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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter XXI. The Darkness Deepens

Life at Wemyss Bay was very calm, very peaceful, and full of joy. The few clouds that overshadowed it from time to time only made the sunshine brighter by contrast, as an occasional discord makes the harmony of music sweeter.

Friends were abundant, children and grandchildren vied with one another in love and tenderness to the “old folks,” whose love for one another increased in richness and beauty as the years wore on.

Everything that wealth and affection could procure was theirs to enjoy, and above and beyond all there rested upon them the “peace of God which passeth understanding."

But in the early summer of 1877 came the darkest cloud that had ever overshadowed the life of Mr. Burns. One day in June, Airs. Burns, who had previously been in unusually good health, was taken suddenly ill. At first it was thought to be only an attack of rheumatism, but after the lapse of a few days Dr. Kirkwood, the intimate friend and medical adviser of the family submitted that it would be desirable to have another opinion. Mr. Burns did not think it was necessary, having such perfect confidence in the skill of Dr. Kirkwood, but when he quietly reiterated his opinion and paused—in that pause the eyes of Mr. Burns, “which had been holden,” as he said, were opened, and for the first time he saw the critical state of affairs. Painful as it was to himself, he was always thankful she was not to be left a widow.

Mr. and Mrs. John Burns were in Carlsbad at the time, and were immediately telegraphed to return at once. While the anxious hours were passing in Wemyss House, they were speeding home in hot haste, further telegrams reaching them at every halting place. The end was not far off; and the heart of Mrs. Burns was fixed upon her son’s return—she was, as it were, keeping herself alive by sheer force of will until he should be home again. Between them there was the most intense affection; they were more like lovers than mother and son. All plans and purposes, hopes and projects, were shared in common, and heart opened to heart in all the little things of life, as well as in its greatest concerns.

One Sunday morning, the last but one she was to spend on earth, Dr. Kirkwood endeavoured to rouse her from drowsiness by bringing in some of the grandchildren to her bedside. She revived almost instantly, and sent for one after another of the grandchildren, and then the butler, the servants, and others, with each of whom she shook hands and bade a tender farewell. She spoke to each one separately, thanking them for all they had done for her, and giving a word of affectionate exhortation to each. She spoke in a clear, firm voice, without a falter, and discriminated accurately as to the character of each individual. Every one to whom she spoke was struck with the appropriateness of the words addressed to them. It was (as in patriarchal days) as if the veil of the future were lifted, and words were spoken in the light of eternity.

One who was present remarked “that he had never heard purer English, without a word out of place, and without the necessity of substituting one word for another.”

Later in the day, she said very calmly, “Now, George, I want nothing on my coffin but my name and age.”

But the end was not yet: with that wonderful love which is stronger than death, she held on tenaciously clinging to life, and would not yield to the ever nearing approach of the last enemy until she had once more embraced her son. And then he arrived, and was with her till the change came.

Very solemn and beautiful were those last days— spent in the calm, sweet prophetic certainty that heaven was near, and that “immortality was being swallowed up of life.”

“I have no triumphant joy,” she said, 'but calm confidence.” She sent a message to her old friend Lord Shaftesbury. “Tell him,” she said, “it is from the confines of Eternity.” On many occasions she repeated to her husband the 90th Psalm. When she had uttered the words, “The days of the years of our life are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow,” she paused and said, “I have had the labour, but not the sorrow.” One day she said to him, “I must soon leave you, George, hut you will often think of me, and always when you walk on these beautiful terraces.” Those exquisite terraces he had made to gratify her wish.

Through all her life she had lived in pure and simple religious faith, and when the set time came, He who had been with her through all life’s long journey was with her as she entered the valley which leads into the eternal light. “I feared I was not to see Jesus,” she said. “But I see Him now; He is all my salvation.” Heath was deprived of its terrors, the grave of its victory; and ere she crossed the narrow boundary which divides the worlds, faith was lost in sight. “The crown! the crown! ” she said, when articulation was almost gone; 'it is a bright reality.”

When all was over, the blinds were drawn down, but Mr. Burns said “Nay; draw them up again: she is not dead, she has entered into fuller, even eternal life.” Then he gathered his family around him, and Ann Fraser, the faithful attendant of his late wife, saying he wished to incorporate her with them, and read the fourth chapter of Galatians (in which is told the spiritual significance of the life of Sarah, the wife of Abraham), and after that he read the passages in the twenty-third chapter of Genesis, referring to the compact made by the patriarch for the burial of his wife in the cave of Machpelah. The old designation, “Abraham and Sarah,” by which they had so long been known to Lord Shaftesbury, was evidently in his mind.

After the reading, he offered prayer; and it was characteristic of the man that in that hour of human desolation, his heart was resting so peacefully upon the promises of God that he could command himself to offer up words of extempore prayer. In his supplications he asked that God would assist him in preparing for the mortal remains of his wife a last resting place in the spot she loved so well.

A few days later, Mr. Burns wrote to an old friend :—

. . . Sixty years’ fervent love before and after we were able to have a house of our own, has been terminated by my beloved wife being taken borne before me to our Father’s House.

She was yesterday carried by her own people through the garden where she had her last walk, and laid in peace in a chamber behind the little church she loved so well—prepared, like Abraham’s cave in Machpelah, by the kindness of my friends, who worked night and day. . . . The day was pure and bright, and our dear friend Burnley said it was not like a funeral at all; everything was so simple and beautiful, with none of the usual emblems of woe. The service was read by John Hardsley, of Liverpool, and, in its quietness, came home to our hearts. I was surprised to see all the surroundings enlivened by her own beautiful roses and flowers. The flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

From all quarters—from high and low, from rich and poor—there poured in upon Mr. Burns letters of love and sympathy. There were upwards of three hundred of them, but the following from his old friend Canon Gribble stands out from the rest, as it contains a vivid sketch of the life and character of Mrs. Burns :—

Britishi Embassy, Pera, July 13, 1877.

My dear and honoured Friend,—The mail which arrived this morning brought me an envelope with the well-known initials in the corner. I have been so long accustomed to receive pleasant notices of matters interesting to you, and therefore to me, that on opening it I expected a ‘slip’ from a paper containing a record of some useful work done in Glasgow, or perhaps a speech from J. B. The enclosure affected me very deeply. Happily I was alone in my vestry, and could give way to my thoughts; they were a rush of remembrances, recollections of that admirable Christian lady, and her rare qualities; love, energy in every Christian work, with singular power of organisation, with which she was blessed in no ordinary degree, of doing the work of Christ in the joyous spirit which threw a charm over all she did, and won for her the love of all whom she brought under her influence. My next thoughts were of you and your children. You are now alone, as far as loneliness leaves you in your old age, without the presence of that bright spirit and happy mind. Your wife was endowed with no ordinary gifts, and their combination was remarkable. She had warm love and sound judgment; her tender affection for you and her family was a type of what St. Paul enjoins as the model of a Christian matron (see Epistle to Titus). Her piety had its root in home life, but it was fresh without fussiness, gentle without harshness. Her excellent common-sense and large-minded view of Christ’s doctrine, tempered her zeal for the conversion and improvement of her fellow-creatures; so that, while a pattern ol Christian matrons in home life, she had discretion in her out-door works for the poor and distressed. There was ready earnestness for work, and treat ability without a taint of fanaticism. Your wife had the advantage of a nature-given intelligence, and strong affection; this, however, of itself would not have made her the woman she was: the real explanation of her great power is that she was taught by the Divine Spirit to know and feel herself a sinner saved by grace, and that Jesus was her personal Saviour, and love to Jesus was the mainspring of her powerful action at home and abroad.

Such a perception and feeling of Christ’s love, with her reverence for God's Holy Word, engrafted on a singularly fine mind, explains the secret of her power.

My dear Burns, I picture to myself my last visit to you in 1870: you enjoying your rare taste in gardening; J. B. rushing down on his return from his work in Glasgow, clasping the dear mother, and whirling her round on the lawn; she, as young as ever, enjoying the merriment. It was a happy scene. I picture also to myself you, in your deep sorrow; I see you in humble prayer, and rising from it with resignation to the will of God. I see you in your beautiful garden, and imagine what passes through your mind:

She has been taken before me; I shall soon follow her, and we shall meet again. I shall die, as she died, in firm faith in Jesus, not having our own righteousness, but that which is of God by faith in Jesus; our sins washed out by faith in the blood of Him who was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.'

I am ever affectionately yours,

C. B. Gribble.

Great as was the bereavement of Mr. Burns, the loss, it need not be said, was keenly felt by his sons. Among the letters they received was one from their old friend Mr. Laurence Oliphant to Mr. J. Cleland Burns, in which this characteristic passage occurs :—

I cannot write condolences. There can be nothing more blessed than the departure of one who, having filled up the full measure of her life in works of unselfish benevolence, then goes to those still brighter uses in which she will now be employed. I have no doubt you will feel her influence remaining with you. We are accustomed to consider death in such a different light from the world at large, that it is robbed of all its terrors, and the separation has become so slight between this world and the other to us, that we scarcely seem to lose those who apparently leave us. I hope it may be the same with you.

Next to her own family there were none who mourned her loss more deeply than the poor of Glasgow, and the workers on their behalf. She was Lady President of the City Mission, and there was scarcely a member of that mission by whom she was not personally known, one of her greatest pleasures being to have gatherings of the missionaries from time to time in her house. But the cause to which her name will ever be pre-eminently attached was her work among Cabmen, for whose welfare she exerted herself with increasing care for a quarter of a century, and did more than any other individual for their social as well as their spiritual interests. Cabmen’s “Rests ” were introduced into Glasgow through her instrumentality. She had long regarded sympathising!y the sufferings of cabmen from the want of shelter during trying weather, and on hearing of the idea of “Pests,” she lost no time in having them provided in Glasgow. In proof of the appreciation and gratitude of the cabmen for all her labours in their behalf, four hundred men connected with the “hired carriages” of Glasgow presented to her, in 1876, a memorial, and the following extract from it tersely expresses the feelings of the community towards her: “The true catholic spirit of your liberality, which aided the needy irrespective of creed or denomination, is worthy of the highest admiration.” The Cottage for Incurables at Maryhill, the Outdoor School for the Blind; and the House of Shelter, were also specially embraced in the schemes in which she actively interested herself for the relief of distress and affliction. But her greatest work was among the individual poor, to whom she was unsparing in her bounty, and as unostentatious as she was the most cheerful of givers.

On the tombstone of Mrs. Burns there is the simple inscription, “Jane Burns, died 1st July, 1877, in her 84th year,” and above are the words, “I dwell among mine own people.” The origin of the selection of that verse is curious and interesting. Whenever there were grand doings at the Castle, her son would say, “Come up, mother, and dine with us;” to which she would sometimes reply, “No, John, I dwell among mine own people.” The dignity of it, the quiet sarcasm, as it were, in the sense In which she used it, the grace of it as illustrating her own self-containedness, all struck her son, who asked his father to allow these words to be placed upon the tomb.

When, in his prayer on the day of his wife’s death, Mr. Burns had asked for Divine help to carry out a purpose he had in view, the idea in his mind was to rear to her memory a permanent church to replace the little wooden structure that then existed. Not long afterwards the work was commenced. With great skill the rock was hollowed out behind the spot where she had been interred, and in course of time there arose one of the most complete and substantial places of worship in the West of Scotland, the whole of the design of exterior and interior, by Mr. Burnet, the architect, being carried out under the direction of Mr. Burns. It is Gothic in style, and is built of the red sandstone of Wemyss Bay, the interior walls being of polished red and light-grey freestone, rare in a building of this size, which has ample pew accommodation for two hundred persons.

The whole of the interior is in exquisite style, and beautiful in design and finish. Here the taste of Mr. Burns had ample scope. Over the elegantly carved teak-wood screen at the back of the chancel are the Burns and Cleland crests, with their respective mottoes, “Ever ready” and “Non sibi,” while running under both of them is the text, “I dwell among mine own people." When the question of decoration came to be discussed, Mr. Burns would allow nothing in the chancel but a plain handsome table without any “altar cloth,” nor anywhere in the church a representation of saints or angels. A handsome stained-glass window, by Clayton and Bell of London, adorns the western end of the church,

Mr. Burns saw about that time a very beautiful window in the octagon between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, composed entirely of various shapes of glass without flowers or figures, and somewhat after this pattern the large window’ at the west of the church was designed. The only concession he would make was for the introduction of a shield, a sword, and a helmet—emblems of the armour of God—the motto at the foot of the window being, “Put ye on the whole armour of God.”

Mrs. Blackburn, well known as the talented wife of Professor Blackburn of the University of Glasgow’, and whose drawings, illustrative of natural history, are famous under the initials of “J. B.,” wais the first to discover—and she did so at a glance—that a creature had crept in, and no other than “the lion of the tribe of Judah.”

The situation of the church at the base of the high cliffs near the shore road, fringed on both sides with trees of rich foliage, is very beautiful, and every one who knows the West Coast of Scotland has seen its graceful spire, over a hundred feet high, standing out against its leafy background, or has heard across the waiters the music of its eight-bell chimes.

On the 16th of June, 1879, the church was opened for public worship, when the Rev. J. W. Bardsley (now Bishop of Sodor and Man) officiated.

Not a few were sorry when the little wooden structure, endeared by so many sacred associations, was no more, although they-could not but feel that, as the new building stood on the same site, and had been raised under such touching circumstances, it was in some respects made more sacred and beloved.

A year after Mr. Gribble had written the letter, from which we have quoted, on the death of Mrs. Burns, he too was called to his rest, for

'"To live in hearts we leave behind Is not to die.’’

“A man greatly beloved” was Charles Gribble. He was a sailor every inch of him, with all a sailor’s enthusiasm, unselfishness, and generosity. When he left St. Jude’s in 1846, he became incumbent of the church attached to the Sailors’ Home in London —an institution in which the Prince Consort took a lively interest—and here he remained for ten years. He loved seamen, and “cared for their souls.” He established a floating church on the Thames, and at his own expense built and kept a small schooner yacht, which he fitted up with a view to holding religious services on board, and in which he used to make constant excursions among the densely crowded shipping of the river.

On the recommendation of the Archbishop of Canterbury he was appointed by Lord Clarendon, in 1857, Chaplain to the Embassy at Constantinople, a post he held uninterruptedly for over twenty-one years. He did a wonderful work in the Levantine ports, inquiring into the treatment of British seamen, establishing hospitals and homes, and spending some months of every year in a cutter of his own, visiting the neglected seamen of the port, as well as attending to his duties to the Embassy. A strange and adventurous life he led. During the frequent outbreaks of cholera he never deserted his post; his house and property were destroyed in the great lire: and once he narrowly escaped being made Bishop of Gibraltar.

Mr. Gribble, in writing from Constantinople to Mr. Burns in 1863 to congratulate him upon his recovery from an attack of small-pox, gives a hint at the difficulties in his own path and how he overcame them.

I am much occupied here with trials, duties, and cares; these, too, kill me ever and anon, but the spirit of life comes in again, and then, like the Two Witnesses, I get upon my legs and prophesy until floored by some whacking reaction. But by these things men live, and in them is the life of our spirit.

Mr. Burns had many stories to tell of his old friend. He says : —

Gribble was the most unselfish man I ever knew. One trifling incident may be taken as a sample of the whole current of his action. Some one had given him a box of tea, of which he was particularly fond, and he was found dividing it out, every leaf of it, to people whom he thought needed it more than himself.

My son John took him out as his guest to Palestine, where they had much intercourse with Bishop Gobat and Mr. Finn, British Consul in Jerusalem. One day at the public table in the Holy City my son and Gribble fell in with an American. They got into conversation about the latitude of Calcutta, and the American took an opposite view. He insisted upon his view of the matter, and was most pertinacious on the point. Gribble struck up and flatly contradicted him; whereupon the American said, ‘Stranger, you know nothing at all about it; I guess it don’t rest with your profession to talk on that subject.’ Gribble took no notice of the offensive remark, but went on quietly taking his soup. 'When he had finished he turned to the American and said, ‘Let me give you a word of advice, never to talk too strongly unless you know to whom you are speaking. I was in the East India Company’s Navy, and professionally had occasion to know the latitude accurately.’

Afterwards my son John, with Alexander Crum Ewing and Gribble went through the Crimea, where they were entertained at headquarters. John wished to get into Simferopol immediately after Sebastopol had fallen. He was told it would be impossible for him to get in unless he was mounted as a staff-officer. He was thereupon donned in the full costume and accoutrements, and in this guise rode forward. On his way he got into the company of another staff-officer, rigged out in the same way. They challenged each other, and in conversation John satisfied himself that his companion was an adventurer. On the strength of this he charged him, ‘Sir, you are an impostor.’ The gentleman, virtuously indignant, immediately demanded an explanation. ‘I mean, then,’ said John, ‘that you are the same as myself, that you are no staff-officer.’ It turned out that the gentleman was a war correspondent well known to fame.

Gribble was a very careless dresser; he would wear a white duck or canvas coat, and when he was with my son John at headquarters at the mess, the commanding officer, to the surprise of all, turned to the canvas-coated gentleman and said, ‘The clergyman will say grace.’

The last service that the Bums family could do for their old friend was, when his health had broken down from over-work in Constantinople, to give him a passage home. But the relief came too late; it was with difficulty he could be got on board, and before the vessel reached Malta he had gone to his rest.

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