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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 21


After a timorous tap and a nervous pause at the door of the house in which Burns died, It was opened by a neatly-dressed lady, who, upon learning the nature of my business, invited me in, and most obligingly conducted me through the various apartments, referring as she did so to numerous little incidents associated with each.  “This,” said she, “is now the parlour, but it was used by Burns as a sitting room, and in it he wrote many of his songs.  That is the kitchen, a place much frequented by him; and up here,” she continued, as she led the way up a narrow staircase, “is the room in which he died.”  It proved a small oblong apartment, some fifteen feet by nine.  Its appearance and associations caused very many saddening thoughts to well up in my mind, and as I stood on its threshold, fancy conjured up shadows of the dear ones who surrounded the poet’s bed when his spirit forsook its casket of clay.  On the same floor there is a room of larger dimensions, as also a closet in which the poet secluded himself during hours of inspiration, or when he had any particular business to perform, and above them a couple of attic bedrooms in which the children slept.  This is the accommodation of what constituted the home of Robert Burns, and it will readily be admitted that it is of a superior order to the majority of middle-class people’s houses, and that his circumstances at the time of his death were much better than reported.  His official income was £50 a year, but extra allowances generally brought it up to £70. “Add to all this,” says Chambers, “the solid perquisites which he received from seizures of contraband spirits, tea, and other articles, which it was then the custom to divide among the officers, and we shall se that Burns could scarcely be considered as enjoying less than £90 a year.  This, indeed, is but a small income in comparison with the deserts of the bard; yet it is equally certain that many worthy families in the middle ranks of life in Scottish country towns were then supported in a decent manner upon no larger means.”  The poet’s eldest son informed the same writer that this house was one of a good order, such as was used in those days by the better class of citizens, and that his father and mother led a comparatively genteel life.  “They always had a maid-servant, and sat in their parlour.  That room and the two principal bedrooms were carpeted and otherwise well furnished, and the dining table was of mahogany.  There was much rough comfort in the house not to have been found in those of ordinary citizens; for, besides the spoils of smugglers, present of game and country produce were received from the rural gentlefolks, besides occasional barrels of oysters from Hill, Cunningham, and other friends in town.”

Despite this “rough comfort” the associations of the house are saddening.  The poet never recovered from the exposure mentioned in last chapter, and in a brief month after it we find him telling his woeful tale to Mrs Dunlop.  He says--”I have lately drunk deep of the cup of affliction.  The Autumn robbed me of my only daughter and darling child, and that at a distance, too, and so rapidly, as to put it out of my power to pay the last duties to her.  I had scarcely begun to recover from that shock when I became myself the victim of a most severe rheumatic fever, and long the die spun doubtful, until, after many weeks of a sick-bed, it seems to have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room, and once indeed have been before my own door in the street.”  Some time after this Miss Grace Aiken, a sister of Robert Aiken, Ayr, met him in the street, and it was only by his voice that he was recognized.  “It was hoped by some of his friends,” says Dr. Currie, “that he would live through the months of Spring and that the succeeding season might restore him.”  But they were disappointed.  The genial beams of the sun infused no vigor into his languid frame; the summer wind blew upon him, but produced no refreshment.  As a last resource he determined to try sea bathing, and for that purpose removed to Brow, a watering place on the shores of the Solway, ten miles from Dumfries.  Before setting out he told his Jean that he though himself dying and in a kind of prophetic spirit added: “Don’t be afraid; I’ll be more respected a hundred years after I am dead than I am at the present day.”

On his arrival at Brow, Mrs Walter Riddle, who had been estranged from him for some time, and who was staying in the vicinity, sent her carriage for him.  He went to see her, and her account of the interview is of such interest that I may be excused for transcribing it in full.  “I was struck,” says this lady, “with his appearance on entering the room.  The stamp of death was impressed on his features.  He seemed already touching the brink of eternity.  His first salutation was ’Well, madam, have you any commands for the other world?’ I replied that it seemed a doubtful case which of us should be there soonest, and that I hoped that he would yet live to write my epitaph.  He looked in my face with an air of great kindness and expressed his concern at seeing e look so ill, with his accustomed sensibility.  At table he ate little or nothing, and he complained of having entirely lost the tone of his stomach.  We had a long and serious conversation about his present situation, and the approaching termination of all his earthly prospects.  He spoke of his death without any of the ostentation of philosophy, but with the firmness, as well as the feeling, of an event likely to happen very soon, and which gave him concern chiefly from leaving his four children so young and unprotected, and his wife in so interesting a situation--in hourly expectation of lying-in with a fifth.  He mentioned with seeming pride and satisfaction the promising genius of his eldest son, and the flattering marks of approbation he had received from his teachers, and dwelt particularly on his hopes of that boy’s future conduct and merit.  His anxiety for his family seemed to hang heavy upon him, and the more perhaps from the reflection that he had not done them all the justice he was so well qualified to do.  Passing from this subject he showed great concern about the care of his literary fame, and particularly the publication of his posthumous works.  He said he was aware that his death would occasion some noise, and that every scrap of his writing would be revived against him to the injury of his future reputation; that letters and verses he had written with unguarded and improper freedom, and which he had earnestly wished to have buried in oblivion, would be handed about by idle vanity or malevolence, when no dread of his resentment would restrain them, or prevent the censures of shrill-tongued malice, or the insidious sarcasms of envy, from pouring forth all their venom to blast his fame.  He lamented that he had written many epigrams on persons against whom he entertained no enmity, and whose characters he should be sorry to wound; and many indifferent poetical pieces, which he feared would now, with all their imperfections on their head, be thrust upon the world.  On this account he deeply regretted having deferred to put his papers into a state of arrangement, as he was now quiet incapable of the exertion.  The conversation was kept up with great evenness and animation on his side.  I had seldom seen his mind greater or more collected.  There was a frequently a considerable degree of vivacity in his sallies, and they would probably have had a greater share had not the concern and dejection I could not disguise damped the spirit of pleasantry he seemed unwilling to indulge.  We parted about sunset on the evening of that day (the 5th of July, 1796).  The next days I saw him again, and we parted to meet no more.”

In the midst of these dejecting circumstances the dying bard continued to sing.  Witness his last song, the “Fairest maid on Devon’s banks,” which accompanied the piteous letter to Mr Thomson imploring the loan of five pounds to satisfy the demands of “a cruel scoundrel of a haberdasher” who threatened him with proceedings.  After remaining a fortnight in Brow he sent the following to his devoted wife: --”My dearest love,--I delayed writing until I could tell you what effect sea-bathing was likely to produce.  It would be injustice to deny that it has eased my pains, and I think has strengthened me; but my appetite is still extremely bad.  No flesh nor fish can I swallow; porridge and milk are the only things I can taste.  I am very happy to hear by Miss Jessie Lewars that you are well. My very best and kindest compliments to her and all the children.  I will see you on Sunday.--Your affectionate husband, R.B.”

Before he left Brow he drank tea with the minister of Ruthwell’s widow, and elicited much sympathy by his altered appearance.  The evening being beautiful, the sunbeams streamed through the window and illumined the apartment.  Fearing that the light would be too strong, her daughter rose to let down the blinds, but the bard observing her intention gave a look of great benignity, and said--”Thank you, my dear, for your kind attention; but oh, let him shine!  he will not shine long for me!”

Mr. James Gracie, banker, Dumfries, offered to send his carriage to bring him home, but the poet did not avail himself of the kindness.  According to Allan Cunningham, he “returned on the 18th in a small spring cart.  The ascent to his house was steep, and the cart stopped at the foot of the Mill-hole brae.  When he alighted he shook much, and stood with difficulty; he seemed unable to stand upright.  He stooped as if in pain, and walked tottering toward his own door; his looks were hollow and ghastly, and those who saw him expected never to see him in life again.”  The writer goes on to say that “Dumfries was like a besieged place.  It was known that he was dying, and the anxiety not only of the rich and learned, but the mechanics and peasants, exceeded all belief.  Wherever two or three people stood together, their talk was of Burns, and of him alone. They spoke of his history, of his poems, of his works, of his family, of his fame, and of his untimely and approaching fate, with a warmth and an enthusiasm which will ever endear Dumfries to my remembrance………………… His differences with them on some important points were forgotten and forgiven; they thought only of his genius, of the delight his compositions had diffused; and they talked of him with the same awe as of more departing spirit whose voice was to gladden them no more.”

The condition his wife was in, and the future of his family, gave him much anxiety, and in an agony of mind he penned the following to his father-in-law:--”My dear sir,--Do, for Heaven’s sake, send Mrs. Armour here immediately.  My wife is hourly expected to be put to bed.  Good God! what a situation for her to be in, poor girl, without a friend!  I returned from sea-bathing to-day, but I think and feel that my strength is so gone that the disorder will prove fatal to me.--Your son-in-law, R. B.”

Jessie Lewars, the daughter of Mr. John Lewars, supervisor in Dumfries, who resided opposite the poet’s dwelling, hovered by his bedside, and attended to his wants like a ministering angel.  She was the subject of at least two songs, and even on the bed of death he fancied himself her lover, and wrote the following on the back of a menagerie bill, which his physician handed her upon entering the room:--

“Talk not to me of savages
From Afrie’s  burning sun;
No savage e’er could rend my heart
As, Jessie, thou hast done.
But Jessie’s lovely hand in mine,
A mutual faith to plight,
Not even to view the Heavenly choir
Would be so blest a sight.”

Upon another occasion, when she was attending upon him, he took up a crystal goblet containing wine and water, and wrote on it:--

“Fill me with the rosy wine,
Call a toast--a toast divine;
Give the poet’s darling flame,
Lovely Jessie be the name;
Then thou mayest freely boast
Thou hast given a peerless toast.”

When she became slightly indisposed, he proffered to write her epitaph, and another goblet inscribed:--

“Say, sages, what’s the charm on earth
Can turn Death’s dart aside?
It is not purity and worth,
Else Jessie had not died.”

When she recovered he said there was “a poetic reason for it,” and wrote as follows:--

“But rarely seen since Nature’s birth
The natives of the sky;
Yet still one seraph’s left on earth,
For Jessie did not die.”

In the “memoranda” already quoted, Mrs. Burns states that before his death he was “scarce himself for an hour together,” that is, his mind wandered.  He was aware of this, and told her to touch him, and remind him that he was going wrong.  The day before he died, he called very quickly, and with a hale voice, “Gilbert, Gilbert!”  On the morning of the 21st (July, 1796) the children were brought into the chamber to take a last look of their illustrious parent, “They stood round the bed,” says Chambers, “while calmly and gradually he sank into his last repose.”  The eldest son (he was ten years of age) retained a distinct recollection of the scene, and has reported the sad fact that the last words of the bard were a muttered execration against the legal agent by whose letter, wittingly or unwittingly, the parting days of Burns had been embittered.  On the 25th the remains were removed to the Town Hall preparatory to the funeral, which the Volunteers had resolved to make public and conduct with military honours. On the day following the funeral took place.  “A party of the Volunteers, selected to perform the military duty in the churchyard,” says Dr. Currie, “stationed themselves in front of the procession, with their arms reversed; the main body of the corps surrounded and supported the coffin, on which were placed the hat and sword of their friend and fellow soldier; the numerous body of attendants ranged themselves in the rear; while the fencible regiments of infantry and cavalry lined the streets from the Town Hall to the burial ground in the southern churchyard--a distance of more than half a mile.  The whole procession moved forward to the sublime and affecting strain of music, ‘The Dead March in Saul,’ and three volleys fired over the grave marked the return to Burns to his parent earth.  The spectacle was in a high degree grand and solemn, and accorded with the general sentiments of sympathy and sorrow which the occasion called forth.”  The same write adds:--”It was an affecting circumstance that on the morning of the day of her husband’s funeral Mrs. Burns was undergoing the pains of labour, and that during the solemn service we have just been describing the posthumous son of our Poet was born.”

Burns had nine children by his Jean--five sons and four daughters.  Two of the former and the whole of the latter died in childhood.  The eldest son (Robert), Chambers tells us, “excited admiration by his general intelligence during his attendance of two sessions at the University of Edinburgh and one at Glasgow.”  He inherited in no slight degree his father’s temperament and poetical taste, and wrote verses, of which the following may serve as a specimen:--

“Hae ye seen, in the calm, dewy morning,
The redbreast wild warbling sae clear,
Or the low-dwelling, snow-breasted gowan
Surcharg’d wi’ mild evening’s soft tear?
Oh! then ye hae seen my dear lassie,
The lassie I lo’e best of a’;
But far frae the hame of my lassie
I’m mony a lang mile awa’.

“Her hair is the wing of the blackbird,
Here eye is the eye of the dove,
Her lips are the ripe blushing rose-bud,
Her bosom’s the palace of love.
Through green be thy banks, O sweet Clutha!
Thy beauties ne’er charm me ava;
Forgive me, ye maids o’ sweet Clutha,
My heart hear is wi’ her that’s awa’.

“O love, thou’rt a dear fleeting pleasure!
The sweetest we mortals here know;
But soon is they heaven, bright beaming,
O’ ercast with the darkness of woe;
As the moon on the oft-changing ocean
Delights the lone mariner’s eye,
Till red rush the storms of the desert,
And dark billows tumble on high.”

Mr.s Burns continued to reside in the house which had been hallowed by her husband’s presence.  She used to relate that shortly after his death she thought he came to her bedside, and, upon drawing the curtains, said--”Are you sleeping? I have been permitted to return to take one look of you and the child, but have not time to stay.”  The vision was so vivid that she started up and ever thought it a reality.  Perhaps it was, for there are many similar occurrences on record which cannot be altogether explained away.  By the proceeds of a public subscription, and the publication of a posthumous edition of her husband’s works, Mrs. Burns was enabled to bring up her sons in a creditable way and maintain herself in comfort.  Mr. M’Diarmid of Dumfries states that “hers was one of those well-balanced minds which cling instinctively to propriety and a medium in all things……..In her tastes she was frugal, simple, and pure; and delighted in music, pictures, and flowers.  In Spring and Summer it was impossible to pass her windows without being struck with the beauty of the floral treasures they contained; and if extravagant in anything is was in the article of roots and plants of the finest sorts.  Fond of the society of young people, she mingled as long as able in their innocent pleasures, and cheerfully filled up for them the cup ‘which cheers but not inebriates.’  Although neither a sentimentalist nor a ‘blue stocking,’ she was a clever woman, possessed great shrewdness, discriminated character admirably, and frequently made very pithy remarks.”  She survived her husband nearly thirty-eight years, and died of paralysis, in the room which he breathed his last, on the 26th of March, 1834, in the 70th year of her age.

At her death, the household effects were sold by public auction, and no sale ever created such excitement in Dumfries.  People were so anxious to possess relics of the celebrated family that paid fabulous prices for mere trifles.  According to the Dumfries Courier, the auctioneer commenced with small articles, and when he came to a broken copper coffee-pot, there were so many bidders that the price paid exceeded twenty-fold the intrinsic value.  A tea kettle of the same metal succeeded and reached £2 sterling.  Of the linens, a table-cloth marked 1792, which, speaking commercially, may be worth half-a-crown or five shillings, was knocked down at £5 7s.  Many other articles commanded handsome prices, and the older and plainer furniture the better it sold.  The rusty iron top of a shower bath which Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop sent to the Poet when afflicted with rheumatism was bought by a Carlisle gentleman for £1 8s; and a low wood kitchen chair, on which the later Mrs Burns sat when nursing her children, was run up to £7 3s.  The crystal and china were much coveted, and brought, in most cases, splendid prices.  Even an old fender reached a figure which would go far to buy half-a-dozen new ones, and everything toward the close attracted notice, down to grey-beards, bottles, and a half-worn pair of bellows.  The poet’s eight-day clock, made by a Mauchline artist, attracted great attention from the circumstance that it had frequently been wound up by his own hand. In the a few seconds it was bid up to £15 or guineas, and was finally disposed of for £35.  It was understood that the purchaser would have advanced, if necessary, to £60.

Such, reader, are some of the associations of the house in which Burns died.  Sorrowfully I lingered on the threshold of the room where the last sad scene in the drama of his life was enacted, and when I took my leave and descended the steps at the front door, I felt as if they were consecrated by the footsteps of him who tread them no more.

Rear high they bleak majestic hills,
Thy shelter’d valleys proudly spread,
And, Scotia, pour thy thousand rills,
And wave more shall poet tread
Thy airy height, thy woodland reign,
Since he, the sweetest bard, is dead,
That ever breathed the soothing strain.”

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