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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter V - The Apprentice Weaver in the Sunshine - Entering the Temple of Learning


BUT in spite of these miserable and depressing external conditions under which he lived in this otherwise pleasant village, his inner life of growing intelligence and thirst for knowledge—which, innate as it was, had been nurtured by the seashore—rapidly progressed, and became the talk of the place. From the very first, he was seen to be a quiet, retiring, harmless being, not given to gossiping or to making many friends, pleased rather with the joy of his own thoughts. He sought the seclusion of a solitary walk, when time was allowed him, and never frequented the open street, with its many groups of aproned workmen. He was then a short, lank lad, having much more bone than muscle, and so near-sighted that he required to examine all he looked at with a smile-provoking closeness. He had an absurdly shy and backward manner, and his home treatment induced a half-furtive look, as of a hunted hare; and he Vas dressed in poverty-stricken clothes. Altogether, he was a peculiar-looking young man, generally viewed as a "queer sort of creature." Gradually, however, he won the growing regard of all, as they witnessed his life and perceived his studious habits, and this was greatly increased by the natural pity his persecution excited.

Soon after coming to Drumlithie, impelled by his rising intellectual energy and stimulated by Mrs. Pixie's influence, he set himself, with the quiet determination that characterized him through life, to learn to read. Happily, in the village there were more than one willing hand to help him up the steep stair that conducts to the temple of knowledge. The good genius to whom the merit seems to belong of having first taught him the letters, those magical wards in the key that alone unlocks the temple gate, was a woman called Mary Garvie, whose name he preserved with childlike simplicity and deep gratitude to the last, mentioning it to me a few months before his death, more than seventy years after. She lived in the cottage to the end of which the workshop was attached in which John was employed. She was the wife of a weaver and crofter, Robert Clark; but, according to the homely intimacy of Scottish village life, she always received her maiden name from her neighbours, and she never was designated by the more formal title of Mrs. Clark till, inheriting a legacy, she removed to a larger and finer house. She was a woman in many respects resembling her good neighbour, Mrs. Pixie, being better educated than usual, intelligent, kindly, and pious, though without her literary tastes and accomplishments. Being next door to the workshop, her house was one of John's few haunts, into which he used to steal when he could. To her he seems to have naturally first confided his utter want of scholastic learning, rather than to his mistress, from native pride and shyness and the disturbing influences in her home.

John now first learnt the A B C, in his sixteenth year, under Mary Garvie's tuition, at her pleasant fireside, naming the letters in the old-fashioned Scotch style, "Ah, Bay, Say," and concluding with "Ized and Eppercy And " —the last a curious remnant of old school Latinity, which being interpreted is, in the Roman tongue, "et per se, and," and, in the vulgar speech, "& by itself, and." [The so-called letter "&" is merely a short monographic form of the Latin et, the letters of which can easily be detected in it, and which is so pronounced in "&c."] Having conquered these pregnant hieroglyphics and their first syllabic combinations, his future progress was now greatly, if not wholly, in his own hands; for, like Edmund Stone, the self-taught mathematician, John Duncan was the very man to believe that "to know the twenty-six letters was quite sufficient to enable a man to learn anything that he wished."

But he had another tutor, who used to help him after he could read with a little fluency. This was Mary Brand, a girl of twelve when he came to the village, the daughter of a weaver, John Brand, who resided in a cottage next to Pine's. She was then at school, or had just left it, and used to come into the weaving shop, when Johnnie had any leisure, to hear him read his lesson, correcting inevitable mistakes and helping him over difficulties. There the two would sit together on the loom, John with the book close to his eyes, laboriously and earnestly groping his way through the page under her bright guidance; while many a merry laugh rang through the room at the errors made by the slow, sober, diligent, and short-sighted scholar. The two formed a striking picture for a character painter, as they sat there at this employment unwonted in a weaving shop, behind the countless threads and beams of the loom, with the light streaming in upon them through the near window, under the thatched roof open to the rigging, which was hung with the cobwebs and the accumulated stour and dust of years. Speaking on the subject to her brother, a communicative old man who still survives in his eighty-second year, bent with cruel rheumatism, I asked if there was anything of the tender passion involved in the arrangement, for it was an unusual thing for a young girl to do. He replied that "they were only bairns thegither readin' a lesson;" and rightly remarked that had love been in their hearts, there would have been precious little thought of learning in their heads.

The eager student was also abundantly assisted by his good mistress in this scholastic work, as we have seen, while the passages read were illuminated by her intelligent commentary and abundant memory stores. Under this gentle tuition, John made rapid progress, for, as David Brand says, "he was terrible anxious aboot learnin'." So anxious was he, as he himself used to tell, that he also carried on his studies in church—for his poor attire did not keep him from public worship, though submitting him to public remark, and "claes werena just sac dandy in thae days," as observed by one of his friends. When the minister gave out the psalm to be sung and the chapter to be read, John got the place turned up by one of his kindly neighbours, and followed the reading as far as he was able, and with increasing facility; and when the text was selected, he laboriously conquered it in the book during intervals in the discourse. After he returned home, he was never satisfied till lie had read the whole chapter for himself. By such praiseworthy assiduity, he gradually became a tolerable reader.

Yet, though he read so much during his lifetime, he never was able to read with great fluency, having to the last to spell his way over a new or long word, and doing so aloud, even when reading in public, to the amusement of his auditors, his own dead earnestness in the process preventing any confusion on his part or perception of surrounding smiles. What the Rev. Walter C. Smith makes dowie "Dorts the Mason" say of himself, was greatly true of John Duncan:

"Ye had rare schooling, I had almost none,
But gnawed a book as dogs will gnaw a bone."

But John gnawed the bone to some purpose, and always got at its marrow. This imperfection was no doubt due, in great measure, to his extreme and permanent short-sightedness, but may also have arisen from his late acquirement of the art; just as he never became a good speller, even of common words, though seeing them so often.

Writing he does not seem to have begun for several years after this, being for the time satisfied with the attainment and exercise of the new and glorious accomplishment already gained, which opened to him the very gates of paradise. He was long content to revel in the blissfulness of mental acquisition; the need for written expression would come by-and-by, and set him to achieve its instrument. Thus we have no evidence of his learning to write till almost twenty years after he came to Drumlithie, in 1828, when we find him, in his thirty-fourth year, laboriously working at a copy-book!

It was an unusual but happy coincidence that just when our neglected scholar required assistance, there should have been thus closely associated with him those possessing the requisite education, intelligence, and kindliness, to give the needed aid, with that womanly intuitive tact and perception that saw more than appeared on the surface, in the outwardly unattractive and absurdly shy young weaver. From these good women, he got help in more than the mere elements. From Mrs. Pirie, with whom he spent so much time, he gained stores of information and an insight into poetry, with an access to books, that must have broadened and strengthened his growing intellect. From Mrs. Clark, he obtained important religious instruction, for she was devoted to such subjects; while the motherly sympathy and high character of both women would develop his better nature, and greatly soothe him under other hardships. Their whole relations to the lad afford a beautiful glimpse of the genuine helpfulness and kindliness that not seldom characterize the social life of our common people, a fact which will be abundantly illustrated in the progress of our story. All these good women have long since passed away, but "this that they have done shall be told as a memorial of them."

After Mrs. Pirie died, and Mrs. Clark removed to her grander house, John attended a night-school for five or six weeks, to improve his scholastic attainments, now at a stage for him to profit by a schoolmaster. This was Robert Lindsay, a man in feeble health, who had a small day side school in the village, and eked out his living by teaching in the evenings. He had some reputation as an instructor, especially in arithmetic, in which he was said to be able to put a boy through "the Gray," an old treatise on arithmetic, in a single winter. These few evening hours were all that the school ever did for John Duncan. Becoming gradually more independent of external assistance in his literary studies, he used to retire to the garret in which he slept, to pursue them undisturbed; and many an hour was spent by the ardent scholar deciphering the typographical maze with his short-sighted eyes. He did so aloud in a kind of humming tune, and every page was read and read again till fully conquered in word and thought—a peculiar thoroughness remarked by all that knew him. His progress was rapid; as one of his old friends said, "he learned himself a great heap." His strong memory, which was one of the faculties characterizing him throughout life, was specially noted, and he used to surprise his friends in Drumlithie by reciting verbatim, on his return home, great portions of the sermon he had heard.

His study of external nature began now to be more actively and extensively pursued. One of his friends, James Sinclair, now an intelligent old man of eighty, residing at the Kirktown of Fetteresso—who is emphatic as to John's excellent character and disposition, and the high estimation in which he was held in the village—tells how he sometimes accompanied John in the rambles that his close confinement allowed him, especially in the Den of Kinmonth, close by the church of Glenbervie, a short distance from the village, where runs the Drumlithie Burn. In these journeys, he said, there was scarcely anything they saw which John did not seem to be familiar with, and to be able to say something about.

It was while in Drumlithie that he began the first form of his botanical studies, that of Medical Botany, which he carried on with increasing ardour and extending knowledge all his life.

Plants, in this practical botany, were known as "herbs," students of the subject as "herbalists," and professors of it as "herb-doctors." The art of healing by these natural simples was then greatly in vogue amongst weavers and shoemakers, many of whom were really skilful and successful in their more or less empiric treatment. It was at that time a very popular form of medicine, in which, amidst much error, there was more virtue than is now generally conceded; and it was a decided gain to our rural communities, when medical men were comparatively few and expensive, and greatly confined to the larger towns. It was natural, therefore, that John's interest in plants, created around the old cliffs, should take this special practical shape, familiar as it was rendered to him by general belief and practice. Indeed, no more scientific form of botanical study was then available to him. Few, if any, scientific treatises on Botany then existed, certainly none in a popular form, for many years after he left Drumlithie. Then, Medical Botany was at that time greatly a formulated study, possessing text-books to be had at no great cost. Culpepper was the great authority, and his illustrated "British Herbal" was in common use. By getting a loan of Culpepper from some of the local herbalists of the village, John was able, during his apprenticeship, to make a beginning of the study of plants, which he learnt to discover and name with the help of the plates that accompanied the work. This was his first introduction to the technical study which was in time to become the enthusiasm of his life.

Though the lad was naturally so very retiring and bashful, which his harsh treatment had increased, and liked to spend his leisure in solitary walks ; and though he visited very few houses in the village, he had some good friends with whom he occasionally associated, in addition to those already mentioned. Next door to John's weaving shop lived a shoemaker, called Dallas. His house, which looked right out on the shop, was a daily haunt of the apprentice weaver, into which he used to steal, to chat for a little with the intelligent "sooter," and at times confide the grievances received from his bullying master. The shoemaker had a son, a lad of seven when John first came to the village, called Alexander, or, in daily speech, "Sandy." Knowing few of his own age, John became attached to the little boy, who used to run in and out of the shop, and who was delighted to carry his "pirns," the reels containing the thread for the shuttle. Amongst other things, to please the boy, John put up a swing between the two looms that stood end to end in the shop, the rope being fastened to the great beams that formed their framework. There Sandy used to swing in jubilant glee, after he came home from school—for his parents gave him what was then a fair education—while John sat busily plying his shuttle. During dinner hour, and at other times when his taskmaster was from home, the young weaver took a swing himself, by way of change from his over-sedentary work; and not unfrequently the two might be seen on the swing together, standing, as is the custom in such an exercise, face to face, the one alternately propelling the other, amidst the ringing laughter of both —forbidden sounds when Pirie was present. John's youthful associate is still alive in the village in which they had these merry bouts, a hale, genial, intelligent old man of eighty-one, inspector of poor of his native parish, and to him I am indebted for vivid glimpses of the village life of the time and John's sojourn there.

After Mrs. Pine's sudden death, Duncan's life became gradually more miserable, both from his master's fists and from the want of household comforts when his fireside good genius had fled. In the end, so intolerable did it become that he ran away at last for good and all, in 1814, when his apprenticeship was about finished, never more to return.

When the quiet young man of twenty looked back from the road to Johnshaven, a fishing village five miles off, and saw Drumlithie asleep in the hollow, in the dim morning light, he felt exultant, like an Israelite of old escaping from "the house of bondage." His cruel Pharaoh, however, survived for more than thirty years after, till 1847.

The village since then has passed through not a few changes. When "white weaving," or the trade in bleached linen, was introduced, it reached its acme of prosperity, and could boast of more than a hundred active weavers and a flourishing trade. It now possesses but one. The busy workshops have all been swept away; the commonty is no longer theirs; the peat moss beyond has been drained, and coal is universal; the toot of the cowherd, and the merry blast of the stage-coach, as it swept through the streets like a bright vision of the busy outer world, have been replaced by the scream of the locomotive and the heavy roll of his chariot wheels, with all the concurrent remorseless innovations on old rural village life.

That very year, 1814, there appeared in Edinburgh the now world-famous anonymous tale called "Waverley," the first of that wonderful series, inspired by genius almost Shakespearian, which inaugurated a new era in novel-writing and modern literature. But it took long till the springtide of interest and admiration reached our rural towns and villages. To such literary achievements, unhappily, John never was introduced, the prejudices of the time in such regions, and the rigid religious influences under which he afterwards came, effectually shutting him out all his life from their broadening and enlightening pages.


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