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John Tamson's Bairns


DEDICATION.

To Her who of her palaces hath made
A Home wherein the lowly Christ might dwell
And off, in simple guise, beneath the shade
Of cottage roof hath found, and loved it well,
A palace richer than her own, arrayed

With heavenly peace and joy unspeakable
To Her would I, far off, on bended knees;
Devotion's unskilled offering, offer these.

I.

Edenic Toil! who would not hope to share
Thy silken yoke and uncomplaining breast?
No groan from lungs of brass then vex'd the air,
Nor beads of grime dropt from the brow oppress'd,
Mingling with bread of tears, life's daily fare,—
More sweet thy labour was than is our rest
When in the calm of Sabbath morn embower'd,
And with the breath of dewy roses dower'd.

II.

John Tamson dwelt in Eden;—not that place
Where no sharp weeds bestrewed the velvet floor;
Where never taint of sorrow marr'd the face;
Nor cripple vagrant limped from door to door;
Nor mossy fields were stoned in deep disgrace;
Nor naked feet by frosts were bitten sore;
It stood—still stands—apart from Scripture story,
Somewhere not far from Fife, or Tobermory.

III.

On lawful days a cobbler's craft he plied
At open door, close by the babbling street;
With cunning art well-spent on brutish hide
He gave heroic help to human feet,—
Thence well prepared, whatever might betide,
To wade thro' bloody fields, or blustering sleet,
To tread the snow-drift, leap the moorland hag,
Or tempt the frowning brows of mountain crag.

IV.

He was not old, but he had crossed the line
Which bounds the middle stream from farther shore;
Neighbours could see his "croon" begin to shine,
And how the sable hair was tinged with hoar;
He thumped his knee, and rax'd the resinous twine
(Himself well knew) less bravely than before;
And oft would pause and gaze on passers-by
With weary, wistful, unperceiving eye.

V.

Yet was he blessed sevenfold in gentle wife,
Of stature small, but with enshrined soul
Just large enough to grace a lowly life,
And clasp the earth in love from pole to pole;—
If Thought means Power and tears can hinder strife,
Kings felt but did not know her sweet control
Not less from cottage than Cathedral chair
God hears the wrestling spirit's inwrought prayer.

VI.

These two were mated years past three times ten,
Each to the other's changeless full content;
Blithesome they took their little "but and ben,"
And there in frugal peace their days were spent,
Near by the echoing murmurs of the glen
Where once their lover's troth to heaven was sent,
And carrier angels came with glad accord
To bless their honest toil, their bed and board.

VII.
Humble their cares and small their household stock,
Simple and few, yet of substantial kind,—
Plain dresser, chest of drawers, the eight-day clock,
Meal-kist and bookcase, food for frame and mind;
Cupboard of curious wares, a dainty flock
That shyly peep'd from crystal doors behind;
Cat and canary—cage with muslin frill;
Flower-pot with moss-rose on the window-sill.

VIII.

The Bible foremost, undisputed lord,
To whom all else paid reverential due;
Not least, a rusty basket-hilted sword
Which some brave hand for God and Covenant drew;
Next, the broad stool whereon the cobbler bored
And beat the pliant leather old and new;—
And rocking-cradle, that need rock no more,
Not in dishonour laid behind the door.

IX.

Within a score of summers, one by one
Nine bairns had come to fill that downy nest;
Three died ere yet their infant days had run
One at the Cape, two dwelt in the Far West;
A maid who saw her bridal year begun
Had kirkyard gowan's growing on her breast
Before it closed; a sailor lad was drown'd;
Another lost and searched for—never found.

X.

In Israel's palmy age no godly seed
Was ever rear'd with holier fear than they
Was earlier taught that God was God indeed,
Guardian of human frailty night and day,
Whence they might look for help in time of need,
Whom only serve, on whom alone might stay;
And when the righteous cause was in the field
Might staunchly die, but neither spare nor yield.

XI.

The Sabbath came, for pleasure not their own;
Benignant angel from Jehovah sent,
To salve the eyes, and move the heart of stone
With thankfulness, and love, and pure intent;
That seed of life might not in vain be sown,—
So to their Hill of Zion forth they went
In clean attire, and of the little band
Not one drew near to God with empty hand.

XIII.
Not one sat listless in the House of Prayer,
The high-back'd pew, familiar family nook;
Mother, well-pleased, would smooth her lambkin's hair,
And scent the fragrant leaf that mark'd her book;
Nor would the boys, from love and reverence, dare
To tempt the solemn father's side-long look;
God spake, and all alike felt wholesome dread
What might befall to callous heart or head.

XIII.

Incense more free and holier still would rise
When John and she, the priestess of the hearth,
Each day renewed their fireside sacrifice,
And worshipp'd God with mingling fear and mirth;—
Like Jacob's ladder lifted to the skies,
So did the aspiring soul surmount the earth,
To drink unspoken joy at heavenly springs
Amid sweet odours waft by angels' wings.

XIV.

The floor swept clean, as tho' for Christ's own feet;
No sloven attitude, nor thing mislaid;
Each child well knew, with face most gravely sweet,
The very fly, if buzzing noise it made,
Would be rebuked when father took his seat
And took the Book, and sang, and read, and prayed;
And so God's blessing caught them on their knees—
How strong the nation built of homes like these!

XV.


Alas! this pious home was vacant now
Of chattering voices and of children's cares;
A silent sadness on the cobbler's brow
Long since had settled almost unawares.
Most kind was she who shared his nuptial vow
And proud parental joy that once was theirs;
But love will sooner stay the sunset sheen
Than brighten hope with bloom that might have been.

XVI

At eve one day of wet and wintry breeze
John sat demurely at the Book and read
"Whoso shall give to drink to one of these;"
Just then a bairnly voice broke in and said,
"Help a puir wean the nicht, mem, if you please;"
The pleading of a beggar boy for bread.
He tried the latch, by rarest chance not fast,
Peep'd in, his eyes with recent tears o'ercast.

XVII.

Up rose the cobbler's wife, his gentle Ann,
Took in the boy and said, "What brings ye here
In sic a nicht sae late, my puir wee man?"
"My mither's dead," said he with gathering tear;
"I'm cauld and hungry and my name is Dan;
My mither's dead and gane this mony a year."
"But wha's your faither,—you're no left your lane?"
"My faither, mem! oh, please, I ne'er had nane."

XVIII.

"Nae faither!" and she eyed the little elf,
The while her bosom heaved with strange desire.
With a shrewd glance at John, her other self,
She set the boy to dry before the fire,
Syne rax'd a barley bannock from the shelf;
"Rae, lad, nae better does a king require;"
So whilst the lad consumed this kingly fare
They spent the interrupted hour of prayer.

XIX.

Oh, saddest in a child! a worn, sad face
Had Dan, but haply nothing to forbid;
No infant crimes had there their nursing-place,
Nor crafty glance was lurking 'neath the lid;
His very rags had tongues to plead his case
In such a home as this—and so they did.
John's voice groan'd deep, with burden'd soul oppress'd:
"God of the fatherless, Thou knowest best!"

XX.

The Book laid by, the cobbler then began
To ask him whose he was and whence he came;
But this did sore perplex our little man—
He did not know, and he was not to blame.
His memory could reach no further than
A place beyond the sea he called his hame
A darling mother who had clasped him there,
Patted his dimpled cheek and stroked his hair.

XXI.

That night, with no begrudging hand, they spread
A woolly couch for weary Dan to sleep;
Kind sleep! the poor man's Paradise!—his bed
Of roses balmed with slumbers soft and deep,
Where thorn is not, where never tear is shed—
The gate whereat so many wail and weep;
But few of all the jewelled throng pass in
To ease them of their pleasures and their sin.

XXII.

Ye who by honest labour win your crust,
And ye who beg it (now more seldom found
Honest as well), because, alas ! ye must,—
Know that your brows with golden peace are crown'd,
Whilst Kings are bare, tho' cringing in the dust—
For you, sweet rills of sleep-provoking sound
Flow evermore in Nature's vale of rest,
And rise the dreamless mansions of the blest.

XXIII.

Dan dropt asleep; beside him lingered long
The woman's wakeful eye and brooding heart;
His tartan breeks had suffer'd fearful wrong;
No good Samaritan the healing art
Applied more deft to make the feeble strong
Than she, with thread and needle, did her part
For that dear Master whom her task might please:
It may be done, thought she, to "one of these."

XXIV.

Beneath His guiding hand she clipped and sewed,
Her house His home, her toil a sacrament;
The Christ had come into her mean abode—
It was His garment's hem o'er which she bent,
And by the touch a healing virtue flowed,
A saving health to heart and finger sent;
And through her spirit swept such wondrous thrill
As High Priest yearly felt on Zion's hill.

XXV.
By chance, some shred of crumpled paper fell
She looked, and turned away, and looked again;
What might it be, how dropp'd she could not tell;
A while it lay, she eyed it now and then;
At last she took it up and searched it well,—
A printed leaf, and scratched with ink and pen;
And lo! some hair within the inmost fold,
Two tiny locks, one black, and one like gold.

XXVI.

She gazed on these and on the slumbering child,—
A stony gaze, as tho' her soul had fled;
A long time gazed, whilst many a fancy wild
Flew far and near, with living folk and dead;
She frowned, she sighed, she all but wept, she smiled,
A sudden start, she rose, and reached the bed
Where John a good hour since had lain and slept,—
She had a secret that might not be kept.

XXVII.

He woke; he took the relics in his hand;
Viewed them with care, with wonderment not less
Than she; anon the printed leaf he scann'd;
'Twas from the Bible, nor unlike the dress
That had concealed it, tatter'd, worn, and tann'd,-
What might it mean, not he nor she could guess,
But words of God scarce absent from his mind
One waking hour, were there, and underlined.

XXVIII.
"I waited,"—long had served this patient man,
Motto whereby he toiled, and hoped, and thrived;
Thro' all his loss and lingering griefs it ran,
From Holy Writ and jubilant Psalm derived,
Whence courage comes to hands that nothing can,
And strength to hearts of every hope deprived;
The words were these: "I waited patiently,
And He to me inclined and heard my cry."

XXIX.

Swift as the clans by chieftain's clarion wake;
As fluttering wings by crack of huntsman's gun;
As when a stone disturbs the placid lake;
As rippling songsters greet the rising sun,—
So did old echoes of remembrance break
On John afresh, with gladness full, or none,
When by the sacred word which marked this leaf
Past years rushed back; and one bright day in chief:

XXX.

It was the day when Rab, his youngest child,
A clever lad, well-grown, sweet-natured, good,
And wise, left home, and every prospect smiled;—
There was a spot within a wayside wood
Where sire and son the parting hour beguiled
With blessings hardly breathed but understood;
Their words were few, that sacred word the last,
Rab wept, and vowed that he would hold it fast.

XXXI.

So parted they; and many a look behind
Each to the other gave, till lost to view;
Ah me! the frequent letters soon declined;
They could but murmur there was nothing new;
And then the lad slipp'd off where none could find;
The old folks' joys thereafter had been few,
Save in the grace that by the Saviour's Cross
Might still prove more than victor over loss.

XXXII.

'Twas so this night; they both with chastened heart
Quite melted o'er the old familiar name;
Their heads had long the grey that griefs impart,
And now the cheek anew was flush'd with shame;
What crime can make a mother's love depart?
"Puir Rab," said Ann, "he should hae stayed at hame."
"We'll wait," quoth John, "we'll trust the laddie's vow;
We kenna what God's will may bring, nor how."

XXXII!.

Faith sowed the seed, and Hope went forth to reap
Harvests of joy from the well-watered lands:
But when she saw "wild oats" instead of wheat
She strewed her head with dust and wrung her hands;
So did old Jacob leave, with fretful feet,
The promised soil, and tread the alien sands,
Nor knew nor hoped his father's God would save
His hoary head from an unhallowed grave.

XXXIV.
Now when the kindly tear had soothed her grief
Ann laid with one more look, the slips of hair,
As on God's breast, within that guardian leaf;
She had a secret drawer, she laid it there;
She turned to Dan: "Gude kens thou art nae thief;
And in His ain braw time He'll mak' it bare."
"We've seen young hearts," quoth John, "made hard as aim."
"We'll dae our best, guidman—we'll keep the bairn!"

XXXV.

And at the cobbler's hearth from day to day
This poor lost lamb was folded, nursed, and fed;
Ofttimes the minister was heard to say
He was a wondrous boy for heart and head;
And when the "master" pursed his quarter's pay,
"That lad will be a bishop yet," he said;
Ann too that vision had which brightest gleams
In every Scottish peasant's pious dreams.

XXXVI.

Ten times has Winter made the beech tree bare
Whose stalwart form beside her cottage stood;
Ten times the throstle's young high-nested there
Have raised their clamorous heads and gaped forfood;
The kirk-bell rings, and to the House of Prayer
Eden ascends devoutly, as it should;
The bell has ceased; the preacher takes his place;
An anxious awe broods in his pale young face.

XXXVII.

It was our Dan; and many strangers drew
To hear his first "discoorse " for many a mile;
Among the rest, more obvious to the view,
A kilted soldier strode along the aisle;
He sat him down in the old cobbler's pew,
And in the good man's face he gazed awhile;
But at the wee auld wife—for she was there—
A glance he threw as tho' he hardly dare.

XXXVIII.

"I waited" was the text; when he began
The preacher trembled, but he soon grew bold;
He spoke of hope in trickling rills that ran
Thro' seer and psalmist in the days of old;
How patient Mercy waits on guilty man;
How Grace can bring the lost sheep to the fold;
And home, long desolate, rings with joyful sound:
"My son was dead—was lost, and now is found!"

XXXIX.

In stillness rapt and reverential fear
They heard; they gazed; they saw his visage glow;
Spell-bound, entranced; they felt that Presence near
Who treads unseen the sacred courts below,
And salveth unused eyelids with the tear
Of saintly joy or penitential woe;
Thankful, they drew a deep breath at the close;
Then, with the unction of his blessing, rose.

XL.
When now the murmuring throngs retook their way,
And spoke in solemn speech their soul's delight,
The stranger said, "Gudeman, you aiblins may
Give an old soldier quarters for the night;
I hoped to rest at home this Sabbath-day-
The road was long, nor is my burden light."
"My cot is there," said John, "and nane e'er saw
The puir man or the stranger turned awa'."

XLI.

In twilight's lone sad hour he breathed the story
That marr'd his fair young life with rueful strains;
And how he fought for Britain's gain or glory
The turban'd tribes on Indian hills and plains;
What years had pass'd, unsmiling years and gory,
Since first he followed to the bagpipe strains;
How often Scotia's onset swept the field,
And Sikh and Afghan like the drunkard reel'd.

XLII.

But 'War's wild din," he cried, "to me was less
Than Love's deep woes, for I had woo'd and wed—
My wife! my child! whom, if he lives, Heaven bless
We parted—met no more—I fought, I bled—
They knew not mine, nor I knew their distress;
I was a captive long—they thought me dead—
God help! whose comfort is where needed most—
The mother pined and died—the child was lost!"

XLIII.

"The preacher's text 'I waited,'" murmured John;
"Tis in my heart," the soldier cried, "not here;"
He showed his Bible where the leaf had gone;
Told how his wife once gave, for parting cheer,
Two locks—like jet, like yellow gold they shone—
Her own hair and the child's; he held them dear,
Dear as the Scripture page he loved the best;
Enfolded there, she sewed them to his vest.

XLIV.

He bore them far, thro' many fields of strife;
He lay a-dying long, nor knew what pass'd,
Nor where the trifles treasured more than life;
And when from death-like wounds he woke at last—
But now, ere he had ceased, the cobbler's wife
Drew from the secret place which held them fast
The leaf, the tufts of hair with silk entwin'd
He looked, he stared on them like one stone-blind.

XLV.
She told how in his rags the little man
Had brought them, as it seemed, across the sea;
"Your bairnie's name?" she asked him; "was it Dan?"
To's feet he sprang and cried, "Twas he! 'twas he!"
While down his hardy cheek the tear-drop ran;
Living or dead, where might his darling be,
Thrice in one breath he pled with them to say.
"Patience," quoth John, "you heard him preach to-day."

XLVI.

Then Dan, for he was there and heard it all,
Flew to his father's heart and firm embrace;
And oh I how sweetly then did love recall
The sainted mother in the youth's pale face!
She knew that God, should hapless times befall,
Would lead the shorn Iamb to a sheltered place;
The vest, torn from her soldier's wounded side,
She found it, shaped it for his child—and died.

XLVII.

She died, nor did her last hope seem to fail;
One friend—for friends not absent were, tho' few—
A kindly captain, heard the orphan's tale;
He thought the father's kindred once he knew
Whither his good ship soon was bound to sail.
The ship went down, the home port full in view,
And he, the surly billows long had braved,
Was lost. His charge, the orphan child, was saved.

XLVIII.

And in that town, washed by the salt sea spray,
The little stranger, friendless and alone,
A vagrant woman kept in such rude way
As might by loose sobriety be shown;
From scanty store in wallet day by day
His bread she doled, who mostly begged her own.
Poor wastrel boy! half-homeless, till at last
Blown to the cobbler's hearth by God's rough blast.

XLIX.

Then said the stranger to the aged pair:
"Our God is just, and wonders He hath done;
The curse I brought, by His decree I bare;
My sins of youth have found me one by one;
And now prevails the long parental prayer—
My name is Rab, and I was once your son."
He tried, and tried again, but could no more;
Love could but speak with tears at Mercy's door.

L.

It might not be in human words to tell
The love that overflowed and would not cease;
Ann's joy ran from her eyelids like a well,
Crime could not crush, but made her love increase;
And when at worship on their knees they fell,
"Fain would I now," cried John, "depart in peace!
Wait on the Lord! I waited patiently,
And He to me inclined, and heard my cry!"

LI.

Not far had they, thro' mists of coming years,
This aged Simeon and his spouse, to go;—
In that still place where Love her tribute rears
To souls above and slumbering dust below,
Two often stand, and in their tranquil tears
The lingering rays of sunset sweetly glow;
Then drooping Night, and to their lifted eyes,
The jewell'd gates of opening Paradise!


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