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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter II


The new ship—The second marriage—Birth of Hugh Miller—An Apparition—Another Shipwreck and the Father drowned—A second supernatural appearance—Hugh Miller's widowed Mother—His first School—Early Reading.

By the catastrophe recorded at the close of last chapter, a catastrophe which was foretold by "portent dread," the "master" was rendered nearly penniless, and was about to sell the house which he had built, much below its real value, to enable him to commence the world anew, when a friend stepped forward—one of those true friends who are not afraid to lay hold of a sinking man, and try to keep his head above water—and advanced the money necessary to enable him to purchase a new ship. And so in due time a successor to the "Friendship" was fabricated wholly of sterling oak, under the eyes of the "master" himself, in which new and prosperous voyages were made. In due time, too, after the death of his aged cousin, he took to wife Harriet, one of the young friends of the old lady. The second Mrs. Miller was eighteen at the time of her marriage; the master was in his forty-fourth year, but he was a hale hearty man, and the disparity between their ages was no bar to the happiness of either. He was by all accounts, well fitted to make a woman who confided in him happy, and Mrs. Miller the second, during the six years she was his wife, never saw him angry but once.

Hugh Miller, the subject of our sketch, was one of the results of this second marriage. He was born in the house of John Fiddes, the buccaneer, on the 10th day of October, 1802. His memory, we are informed by himself, awoke soon, and one of its earliest treasures was the figure of old John Fiddes, which he saw one day (not in the body, be it observed) on the landing-place of the stair of the old house. The spirit of his ancestor seemed attired in a light blue greatcoat (a somewhat strange dress for an inhabitant of the other world to assume) and appeared to be regarding young Hugh with great complacency. The latter, however, although very fond of hearing the history of his relative narrated, was by no means gratified to see him in spiritual guise; and years after, when passing through the room from which he inferred the spirit must have come, he used to feel by no means sure that he would not tilt against old John in the dark. There were, however, more pleasant treasures in the memory of the boy than that of the stalwart buccaneer. He participated in the joy which used to flood the parent home with sunshine upon the arrival of the gallant sailor in the midst of his family after his voyages. Young Hugh learned to distinguish the sloop in the offing from all her sister craft by her twin square topsails and two dainty lines of white which ran along her sides. The splendid toys brought home from these voyages, no doubt, had their effect in enhancing the pleasure of the paternal arrival, but such a boy as Hugh Miller could also appreciate, to some extent, the intrinsic merits of such a father, and love him for his own sake. A bright, but too brief, happy time was the boy's intercourse with his father. The latter was engaged in collecting kelp, amid the Hebrides, for the Leith glass works, and in his last voyage he had been detained from the close of August till the beginning of October. At length, deeply laden, he set sail for his destination, and had got round Cape Wrath, through the Pentland and across the Moray Firths, when he was compelled, by stress of weather, to put in at Peterhead. On the 9th of November, 1807, he wrote his last letter to his wife. Next day he sailed from his temporary place of shelter, when there arose one of those storms so common on that coast at that season of the year, in which many a good ship perished, and many a brave seaman reached the termination of life's voyage. Captain Miller struggled manfully with the storm and succeeded, after much effort, in clearing a huge headland, which had lain on his lee for hours. The feat was seen by a brother Cromarty Skipper named Mathieson, who exclaimed, when he saw it successfully accomplished, "Miller's seamanship has saved him once more!" The struggling sloop had been seen for the last time by human eye by the Cromarty skipper. The precise mode of her destruction is not known, but, on that same night, it is supposed that, heavily laden and in a mountainous sea, she had started a plank and foundered. "And thus perished," says his son, "to borrow from the simple eulogium of one of his seafaring friends, whom I heard long after condoling with my mother, one of the best sailors that ever sailed the Moray Frith.'"

The supernatural is strangely blended with the irreparable loss which the "master's" family had sustained. In the cottage at Cromarty there had been no forebodings of disaster, as the greatest fury of the storm had been spent on the eastern coast. The wife had received her letter, which was a hopeful one; and on the evening after, she was sitting by the cheerful fire plying her needle, when the house door, which had been left unfastened, fell open, and young Hugh was sent to fasten it. "What follows," he says, "must be regarded as simply the recollection, though a very vivid one, of a boy who had completed his fifth year only a month before. Day had not wholly disappeared, but it was fast posting on to night, and a grey haze spread a neutral tint of dimness over every more distant object, but left the near ones comparatively distinct, when I saw at the open door, within less than a yard of my breast, as plainly as ever I saw anything, a dissevered hand and arm stretched towards me. Hand and arm were apparently those of a female; they bore a livid and sodden appearance; and directly fronting me where the body ought to have been, there was only blank transparent space, through which I could see the dim forms of the objects beyond. I was fearfully startled, and ran shrieking to my mother, telling what I had seen; and the house girl, whom she next sent to shut the door, apparently affected by my terror, also returned frightened, she said that she too had seen the woman's hand, which, however, did not seem to be the case. And, finally, my mother going to the door, saw nothing, though she appeared much impressed by the extremity of my terror, and the minuteness of my description. We pause not to inquire respecting the veracity of the apparition seen by the boy Miller at the probable time of his father's death, nor to decide as to the supernatural category under which spiritualists might class it- That he believed as firmly as ever he believed any fact in physical science, that he saw the dissevered hand and arm, there cannot, we think, be the smallest doubt; but whether in the dim uncertain light of that closing day, some local superstition had assumed form and made itself palpable to the eye of the boy, or whether the appearance may have been susceptible of explanation upon natural principles, we need not inquire. The whole thing may have been an optical delusion, for aught we know; but, on the other hand, it may not. Not only the boy, but the man, Hugh Miller, assuredly believed that it was not; and although he has said that the supposed apparition may have been merely a momentary affection of the eye, of the nature described by Sir W. Scott in his "Demonology" and Sir D. Brewster in his "Natural Magic," he adds that it was an affection of which he experienced no after return, and that its coincidence with the probable time of his father's death seemed at least curious." His mother, as we have seen, was much impressed with the extreme nature of the boy's terror, and the minuteness of his description—another proof that to him, at least at the time, it seemed a patent reality. A mature man, with an active imagination, may simulate a terror, and fabricate a description which would impress either man or woman; but a boy of five years of age must have been actually frightened before he could have impressed his mother with his fright, and must have believed that he had seen the object which excited his terror before he could have given such a startlingly vivid description of it as he had evidently given, when he rushed in from the door with "each particular hair" standing on end. The neighbours who were privileged to be admitted into the secret of the apparition, would, no doubt, regard it as a presage of coming woe; but, whatever it may have been, or however it may have been regarded, it constituted a not unfitting prelude to that season of sorrow and darkness which supervened upon the loss of the gallant sailor. Mr. Miller gives us a partial glimpse of that period of sore trial in "My Schools and Schoolmasters." We can still see through the shadows of these long departed years, the poor widow gazing upon the vacant chair by the hearth never again to be filled by the burly, honest man to whom she had consecrated her virgin affections. We can still fancy her long fits of weeping as she thought of the briefness of their married life, and the happiness which used to shed a halo •round her existence during the short seasons which her husband passed upon land. We can also imagine young Hugh keeping the widow company in crying, although, poor fellow, he was too young to feel, in its full force, the loss his mother and himself had sustained. Poverty came, too, and added its darkness to that of bereavement. The new house was untenanted at the lime, and although the sloop had been partially insured, the broker with whom the master dealt was verging on bankruptcy, and as he placed obstacles in the way of the insurance money being realised, it was a long time before any of it was secured. The widow, however, bore up like a christian woman against this adverse tide; and being left with three of a family, Hugh and two daughters, she set herself bravely to the duty of feeding and clothing them, with a firm faith, doubtless, in that golden text which runs—" I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread." She was a cunning seamstress, and, after her household duties were over, she sat up sewing for those who would employ her. And thus the time went on, and although the love for the lost one still existed, the tears of the bitter grief dried up, and the old pleasant past, before the storm came with death enthroned on it, was thought of not as a season of happiness, dead and buried, but with a new if a somewhat melancholy pleasure; and although the sentiment had not then been expressed, the widow, we doubt not, felt that

'Twas better to hare loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all.

As for the widow's son, he could not believe that his father's sloop was dashed to peices, and the father himself a drowned man. So far as experience told him, his father had returned from every voyage upon which he had embarked; and, although the sloop with the twin square topsails, and the two dainty lines of white along her sides, was longer in making her appearance than usual, he continued with true boy-faith to believe in her return, and climbed day after day a grassy protuberance which commanded a view of the Moray Firth, to look out for her reappearance.

Previous to his father's death, Hugh Miller had been sent to a dame's school, where he was taught to pronounce his letters after a fashion peculiar to the dames who taught the young ideas of the Scottish peasantry how to shoot, in the northern part of the country during the first quarter of the present century. The present writer had the happiness of first unravelling the mysteries of the alphabet under one of those picturesque and energetic matrons—the last of her race, we think, in that part of the country. Through the mists of nearly forty years (heigho!) she looms out upon us a tall, hard-featured, but, upon the whole, not hard-hearted woman; and we can still hear her shouting at the top of her voice —(for she was deaf, and believed that her pupils laboured under the same infirmity)—"Muckle Aw, little aw," and so on. Young Master Miller was taught his letters after a similar type of pronunciation, and the quaint old style stuck to him through life. The learning of -the letters was dry work—it is the same to every child; but as soon as he discovered that the art of learning letters was that of finding stories in books, its dryness disappeared, and it became a decidedly interesting task. The history of Joseph was the first treasure which his new art unlocked for him. This was succeeded by other gems of sacred story; the history of Samson, of David and Goliah, of Elijah and Elisha, and ultimately the New Testament was mined, and its rich store of miracle and parable brought to light. A good literary foundation this for a child to lay in his mind. Master Miller had, in addition to these treasures of sacred story, abundance of profane classics to draw upon also. "Jack the Giant Killer", "Jack and the Bean Stalk," "The Yellow Dwarf," "Blue Beard," "Sinbad the Sailor," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp," constituted the contents of a birch box nine inches square, and from that huge repository the embryonic geologist drew immense stores of happiness. He congratulated himself upon the fact that "Those intolerable nuisances the useful-knowledge-books" had not yet arisen like tenebrious stairs on the educational horizon to darken the world, and shed their blighting influence on the opening intellect of the youth-hood and those of us who had the privelege of reading such books as the treasures of the birch-box, and who may have dipped with fear and trembling into the useful knowledge libraries, can partly understand why he thus congratulated himself. All the voyagings which juvenile mariners may make into the arcana of nature with the aid of such compasses as books with the title of "science made easy," will not do them half the good which a severe course of reading in fairy and legendary lore will accomplish for them; and we hold that the best of all proofs a boy can give of the proper stuff being in him, is a persistent refusal to be drugged with useful knowledge before he be well into his teens. Hugh Miller had no useful-knowledge-books, and so he informs us that he passed from his rudimental books without being conscious of break or line of division, to books on which the learned are content to write commentaries and dissertations, but which he found to be quite as "nice children's books" as any others. One of these nice child's books was Homer's "Odyssey," translated by Pope; another was Pope's translation of the "Iliad"; and a third was "Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress," a book worth a whole library of the useful-knowledge class, Hugh's copy of the "Pilgrim" was one of the good old editions, "printed on coarse whity-brown paper, and charged with numerous wood-cuts, each of which occupied an entire page, which, on principles of economy, bore letterpress oh the other side". "Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's travels" were also read by the young boy, and warmly admired, if not fully appreciated, we may reasonably believe. These were the lighter works which he perused by the Cromarty sea shore. More substantial intellectual food was gathered from "Flavel's works," "Henry's Commentary," "Hutchison on the Lesser Prophets," a very old treatise on the Revelations, with the title-page away, and consequently anonymous. Blind Jamieson's volume on the "Hierarchy" "Ambrose on Angels;" "Howie's Scotch Worthies," the MSS. of which we have seen and handled. Solid books, every one of them, from which our forefathers learned that profounder religious knowledge which they possessed than we of the present time, and from which Hugh Miller derived much of that sturdy spirit by which he was distinguished both while hewing stones in a Cromarty quarry and conducting a Presbyterian Church newspaper in an Edinburgh sanctum.


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