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Tales of the Scottish Peasantry
Things and Thoughts


Widely different as things and thoughts at first may appear, there is often a very intimate connection between them; and as the former tend to soothe or ruffle the surface of the mind, to excite or depress its energies, so will the latter be either pleasing or painful. How often does the most trifling incident call up a train of associations involving the profoundest interest, or the deepest melancholy? and, on the contrary, a passing shadow, or the appearance of an inanimate object may, as it were, recreate the most ludicrous images from the very dust and ashes of scenes which we had witnessed long years ago— scenes which but one moment before were entirely forgotten— and once more summon up the whole of the mirthful feelings with which they were then beheld, till a smile plays unconsciously around the lips of the solitary muser, or till an involuntary laugh actually bursts from him, making him look around to see if he has not been observed by strangers who, not knowing the cause, might perhaps deem him insane. As the truth of these observations has doubtless been felt by others, so it was strikingly experienced by the present writer at a very recent period.

Last evening the necessity of soon removing from the room which I had previously occupied, set me to examine a parcel of old lumber, and half useless articles, which had been brought from a former dwelling, and which, owing to circumstances, had remained since then almost wholly untouched. But as the apartment which I was about to occupy afforded less space for such things, it had now become necessary to dispense with the whole of what was useless, and as much as possible of what was least useful; and when I emptied the repository which contained them, I accordingly felt fully determined to burn a large quantity of the materials before me; though, as the reader will shortly see, I was not very successful in following out this determination.

The first things which came under my notice were a boy's top and some marbles — technically called bowls, or rather booh—such as are used in the games of children. Both were completely useless, and the one might have been thrown on the fire, and the others to any distance over the fields, without the slightest loss being incurred ; but they had once belonged to my brother, and to see them again after a succession of years, during which I had not been aware of their existence, called up a vision of early days, which, for the time, made me insensible to every other object. As I took them up, and turned them over, and eyed them with a look so intent that all around "grew vacancy," there was presented to my imagination —I had almost said there was before me—a fair-haired, bright-complexioned, blue-eyed boy, whose vivacity and buoyancy of spirit nothing could repress, to whom, as being several years his elder, my word had been a law; and who, through infancy and youth, had looked up to me for instruction and example, as well as protection. Alas! to think now how much more perfectly these might have been bestowed; but though older than him, I was then only a boy. There were but two of us: and passing over some little disagreements which were soon forgotten, we had become "all the world to each other." Wt had, moreover, been bred up on the shady side of Fortune's eminence, frequently subjected to all the privations incident to the children of poverty and I could still recollect the time, almost as freshly as if it had been but a few weeks ago, when the toys were bought in a village market with some halfpence, which had been carefully hoarded for nearly a year before. When our circumstances were considered, it was, no doubt, misspent money; but, with the exception of the trifle which they cost, we had little of the kind to reflect upon. Utterly useless as they now were, and childish as the thing may seem, I could not destroy them; and after having dissipated I know not how long in gazing on them, and pondering over those happier scenes with which they were associated, I put them carefully aside, determining that they should still have house-room, if something else should want it.

The next thing which I took up was the remains of what had once been a sort of rude snuff-box. It was as useless as the others, and in the estimation of many the fire would have been the proper place for it; but like the top and the marbles it had once belonged to my brother; and, what was more, it had been constructed by himself, as a sort of trial of mechanical skill, in his early days. The box itself had been scooped out of a piece of solid wood, with no other instrument than a pocket-knife, and now I could not help regarding it as a monument of what even boyish industry may accomplish. The lid, however, was lost, and for it I looked in vain; yet it was the most ingenious and curiously wrought part of the whole. Upon the upper side of it, the wood had been cut away, and indented in such a manner as to prepare it for receiving a number of devices, such as a Scottish thistle, a crown, a heart, the initials of the maker, protected on either side by some warlike weapons, and several things beside. The materials of these, again, had been supplied by an old tin or pewter spoon, which was found in a potato field; and after being hammered out, cut into their proper shapes, and polished with much care, they had been fixed in the lid of the box, by the humble artist, in the manner already described. Recent events had conspired to give a deep and permanent interest even to such trifles. The remains of the snuff-box, as if by some incomprehensible spell, were at once associated with its juvenile maker; and again he seemed to stand before me as he then was—a growing youth, with health depicted in his well-formed countenance; still cheerful and full of hope, but with a something altogether different from the usual levity and thoughtlessness, which characterise the last stages of boyhood, in his look and manner. By the time alluded to, he had, in fact, been broken to the yoke which Providence seems to have imposed upon nine-tenths of the human race: he had already bent to the severest drudgery for the simple fare which sustained life, and the few homely articles of dress which protected him from the storm; and he had brought to the dull and monotonous task a degree of patience and perseverance beyond his years. This consideration' alone, seemed to give the little fragment of wood a double claim upon my attention, and it was not only respited from the flames, but placed in what Was considered safe keeping, with as much care as ever Catholic devotee locked up a piece of the real cross, or & paring of somu of the apostles' nails.

When this was done, I took up an old book, which, from mould and damp, together with the ravages of moths, was nearly unreadable. By this time, however, I had almost forgotten my original intention; and being exactly in that mood which delights to ponder over past events, and to collect all the minutia? of circumstances connected with them—forgetful alike of the present and the future—I began to examine it with as much interest, perhaps, as an antiquary would feel in examining, for the first time, some newly discovered and important monument of antiquity. It was a, collection of "Missionary Magazines," which had been printed as far back as 1797, and had been preserved by the parents of the individual who now writes, in their originally separate form, for more than a quarter of a century before it was thought worth while to unite them under the same cover. The stitching of the book had been done in a way altogether different from that followed by bookbinders, and plainly indicated the efforts of one wholly ignorant of the art. The edges, with infinite labour and pains, had been cut even with a knife, which must have been sharpened, it were difficult to say how often, in the course of the operation; paper, as is well known, being a substance which soon destroys the edge of any instrument. The boards, instead of pasteboard, had been taken from an old hat, over which a piece of paper had been pasted, so as to conceal the original. The back consisted of black glazed linen, such as is sometimes used for pockets to men's coats, and which was actually a fragment of cloth which ,had been thus applied; while the back title, which had evidently been printed with a pen, was a tolerably good imitation of type. The snuff-box, as may be easily guessed,, and the binding of the old book, were the workmanship of the same individual. In early life, we had been eager to cultivate our minds by reading as often as we could spare money for the purchase of books. To preserve and keep together our little store, we had conjointly constructed a small book-case, which, small as it was, proved too large for our collection: he was anxious to have the empty spaces filled up, and not being at the time able either to buy more new books, or to employ a bookbinder upon the old materials which we already possessed, he undertook the task of putting them together himself, which will readily account for the unwonted manner in which it was done. The old book, like the articles already enumerated, was a memorial of the proverbial happy days of youth ; and it, too, was preserved.

A few things I did commit to the flames, but they were few indeed; and then, after a long fit of abstraction, I took up five old numbers of a widely circulated and very popular periodical which, when new, must have cost two shillings and sixpence each, though we had bought the whole for little more than that sum, being what is called " second handed," at the time the purchase was made. In the hurry and confusion of a former removal, they had been stowed away among the mass of heterogeneous articles which I had undertaken to examine: for years after, a continued struggle for_ bread, and, if possible, to better our circumstances, had left little time for reading; and thus they had remained unmissed and undiscovered till the present occasion. The first was for " May, 1830," and, though more than ten years of toil and care, with all their obliterating influences, had intervened, I had scarcely time to read the title page, when imagination had conjured up the whole succession of events connected with the evening on which they became ours.

As already said, we had been eager to increase our little library, and in the autumn of the year last mentioned—it might be near the 1st of November—we got notice of an auction of books, which was to take place in a village about three miles distant. Fortunately, as we then thought, we had saved about 2—it was nearly the first spare money which we had been able to command—but the vision of cheap books, and an abundant choice, was before us; and as soon as we came home, hands and faces were washed, a hasty supper despatched, and away we hied, happy in the anticipation of the good things which we were to bring back with us on our return. These consisted of the five numbers of the work already mentioned; Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets," in four volumes; Goldsmith's "Citizen of the World," two volumes; "Byron's "Works," four volumes; a copy of "Burns' Works;'' and some other trifles of comparatively little importance. Some of the books were not exactly what we most wanted; these, however, we could not obtain, and so we took what we could get, rather than bring home our money. But I am giving a history of the transaction from memory, rather than an account of the scene which was represented to my imagination. There was, in the first place, a cloudy and somewhat dark autumnal evening, with a slight breeze from the north, and a long streak of clear sky in the same quarter, indicating the approach of northern lights—a phenomenon which, for a number of years previous to 1830, so far as I recollect, was but rarely seen. Then the road, and the open country with its scattered trees, hedges, cottages, and farms, and the distant hills, scarcely visible to the straining eye amid the shadows which rested on them, were exchanged for the long, narrow street of a rather populous village, slippery from recent rain, with figures gliding to and fro, or hurrying past in perfect obscurity, save when they glanced occasionally into view for a few seconds in the light of a shop window. Anon, there was a large hall, dimly lighted at the farther end, where a large collection of books had been placed upon temporary shelves, with a motley crowd of variously dressed and careless looking people, sauntering through it, or resting on the seats along the wall. In the middle was the auctioneer, with a clerk at his side, and two candles burning before him—his eye evidently acquiring new lustre as it caught a glance of a supposed purchaser, while a broad grin of the most exalted satisfaction never failed to brighten up his whole countenance as often as any thing like a "competition" could be got up. But what interested me most was a young man—apparently older, but in reality under eighteen—with a thoughtful expression of countenance—hair which had gradually darkened as his years increased, till it was now almost black; and a complexion which was evidently paler than it had once been, from the combined effects of unremitting toil by day, late evening studies, and indifferent health : though several years my junior, he was taller than me by nearly the head. For a time he watched intently the progress of the sales; then he obtained permission to look over the books upon the shelves; and, finally, he requested the auctioneer, if it were agreeable, to "put up " one or two of the works which he wished to purchase. His request was at once granted; and then, with a straightforwardness of character but ill suited to the present state of society, and the very humble sphere in which he was destined to move, he "carried" them, regardless of the price. Again the hall and the books, the auctioneer, the candles, and the motley crowd, were exchanged for the slippery street, from the lateness of the hour now completely dark—the public road, and the open country; and once more the acquaintances whom we passed, or spoke with on our homeward way—the deep hush of night—the aspect of the distant mountains, and the bright aurora which, rising from the northern part of the horizon, streamed up to the zenith in long streaks of wavy flame, making the path before us almost as distinct as if it had been but the twilight of a summer's evening—the whole scene was again before me almost as vividly as if it had been reality.

As the concluding part of this panoramic view of the past, there was the misty walls and smoky rafters of a low damp cottage, faintly illuminated by the flame of a rushlight, which burned in an iron lamp, suspended from a nail driven into the rustic frame-work which supported the clay vent, and which had been kindled with some difficulty from the embers of a nearly burnt-out fire. Before that lamp sat the same young man, forgetful alike that he had to be abroad before six o-'clock next morning, and that it was then considerably past midnight; so intent was he in scanning the contents of the hooks he had recently purchased.

This was the closing scene of that particular evening, from which, as already said, Imagination had shaken off the shadows of more than ten years. But she did not stop here: many painful recollections were inseparably interwoven with the intervening period; these, at her command, were carefully collected by memory, and, when they had been invested with her most vivid colouring, placed exactly in the array in which the corresponding events had occurred. After having yielded implicitly, for I know not how long, to the various emotions thus produced, I put aside the things which I had been vainly endeavouring to examine, extinguished the lamp by which I had pursued these musings, and went to bed. As the consequence of previously excited feelings, a sort of imperfect and broken slumber soon came on; and then my dreams were of that brother whom imagination had so recently placed before me in the various stages of his existence, from infancy up to manhood. If the impression in the one case had been vivid, what may he called the perceptions in the other seemed to participate in a still greater degree of reality. Methought it was a bright Sabbath in the very pride of summer—that we had been engaged in the service of the day, and had strayed, during the interval of public worship, to the ruins of the old church, and the parish burying ground which surrounded it—a favourite haunt of ours at such seasons. There, as fancy deemed, we were employed in deciphering the moss-covered. inscriptions, and half obliterated names, engraved on the rude monuments which had been "erected to the memory" of individuals long ago forgotten, when he started off all at once, and, after running to a short distance, disappeared behind a tombstone, beckoning me to follow. I hastened to obey, but I had taken only a few steps, when I stumbled over an open grave, which I had not before observed, and fell; and the fall, imaginary as it was, served to awaken me to a full sense of the cold, and saddening realities by which I was surrounded—to a sense that that brother was no more!—that he had been remorselessly cut down by death in the very prime and flower of youth—that my few friends had sunk, in rapid succession, into their graves ! and that I was alone in the world—the sole and solitary inhabitant of a home which had once contained a whole family, of whom, myself excepted, not a single individual was now alive! The dream was over: but the impression which it had left served effectually to banish sleep: and being too much excited to enjoy even waking repose, I got up, lighted the lamp which I had extinguished scarcely an hour before, and employed myself in noting down the various incidents which have been noticed in the preceding paragraphs, till the grey and sickly dawn of a morning, in early spring, called me to other pursuits.

Does the reader think the dream ominous? He may rest assured, that it was not mentioned for the purpose of leading to such a conclusion; but simply as a part of what really occurred. Dreams embrace a wide range of very disjointed subjects: in short, they may be tortured into almost any interpretation by those who allow their fancies to run wild in those regions of mist and uncertainty; but, as men die at all ages, and in every variety of circumstances, the event to which he would say it points may happen without the one having the slightest reference to the other : coincidence does not necessarily imply connection, and it may be fulfilled without being at all an omen. One word more, and I have done. Is the reader inclined to think that I have given too partial a view of the personal appearance, the character, or the talents of so near a relation; in other words, that I have spoken too favourably of an only brother! Let him recollect that it is of the dead, and not of the living, that I have been speaking, and he will, perhaps, be able to pardon the error, if such it should be deemed. My little tale is now told; and its truth is the only apology I can offer for its lack of interest.


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