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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter IV - The Apprentice Weaver under the Shadow - Tasting of Tyranny


THE house that John Duncan entered, his home for five years—from 1809 to 1814—was a thatched cottage at the upper end of the village, close by the parish school. He was received with motherly kindness, which reassured his timid heart in this land of strangers, by Meggie Dunse, his future mistress, a quiet, couthy woman, with a depressed air but unusually intelligent look. As the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, she had received a good education, and read much more than was then common, especially amongst women. She at once took to the unco'-looking stranger, and became his fast friend and tutor, when he had greatest need of both.

Her husband, and her own and John's master, was a notorious character. He was one of the weavers and croft-owners of the village, who produced linen cloth and sold it at the neighbouring fairs. Growing no flax himself, he bought unbleached yarn at the coast town of Bervie, nine miles south-east ; and had a horse and cart of his own to carry him to the various markets round, which he regularly frequented. He was then in his thirty-seventh year, and, though short in stature, was well-built, robust, and unusually strong. He was known far and near as one of the best pugilists in the whole country-side, and this accomplishment, combined with a fiery temper and habits of ungovernable rage, made him a dangerous enemy and a formidable opponent—a kind of local Hercules without his gentlemanliness. •Besides lashing with his tongue, swearing being one of his milder accomplishments, he had thrashed with his fists every one that would encounter him, except a neighbouring farmer, called Smith, who, having turned the tables upon him, had endeared himself to the bruiser's numerous enemies. On one occasion, when in Stonehaven, Pirie was not the least afraid even to face the celebrated pugilist, Captain Barclay of Ury, on account of a fight between their dogs. He acquitted himself in that battle so successfully, that Barclay complimented him, and presented him with 2 on the spot for well-nigh thrashing him!

Though holding the religious dignity of precentor in the Episcopal chapel, he followed certain questionable pursuits, not very consistent with that office—amongst others those of distiller and smuggler. In a loft above his workshop, he "made malt;" that is, had a secret still, known to few. Under cover of the yarn and cloth that appeared in his cart, he carried on a considerable trade in the spirit thus produced, and also in gin, which was then landed from the opposite continent on the convenient rocky shores of the east coast.

Many were the encounters Pirie had with the excise officers while carrying on this illicit traffic, then, however, not very uncommon, in which his formidable fists stood him often in good stead. One day, when he had a large quantity of the contraband concealed in his house, he took his spirited mare into the very kitchen, and placed her with heels towards the door. By irritating the creature, he made her fling so fiercely in the face of the officers in pursuit of him, that they beat a retreat from the enraged pair of beasts, scared by the hoofs of the one and the fists of the other.

At home, though he could be and often was kindly in milder moments, he ruled every one with a rod of iron, including his amiable and intelligent wife, who had frequently to bear much from his fury. The house was comfortable, for the man was fairly prosperous; and food, which was in Mrs. Pine's keeping, was good and abundant. But he was tyrannical and exacting with his apprentices, of whom he had a succession, and his treatment of the quiet, shrinking lad now come to his house, who was cowed by his strength and passion, was harsh, if not cruel. He often struck him severely, as he did every one who came within his reach when under anger, which was easily kindled into fierceness. In poor John's case, the very weakness and unresisting timidity of the victim, natural to the boy and increased by repeated blows, only fanned the rising flame, as it always does with 'such bullies. Occasionally the crushed worm did turn in appeal and anger, for the boy had a firm independent spirit beneath his quietness; but that only increased the stamp of the iron heel.

So notorious did his cruelty become, that it was the talk of the village; and people said that Pine must surely be his father to take the liberty of using him so badly! Like the conscious tyrant he was, he even prohibited John from visiting his neighbours, for fear he should talk to them of his treatment. Those that would have befriended the lad in many ways were afraid to do so, not to increase the hardness of his lot; for every one pitied and liked the amiable, quiet, thoughtful, down-trodden apprentice, "puir Jock," as they kindly called him in the village vernacular.

John's clothes were also of a mean description. Poor, of course, when he came, they were allowed to become worse without being renewed, though mended all over by kind Mrs. Pirie, till they looked disreputable, even in that plain-dressing age. Then his master exacted the heaviest tale of bricks, forcing him to work late and early. Young as he was, John's very smartness was an occasion of increasing his burden—for he soon became a very good hand—and he had to do greatly the work of a man. Pirie had then only two looms in the shop, the one occupied by himself when at home, and the other by the apprentice.. At any pressure of work, as before an important market, the boy had often to weave the greater part of the previous night. On Saturdays, before the interruption of the Sunday, he had generally to toil on till midnight, after which the Sabbath must be kept holy. And there was not a single holiday in the long year.

So intolerable did his lot become, that even patient, dispirited John ran away more than once, only, however, to be brought back again by Pine's unfeeling hand, under cover of law; for the power of masters over apprentices then was absolute, and often degenerated, as in this case, into pure tyranny. Pirie frightened him by brandishing his indenture before his eyes, with all its penalties for breaking it. Once John's father returned from his barracks to his native village, to see his friends and visit his boy. On learning from the neighbours and himself the treatment he received, he determined to remove him, and during Pirie's temporary absence took him along with him, with the intention of providing for him elsewhere. Unfortunately, Pirie returned before the two had gone very far from the village, followed them, attacked the father violently, sending him heels over head through a hedge with one fell blow, and then mercilessly beat the unfortunate soldier. He ended by seizing the son and dragging him back to bondage, and dared his father to touch him again, threatening both with all the terrors of the law.

In I8II, the second year of his apprenticeship, John suffered along with others, through causes over which Pirie had no control. That was the year of "the bad harvest," now become historical. The autumn was very bad on account of the wind and rain ; the corn that was cut stood so long wet in the stooks that it began to sprout again; and what remained uncut was all shaken and became useless through a fierce gale that blew on a Sunday, long remembered. The meal made from such grain was miserable stuff, being black, sandy, and unnourishing. As John told in after years, "it was so bad that it crunched between his teeth, and he often looked at it twice before he could muster courage to eat it." Superstition added to the general misery, for a large comet coursed through the heavens that year, in sight of terrified, starving beholders, who looked upon it as at once an evidence of Divine displeasure, and a herald of the coming judgment day, then speedily expected.

But all was not dark in John's lot in Pirie's house; for it is a black day indeed that has not a single gleam of sunshine. One bright ray that illumined the gloom was the sympathy of his good mistress, whose patience under similar sorrows was an example and a support, and whose kindness was secretly and substantially increased on every renewed outburst of her husband. Her influence over the lad in other ways was unusually high and important. Her intelligence was far above common. She had an exceptional taste for reading, which she had sedulously cultivated. She possessed more books than most in the village, and she was reckoned "a terrible scholar." Her memory was so good that she could recite long pieces of prose and poetry from her varied reading. She had even been impelled to express her crowding thoughts in not unmusical verse, and she still sustains the reputation of having been a poetess, a couplet said to be hers being still preserved:

"If health were a thing that money could buy,
The rich would live and the poor would die."

Then, fortunately for the comfort of both, and especially for John's higher culture, their taskmaster was often from home, and they had happy days together, working, talking, reciting, and reading, when John became somewhat proficient in that art. This communion must have been of inestimable value to the expanding head and heart of the lad, and formed an important element in John's education. He could not have come under higher and sweeter influence in this the most susceptible period of his life, and it no doubt permanently moulded him for good. His case is a remarkable example of the compensations to be found in every lot, however untoward and sad.

But, alas! one dark winter day, this cheering beam was suddenly quenched. John and she were busily engaged that forenoon in the kitchen—for "there were nac brave hooses then like noo," as my informant incidentally remarked—shaking the linen yarn which he had been washing in the burn, and which was hung on poles all round the room to be dried and prepared, the toil being enlivened by cheerful talk and higher discourse. His mistress, with her accustomed kindliness, dropped her work by John's side, to carry a warm mug of ale to a man who had been hired to do some outdoor work for her husband. Speedily returning, she took a seat by the fireside to rest for a little, feeling somewhat faint with the continued exertion. She had scarcely sat down, when John, who was busy with the yarn, heard a slight cry and a sudden movement, and turning quickly round, saw the good woman lying in a heap on the floor. She had fainted and gently slid from her seat to the ground, and the vital spark had instantaneously fled. A medical weaver in the village was speedily sent for, but all without avail—she never breathed again, having died of heart disease. The shock was severe on the solitary witness. Her death sent a thrill through the village, as sudden death always does in a community where all belong as it were to one family; for that was then, and still is viewed—illogically, of course, but all the more deeply from its mystery as a special warning from Deity, as if God were not as present in the silent procession of life as in the catastrophe. To John, her death was more than that of a kind mistress and good woman : it was the loss of a mother, teacher, and intelligent friend, and the quenching of the firelight of his domestic life.

After this, the relations between Pine and John became daily more aggravated, and the cruelty he suffered was harder to bear, now that this sympathizer was gone. For example, it is still related in the village that the tyrant kept him for hours together, even in the depth of winter, at the burn side, washing and "knocking" the yarn—that is, hammering it with a heavy wooden mallet, called the "knocker" or "beetle," on a flat boulder called the "knocking" or "beetling stone,"—and then wringing it dry in a frame constructed for the purpose. It was a hard piece of work at any time, but, in the frosts of winter, it was pure cruelty. During the whole process, the arms required to be bare and the hands were constantly wet. The consequence was, that his hands became all chilblained and frost-bitten, and broke out in sores difficult to heal. This treatment roused the indignation of the neighbours, but remonstrance with its author only tended to increase it in the same or other directions. One kindly woman, however,, had the courage to weave and present him with mittens to cover his bleeding hands and keep them warm. At the susceptible age at which John had arrived, such depressing experiences have always painful effects on the man, however strong the personality and bright the after life. It is scarcely possible for the human plant, more than any other, to escape permanent injury in some degree by living in the shadow or under the crush of a powerful neighbour in its early stages. Happy is it for the man in whom innate elasticity and subsequent light and freedom retrieve these early blights and twists, and in whom it mainly leaves an intense hatred of oppression in every form. In Duncan, the evil results remained in some measure throughout life, though the bitter experience was fraught in many ways with good.


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