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The Life of John Duncan
Chapter VII - Unhappy Domestic Experiences

JOHN DUNCAN'S story now enters on a sad chapter, which darkened more or less all the rest of his days, and might have wrecked his life, if he had not possessed the strength of character and capacity for higher pursuits that raised him above its deteriorating influences.

Like most well-regulated, affectionate men, John wished to have a home of his own, "a dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest," blessed by the tender offices of love, to which to retire from the colder world without.

Shortly after coming to Aberdeen, his attention was taken by a good-looking smart young woman, named Margaret Wise, whom he had seen at a print-field there. They became acquainted, and an affection, real at least on his part, sprung up between them. The young man, however, found that, some months before he knew Margaret, she had borne a child to another. Nevertheless, with the impetuosity of youth, and under the glamour of first love, which seems to have been very strong in one of his quiet but ardent temperament, prudence was thrown to the winds; and they agreed to be married. They were united in 1818, two years after his coming to the city, and the ceremony was performed by the able and eccentric Dr. Kidd, one of the most popular and peculiar clergymen that ever lived in Aberdeen, about whom hundreds of remarkable stories are still current.

John furnished a house, determined to do all he could to make a pleasant home for all of them. The future, in the circumstances, did not look very auspicious, but might have been happy, as it has proved even in worse cases. Here it turned out disastrous. His wife seems to have been radically ill-conditioned in tone, and unsettled in disposition and habit, with strong inclinations towards those indulgencies that had made her a mother too soon. From the first, she was not very kind or considerate to him, and, ere long, began to exhibit tendencies that rendered domestic peace impossible. Quarrels ensued, and she was accustomed to exclaim in rage, that when her boy was old enough, she would ask him to thrash her husband's back for him. This child, whose name was Andrew Durward, though occasionally called Duncan, stayed with them, being kindly adopted by John, as his wife's son.

In time, two daughters were born to them, the eldest, Mary, on the 10th of July, 1821, more than two years after marriage, and the second, Elizabeth, or Beattie, on the 22nd of December, 1823. These double pledges of affection should have consummated their true union, and restored peace and happiness, if anything could. It was in vain. Matters grew worse. Her natural proclivities only became more pronounced. She began more or less openly to "take up" with other men; and when women "yoke that way," as her husband sadly said long after, "they winna bind. When they dinna hae the richt side o' that question, they're fairly thro'."

It is a sad story, and should be quickly told. Remonstrance became useless; unhappiness increased ; till one day the crisis came. John, coming home from work at an unexpected hour, found a man where no man should be. That was the end. She left the house alone, abandoning her husband and children. Even then, his old affection reasserted itself and he made overtures for her return, offering to let "the dead past bury its dead," if she would only promise even yet to amend. All was useless, and they parted for ever.

The house was broken up. She took with her her own boy, and John retained the daughters. Had he been a richer man, he would have sought and obtained divorce. Being very poor, he had to remain united in name and law with a worthless woman. She joined her fortunes with those of her new fancy, to be discarded in time; and, after passing through various lower experiences, ended in becoming a wanderer over the country, selling small trinkets and at last begging her bread. She tried to annoy her husband when she could, endeavouring on one occasion to father a child upon him, and bringing him to court, of course in vain. She used also to visit him, to extort money, when she knew where he lived. At all times, John treated her with kindness, and without recrimition or reference to the past. Before she died, she was subject to St. Vitus' dance, and became a poor miserable creature, draining the last drops of bitterness from the cup she had mingled for herself, and dying in the west of Aberdeenshire, unknown to her husband, a nameless object, more than twenty years after she had ruthlessly wrecked her home.

It was a sad and terrible experience, which would have blasted the life of most, of all but a strong man. To John Duncan, it was a life-long grief, a secret sore that might have drained out all vitality or driven him to questionable relief. His home was despoiled, his dream of domestic happiness cruelly dissipated. Better far, better a thousand fold, had she died. But no, she lived, a blight and a blame. For years, he removed from place to place, to escape her presence and the curse of her connection; and he never again took a holding of his own till she had passed away. The subject was ever present to him as a hidden anguish, a thing to be proscribed in speech, and to be breathed to no man, not even to his dearest friends. To none of these did he speak of it, not even to Charles Black, his second self, during their many years of closest intimacy.

But it is vain to think of hiding such secrets from the world. They haunt even the most innocent, like crime, and, at the best, become a source of misunderstanding with the most kindly. His friends knew the tale, and rumours of it floated amongst the people, the very indefiniteness of their knowledge being a means of exaggeration and cruel surmise. It was only his singular modesty and unimpeachable uprightness that preserved him from being condemned. With his friends, it was a forbidden topic, restrained by their affection for the man and their respect for his action in the unhappy circumstances. To one alone who admired him have I ever heard that he voluntarily entered on the subject, and that was when it became unavoidable by his wife seeking him out; and even then he spoke, without passion or hard words, of the miserable cause of his woe, and only entered a mild defence of his conduct, which gained full consent., When another sympathetic friend had occasion to mention that he had known it for forty years, the old man, who thought him quite ignorant of it, fairly broke down, as if stabbed to the heart. To the last, he could never refer to it without the acutest pain. When, in talking to him of his history shortly before his death, I delicately referred to his unhappy domestic life, he touched on the subject with difficulty, saying, amongst other things, that " when a man has a bad nec'bor, that will listen to nothing, he's glad to get clear o' her." Referring to her death, he said it caused him grief even after all that had happened; and the memory of the bitter past reviving as he spoke, he turned away with tears in his eyes, deprecating further reference to it. by saying, "But ye see, that's a' by noo!"

These distressing experiences in the tenderest relations, which touch the deepest springs of our being with strange power, might have had disastrous effects, at least on his temper and disposition. That they did not vitiate his habits by driving him to excess in search of consolation is highly honourable to his moral power. They might, however, have made him ill-tempered and more or less misanthropic and morose, and it speaks volumes in the man's favour that they did not; though his temperament was naturally keen and sensitive, and felt such troubles to the very core.

What rendered the grief under which he suffered the harder to bear, was the fact that it was not dead—that its heartless cause lived so long and, for more than twenty years, wandered in the very district in which he dwelt, before the public eye and with no guarded tongue, in a guise disreputable to herself and intolerable to him, and under conditions that might at any moment seriously compromise his social respect. It was an ever-present, inexorable fate, through which none but the most depraved would wish their worst enemy to pass. But it was endured daily for more than a score of years, with all its painful possibilities, by this simple weaver, in silence and dignity, without vituperation of its cause, and with no loss of his own self-respect or the esteem of society ; the man himself being strong enough, throughout the long and wasting trial, to preserve his equanimity and calmness, and in time to regain his natural brightness and humour. No doubt, the necessity for hiding from his fellows this skeleton of the heart would increase his native reserve and make him more retiring, mistrustful, and self-absorbed. But the man passed through the bitter ordeal, if not unscathed, at least undeteriorated; and undoubtedly, in many respects, raised and broadened, through the sanctity of conquered sorrow. This was largely owing to his own moral balance and strength of character and will. But it was also in great part due to the measures he wisely took for relief, in moving about the country, in working all the harder at his trade, in seeking variety of employment, and, chief of all, in sedulously prosecuting the higher pursuits to which he now increasingly devoted himself.

His two daughters were boarded out by their father, with poor people to whom their labour was of some value, and were in this way carefully brought up, though they were a drain upon his slender resources. In time, they grew to womanhood, and became domestic servants to several of John's friends and relations. They did well, preserving their good name, though thus nurtured without the advantages of a virtuous home. They would seem to have been truly attached to their father, and letters still exist from both of them, addressed to him by his affectionate daughters, which prove the pleasant relations that subsisted between them. The fact that they could use the pen so creditably as they did, shows that their education had not been neglected.

The eldest, Mary, was a good-looking brunette, "a gae setting sort o' lassie," as they say in Aberdeenshire, and her father's favourite. For years, she drove a milk-cart into Aberdeen, selling her master's milk, and being much liked for her pleasant, cheerful manners. She at last married a shoemaker called Smart, in Aberdeen, where they lived long in the Gallowgate, and where her father used to visit them.

The younger, Elizabeth, married John Cormack, who made his living by travelling over the country, selling broom and heather besoms and other articles of natural produce, and who was hence universally known as "besom Jock," or "heather Jock." This man was somewhat of a character, a great humorist, and an inveterate talker; but he was an honest man even in public repute—a rare merit in such a life—and was generally respected. His wife becoming paralyzed, like her mother, Cormack got a "coach," or hand-carriage for her, in which she used to sit along with the articles he sold, and in which she was driven by him ungrudgingly all over the country. This single fact reveals a volume of kindliness in the man, which in the whole circumstances is almost poetic in its tenderness, for he was, as everybody acknowledged, "partik'lar gwveed" to his helpless mate.

John Duncan kept up correspondence with both daughters to the last. They paid visits to each other, and he frequently assisted them in their poverty, in various ways. As was natural and pardonable in a father, he wished his second daughter had married some one of higher social standing than a hawker, and was considerably ashamed of the connection—a foible that even the most philosophical could scarcely rise above in connection with a daughter, however honourable in character the lowly husband might be.

When he wished to meet the Cormacks to give them the assistance he regularly did, he used to appoint some more or less secluded place for the purpose. On one occasion, after seeing them on a hill in Tullynessle, in the Vale of Alford, he called on a friend who had a farm at its base, and complained of the disgrace it was to be connected with such people, relatives though they were of his own. His friend tried to soothe his wounded feelings by reminding him that Cormack was an honest, much-respected man. John replied that he knew that, but that surely he might get something more respectable to do than making heather besoms; for that occupation is irretrievably associated in Scotland—in which social status and respect stand high, amongst even the poorest—with tinkers and their disreputable life, with which Cormack had not the remotest connection or sympathy. But it is in vain to reason against such feelings, and it shows John's true kindliness of heart that, possessing them so strongly, he still treated their subjects so kindly, as he continued to do till they passed away. Both daughters have long since died, along with their husbands and children, so that no representative of John Duncan now survives, if we except his half-brother, his mother's second son, already mentioned.

His wife's son, Andrew Durward, or "Durratt," as the name is popularly called and as he himself spelled it, seems to have grown a respectable, kindly man, though brought up under the untoward circumstances in which he had been. He became a soldier, and letters of his, written to his sister Mary, from Colombo in Ceylon, in 1842, still exist, full of religious feeling. In one of these, he wished to know how his father, John Duncan, was getting on—a proof that he retained a kindly remembrance of the man in whose house he had been sheltered for six years; and promised to send his mother ten shillings a month, if he knew how to do so. He returned to this country after obtaining his discharge, married, and made a living, in addition to his small pension, by traversing the country with various wares, and was known as " an honest creature." Unfortunately, like his mother and sister, he at last became paralytic, and had to be supported by his wife. She is still remembered by many as a clean, tidy woman, selling wares from a basket which she carried about. He at last died, in October, 1867, in the poor-house of Clatt, in Aberdeenshire, to which he and his wife had then come in their wanderings, and where she remained till her death. An attempt was made, by the Parochial Board there, to prove John Duncan to be his father, which of course failed, but which caused him some trouble and expense. A son of Durward's, a strong vigorous young man, walked a long distance from the farm at which he was engaged, to attend John's funeral, and helped, as a relative, to lower him into the grave.

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