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
"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
"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
"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."