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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 2


If friendless, low, we meet together,
Then, sir, you hand—my friend and brother!
Dedication to G. Hamilton

A light breeze had risen as the sun sunk, and our lugger, with all her sails set, came sweeping along the shore. She had nearly gained the little bay in front of the cave, and the countrymen from above, to the number of perhaps twenty, had descended to the beach, when, all of a sudden, after a shrill whistle, and a brief half minute of commotion among the crew, she wore round and stood out to sea. I turned to the south, and saw a square-rigged vessel shooting out from behind one of the rocky headlands, and then bearing down in a long tack on the smuggler. "The sharks are upon us," said one of the countrymen, whose eyes had turned in the same direction—"we shall have no sport to-night." We stood lining the beach in anxious curiosity; the breeze freshened as the evening fell; and the lugger, as she lessened to our sight, went leaning against the foam in a long bright furrow, that, catching the last light of evening, shone like the milky way amid the blue. Occasionally we could see the flash, and hear the booming of a gun from the other vessel; but the night fell thick and dark; the waves too began to lash against the rocks, drowning every feebler sound in a continuous roaring; and every trace of both the chased and the chaser disappeared. The party broke up, and I was left standing alone on the beach, a little nearer home, but in every other respect in quite the same circumstances as when landed by my American friends on the wild coast of Connaught. "Another of Fortune’s freaks;" I ejaculated; "but ‘tis well she can no longer surprise me."

A man stepped out in the darkness as I spoke, from beside one of the rocks; it was the peasant Burns, my acquaintance of the earlier part of the evening.

"I have waited, Mr Lindsay," he said, "to see whether some of the country folks here, who have homes of their own to invite you to, might not have brought you along with them. But I am afraid you must just be content to pass the night with me. I can give you a share of my bed and my supper, though both, I am aware, need many apologies." I made a suitable acknowledgment, and we ascended the cliff together. "I live, when at home with my parents," said my companion, "in the inland parish of Tarbolton; but, for the last two months, I have attended school here, and lodge with an old widow woman in the village. Tomorrow, as harvest is fast approaching, I return to my father."

"And I," I replied, "shall have the pleasure of accompanying you in at the least the early part of your journey, on my way to Irvine, where my mother still lives."

We reached the village, and entered a little cottage, that presented its gable to the street, and its side to one of the narrower lanes.

"I must introduce you to my landlady," said my companion, "an excellent, kind-hearted old woman, with a fund of honest Scotch pride and shrewd good sense in her composition, and with the mother as strong in her heart as ever, though she lost the last of her children more than twenty years ago."

We found the good woman sitting beside a small but very cheerful fire. The hearth was newly swept, and the floor newly sanded; and, directly fronting her, there was an empty chair, which seemed to have been drawn to its place in the expectation of some one to fill it.

"You are going to leave me, Robert, my bairn," said the woman, "an’ I kenna how I sall ever get on without you; I have almost forgotten, sin you came to live with me, that I have neither children nor husband." On seeing me, she stopped short.

"An acquaintance," said my companion, "whom I have made bold to bring with me for the night; but you must not put yourself to any trouble, mother; he is, I daresay, as much accustomed to plain fare as myself. Only, however, we must get an additional pint of yill from the clachan; you know this is my last evening with you, and was to be a merry one at any rate." The woman looked me full in the face.

"Matthew Lindsay!" she exclaimed—"can you have forgotten your poor old aunt Margaret!" I grasped her hand.

"Dearest aunt, this is surely most unexpected! How could I have so much as dreamed you were within a hundred miles of me?" Mutual congratulation ensued.

"This," she said, turning to my companion, "is the nephew I have so often told you about, and so often wished to bring you acquainted with. He is, like yourself, a great reader and a great thinker, and there is no need that your proud, kindly heart should be jealous of him; for he has been ever quite as poor, and maybe the poorer of the two." After still more of greeting and congratulation, the young man rose.

"The night is dark, mother," he said, "and the road to the clachan a rough one; besides you and your kinsman will have much to say to one another. I shall just slip out to the clachan for you; and you shall both tell me on my return whether I am not a prime judge of ale."

"The kindest heart, Matthew, that ever lived," said my relative, as he left the house; "ever since he came to Kirkoswald, he has been both son and daughter to me, and I shall feel twice a widow when he goes away."

"I am mistaken, aunt," I said, "if he be not the strongest minded man I ever saw. Be assured he stands high among the aristocracy of nature, whatever may be thought of him in Kirkoswald. There is a robustness of intellect, joined to an overmastering force of character, about him, which I have never yet seen equalled, though I have been intimate with at least one very superior mind, and with hundreds of the class who pass for men of talent. I have been thinking, ever since I met with him, of the William Tells and William Wallaces of history—men who, in those times of trouble which unfix the foundations of society, step out from their obscurity to rule the destiny of nations."

"I was ill about a month ago," said my relative—"so very ill that I thought I was to have done with the world altogether; and Robert was both nurse and physician to me—he kindled my fire, too, every morning, and sat up beside me sometimes for the greater part of the night. What wonder I should love him as my own child? Had your cousin Henry been spared to me, he would now have been much about Robert’s age."

The conversation passed to other matters, and in about half an hour my new friend entered the room; when we sat down to a homely, but cheerful repast.

"I have been engaged in argument, for the last twenty minutes, with our parish schoolmaster," he said—"a shrewd, sensible man, and a prime scholar, but one of the most determined Calvinists I ever knew. Now, there is something, Mr Lindsay, in abstract Calvinism, that dissatisfies and distresses me; and yet, I must confess, there is so much of good in the working of the system, that I would ill like to see it supplanted by any other. I am convinced, for instance, there is nothing so efficient in teaching the bulk of a people to think as a Calvinistic church."

"Ah, Robert," said my aunt, "it does meikle mair nor that. Look round you, my bairn, an’ see if there be a kirk in which puir sinful creatures have mair comfort in their sufferings or mair hope in their deaths."

"Dear mother," said my companion, "I like well enough to dispute with the schoolmaster, but I must have no dispute with you. I know the heart is everything in these matters, and yours is much wiser than mine."

"There is something in abstract Calvinism," he continued, "that distresses me. In almost all our researches we arrive at an ultimate barrier, which interposes its wall of darkness between us and the last grand truth, in the series which we had trusted was to prove a master key to the whole. We dwell in a sort of Goshen—there is light in our immediate neighbourhood, and a more than Egyptian darkness all around; and as every Hebrew must have known that the hedge of cloud which he saw resting on the landscape, was a boundary not to things themselves, but merely to his view of things—for beyond there were cities, and plains, and oceans, and continents—so we in like manner must know that the barriers of which I speak exist only in relation to the faculties which we employ, not to the objects on which we employ them. And yet, notwithstanding this consciousness that we are necessarily and irremediably the bound prisoner of ignorance, and that all the great truths lie outside our prison, we can almost be content that, in most cases, it should be so—not, however, with regard to those great unattainable truths which lie in the track of Calvinism. They seem too important to be wanted, and yet want them we must—and we beat our very heads against the cruel barrier which separates us from them."

"I am afraid I hardly understand you," I said ;—"do assist me by some instance or illustration."

"You are acquainted," he replied, "with the Scripture doctrine of Predestination, and, in thinking over it, in connection with the destinies of man, it must have struck you that, however much it may interfere with our fixed notions of the goodness of Deity, it is thoroughly in accordance with the actual condition of our race. As far as we can know of ourselves and the things around us, there seems, through the will of Deity—for to what else can we refer it?—a fixed, invariable connection between what we term cause and effect. Nor do we demand of any class of mere effects, in the inanimate or irrational world, that they should regulate themselves otherwise than the causes which produce them have determined. The roe and the tiger pursue, unquestioned, the instincts of their several natures; the cork rises, and the stone sinks; and no one thinks of calling either to account for movements so opposite. But it is not so with the family of man; and yet our minds, our bodies, our circumstances, are but combinations of effects, over the causes of which we have no control. We did not choose a country for ourselves, nor yet a condition in life—nor did we determine our modicum of intellect, or our amount of passion—we did not impart its gravity to the weightier part of our nature, or give expansion to the lighter—nor are our instincts of our own planting. How, then, being thus as much the creatures of necessity as the denizens of the wild and forest--as thoroughly under the agency of fixed, unalterable causes, as the dead matter around us—why are we yet the subjects of a retributive system, and accountable for all our actions?"

"You quarrel with Calvinism," I said; "and seem one of the most thorough-going necessitarians I ever knew."

"Not so," he replied; "though my judgment cannot disprove these conclusions, my heart cannot acquiesce in them—though I see that I am as certainly the subject of laws that exist and operate independent of my will, as the dead matter around me, I feel, with a certainty quite as great, that I am a free, accountable creature. It is according to the scope of my entire reason that I should deem myself bound—it is according to the constitution of my whole nature that I should feel myself free. And in this consists the great, the fearful problem—a problem which both reason and revelation propound; but the truths which can alone solve it, seem to lie beyond the horizon of darkness—and we vex ourselves in vain. ‘Tis a sort of moral asymptotes; but its lines, instead of approaching through all space without meeting, seem receding through all space, and yet meet."

"Robert, my bairn," said my aunt, "I fear you are wasting your strength on these mysteries to your ain hurt. Did ye no see, in the last storm, when ye staid out among the caves till cock-crow, that the bigger and stronger the wave, the mair was it broken against the rocks?—it’s just thus wi’ the pride o’ man’s understanding, when he measures it against the dark things o’ God. An’ yet, it’s sae ordered that the same wonderful truths which perplex an’ cast down the proud reason, should delight an’ comfort the humble heart. I am a lone, puir woman, Robert. Bairns and husband have gone down to the grave, one by one; an’, now, for twenty weary years, I have been childless an’ a widow. But trow ye that the puir lone woman wanted a guard an’ a comforter, an’ a provider, through a’ the lang mirk nichts, an’ a’ the cauld scarce winters o’ these twenty years? No, my bairn—I kent that Himsel was wi’ me. I kent it by the provision He made, an’ the care He took, an’ the joy He gave. An’ how, think you, did He comfort me maist? Just by the blessed assurance that a’ my trials an’ a’ my sorrows were nae hasty chance matters, but dispensations for my guid, an’ the guid o’ those he took to himsel, that, in the perfect love and wisdom o’ his nature, he had ordained frae the beginning."

"Ah, mother," said my friend, after a pause, "you understand the doctrine far better than I do! There are, I find, no contradictions in the Calvinism of the heart."


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