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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXV - Fame. Pauperism and Weakness


EARLY in 1878, I wrote an account of my visit and a short sketch of John's life, which appeared in "Good Words" [In April, May, and June, with a portrait of the man and a picture of the cottage at Droughsburn, neither of which were very correct.] of that year. It roused interest in the man, both local and general. It also brought him not a little substantial assistance from some who appreciated his story and rare enthusiasm, as well as several visitors desirous of seeing himself in his striking surroundings. With all this, the old botanist was greatly gratified, as he had the best right to be; for the public appreciation which he had never sought and which had been so much denied him in his long and secluded life, had to some degree come at last, though late.

The Rev. Mr. Williams, meeting him a little after this, spoke of "Good Words," and remarked, "So they have found you out at last!" He looked very thoughtful for a little, and then said, "I kent it wu'd come to that, come time." What precisely he meant it would be difficult to say. It could scarcely be that he ever anticipated becoming in any way famous in his lifetime, for of that there was not the least likelihood, so far as he could expect or wish, and it is most improbable he ever did. With such a quiet, simple soul, hidden away from the world, fame was not and could not be

"The spur that the clear spirit doth raise
To scorn delights, and live laborious days."

That "fair guerdon " he never followed nor hoped to find, though it found him in the end. His pursuit of knowledge truly was, if it ever was, "all for love and nothing for reward." He may have only meant that he expected something to come of my visit, though I was very careful to prevent any such impression being conveyed at the time. Or, "did he mean," as Mr. Williams suggests, "that his devotion to the beautiful flowers of God's creation, although unseen and unknown here, would be seen and known and used in the beautiful land whither his failing frame told him he was soon to set out? Probably," Mr. Williams thinks; "for his words had often a deeper meaning lurking about them."

He called on James Black some time after, and the conversation turned on the same subject. "Oh, John," said James after dinner, with his usual bantering earnestness, you're now a great man!" "Oo, ay," said he; "am I?" Then, after a pause, "But, faith, man, it pays, an' that's better!" smiled the blithe old man, entering into James's key; "Sal, lad, it pays. Umpha! Twa notes an' a half whiles in a day. Oh, wed, I ance got a' that frae a man awa sooth there, and I get a note or some shillin's ony day. Sal, Jamie, dinna tell me," continued the old boy, getting chirrupy and humorous, as was his wont in genial society, "dinna tell me that leernin' gets nae reward!"

James walked with him into town, and the conversation turned on one who had some time before showed the sensitive man some slight on account of his calling in his worn clothes—"meanly dressed," as was said; and John's old-world dress and queer style were certainly trying to those friends who prized city style more than country worth. John expressed his indignant annoyance, and concluded thus, "Alan, Jamie, I hae leddies callin' at my door i' their carriages! Real leddies; nane o' yer wu'dbe dirt! Their maids wu'dna look ower their shouther at sich like as they, peer things!" Who could censure the old man, then far above eighty, for this little elation at these late-found attentions from his fellow-men, and also from rank that had till then looked down on him or passed him unregarded by, even while living in his own neighbourhood?

John parted with James, asking him to convey his love to Charles, "dear Charlie," and tell him to write him "ae letter sune, and to write it plain, as he wu'd read it aften." Dear, simple, true-Hearted creature, how he did love that man! And Charles did write him, warmly congratulating him on his new-found, well-deserved renown—the sweetest praise John received—Charles only deprecating that the himself had been so much and so highly extolled, in connection with his dear friend!

During his long, hard-working life, though labouring at one of the most ill-remunerated trades, which was gradually being extinguished by modern improvements, he had always been able to earn enough to make a living, and even now, in his old age, was in debt to no man—a highly honourable achievement that few could have made in the same or even in better circumstances. He had not only supplied his own wants, but had always spared not a little for his needy family and their poor connections, which he had for many long years regularly and ungrudgingly bestowed — giving to his errant wife, paying for his daughters' board, and helping them after marriage up to recent years. Even in 1867, when he was seventy-three and his earnings were becoming painfully small, he had to bear some expenses connected with the death of his wife's son, Durward.

His one luxury had been the buying of books. His food had cost very little; he had never spent money on liquor; he had been no snuffer, though that habit was very common ; and his extensive wanderings had increased his means instead of lessening them. But books he must have. The money spent on them might perhaps have made him richer in pocket, but it certainly would have rendered him poorer in thought and happiness, if not, with his hidden sorrows, a wreck. Which of us could have the heart to grudge him this one intellectual extravagance, saved, as it undoubtedly was, from stomach and back?

After 1870, when trade became daily duller and strength feebler, and when he had passed his seventy-sixth year, for the first time in his life he began to feel the pressure of actual want—the breath of "poortith cauld." He worked all the harder and later, and did without a fire in his workshop even in winter, to save a little; still trying to make ends meet, with the sturdy, admirable independence that had always characterised him since he began to earn his own bread at ten years of age, more than sixty-six years before. He was too proud, too sensitive, too reticent, and too kindly and tender to others, to tell his wants and fears even to his friends, who would have hastened to help him. The daily lessening income and all that it meant, known but to himself, only made him drive his shuttle the faster, to maintain himself free of assistance, debt, or the dreaded pauper's dole—a dear liberty which it was one of the strongest desires of his heart to preserve inviolate to the end, till he should drop into the grave beneath his beloved flowers.

His books were numerous and valuable, and, if sold, would have brought a considerable sum, which could have loosened the stern grip of poverty and postponed, if not prevented, the disgrace he feared. But with these, the dear companions of his long life, pleasant studies and scientific struggles, he could not—could not—bring himself to think of parting, even under such cruel straits ; especially after testing his own endurance of separating from them, by selling a few of the less important. His plants—these were still dearer than his books, each a drop of veriest heart's blood; and he could not, would not, barter them for heaps of gold even in dire extremity. No, no, a thousand times no!

But it became daily more painfully plain to the decaying workman that the shuttle could no longer provide even the little portion that formed his daily bread. He was getting into debt to his landlord, and every day made it deeper. To his friends, true though few, he would not apply, to save himself the pain of asking, and them the obligation of giving, what he could now never repay. When need grew greater, he did stoop to tell his only relative—and was refused! When work became still scarcer, he even sought employment at a neighbouring sawmill, willing, anxious, to do anything—except to beg—to win an honest penny! But the evident unfitness and weakness of the tottering old man, in his eightieth year, of course made his application unsuccessful.

As a friend, speaking of this incident, remarks, his willingness to do the hard work connected with a sawmill "illustrates, in a telling manner, his grand old spirit of Scottish independence. Would even Burns," he asks, 'had he lived to John's age with all its infirmities, have had the resolution to tramp to the sawmill and ask for work?"

In 1873, so low were his circumstances, with present needs and increasing frailties, and so sad and down-hearted did he become in the darker prospects before him, that the old man took to bed, sick with melancholy heart-ache, for the first time in his life losing hope amidst the gathering blackness. What a new meaning did that childlike and trustful petition in the model prayer of our childhood possess now to John in his age and want—"Give us this day our daily bread!" And what a new but inexorable commentary on God's only method of answering all such prayers, did his darkening prospects afford!

How unutterably bitter and heart-sore must have been the hours then spent by that keen, sensitive, silent, pious and proud old man, in that dark, cold bed on the rafters under the thatch of the solitary workshop, with the fire extinguished on his hearth in the cheerless November, and the flame of hope only flickering on its dying embers in his heart—alone in the world in that desolate hut, widowed and childless, bread even denied him, strength departing when most needed, and God seemingly deserting him in his old age! May none of us ever catch the most distant glimpse of such agony!

But lying there in the dark would not mend matters. Bread must be found, somewhere and somehow. Dire necessity thus nerved his sick heart, and he rose to finish the web he had in his loom, looking for more to follow. Hope increased with busy hands, work came when this was done, strength grew with exercise, and the future brightened. For a whole year after this taste of despair, he struggled on, bravely facing the fiend that had grappled with him in the darkness and even now stood grimly and cruelly in the near distance, with relentless look towards him.

It was in vain. He could not win enough to support dear life. But he was never again plunged into the hopelessness from which he had then escaped. With the resolution that had upheld him throughout life, even in the bitter waters of his home and heart, he now nerved himself for what seemed to him the knell of life—at least, of all happiness. In soul-crying silence, without a word spoken to any one, he went down the Leochel side one winter morning, on the 2nd of November, 1874—to beg a pauper's portion! Ah, the pangs unutterable that act involved to such a man! How sad his heart, how dark his prospects, how distant God, as he trudged with reluctant feet along the familiar paths, which now looked so different, on that forbidding errand ! Even the very flowers that might have comforted him, as they did Wordsworth, [See his poem, composed after the death of his only brother, the original of his portrait of "The Happy Warrior."] in his woe, were dead and hidden from view beneath the bitter frost and snow. Often, often as the same misery has been felt and most powerfully sung, never was it more truly tragic and magnanimous than that day by the Leochel, as transacted in the inner depths of that bent little body that leaned on a tottering staff, while the soul stood bravely erect, silent and alone, in dread darkness. But the energy of resolution prevented any return of the despairing grief that had descended on him the winter before. He had now steeled his heart to bear and to do—and he bore and acted, outwardly without emotion or seeming difficulty, but inwardly with pathetic repulsion and unutterable shame.

It is scarcely possible for any one who has not seen and sympathised with the proudly sensitive and nobly honourable feelings that in Scotland make such an appeal to the parish so full of horror and dismay, adequately to understand John Duncan's feelings in this transaction. His own nature revolted against such dependence, and the traditional opinion and popular hatred of that condition had burnt it deep into his heart as the last and lowest depth of disgrace. May this feeling long, long exist in the country, a protection and an impulse to higher endeavour after independence amongst our poor.

He arrived at the Poor Inspector's after midday, and stated his circumstances. That officer took note of these in his books, which bear that "his average earnings were only about two shillings a week; he was failing in strength, and his trade was almost gone." He then received five shillings, and at the first meeting of the Board, on the 17th of November, 1874, he was formally admitted on the roll of paupers, at an allowance of three shillings weekly ; and one of the usual pauper's cards for entering the sums received, inscribed with his name and number, lies before me. That badge was the consummation of his shame, as it felt to him, and seemed to stamp him with the brand of Cain, which all men might read. Yet every month for years, the old man carried it to the parochial office, to receive his pittance, until the present inspector, Mr. James Reid, now one of his trustees, a man full of the milk of human kindness, used to bring it up to Droughsburn, in order to save John's feelings. In May, 1879, through Mr. Reid's good offices, on account of his increasing weakness and inability to work, he was boarded with Mrs. Allanach at four and sixpence a week; and his old shop, in deference to his feelings, was retained at the old rent, after the question asked by the chairman—alas for local fame!—"Is Duncan a deserving pauper?" had been at once "answered by a dozen in the affirmative." Thus did this keenly sensitive, aged man eat a beggar's bread for six years in silence, till relieved in his last year by the kindly gifts of admirers; never telling the painful fact to a single one of his friends, whom he still used to visit as in his old days of high-hearted independence. To me, he did not breathe a whisper of it.

In the year of my visit to him, 1877, John's vitality, remarkable and vigorous as it had been, began obviously to fail—and no wonder, for he had entered his eighty-fourth year in December.

When he called on James Black that summer, he had begun to look, as James expressed it in a letter to Charles, "old in earnest." His skin "felt clammy with exhaustion," and his power of walking was so much lessened that he had to stay a night on the way to town. When James entered the house, finding John sitting by the fire with his back to the door, he caught him by the shoulders and held him till he laughed and guessed who it was. With his friend's good cheer and hearty company, the old man greatly revived, and talked brightly of old days at Whitehouse. Despite his inherent reticence, though with difficulty, he also gave his friend details on certain points of his early life and domestic experiences, confided to few, which Charles had asked him to get for him, and which have been utilised in this history.

In the following year, 1878, on the first Sunday of May—a favourite month of the old botanist's, as it was to Chaucer, and as it has been to all lovers of nature, for then

"The floures gynnen for to spring"

—he set out for church, climbing the hill above the cottage that lay between him and the Howe of Cushnie where it stood. The way was long—four miles to go—and the road steep and trying to, the aged. But the day was smiling, the tender spring flowers thrilled him with their opening beauties and countless memories, and he gathered as usual some of his favourites to lay before him in church. When he reached the top of the hill, he sat down on a stone to rest, and gazed on the familiar prospect over hill and dale that stretched all round him, as he had often done before. It was a sweet Sabbath morning that sent its soothing peace into the good man's silent and receptive heart, and breathed a benison on him and on all nature, linked to the man by subtle ties of knowledge and sympathy, which few of the other church-goers could understand. Like Wordsworth's Wanderer-

"Early had he learned
To reverence the volume that displays
The mystery, the life which cannot die;
But in the mountains did he feet his faith.
All things, responsive to the writing, there
Breathed immortality, revolving life
And quietness still revolving; infinite:
There littleness was not; the least of things
Seemed infinite; and there his spirit shaped
Her prospects; nor did he believe—he saw."

After resting for a space in such "still communion," generated by "the blessed time" and his dear life companions, that smiled to greet him all around, he rose to continue his journey. But in doing so, a strange and new sensation swam round his heart for an instant ; then all became blank, and he fell to the ground insensible. There he lay for some time, unnoticed by any one, for the way he had come was little trodden. By-and-by, with a bewildered feeling, he slowly revived. Gazing round, he recalled his position, and with difficulty rose to his feet. He was obliged to seat himself again, but, after some rest, regained sufficient strength to totter towards the church, for it was the Sacrament day—a holy time he would not lose, unless compelled by sheer weakness. The sick man crawled along the road, till his pale appearance and weak steps were observed by the schoolmaster, Mr. Reid. He ran to his assistance, compelled him, in real alarm, to sit down, and brought him some needed brandy. This friendly draught revived him much, and, in spite of remonstrance, with his usual determination he insisted on going on to church. Mr. Reid, seeing his weakness, kindly got his phaeton ready; and, seated beside him, the old man was carried pale but smiling to church, where he arrived almost restored to wonted vigour.

He sat out the long service of the day, comforted and strengthened by the good words he heard from the cheering text, strangely appropriate to his circumstances—"As for God, his way is perfect: the word of the Lord is tried : he is a buckler to all those that trust in him " (Psa. xviii. 30). His friends had crowded round him both before and after :service, inquiring anxiously and kindly how he felt after his "drow." [A fainting fit; a word from the Anglo-Saxon.] But he would not complain, and, according to his wont, he tried to make light of the matter; for to a nature like his, public sympathy at such times is pure pain. But as old Mr. Williams said, on returning home that day, "I knew quite weel that he was waur than he wu'd allow. Peer breet, ["Poor brute," a curious term of endearment, used there and elsewhere in Scotland.] I doo't he'll never come to the kirk ony mair."

After service, he was refreshed by kindliness and food, and by a sympathetic and helpful gift from the good minister, and, declining all offered conveyance and accompanied by friendly feet, he walked homewards down the hill to the familiar cottage.

That was John's last visit to church, and his first decided warning of the coming end. His stout heart, which had for more than fourscore years done its work so well, was at length beginning to fail, and, for the first time in their long journey together, had ceased its vital offices—still willing and able, however, to continue them for a period; only now, like a prophetic friend, giving due warning that ere very long they must finally part company.

One day, the Rev. Mr. Williams met the old man on the road, now tottering somewhat more than before. After friendly greeting, "John," said he, "you're getting the worse of the wear, I fear." "Ow, ay," brightly returned he, "jist at the fa'in, like an aul' tumble-doon, feal dike!" Though, after this, his strength wonderfully revived, he was never the hale old traveller along the paths of time he had formerly been. Yet, when the lady called on him in July of that year, and asked him to get the Linnwa borealis for her, as a memento of himself and his cottage, the old spirit returned, and he fearlessly and unflinchingly undertook for it the long and trying journey to Manabattock Hill, in Tullynessle, on the other side of the Vale. But that terrible night to the aged botanist, alone on the mountain, in the rain and the storm, was an experience at his advanced years from which he never fully rallied; and no doubt, in some degree, it hastened the end. As he remarked, in speaking of it to a friend who inquired how he had fared, "I never cowered that day."

Before the close of autumn, nevertheless, he was able to pay his friends in Aberdeen a visit, for his vitality at his age was extraordinary. But he took four hours to find out James Black's house, poor old man, and when he arrived there, was so exhausted that, overcoming his unconquerable shyness even with intimates, he asked for something to drink. This revived him, and he talked quite brightly of my visit and the gifts the story had brought, thinking, as he always did, that somehow "Chairlie was at the buddom o't!" which, in a sense, he was.

Next day, he called on Mr. Beveridge, who noted at once a marked change upon the man. "Time was," he says, "telling sadly upon him; his limbs were stiff and shaky, and his appetite was poor." Though he was generally tidy in person, his beard was fearfully overgrown, and William took him to a barber, who shaved him "clean and snod" in what seemed to John an incredibly short space, no doubt the first time he had ever sat under tonsorial fingers. On coming out, he laughingly remarked, "how cleverly the chiel' had done the job!" He was greatly refreshed by the operation, and still more by the steaming cup of tea provided by Mrs. Beveridge on their return. He then toddled home to his brother's house at Rubislaw, near the city, where he spent the night.

The last time John called on Mr. Beveridge was in the following summer, two years before his death. He looked greatly improved in strength and spirits, and was remarkably merry over "Good Words" and the kindly presents from admirers it still brought him. He stayed the greater part of the day, revelling as usual in the happy past; and William parted with his "good old friend, alas! never more to meet again in time."

In January, 1881, I sent him a volume which gratified him much—"Leaders of Men: a book of Biographies specially written for Youth," by "H. A. Page," our good friend, Dr. Japp, who has produced many such high-toned books for the young. There John's story, as given in "Good Words," was reproduced, beside such goodly company as those of the Prince Consort, Commodore Goodenough, George Moore, Lord Lawrence, and Robert Dick of Thurso. And John had already been a "Leader" in his sphere, humble though it was. But his influence in this respect may now be only beginning, and it is to be hoped that he will yet become a source of "light and leading" to an army of kindred spirits, stirred by his life to prove his deeper delights.


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