From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, and Rare Manuscripts, Volume XXX, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 11131-11139.
WILSON, JOHN, a Scottish essayist, poet, and novelist; born at Paisley, May 18, 1785; died at Edinburgh, April 3, 1854. He was educated at the University of Glasgow, and at Oxford, where he took his Bachelor’s degree in 1807. He was noted for his imposing stature, physical strength, and fondness for athletic exercises. Owing to pecuniary reverses he was compelled to earn a livelihood. He went to Edinburgh, and became a member of the Scottish bar; and in 1820 was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. In 1817 “Blackwood’s Magazine” was established at Edinburgh, and Wilson was from the first its leading spirit, though Blackwood was its actual editor. For the somewhat mythical editor the name of “Christopher North” was adopted, and this name came to be applied to Wilson, and was in a manner adopted by him. Wilson’s connection with “Blackwood’s Magazine” continued from October, 1817, till September, 1852, when appeared his last contribution, “Christopher Under Canvas.” His health failing in 1851, the Government granted him a literary pension. Among his “Blackwood” articles are the series entitled “Noctes Ambrosianæ” and “Recreations of Christopher North.” Besides the various “Blackwood” papers, the principal works of Wilson are “The Isle of Palms, and Other Poems” (1812); “The City of the Plague, and Other Poems” (1816); “Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life” (1822); “The Trials of Margaret Lyndsay” (1823); “The Foresters” (1825).
GILBERT AINSLIE was a poor man; and he had been a poor man all the days of his life, which were not few, for his thin hair was now waxing gray. He had been born and bred on the small moorland farm which he now occupied; and he hoped to die there, as his father and grandfather had done before him, leaving a family just above the more bitter wants of this world. Labor, hard and unremitting, had been his lot in life; 11132 but although sometimes severely tried, he had never repined; and through all the mist and gloom, and even the storms that had assailed him, he had lived on from year to year in that calm and resigned contentment which unconsciously cheers the hearth-stone of the blameless poor. With his own hands he had ploughed, sowed, and reaped his often scanty harvest, assisted, as they grew up, by three sons, who, even in boyhood, were happy to work along with their father in the fields. Out of doors or in, Gilbert Ainslie was never idle. The spade, the shears, the plough-shaft, the sickle, and the flail, all came readily to hands that grasped them well; and not a morsel of food was eaten under his roof, or a garment worn there, that was not honestly, severely, nobly earned: Gilbert Ainslie was a slave, but it was for them he loved with a sober and deep affection. The thraldom under which he lived God had imposed, and it only served to give his character a shade of silent gravity, but not austere; to make his smiles fewer, but more heartfelt; to calm his soul at grace before and after meals; and to kindle it in morning and evening prayer.
There is no need to tell the character of the wife of such a man. Meek and thoughtful, yet gladsome and gay withal, her heaven was in her house; and her gentler and weaker hands helped to bar the door against want. Of ten children that had been born to them, they had lost three; and as they had fed, clothed, and educated them respectably, so did they give them who died a respectable funeral. The living did not grudge to give up, for a while, some of their daily comforts, for the sake of the dead; and bought, with the little sums which their industry had saved, decent mournings, worn on Sabbath, and then carefully laid by. Of the seven that survived, two sons were farm-servants in the neighbourhood, while three daughters and two sons remained at home, growing up, a small, happy, hard-working household.
Many cottages are there in Scotland like Moss-side, and many such humble and virtuous cottagers as were now beneath its roof of straw. The eye of the passing traveller may mark them, or mark them now, but they stand peacefully in thousands over all the land; and most beautiful do they make it, through all its wide valleys and narrow glens — its low holms encircled by the rocky walls of some bonny burn — its green mounts elated with their little crowning groves of plane-trees, — its yellow corn-fields — its bare pastoral hillsides, and all 11133 its healthy moors, on whose black bosom lie shining or concealed glades of excessive verdure, inhabited by flowers, and visited only by the far-flying bees. Moss-side was not beautiful to a careless or hasty eye; but when looked on and surveyed, it seemed a pleasant dwelling. Its roof, overgrown with grass and moss, was almost as green as the ground out of which its weather-stained walls appeared to grow. The moss behind it was separated from a little garden by a narrow slip of arable land, the dark color of which showed that it had been won from the wild by patient industry, and by patient industry retained. It required a bright sunny day to make Moss-side fair; but then it was fair indeed; and when the little brown moorland birds were singing their short songs among the rushes and the heather, or a lark, perhaps, lured thither by some green barley-field or its undisturbed nest, rose singing all over the enlivened solitude, the little bleak farm smiled like the paradise of poverty, sad and affecting in its lone and extreme simplicity. The boys and girls had made some plots of flowers among the vegetables that the little garden supplied for their homely meals; pinks and carnations, brought from walled gardens of rich men farther down in the cultivated strath, grew here with somewhat diminished lustre; a bright show of tulips had a strange beauty in the midst of that moorland; and the smell of roses mixed well with that of the clover, the beautiful fair clover that loves the soil and the air of Scotland, and gives the rich and balmy milk to the poor man’s lips.
In this cottage, Gilbert’s youngest child, a girl about nine years of age, had been lying for a week in a fever. It was now Saturday evening, and the ninth day of the disease. Was she to live or die? It seems as if a very few hours were between the innocent creature and Heaven. All the symptoms were those of approaching death. The parents knew well the change that comes over the human face, whether it be in infancy, youth, or prime, just before the departure of the spirit; and as they stood together by Margaret’s bed, it seemed to them that the fatal shadow had fallen upon her features. The surgeon of the parish lived some miles distant, but they expected him now every moment, and many a wistful look was directed, by tearful eyes, along the moor. The daughter, who was out at service, came anxiously home on this night, the only one that could be allowed her, for the poor must work 11134 in their grief, and their servants must do their duty to those whose bread they eat, even when nature is sick, — sick at heart. Another of the daughters came in from the potato-field beyond the brae, with what was to be their frugal supper. The calm noiseless spirit of life was in and around the house, while death seemed dealing with one who, a few days ago, was like light upon the floor, and the sound of music, that always breathed up when most wanted; glad and joyous in common talk, — sweet, silvery, and mournful, when it joined in hymn or psalm. One after the other, they continued going up to the bedside, and then coming away, sobbing or silent, to see their merry little sister, who used to keep dancing all day like a butterfly in a meadow field, or like a butterfly with shut wings on a flower, trifling for a while in the silence of her joy, now tossing restlessly on her bed, and scarcely sensible of the words of endearment whispered around her, or the kisses dropt with tears, in spite of themselves, on her burning forehead.
Utter poverty often kills the affections; but a deep, constant, and common feeling of this world’s hardships, and an equal participation in all those struggles by which they may be softened, unite husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, in thoughtful and subdued tenderness, making them happy indeed while the circle round the fire is unbroken, and yet preparing them every day to bear the separation, when some one or other is taken slowly or suddenly away. Their souls are not moved by fits and starts, although, indeed, nature sometimes will wrestle with necessity; and there is a wise moderation both in the joy and the grief of the intelligent poor, which keeps lasting trouble away from their earthly lot, and prepares them silently and unconsciously for Heaven.
“Do you think the child is dying” said Gilbert, with a calm voice to the surgeon, who, on his wearied horse, had just arrived from another sick-bed, over the misty range of hills; and had been looking steadfastly for some minutes on the little patient. The humane man knew the family well in the midst of whom he was standing, and replied, “While there is life there is hope; but my pretty little Margaret is, I fear, in the last extremity.” There was no loud lamentation at these words — all had before known, though they would not confess it to themselves, what they now were told — and though the certainty that was in the words of the skilful man made their 11135 hearts beat for a little with sicker throbbings, made their pale faces paler, and brought out from some eyes a great gush of tears; yet death had been before in this house, and in this case he came, as he always does, in awe, but not in terror. There were wandering and wavering and dreamy delirious phantasies in the brain of the innocent child; but the few words she indistinctly uttered were affecting, not rending to the heart, for it was plain that she thought herself herding her sheep in the green silent pastures, and sitting wrapped in her plaid upon the lawn and sunny side of the Birk-knowe. She was too much exhausted — there was too little life — too little breath in her heart, to frame a tune; but some of her words seemed to be from favorite old songs; and at last her mother wept, and turned aside her face, when the child, whose blue eyes were shut, and her lips almost still, breathed out these lines of the beautiful twenty-third Psalm: —
“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I ’ll not want,
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.”
The child was now left with none but her mother by the bed-side, for it was said to be best so; and Gilbert and his family sat down round the kitchen fire, for a while in silence. In about a quarter of an hour they began to rise calmly, and to go each to his allotted work. One of the daughters went forth with the pail to milk the cow, and another began to set out the table in the middle of the floor for supper, covering it with a white cloth. Gilbert viewed the usual household arrangements with a solemn and untroubled eye; and there was almost the faint light of a grateful smile on his cheek, as he said to the worthy surgeon, “You will partake of our fare after your day’s travel and toil of humanity.” In a short, silent half hour the potatoes and oatcakes, butter and milk, were on the board; and Gilbert lifted up his toil-hardened, but manly hand, with a slow motion, at which the room was as hushed as if it had been empty, closed his eyes in reverence, and asked a blessing. There was a little stool, on which no one sat, by the old man’s side. It had been put there unwittingly, when the other seats were all placed in their usual order; but the golden head that was wont to rise ta that part of the table was now wanting. 11136 There was silence — not a word was said — their meal was before them, — God had been thanked, and they began to eat.
While they were at their silent meal, a horseman came galloping to the door, and, with a loud voice, called out that he had been sent express with a letter to Gilbert Ainslie; at the same time rudely, and with an oath, demanding a dram for his trouble. The eldest son, a lad of eighteen, fiercely seized the bridle of his horse, and turned his head away from the door. The rider, somewhat alarmed at the flushed face of the powerful stripling, threw down the letter and rode off. Gilbert took the letter from his son’s hand, casting, at the same time a half-upbraiding look on his face that was returning to its former color. “I feared” — said the youth with a tear in his eye — “I feared that the brute’s voice and the trampling of the horse’s feet would have disturbed her.” Gilbert held the letter hesitatingly in his hand as if afraid, at the moment, to read it; at length he said aloud to the surgeon: “You know that I am a poor man, and debt, if justly incurred, and punctually paid when due, is no dishonor.” Both his hand and his voice shook slightly as he spoke; but he opened the letter from the lawyer, and read it in silence. At this moment his wife came from her child’s bed-side, and looking anxiously at her husband, told him “not to mind about the money, that no man, who knew him, would arrest his goods, or put him into prison. Though, dear me, it is cruel to be put to it thus, when our bairn is dying, and when, if so it be the Lord’s will, she should have a decent burial, poor innocent, like them that went before her.” Gilbert continued reading the letter with a face on which no emotion could be discovered; and then, folding it up, he gave it to his wife, told her she might read it if she chose, and then put it into his desk in the room, beside the poor dear bairn. She took it from him without reading it, and crushed it into her bosom; for she turned her ear towards the child, and, thinking she heard it stir, ran out hastily to its bed-side.
Another hour of trial past, and the child was still swimming for its life. The very dogs knew there was grief in the house, and lay without stirring, as if hiding themselves, below the long table at the window. One sister sat with an unfinished gown on her knees, that she had been sewing for the dear child, and still continued at the hopeless work, she scarcely knew why; and often, often, putting up her hand to wipe away 11137 a tear. “What is that?” said the old man to his eldest daughter; “What is that you are laying on the shelf?” She could scarcely reply that it was a riband and an ivory comb she had brought for little Margaret, against the night of the dancing-school ball. — And, at these words, the father could not restrain a long, deep, and bitter groan; at which the boy nearest in age to his dying sister looked up weeping in his face, and letting the tattered book of old ballads, which he had been poring on but not reading, fall out of his hands, he rose from his seat, and, going into his father’s bosom, kissed him, and asked God to bless him; for the holy heart of the boy was moved within him; and the old man as he embraced him, felt that, in his innocence and simplicity, he was indeed a comforter. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” said the old man; “blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The outer door gently opened, and he whose presence had in former years brought peace and resignation hither, when their hearts had been tried, even as they now were tried, stood before them. On the night before the Sabbath, the minister of Auchindown never left his manse, except, as now, to visit the sick or dying bed. Scarcely could Gilbert reply to his first question about his child, when the surgeon came from the bedroom, and said, “Margaret seems lifted up by God’s hand above death and the grave: I think she will recover. She has fallen asleep; and, when she wakes, I hope — I believe — that the danger will be past, and that your child will live.”
They were all prepared for death; but now they were found unprepared for life. One wept that had till then locked up all her tears within her heart; another gave a short palpitating shriek; and the tender-hearted Isabel, who had nursed the child when it was a baby, fainted away. The youngest brother gave way to gladsome smiles; and, calling out his dog Hector, who used to sport with him and his little sister on the moor, he told the tidings to the dumb irrational creature, whose eyes, it is certain, sparkled with a sort of joy. The clock, for some days, had been prevented from striking the hours; but the silent fingers pointed to the hour of nine; and that, in the cottage of Gilbert Ainslie, was the state hour of family worship. His own honored minister took the book: —
“He waled a portion with judicious care:
And, Let us worship God, he said, with solemn air.”
A chapter was read — a prayer said; — and so, too, was sung a psalm; but it was sung low, and with suppressed voices, lest the child’s saving sleep might be broken; and now and then the female voices trembled, or some one of them ceased altogether; for there had been tribulation and anguish, and now hope and faith were tried in the joy of thanksgiving.
The child still slept; and its sleep seemed more sound and deep. It appeared almost certain that the crisis was over, and that the flower was not to fade. “Children,” said Gilbert, “our happiness is in the love we bear to one another; and our duty is in submitting to and serving God. Gracious, indeed, has he been unto us. Is not the recovery of our little darling, dancing, singing Margaret, worth all the gold that ever was mined? If we had had thousands of thousands, would we not have filled up her grave with the worthless dross of gold, rather than that she should have gone down there with her sweet face and all her rosy smiles?” There was no reply; but a joyful sobbing all over the room.
“Never mind the letter, nor the debt, father,” said the eldest daughter. “We have all some little thing of our own, a few pounds — and we shall be able to raise as much as will keep arrest and prison at a distance. Or if they do take our furniture out of the house, all except Margaret’s bed, who cares? We will sleep on the floor; and there are potatoes in the field, and clear water in the spring. We need fear nothing, want nothing; blessed be God for all his mercies.”
Gilbert went into the sick-room, and got the letter from his wife, who was sitting at the head of the bed, watching, with a heart blessed beyond all bliss, the calm and regular breathings of her child. “This letter,” said he mildly, “is not from a hard creditor. Come with me while I read it aloud to our children.” The letter was read aloud, and it was well fitted to diffuse pleasure and satisfaction through the dwelling of poverty. It was from an executor to the will of a distant relative, who had left Gilbert Ainslie £1500. “The sum,” said Gilbert, “is a large one to folks like us, but not, I hope, large enough to turn our heads, or make us think ourselves all lords and ladies. It will do more, far more, than put me fairly above the world at last. I believe that with it I may buy this very farm on which my forefathers have toiled. But God, whose Providence has sent this temporal blessing, may he send us wisdom and prudence how to use it, and humble and grateful hearts to us all.”11139
“You will be able to send me to school all the year round now, father,” said the youngest boy. “And you may leave the flail to your sons now, father,” said the eldest. “You may hold the plough still, for you draw a straighter furrow than any of us; but hard work for young sinews; and you may sit now oftener in your arm-chair by the ingle. You will not need to rise now in the dark, cold, and snowy winter mornings, and keep thrashing corn in the barn for hours by candle-light before the late dawning.”
There was silence, gladness, and sorrow, and but little sleep in Moss-side, between the rising and setting of the stars, that were now out in thousands, clear, bright, and sparkling over the unclouded sky. Those who had lain down for an hour or two in bed could scarcely be said to have slept; and when about morning little Margaret awoke, an altered creature, pale, languid, and unable to turn herself on her lowly bed, but with meaning in her eyes, memory in her mind, affection in her heart, and coolness in all her veins, a happy group were watching the first faint smile that broke over her features; and never did one who stood there forget that Sabbath morning, on which she seemed to look round upon them all with a gaze of fair and sweet bewilderment. Like one half conscious of having been rescued from the power of the grave.