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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXVIII - His growing debility: and the Author's last visit


FOR a year before his death, John's vitality began rapidly to decline. About this time he took a severe bleeding at the nostril, which was with difficulty stopped before the doctor arrived; and it was distinctly observable that, after that, his memory was seriously impaired and never again recovered its wonted power. His fainting on the way to church in May, 1880, was a significant premonition of decay, but one which the keen, healthy old veteran was very slow to heed.

He still continued weaving on till July, when growing debility and irretrievably spoiling a web he was trying to put into his loom at last convinced him, however reluctantly, of the necessity of giving up work. His bed was removed from the rafters above the looms, where he had slept for twenty-eight years, and a covered close bed was erected in the shop; as it was becoming dangerous for him to climb the rude ladder that led to the upper box where he had lain so long. The door between the shop and the kitchen, which had been built up when John took the place, to secure greater seclusion for himself, was now again opened, that Mrs. Allanach might more easily attend upon him with his increasing needs. The fire in the shop smoked so badly, as it had always done, that it could seldom or never be lighted with any comfort, so that he had to do without it, as he had greatly done all these years.

He now often wandered about in sleep, and was often affected with strange hallucinations. One night, for example, he hurried in his shirt into the cottage at midnight, in the greatest consternation, urging them to save themselves ; for, he said, he had just been up the brae, where he had seen the gable of the house falling in, and had rushed home to alarm them! His door had therefore to be kept locked at night, to prevent him unconsciously going outside, as he had sometimes done. Mrs. Allanach slept in the kitchen within easy distance of his bed, with the alert, sleepless ear of the thorough nurse, and had to attend upon him several times every night.

He was still, nevertheless, able to walk about, round the cottage and garden, for he was restless and his old habit of wandering was strong upon him to the last. He even took considerable journeys along the Leochel to see old friends. One day that winter, he had gone down the burn alone—for he was too self-reliant to ask assistance, the offer of which his undying independence resented—and was found by Mrs. Allanach, who was alarmed at his absence, lying unconscious by the burn side alone, having fainted as on the way to church. He was with difficulty brought round, and was hardly prevailed upon to try to get home, wishing to be allowed to lie down again undisturbed.

Shortly after that, he made his last journey up the glen. He set out after midday, alone and without notice as usual, determined, it appeared, to visit his friend Charles Birse at Scuttery, two miles or more up the Lcochel. The frost had been very keen for days, and the roads were covered with ice, which made walking difficult even to the strong. Poor John fell on the way and cut his face badly, but not having fainted, he was able to gather himself up and continue his journey. When he appeared at his friend's, they were alarmed to see him covered with blood, for the wound had bled profusely. Mrs. Birse soon bathed the place, and washed the blood from his face and dress. With the help of a little stimulant, he was restored to somewhat of his old blitheness, and a warm cup of tea completed the renovation. The sturdy old traveller would not allow any one to accompany him homewards, saying he was quite able for the journey himself. Knowing the man, they allowed him to depart, after seeing him so far on his way.

It proved too much for him, however, with the loss of blood he had sustained and the state of the roads, and he fainted about half-way home. It was a blessing he did not fall into the burn which runs by the highway. There, happily, he was observed by Mary Munro, a young servant at a neighbouring farm, who chanced to pass along the road shortly after, fetching home a load of turnips in a wheel-barrow. She found him partially recovered, holding hard by the paling that ran along the stream, but so exhausted that, even with her strong arms, he could not move a step. She therefore emptied the turnips from the barrow, put him into it, and carried him along the road and up by the Droichs burn towards the cottage. Here she was noticed by Peeny Allanach, who had come to seek him. He was brought home by the two kindly women, and put to bed, utterly prostrate. He was unable to rise again for a fortnight. The doctor was sent for, and prescribed for him, being of opinion that this loss of blood was the first serious cause of his death, which did not take place, however, for more than six months after. How very ill he must have been, to allow himself to be "hurled in a wheelbarrow," only those who knew the unconquerable mettle and high pride of the keen old soul can fully understand.

After this, he was less able to walk about, and had to be more carefully watched, to prevent his going far from home. But this needful care the stout spirit took very ill with—he had always been so very self-reliant and so accustomed, above most _men, to do for himself even the most detailed domestic offices. He declared to the close of his life, even when most helpless, that his good nurse "took far ower inuckle charge o'm;" and he used to oppose her assistance, saying that "that even his mither cu'dna hae done mair for him when he was a bairn; and he wasna gain' to be made a bairn o' noo!" Yet with all this, his appreciation of her kindness was very high, and it was frequently so expressed to herself and others.

I was very desirous to see the old man again, especially after I heard that he had become so weak, fearing that he might pass away before I should accomplish the visit. The winter of 1881, which was, as will long be recalled, one of the severest within the memory even of the aged, quite prevented my undertaking the journey across the uplands of Banff and Aberdeen, where the snow was unusually deep and where the railways were frequently blocked. At length, with the milder weather of March, I succeeded in reaching the Vale of Alford once more, six months before his death. The very day I arrived, the third of the month, one of the heaviest snowstorms of the season began, and rendered all exit from the Vale impossible for about a week—a captivity made most agreeable through the happy hospitality at the comfortable manse. It was with the greatest difficulty, and only with the help of alpenstocks, that Mr. Gillan and I struggled up to Droughsburn through the snow, which had almost effaced the road in a few hours. During my stay, I managed daily to reach the cottage, though it looked well-nigh impossible, but only by taking the straightest path over field, dike and hill; for all landmarks were hidden from sight under the continuous blinding drift—a severe experience never to be forgotten.

I had written John of my coming, so as to prepare him for it, and he had been eagerly anticipating it for some time, rising at nights to go to meet me, and sometimes, during the day, asking his nurse to do the same or to accompany him. The unexpected shower of gold that had fallen upon him in the evening of his life in consequence of my appeal, had refreshed and strengthened him. It now roused his interest in my coming, and that morning he had been considerably exhausted by going to the door several times, eager for my arrival. When we entered, we found him seated in his great cosy chair, in the best room, close by the cheerful fire, beside Mrs. Allanach ; for he could not now long be left alone. He looked tidy and comfortable, but painfully changed for the worse since I had seen him. His early excitement in anticipation of our coming had told upon his strength, and he looked quite absent-minded. When the minister shook hands with himY John scarcely recalled him and returned his greeting with a vacant look. It had to be explained to him who I was, and even then, for some time, it did not seem to dawn fully upon him, so rapid were the transitions of strength and weakness, intelligence and dulness, through which he now passed. We seated ourselves and talked to the bright old lady and the other inmates, allowing him time to recover. This he gradually did, and he was able by-and-by to take part in the conversation with considerable brightness. But the day was too far advanced for him to become what he had been earlier, and he had soon to retire to rest. On seeing this, we left, after cordial parting and a promise from me to return on the morrow. We found our way home again with increasing difficulty, through the gathering storm.

The room in which he now lived was small but comfortable. The walls were adorned with pictures, plain and coloured, of Da Vinci's "Lord's Supper," Rubens's "Bearing the Cross," and other Bible scenes. The small window was hung with gauze curtains, and had a pretty bead basket pendent in its centre. The floor was covered with thick "clooty carpets" of John's weaving, and the whole formed a snug nest, pleasantly contrasting with the wild drifting snow without that obscured the windows.

During the four succeeding days while I stayed in the Vale, I spent as much time with John at Droughsburn as his strength was able to bear, retiring to the kitchen when he needed rest, to talk with his intelligent landlady. Her kindness to the weak old man, who was now restless, wandering and in many respects troublesome, and required unremitting attention, was beyond all praise; and it was well for John that he had such a nurse in his last days, who had known him in his vigour and respected his talents and character. She was ably assisted at all times by her daughter Penelope, [The long word "Penelope" was colloquially shortened into "Penny," or more frequently into "Peeny."] as active and constant in work as the celebrated queen whose name she bore, and who had developed, since I saw her first, into blooming womanhood. At that time, too, a niece called Jessie was staying with them, whose power of managing John, as well as Peeny's, was remarkable; for that required, in his weaker turns, both strength and tact, fun and firmness.

When I arrived next morning, John looked bright and strong, and rose from his chair, though with difficulty, to welcome me. He expressed his concern at seeing me covered with the drifted snow, which was so deep round the cottage that it almost blocked up the door and shut out the light. He said it was "a terrible time," which reminded him of the winter of 1838, after he first knew Charles Black, and, like me, had to struggle through the drifts to get to Whitehouse; and of an earlier winter at Drumlithie, in 1811, when the corn was so bad after it that "it crunched between his teeth." These memories showed that this was one of his strong, clear-headed seasons, which it would be well to take advantage of. After morning greeting in the busy kitchen, I seated myself at the table beside John, and gradually led him to continue the reminiscences of his past life which the snowstorm had begun.

He was unusually clear and communicative, recalling what he had been in 1877, when we climbed the hill together; and I secured a long series of important notes regarding his history, which have been already embodied here. It was surprising to observe how minute were the details he gave, especially of his earlier days; for, as with all old folks, the distant was nearer than the near in his memory. His recollections of his mother stirred his best affections. He always spoke of her with loving respect; and when Mrs. Allanach did him any kindly service, such as wrapping the clothes round him in bed, he would murmur, in tremulous tones of feeling, that it reminded him of his mother. Never did he speak spontaneously, however, of another who should have been more to him than even a mother, and whom he once expected to be such. When I introduced the tender subject, after conversation had led naturally to it, he talked of his wife with painful hesitation ; and speedily tried to dismiss, it, by saying, "Ye see, that's a' by noo," evidently desirous to forget for ever the secret shame and pain of his life. When I asked if he would not now care, after all these years, to meet her in the other world, the idea seemed to be new to him and gave him a deep and painful shock. He moved his hands deprecatingly, and was silent—which revealed the untold intensity of the hidden grief her conduct had caused him.

He was very lively in regard to his wanderings, and recalled, with astonishing vividness, his old impressions of the many places he had visited, some of which have already been given under that head. His military days were well remembered, and he was glad he had gone through them, telling tales of them with zest. His characterisation of the persons he had known was well put and often humorous. His memory of his friends and the happy past he had spent with them gave evident pleasure, though attended with sadness in proportion to their former intimacy, expressed by the gathering moisture in the eye. The flowers roused his enthusiasm, and were linked with more of his past life and deeper memories than anything else, with a single exception. In talking of them now, he recalled the technical terms with surprising ease, though it cost him much effort, often unsuccessful, to remember the rarer ones. His harder or more dangerous adventures in search of them were dramatically related, and roused much of the old fire in eye, voice and manner. When he failed to recollect a word, he would bend his neck, scratch his head, say, "that was what-ye-ca'—what-ye-ca';" and if he did not succeed, which was always painful to him, he would excuse himself by saying that his "memory was noo gey failin', though it was ance a very guid ane;" while regretting that "hadna kent him in his, better days." After he had talked for an hour or so, he got exhausted and had to give up. When I offered him refreshment, of which abundance had been provided, he accepted it with reluctance, but he often refused it, saying: "I was never muckle o' a drinker—never indulged; I ha'd awa frae intoxicatin' liquors. Whisky's a hasty [Quick and fiery, as in the phrase "a hasty fire."] concern, destructive to baith mind an' body, raisin' ye up to a great pitch and then lattin' you fa' doon a' at ance." It was noticeable that moral conceptions always roused his vigour, even under weakness.

At intervals, he passed through states of extreme debility, when he could with difficulty rise from his chair, and consciousness and memory became confused. This he himself attributed to rheumatism, but its true cause Was the natural decay of great age, and, in the doctor's opinion,. loss of blood and sluggish and intermittent action of heart. On these occasions, he confounded time, place, and circumstances. For instance, when Mr. Gillan and I left the first day, he forgot, in one of these collapses, who we were, and, confusing us with ever-present memories of Charles Black, who lived at the mouth of the Nith, he suddenly asked " Whar' are yon men ? They'll hae had to cross the Solway !" In these states of excessive weakness, his temper was much affected ; for temper is the first and surest indicator of mental and physical condition in all of us, even in the healthiest. He would then become very cross and difficult to deal with, speaking sharply, refusing assistance when most necessary, and exhibiting a general spirit of rebellion, while it lasted. But the temper passed with the weakness that caused it, and he soon again became bright, hopeful and repentant. As Mrs. Allanach put it, "he was sune up and sune over" at these seasons. When they came on, her management of him was that of a skilled tactician, combining firmness and kindliness, as in the case of a sick child. She would talk to him quietly and cheerfully, express surprise when repulsed, clap him softly like an infant, and say, "Noo, noo! Ye're nae John ava the day; nae half a John," and use like soothing, bantering, and cheering words. Her attentions would be at first repelled; but he would by-and-by smile, return the clapping, and express sorrow, excusing himself by saying, "Fowk wears oot," and asking her never to mind him.

But it was no wonder, poor old body, that he became cross and moody, for his weakness at times was very great; while the old strong will, hard to subdue and never altogether overcome, rebelled against this unusual and depressing debility. The fretfulness exhibited was simply the natural outward expression of this inward struggle between latent independent strength and the unaccountable and unaccustomed feeling of helplessness and need of assistance, which he had always objected to in his self-dependent solitude. His prostration was so great at times that he became quite blind; asking them, for instance, to light the candle which was burning before him! He was, on such occasions, put to bed for a while. He would soon rise again, refreshed and amiable, and become quite talkative, all the former clouds being dispelled and forgotten. His life was now a succession of April sunshine and shower, and the light, when it came, beamed all the brighter after the previous gloom.

During one of these blithe blinks, he mentioned to me the songs he used to sing, recited vigorously and humorously several lines in "Johnnie Cope," a favourite with him and Charles Black; and, poor dear soul, now as the inner fire under these inspiring strains of other days blazed up into stronger flame, he rose from his chair, leant forward with his hands on the table, and, in trembling but surprisingly vigorous notes, sang a verse of the favourite old ballad called "The Blaeberries"—

"Will ye go to the HieIands wi' me?"

He talked of the story it contained, and of "Scots wha hae" and "Auld Lang Syne;" the last being mentioned with a natural sigh, raised by the feeling of waning strength and the remembrance of departed joys.

The fund his friends had recently subscribed, and his present comforts due thereto, affected him beyond expression, and brought the tears of genuine gratitude to his eye. Ibis deep gratefulness welled up in broken, child-like words all too weak to express his crowding feelings. In reality, the weight of obligation to distant unknown and generous sympathy seemed to oppress the old heart like a happy burden which at times seemed too heavy to be borne. I reminded him that he now sat "a free man." The very sound of the words inspired him with joyous vigour which sparkled in his eye, and was speedily succeeded by the gathering mists of emotion, and he only could brokenly utter, "Very good, very good, very good! admirin' good!" Then in real tones of earnestness, with a touch of anguish, he exclaimed, "I wis', I wis' I had seen you sooner!" as the recollection of the misery of the dark night spent in his cold bed in the winter of 1873, and the subsequent degradation of heart through absolute penury, once more returned, and let us hope, for the last time.

To relieve his sadness, I spoke encouragingly of the reputation he had deservedly won, and the late but genuine recognition of his life-long devotion to science, which would survive when he was gone. He looked proud of the honour, and sadness giving way to joy, he quietly said, "Ay, ay Dae ye say sac?" Then the annoyances he had suffered for the sake of the flowers from the ignorant and unsympathetic came back to his mind in contrast to the present appreciation, and brought the remark, " They'll no seek to bather me noo! But e'en then I was ower mony for them—ower knowin'!" He then recounted the story of the juniper bush on the braes of Tough. His constant feeling, frequently expressed, was one of grateful comfort which he could scarcely realise as now his, and he always deprecated its desert by saying, "Ye're makkin' me ower grand, ower grand! Dinna be ower quid to me!"

In his weak states, his natural humility and fear of being made "over grand," as he put it, was curiously expressed. He could not then be prevailed upon to sit in the fine arm-chair that had been purchased for him—insisting that it "far ower fine, far ower braw" for him; and, like the sturdy old soul he had been, accustomed all his days to hard fare and plain living, he said he had had always a hard seat to sit on, and he would use it to the last ! He was also timorous in trying to sit down in it, for it went away from behind him on its smoothly running casters, as he tried with difficulty, from his stiff joints, to take a seat there.

He was especially and proudly grateful for the Queen's gift, as presented to a poor, hidden man like him! To raise his spirits, I suggested the possibility of Her Majesty visiting him, as she had done others, not being very far distant while staying over the hill at Balmoral. "Ay," said he, more than once, his face lighting up, "it was great prefarment, very great prefarment." Then, thinking himself still young and able to go out into the world, he continued, " Fowk'll be jokin' me aboot it!" But the reality of his position suddenly returned, and he added, " Ah, had it been but half a dizen years syne"—"half -a dizen" being his constant expression at that time for a considerable period—"half a dizen years syne, I cu'd hae spoken till'r and thankit 'er. But noo, it'll be sune ower. Eli, man, ay! Half a dizen years back, and I cu'd hae held discoorse wi' her! But noo, noo it's ower late; it canna he!" Then, after a pause of sadness, he continued, with growing earnestness, "Ah, but she's a nice 'umman, a very hyoom'le [Humble, meaning that she did not stand upon her elevated rank in her intercourse with her subjects.] 'umman, and has aye been sae, I believe. God bless 'er!" The following night, the subject had recurred to him, and he rose in a dazed state in the dark, calling to Mrs. Allanach to "tell the Queen's men I'm ower walk to gae to kept [Too weak to go to meet them.] them the nicht, I'm no wed l ava;" and he would only return to bed when she promised to do as he had asked her.

But the ever-present, ever-recurring subject of his thinking and talking was his life friend, Charles Black. As Mrs. Allanach said, "I never heard him speak sae muckle aboot ony body as aboot him; it was really won'erfu' hoo he likit that man." It was the same in talking to myself—that was the dominant topic of conversation, brightening his eye, inspiring new vigour when weak, and soothing him like a charm when irritated and when nothing else could. His memories of their first meeting, early studies at Whitehouse, and later intercourse were now the sweetest solace of his dying days.

The night before my last visit, he had not slept well, and was restless and excited. From my much questioning, he had thought me a lawyer after I left, an idea that recalled a disagreeable reminiscence of the time he was brought to court about his wife's son. When I entered, I saw he was dull, feverish and ill at ease, and he received me not in the most gracious manner, confounding me, I afterwards ascertained, with a fellow who had deceived him and got a lot of his books. He was very unwilling to converse at all, and rising up shortly afterwards and moving his hands in angry deprecation, said, "I'll hae nae mair o't." Mrs. Allanach, who was seated by, explained to him who I was, that I had come a far way to see him, and had travelled that morning through the deep drift to say good-bye. But he would listen to nothing, and cried, "I ken naething aboot it and dinna care!" I remained silent, till Mrs. Allanach succeeded somewhat in allaying his annoyance and making him smile. He then rose, went to the window, and looked out at the huge snow-wreaths heaped against the panes, and at the shrouded landscape. He spoke of the "sair time" it was, which would be heard of for long. Deeming it wise to leave the room, to allow him to rest for a time, I went to the kitchen, followed shortly by his nurse, after she had settled him in his chair and still further pacified his perturbed spirit. Peeny went,, in a little, to attend upon him, as her presence and. services often succeeded when others' failed.

Not long after I left his room, he sent word by Peeny, that he was very sorry he had spoken as he had done and that he hoped I would return. I did so immediately.. He received me with a smile and cordial shake of the hand,. and said he did not know who I was at all but thought I was another man altogether, one who had stolen his books. We at once entered on the pleasantest relations, his old brightness having returned, and we sat long together alone by the fire, talking of many things, as we had done before. Poor good soul, he could not make amends enough for the temper he had unwittingly showed me, and his heart now opened out more than it had hitherto done. Nor could he refrain from frequently returning to the subject, saying: "It was a mistak' in me—a great mistak'. I thocht it was somebody come to scrutineeze me. I didna ken ye ava, and I sent word wi' the lassie when I did. O, had ye but seen me twenty or thretty years syne! I was a different concern a'thegether then, and cu'd hae ga'en aboot wi' ye and shown ye the flo'ors, ilk ane o' them." I told him that I should like to have known and botanised with him then, but that I was happy and proud to know and respect him now ; as I had done long before I saw him, having heard so much about him from his friend Charles. I told him also how Charles remembered and loved him, and ever would do so, till he should follow him to the grave. These words brought all the spirit into his face and thrilled him with a new tide of life, and he wept with mingled sadness and joy, hiding his face in his hands, while the tears rolled between and gradually relieved him.

He then handed me Charles's last letter to him, received a month before, which he asked me to read, though he had heard it often before. I read it in parts, broken by our mutual comments as I proceeded, while his increasing tears flowed unstinted and unheeded. Charles, addressing him as his "dear and much respected freend," said he was truly glad that the appeal in his favour had been so well responded to, and that his comfort in his old age was now secured. He thought he should have been able to see him, as he had long wished to do, if it had not been for the trying weather and the weight of sixty-seven years. He spoke of the pleasure Geology had also been to him, in which his study of Botany had greatly assisted him. "I often think," he went on, "if you and me had known something of it forty years ago, it would have told us wonderful tales about the Great Creator." After some account of his family, Charles continued, "I really do intend to come and see you before long, and I trust we will be spared to meet each other. We will have much to speak about, for God's mercies and blessings to us both have been great, though we must confess we have been ill-deserving." After wishing him to write him if he could or to get some friend to do so for him, and expressing the happiness of himself and his wife to think that he was "so comfortable for the remaining years of his life," he subscribed himself his "old and true freend."

The effect of these simple, sincere words upon the man, supplemented by my accounts of Arbigland and Charles and Charles's love of him, was deep and touching. He wept truly like a child, in child-like unreserve and affection, that made it difficult or impossible not to join in his strong emotion ; and part of his love for his friend overflowed on me in terms of confidence and appreciation. During the recital, he continually ejaculated, "Eh, ay! eh, ay!" When I concluded, he said, "I canna, canna say what I feel : an' the tears winna come richt"—for "the tears of bearded men" are wrung from the very depths. At length, he became calm, and drying his eyes, excused himself by saying, " I'm sair overcome the day, some way or ither; but I'm glad ye're here."

In the succeeding composure, we discoursed of the perennial subject of the flowers, to which he ever recurred for Charles and the plants were indissolubly united in John's heart. "I wu'd hae been much overjoyed," he said, forgetting his weakness in the pleasure roused by his favourites, "to hae ga'en to the hills wi' ye, an' it hadna been sick a terrible day." He spoke again of his introduction to the subject, through his "father" Charles, of his first "vulgar" attempts under his guidance, and of his subsequent progress and delight in the study. He talked also of the blessing his books had ever been to him. He had not, he said, bought many at a time, but only as he could afford them; and they were well chosen, he thought, for he "never likit varieties in readin' ony mair than in eatin'. Books," he warmly continued, "are real freends." "Yes," echoed I, quoting Wordsworth, "they are

"'A substantial world, both pure and good."'

They're a' that," he eagerly assented, "I cu'dna hae dune withoot them!" The plants then suggested Dunnottar, and the memory of his youthful strength and happy adventures there swept through his aged heart like an exhilarating breeze on the thymy crags themselves. Then, recalling the struggles of the Covenanters for God and for freedom, he spoke of these for some time, and then exclaimed, " O, I aye likit to read about thae times fine—excellent! And Charlie likit them tae; and he had a fine idea o' them."

After leaving him to rest for a little, I returned to bid him farewell. I told him that his comfort was now secured, and that he should not be removed from the cottage—a possibility that had disturbed him. He still deprecated being "ower wed l treatit and made over grand." I mentioned to him that a good lady was willing to send him any books he wished; but, while grateful for the kindly offer, he said that he did not care for more, as he could not now use them. I promised to write Charles Black of my visit and all we had said and done. "O yes! " replied he, with a return of the old emotion, " write him for me, and tell him I write wi' a tear i' my ee, and thinkin' aboot auld lang syne." "I'll say," said I, "the very words you have used, John." "Ay, dae ye," replied he; "ay, dae ye. It'll gar him drap a tear tee!"

I assured him that there were many interested in his happiness, and that I should be his friend to the very end. He then stood up in his frailty, and in tones of earnest solemnity, lifting his hands towards me, as in patriarchal blessing, exclaimed, "Ay, ay, that's vera guid, vera guid. Gweed be wi' ye, Gweed be wi' ye!" We shook hands warmly and long. Then, as cheerfully as I could under natural emotion, I told him I should come to see him again in summer, when the snow was gone and the flowers were blooming, and when he could tell me about them. "Ay, dae sae—every individual ane o' them." Then I left him as he stood, bathed in tears. It was for the last time. When next I saw the good man, he lay in the calm majesty of death.


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