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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXV - Friendship and Courtship


DURING part of John's stay at Auchleven, Charles Black lived at Kcithhall near Kinnethmont, where he had come to be gardener to Sir Andrew Leith Hay, in 1848, the year before John returned to Gadie side. Being only a few miles apart, the two friends renewed and extended former happy intimacies. They often botanised together, as of yore, generally bringing plants to each other, and comparing their finds at mutual visits. John frequently remained all night with his friend, and Charles once or twice stayed with John, after a long day's hunt. The two slept together in "the philosopher," where Charles made the silence reverberate with unwonted jokes and laughter on the situation; and he still recalls the sound of the animals below them, crunching their food and stamping with their restless feet.

Charles had begun at Raeden to make a collection of geological specimens; but these John looked at with little attention, for he was then too absorbed in the flowers, and Aberdeen is barren in fossils, which Charles afterwards obtained in the greatest abundance and beauty on the shores of the Solway. Geology was a subject John by-and-by felt considerable interest in, and would have pursued its study, especially after Charles had begun it. But when he had more leisure to do so, he had no longer any opportunity of practical guidance in a science that, more than most, requires initiation into it on the field, under the practical tuition of another. So it remained with the weaver a barren subject. He did in time gather a collection of minerals, "Geology stones" as he called them, almost the only available specimens in the Vale of Alford.

The last ramble the two friends had together was long recalled by both as a happy memory. Charles remained only a year at Leithhall, leaving it in November, 1849, for Hamilton Palace gardens on the Clyde, where a brother of his was chief gardener. Before setting out for the south, the companions determined to have a long, quiet pilgrimage together as of old. As Charles's leisure was limited, they settled on a beautiful Sunday in the beginning of October, for what proved to be, though happily then unknown to them, their last joint excursion in the dear old style. They met that morning near Auchleven, and walked over the hill together, past Keig and across the bridge of Don, admiring the fine glimpse of the old Kirk of Keig from its high parapets, by Bankhead where an unsurpassed view of Benachic and the pass of the Don and Castle Forbes is got, on to the Free Church of Keig. There John sat once more in his old seat, hearing his former minister, Mr. Smith. After service, they went to see an old friend, one of the Netherton circle, Charles Lawson, at Barnley, where they dined. Then they walked by the old paths to Prospect Hill and Whitehouse, and enjoyed their splendid outlook over memorable scenes, but they did not enter the mansion, round which clustered so many memories of merriment and study.

It was now getting so late that they were obliged to retrace their steps. After recrossing the bridge of Don, they ascended the hill above it, and looked back upon the wide-spreading Vale below them, under the mild sunset light. They then took a short cut homewards under John's. guidance, who knew every foot of the way. They passed the ancient fort of the Barmiken of Keig, [See this described in Miss Maclagan's "Hill Forts, Stone Circles, etc., of Ancient Scotland;" as also those on Benachie, Dunnideer, Tap o' Noth, and other places (with very good plans and sketches), mentioned in this history.] catching a parting glimpse of the hollow of Tullynessle and Muckletown, where John had lived, and descended the hill to the north straight for Leithhall. By the time they reached the Gadie, it was quite dark, and they had to cross it on a plank, crawling after each other in the gloom on hands and knees. Then they parted, Charles to go to his home at Kinnethmont, and John to walk down the Gadie side to Auchleven. It was a delightful day, full of the beauty of the present, the poetry of the past, and the hopes of the future.

They little thought it was their last journey together, but so it turned out to be. During the next thirty years in which they both wandered down the vale of life, they saw each other only twice. Charles has never been in the Howe of Alford since. They continued to correspond to the last, though, from their imperfect use of the pen, that. was seldomer than their hearts prompted ; but they never ceased to cherish towards each other that beautiful love which had blessed and united them so closely in the years gone by.

Since his wife's death, notwithstanding his unhappy domestic experiences, and perhaps all the more strongly because of them, Duncan's thoughts had more than once turned to matrimony; for he was of a quiet, domestic disposition, and longed for a home of his own and a dear companion, to cheer him after his enforced long solitary life. He frequently expressed his opinion of general married life, when he heard of any one entering that critical condition, in this way: "Gin they had been as muckle married as I hae been, they widna care sae muckle for't!" But human nature was too strong even for John's bitter experience and sedate philosophy, and he more than once essayed to take a wife.

He had the reputation of being "a great ladies' man," or, as they said in the vernacular, "he liket the lasses;" as the greatest and best of the race have done. The presence of the young and fair, who alone touched his fancy, always roused him to a pleasant state of excitement, and then "he was all glee." But as might be expected from such a shy mortal, he was painfully bashful in his approaches, and not seldom ludicrous in his attempts to make himself agreeable to the other sex. He was often constrained,to solicit the kind mediation of a friend, whose love of mischief still further increased John's embarrassment.

If rumour and history are to be fully believed, our gay Lothario of stars and flowers proposed to more than one fair Dulcinea of his acquaintance. John's opinion of his own matrimonial qualifications was certainly far from small. There is no doubt that he would have made any woman whom he loved, and who loved him in return, very happy. But with all the sterling qualities he possessed, it is to be feared that it would have required a very superior woman, who looked far beneath the surface,. to appreciate . these, allied with what the fair sex seem least able to tolerate in a lover, eccentricity and oddness in personnel and habit, as was decidedly true in John's case.

But others had succeeded in more unlikely circumstances, and why not he? It is certain that his hopes were high, and not easily daunted in love-making any more than in stargazing and plant-seeking. To a female friend of his who esteemed him highly, he confided the important secret that he had a lady-love: Thinking at the moment only of his appearance in a woman's eye, she remarked, with plain malapropos naivete but in real kindliness, that she was glad to hear that anybody would take him ! John naturally bridled up with wounded self-esteem and misplaced confidence, and at once retorted with archness and vigour that, as for that, he could get as mony lasses that wu'd be glad to hae 'im as would stretch frac the Brig o' Dee to Benachie!

A love letter of John's, a gem in its way, lies before me, sent in his fifty-sixth year, to an amiable and attractive woman then in her thirtieth, who lived in the valley of the Gadie. The date is the 25th of February, 1850; that is, be it observed, St. Valentine's day, old style—and a quainter, more scriptural billet-doux has been rarely received, even at that love-making season. The tender epistle is written in his fairest hand, and evidently as slowly penned as in his best copy-book at Paradise, upon pencil lines ruled with due care, on a single sheet, now yellow with age. It bears a printed ticket stuck at its head, containing the words "A friend" above a mirror, intended, no doubt, as a suggestive emblem of the fairness of the face that should gaze into it. The whole is correctly spelled except one or two words. It runs thus:-

"Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. For the winter is past, the spring is come, and;the summer is at hand, and the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of the singing of birds is heard in our land. . . . For thy love is better than gold, yea, much fine gold to be desired are.[The latter part of the sentence is a quotation from the Scotch metrical psalms (19. v. 10), which accounts for the incorrect grammar.] . . . For thou hast loved me with kindness and tenderness... . Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for I will cheer you with joy and with gladness.

"For who can find a virtuous wife? for her price is far above rubies.... She will do him good and not evil, all the days of her life.

"It was by Providence intended that our pains and pleasures should be blended. [This sentence may be a rhyming couplet, though not so written by John.]

"We We smile to-day, to-morrow mourn,
Nor find a rose without a thorn."

There at once spoke the lover, the theologian and the naturalist, the astronomer, the predestinarian Calvinist and the poet; though the concluding couplet has in it more rhyming truth than tact. But even this glowing epistle was not successful.

One of his fancies became a housekeeper in the parish of Tough, at a farm he used to visit. Though John was warm and persistent, and, as the folks said, "really daft aboot 'er," she was cold and practical and cared for none of these things, at least in John's person. Some of his kindly friends tried, in a left-handed way, to favour his suit, and would tell her that he was "coming up the close." "Oh, the muckle sorra set him! He's naething but a hinder to ane's wark ! " exclaimed the practical housewife; for love-making and kitchen cares did not in her eyes go well together. John was not easily repelled however, and would talk to her by the hour, in spite of the attractions of nature around, while she impatiently bustled about her duties. His friends would often tease him, in feigned surprise, "Ow, John, are ye aye here yet?" "Ay, but I'm just gain' awa." After he had left, they would inquire in confidential tones, "Rae ye made onything o' 'er the day?" "The feint a flee," returned he, in natural indignation at continued nonsuccess; "she's an obstinate limmer, that's a'." And there the affair ended. After years of tenderest attentions, nothing came of it, and Jean remained an old maid, and John a widower.

One day he was found, by the daughter of the house, seated on a stone at the end of a cottage, "where the Gadie rins." She asked him to come in and get a cup of tea, as he had often done before. "Na," says John, in unusually earnest tones, "it's nae for that I cam', but to ask ye, gin ye'll be willin' to marry me!" looking up into her face with a curious bashful eagerness. That was plain and to the point, though scarcely approached with the delicate strategy dear to the sex in such affairs; but there was no mistaking his meaning. "Eh, Johnnie man," said she, with equal plain and practical directness, "I cu'dna mak' a man's sark for my life!"—she was so weak in the eyes and short-sighted that she never could use a needle, and afterwards became quite blind—"I cu'd be nae man's wife." And she told him to "Gang hame and think no mair o' her i' that gait." This John did, more downcast than he came. Her mother, who had been absent during the brief colloquy, asked her daughter on her return, why she laughed so to herself. She told her the tale, and continued, "and there, he's awa' doon the back o' the hedge wi' his answer." Even after this, John still visited her mother's house when he passed it with his flowers. In spite of this repulse, the daughter's opinion of John continued to be very high. He was, she said, "as gude a bein' as ever was born, and I hope I'll meet him in a better warld."

In his confidential moments, John used to tell a good friend of a love passage he had with a lady, curious but characteristic in its way. Who the fair dame was cannot now be known; but that is immaterial. Matters matrimonial had gone so far between them that an appointment was made to meet on a hill top between the Gadie and the Don, to come if possible to a final settlement. They both arrived at the trysting place dressed in their best, on a bonny day in spring. Wandering through the heather at due distance apart, they talked in a business-like way about their mutual possessions and their disposal of them. At last, being somewhat tired with their journey, John proposed to rest awhile. She sat down on one stone, and he took his place on another some distance off; and on these cold stones, in what would seem to most an ultra matter-of-fact style, which John used to give in detail, they continued their discourse on subjects that might change their destinies for life. But something displeased the lady, and she would not be reconciled. No understanding was arrived at, and there on that bleak hill-top, they parted, after shaking hands, each taking a separate way homewards, John not a little down-hearted, she never again coming to terms.

His friend naturally asked John why he did his courting in that formal, distant style? and why, by all that was sacred and loving, he did not sit down beside his lady-love, on the same stone at least, if he did nothing else? John's reply was perfect in its simplicity: "That wu'd hae been takin' an undue advantage o' the wumman!" And he meant it, so great was his spirit of fairness and proper form, even in love matters; for the maxim that "All is fair in love and war" would be viewed as selfishness, if not sin, by such a man. Was not this a bit of the ancient spirit of chivalrous respect for woman, in humble life? Yet in his own undemonstrative way, he was truly warm-hearted and devoted, though he evidently was not skilled in those arts that win a woman's affections. And so ended all John's new attempts at love-making, though he continued for years after to cherish hopes of finding a partner for life. It was no doubt a pity and a loss to him in many ways, poor good soul, that he did not succeed.


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