggests to his imagination: “ennui, mediaeval gnawing, small vices aplenty.”

      The ‘gnawing’ note, as you say, would be a memo for what appears in the printed text.

      And I think the quote from King Lear could explain the mystery word: “Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear” – Stevenson could here be thinking of the ruins of the castle http://www.197aerial.co.uk/dunure_castle.htm – these are very “tattered”, so one can see/imagine “small vices aplenty”. Not a reference to “inhumanity” but a companion to “ennui” in this lonely, ranshackled place.

      Well done!


      21/02/2012 at 5:37 am

      • Now I’m not so sure! “mediaeval gnawing” isn’t a very probably phrase and anyway, there is no trace of a dot for the ‘i’. And looking again, the word does seem to end in “es” or “e” followed by a comma

        Certainly, “mediaeval graves” is a more probably phrase. Are there mediaeval graves inside Dunure Castle?


        23/02/2012 at 7:18 am

  11. Yes Richard, I thought the ‘Lear’ was the likely source, but I was trying to link this to the Commendator of Crossraguel who was roasted there, or the ‘cook’, greedy Gilbert Kennedy, who roasted him. I now see – and I presume this is what you mean – that RLS is, of course, playing with words; he spies the scanty remains of the ‘vices’ (turnpike, or spiral stairs) protruding from the castle ruins (I finally saw some interior shots of Dunure online) and recalls – as is his wont – the lines from Shakespeare. Or is this supposition about the ‘vices’ as stairs going too far – does he only see the fragile, crumbling ruins, punctured as they are with many windows or apertures, as being like some vast piece of tattered cloth?

    Neil Brown

    21/02/2012 at 9:13 am

    • Yes, I was thinking of the ruined castle like tattered clothes that allowed one to see/imagine “small vices”.


      21/02/2012 at 11:32 am

  12. ‘mediaeval squinch’? – with RLS mispelling through alternate pronunciation ‘skwinsh’ rather than ‘skwinch’, or faltering at the end of his scribble? A squinch is a load bearing, relieving part of masonry usually forming an arch in an interior angle of a construction. Similarly ‘scuncheon’ and its variant spellings, ‘sconcheon’ and ‘scontion’ (Chambers). Interestingly, given an earlier comment of mine about ‘vice’, the Wikipedia explanation says: ‘Squinches may be formed by masonry built out from the angle in corbelled courses [frequent feature in Scots towerhouses], by filling in the corner with a vise [vice] placed diagonally, or by building an arch or a number of corbelled arches diagonally across the corner.’

    However, from the few photos of Dunure interior gleaned from the web, I cannot identify anything definite in this line, although there are many pieces of masonry protruding from the tower wall. Perhaps, though there was just such a feature still extant last century. Only RLS knows!

    Neil Brown

    07/04/2012 at 11:40 am

    • Of course, we still have this ‘mediaeval xxxxxx,’ to solve; ‘squinch’ is possible, but there is no dot for the ‘i’ and no ascender for a final ‘h’, and dots for ‘i’s are almost always visible. I think I’ll have to look at this in the Beinecke when I go in September – then I can get a better idea of what’s happening at the beginning of the word.

      The sequences is “ennui, mediaeval xxxx, small vices (?) aplenty” – so we would expect it not to be an architectural feature but either something produced by “ennui” or another cause of “small vices” — something like “mediaeval crimes”. Having said that, would RLS have used “mediaeval” a historical term, for a kind of conduct or state of the soul? I doubt it. Back to square one.


      07/04/2012 at 1:40 pm

  13. How about ‘mediaeval squiracy’ – or is the word a 20th C coinage?

    ‘mediaeval quinsy’, or squinancy’ even for the squinancy-wort plant?

    Neil Brown

    16/04/2012 at 9:12 pm

  14. Thanks to all for their contributions. This is the text and endnote at the moment in the transcription document:

    ennui, mediæval gnawing[,] small vices aplenty:

    notes for the imaginary scene that the ruins suggest, and that we find expanded in the printed text; ‘small vices’ is probably an allusion to King Lear (IV.6.45) ‘Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear’: Dunure Castle is “tattered”, so allows one to see/imagine ‘small vices aplenty’. The words ‘gnawing’ and ‘aplenty’, not clear in the manuscript, are conjectural.


    17/04/2012 at 2:52 pm

    • Now, in order not to lose the suggestions, I’ve modified that note:

      “…The words ‘gnawing’ and ‘aplenty’, not clear in the manuscript, are conjectural. Alternative readings that have been suggested for ‘gnawing’ refer to architectural features (‘graves’, ‘squinch’, ‘square’), or illness (‘quinsy’, ‘squinsy’); alternative readings
      for ‘a plenty’ include ‘re-entry’, ‘of a city’.”


      18/04/2012 at 8:48 am

  15. Great, very inclusive, except ‘environ’ which was an alternative reading for ‘ennui’. My confusion caused it.

    Neil Brown

    18/04/2012 at 10:16 am

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