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Scenes and Legends of The North of Scotland
Chapter XV

"Oh! I do ponder with most strange delight
On the calm slumbers of the dead-man’s night.”
Henry K. White

We have lingered long in the solitary burying-ground of St. Regulus; the sun hastens to its setting; and the slanting beam of red light that comes pouring in through an opening amid the trees, catches but the extreme tops of the loftier monuments, and the higher pinnacles of the ruin beyond. There is a little bird chirping among the graves; we may hear the hum of the bee as it speeds homeward, and the low soothing murmur of the stream in the dell below; all else is stillness and solitude in this field of the dead.

There are times when, amid scenes such as the present, one can almost forget the possible, and wish that the silence were less deep. The most contemplative of modern poets, in giving voice to a similar wish, has sublimed it into poetry. “Would,” he says of his churchyard among the hills, in the stanza I have already employed as a motto,

“Would that the silent earth
Of what it holds could speak, and every grave
Be an a volume, shut, yet capable
Of yielding its contents to ear and eye.”

The dead of a thousand years are sleeping at our feet; the poor peasant serf of *ten centuries ago, whom the neighbouring baron could have hung up at his cottage door, with the intelligent mechanic of yesterday, who took so deep an interest in the emancipation of the negroes. What strange stories of the past, what striking illustrations of the destiny and nature of man, how important a chronicle of the progress of society, would this solitary spot present us with, were it not that, like the mysterious volume in the Apocalypse, no man can open the book or unloose the seals thereof! There are recollections associated with some of the more recent graves, of interest enough to show us how curious a record the history of the whole would have furnished.

It is now well-nigh thirty years since Willie Watson returned, after an absence of nearly a quarter of a century, to the neighbouring town. He had been employed as a ladies’ shoemaker in some of the districts of the south; but no one at home had heard of Willie in the interval, and there was little known regarding him at his return, except that when he had quitted town so many years before, he was a neat-handed industrious workman, and what the elderly people called a quiet decent lad. And he was now, though somewhat in the wane of life, even a more thorough master of his trade than before. He was quiet and unobtrusive, too, as ever, and a great reader of serious books. And so the better sort of the people were beginning to draw to Willie by a kind of natural sympathy; some of them had learned to saunter into his workshop in the long evenings, and some had grown bold enough to engage him in serious conversation when they met with him in his solitary walks; when out came the astounding fact—and important as it may seem, the simple-minded mechanic had taken no pains to conceal it—that, during his residence in the south country, he had laid down Presbyterianism, and become the member of a Baptist church. There was a sudden revulsion of feeling towards him, and all the people of the town began to speak of Willie Watson as “a poor lost lad.”

The “poor lost lad,” however, was unquestionably a very excellent workman; and as he made neater shoes than anybody else, the ladies of the place could see no great harm in wearing them. He was singularly industrious, too, and indulged in no extraordinary expense, except when he now and then bought a good book, or a few flower-seeds for his garden. He was withal a single man, with only himself, and an elderly sister who lived with him, to provide for; and, what between the regularity of his gains on the one hand, and the moderation of his desires on the other, Willie, for a person of his condition, was in easy circumstances. It was found that all the children in the neighbourhood had taken a wonderful fancy to his shop. Willie was fond of telling them good little stories out of the Bible, and of explaining to them the prints which he had pasted on the walls. Above all, he was anxiously bent on teaching them to read. Some of their parents were poor, and some of them were careless; and he saw that, unless they learned their letters from him, there was little chance of their ever learning them at all. Willie in a small way, and to a very small congregation, was a kind of missionary; and what between his stories and his pictures, and his flowers and his apples, his labours were wonderfully successful. Never yet was school or church half so delightful to the little men and women of the place as the workshop of Willie Watson, “the poor lost lad.” Years of scarcity came on; taxes were high, and crops not abundant; and the soldiery abroad, whom the country had employed to fight against Bonaparte, had got an appetite at their work, and were consuming a good deal of meat and com. The price of food rose tremendously; and many of the townspeople, who were working for very little, were not in every case secure of that little when the work was done. Willie’s small congregation began to find that the times were exceedingly bad; there were no more morning pieces among them, and the porridge was less than enough. It was observed, however, that in the midst of their distresses Willie got in a large stock of meal, and that his sister began to bake as if she were making ready for a wedding. The children were wonderfully interested in the work, and watched it to the end; when, lo ! to their great and joyous surprise, Willie divided the whole baking among them. Every member of the congregation got a cake ; there were some who had little brothers and sisters at home who got two ; and from that day forward, till times got better, none of Willie’s young people lacked their morning piece. The neighbours marvelled at Willie; and all agreed that there was something strangely puzzling in the character of the “poor lost lad.”

I have alluded to Willie’s garden. Never was there a little bit of ground better occupied; it looked like a piece of rich needlework. He had got wonderful flowers too—flesh-coloured carnations streaked with red, and double roses of a rich golden yellow. Even the commoner varieties—auriculas and anemones, and the party-coloured polyanthus—grew better with Willie than with anybody else. A Dutchman might have envied him his tulips, as they stood row beyond row on their elevated beds, like so many soldiers on a redoubt; and there was one mild dropping season in which two of these beautiful flowers, each perfect in its kind, and of different colours, too, sprang apparently from the same stem. The neighbours talked of them as they would have talked of the Siamese Twins; but Willie, though it lessened the wonder, was at pains to show them that the flowers sprang from different roots, and that what seemed to be their common stem, was in reality but a green hollow sheath formed by one of the leaves. Proud as Willie was of his flowers, and with all his humility he could not help being a little proud of them, he was yet conscientiously determined to have no miracle among them, unless, indeed, the miracle should chance to be a true one. It was no fault of Willie’s that all his neighbours had not as fine gardens as himself; he gave them slips of his best flowers, flesh-coloured carnation, yellow rose, and all; he grafted their trees for them too, and taught them the exact time for raising their tulip-root3, and the best mode of preserving them. Nay, more than all this, he devoted whole hours at times to give the finishing touches to their parterres and borders, just in the way a drawing-master lays in the last shadings, and imparts the finer touches, to the landscapes of his favourite pupils. All seemed impressed by the unselfish kindliness of his disposition; and all agreed that there could not be a warmer-hearted or more obliging neighbour than Willie Watson, “the poor lost lad.” Everything earthly must have its last day. Willie was rather an elderly than an old man, and the childlike simplicity of his tastes and habits made people think of him as younger than he really was; but his constitution, never a strong one, was gradually failing; he lost strength and appetite; and at length there came a morning in which he could no longer open his shop. He continued to creep out at noon, however, for a few days after, to enjoy himself among his flowers, with only the Bible for his companion; but in a few days more he had declined so much lower, that the effort proved too much for him, and he took to his bed. The neighbours came flocking in; all had begun to take an interest in poor Willie; and now they had learned he was dying, and the feeling had deepened immensely with the intelligence. They found him lying in his neat little room, with a table bearing the one beloved volume drawn in beside his bed. He was the same quiet placid creature he had ever been; grateful for the slightest kindness, and with a heart full of love for all—full to overflowing. He said nothing about the Kirk, and nothing about the Baptists, but earnestly did he urge his visitors to be good men and women, and to be availing themselves of every opportunity of doing good. The volume on the table, he said, would best teach them how. As for himself, he had not a single anxiety; the great Being had been kind to him during all the long time he had been in the world, and He was now kindly calling him out of it. Whatever He did to him was good, and for his good, and why then should he he anxious or afraid? The hearts of Willie’s visitors were touched, and they could no longer speak or think of him as “the poor lost lad.”

A few short weeks went by, and Willie had gone the way of all flesh. There was silence in his shop, and his flowers opened their breasts to the sun, and bent their heads to the bee and the butterfly, with no one to take note of their beauty, or to sympathize in the delight of the little winged creatures that seemed so happy among them. There was many a wistful eye cast at the closed door and melancholy shutters by the members of Willie’s congregation, and they could all point out his grave. Yonder it lies, in the red light of the setting sun, with a carpeting of soft yellow moss spread over it. This little recess contains, doubtless, to use Wordsworth’s figure, many a curious, and many an instructive volume, and all we lack is the ability of deciphering the characters; but a better or more practical treatise on toleration than that humble grave, it cannot contain. The point has often been argued in this part of the country—argued by men with long beards, who preached bad grammar in behalf of Johanna South cote, and by men who spoke middling good sense for other purposes, and shaved once a day. But of all the arguments ever promulgated, those which told with best effect on the town’s-people were the life and death of Willie Watson, “the poor lost lad.”

We have perused the grave of the “ poor lost lad,” and it turns out to be a treatise on toleration. The grave beside it may be regarded as a ballad—a short plaintive ballad—moulded in as common a form of invention, if I may so express myself, as any, even the simplest, of those old artless compositions which have welled out from time to time from among the people. Indeed, so simple is the story of it, that we might almost deem it an imitation, were we not assured that all the volumes of this solitary recess are originals from beginning to end.

It was forty years last March since the Champion man-of-war entered the bay below, with her ancient suspended half-way over the deck. Old seamen among the town’s-folk, acquainted with that language of signs and symbols in which fleets converse when they meet at sea, said that either the captain or one of his officers was dead; and the town’s-people, interested in the intelligence, came out by scores to gaze on the gallant vessel as she bore up slowly and majestically in the calm, towards the distant roadstead. The sails were furled, and the anchors cast; and as the huge hull swung round to the tide, three boats crowded with men were seen to shoot off from her side, and a strain of melancholy music came floating over the waves to the shore. A lighter shallop, with only a few rowers, pulled far a-head of the others, and as she reached the beach, the shovels and pickaxes, for which the crew relinquished their oars, revealed to the spectators more unequivocally than even the halfhoisted ensign or the music, the sad nature of their errand. The other boats approached with muffled and melancholy stroke, and the music waxed louder and more mournful. They reached the shore; the men formed at the water’s edge round a coffin covered by a flag, and bearing a sword a-top, and then passed slowly amid the assembled crowds to the burying-ground of St. Regulus. Arms glittered to the sun. The echoes of the tombs and of the deep precipitous dell below were awakened awhile by unwonted music, and then by the sharp rattle of musketry; the smoke went curling among the trees, or lingered in a blue haze amid the dingier recesses of the hollow; the coffin was covered over: a few of the officers remained behind the others; and there was one of the number, a tall handsome young man, who burst out, as he was turning away, into an uncontrollable fit of weeping. At length the whole pageant passed, and there remained behind only a darkened little hillock, with whose history no one was acquainted, but which was known for many years after as the “officer’s grave.”

Twenty years went by, and the grave came to be little thought of, when a townsman, on going up one evening to the burying-ground, saw a lady in deep mourning sitting weeping beside it, and a tall handsome gentleman in middle life, the same individual who had been so much affected at the funeral, standing, as if waiting for her, a little apart. They were brother and sister. The storms of twenty seasons had passed over the little mossy hillock. The deep snows had pressed upon it in winter; the dead vegetation of succeeding summers and autumns had accumulated around it, and it had gradually flattened to nearly the level of the soil. It had become an old grave; but the grief, that for the first time was now venting itself over it, had remained fresh as at first. There are cases, though rare, in which sorrow does not yield to time. A mother loses her child just as its mind has begun to open, and it has learned to lay hold of her heart by those singularly endearing signs of infantine affection and regard, which show us how the sympathies of our nature, which serve to bind us to the species, are awakened to perform their labour of love with even the first dawn of intelligence. Little missed by any one else, or at least soon to be forgotten, it passes away; but there is one who seems destined to remember it all the more vividly just because it has passed. To her, death serves as a sort of mordant to fix the otherwise flying colours in which its portraiture had been drawn on her heart. Time is working out around her his thousand thousand metamorphoses. The young are growing up to maturity, the old dropping into their graves; but the infant of her affections ever remains an infant—her charge in middle life, when all her other children have left her and gone out into the world, and, amid the weakness of decay and decrepitude, the child of her old age. There arises, however, a more enduring sorrow than even that of the mother, when, in the midst of hopes all but gratified, and wishes on the eve of fulfilment, the ties of the softer passion are rudely dissevered by death. Feelings, evanescent in their nature, and restricted to one class of circumstances and one stage of life, are uneradicably fixed through the event in the mind of the survivor. Youth first passes away, then the term of robust and active life, and last of all, the cold and melancholy winter of old age; but through every succeeding change, until the final close, the bereaved lover remains a lover still. Death has fixed the engrossing passion in its tenderest attitude by a sort of petrifying process; and we are reminded by the fact of those delicate leaves and florets of former creations, which a common fate would have consigned to the usual decay, but which were converted, when they died by some sudden catastrophe, into a solid marble that endures for ever. The lady who wept this evening beside the “ officer’s grave,” was indulging in a hopeless, enduring passion of the character described; but all that now remains of her story forms but a mere outline for the imagination to fill up at pleasure. Her lover had been the sole heir of an ancient and affluent family; the lady herself belonged to rather a humbler sphere. He had fixed his affections upon her when almost a boy, and had succeeded in engaging hers in turn; but his parents, who saw nothing desirable in a connexion which was to add to neither the wealth nor the honours of the family, interfered, and he was sent to sea; where a disappointed attachment, preying on a naturally delicate constitution, soon converted their fears for his marriage into regret for his death. Did I not say truly that the “officer’s grave” was a simple little ballad, moulded in one of the commonest forms of invention?

Let us peruse one other grave ere we quit the burying-ground —the grave of Morrison the painter. It treats of morals, like that of “ the poor lost lad,” but it enforces them after a different mode. We shall find it in the strangers’ comer, beside the graves of the two foreign seamen, whose bodies were cast upon the beach after a storm.

Morrison, some sixty or seventy years ago, was a tall, thin, genteel-looking young man, who travelled the country as a portrait and miniature painter. The profession was new at the time to the north of Scotland; and the people thought highly of an artist who made likenesses that could be recognised. But they could not think more highly of him than Morrison did of himself. He was one of the -class who mistake the imitative faculty for genius, and the ambition of rising in a genteel profession for that energy of talent whose efforts, with no higher object often than the mere pleasure of exertion, buoy up the possessor to his proper level among men. There was a time when Morrison’s pictures might be seen in almost every house—in little turf cottages even among halfpenny prints and broadsheet ballads; nor were instances wanting of their finding place among the paintings of a higher school:—some proprietor of the district retained an eccentric piper or gamekeeper in his establishment, or, like the baron of a former age, kept a fool, and Morrison had been employed to confer on all that was droll or picturesque in his appearance, the immortality of colour and canvas. Like the painter in the fable who pleased everybody, he drew, in his serious portraits, all his men after one model, and all his women after another; but, unlike the painter, he copied from neither Apollo nor Venus. His gentlemen had sloping shoulders and long necks, and looked exceeding grave and formidable; his ladies, on the contrary, were sweet simpering creatures, with waists almost tapering to a point, and cheeks and lips of as bright a crimson as that of the bunch of roses which they bore in their hands.

I have said that Morrison thought more highly of his genius than even his country folk. As the member of a highly liberal profession, too, he naturally enough took rank as a gentleman. Geniuses were eccentric in those days, and gentlemen not very moral; and Morrison, in his double capacity of genius and gentleman, was skilful enough to catch the eccentricity of the one class and the immorality of the other. He raked a little, and drank a great deal; and when in his cups said and did things which were thought very extraordinary indeed. But though all acknowledged his genius, he was less successful in establishing his gentility. There was, indeed, but one standard of gentility in the country at the time, and fate had precluded the painter from coming up to it; no one was deemed a gentleman whose ancestors had not been useless to the community for at least five generations. It must be confessed, too, that some of Morrison’s schemes for establishing his claims were but ill laid. On one occasion he attended an auction of valuable furniture in the neighbouring town, and though a wanderer at the time, as he had been all his life long, and miserably poor to boot, he deemed it essential to the maintenance of his character, that, as all the other gentlemen present were bidding with spirit, he should now and then give a spirited bid too. He warmed gradually as the sale proceeded, offered liberally for beds and carpets, and made a dead set on a valuable pianoforte. The purchasers were sadly annoyed; and the auctioneer, who was a bit of a wag, and laboured to put down the painter by sheer force of wit, found that he had met with as accomplished a jvit as himself. Morrison lost the piano, and then fell in love with a moveable wooden house, which had served as a sort of meat preserve, and was secured by a strong lock. “You had better examine it inside, Mr. Morrison", said the auctioneer; “in fact, the whole merit of the thing lies inside.” Morrison went in, and the auctioneer shut and locked the door. There could not be a more grievous outrage on the feelings of a gentleman; but though the poor man went bouncing against the cruel walls of his prison like an incarcerated monkey, and grinned with uncontrollable wrath at all and sundry through its little wire-woven window, pity or succour was there none; he was kept in close durance for four long hours till the sale terminated, and found his claim to gentility not in the least strengthened when he got out.

After living, as he best could, for about forty years, the painter took to himself a wife. No woman should ever have thought of marriage in connexion with such a person as Morrison, nor should Morrison have ever thought of marriage in connexion with such a person as himself. But so it was—for ladies are proverbially courageous in such matters, and Morrison- could bid as dauntlessly for a wife as for a pianoforte—that he determined on marrying, and succeeded in finding a woman bold enough to accept of him for her husband. She was a rather respectable, sort of person, who had lived for many years as housekeeper in a gentleman’s family, and had saved some money. They took .lodgings in the neighbouring town; Morrison showed as much spirit, and got as often drunk as before; and in little more than a twelvemonth they came to be in want. They lingered on, however, in miserable poverty for a few months longer, and then quitted the place, leaving behind them all Mrs. Morrison’s well-saved wardrobe under arrestment for debt. The large trunk which contained it lay unopened till about five years after the poor woman had been laid in her grave, the victim of her miserable marriage; and the contents formed *a strange comment on her history. There were fine silk gowns, sadly marred by mildew, and richly flowered petticoats eaten by the moths. There, too, were there pretty little heads of the virgin and the apostles, and beads and a crucifix of some value; the loss of which, as the poor owner had been a zealous Roman Catholic, had affected her more than the loss of all the rest. And there, also, like the Babylonish garment among the goods of Achan, there was a packet of Morrison’s letters, full of flames and darts, and all those little commonplaces of love which are used by men clever on a small scale, who think highly of their own parts, and have no true affection for any one but themselves.

It has been told me by an acquaintance, who resided for some time in one of our northern towns, that when hurrying to his lodgings on a wet and very disagreeable winter evening, his curiosity was attracted by a red glare of light which he saw issuing through the unglazed window and partially uncovered rafters of a deserted hovel by the wayside. He went up to it, and found the place occupied by two miserable-looking wretches, a man and woman, who were shivering over a smouldering fire of damp straw. These were Morrison and his wife, neither of them wholly sober; for the woman had ere now broken down in character as well as in circumstances. They had neither food nor money; the rain was dropping upon them through the roof, and the winter wind fluttering through their rags; and yet, as if there was too little in all this to make them unhappy enough, they were adding to their miseries by mutual recriminations. The woman, as I have said, soon sank under the hardships of a life so entirely wretched; her unlucky partner survived until the infirmities of extreme old age were added to his other miseries. It is not easy to conceive how any one who passed such a life as Morrison should have lived for the greater part of a century; and yet so it was, that, when he visited the neighbouring town for the last time, he was in his eighty-fifth year. And never, certainly, was the place visited by a more squalid, miserable-looking creature; he resembled rather a corpse set a-walking than a living man. He was still, however, Morrison the painter, feebly eccentric, and meanly proud : even when compelled to beg, which was often, he could not forget that he was an artist and a gentleman. In his younger days he had skill enough to make likenesses that could be recognised; the things he now made scarcely resembled human creatures at all; but he went about pressing his services on every one who had children and spare sixpences, till he had at length well-nigh filled the town with pictures of little boys and girls, which, in every case, the little boys and girls got to themselves. On one occasion he went into the shop of one of the town traders, and insisted on furnishing the trader with the picture of one of his daughters, a little laughing blonde,, who was playing in front of the counter.

He produced his colours, and began the drawing; but the girl, after wondering at him till his work was about half finished, escaped into the street, and one of her sisters, a sober-eyed brunette, who had heard of the strange old man who was “making pictures,” came running in, and took her place. The painter held fast the intruder, and continued his drawing. “Hold, hold, Mr. Morrison, that is another little girl-you have got!” said the trader; “that is but the sister of the first.” “Heaven bless the dear sweet creature!” said Morrison, still plying the pencil, “they are so very like that there can be no mistake.”

The closing scene to poor Morrison came at last. He left his bed one day after an illness of nearly a week, and crawled out into the street to beg. A gentleman in passing dropped him a few coppers, and Morrison felt indignant that any one should have offered an artist less than silver. But on second thoughts he corrected himself. “Heaven help me !” he ejaculated, “I have been a fool all life long, and I am not wise yet!” He crept onwards along the pavement to the house of a gentleman whom he had known thirty years before. “I am dying,” he said, “and I am desirous that you should see my body laid decently under ground; I shall be dead in less than a week.” The gentleman promised to attend the funeral; Morrison crept back to his lodgings, and was dead in less than a day. Yonder he lies in the strangers’ corner; the parish furnished the shroud and the coffin, and the gentleman whom he had invited to his burial carried his head to the grave, and paid the sexton. There are few real stories consistently gloomy throughout. Nature delights in strange compounds of the bizarre and the serious; and Morrison’s story, like some of the old English dramas that terminate unfortunately, has a mixture of the comic in it. And yet, notwithstanding its lighter touches, I question whether we shall be able to find a deeper tragedy among all the volumes of- the churchyard.

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