"Unquestionably, Mr Burns,"
said the man in black, addressing the farmer, "politeness is but a very
shadow, as the poet hath it, if the heart be wanted. I saw, to-night, in a
strictly polite family, so marked a presumption of the lack of that
natural affection of which politeness is but the portraiture and
semblance, that truly I have been grieved in my heart ever since."
"Ah, Mr Murdoch," said the
farmer, "there is ever more hypocrisy in the world than in the church, and
that, too, among the class of fine gentlemen and fine ladies who deny it
most. But the instance"—"You know the family, my worthy friend," continued
Mr Murdoch—"it is a very pretty one, as we say vernacularly, being
numerous, and the sons highly genteel young men; the daughters not less
so. A neighbour of the same very polite character, coming on a visit when
I was among them, asked the father, in the course of a conversation
to which I was privy, how he meant to dispose of his sons; when the father
replied that he had not yet determined. The visitor said, that, were he in
his place, seeing they were all well educated young men, he would send
them abroad; to which the father objected the indubitable fact, that many
young men lost their health in foreign countries and very many their
lives. ‘True,’ did the visitor rejoin; ‘but, as you have a number of sons,
it will be strange if some one of them does not live and make a fortune.’
Now, Mr Burns, what will you, who know the feelings of paternity, and the
incalculable, and assuredly, I may say, invaluable value of human souls,
think when I add, that the father commended the hint as showing the wisdom
of a shrewd man of the world!"
"Even the chief priests,"
said the old man, pronounced it unlawful to cast into the treasury the
thirty pieces of silver, seeing it was the price of blood; but the
gentility of the present day is less scrupulous. There is a laxity of
principle; for there have ever been evil manners among us, and waifs in no
inconsiderable number, broken loose from the decencies of society—more,
perhaps, in my early days than there are now. But our principles, at
least, were sound; and not only was there thus a restorative and
conservative spirit among us, but, what was of not less importance, there
was a broad gulf, like that in the parable, between the two grand classes,
the good and the evil—a gulf which when it secured the better class from
contamination, interposed no barrier to the reformation, and return of
even the most vile and profligate, if repentant. But this gulf has
disappeared, and we are standing unconcernedly over it, on a hollow and
dangerous marsh of neutral ground, which, in the end, if God open not our
eyes, must assuredly give way under our feet."
"To what, father," inquired
my friend, who sat listening with the deepest and most respectful
attention, "do you attribute the change?"
"Undoubtedly," replied the
old man, "there have been many causes at work; and, though not impossible,
it would certainly be no easy task to trace them all to their several
effects, and give to each its due place and importance. But there is a
deadly evil among us, though you will hear of it from neither press nor
pulpit, which I am disposed to rank first in the number—the affectation of
gentility. It has a threefold influence among us: it confounds the grand,
eternal distinctions of right and wrong, by erecting into a standard of
conduct and opinion, that heterogeneous and artificial whole which
constitutes the manners and morals of the upper classes; it severs those
ties of affection and good-will which should bind the middle to the lower
orders, by disposing the one to regard whatever is below them with a too
contemptuous indifference, and by provoking a bitter and indignant, though
natural jealousy in the other for being so regarded; and, finally, by
leading those who most entertain it, into habits of expense, torturing
their means, if I may so speak, on the rack of false opinion—disposing
them to think in their blindness, that to be genteel is a first
consideration, and to be honest merely a secondary one—it has the effect
of so hardening their hearts, that, like those Carthaginians of whom we
have been lately reading in the volume Mr. Murdoch lent us, they offer up
their very children, souls and bodies, to the unreal, phantom-like
necessities of their circumstances."
"Have I not heard you
remark, father," said Gilbert, "that the change you describe has been very
marked among the ministers of our Church?"
"Too marked and too
striking," replied the old man; "and in affecting the respectability and
usefulness of so important a class, it has educed a cause of
deterioration, distinct from itself, and hardly less formidable. There is
an old proverb of our country—‘Better the head of the commonality than the
tail of the gentle.’ I have heard you quote it, Robert, oftener than once,
and admire its homely wisdom. Now, it bears directly on what I have to
remark—the ministers of our Church have moved but one step during the last
sixty years; but that step has been an all-important one—it has been from
the best place in relation to the people to the worst in relation to the
"Undoubtedly, worthy Mr
Burns," said Mr Murdoch, "there is great truth, according to mine own
experience, in that which you affirm. I may state, I trust, without over
boasting or conceit, my respected friend, that my learning is not inferior
to that of our neighbour the clergyman—it is not inferior in Latin, nor in
Greek, nor yet in French literature, Mr Burns, and probable it is he would
not much court a competition; and yet, when I last waited at the Manse
regarding a necessary and essential certificate, Mr Burns, he did not so
much as ask me to sit down."
"Ah!" said Gilbert, who
seemed the wit of the family, "he is a highly respectable man, Mr
Murdoch—he has a fine house, fine furniture, fine carpets—all that
constitutes respectability, you know; and his family is on visiting terms
with that of the Laird. But his credit is not so respectable, I hear."
"Gilbert," said the old
man, with much seriousness, "it is ill with a people when they can speak
lightly of their clergyman. There is still much of sterling worth and
serious piety in the Church of Scotland; and if the influence of its
ministers be unfortunately less than it was once, we must not cast the
blame too exclusively on themselves. Other causes have been in operation.
The Church, eighty years ago, was the sole guide of opinion, and the only
source of thought among us. There was, indeed, but one way in which a man
could learn to think. His mind became the subject of some serious
impression:—he applied to his Bible, and, in the contemplation of the most
important of all concerns, his newly awakened faculties received their
first exercise. All of intelligence, all of moral good in him, all that
rendered him worthy of the name of man, he owed to the ennobling influence
of his Church; and is it a wonder that that influence should be
all-powerful from this circumstance alone? But a thorough change has taken
place;—new sources of intelligence have been opened up; we have our
newspapers, and our magazines, and our volumes of miscellaneous reading;
and it is now possible enough for the most cultivated mind in a parish to
be the least moral and the least religious; and hence necessarily a
diminished influence in the Church, independent of the character of its
I have dwelt too long,
perhaps, on the conversation of the elder Burns; but I feel much pleasure
in thus developing, as it were, my recollections of one whom his powerful
minded son has described—and this after acquaintance with our Henry
M’Kenzies, Adam Smiths, and Dugald Stewarts—as the man most thoroughly
acquainted with the world he ever knew. Never, at least, have I met with
any one who exerted a more wholesome influence, through the force of moral
character, on those around him. We sat down to a plain and homely supper.
The slave question had, about this time, begun to draw the attention of a
few of the more excellent and intelligent among the people, and the elder
Burns seemed deeply interested in it.
"This is but homely fare,
Mr Lindsay," he said, pointing to the simple viands before us, "and the
apologists of slavery among us would tell you how inferior we are to the
poor negroes, who fare so much better. But surely ‘Man liveth not by bread
alone!’ Our fathers who died for Christ on the hillside and the scaffold
were noble men, and never, never shall slavery produce such, and yet they
toiled as hard, and fared as meanly as we their children."
I could feel, in the
cottage of such a peasant and seated beside such men as his two sons, the
full force of the remark. And yet I have heard the miserable sophism of
unprincipled power against which it was directed—a sophism so insulting to
the dignity of honest poverty—a thousand times repeated.
Supper over, the family
circle widened round the hearth and the old man, taking down a large
clasped Bible, seated himself beside the iron lamp which now lighted the
apartment. There was deep silence among us as he turned over the leaves.
Never shall I forget his appearance. He was tall and thin, and, though his
frame was still vigorous, considerably bent. His features were high and
massy—the complexion still retained much of the freshness of youth, and
the eye all its intelligence; but the locks were waxing thin and grey
round his high, thoughtful forehead, and the upper part of the head, which
was elevated to an unusual height was bald. There was an expression of the
deepest seriousness on the countenance, which the strong umbery shadows of
the apartment served to heighten; and when, laying his hand on the page,
he half turned his face to the circle, and said, "Let us worship God,"
I was impressed by a feeling of awe and reverence to which I had,
alas! been a stranges for years. I was affected, too, almost to tears, as
I joined in the psalm; for a thousand half-forgotten associations came
rushing upon me: and my heart seemed to swell and expand as, kneeling
beside him when he prayed, I listened to his solemn and fervent petition,
that God might make manifest his great power and goodness in the salvation
of man. Nor was the poor solitary wanderer of the deep forgotten.
On rising from our
devotions, the old man grasped me by the hand. "I am happy," he said,
"that we should have met, Mr Lindsay. I feel an interest in you, and must
take the friend and the old man’s privilege of giving you an advice. The
sailor, of all men, stands most in need of religion. His life is one of
continued vicissitude—of unexpected success, or unlooked-for misfortune;
he is ever passing from danger to safety, and from safety to danger; his
dependence is on the ever-varying winds, his abode on the unstable waters.
And the mind takes a peculiar tone from what is peculiar in the
circumstances. With nothing stable in the real world around it on which it
may rest, it forms a resting-place for itself in some wild code of belief.
It peoples the elements with strange occult powers of good and evil, and
does them homage—addressing its prayers to the genius of the winds, and
the spirits of the waters. And thus it begets a religion for itself;—for
what else is the professional superstition of the sailor? Substitute, my
friend, for this—(shall I call it unavoidable superstition?)—this natural
religion of the sea—the religion of the Bible. Since you must be a
believer in the supernatural, let your belief be true; let your trust be
on Him who faileth not—your anchor within the vail; and all shall be well,
be your destiny for this world what it may."
We parted for the night,
and I saw him no more.
Next morning, Robert
accompanied me for several miles on my way. I saw, for the last half hour,
that he had something to communicate, and yet knew not how to set about
it; and so I made a full stop:—
"You have something to tell
me, Mr Burns," I said "need I assure you I am one you are in no danger
from trusting." He blushed deeply, and I saw him, for the first time,
hesitate and falter in his address.
"Forgive me," he at length
said—"believe me, Mr Lindsay. I would be the last in the world to hurt the
feelings of a friend—a—a—but you have been left among us penniless, and I
have a very little money which I have no use for;—none in the least;—will
you not favour me by accepting it as a loan?"
I felt the full and
generous delicacy of the proposal, and with moistened eyes and a swelling
heart, availed myself of his kindness. The sum he tendered did not much
exceed a guinea; but the yearly earnings of the peasant Burns fell, at
this period, of his life rather below eight pounds.