"I have come all the way
from Irvine to see you, Mr Burns," I said. "For the last five years, I
have thought more of my mother and you than of any other two persons in
the country. May I not calculate, as of old, on my supper and a bed?"
There was an instantaneous
change in his expression.
"Pardon me, my friend," he
said, grasping my hand, "I have, unwittingly, been doing you wrong; one
may surely be the master of an Indiaman, and in possession of a heart too
honest to be spoiled by prosperity."
The remark served to
explain the haughty coldness of his manner which had so displeased me, and
which was but the unwittingly assumed armour of a defensive pride.
"There, brother," he said,
throwing down some plough irons which he carried, "send wee Davoc
with those to the smithy, and bid him tell Rankin I won’t be there
to-night. The moon is rising, Mr Lindsay—shall we not have a stroll
together through the coppice?"
"That of all things," I
replied; and, parting from Gilbert, we struck into the wood.
The evening, considering
the lateness of the season, for winter had set in, was mild and pleasant.
The moon at full was rising over the Cumnock Hills, and casting its faint
light on the trees that rose around us, in their winding-sheets of brown
and yellow, like so many spectres, or that, in the more exposed glades and
openings of the wood, stretched their long naked arms to the sky. A light
breeze went rustling through the withered grass; and I could see the faint
twinkling of the falling leaves, as they came showering down on every side
"We meet in the midst of
death and desolation," said my companion—"we parted when all around us was
fresh and beautiful. My father was with me then, and—and Mary Campbell—and
"Mary! your Mary!" I
exclaimed—"the young—the beautiful—alas! is she also gone?"
"She has left me," he
said—"left me. Mary is in her grave!"
I felt my heart swell, as
the image of that loveliest of creatures came rising to my view in all her
beauty, as I had seen her by the river side; and I knew not what to reply.
"Yes," continued my friend,
"she is in her grave;—we parted for a few days, to re-unite, as we hoped,
for ever; and, ere those few days had passed, she was in her grave. But I
was unworthy of her—unworthy even then; and now— But she is in her grave!"
I grasped his hand. "It is
difficult," I said, "to bid the heart submit to these
dispensations, and, oh, how utterly impossible to bring it to listen!
But life—your life, my friend—must not be passed in useless
sorrow. I am convinced, and often have I thought of it since our last
meeting, that yours is no vulgar destiny—though I know not to what it
exclaimed—"it tends downwards;—I see, I feel it;—the anchor of my
affection is gone, and I drift shoreward on the rocks."
"‘Twere ruin," I exclaimed,
"to think so!"
"Not half an hour ere my
father died," he continued, "he expressed a wish to rise and sit once more
in his chair; and we indulged him. But, alas! the same feeling of
uneasiness which had prompted the wish, remained with him still, and he
sought to return again to his bed. ‘It is not by quitting the bed or the
chair,’ he said, ‘that I need seek for ease: it is by quitting the body.’
I am oppressed, Mr Lindsay, by a somewhat similar feeling of uneasiness,
and, at times, would fain cast the blame on the circumstances in which I
am placed. But I may be as far mistaken as my poor father. I would fain
live at peace with all mankind—nay, more, I would fain love and do good to
them all; but the villain and the oppressor come to set their feet on my
very neck, and crush me into the mire—and must I not resist? And when, in
some luckless hour, I yield to my passions—to those fearful passions that
must one day overwhelm me--when I yield, and my whole mind is darkened by
remorse, and I groan under the discipline of conscience, then comes the
odious, abominable hypocrite—the devourer of widows’ houses and the
substance of the orphan—and demands that my repentance be as public as his
own hollow detestable prayers. And can I do other than resist and expose
him? My heart tells me it was formed to bestow--why else does every misery
that I cannot relieve, render me wretched? It tells me, too, it was formed
not to receive--why else does the proffered assistance of even a friend
fill my whole soul with indignation? But ill do my circumstances agree
with my feelings. I feel as if I were totally misplaced, in some frolic of
Nature, and wander onwards in gloom and unhappiness, for my proper sphere.
But, alas! these efforts of uneasy misery are but the blind gropings of
Homer’s Cyclops round the walls of his cave."
I again began to
experience, as on a former occasion, the o’ermastering power of a mind
larger beyond comparison than my own; but I felt it my duty to resist the
influence. "Yes, you are misplaced, my friend," I said—"perhaps more
decidedly so than any other man I ever knew; but is not this
characteristic, in some measure, of the whole species? We are all
misplaced; and it seems a part of the scheme of Deity, that we should work
ourselves up to our proper sphere. In what other respect does man so
differ from the inferior animals as in these aspirations which lead him
through all the progressions of improvement, from the lowest to the
highest level of his nature?"
"That may be philosophy, my
friend," he replied, "but a heart ill at ease finds little of comfort in
it. You knew my father: need I say he was one of the excellent of the
earth— a man who held directly from God Almighty the patent of his
honours? I saw that father sink broken-hearted into the grave, the victim
of legalized oppression—yes, saw him overborne in the long contest which
his high spirit and his indomitable love of the right had incited him to
maintain— overborne by a mean, despicable scoundrel—one of the creeping
things of the earth. Heaven knows I did my utmost to assist in the
struggle. In my fifteenth year, Mr Lindsay, when a thin, loose-jointed
boy, I did the work of a man, and strained my unknit and overtoiled sinews
as if life and death depended on the issue, till oft, in the middle of the
night, I have had to fling myself from my bed to avoid instant
suffocation—an effect of exertion so prolonged and so premature. Nor has
the man exerted himself less heartily than the boy—in the roughest,
severest labours of the field, I have never yet met a competitor. But my
labours have been all in vain—I have seen the evil bewailed by Solomon—the
righteous man falling down before the wicked." I could answer only with a
sigh. "You are in the right," he continued, after a pause, and in a more
subdued tone: "man is certainly misplaced—the present scene of things is
below the dignity of both his moral and intellectual nature. Look round
you"—(we had reached the summit of a grassy eminence which rose over the
wood, and commanded a pretty extensive view of the surrounding
country)—"see yonder scattered cottages, that, in the faint light, rise
dim and black amid the stubble fields—my heart warms as I look on them,
for I know how much of honest worth, and sound, generous feeling shelters
under these roof trees. But why so much of moral excellence united to a
mere machinery for ministering to the ease and luxury of a few of perhaps
the least worthy of our species—creatures so spoiled by prosperity that
the claim of a common nature has no force to move them, and who seem as
miserably misplaced as the myriads whom they oppress?"
"If I’m designed yen lordling’s
By nature’s law designed—
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not,why am I subject to
His cruelty and scorn?
Or why has man the will and power
To make his fellow mourn?"
"I would hardly know what
to say in return, my friend," I rejoined, "did not you, yourself, furnish
me with the reply. You are groping on in darkness, and it may be
unhappiness, for your proper sphere; but it is in obedience to a great
though occult law of our nature—a law general, as it affects the species,
in its course of onward progression—particular, and infinitely more
irresistible, as it operates on every truly superior intellect. There are
men born to wield the destinies of nations—nay, more, to stamp the
impression of their thoughts and feelings on the mind of the whole
civilized world. And by what means do we often find them roused to
accomplish their appointed work? At times hounded on by sorrow and
suffering, and thus in the design of Providence, that there may be less of
sorrow and suffering in the world ever after—at times roused by cruel and
maddening oppression, that the oppressor may perish in his guilt, and a
whole country enjoy the blessings of freedom. If Wallace had not suffered
from tyranny, Scotland would not have been free."
"But how apply the remark?"
said my companion.
"Robert Burns," I replied,
again grasping his hand, "Yours, I am convinced, is no vulgar destiny.
Your griefs, your sufferings, your errors even, the oppressions you have
seen and felt, the thoughts which have arisen in your mind, the feelings
and sentiments of which it has been the subject—are, I am convinced, of
infinitely more importance in their relation to your country than to
yourself. You are, wisely and benevolently, placed far below your mind,
that thousands and ten thousands of your countrymen may be the better
enabled to attain to theirs. Assert the dignity of manhood and of genius,
and there will be less of wrong and oppression in the world ever after."
I spent the remainder of
the evening in the farm-house of Mossgiel, and took the coach next morning