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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 3

Ayr, gurgling, kissed his pebbled shore,
O’erhung with wild woods thick’ning green:
The fragrant birch and hawthorn hoar
Twined, amorous, round the raptured scene.

The flowers sprang wanton to be prest,
The birds sang love on every spray—
Till, too, too soon, the glowing west
Proclaimed the speed of winged day.
                               To Mary in Heaven.

We were early on the road together; the day, though somewhat gloomy, was mild and pleasant, and we walked slowly onward, neither of us in the least disposed to hasten our parting, by hastening our journey. We had discussed fifty different topics, and were prepared to enter on fifty more, when we reached the ancient burgh of Ayr, where our roads separated.

"I have taken an immense liking to you, Mr Lindsay," said my companion, as he seated himself on the parapet of the old bridge, "and have just bethought me of a scheme through which I may enjoy your company for, at least, one night more. The Ayr is a lovely river, and you tell me you have never explored it. We shall explore it together this evening, for about ten miles, when we shall find ourselves at the farm-house of Lochlea. You may depend on a hearty welcome from my father, whom, by the way, I wish much to introduce you to, as a man worth your knowing; and, as I have set my heart on the scheme, you are surely too good-natured to disappoint me." Little risk of that, I thought: I had, in fact, become thoroughly enamoured of the warm-hearted benevolence, and fascinating conversation of my companion, and acquiesced with the best good-will in the world.

We had threaded the course of the river for several miles. It runs through a wild pastoral valley, roughened by thickets of copsewood, and bounded, on either hand, by a line of swelling, moory hills, with here and there a few irregular patches of corn, and here and there some little nest-like cottage peeping out from among the wood. The clouds, which, during the morning, had obscured the entire face of the heavens, were breaking up their array, and the sun was looking down, in twenty different places, through the openings, checkering the landscape with a fantastic, though lovely carpeting of light and shadow. Before us, then rose a thick wood, on a jutting promontory, that looked blue and dark in the shade, as if it wore mourning; while the sunlit stream beyond shone through the trunks and branches like a river of fire. At length the clouds seemed to have melted in the blue—for there was not a breath of wind to speed them away—and the sun, now hastening to the west shone, in unbroken effulgence, over the wide extent of the dell, lighting up stream and wood, and field and cottage, in one continuous blaze of glory. We had walked on in silence for the last half hour; but I could sometimes hear my companion muttering as he went; and when, in passing through a thicket of hawthorn and honeysuckle, we started from its perch a linnet that had been filling the air with its melody. I could hear him exclaim, with a subdued tone of voice, "Bonny, bonny birdie! why hasten frae me?—I wadna skaith a feather o’ yer wing." He turned round to me, and I could see that his eyes were swimming in moisture.

"Can he be other," he said, "than a good and benevolent God, who gives us moments like these to enjoy? Oh! my friend, without these Sabbaths of the soul, that come to refresh and invigorate it, it would dry up within us! How exquisite," he continued, "how entire the sympathy which exists between all that is good and fair in external nature, and all of good and fair that dwells in our own! And, oh, how the heart expands and lightens! The world is as a grave to it—a closely-covered grave—and it shrinks and deadens, and contracts all its holier and more joyous feelings under the cold, earth-like pressure. But, amid the grand and lovely of nature—amid these forms and colours of richest beauty—there is a disinterment, a resurrection of sentiment; the pressure of our earthly part seems removed, and those senses of the mind, if I may so speak, which serve to connect our spirits with the invisible world around us, recover their proper tone, and perform their proper office."

"Senses of the mind," I replied, repeating the phrase; "the idea is new to me; but I think I catch your meaning."

"Yes; there are—there must be such," he continued, with growing enthusiasm, "man is essentially a religious creature--a looker beyond the grave, from the very constitution of his mind; and the sceptic who denies it, is untrue not merely to the Being who has made and who preserves him, but to the entire scope and bent of his own nature besides. Wherever man is—whether he be a wanderer of the wild forest or still wilder desert, a dweller in some lone isle of the sea, or the tutored and full-minded denizen of some blessed land like our own—wherever man is, there is religion—hopes that look forward and upward— the belief in an unending existence, and a land of separate souls."

I was carried away by the enthusiasm of my companion, and felt, for the time, as if my mind had become the mirror of his. There seems to obtain among men a species of moral gravitation, analogous, in its principles, to that which regulates and controls the movements of the planetary system. The larger and more ponderous any body, the greater its attractive force, and the more overpowering its influence over the lesser bodies which surround it. The earth we inhabit carries the moon along with it in its course, and is itself subject to the immensely more powerful influence of the sun. And it is thus with character. It is a law of our nature, as certainly as of the system we inhabit, that the inferior should yield to the superior, and the lesser owe its guidance to the greater. I had hitherto wandered on through life almost unconscious of the existence of this law, or if occasionally rendered half aware of it, it was only through a feeling that some secret influence was operating favourably in my behalf on the common minds around me. I now felt, however, for the first time, that I had come in contact with a mind immeasurably more powerful than my own; my thoughts seemed to cast themselves into the very mould—my sentiments to modulate themselves by the very tone of his. And yet he was but a russet-clad peasant—my junior by at least eight years—who was returning from school to assist his father, an humble tacksman, in the labours of the approaching harvest. But the law of circumstance, so arbitrary in ruling the destinies of common men, exerts but a feeble control over the children of genius. The prophet went forth commissioned by Heaven to anoint a king over Israel, and the choice fell upon a shepherd boy who was tending his father’s flocks in the field.

We had reached a lovely bend of the stream. There was a semicircular inflection in the steep bank, which waved over us, from base to summit, with hawthorn and hazel and while one half looked blue and dark in the shade, the other was lighted up with gorgeous and fiery splendour by the sun, now fast sinking in the west. The effect seemed magical. A little grassy platform that stretched between the hanging wood and the stream, was whitened over with clothes, that looked like snow-wreaths in the hollow; and a young and beautiful girl watched beside them.

"Mary Campbell!" exclaimed my companion, and, in a moment, he was at her side, and had grasped both of her hands in his. "How fortunate, how very fortunate I am;" he said; "I could not have so much as hoped to have seen you to-night, and yet here you are. This, Mr Lindsay is a loved friend of mine, whom I have known and valued for years; ever, indeed, since we herded our sheep together under the cover of one plaid. Dearest Mary, I have had sad forebodings regarding you for the whole last month I was in Kirkoswald, and yet, after all my foolish fears, here you are, ruddier and bonnier than ever."

She was, in truth, a beautiful, sylph-like young woman—one whom I would have looked at with complacency in any circumstances; for who that admires the fair and the lovely in nature--whether it be the wide-spread beauty of sky and earth, or beauty in its minuter modifications, as we see it in the flowers that spring up at our feet, or the butterfly that flutters over them—who, I say, that admires the fair and lovely in nature can be indifferent to the fairest and loveliest of all her productions? As the mistress, however, of by far the strongest-minded man I ever knew, there was more of scrutiny in my glance than usual, and I felt a deeper interest in her than mere beauty could have awakened. She was, perhaps, rather below than above the middle size; but formed in such admirable proportion that it seemed out of place to think of size in reference to her at all. Who, in looking to the Venus di Medicis, asks whether she be tall or short? The bust and neck were so exquisitely moulded, that they reminded me of Burke’s fanciful remark, viz., that our ideas of beauty originate in our love of the sex, and that we deem every object beautiful which is described by soft waving lines, resembling those of the female neck and bosom. Her feet and arms, which were both bare, had a statue-like symmetry and marble-like whiteness; but it was on her expressive and lovely countenance, now lighted up by the glow of joyous feeling, that nature seemed to have exhausted her utmost skill. There was a fascinating mixture in the expression of superior intelligence and child-like simplicity; a soft, modest light dwelt in the blue eye; and in the entire contour and general form of the features, there was a nearer approach to that union of the straight and the rounded, which is found in its perfection in only the Grecian face, than is at all common in our northern latitudes, among the descendants of either the Celt or the Saxon. I felt, however, as I gazed, that, when lovers meet, the presence of a third person, however much the friend of either, must always be less than agreeable.

"Mr Burns," I said, "there is a beautiful eminence a few hundred yards to the right, from which I am desirous to overlook the windings of the stream. Do permit me to leave you for a short half hour, when I shall return; or, lest I weary you by my stay, ‘twere better, perhaps, you should join me there." My companion greeted the proposal with a good-humoured smile of intelligence; and, plunging into the wood, I left him with his Mary. The sun had just set as he joined me.

"Have you ever been in love, Mr Lindsay?" he said.

"No, never seriously," I replied. "I am, perhaps, not naturally of the coolest temperament imaginable; but the same fortune that has improved my mind in some little degree, and given me high notions of the sex, has hitherto thrown me among only its less superior specimens. I am now in my eight-and-twentieth year, and I have not yet met with a woman whom I could love."

"Then you are yet a stranger," he rejoined, "to the greatest happiness of which our nature is capable. I have enjoyed more heartfelt pleasure in the company of the young woman I have just left than from every other source that has been opened to me from my childhood till now. Love, my friend, is the fulfilling of the whole law!"

"Mary Campbell did you not call her?" I said. "She is, I think, the loveliest creature I have ever seen; and I am much mistaken in the expression of her beauty, if her mind be not as lovely as her person."

"It is, it is," he exclaimed—"the intelligence of an angel with the simplicity of a child. Oh, the delight of being thoroughly trusted, thoroughly beloved by one of the loveliest, best, purest-minded of all God’s good creatures! To feel that heart beating against my own, and to know that it beats for me only! Never have I passed an evening with my Mary without returning to the world a better, gentler, wiser man. Love, my friend, is the fulfilling of the whole law. What are we without it?—poor, vile, selfish animals; our very virtues themselves so exclusively virtues on our own behalf as to be well nigh as hateful as our vices. Nothing so opens and improves the heart, nothing so widens the grasp of the affections, nothing half so effectually brings us out of our crust of self, as a happy, well-regulated love for a pure-minded, affectionate-hearted woman."

"There is another kind of love of which we sailors see somewhat," I said, "which is not so easily associated with good."

"Love!" he replied—"no, Mr Lindsay, that is not the name. Kind associates with kind in all nature; and love—humanizing, heart-softening love—cannot be the companion of whatever is low, mean, worthless, degrading—the associate of ruthless dishonour, cunning, treachery, and violent death. Even, independent of its amount of evil as a crime, or the evils still greater than itself which necessarily accompany it, there is nothing that so petrifies the feeling as illicit connection."

"Do you seriously think so?" I asked.

"Yes, and I see clearly how it should be so. Neither sex is complete of itself—each was made for the other, that like the two halves of a hinge, they may become an entire whole when united. Only think of the Scriptural phrase one flesh—it is of itself a system of philosophy. Refinement and tenderness are of the woman, strength and dignity of the man. Only observe the effects of a thorough separation, whether originating in accident or caprice. You will find the stronger sex lost in the rudeness of partial barbarism; the gentler wrapt up in some pitiful round of trivial and unmeaning occupation—dry-nursing puppies, or making pincushions for posterity. But how much more pitiful are the effects when they meet amiss—when the humanizing friend and companion of the man is converted into the light, degraded toy of an idle hour; the object of a sordid appetite that lives but for a moment, and then expires in loathing and disgust! The better feelings are iced over at their source, chilled by the freezing and deadening contact—where there is nothing to inspire confidence or solicit esteem; and, if these pass not through the first, the inner circle—that circle within which the social affections are formed, and from whence they emanate—how can they possibly flow through the circles which lie beyond? But here, Mr Lindsay, is the farm of Lochlea, and yonder brown cottage, beside the three elms, is the dwelling of my parents."

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