Hugh Miller: Autobiography (3)

Home Up First Impressions Scenes and Legends Tales and Sketches The Betsey Leading Articles Miscellanea Main Index Site Search


 

[Previous Page]

 
CHAPTER VI.


When they sawe the darksome night,
They sat them downe and cryed.—B
ABES IN THE WOOD.


I SPENT the holidays of two other autumns in this delightful Highland valley.  On the second, as on the first occasion, I had accompanied my mother, specially invited; but the third journey was an unsanctioned undertaking of my own and a Cromarty cousin, my contemporary, to whom, as he had never travelled the way, I had to act as protector and guide.  I reached my aunt's cottage without mishap or adventure of any kind; but found, that during the twelvemonth which had just elapsed, great changes had taken place in the circumstances of the household.  My cousin George, who had married in the interim, had gone to reside in a cottage of his own; and I soon ascertained that my cousin William, who had been for several months resident with his father, had not nearly so many visitors as before; nor did presents of salmon and haunches of venison come at all so often the way.  Immediately after the final discomfiture of Napoleon, an extensive course of speculation in which he had ventured to engage had turned out so ill, that, instead of making him a fortune, as at first seemed probable, it had landed him in the Gazette; and he was now tiding over the difficulties of a time of settlement, six hundred miles from the scene of disaster, in the hope of being soon enabled to begin the world anew.  He bore his losses with quiet magnanimity; and I learned to know and like him better during his period of eclipse than in the previous time, when summer friends had fluttered around him by scores.  He was a generous, warm-hearted man, who felt, with the force of an implanted instinct not vouchsafed to all, that it is more blessed to give than to receive; and it was doubtless a wise provision of nature, and worthy, in this point of view, the special attention of moralists and philosophers, that his old associates, the grand gentlemen, did not now often come his way; seeing that his inability any longer to give would cost him, in the circumstances, great pain.

    I was much with my cousin George in his new dwelling.  It was one of the most delightful of Highland cottages, and George was happy in it, far above the average lot of humanity, with his young wife.  He had dared, in opposition to the general voice of the district, to build it half-way up the slope of a beautiful tomhan, that, waving with birch from base to summit, rose regular as a pyramid from the bottom of the valley, and commanded a wide view of Loch Shin on the one hand, with the moors and mountains that lie beyond; and overlooked, on the other, with all the richer portions of the Barony of Gruids, the church and picturesque hamlet of Lairg.  Half-hidden by the graceful birchen trees that sprang up thick around, with their silvery boles and light foliage, it was rather a nest than a house; and George, emancipated, by his reading, and his residence for a time in the south, from at least the wilder beliefs of the locality, failed to suffer, as had been predicted, for his temerity; as the "good people," [43] who, much to their credit, had made choice of the place for themselves long before, never, to his knowledge, paid him a visit.  He had brought his share of the family library with him; and it was a large share.  He had mathematical instruments too, and a colour-box, and the tools of his profession; in especial, large hammers fitted to break great stones; and I was generously made free of them all,—books, instruments, colour-box, and hammers.  His cottage, too, commanded, from its situation, a delightful variety of most interesting objects.  It had all the advantages of my uncle's domicile, and a great many more.

    The nearer shores of Loch Shin were scarce half a mile away; and there was a low long promontory which shot out into the lake, that was covered at that time by an ancient wood of doddered time-worn trees, and bore amid its outer solitudes, where the waters circled round its terminal apex, one of those towers of hoary eld—memorials, mayhap, of the primeval stone period in our island, to which the circular erections of Glenelg and Dornadilla belong.  It was formed of undressed stones of vast size, uncemented by mortar; and through the thick walls ran winding passages—the only covered portions of the building, for the inner area had never been furnished with a roof—in which, when a sudden shower descended, the loiterer amid the ruins could find shelter.  It was a fascinating place to a curious boy.  Some of the old trees had become mere whitened skeletons, that stretched forth their blasted arms to the sky, and had so slight a hold of the soil, that I have overthrown them with a delightful crash, by merely running against them; the heath rose thick beneath, and it was a source of fearful joy to know that it harboured snakes full three feet long; and though the loch itself is by no means one of our finer Highland lochs, it furnished, to at least my eye at this time, a delightful prospect in still October mornings, when the light gossamer went sailing about in white filmy threads, and birch and hazel, glorified by decay, served to embroider with gold the brown hillsides which, standing up on either hand in their long vista of more than twenty miles, form the barriers of the lake; and when the sun, still struggling with a blue diluted haze, fell delicately on the smooth surface, or twinkled for a moment on the silvery coats of the little trout, as they sprang a few inches into the air, and then broke the water into a series of concentric rings in their descent.  When I last passed the way, both the old wood and the old tower were gone; and for the latter, which, though much a ruin, might have survived for ages, I found only a long extent of dry-stone dike, and the wide ring formed by the old foundation-stones which had proved too massive to be removed.  A greatly more entire erection of the same age and style, known of old as Dunaliscag—which stood on the Ross-shire side of the Dornoch Firth, and within whose walls, forming, as it did, a sort of half-way stage, I used, on these Sutherlandshire journeys, to eat my piece of cake with a double relish—I found, on last passing the way, similarly represented.  Its grey venerable walls, and dark winding passages of many steps—even the huge pear-shaped lintel, which had stretched over its little door, and which, according to tradition, a great Fingalian lady had once thrown across the Dornoch Firth from off the point of her spindle—had all disappeared, and I saw instead, only a dry-stone wall.  The men of the present generation do certainly live in a most enlightened age—an age in which every trace of the barbarism of our early ancestors is fast disappearing; and were we but more zealous in immortalizing the public benefactors who efface such dark memorials of the past as the tower of Dunaliscag and the promontory of Loch Shin, it would be, doubtless, an encouragement to others to speed us yet further on in the march of improvement.  It seems scarce fair that the enlightened destroyers of Arthur's Oven or of the bas-relief known as Robin of Redesdale, or of the Town-cross of Edinburgh, should enjoy all the celebrity attendant on such acts, while the equally deserving iconoclasts of Dunaliscag and the tower of Loch Shin should be suffered to die without their fame.

    I remember spending one singularly delightful morning with Cousin George beside the ancient tower.  He pointed out to me, amid the heath, several plants to which the old Highlanders used to attach occult virtues,—plants that disenchanted bewitched cattle, not by their administration as medicines to the sick animals, but by bringing them in contact, as charms, with the injured milk; and plants which were used as philters, either for procuring love, or exciting hatred.  It was, he showed me, the root of a species of orchis that was employed in making the philters.  While most of the radical fibres of the plant retain the ordinary cylindrical form, two of their number are usually found developed into starchy tubercles; but, belonging apparently to different seasons, one of the two is of a dark colour, and of such gravity that it sinks in water; while the other is light-coloured, and floats.  And a powder made of the light-coloured tubercle formed the main ingredient, said my cousin, in the love philter; while a powder made of the dark-coloured one excited, it was held, only antipathy and dislike.  And then George would speculate on the origin of a belief which could, as he said, neither be suggested by reason, nor tested by experience.  Living, however, among a people with whom beliefs of the kind were still vital and influential, he did not wholly escape their influence; and I saw him, in one instance, administer to an ailing cow a little live trout, simply because the traditions of the district assured him, that a trout swallowed alive by the creature was the only specific in the case.  Some of his Highland stories were very curious.  He communicated to me, for example, beside the broken tower, a tradition illustrative of the Celtic theory of dreaming, of which I have since often thought.  Two young men had been spending the early portion of a warm summer day in exactly such a scene as that in which he communicated the anecdote.  There was an ancient ruin beside them, separated, however, from the mossy bank on which they sat, by a slender runnel, across which there lay, immediately over a miniature cascade, a few withered grass stalks.  Overcome by the heat of the day, one of the young men fell asleep; his companion watched drowsily beside him; when all at once the watcher was aroused to attention by seeing a little indistinct form, scarce larger than a humble-bee, issue from the mouth of the sleeping man, and, leaping upon the moss, move downwards to the runnel, which it crossed along the withered grass stalks, and then disappeared amid the interstices of the ruin.  Alarmed by what he saw, the watcher hastily shook his companion by the shoulder, and awoke him; though, with all his haste, the little cloud-like creature, still more rapid in its movements, issued from the interstice into which it had gone, and, flying across the runnel, instead of creeping along the grass stalks and over the sward, as before, it re-entered the mouth of the sleeper, just as he was in the act of awakening.  "What is the matter with you?" said the watcher, greatly alarmed.  "What ails you?"  "Nothing ails me," replied the other; "but you have robbed me of a most delightful dream.  I dreamed I was walking through a fine rich country, and came at length to the shores of a noble river; and, just where the clear water went thundering down a precipice, there was a bridge all of silver, which I crossed; and then, entering a noble palace on the opposite side, I saw great heaps of gold and jewels, and I was just going to load myself with treasure, when you rudely awoke me, and I lost all."  I know not what the asserters of the clairvoyant faculty may think of the story; but I rather believe I have occasionally seen them make use of anecdotes that did not rest on evidence a great deal more solid than the Highland legend, and that illustrated not much more clearly the philosophy of the phenomena with which they profess to deal.

Of all my cousins, Cousin George was the one whose pursuits most nearly resembled my own, and in whose society I most delighted to share.  He did sometimes borrow a day from his work, even after his marriage; but then, according to the poet, it was


"The love he bore to science was in fault."


The borrowed day was always spent in transferring to paper some architectural design, or in working out some mathematical problem, or in rendering some piece of Gaelic verse into English, or some piece of English prose into Gaelic; and as he was a steady, careful man, the appropriated day was never seriously missed.  The winter, too, was all his own, for, in those northern districts, masons are never employed from a little after Hallowday, till the second, or even third month of spring, a circumstance which I carefully noted at this time in its bearing on the amusements of my cousin, and which afterwards weighed not a little with me when I came to make choice of a profession for myself.  And George's winters were always ingeniously spent.  He had a great command of Gaelic, and a very tolerable command of English; and so a translation of Bunyan's "Visions of Heaven and Hell," which he published several years subsequent to this period, was not only well received by his country folk of Sutherland and Ross, but was said by competent judges to be really a not inadequate rendering of the meaning and spirit of the noble old tinker of Elstow.  I, of course, could be no authority respecting the merits of a translation, the language of which I did not understand; but living much amid the literature of a time when almost every volume, whether the Virgil of a Dryden, or the Meditations of a Harvey, was heralded by its sets of complimentary verses, and having a deep interest in whatever Cousin George undertook and performed, I addressed to him, in the old style, a few introductory stanzas, which, to indulge me in the inexpressible luxury of seeing myself in print for the first time, he benevolently threw into type.  They survive to remind me that my cousin's belief in Ossian did exert some little influence over my phraseology when I addressed myself to him, and that, with the rashness natural to immature youth, I had at this time the temerity to term myself "poet."


Yes, oft I've said, as oft I've seen
    The men who dwell its hills among,
That Morven's land has ever been
    A land of valour, worth, and song.

But Ignorance, of darkness dire,
    Has o'er that land a mantle spread;
And all untuned and rude the lyre
    That sounds beneath its gloomy shade.

With muse of calm untiring wing,
    Oh, be it thine, my friend, to show
The Celtic swain how Saxons sing
    Of Hell's dire gloom and Heaven's glow!

So shall the meed of fame be thine,
    The glistening bay-wreath green and gay;
Thy poet, too, though weak his line,
    Shall frame for thee th' approving lay.


    Longing for some profession in which his proper work would give exercise to the faculties which he most delighted to cultivate, my cousin resolved on becoming candidate for a Gaelic Society school—a poor enough sort of office then, as now; but which, by investing a little money in cattle, by tilling a little croft, and by now and then emitting from the press a Gaelic translation, might, he thought, be rendered sufficiently remunerative to supply the very moderate wants of himself and his little family.  And so he set out for Edinburgh, amply furnished with testimonials that meant more in his case than testimonials usually mean, to stand an examination before a Committee of the Gaelic School Society.  Unluckily for his success, however, instead of bringing with him his ordinary Sabbath-day suit of dark brown and blue (the kilt had been assumed for but a few weeks, to please his brother William), he had provided himself with a suit of tartan, as at once cheap and respectable, and appeared before the Committee—if not in the garb, in at least the many-coloured hues, of his clan—a robust manly Highlander, apparently as well suited to enact the part of colour-serjeant to the Forty-Second, as to teach children their letters.  A grave member of the Society, at that time in high repute for sanctity of character, but who afterwards, becoming righteous overmuch, was loosened from his charge, and straightway, spurning the ground, rose into an Irvingite angel, came at once to the conclusion that no such type of man, encased in clan-tartan, could possibly have the root of the matter in him; and so he determined that Cousin George should be cast in the examination.  But then, as it could not be alleged with any decency that my cousin was inadmissible on the score of his having too much tartan, it was agreed that he should be declared inadmissible on the score of his having too little Gaelic.  And, of course, at this result the examinators arrived; and George, ultimately to his advantage, was cast accordingly.  I still remember the astonishment evinced by a worthy catechist of the north—himself a Gaelic teacher—on being told how my cousin had fared.  "George Munro not allowed to pass," he said, "for want of right Gaelic!  Why, he has more right Gaelic in his own self than all the Society's teachers in this corner of Scotland put together.  They are the curiousest people, some of these good gentlemen of the Edinburgh Committees, that I ever heard of: they're just like our country lawyers."  It would, however, be far from fair to regard this transaction, which took place, I may mention, so late as the year 1829, as a specimen of the actings of either civic societies or country lawyers.  George's chief examinator on the occasion was the minister of the Gaelic Chapel of the place, at that time one of the Society's Committee for the year; and, not being a remarkably scrupulous man, he seems to have stretched a point or two, in compliance with the pious wishes and occult judgment of the Society's Secretary.  But the anecdote is not without its lesson.  When devout Walter Taits set themselves ingeniously to manoeuvre with the purest of intentions, and for what they deem the best of purposes—when, founding their real grounds of objection on one set of appearances, they found their ostensible grounds of objection on another and entirely different set—they are always exposed to the signal danger of—getting indevout Duncan M'Caigs to assist them.  Only two years from the period of my cousin's examination before the Society, his reverend examinator received at the bar of the High Court of Justiciary, in the character of a thief convicted of eleven acts of stealing, sentence of transportation for fourteen years.

    I had several interesting excursions with my cousin William.  We found ourselves one evening—on our way home from a mineral spring which he had discovered among the hills—in a little lonely valley, which opened transversely into that of the Gruids, and which though its sides were mottled with green furrow marked patches, had not at the time a single human habitation.  At the upper end, however, there stood the ruins of a narrow two-storied house, with one of its gables still entire from foundation-stone to the shattered chimney-top, but with the other gable, and the larger part of the front wall, laid prostrate along the sward.  My cousin, after bidding me remark the completeness of the solitude, and that the eye could not command from the site of the ruin a single spot where man had ever dwelt, told me that it had been the scene of the strict seclusion, amounting almost to imprisonment, about eighty years before, of a lady of high birth, over whom, in early youth, there had settled a sad cloud of infamy.  She had borne a child to one of the menials of her father's house, which, with the assistance of her paramour, she had murdered; and being too high for the law to reach in these northern parts, at a time when the hereditary jurisdiction still existed entire, and her father was the sole magistrate, possessed of the power of life and death in the district, she was sent by her family to wear out life in this lonely retreat, in which she remained secluded from the world for more than half a century.  And then, long after the abolition of the local jurisdictions, and when her father and brother, with the entire generation that knew of her crime, had passed away, she was permitted to take up her abode in one of the seaport towns of the north, where she was still remembered at this time as a crazy old lady, invariably silent and sullen, that used to be seen in the twilight flitting about the more retired lanes and closes, like an unhappy ghost.  The story, as told me in that solitary valley, just as the sun was sinking over the hill beyond, power fully impressed my fancy.  Crabbe would have delighted to tell it; and I now relate it, as it lies fast wedged in my memory, mainly for the peculiar light which it casts on the times of the hereditary jurisdictions.  It forms an example of one of the judicial banishments of an age that used, in ordinary cases, to save itself all sorts of trouble of the kind, by hanging its victims.  I may add, that I saw a good deal of the neighbourhood at this time in the company of my cousin, and gleaned, from my visits to shieling and cottage, most of my conceptions of the state of the Northern Highlands, ere the clearance system had depopulated the interior of the country, and precipitated its poverty-stricken population upon the coasts.

    There was, however, one of my excursions with Cousin William, that turned out rather unfortunately.  The river Shin has its bold salmon-leap, which even yet, after several hundred pounds' worth of gunpowder have been expended in sloping its angle of ascent, to facilitate the passage of the fish, is a fine picturesque object, but which at this time, when it presented all its original abruptness, was a finer object still.  Though distant about three miles from my uncle's cottage, we could distinctly hear its roarings from beside his door, when October nights were frosty and still; and as we had been told many strange stories regarding it—stories about bold fishers who had threaded their dangerous way between the overhanging rock and the water, and who, striking outwards, had speared salmon through the foam of the cataract as they leaped—stories, too, of skilful sportsmen, who, taking their stand in the thick wood beyond, had shot the rising animals, as one shoots a bird flying,—both my Cromarty cousin and myself were extremely desirous to visit the scene of such feats and marvels; and Cousin William obligingly agreed to act as our guide and instructor by the way.  He did look somewhat askance at our naked feet; and we heard him remark, in an under tone, to his mother, that when he and his brothers were boys, she never suffered them to visit her Cromarty relations unshod; but neither cousin Walter nor myself had the magnanimity to say, that our mothers had also taken care to see us shod; but that, deeming it lighter and cooler to walk barefoot, the good women had no sooner turned their backs than we both agreed to fling our shoes into a corner, and set out on our journey without them.  The walk to the salmon-leap was a thoroughly delightful one.  We passed through the woods of Achanie, famous for their nuts; startled, as we went, a herd of roe deer; and found the leap itself far exceeded all anticipation.  The Shin becomes savagely wild in its lower reaches.  Rugged precipices of gneiss, with scattered bushes fast anchored in the crevices, overhang the stream, which boils in many a dark pool, and foams over many a steep rapid; and immediately beneath, where it threw itself headlong, at this time, over the leap—for it now merely rushes in snow adown a steep slope—there was a caldron, so awfully dark and profound, that, according to the accounts of the district, it had no bottom; and so vexed was it by a frightful whirlpool, that no one ever fairly caught in its eddies had succeeded, it was said, in regaining the shore.  We saw, as we stood amid the scraggy trees of an overhanging wood, the salmon leaping up by scores, most of them, however, to fall back again into the pool—for only a very few stray fish that attempted the cataract at its edges seemed to succeed in forcing their upward way; we saw, too, on a shelf of the precipitous but wooded bank, the rude hut, formed of undressed logs, where a solitary watcher used to take his stand, to protect them from the spear and fowlingpiece of the poacher, and which in stormy nights, when the cry of the kelpie mingled with the roar of the flood, must have been a sublime lodge in the wilderness, in which a poet might have delighted to dwell.  I was excited by the scene; and, when heedlessly leaping from a tall lichened stone into the long heath below, my right foot came so heavily in contact with a sharp-edged fragment of rock concealed in the moss, that I almost screamed aloud with pain.  I, however, suppressed the shriek, and, sitting down and setting my teeth close, bore the pang, until it gradually moderated, and my foot, to the ankle, seemed as if almost divested of feeling.  In our return, I halted as I walked, and lagged considerably behind my companions; and during the whole evening the injured foot seemed as if dead, save that it glowed with an intense heat.  I was, however, at ease enough to write a sublime piece of blank verse on the cataract; and, proud of my production, I attempted reading it to Cousin William.  But William had taken lessons in recitation under the great Mr Thelwall, politician and elocutionist; and deeming it proper to set me right in all the words which I mispronounced—three out of every four at least, and not unfrequently the fourth word also—the reading of the piece proved greatly stiffer and slower work than the writing of it; and, somewhat to my mortification, my cousin declined giving me any definite judgment on its merits, even when I had done.  He insisted, however, on the signal advantages of reading well.  He had an acquaintance, he said, a poet, who had taken lessons under Mr Thelwall, and who, though his verses, when he published, met with no great success, was so indebted to his admirable elocution, as to be invariably successful when he read them to his friends.

    Next morning my injured foot was stiff and sore; and, after a few days of suffering, it suppurated and discharged great quantities of blood and matter.  It was, however, fast getting well again, when, tired of inaction, and stirred up by my cousin Walter, who wearied sadly of the Highlands, I set out with him, contrary to all advice, on my homeward journey, and, for the first six or eight miles, got on tolerably well.  My cousin, a stout active lad, carried the bag of Highland luxuries—cheese, and butter, and a full peck of nuts—with which we had been laden by my aunt; and, by way of indemnity for taking both my share of the burden and his own, he demanded of me one of my long extempore stories, which, shortly after leaving my aunt's cottage, I accordingly began.  My stories, when I had cousin Walter for my companion, were usually co-extensive with the journey to be performed: they became ten, fifteen, or twenty miles long, agreeably to the measure of the road, and the determination of the milestones; and what was at present required was a story of about thirty miles in length, whose one end would touch the Barony of Gruids, and the other the Cromarty Ferry.  At the end, however, of the first six or eight miles, my story broke suddenly down, and my foot, after becoming very painful, began to bleed.  The day, too, had grown raw and unpleasant, and after twelve o'clock there came on a thick wetting drizzle.  I limped on silently in the rear, leaving at every few paces a blotch of blood upon the road, until, in the parish of Edderton, we both remembered that there was a short cut through the hills, which two of our older cousins had taken during the previous year, when on a similar journey; and as Walter deemed himself equal to anything which his elder cousins could perform, and as I was exceedingly desirous to get home as soon as possible, and by the shortest way, we both struck up the hill-side, and soon found ourselves in a dreary waste, without trace of human habitation.

    Walter, however, pushed on bravely and in the right direction; and, though my head was now becoming light and my sight dim, I succeeded in struggling after him, until, just as the night was falling, we reached a heathy ridge, which commands the northern sea-board of the Cromarty Firth, and saw the cultivated country and the sands of Nigg lying only a few miles below.  The sands are dangerous at certain hours of the tide, and accidents frequently happen in the fords; but then there could, we thought, be no fear of us; for though Walter could not swim, I could; and as I was to lead the way, he of course would be safe, by simply avoiding the places where I lost footing.  The night fell rather thick than dark, for there was a moon overhead, though it could not be seen through the cloud; but, though Walter steered well, the downward way was exceedingly rough and broken, and we had wandered from the path.  I retain a faint but painful recollection of a scraggy moor, and of dark patches of planting, through which I had to grope onwards, stumbling as I went; and then, that I began to feel as if I were merely dreaming, and that the dream was a very horrible one, from which I could not awaken.  And finally, on reaching a little cleared spot on the edge of the cultivated country, I dropped down as suddenly as if struck by a bullet, and, after an ineffectual attempt to rise, fell fast asleep.  Walter was much frightened; but he succeeded in carrying me to a little rick of dried grass which stood up in the middle of the clearing; and after covering me well up with the grass, he laid himself down beside me.  Anxiety, however, kept him awake; and he was frightened, as he lay, to hear the sounds of psalm-singing, in the old Gaelic style, coming apparently from a neighbouring clump of wood.  Walter believed in the fairies; and, though psalmody was not one of the reputed accomplishments of the "good people" in the low country, he did not know but that in the Highlands the case might be different.  Some considerable time after the singing had ceased, there was a slow, heavy step heard approaching the rick; an exclamation in Gaelic followed; and then a rough hard hand grasped Walter by the naked heel.  He started up, and found himself confronted by an old, grey-headed man, the inmate of a cottage, which, hidden in the neighbouring clump, had escaped his notice.

    The old man, in the belief that we were gipsies, was at first disposed to be angry at the liberty we had taken with his hayrick; but Walter's simple story mollified him at once, and he expressed deep regret that "poor boys, who had met with an accident," should have laid them down in such an night under the open sky, and a house so near.  "It was putting disgrace," he said, "on a Christian land."  I was assisted into his cottage, whose only other inmate, an aged woman, the old Highlander's wife, received us with great kindness and sympathy; and on Walter's declaring our names and lineage, the hospitable regrets and regards of both host and hostess waxed stronger and louder still.  They knew our maternal grandfather and grandmother, and remembered old Donald Roy; and when my cousin named my father, there was a strongly-expressed burst of sorrow and commiseration, that the son of a man whom they had seen so "well to do in the world" should be in circumstances so deplorably destitute.  I was too ill to take much note of what passed.  I only remember, that of the food which they placed before me, I could partake of only a few spoonfuls of milk; and that the old woman as she washed my feet, fell a-crying over me.  I was, however, so greatly recruited by a night's rest in their best bed, as to be fit in the morning to be removed, in the old man's rung-cart, to the house of a relation in the parish of Nigg, from which, after a second day's rest, I was conveyed in another cart to the Cromarty Ferry.  And thus terminated the last of my boyish visits to the Highlands.

    Both my grandfather and grandmother had come of long-lived races, and Death did not often knock at the family door.  But the time when the latter "should cross the river," though she was some six or eight years younger than her husband, came first; and so, according to Bunyan, she "called for her children, and told them that her hour had come."  She was a quiet, retiring woman, and, though intimately acquainted with her Bible, not in the least fitted to make a female Professor of Theology: she could live her religion better than talk it; but she now earnestly recommended to her family the great interests once more; and, as its various members gathered round her bed, she besought one of her daughters to read to her, in their hearing, that eighth chapter of the Romans which declares that "there is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."  She repeated, in a sinking voice, the concluding verses,—"For I am persuaded, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  And, resting in confidence on the hope which the passage so powerfully expresses, she slept her last sleep, in simple trust that all would be well with her in the morning of the general awakening.  I retain her wedding-ring, the gift of Donald Roy.  It is a sorely-wasted fragment, worn through on one of the sides, for she had toiled long and hard in her household, and the breach in the circlet, with its general thinness, testify to the fact; but its gold is still bright and pure; and, though not much of a relic-monger, I would hesitate to exchange it for the Holy Coat of Treves, or for waggon-loads of the wood of the "true cross."

    My grandmother's term of life had exceeded by several twelvemonths the full threescore and ten; but when, only a few years after, Death next visited the circle, it was on its youngest members that his hand was laid.  A deadly fever swept over the place, and my two sisters—the one in her tenth, the other in her twelfth year—sank under it within a few days of each other.  Jean, the elder, who resided with my uncles, was a pretty little girl, of fine intellect, and a great reader; Catherine, the younger, was lively and affectionate, and a general favourite; and their loss plunged the family in deep gloom.  My uncles made little show of grief, but they felt strongly: my mother for weeks and months wept for her children, like Rachel of old, and refused to be comforted, because they were not; but my grandfather, now in his eighty-fifth year, seemed to be rendered wholly bankrupt in heart by their loss.  As is perhaps not uncommon in such cases, his warmer affections strode across the generation of grown-up men and women—his sons and daughters -and luxuriated among the children their descendants.  The boys, his grandsons, were too wild for him; but the two little girls—gentle and affectionate—had seized on his whole heart; and now that they were gone, it seemed as if he had nothing in the world left to care for.  He had been, up till this time, notwithstanding his great age, a hale and active man.  In 1803, when France threatened invasion, he was, though on the verge of seventy, one of the first men in the place to apply for arms as a volunteer; but now he drooped and gradually sunk, and longed for the rest of the grave.  "It is God's will," I heard him say about this time, to a neighbour who congratulated him on his long term of life and unbroken health—"It is God's will, but not my desire."  And in rather more than a twelvemonth after the death of my sisters, he was seized by almost his only illness—for, for nearly seventy years he had not been confined to bed for a single day—and was carried off in less than a week.  During the last few days, the fever under which he sank mounted to his brain; and he talked in unbroken narrative of the events of his past life.  He began with his earliest recollections; described the battle of Culloden as he had witnessed it from the Hill of Cromarty, and the appearance of Duke William and the royal army as seen during a subsequent visit to Inverness; ran over the after events of his career—his marriage, his interviews with Donald Roy, his business transactions with neighbouring proprietors, long dead at the time; and finally, after reaching, in his oral history, his term of middle life, he struck off into another track, and began laying down, with singular coherency, the statements of doctrine in a theological work of the old school, which he had been recently perusing.  And finally, his mind clearing as his end approached, he died in good hope.  It is not uninteresting to look back on two such generations of Scotchmen as those to which my uncles and grandfather belonged.  They differed very considerably in some respects.  My grandfather, with most of his contemporaries of the same class, had a good deal of the Tory in his composition.  He stood by George III. in the early policy of his reign, and by his adviser Lord Bute; reprobated Wilkes and Junius; and gravely questioned whether Washington and his coadjutors, the American Republicans, were other than bold rebels.  My uncles, on the contrary, were stanch Whigs, who looked upon Washington as perhaps the best and greatest man of modern times—stood firm by the policy of Fox, as opposed to that of Pitt—and held that the war with France, which immediately succeeded the First Revolution, was, however thoroughly it changed its character afterwards, one of unjustifiable aggression.  But however greatly my uncles and grandfather may have differed on these points, they were equally honest men.

    The rising generation can perhaps form no very adequate conception of the number and singular interest of the links which serve to connect the recollections of a man who has seen his fiftieth birthday, with what to them must appear a remote past.  I have seen at least two men who fought at Culloden—one on the side of the King, the other on that of the Prince—and, with these, not a few who witnessed the battle from a distance.  I have conversed with an aged woman that had conversed, in turn, with an aged man who had attained to mature manhood when the persecutions of Charles and James were at their height, and remember the general regret excited by the death of Renwick.  My eldest maternal aunt—the mother of Cousin George—remembered old John Feddes—turned of ninety at the time; and John's buccaneering expedition could not have dated later than the year 1687.  I have known many who remembered the abolition of the hereditary jurisdictions; and have listened to stories of executions which took place on the gallows-hills of burghs and sheriffdoms, and of witch-burnings perpetrated on town Links and baronial Laws.  And I have felt a strange interest in these glimpses of a past so unlike the present, when thus presented to the mind as personal reminiscences, or as well-attested traditions, removed from the original witnesses by but a single stage.  All, for instance, which I have yet read of witch-burnings has failed to impress me so strongly as the recollections of an old lady who in 1722 was carried in her nurse's arms—for she was almost an infant at the time—to witness a witch-execution in the neighbourhood of Dornoch—the last which took place in Scotland.  The lady well remembered the awe-struck yet excited crowd, the lighting of the fire, and the miserable appearance of the poor fatuous creature whom it was kindled to consume, and who seemed to be so little aware of her situation, that she held out her thin shrivelled hands to warm them at the blaze.  But what most impressed the narrator—for it must have been a frightful incident in a sad spectacle—was the circumstance that, when the charred remains of the victim were sputtering and boiling amid the intense heat of the flames, a cross gust of wind suddenly blew the smoke athwart the spectators, and she felt in her attendant's arms as if in danger of being suffocated by the horrible stench.  I have heard described, too, by a man whose father had witnessed the scene, an execution which took place, after a brief and inadequate trial, on the burgh-gallows of Tain.  The supposed culprit, a Strathcarron Highlander, had been found lurking about the place, noting, as was supposed, where the burghers kept their cattle, and was hung as a spy; but they all, after the execution, came to deem him innocent, from the circumstance that, when his dead body was dangling in the wind, a white pigeon had come flying the way, and, as it passed over, half-encircled the gibbet.

    One of the two Culloden soldiers whom I remember was an old forester who lived in a picturesque cottage among the woods of the Cromarty Hill; and in his last illness, my uncles, whom I had always leave to accompany, used not unfrequently to visit him.  He had lived at the time his full century, and a few months more: and I still vividly remember the large gaunt face that used to stare from the bed as they entered, and the huge, horny hand.  He had been settled in life, previous to the year 1745, as the head gardener of a northern proprietor, and little dreamed of being engaged in war; but the rebellion broke out; and as his master, a stanch Whig, had volunteered to serve on behalf of his principles in the royal army, his gardener, a "mighty man of his hands," went with him.  As his memory for the later events of his life was gone at this time, its preceding forty years seemed a blank, from which not a single recollection could be drawn; but well did he remember the battle, and more vividly still, the succeeding atrocities of the troops of Cumberland.  He had accompanied the army, after its victory at Culloden, to the camp at Fort-Augustus, and there witnessed scenes of cruelty and spoliation of which the recollection, after the lapse of seventy years, and in his extreme old age, had still power enough to set his Scotch blood aboil.  While scores of cottages were flaming in the distance, and blood not unfrequently hissing on the embers, the men and women of the army used to be engaged in racing in sacks, or upon Highland ponies; and when the ponies were in request, the women, who must have sat for their portraits in Hogarth's "March to Finchley," took their seats astride like the men.  Gold circulated and liquor flowed in abundance; and in a few weeks there were about twenty thousand head of cattle brought in by marauding parties of the soldiery from the crushed and impoverished Highlanders; and groups of drovers from Yorkshire and the south of Scotland—coarse vulgar men—used to come every day to share in the spoil, by making purchases at greatly less than half-price.

    My grandfather's recollections of Culloden were merely those of an observant boy of fourteen, who had witnessed the battle from a distance.  The day, he has told me, was drizzly and thick; and on reaching the brow of the Hill of Cromarty, where he found many of his townfolk already assembled, he could scarce see the opposite land.  But the fog gradually cleared away; first one hill-top came into view, and then another; till at length the long range of coast, from the opening of the great Caledonian valley to the promontory of Burgh-head, was dimly visible through the haze.  A little after noon there suddenly rose a round white cloud from the Moor of Culloden, and then a second round white cloud beside it.  And then the two clouds mingled together, and went rolling slantways on the wind towards the west; and he could hear the rattle of the smaller fire-arms mingling with the roar of the artillery.  And then, in what seemed an exceedingly brief space of time, the cloud dissipated and disappeared, the boom of the greater guns ceased, and a sharp intermittent patter of musketry passed on towards Inverness.  But the battle was presented to the imagination, in these old personal narratives, in many a diverse form.  I have been told by an ancient woman, who, on the day of the fight, was engaged in tending some sheep on a solitary common near Munlochy, separated from the Moor of Culloden by the Firth, and screened by a lofty hill, that she sat listening in terror to the boom of the cannon; but that she was still more scared by the continuous howling of her dog, who sat upright on his haunches all the time the firing lasted, with his neck stretched out towards the battle, and "looking as if he saw a spirit."  Such are some of the recollections which link the memories of a man who has lived his half-century, to those of the preceding age, and which serve to remind him how one generation of men after another break and disappear on the shores of the eternal world, as wave after wave breaks in foam upon the beach, when storms are rising, and the ground-swell sets in heavily from the sea.


 
CHAPTER VII.

Whose elfin prowess scaled the orchard wall."—ROGERS.


SOME of the wealthier tradesmen of the town, dissatisfied with the small progress which their boys were making under the parish schoolmaster, clubbed together and got a schoolmaster of their own; but though a rather clever young man, he proved an unsteady one, and, regular in his irregularities, got diurnally drunk, on receiving the instalments of his salary at term-days, as long as his money lasted.  Getting rid of him, they procured another—a licentiate of the Church—who for some time promised well.  He seemed steady and thoughtful, and withal a painstaking teacher; but coming in contact with some zealous Baptists, they succeeded in conjuring up such a cloud of doubt around him regarding the propriety of infant baptism, that both his bodily and mental health became affected by his perplexities, and he had to resign his charge.  And then, after a pause, during which the boys enjoyed a delightfully long vacation, they got yet a third schoolmaster, also a licentiate, and a person of a high, if not very consistent religious profession, who was always getting into pecuniary difficulties, and always courting, though with but little success, wealthy ladies, who, according to the poet, had "acres of charms."  To the subscription school I was transferred, at the instance of Uncle James, who remained quite sure, notwithstanding the experience of the past, that I was destined to be a scholar.  And, invariably fortunate in my opportunities of amusement the transference took place only a few weeks ere the better schoolmaster, losing health and heart, in a labyrinth of perplexity resigned his charge.  I had little more than time enough to look about me on the new forms, and to renew, on a firmer foundation than ever, my friendship with my old associate of the cave—who had been for the two previous years an inmate of the subscription school, and was now less under maternal control than before—when on came the long vacation; and for four happy months I had nothing to do.

    My amusements had undergone very little change: I was even fonder of the shores and woods than ever, and better acquainted with the rocks and caves.  A very considerable change, however, had taken place in the amusements of the school-fellows my contemporaries, who were now from two to three years older than when I had been associated with them in the parish school.  Hy-spy [44] had lost its charms; nor was there much of its old interest for them in French and English; whereas my rock excursions they came to regard as very interesting indeed.  With the exception of my friend of the cave, they cared little about rocks or stones; but they all liked brambles, and sloes, and craws-apples, tolerably well, and took great delight in assisting me to kindle fires in the caverns of the old-coast line, at which we used to broil shell-fish and crabs, taken among the crags and boulders of the ebb below, and roast potatoes, transferred from the fields of the hill above.  There was one cave, an especial favourite with us, in which our fires used to blaze day after day for weeks together.  It is deeply hollowed in the base of a steep ivy-mantled precipice of granitic gneiss, a full hundred feet in height; and bears on its smoothed sides and roof, and along its uneven bottom,—fretted into pot-like cavities, with large rounded pebbles in them,—unequivocal evidence that the excavating agent to which it owed its existence had been the wild surf of this exposed shore.  But for more than two thousand years waves had never reached it: the last general elevation of the land had raised it beyond the reach of the highest stream-tides; and when my gang and I took possession of its twilight recesses, its stony aides were crusted with mosses and liverworts; and a crop of pale, attenuated, sickly-looking weeds, on which the sun had never looked in his strength, sprang thickly up over its floor.  In the remote past it had been used as a sort of garner and thrashing-place by a farmer of the parish, named Marcus, who had succeeded in rearing crops of bere and oats on two sloping plots at the foot of the cliffs in its immediate neighbourhood; and it was known, from this circumstance, to my uncles and the older inhabitants of the town, as Marcus's Cave.  My companions, however, had been chiefly drawn to it by a much more recent association.  A poor Highland pensioner—a sorely dilapidated relic of the French-American War, who had fought under General Wolfe in his day—had taken a great fancy to the cave, and would fain have made it his home.  He was ill at ease in his family;—his wife was a termagant, and his daughter disreputable; and, desirous to quit their society altogether, and live as a hermit among the rocks, he had made application to the gentleman who tenanted the farm above, to be permitted to fit up the cave for himself as a dwelling.  So bad was his English, however, that the gentleman failed to understand him; and his request was, as he believed, rejected, while it was in reality only not understood.  Among the younger folk the cave came to be known, from the incident, as "Rory Shingles' Cave"; and my companions were delighted to believe that they were living in it as Rory would have lived, had his petition been granted.  In the wild half-savage life which we led, we did contrive to provide for ourselves remarkably well.  The rocky shores supplied us with limpets, periwinkles, and crabs, and now and then a lumpfish; the rugged slopes under the precipices, with hips, sloes, and brambles; the broken fragments of wreck along the beach, and the wood above, furnished abundance of fuel; and as there were fields not half a mile away, I fear the more solid part of our diet consisted often of potatoes which we had not planted, and of pease and beans which we had not sown.  One of our number contrived to bring away a pot unobserved from his home; another succeeded in providing us with a pitcher; there was a good spring not two hundred yards from the cave mouth, which supplied us with water; and, thus possessed of not merely all that nature requires, but a good deal more, we contrived to fare sumptuously every day.  It has been often remarked, that civilized man, when placed in circumstances at all favourable, soon learns to assume the savage.  I shall not say that my companions or myself had been particularly civilized in our previous state; but nothing could be more certain, than that during our long vacation, we became very happy, and tolerably perfect savages.  The class which we attended was of a kind not opened in any of our accredited schools, and it might be difficult to procure testimonials in its behalf, easily procurable as these usually are; and yet there were some of its lessons which might be conned with some little advantage, by one desirous of cultivating the noble sentiment of self-reliance, or the all-important habit of self-help.  At the time, however, they appeared quite pointless enough; and the moral, as in the case of the continental apologue of Reynard the Fox, seemed always omitted.

    Our parties in these excursions used at times to swell out to ten or twelve—at times to contract to two or three; but what they gained in quantity they always lost in quality, and became mischievous with the addition of every new member, in greatly more than the arithmetical ratio.  When most innocent, they consisted of only a brace of members—a warm-hearted, intelligent boy from the south of Scotland, who boarded with two elderly ladies of the place, and attended the subscription school; and the acknowledged leader of the band, who, belonging to the permanent irreducible staff of the establishment, was never off duty.  We used to be very happy, and not altogether irrational, in these little skeleton parties.  My new friend was a gentle, tasteful boy, fond of poetry, and a writer of soft, simple verses in the old-fashioned pastoral vein, which he never showed to any one save myself; and we learned to love one another all the more, from the circumstance that I was of a somewhat bold, self relying temperament, and he of a clinging, timid one.  Two of the stanzas of a little pastoral, which he addressed to me about a twelvemonth after this time, when permanently quitting the north country for Edinburgh, still remain fixed in my memory; and I must submit them to the reader, both as adequately representative of the many others, their fellows, which have been lost, and of that juvenile poetry in general which "is written," according to Sir Walter Scott, "rather from the recollection of what has pleased the author in others, than what has been suggested by his own imagination."


To you my poor sheep I resign,
    My colly, my crook, and my horn:
To leave you, indeed, I repine,
    But I must away with the morn.
New scenes shall evolve on my sight,
    The world and its follies be new;
But ah! can such scenes of delight
    Ere arise, as I witnessed with you! [45]


Timid as he naturally was, he soon learned to abide in my company terrors which most of my bolder companions shrank from encountering.  I was fond of lingering in the caves until long after nightfall, especially in those seasons when the moon at full, or but a few days in her wane, rose out of the sea as the evening wore on, to light up the wild precipices of that solitary shore, and to render practicable our ascending path to the hill above.  And Finlay was almost the only one of my band who dared to encounter with me the terrors of the darkness.  Our fire has often startled the benighted boatman as he came rowing round some rocky promontory, and saw the red glare streaming seawards from the cavern mouth, and partially lighting up the angry tumbling of the surf beyond; and excise-cutters have oftener than once altered their tack in middle Firth, and come bearing towards the coast, to determine whether the wild rocks of Marcus were not becoming a haunt of smugglers.

    Immediately beyond the granitic gneiss of the hill there is a subaqueous deposit of the Lias [46] formation, never yet explored by geologist, because never yet laid bare by the ebb; though every heavier storm from the sea tells of its existence, by tossing ashore fragments of its dark bituminous shale.  I soon ascertained that the shale is so largely charged with inflammable matter as to burn with a strong flame, as if steeped in tar or oil, and that I could repeat with it the common experiment of producing gas by means of a tobacco-pipe luted with clay.  And, having read in Shakspere of a fuel termed "sea-coal," and unaware at the time that the poet merely meant coal brought to London by sea, I inferred that the inflammable shale cast up from the depths of the Firth by the waves could not be other than the veritable "sea-coal" which figured in the reminiscences of Dame Quickly; and so, assisted by Finlay, who shared in the interest which I felt in the substance, as at once classical and an original discovery, I used to collect it in large quantities and convert it into smoky and troubled fires, that ever filled our cavern with a horrible stench, and scented all the shore.  Though unaware of the fact at the time, it owed its inflammability, not to vegetable, but to animal substance; the tar which used to boil in it to the heat, like resin in a fagot of moss-fir, was as strange a mixture as ever yet bubbled in witches' caldron—blood of pterodactyle [47] and grease of ichthyosaur [48]—eye of belemnite [49] and hood of nautilus [50]; and we learned to delight in its very smell, all oppressive as that was, as something wild, strange, and inexplicable.  Once or twice I seemed on the eve of a discovery: in splitting the masses, I occasionally saw what appeared to be fragments of shells embedded in its substance; and at least once I laid open a mysterious-looking scroll or volute, existing on the dark surface as a cream-coloured film; but though these organisms raised a temporary wonder, it was not until a later period that I learned to comprehend their true import, as the half-effaced but still decipherable characters of a marvellous record of the grey, dream-encircled past.

    With the docile Finlay as my companion, and left to work out my own will unchallenged, I was rarely or never mischievous.  On the occasions, however, in which my band swelled out to ten or a dozen, I often experienced the ordinary evils of leadership, as known in all gangs and parties, civil and ecclesiastical; and was sometimes led, in consequence, to engage in enterprises which my better judgment condemned.  I fain wish that among the other "Confessions" with which our literature is charged, we had the bona fide "Confessions of a Leader," with examples of the cases in which, though he seems to overbear, he is in reality overborne, and actually follows, though he appears to lead.  Honest Sir William Wallace, though seven feet high, and a hero, was at once candid and humble enough to confess to the canons of Hexham, that, his "soldiers being evil-disposed men," whom he could neither "justify nor punish," he was able to protect women and Churchmen only so long as they "abided in his sight."  And, of course, other leaders, less tall and less heroic, must not unfrequently find themselves, had they but Wallace's magnanimity to confess the fact, in circumstances much akin to those of Wallace.  When bee-masters get hold of queen bees, they are able, by controlling the movements of these natural leaders of hives, to control the movements of the hives themselves; and not unfrequently in Churches and States do there exist inconspicuous bee-masters, who, by influencing or controlling the leader-bees, in reality influence and control the movements of the entire body, politic or ecclesiastical, over which these natural monarchs seem to preside.  But truce with apology.  Partly in the character of leader-partly being myself led—I succeeded about this time in getting one of my larger parties into a tolerably serious scrape.  We passed every day, on our way to the cave, a fine large orchard, attached to the manor-house of Cromarty estate; and in ascending an adjacent hill over which our path lay, and which commands a bird's-eye view of the trim-kept walks and well-laden trees, there used not unfrequently to arise wild speculations among us regarding the possibility and propriety of getting a supply of the fruit, to serve as desserts to our meals of shell-fish and potatoes.  Weeks elapsed, however, and autumn was drawing on to its close, ere we could quite make up our minds regarding the adventure, when at length I agreed to lead; and, after arranging the plan of the expedition, we broke into the orchard under the cloud of night, and carried away with us whole pocketfuls of apples.  They were all intolerably bad—sour, hard, baking apples; for we had delayed the enterprise until the better fruit had been pulled: but though they set our teeth on edge, and we flung most of them into the sea, we had "snatched" in the foray, what Gray well terms "a fearful joy," and had some thought of repeating it, merely for the sake of the excitement induced and the risk encountered, when out came the astounding fact, that one of our number had "peached," and, in the character of king's evidence, betrayed his companions.

    The factor of the Cromarty property had an orphan nephew, who formed at times a member of our gang, and who had taken a willing part in the orchard foray.  He had also engaged, however, in a second enterprise of a similar kind wholly on his own account, of which we knew nothing.  An out-house pertaining to the dwelling in which he lodged, though itself situated outside the orchard, was attached to another house inside the walls, which was employed by the gardener as a store-place for his apples; and finding an unsuspected crevice in the partition which divided the two buildings, somewhat resembling that through which Pyramus and Thisbe made love of old in the city of Babylon, our comrade, straightway availing himself of so fair an opening, fell a-courting the gardener's apples.  Sharpening the end of a long stick, he began harpooning, through the hole, the apple-heap below; and though the hole was greatly too small for admitting the finer and larger specimens, and they, in consequence, fell back, disengaged from the harpoon, in the attempt to land them, he succeeded in getting a good many of the smaller ones.  Old John Clark the gardener—far advanced in life at the time, and seeing too imperfectly to discover the crevice which opened high amid the obscurity of the loft—was in a perfect maze regarding the evil influence that was destroying his apples.  The harpooned individuals lay scattered over the floor by scores; but the agent that had dispersed and perforated them remained for weeks together an inscrutable mystery to John.  At length, however, there came a luckless morning, in which our quondam companion lost hold, when busy at work, of the pointed stick; and when John next entered his storehouse, the guilty harpoon lay stretched across the harpooned apples.  The discovery was followed up; the culprit detected; and, on being closeted with his uncle the factor, he communicated not only the details of his own special adventure, but the particulars of ours also.  And early next day there was a message sent us by a safe and secret messenger, to the effect that we would be all put in prison in the course of the week.

    We were terribly frightened; so much so, that the strong point of our position—the double-dyed guilt of the factor's nephew—failed to occur to any of us; and we looked for only instant incarceration.  I still remember the intense feeling of shame I used to experience every time I crossed my mother's door for the street—the agonizing, all-engrossing belief that every one was looking at and pointing me out—and the terror, when in my uncles'—akin to that of the culprit who hears from his box the footsteps of the returning jury—that, having learned of my offence, they were preparing to denounce me as a disgrace to an honest family, on which, in the memory of man, no stain had before rested.  The discipline was eminently wholesome, and I never forgot it.  It did seem somewhat strange, however, that no one appeared to know anything about our misdemeanour: the factor kept our secret remarkably well; but we inferred he was doing so in order to pounce upon us all the more effectually; and, holding a hasty council in the cave, we resolved that, quitting our homes for a few weeks, we should live among the rocks till the storm that seemed rising should have blown by.

    Marcus's Cave was too accessible and too well known; but my knowledge of the locality enabled me to recommend to my lads two other caves in which I thought we might be safe.  The one opened in a thicket of furze, some forty feet above the shore; and, though large enough within to contain from fifteen to twenty men, it presented outside much the appearance of a fox-earth, and was not known to half-a-dozen people in the country.  It was, however, damp and dark; and we found that we could not venture on lighting a fire in it without danger of suffocation.  It was pronounced excellent, however, as a temporary place of concealment, were the search for us to become very hot.  The other cavern was wide and open; but it was a wild, ghostly-looking place, scarcely once visited from one twelvemonth's end to another: its floor was green with mould, and its ridgy walls and roof bristled over with slim pale stalactites, which looked like the pointed tags that roughen a dead-dress.  It was certain, too, that it was haunted.  Marks of a cloven foot might be seen freshly impressed on its floor, which had been produced either by a stray goat, or by something worse; and the few boys to whom its existence and character were known used to speak of it under their breath as "the Devil's Cave."  My lads did at first look round them as we entered, with an awe-struck and disconsolate expression; but falling busily to work among the cliffs, we collected large quantities of withered grass and fern for bedding, and, selecting the drier and less exposed portions of the floor, soon piled up for ourselves a row of little lairs, formed in a sort of half-way style between that of the wild beast and the gipsy, on which it would have been possible enough to sleep.  We selected, too, a place for our fire, gathered a little heap of fuel, and secreted in a recess, for ready use, our Marcus' Cave pot and pitcher, and the lethal weapons of the gang, which consisted of an old bayonet so corroded with rust that it somewhat resembled a three-edged saw and an old horseman's pistol tied fast to the stock by cobbler's ends, and with lock and ramrod wanting.  Evening surprised us in the middle of our preparations; and as the shadows fell dark and thick, my lads began to look most uncomfortably around them.  At length they fairly struck work: there was no use, they said, for being in the Devil's Cave so late—no use, indeed, for being in it at all, until we were made sure the factor did actually intend to imprison us; and, after delivering themselves to this effect, they fairly bolted, leaving Finlay and myself to bring up the rear at our leisure.  My well-laid plan was, in short, found unworkable, from the inferior quality of my materials.  I returned home with a heavy heart, somewhat grieved that I had not confided my scheme to only Finlay, who could, I ascertained, do braver things, with all his timidity, than the bolder boys, our occasional associates.  And yet, when in passing homewards through the dark lonely woods of the Hill, I bethought me of the still deeper solitude and gloom of the haunted cave far below, and thought further, that at that very moment the mysterious being with the cloven foot might be traversing its silent floor, I felt my blood run cold, and at once leaped to the conclusion that, save for the disgrace, a cave with an evil spirit in it could be not a great deal better than a prison.  Of the prison, however, we heard no more; though I never forgot the grim but precious lesson read me by the  factor's threat; and from that time till the present—save now and then, by inadvertently admitting into my newspaper a paragraph written in too terse a style by some good man in the provinces, against some very bad man his neighbour—I have not been fairly within wind of the law.  I would, however, seriously advise such of my young friends as may cast a curious eye over these pages to avoid taking any such lesson as mine at first-hand.  One half-hour of the mental anguish which I at this time experienced, when I thought of my mother and uncles, and the infamy of a prison, would have vastly more than counterbalanced all that could have been enjoyed from banqueting on apples, even had they been those of the Hesperides or of Eden, instead of being, what they were in this case, green masses of harsh acid, alike formidable to teeth and stomach.  I must add, in justice to my friend of the Doocot Cave, that, though an occasional visitor at Marcus, he had prudently avoided getting into this scrape.

    Our long vacation came at length to an end, by the appointment of a teacher to the subscription school; but the arrangement was not the most profitable possible for the pupils.  It was an ominous circumstance, that we learned in a few days to designate the new master by a nickname, and that the name stuck—a misfortune which almost never befalls the truly superior man.  He had, however, a certain dash of cleverness about him; and observing that I was of potent influence among my schoolfellows, he set himself to determine the grounds on which my authority rested.  Copy and arithmetic books, in schools in which there was liberty, used in those ancient times to be charged with curious revelations.  In the parish school, for instance, which excelled, as I have said, every other school in the world in its knowledge of barques and carvels, it was not uncommon to find a book which, when opened at the right end, presented only copy-lines or arithmetical questions, that, when opened at the wrong one, presented only ships and boats.  And there were cases on record in which, on the grand annual examination-day that heralded the vacation, the worthy parish minister, by beginning to turn over the leaves of some exhibited book at the reverse end, found himself engaged, when expecting only the questions of Cocker, or the slip-lines of Butterworth, amid whole fleets of smacks, frigates, and brigantines.  My new master, professionally acquainted with this secret property of arithmetic and copy-books, laid hold of mine, and, bringing them to his desk, found them charged with very extraordinary revelations indeed.  The blank spaces were occupied with deplorably scrabbled couplets and stanzas, blent with occasional remarks in rude prose, that dealt chiefly with natural phenomena.  One note, for instance, which the master took the trouble of deciphering, referred to the supposed fact, familiar as a matter of sensation to boys located on the sea-coast, that during the bathing season the water is warmer on windy days, when the waves break high, than during dead calms; and accounted for it (I fear not very philosophically) on the hypothesis that the "waves, by slapping against each other, engender heat, as heat may be engendered by clapping the hands."  The master read on, evidently with much difficulty, and apparently with considerable scepticism: he inferred that I had been borrowing, not inventing: though where such prose and such verse could have been borrowed, and, in especial, such grammar and such spelling, even cleverer men than he might well have despaired of ever finding out.  And in order to test my powers, he proposed furnishing me with a theme on which to write.  "Let us see," he said, "let us see: the dancing-school ball comes on here next week—bring me a poem on the dancing school ball."  The subject did not promise a great deal; but, setting myself to work in the evening, I produced half-a-dozen stanzas on the ball, which were received as good, in evidence that I actually could rhyme; and for some weeks after I was rather a favourite with the new master.

    I had, however, ere now become a wild insubordinate boy, and the only school in which I could properly be taught was that world-wide school which awaited me, in which Toil and Hardship are the severe but noble teachers.  I got into sad scrapes.  Quarrelling, on one occasion, with a boy of my own standing, we exchanged blows across the form; and when called up for trial and punishment the fault was found to attach so equally to both sides, that the same number of palmies, well laid on, were awarded to each.  I bore mine, however, like a North American Indian whereas my antagonist began to howl  and cry; and I could not resist the temptation of saying to him in a whisper that unluckily reached the ear of the master, "ye big blubbering blockhead, take that for a drubbing from me."  I had of course to receive a few palmies additional for the speech; but then, "who cared for that?"  The master, however, 'cared" considerably more for the offence than I did for the punishment.  And in a subsequent quarrel with another boy—a stout and somewhat desperate mulatto—I got into a worse scrape still, of which he thought still worse.  The mulatto, in his battles, which were many, had a trick, when in danger of being over-matched, of drawing his knife; and in our affair—the necessities of the fight seeming to require it—he drew his knife upon me.  To his horror and astonishment, however, instead of running off, I immediately drew mine, and, quick as lightning, stabbed him in the thigh.  He roared out in fright and pain, and, though more alarmed than hurt, never after drew knife upon a combatant.  But the value of the lesson which I gave, was like most other very valuable things, inadequately appreciated; and it merely procured for me the character of being a dangerous boy.  I had certainly reached a dangerous stage; but it was mainly myself that was in jeopardy.  There is a transition-time in which the strength and independence of the latent man begin to mingle with the wilfulness and indiscretion of the mere boy, which is more perilous than any other, in which many more downward careers of recklessness and folly begin, that end in wreck and ruin, than in all the other years of life which intervene between childhood and old age.  The growing lad should be wisely and tenderly dealt with at this critical stage.  The severity that would fain compel the implicit submission yielded at an earlier period, would probably succeed, if his character was a strong one, in insuring but his ruin.  It is at this transition-stage that boys run off to sea from parents and masters, or, when tall enough, enlist in the army for soldiers.  The strictly orthodox parent, if more severe than wise, succeeds occasionally in driving, during this crisis, his son into Popery or infidelity; and the sternly moral one, in landing his in utter profligacy.  But, leniently and judiciously dealt with, the dangerous period passes: in a few years at most—in some instances in even a few months—the sobriety incidental to a further development of character ensues, and the wild boy settles down, into a rational young man.

    It so chanced, however, that in what proved the closing scene in my term of school attendance, I was rather unfortunate than guilty.  The class to which I now belonged read an English lesson every afternoon, and had its rounds of spelling; and in these last I acquitted myself but ill; partly from the circumstance that I spelt only indifferently, but still more from the further circumstance, that, retaining strongly fixed in my memory the broad Scotch pronunciation acquired at the dames' school, I had to carry on in my mind the double process of at once spelling the acquired word, and of translating the old sounds of the letters of which it was composed into the modern ones.  Nor had I been taught to break the words into syllables; and so, when required one evening to spell the word "awful," with much deliberation—for I had to translate, as I went on, the letters a-w and u—I spelt it word for word, without break or pause, as a-w-f-u-l.  "No," said the master, "a-w, aw, f-u-l, awful; spell again."  This seemed preposterous spelling.  It was sticking in an a, as I thought, into the middle of the word, where, I was sure, no a had a right to be; and so I spelt it as at first.  The master recompensed my supposed contumacy with a sharp cut athwart the ears with his tawse; and again demanding the spelling of the word, I yet again spelt it as at first.  But on receiving a second cut, I refused to spell it any more; and, determined on overcoming my obstinacy, he laid hold of me and attempted throwing me down.  As wrestling, however, had been one of our favourite Marcus' Cave exercises, and as few lads of my inches wrestled better than I, the master, though a tall and tolerably robust fellow, found the feat considerably more difficult than he could have supposed.  We swayed from side to side of the school-room, now backwards, now forwards, and for a full minute it seemed to be a rather a moot point on which side the victory was to incline.  At length, however, I was tripped over a form; and as the master had to deal with me, not as master usually deals with pupil, but as one combatant deals with another, whom he has to beat into submission, I was mauled in a way that filled me with aches and bruises for a full month thereafter.  I greatly fear that, had I met the fellow on a lonely road five years subsequent to our encounter, when I had become strong enough to raise breast-high the "great lifting stone of the Dropping Cave," he would have caught as sound a thrashing as he ever gave to a little boy or girl in his life; but all I could do at this time was to take down my cap from off the pin, when the affair had ended, and march straight out of school.  And thus terminated my school education.  Before night I had avenged myself, in a copy of satiric verses, entitled "The Pedagogue," which—as they had some little cleverness in them, regarded as the work of a boy, and as the known eccentricities of their subject gave me large scope—occasioned a good deal of merriment in the place; and of the verses a fair copy, written out by Finlay, was transmitted through the Post-office to the pedagogue himself.  But the only notice he ever took of them was incidentally, in a short speech made to the copyist a few days after.  "I see, Sir," he said, "I see you still associate with that fellow Miller; perhaps he will make you a poet!"  "I thought, Sir," said Finlay very quietly, in reply, "that poets were born—not made."

    As a specimen of the rhyme of this period, and as in some degree a set-off against my drubbing, which remains till this day an unsettled score, I submit my pasquinade to the reader:—


THE PEDAGOGUE


W
ITH solemn mien and pious air,
    S—k—r [51] attends each call of grace;
Loud eloquence bedecks his prayer,
    And formal sanctity his face.

All good; but turn the other side,
And see the smirking beau displayed;
The pompous strut, exalted air,
And all that marks the fop, is there.

In character we seldom see
Traits so diverse meet and agree:
Can the affected mincing trip,
Exalted brow, and pride-pressed lip,
In strange incongruous union meet,
With all that stamps the hypocrite?
We see they do: but let us scan
Those secret springs which move the man.

Though now he wields the knotty birch,
His better hope lies in the Church:
For this the sable robe he wears,
For this in pious guise appears.
But then, the weak will cannot hide
Th' inherent vanity and pride;
And thus he acts the coxcomb's part,
As dearer to his poor vain heart:
Nature's born fop! a saint by art! !
But hold! he wears no fopling's dress
Each seam, each thread, the eye can trace,
His garb all o'er;—the dye though true,
Time-blanch'd, displays a fainter hue:
Dress forms the fopling's better part;
Reconcile this, and prove your art.

"Chill penury represses pride;"—
A maxim by the wise denied;
For 'tis alone tame plodding souls,
Whose spirits bend when it controls,—
Whose lives run on in one dull same,
Plain honesty their highest aim.

With him it merely can repress—
Tailor o'er-cow'd—the pomp of dress;
His spirit, unrepressed, can soar
High as e'er folly rose before;
Can fly pale study, learn'd debate,
And ape proud fashion's idle state;
Yet fails in that engaging grace
That lights the practised courtier's face.
His weak affected air we mark,
And, smiling, view the would-be spark;
Complete in every act and feature,—
An ill-bred, silly, awkward creature.


    My school-days fairly over, a life of toil frowned full in front of me; but never yet was there a half-grown lad less willing to take up the man and lay down the boy.  My set of companions was fast breaking up;—my friend of the Doocot Cave was on the eve of proceeding to an academy in a neighbouring town; Finlay had received a call from the south, to finish his education in a seminary on the banks of the Tweed; one Marcus' Cave lad was preparing to go to sea; another to learn a trade; a third to enter a shop; the time of dispersal was too evidently at hand; and, taking counsel one day together, we resolved on constructing something—we at first knew not what—that might serve as a monument to recall to us in after years the memory of our early pastimes and enjoyments.  The common school-book story of the Persian shepherd, who, when raised by his sovereign to high place in the empire, derived his chief pleasure from contemplating in a secret apartment, the pipe, crook, and rude habiliments of his happier days, suggested to me that we also should have our secret apartment, in which to store up, for future contemplation, our bayonet and pistol, pot and pitcher; and I recommended that we should set ourselves to dig a subterranean chamber for that purpose among the woods of the Hill, accessible, like the mysterious vaults of our story books, by a trap-door.  The proposal was favourably received; and, selecting a solitary spot among the trees as a proper site, and procuring spade and mattock, we began to dig.

    Soon passing through the thin crust of vegetable mould, we found the red boulder clay beneath exceedingly stiff and hard; but day after day saw us perseveringly at work; and we succeeded in digging a huge square pit about six feet in length and breadth, and fully seven feet deep. Fixing four upright posts in the corners, we lined our apartment with slender spars nailed closely together; and we had prepared for giving it a massive roof of beams formed of fallen trees, and strong enough to bear a layer of earth and turf from a foot to a foot and a half in depth, with a little opening for the trap-door; when we found, one morning, on pressing onwards to the scene of our labours, that we were doggedly tracked by a horde of boys considerably more numerous than our own party.  Their curiosity had been excited, like that of the Princess Nekayah in Rasselas, by the tools which we carried, and by "seeing that we had directed our walk every day to the same point;" and in vain, by running and doubling, by scolding and remonstrating, did we now attempt shaking them off.  I saw that, were we to provoke a general męlée, we could scarce expect to come off victors; but deeming myself fully a match for their stoutest boy, I stepped out and challenged him to come forward and fight me.  He hesitated, looked foolish, and refused; but said, he would readily fight with any of my party except myself.  I immediately named my friend of the Doocot Cave, who leaped out with a bound to meet him; but the boy, as I had anticipated, refused to fight him also; and, observing the proper effect produced, I ordered my lads to march forward; and from an upper slope of the hill we had the satisfaction of seeing that our pursuers, after lingering for a little while on the spot on which we had left them, turned homewards fairly cowed, and pursued us no more.  But, alas! on reaching our secret chamber, we ascertained, by marks all too unequivocal, that it was to be secret no longer.  Some rude hand had torn down the wooden lining, and cut two of the posts half through with a hatchet; and on returning disconsolately to the town, we ascertained that Johnstone the forester had just been there before us, declaring that some atrociously wicked persons—for whose apprehension a proclamation was to be instantly issued—had contrived a diabolical trap, which he had just discovered, for maiming the cattle of the gentleman, his employer, who farmed the Hill.  Johnstone was an old Forty-Second man, who had followed Wellington over the larger part of the Peninsula; but though he had witnessed the storming and sack of San Sebastian, and a great many other bad things, nothing had he ever seen on the Peninsula, or anywhere else, he said, half so mischievous as the cattle-trap.  We, of course, kept our own secret; and as we all returned under the cloud of night, and with heavy hearts filled up our excavation level with the soil, the threatened proclamation was never issued.  Johnstone, however—who had been watching my motions for a considerable time before, and whom, as he was a formidable fellow, very unlike any of the other foresters, I had been sedulously watching in turn—had no hesitation in declaring that I, and I only, could be the designer of the cattle-trap.  I had acquainted myself in books, he said, with the mode of entrapping by pitfalls wild beasts in the forests abroad; and my trap for the Colonel's cattle was, he was certain, a result of my book-acquired knowledge.

    I was one day lounging in front of my mother's dwelling, when up came Johnstone to address me.  As the evidence regarding the excavation had totally broken down, I was aware of no special offence at the time that could have secured for me such a piece of attention, and inferred that the old soldier was labouring under some mistake; but Johnstone's address soon evinced that he was not in the least mistaken.  "He wished to be acquainted with me," he said.  "It was all nonsense for us to be bothering one another, when we had no cause to quarrel."  He used occasionally to eke out his pension, and his scanty allowance as forester, by catching a basket of fish for himself from off the rocks of the Hill; and he had just discovered a projecting rock at the foot of a tall precipice, which would prove, he was sure, one of the best fishing platforms in the Firth.  But then, in the existing state, it was wholly inaccessible.  He was, however, of opinion, that it was possible to lay it open by carrying a path adown the shelving face of the precipice.  He had seen Wellington address himself to quite as desperate-looking matters in the Peninsula; and were I but to assist him, he was sure, he said, we could construct between us the necessary path.  The undertaking was one wholly according to my own heart; and next morning Johnstone and I were hard at work on the giddy brow of the precipice.  It was topped by a thick bed of boulder clay, itself—such was the steepness of the slope—almost a precipice; but a series of deeply-cut steps led us easily adown the bed of clay; and then a sloping shelf, which, with much labour, we deepened and flattened, conducted us not unsafely some five-and-twenty or thirty feet long the face of the precipice proper.  A second series of steps, painfully scooped out of the living rock, and which passed within a few yards of a range of herons' nests perched on a hitherto inaccessible platform, brought us down some five-and-twenty or thirty feet more; but then we arrived at a sheer descent of about twenty feet, at which Johnstone looked rather blank, though, on my suggesting a ladder, he took heart again, and, cutting two slim taper trees in the wood above, we flung them over the precipice into the sea; and then fishing them up with a world of toil and trouble, we squared and bored them upwards, and, cutting tenons for them in the hard gneiss, we placed them against the rock front, and nailed over them a line of steps.  The precipice beneath sloped easily on to the fishing rock, and so a few steps more completed our path.  I never saw a man more delighted than Johnstone.  As being lighter and more active than he—for though not greatly advanced in life, he was considerably debilitated by severe wounds—I had to take some of the more perilous parts of the work on myself.  I had cut the tenons for the ladder with a rope round my waist, and had recovered the trees flung into the sea by some adroit swimming; and the old soldier became thoroughly impressed with the conviction that my proper sphere was the army.  I was already five feet three, he said; in little more than a twelvemonth I would be five feet seven; and were I then but to enlist, and to keep from the "drop drink"—a thing which he never could do—I would, he was certain, rise to be a serjeant.  In brief, such were the terms on which Johnstone and I learned to live ever after, that, had I constructed a score of traps for the Colonel's cattle, I believe he would have winked at them all.  Poor fellow! he got into difficulties a good many years after, and, on the accession of the Whigs to power, mortgaged his pension, and emigrated to Canada.  Deeming the terms hard, however, as he well might, he first wrote a letter to his old commander, the Duke of Wellington—I holding the pen for him—in which, in the hope that their stringency might be relaxed in his behalf, he stated both his services and his case.  And promptly did the Duke reply, in an essentially kind holograph epistle, in which, after stating that he had no influence at the time with the Ministers of the Crown, and no means of getting a relaxation of their terms in behalf of any one, he "earnestly recommended William Johnstone, first, not to seek a provision for himself in Canada, unless he were able-bodied, and fit to provide for himself in circumstances of extreme hardship; and, second, on no account to sell or mortgage his pension."  But the advice was not taken;—Johnstone did emigrate to Canada, and did mortgage his pension; and I fear—though I failed to trace his after history—that he suffered in consequence.



[Next Page]

 


[Home] [Up] [First Impressions] [Scenes and Legends] [Tales and Sketches] [The Betsey] [Leading Articles] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk