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Wilson's Border Tales
Aunt Margaret's Story

Many of the most pleasing associations of my younger years are connected with my worthy old grand-aunt, Margaret, whom I had been accustomed, from my earliest infancy, to see in a comfortable easy chair, placed on the warmest side of our parlour hearth, busied with her knitting or her Bible. There is something reverend, and, at the same time, peculiarly agreeable, about the image of her, that remains on my memory. She was rather above the common stature of her sex; her figure slender, and, even in age, erect and stately; her forehead was round and lofty, and, though not furrowed with deep wrinkles, it yet bore the traces of thought. Her black eye, which had then lost much of its lustre, was still intelligent; the loss of brilliancy having rather communicated a sad or melancholy expression than diminished its intelligence. Her cheek was pale and marble-like; and about her thin, well-formed lips, there was something approaching to a smile, that still was not a smile—which by itself, expressed great benevolence and affection, and in the tout ensemble, presented an air of soothed and chastened sorrow. Her black hair, through which ran many a silver thread, was smoothly braided over her forehead; and a cap, as scrupulously plain as it was neat, completed her head dress. Such was her person. Her conversation was generally cheerful—never gay; a tone of elevated, refined poetical sentiment, often mingled in it, and astonished older and more experienced persons than I was. I do not remember that she ever exceeded a gentle smile in her mirth; yet, in our merriest moods, we never thought of avoiding her. She frequently talked in an abstracted manner that was quite unintelligible to us, as if she were thinking aloud, or rather as if she conversed with some unseen visitor. It was then she seemed happiest. Her face would be animated by an unwonted liveliness; then, all at once she would check herself, heave a deep sigh, and, with great bustle and apparent confusion, resume her neglected knitting. As I advanced in life, I experienced an increasing pleasure in her conversation. When I came home during our vacations, her society formed one of my highest enjoyments. And I have often been astonished when my after experience discovered to me the extent and accuracy of her knowledge of mankind.

It was about the merry season of Christmas—every member of the family had gone to an annual merry-making at a neighbouring farm, except my good old grand-aunt and myself; she having outlived the time when such things are endurable, and I being detained by some slight indisposition. I was always a favourite with Aunt Margaret—chiefly, I believe, on account of some likeness she imagined she could trace in me, to her favourite brother who died in early youth; and also on account of my name—a ground of attachment we could never explain. In persons of unusually warm feelings, who have outlived the objects of their first attachments, we generally find that the attachments of their riper years are nothing else than resuscitations, if we may so speak, of their former passions. A resemblance, real or imaginary, in look or disposition, to a departed parent, brother, child, or lover— a tone of voice, or the accidental circumstance of a name, will often arouse the interest of their hearts, too much engrossed by the former to admit of any new or different attachment. Indeed, it is only old feelings revived by the presence of the qualities that formerly excited them, and not any new affection that is formed. Besides being a favourite in general with nurse; and, undisputed government of our little household. Moreover in such a situation as ours, parties such as that to which the rest of the family had gone are not of everyday occurence, and are looked forward to as occasions of great enjoyment. When either boy or girl is left behind in such circumstances, with a companion, young or old, they determine almost as it were in spite, to be extremely friendly and happy; and then is the time when we are especially disposed to be confidential. All these things were in favor of my design to get at Aunt Margaret’s story—for that she had a story to tell I could not doubt. Her chastened look showed its traces—her attachment to a name—her frequent sighs and involuntary expressions—her ill-concealed observance of two days annually, on which occasions she wore particular dress, and sundry little ornaments, that, at other times, were kept most sacredly from the light; which two days, moreover, were recorded on the blank leaf of a Bible that was never far from her side:—all these were symptoms of a story. It was impossible that a person of her marked character, ardent temperament, and delicate sensibility could have passed threescore years, even in the seclusion of a pastoral district, without having something to relate. I contrived, in the course of the evening’s conversation, to lead her gradually back towards that period of her life to which the date upon her Bible, before mentioned, directed my suspicions. As we approached it, the spirit of its history lived again in the tender and mournful emotions that evidently agitated her. The chord was at length touched, and almost regretted that I had ventured so far; but its vibrations were not to be interrupted. There was a degree of pleasure amid the painful emotions it excited—something like the mysterious "joy of grief." And, though female delicacy had preserved even till then the little incident as a holy, sacred thing, there was an evident relief to a burdened heart in the communication of its sorrows.

"You cannot understand it now," she said, "but you may hereafter, and sometimes when your Aunt Margaret’s heart is still and cold, you may think, with not the less kindness, of her when you remember this story. Oh, what vanity is the biggest and best of all earthly concerns!—A poor handful of dust shall then be all that remains of a beating, throbbing heart, which had concerns more important, in its own esteem, than the affairs of kingdoms or a world. Where shall be all these great concerns then? All forgotten, or only kept alive in your affection—a record like that on the sand of the sea-shore; for, if your own joys or sorrows do not blot it out, death will come at last, like a black raging wave, and sweep it away for ever. Look, Jamie, at that manly writing," she said, holding out the blank leaf of her Bible, on which was inscribed, in a bold, open hand—"Margaret Henderson, her Bible, Lonelee, 1753. Remember the 1st of June, and never forget it." And, under this, the last words were repeated in her own writing—"Yes, remember the 1st of June, and never, never forget it." "And manly was the heart that guided that hand," she continued—"the heart that never wished, and the hand that never wrought the hurt of living creature. He was a neighbour’s son: we were year’s bairns, as they say. He conducted me to school; protected me when I was there; and we learned the same lessons from A B C upwards. We had left school; and, as he was employed on his father’s farm, our friendship continued, and we saw each other almost every day. We read the same books, and almost thought the same thoughts. We never dreamed of parting, and we never dreamed of promises or pledges. And though, sometimes, visions of united happiness and prosperity had been given way to, may be with sinful confidence and anxiety, we never so much as mentioned love.

It was the Monday of the Sacrament at P—. We had both joined for the first time. It was a time to be remembered, though, I doubt, sinful terrors and tremblings did mix, and, in some way, confuse my better feelings. After sermon on the Monday, I had been sent over to the village on some little errand; and, though I think my feelings did in some measure, glow with that kindness to all mankind which was proper to such an occasion, yet I did not desire society. And, that I might be left to myself, I came round by the footpath that leads through the kirkpath and up through that bonny glen—every inch of both, and every tree and flower that grows in them, are dear and holy to me. The kirk and kirkyard stood there—so quiet—more solitary like than a desert. They seemed as if they belonged naturally to the place; and yet, with all their solemnity and loneliness, there was a sweetness and a calm about them, which, on that day at least, spoke to my heart of the holy peace and joy of heaven. And then the kirkyard with the big dark trees that threw their shadows over the graves of my "forebears," were all like so many parts of one heaven-spoken sermon. Nothing seemed out of place—every part answered its end; and, though they were partly melancholy feelings it awakened, I was not in haste to withdraw from the solemn converse. Long I stood under the plane tree opposite the west door; a thousand bees hummed amongst its blossoms, and a solitary cushat mourned unseen among its branches. I was at length forced to draw myself away; and, as I came slowly down by the little foot-path, I felt as if I descended from some awfully consecrated spot. Never did I think less of this weary world than at that moment.

At all times, P— kirk looks like a place that God and men had united in preparing as a place for divine worship—an altar erected for the poor and humble to present the offering of a broken and contrite heart on. I came down with a solemnised and a softened heart, and walked slowly through the glen, sprinkled over with daisies and pale primroses, full to overflowing with bright sunbeams, and the music of unnumbered sweet birds, viewless among the rich clustering loads of foliage that were piled upon both sides. I turned to look once more on the old kirk. The knowe on which it stood seemed, from that spot, to stand apart, for sacred purposes, from all the rest; a darker and deeper foliage was raised up around it—or, I might rather say, flourishing old sycamores threw a drapery of becoming solemnity around its sacred retreat; the heavenward spire and its cross rose above all, and added all that could be wished for to complete the picture. I scarcely ventured to wish that he--my ain Jamie, as I had called him from my infancy—were there. But I thought that, if I could wish for any one, it were he; and who should I see hurrying down the opposite bank but himself! I know not how it was—I had always met him with the same frankness as if he were my brother; but that instant my first thought was to shun him. Something, however, kept me fixed to the spot; and there I stood till his own manly voice greeted me with some good-natured remark about my business wandering there—"Some tryste, I warrant," said he.

"I have been thinking many solemn and happy thoughts," said I. He saw that I was in no mood to jest, and his mind at once sympathized with mine. We had a hundred things to say—many new and strange feelings to impart; for we could unbosom all our thoughts to each other. We became insensibly more and more grave, more and more quiet, till at last not one word passed between us. I ventured to look in his face; he seemed grieved, and I caught myself sigh as I looked. At last he said, "I must leave you, Margaret."

"We’ll go home together," I replied.

"Ah, but I mean that I must go far away—to the home of the stranger—where I shall have no Maggie to listen to all my nonsense and take an interest in all my feelings." And he went on to tell me how his father regretted his remaining at home; and that the laird had procured him a situation in an office at Alnwick, whither he was to go very soon. I could not tell you all that passed there.

A bed of "forget-me-not," had attracted us under a stately plane tree, and well I remember still the tone in which he said, as he gave me a choice sprig of that plant, "We’ll meet again in heaven, at least;" as if he were prepossessed that some untoward fate awaited us. He had just then pushed aside the curtain of leaves which the bending branches allowed to drop down to the very ground, when a flash of lightning startled us both. He drew back to my side—a peal of thunder rolled and echoed along the glen, and brought an awe over our minds; a rattling and rushing of heavy rain about the green roof of our retreat succeeded; flash followed flash, and peal on peal, still nearer and nearer. He exerted himself at first to sustain my courage; but at length uneasiness for my safety evidently overcame his desire to calm my fears. He stood there in breathless anxiety. The rain ceased; a vivid flash and an instantaneous roll of thunder seemed to burst over our heads. I clung to him, and he threw his arms around me--we both fell upon our knees—a gust of wind rushed down the glen, and the trees all at once bowed their heads in low obeisance to the Thunderer. There was then an awful pause. Suddenly a ball of fire darted from the dark cloud to which our eyes were turned in dismay imperfectly seen through the close leaves. Its strokes shivered a great old elm that stood bare and leafless before us, and the roar that followed without any interval was like the crash of a world. "Heaven spare my Margaret!" he exclaimed, as he pressed me closer to his heart. The fury of the storm was exhausted—it passed away; the dark clouds dispersed, the sun again looked out and smiled, the birds by degrees resumed their song, and the whole earth, refreshed, sent back the smiles of the sun. The shivered and prostrate elm was all that remained to tell of what had been. Our minds were relieved, and in some measure under the influence of the universal feeling of solemn joy; but I could not help feeling a kind of wicked superstitious fear, that this boded something ill. We were still upon our knees; it was the first time his arm had been thrown around me, except in jest; and the solemnity, the strangeness of the situation was too much to be disturbed by words from either of us. As we knelt, our eyes were turned towards Heaven in silent unutterable prayer; and we wept there together. I need not tell you of our happy and sorrowful meetings during the week that passed before he left us—of our mutual feelings at parting—or the desolation I felt when he had gone.

A year passed away, during which we had several happy meetings. Another sacrament came round, and we sat down together at the holy table. We met again in the glen on the Monday, and recalled all the strange events of our former meeting. It was under the self-same plane tree he gave me my Bible, on which he had written, as you saw, beside my name, "Remember the 1st of June, and never forget it." A needless memento. The day was engraven on my heart—it was the date of our first interview in the glen.

He had been highly recommended by his employers to the "laird," who proposed sending him, as under-factor, to live upon one of his estates. We were, you may be sure, both happy; for it gave us the prospect of being soon united, and I was proud of my laddie. The sweet month of May had come; and with that month his engagement with Messrs H— expired. He was then to come home to spend a few days among his friends; and, after spending two or three months in Edinburgh, he was to enter upon his new situation at Mounthall, when we should consider him settled in life. On a Saturday afternoon, near the end of May, he peeped in upon us unexpectedly. He had been sent on some business to the "laird," and was not to return till Monday. What a happy evening we spent together! The "laird" had formed the most favourable opinion of him, and had that afternoon said many kind things, on which we raised a thousand castles in the air, and formed many dreams of happiness--alas! never, never to be realized. He staid with us till a late hour. A heavy shower overtook him on his way home, from the effects of which he was never to recover. He called ere he went away on Monday morning; and little did I suspect that the few hasty words that passed between us were to be the last we should ever exchange. Information of his illness was sent home in a few days; and his mother went to wait by the bed that was to be his death-bed. His illness was concealed from me at first; but his sister came one morning to tell me that he was ill and had wished to see me. We set out together with much anxiety. I trembled to enter his little room. All was still, save his loud breathing. I attempted and drew back, and tried and tried again; and when at last I did get in, there was my ain Jamie, with the stamp of death on his manly face--his mother moistening his parched lips. How I got to his bedside I know not; but I remember well the effort he made to grasp and press my hand, the expression of satisfaction that stole over his death-like features, the look which he turned upwards as he seemed to mutter a prayer. With his last dying energy he pointed with one hand to heaven, and with difficulty uttered, "There, Margaret!" His face blackened with the effort. My eyes grew dim; my head reeled; and, scarcely capable of understanding that all was over, I fell down insensible, and in this state was taken home. For some days, I was almost without an interval delirious—sometimes, I could feel an awful, wild, utter desolateness about my heart that soon scared away my returning senses.

On the fourth morning after his death, while the sun shone brightly through the chinks of the window shutters, I rose, in a kind of half dream, and opened them. The glen was there, in all its wonted loveliness, the kirk just visible in the distance. A tumult of conflicting feelings possessed my breast; while a fearful shadowing of some indefinite evil hung over my heart; for, though the sudden and unexpected death of my ain Jamie had completely bewildered my perceptions, yet still, in my state of mournful isolation, faint glimmerings of the truth began to steal over my recollection. The window of the room in which I slept having a command of the kirkyard and glen, I continued to gaze on the dark trees that skirted the graves of my kindred; and, while my eye rested upon the broad plane tree where Jamie and I first exchanged our hearts, I saw a mournful funeral procession passing towards the burial ground. It was all before me, like a strange dream. I followed the procession till it disappeared amongst the trees, and endeavoured to recollect myself. The whole truth flashed at once upon my mind:—it was the last of my ain dear Jamie. It was the 1st of June; and well might I repeat his words upon the Bible, "Remember the 1st of June, and never forget it!"

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