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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter XXXIX - The Happy and Honoured Close


JOHN remained in much the same condition for several -months after my visit to Droughsburn in March. He was surrounded by every comfort, attended by the most assiduous of nurses, and regularly visited by his friends ; Mr. Gillan taking special charge of his affairs, and receiving and acknowledging all gifts, which continued to be sent. The poor soul still passed through the same rapid changes from remarkable keenness to extreme dulness, accompanied at times with exhibitions of trying temper, regretted and apologised for when the spasm had passed. He had no active pain, no real disease. His astonishing vitality made it evident that he would not depart till the last particle of the dying taper had burnt out.

In the beginning of May, when crossing the room one .Sunday, he suddenly fell on the floor and cut his temporal artery. It bled profusely, but Mrs. Allanach quickly stopped it by applying a spider's web to the place. He was sponged and put to bed, but, in his feverishness, he could not rest there. In getting up, he re-opened the wound, and they sent for Dr. Simpson, who had been most attentive to him throughout, being much interested in his uncommon patient. The bleeding, meantime, was once more prevented by the same simple but effective means. When the doctor arrived, he said at once that his life had been saved by the skilful use of the "moos wabs." [Spiders' webs. The word is Teutonic, originally meaning moss, and applied to things like it, as the Scotch word, and the French mousse, moss or foam.] John, who had then one of his blither seasons, replied that he knew something better, which he could have got at the end of the house if the snow had not been on the ground, the remains of the severe winter--the Plantago major, Greater Plantain, or "the healing leaf already spoken of, whose virtues were known and praised by Pliny, George Herbert, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shen-stone, and many others. He said it was the best thing for stopping bleeding and healing cuts he knew, as he had often proved. He also said it was very good for allaying thirst, but not nearly so good for feverish thirst as Water Cress. How vital and tenacious are all ideas once truly grasped and acted on, as in John's astonishing memory of plants and their properties even in sickness and death!

When the doctor was mixing a soothing draught for his patient, John inquired what he was compounding, for his eyes were still as keen as in younger days and his old medical instincts all alive. The doctor told him it was Hyoscyamus niiger, or Henbane, and remarked that he had not found it in the Vale of Alford, but that he had seen it at Dunnottar, when he was a student in company with Professor Dickie. At once John's infirmity was forgotten under the charm of the thousand associations stirred by that one word, Dunnottar, and he talked of his youthful adventures and its Covenanting memories. To the last, the keen old spirit asserted itself. Some time after this, the doctor had put some bromide of potassium into the porter which had been prescribed for his morning porridge, a dish he still greatly relished. When John was asked if he liked it, he said that he did, but that he "didna like the doctor's smugglin', "referring to his clandestine use of the drugs without telling him all about what he was doing.

John's weakness increased greatly after this accident, and his need of attendance became more constant and exhausting. At length, in the beginning of July, Mrs. Allanach found the work too much for her and her daughter, and she asked her son-in-law, John Taylor, who had then some leisure, to come to assist her and attend to his old friend. Mr. Taylor came at once, and remained with him till his death, a month afterwards. He nursed him, anticipating and supplying his wants like more than son, inspired by reverence and affection for the man, which was now raised to tenderness by the patient's weakness. It was an admirable and fortunate arrangement. It was also.a strange and unexpected happiness to the old botanist, that one of his most attached pupils should return the benefits he had received from him by soothing his dying pillow. The task was not light, either by night or day, for John gradually became helpless, and had to be lifted in and out of bed; but the strong arms that bore him were both able and willing.

The last time John was capable of going outside was on the 16th of July, when he was unusually vivacious, and went twice to the cottage door, leaning on the arm of his friend, to gaze, in the sweet summer light, on the dear familiar scene, on which he had looked so long, across the everflowing Droicks burn. The sight of his once beautiful garden

"Where sweetnesse evirmore inough was;
With flowr6 white and blewe, yellowe and rede,"

as Chaucer sings, now saddened him, from its very strength of untended life; while he that had so diligently watched over its flowers was now fading away. He never stood under the blue heavens again, and only once was able to rise from bed, to which he now retired for the last time.

His friends still continued to visit him regularly to the end. Some of the neighbouring clergymen kindly came to read and pray with him, services the good man always enjoyed. One day, when very weak, after a special message of emergency had brought the doctor, the Rev.1MTr. Brander, of Alford, called. On seeing the man so ill, he sat for some time in silence by his bedside, and then softly asked him if he would like him to read a little. The old man faintly replied, "It winna need to be muckle, than," evidently feeling himself too weak to bear more. The sweetest pastoral of the ancient Hebrew shepherd, so singularly appropriate to the time, was quietly recited ; soothing the dying man with its invigorating assurance, that when he should walk through the Valley of the Shadow, into which he was just entering, he should fear no evil, because accompanied and comforted by the Good Shepherd.

The whole poem seemed like a rapid review of his life. He had verily, in a more literal sense than common, been surrounded by "green pastures," though at times he had had to pass through trials, which had proved to be "still waters." Now, in old age, he had a table prepared for him, in the presence of his enemies, penury and despair, for of human enemies he had none; his head was anointed with the oil of gladness, and his cup was running over with the freewill offerings of admiration and the tendance of affection. "Surely," the old man's heart would deeply respond —"surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;" while the faith that had consistently and firmly sustained him throughout his long and trying life, would, even in dissolution, enable him triumphantly to believe that he should "dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." When he had finished the lyric, Mr. Brander asked if he should pray with him. John replied in weakness, "Ay, jist a few words;" and words fit though few were offered for the departing pilgrim.

After his decease, a friend of the dead met a man in the neighbourhood who affected piety of the sterner, exclusive sort, and who would in a moment ask any one the question "Are you saved?" In speaking of John's recent death, this friend inquired if he did not think John Duncan was a God-fearing man, according to the general opinion. He replied, with the rigid cruelty of that class of religionists, that he was sure he was not. When asked why he thought so, he referred to this episode of the shortened reading and petition, which had been retailed with exaggeration in the neighbourhood, and he mentioned, with an ominous shake of the head, that John had, on his death-bed, asked the minister's prayer to be short! This saint forgot his Master's repeated injunctions and example, to avoid long prayers, which, according to Him, were a sign, not of sanctity, but of heathenishness—a truth echoed by all His best disciples, who have felt, with Luther, that " the fewer words, the better prayer." Perhaps if this man had known the whole circumstances, his judgment might not have been so harsh; let us hope so—for, as Hood truly and sympathetically reminds us

"Evil is wrought by want of thought
As well as want of heart."

Happily and justly, this rash estimate was not shared by the clergyman to whom John's natural words were spoken. As he says, he knew the man and liked the blunt, honest answers he used to receive from him on religious as well as other matters, "which scorned the slightest tinge of pretension and waived all ceremony." One day shortly after, on parting with him, Mr. Brander remarked that God was "the hearer and answerer of prayer." Opening his closed eyes and looking up into his face, John replied, with an emphasis and in a way that could not be mistaken, "Ay, ay, I ken that!" " It is impossible," says Mr. Brander, "to describe the manner in which these simple words were uttered; but to me they conveyed a full conviction of the firm faith and the quiet repose of apostolic assurance of the man."

In the middle of July, Mrs. Morrison's gift of a fine arm-chair arrived, delayed thus long through the illness of the generous donor—alas! too late to be used by the old man, whose declining years it was meant to comfort. About the same time, he received an invitation to attend a Joint Meeting of Scientific Societies, held at Elgin on the 29th and 30th of the month, the first of the kind in the north, the secretary being unaware that John was so near his end. Three of the societies concerned had elected him an honorary member, and the old scientist would have been welcomed with enthusiastic respect; but his earthly studies were now closed, and he looked forward shortly to join "the great assembly" on the other side

"Where everlasting spring abides,
And never-withering flowers."

This he did ten days after the pleasant union at Elgin.

He now gradually grew weaker and more helpless, and his breathing became increasingly laborious, though he had no suffering. To the last, he enjoyed bright intervals, when he talked freely with his attendant, of the past and the future. Mr. Taylor asked him one day if he had any advice to give to the young who might read the story of his life. He counselled them, amongst other things, as a dying man reviewing his past experiences, "To keep good company, and to study some branch of Natural Science, which would save them many a blot, and inspire them with untold pleasure." To the very close, the delights of science and the intellectual and moral gains it had brought to himself and would bring to all, were ever present to him, and were the subjects of many an exhortation.

He had no fear of dying, but was filled with a calm, trustful peace in its prospect; as he said one morning, "I'm just waitin' my time." On being then asked if he had any message to send to me, he replied, in great weakness, "Just tell'm I'm deein'!" "And are you going to a better place?" returned John Taylor. "Ay!" was the prompt, firm, but simple reply. "Have you anything to say to Charles Black?" "Just the same as to Mr. Jolly;" and Mr. Taylor says that at the mention of Charles's name, "a glow of joy passed over his countenance, and his eyes brightened." Mr. Taylor then read, with his consent, the third and the fourteenth chapters of St. John's Gospel, which breathed soothing peace to the dying Christian, and whispered to him of the near "mansions" in the "Father's ather's house " which he hoped soon to enter. After the reading was concluded, John remarked, in quiet accents of peace, "I'm very frail, but I hae nae trouble noo;" words that had, no doubt, a mental as well as a physical reference.

Some time before his death, lie again spoke of his grave, and expressed a desire to be buried in Alford churchyard, without, however, indicating any special spot there. He wished his last resting-place to be marked by "ane o' nature's rough stanes"—some natural stone undressed by any tool, like the lover of nature he had been. A similar wish has not unfrequently been expressed by other lovers of nature, both scientific and poetic: amongst others, by Macodrum, the poet of North Uist, who lies in the solitary graveyard of Kilmuir on its far-seen knoll, under a mass of rude, grey, gnarled gneiss, selected by himself; in the midst of the green "machars" [The Gaelic name for those wide flats that face the Atlantic, on the western side of the Uists. The same word for a plain occurs as the name of one of the triple divisions of Galloway, the Moors, the Machars, and the Rhinns."] whose praises he had sung, and within hearing of the solemn requiem of the wild Atlantic that lashes in grandeur the island of his birth.

John continued gradually to sink. But his tenacity of existence was even yet quite astonishing, and his candle burnt down to the very socket. He became so wasted and light that he could be lifted like an infant. At times, there still recurred paroxysms of strength and almost fierceness each succeeded by a relapse into greater weakness, like the sudden upward flickerings of the expiring taper before it subsides into final darkness. His breathing grew more and more difficult, and was attended by an ominous sound in the lower chest ; but he never complained of any suffering. Like Fontenelle, he frequently said, "I hae nae pain;" and he might have added, like the brilliant Frenchman, "I have only a little difficulty in keeping up life." In his quiescent periods, which lasted longest, he was perfectly calm and resigned, waiting peacefully for the close. His gratitude for the unremitting services rendered him was deep, and amidst all his helplessness, it was frequently expressed in thrilling whispers of thanks. Some days before his death, when he was lifted in his friend's arms, he murmured the feeble but earnest words, "May the Lord bless you!" twice repeated. When asked, on the same day, if he had any message for me—for Mr. Taylor wrote me regularly of his state—he muttered several things in an inaudible voice, the only words that could be made out being, "I'm very sober."

A day or two before the end, Mr. Brander prayed with him very briefly. In doing this, he used the expression "the God of Nature and the God of Grace." Notwithstanding his deep prostration, the words struck an old congenial chord, and the dying man opened his eyes, and with an earnest gaze and firm grasp of the hand, he whispered—it was all he was able to do—"Very comprehensive! He is the God of Nature and the God of Grace!" They then parted for ever, and as the clergyman walked down the burnside, he felt, as he says, "that in John's heart, these words had touched two chords, the one responsive to the harmonies of Nature, which he had listened to so long, and the other almost ready to burst into the melody of Heaven."

The evening before he died, John Taylor raised him gently into a sitting posture, and propped him up with pillows, which seemed to relieve him. In reply to a question if he did not feel easier, he gratefully murmured, "Oo, ay!" and lay back in full repose. These liquid vowels were the last syllables he ever uttered. His mouth never rightly closed again after speaking them, and he died with his lips in the same attitude of grateful consent with his lot, in which his spirit had lived so long and so truly, humble and hard as it had been, and from which, by a wise transmutation of soul, he had extracted such deep joys.

He continued to breathe heavily to the last, his chest doubly heaving with each involuntary respiration. When softly asked how he felt, he seemed to make an attempt to reply, but the features were fixed and no sound issued. John Taylor remained faithfully with his friend and teacher till the end. After four o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, the 9th of August, no pulsation could be felt, beyond an occasional flutter which told that the heart yet beat. Life was slowly ebbing—ebbing out into the great ocean of eternity.

He survived, however, till past noon. A kindly neighbour who had come to inquire for him was then sitting by his bed, while John Taylor watched in silence for the latest lingering breath. A sudden change in the countenance arrested their attention, as she rose to go. One long but silent respiration followed, like a higher ripple in a quiet sea, and then another longer and harder, and all was over: it was the last. It was eighteen minutes past twelve. Mrs. Allanach, who had been urgently sent for, and her two daughters, then softly but eagerly entered the room on which the great shadow had just descended. "I doo't he's awa!" said Mary Emslie. "He's gone," returned John Taylor. " Oh, dear!" burst out his old nurse, "it's sad I su'dna hae seen the end, though I hae watched lang for't." Then followed the strange dread silence felt at such a moment, only broken, or rather more truly expressed, by the ticking of the clock, which stood like a calm sentinel in the corner of the room and repeated the inexorable tread of time, now loudly audible though till then unheard. The women looked at each other for a little with the silent utterance of natural awe and emotion, and then began to prepare for the last offices to the dead.

Mr. Taylor soon after set out for Alford to make arrangements for the funeral. A cold north-east wind was then blowing, and the sky was overcast with heavy clouds, recalling the chilling penury in which the life of the departed had been spent. On his return, these had all passed away, the day became clear and bright, and the sun went down behind the hill above the cottage in unusual glory. By the time he reached home, the orb of the harvest moon hung in the south, large, round, and red. As he entered the chamber of death, the moon looked in through the little window in placid beauty, lighting up the room, and flushing the pale face of his dead friend with a touching halo, as he lay stretched on the table in the centre, beneath the snow-white linen that now shrouded him. The sweet evening light and the double beams of sun and moon that had gilded the scene, were beautiful and appropriate emblems, as he could not but think them, of the real glory that had irradiated his lowly pilgrimage, and dispelled the sorrows that brooded there by the blessed influences of nature, the delights of higher thought and the sanctities of religion. The young man stood for a time in silence and veneration, and consecrated himself anew to kindred noble aims.

Everything was prepared by attentive friends for the funeral, which was delayed for some time that I might be present. I arrived in the Vale on Saturday, and went up that afternoon to Droughsburn, in a beautiful autumn evening that flooded the valley of the Leochel with a charming light. "To me alone there came a thought of grief." The exquisite stillness, the quiet sweetness of the hollow in which the cottage nestled, with its blue smoke rising heavenwards, all spake of "something that was gone." The garden was there in its unconscious vigour, but the kindly hand that had gathered its flowers from far and tended them so well was cold in death. The roof of the old workshop was dilapidated and sunken downwards. Its thatch was broken and covered with parti-coloured moss, where flourished stitchwort, sorrel, groundsel, ragweed, broom, and spiky grass; and the lintel bent under the weight of the falling roof, as if in sympathy with its departed lord. And the dead hero lay in his coffin in the centre of the silent room, while his shrunken face looked upwards with eager marble gaze that seemed straining into futurity.

His shroud was appropriately adorned with a selection of the plants from which he had drawn his dearest joys. These had been expressly chosen by John Taylor, to symbolise his life, as well as, like John Milton's "bells and flowerets" for his dead friend

"To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lay."

They went with him to the grave. On his breast, lay a sprig, in full blossom, of his favourite, the Linn~a borealis, to signify his devotion to the science created by the man whose name it bore; and beside it the uncommon Serrated Winter-green (Pyrola secunda),* as a proof of the discoveries he had made of the rarer species and their habitats. At his head, drooped some faded rose leaves, as sweetest tokens of the decay of even the best and dearest. By his side, was placed a specimen of the Mimulus rinbans,t as a specimen of the plants he had introduced from a distance; in his right hand, a bunch of water-cress, suggestive of the hardships he had endured in his studies and the simple tastes that had sufficed him; and at his feet, a branch of the Spurge Laurel4 with its bright green leaves and scarlet berries, a cherished plant which grew in the garden before his door—a fit emblem of the man himself, sending forth its pretty florets before the leaves, like our own blackthorn, amidst the snows and blasts of winter, and only reaching its highest beauty in the maturity of autumn. He lay on a bed of the sweet-scented peppermint, amidst which the Droichs burn had so often sung to him its quiet song, as it perfumed- the air with its grateful fragrance. The sight of the dead was an impressive, inspiring vision and an abiding memory.

But amidst the natural sadness, the dominant feeling was one of "silent homage paid to mind." As Mr. Taylor accompanied me on my return down the valley, not far from the cottage, we passed through a field of newly mown hay, which shed its delicate odour on the evening breeze ; and it seemed to us to carry a happy augury of the future greater influence John Duncan might yet wield, which, faint though pleasant as it had been in life, would, like the hay and the ScentedWoodruff, become stronger and sweeter after death.

The funeral took place on Monday the 15th of August. The day was calm and agreeable. The enclosing hills seemed to shut out the cottage more seclusively from the world, and the quiet that pervaded the scene breathed

"Austere
But happy feelings of the dead."

The gathering was large and representative, of neighbours and friends, several from a distance, come to do the last honours to departed worth. The chastened assembly stood round the door beside the old wild-flower garden, that spake of its dead master. Mr. Gillan read the prayer of Moses, the man of God, with its sad burden of the "labour and sorrow" of life, written amidst the dim light of the ancient Jewish faith; followed by St. Paul's powerful argument regarding the "mystery" of immortality, appropriately based on the analogies of plant life, and his pean of victory over death and the grave, which closes with the philosophical assurance that "our labour is not in vain in the Lord "—on which the experience of John Duncan was a suggestive commentary. The minister of the church John had so long attended offered a trustful and intelligent prayer, touching on the lessons of the life now closed. Friendly hands then bore the coffin to the hearse by the side of the Droichs burn, which flowed, under John's aromatic flowers,

"Dancing to its own wild chime,
As laughing at the lapse of time."

The procession then wended its solemn way down the Leochel, along which John's eager feet had so often trod, to the old churchyard of Alford, amidst its tall trees, where he had wished to be laid. There, surrounded by uncovered heads, his dust was reverently deposited, while a handful of earth and a flower were dropped by the author on the coffin. Then the whole was buried from sight and covered over with kindly sod, embedded with wild flowers, which now blossom over the quiet heart that had loved and studied them so long.

He rests close by the entrance to the church, beside honoured dead of the Vale of Alford, the lowly weaver not the least of these.

A tall granite obelisk now marks the spot, bearing the simple inscription: "To the Memory of John Duncan, Weaver and Botanist. Born at Stonehaven, 19th December, 1794, Died at Droughsburn, 9th August, 1881. Erected with part of the Gifts of Admirers throughout Britain, the rest being devoted to the Promotion of Science amongst the Young in the Vale of Alford." After the date of his death, across the middle of the tablet, a sprig of his favourite, the retiring and uncommon Linnzoa borealis, is sculptured, with its double leaves and drooping florets; as an appropriate symbol of the rare and enthusiastic love of nature that had brightened and blessed the life of him who sleeps so well below. In accordance with his dying wish, a rough block of one of "nature's stones," on which no tool has ever passed, will be placed upon his grave.


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