Hugh Miller: Autobiography (5)

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These were happy evenings—all the more happy from the circumstance that I was still in heart and appetite a boy, and could relish as much as ever, when their season came on, the wild raspberries of the Conon woods—a very abundant fruit in that part of the country—and climb as lightly as ever, to strip the guean-trees of their wild cherries.  When the river was low, I used to wade into its fords in quest of its pearl muscles (Unio Margartitiferus); and, though not very successful in my pearl fishing, it was at least something to see how thickly the individuals of this greatest of British fresh-water molluscs lay scattered among the pebbles of the fords, or to mark them creeping slowly along the bottom—when, in consequence of prolonged droughts, the current had so moderated that they were in no danger of being swept away—each on its large white foot, with its valves elevated over its back, like the carpace of some tall tortoise.  I found occasion at this time to conclude that the Unio of our river-fords secretes pearls so much more frequently than the Unionidœ and Anadonta of our still pools and lakes, not from any specific peculiarity in the constitution of the creature, but from the effects of the habitat which it is its nature to choose.  It receives in the fords and shallows of a rapid river many a rough blow from sticks and pebbles carried down in times of flood, and occasionally from the feet of the men and animals that cross the stream during droughts; and the blows induce the morbid secretions of which pearls are the result.  There seems to exist no inherent cause why Anadon Cygnea, with its beautiful silvery nacre—as bright often, and always more delicate that than of Unio Margaritiferus—should not be equally productive of pearls; but, secure from violence in its still pools and lakes, and unexposed to the circumstances that provoke abnormal secretions, it does not produce a single pearl for every hundred that are ripened into value and beauty by the exposed current-tossed Unionadœ of our rapid mountain rivers.  Would that hardship and suffering bore always in a creature of a greatly higher family similar results, and that the hard buffets dealt him by fortune in the rough stream of life could be transmuted, by some blessed internal predisposition of his nature, into pearls of great price.

    It formed one of my standing enjoyments at this time to bathe, as the sun was sinking behind the woods, in the deeper pools of the Conon—a pleasure which, like all the more exciting pleasures of youth, bordered on terror.  Like that of the poet, when he "wantoned with the breakers," and the "freshening sea made them a terror," "'twas a pleasing fear."  But it was not current nor freshening eddy that rendered it such: I had acquired, long before, a complete mastery over all my motions in the water, and, setting out from the shores of the Bay of Cromarty, have swam round vessels in the roadstead, when, among the many boys of a seaport town, not more than one or two would venture to accompany me; but the poetic age is ever a credulous one, as certainly in individuals as in nations: the old fears of the supernatural may be modified and etherealised, but they continue to influence it; and at this period the Conon still took its place among the haunted streams of Scotland.  There was not a river in the Highlands that used, ere the erection of the stately bridge in our neighbourhood, to sport more wantonly with human life—an evidence, the ethnographer might perhaps say, of its purely Celtic origin; and as Superstition has her figures as certainly as Poesy, the perils of a wild mountain-born stream, flowing between thinly-inhabited banks, were personified in the beliefs of the people by a frightful goblin, that took a malignant delight in luring into its pools, or overpowering in its fords, the benighted traveller.  Its goblin, the "water-wraith," used to appear as a tall woman dressed in green, but distinguished chiefly by her withered meagre countenance, ever distorted by a malignant scowl.  I knew all the various fords—always dangerous ones—where of old she used to start, it was said, out of the river, before the terrified traveller, to point at him, as in derision, with her skinny finger, or to beckon him invitingly on; and I was shown the very tree to which a poor Highlander had clung, when, in crossing the river by night, he was seized by the goblin, and from which, despite of his utmost exertions, though assisted by a young lad, his companion, he was dragged into the middle of the current, where he perished.  And when, in swimming at sunset over some dark pool, where the eye failed to mark or the foot to sound the distant bottom, the twig of some sunken bush or tree has struck against me as I passed, I have felt, with sudden start, as if touched by the cold, bloodless fingers of the goblin.

    The old chapel among the woods formed the scene, says tradition of an incident similar to that which Sir Walter Scott relates in his "Heart of Mid-Lothian," when borrowing, as the motto of the chapter in which he describes the preparations for the execution of Porteous, from an author rarely quoted—the Kelpie.  "The hour's come," so runs the extract, "but not the man;"—nearly the same words which the same author employs in his "Guy Mannering," in the cave scene between Meg Merrilies and Dirk Hatteraick.  "There is a tradition," he adds in the accompanying note, "that while a little stream was swollen into a torrent by recent showers, the discontented voice of the water-spirit was heard to pronounce these words.  At the same moment, a man urged on by his fate, or, in Scottish language, fey, arrived at a gallop, and prepared to cross the water.  No remonstrance from the bystanders was of power to stop him; he plunged into the stream, and perished."  So far Sir Walter.  The Ross-shire story is fuller, and somewhat different in its details.  On a field in the near neighbourhood of the chapel, now laid out into gardens of Conon House, there was a party of Highlanders engaged in an autumnal day at noon, some two or three centuries ago, in cutting down their corn, when the boding voice of the wraith was heard rising from the Conon beneath—"The hour's come, but not the man."  Immediately after, a courier on horseback was seen spurring down the hill in hot haste, making directly for what is known as a "fause ford," that lies across the stream just opposite the old building, in the form of a rippling bar, which, indicating apparently, though very falsely, little depth of water, is flanked by a deep black pool above and below.  The Highlanders sprang forward to warn him of his danger, and keep him back; but he was unbelieving and in haste, and rode express, he said, on business that would brook no delay; and as for the "fause ford," if it could not be ridden, it could be swam; and, whether by riding or swimming, he was resolved on getting across.  Determined, however, on saving him in his own despite, the Highlanders forced him from his horse, and, thrusting him into the little chapel, locked him in; and then, throwing open the door when the fatal hour had passed, they called to him that he might now pursue his journey.  But there was no reply, and no one came forth; and on going in they found him lying cold and stiff, with his face buried in the water of a small stone font.  He had fallen, apparently, in a fit, athwart the wall; and his predestined hour having come, he was suffocated by the few pints of water in the projecting font.  At this time the stone font of the tradition—a rude trough, little more than a foot in diameter either way—was still to be seen among the ruins; and, like the veritable cannon in the Castle of Udolpho, beside which, according to Annette, the ghost used to take its stand, it imparted by its solid reality a degree of authenticity to the story in this part of the country, which, if unfurnished with a "local habitation," as in Sir Walter's note, it would have wanted.  Such was one of the many stories of the Conon with which I became acquainted at a time when the beliefs they exemplified were by no means quite dead, and of which I could think as tolerably serious realities, when, lying a-bed all alone at midnight, the solitary inmate of a dreary barrack, listening to the roar of the Conon.

    Besides the long evenings, we had an hour to breakfast, and another to dinner.  Much of the breakfast hour was spent in cooking our food; but as a bit of oaten cake and a draught of milk usually served us for the mid-day meal, the greater part of the hour assigned to it was available for purposes of rest or amusement.  And when the day was fine, I used to spend it by the side of a mossy stream, within a few minutes' walk of the work-shed, or in a neighbouring planting, beside a little irregular lochan, fringed round with flags and rushes.  The mossy stream, black in its deeper pools, as if it were a rivulet of tar, contained a good many trout, which had acquired a hue nearly as deep as its own, and formed the very negroes of their race.  They were usually of small size—for the stream itself was small; and, though little countries sometimes produce great men, little streams rarely produce great fish.  But on one occasion, towards the close of autumn, when a party of the younger workmen set themselves, in a frolic, to sweep it with torch and spear, they succeeded in capturing, in a dark alder o'ershaded pool, a monstrous individual, nearly three feet in length, and porportionally bulky, with a snout bent over the lower jaw at its symphysis, like the beak of a hawk, and as deeply tinged (though with more of brown in its complexion) as the blackest coal-fish I ever saw.  It must have been a bull trout, a visitor from the neighbouring river; but we all concluded at the time, from the extreme dinginess of its coat, that it had lived for years in its dark pool, a hermit apart from its fellows.  I am not, now, however, altogether certain that the inference was a sound one.  Some fishes, like some men, have a wonderful ability of assuming the colours that best suit their interests for the time.  I have been unable to determine whether the trout be one of these conformists; but it used to strike me at this period as at least curious, that the fishes in even the lower reaches of the dark little rivulet should differ so entirely in hue from those of the greatly clearer Conon, into which its peaty waters fall, and whose scaly denizens are of silvery brightness.  No fish seems to possess a more complete power over its dingy coat than a very abundant one in the estuary of the Conon—the common flounder.  Standing on the bank, I have startled these creatures from off the patch of bottom on which they lay—visible to only a very sharp eye—by pitching a very small pebble right over them.  Was the patch a pale one—for a minute or so they carried its pale colour along with them into some darker tract, where they remained distinctly visible from the contrast, until, gradually acquiring the deeper hue, they again became inconspicuous.  But if startled back to the same pale patch from which they had set out, I have then seen them visible for a minute or so, from their over-dark tint, until, gradually losing it in turn, they paled down, as at first, to the colour of the lighter ground.  An old Highlander, whose suit of tartan conformed to the general hue of the heather, was invisible at a little distance, when traversing a moor, but came full into view in crossing a green field or meadow: the suit given by nature to the flounder, tinted apparently on the same principle of concealment, exhibits a degree of adaptation to its varying circumstances, which the tartan wanted.  And it is certainly curious enough to find, in one of our commonest fishes, a property which used to be regarded as one of the standing marvels of the zoology of those remote countries of which the chameleon is a native.

    The pond in the piece of planting, though as unsightly a little patch of water as might be, was, I found, a greatly richer study than the dark rivulet.  Mean and small as it was—not larger in area inside its fringe of rushes than a fashionable drawing-room—its natural history would have formed an interesting volume; and many a half-hour have I spent beside it in the heat of the day, watching its numerous inhabitants—insect, reptilian, and vermiferous.  There were two—apparently three—different species of libellula that used to come and deposit their eggs in it—one of the two, that large kind of dragonfly (Eshna grandis), scarce smaller than one's middle-finger—which is so beautifully coloured black and yellow, as if adorned by the same taste one sees displayed in the chariots and liveries of the fashionable world.  The other fly was a greatly more slender and smaller species or genus, rather Agrion; and it seemed two, not one, from the circumstance, that about one-half the individuals were beautifully variegated black and sky-blue, the other half black and bright crimson.  But the peculiarity was merely a sexual one; as if in illustration of those fine analogies with which all nature is charged, the sexes put on the complementary colours, and are mutually fascinating, not by resembling, but by corresponding to, each other.  I learned in time to distinguish the disagreeable-looking larvae of these flies, both larger and smaller, with their six hairy legs, and their grotesque formidable vizors, and found that they were the very pirates of the water, as the splendid insects into which they were ultimately developed were the very tyrants of the lower air.  It was strange to see the beautiful winged creatures that sprang out of the pupa into which the repulsive-looking pirate had been transformed, launch forth into its new element, changed in everything save its nature, but still unchanged in that, and rendering itself as formidable to the moth and the butterfly as it had been before to the newt and the tadpole.  There is, I daresay, an analogy here also.  It is in the first state of our own species, as certainly as in that of the dragon-fly, that the character is fixed.  Further, I used to experience much interest in watching the progress of the frog, in its earlier stages from the egg to the fish; then from the fish to the reptile fish, with its fringed tail, and ventral and pectoral limbs; and, last of all, from the reptile fish to the complete reptile.  I had not yet learned—nor was it anywhere known at the time—that the history of the individual frog, through these successive transformations, is a history in small of the animal creation itself in its earlier stages—that in order of time the egg-like mollusc had taken precedence of the fish, and the fish of the reptile; and that an intermediate order of creatures had once abounded in which, as in the half-developed frog, the natures of both fish and reptile were united.  But, though unacquainted with this strange analogy, the transformations were of themselves wonderful enough to fill for a time my whole mind.  I remember being struck one afternoon, after spending my customary spare half hour beside the pond, and marking the peculiar style of colouring in the yellow and black libellulidæ in the common wasp, and in a yellow and black species of ichneumon fly, to detect in some half-dozen gentlemen's carriages that were standing opposite our work-shed—for the good old knight of Conon House had a dinner-party that evening—exactly the same style of ornamental colouring.  The greater number of the vehicles were yellow and black—just as these were the prevailing colours among the wasps and libellulidæ; but there was a slight admixture of other colours among them too; there was at least one that was black and green, or black and blue, I forget which; and another black and brown.  And so it was among the insects also: the same sort of taste, both in colour and the arrangements of colour, and even in the proportions of the various colours, seemed to have regulated the style of ornament manifested in the carriages of the dinner party, and of the insect visitors of the pond.  Further, I thought I could detect a considerable degree of resemblance in form between a chariot and an insect.  There was a great abdominal body separated by a narrow isthmus from a thoracic coach-box, where the directing power was stationed; while the wheels, poles, springs, and general framework on which the vehicle rested, corresponded to the wings, limbs, and antennae of the insect.  There was at least sufficient resemblance of form to justify resemblance of colour; and here was the actual resemblance of colour which the resemblance of form justified.  I remember that, in musing over the coincidence, I learned to suspect, for the first time, that it might be no mere coincidence after all; and that the fact embodied in the remarkable text which informs us that the Creator made man in his own image, might in reality lie at its foundation as the proper solution.  Man, spurred by his necessities, has discovered for himself mechanical contrivances, which he has afterwards found anticipated as contrivances of the Divine Mind, in some organism, animal or vegetable.  In the same way his sense of beauty in form or colour originates some pleasing combination of lines or tints; and then he discovers that it also has been anticipated.  He gets his chariot tastefully painted black and yellow, and lo! the wasp that settles on its wheel, or the dragon-fly that darts over it, he finds painted in exactly the same style.  His neighbour, indulging in a different taste, gets his vehicle painted black and blue, and lo! some lesser libellula or ichneumon fly comes whizzing past, to justify his style of ornament also, but at the same time to show that it, too, had existed ages before.

    The evenings gradually closed in as the season waned—at first abridging, and at length wholly interdicting, my evening walks; and having no other place to which to retire, save the dark, gousty hay-loft into which a light was never admitted, I had to seek the shelter of the barrack, and succeeded usually in finding a seat within at least sight of the fire.  The place was greatly over-crowded; and, as in all over-large companies, it had commonly its four or five groups of talkers; each group furnished with a topic of its own.  The elderly men spoke about the state of the markets, and speculated, in especial, on the price of oatmeal; the apprentices talked about lasses; while knots of intermediate age discussed occasionally both markets and lasses too, or spoke of old companions, their peculiarities and history, or expatiated on the adventures of former work seasons, and the characters of the neighbouring lairds.  Politics proper I never heard.  During the whole season a newspaper never once entered the barrack door.  At times a song or story secured the attention of the whole barrack; and there was in especial one story-teller whose powers of commanding attention were very great.  He was a middle-aged Highlander, not very skilful as a workman, and but indifferently provided with English; and as there usually attaches a nickname to persons in the humbler walks that are marked by any eccentricity of character, he was better known among his brother workmen as Jock Mo-ghoal, i.e. John my Darling, than by his proper name.  Of all Jock Mo-ghoal's stories Jock Mo-ghoal was himself the hero; and certainly most wonderful was the invention of the man.  As recorded in his narratives, his life was one long epic poem, filled with strange and startling adventure, and furnished with an extraordinary machinery of the wild and supernatural; and though all knew that Jock made imagination supply, in his histories, the place of memory, not even Ulysses or Æneas—men who, unless very much indebted to their poets, must have been of a similar turn—could have attracted more notice at the courts of Alcinous or Dido, than Jock in the barrack.  The workmen used, on the mornings after his greater narratives, to look one another full in the face, and ask, with a smile rather incipient than fully manifest, whether "Jock wasna perfectly wonderfu' last nicht?"

    He had several times visited the south of Scotland, as one of a band of Highland reapers, for employment in his proper profession very often failed poor Jock; and these journeys formed the grand occasions of his adventures.  One of his narratives commenced, I remember, with a frightful midnight scene in a solitary churchyard.  Jock had lost his way in the darkness; and, after stumbling among burial-mounds and tombstones, he had toppled into an open grave, which was of a depth so profound, that for some time he failed to escape from it, and merely pulled down upon himself, in his attempts to climb its loose sides, musty skulls, and great thigh-bones, and pieces of decayed coffins.  At length, however, he did succeed in getting out, just as a party of unscrupulous resurrectionists were in the act of entering the burying-ground; and they, naturally enough preferring an undecayed subject that had the life in it to preserve it fresh, to dead corpses the worse for the keeping, gave him chase; and it was with the extremest difficulty that, after scudding over wild moors and through dark woods, he at length escaped them by derning [63] himself in a fox-earth.  The season of autumnal labour over, he visited Edinburgh on his way north; and was passing along the High Street, when, seeing a Highland girl on the opposite side with whom he was intimate, and whom he afterwards married, he strode across to address her, and a chariot coming whirling along the street at the time at full speed, he was struck by the pole and knocked down.  The blow had taken him full on the chest; but though the bone seemed injured, and the integuments became frightfully swollen and livid, he was able to get up; and, on asking to be shown the way to a surgeon's shop, his acquaintance the girl brought him to an under-ground room in one of the narrow lanes off the street, which, save for the light of a great fire, would have been pitch dark at mid-day, and in which he found a little wrinkled old woman, as yellow as the smoke that filled the apartment.  "Choose," said the hag, as she looked at the injured part, "one of two things—a cure slow but sure, or sudden but imperfect.  Or shall I put back the hurt altogether till you get home?"  "That, that," said Jock; "if I were ance home I could bear it well enouch."  The hag began to pass her hand over the injured part, and to mutter under her breath some potent charm; and as she muttered and manipulated, the swelling gradually subsided, and the livid tints blanched, till at length nought remained to tell of the recent accident save a pale spot in the middle of the breast, surrounded by a thread-like circle of blue.  And now, she said, you are well for three weeks; but be prepared for the fourth.  Jock prosecuted his northward journey, and encounterd the usual amount of adventure by the way.  He was attacked by robbers, but, assistance coming up, he succeeded in beating them off.  He lost his way in a thick mist, but found shelter, after many hours' wandering far among the hills, in a deserted shepherd's shielin'.  He was nearly buried in a sudden snow-storm that broke out by night, but, getting into the middle of a cooped-up flock of sheep, they kept him warm and comfortable amid the vast drift-wreaths, till the light of morning enabled him to prosecute his journey.  At length he reached home, and was prosecuting his ordinary avocations, when the third week came to a close; and he was on a lonely moor at the very hour he had met with the accident on the High Street, when he suddenly heard the distant rattle of a chariot, though not a shadow of the vehicle was to be seen; the sounds came bearing down upon him, heightening as they approached, and, when at the loudest, a violent blow on the breast prostrated him on the moor.  The stroke of the High Street "had come back." just as the wise woman had said it would, though with accompaniments that Jock had not anticipated.  It was with difficulty he reached his cottage that evening; and there elapsed fully six weeks ere he was able to quit it again.  Such, in its outlines, was one of the marvellous narratives of Jock Mo-ghoal.  He belonged to a curious class, known by specimen, in, I suppose, almost every locality, especially in the more primitive ones—for the smart ridicule common in the artificial states of society greatly stunt their growth; and in our literature—as represented by the Bobadils, Young Wildings, Caleb Balderstons, and Baron Munchausens—they hold a prominent place.  The class is to be found of very general development among the vagabond tribes.  I have listened to wonderful personal narratives that had not a word of truth in them, "from gipsies brown in summer glades that bask," as I took my seat beside their fire, in a wild rock cave in the neighbourhood of Rosemarkie, or at a later period in the cave of Marcus; and in getting into conversation with individuals of the more thoroughly lapsed classes of our large towns, I have found that a faculty of extemporary fabrication was almost the only one which I could calculate on finding among them in a state of vigorous activity.  That in some cases the propensity should be found co-existing with superior calibre and acquirement, and even a sense of honour by no means very obtuse, must be regarded as one of the strange anomalies which so often surprise and perplex the student of human character.  As a misdirected toe-nail, injured by pressure, sometimes turns round, and, re-entering the flesh, vexes it into a sore, it would seem as if that noble inventive faculty to which we owe the parable and the epic poem, were liable, when constrained by self-love, to similar misdirections; and certainly, when turned inwards upon its possessor, the moral character festers or grows callous around it.

    There was no one in the barrack with whom I cared much to converse, or who, in turn, cared much to converse with me; and so I learned, on the occasions when the company got dull, and broke up into groups, to retire to the hay-loft where I slept, and pass there whole hours seated on my chest.  The loft was a vast apartment some fifty or sixty feet in length, with its naked rafters raised little more than a man's height over the floor; but in the starlit nights, when the openings in the wall assumed the character of square patches of darkness-visible stamped upon utter darkness, it looked quite as well as any other unlighted place that could not be seen; and in nights brightened by the moon, the pale beams, which found access at openings and crevices, rendered its wide area quite picturesque enough for ghosts to walk in.  But I never saw any; and the only sounds I heard were those made by the horses in the stable below, champing and snorting over their food.  They were, I doubt not, happy enough in their dark stalls, because they were horses, and had plenty to eat; and I was at times quite happy enough in the dark loft above, because I was a man, and could think and imagine.  It is, I believe, Addison who remarks, that if all the thoughts which pass through men's minds were to be made public, the great difference which seems to exist between the thinking of the wise and of the unwise would be a good deal reduced; seeing that it is a difference which does not consist in their not having the same weak thoughts in common, but merely in the prudence through which the wise suppress their foolish ones.  I still possess notes of the cogitations of these solitary evenings, ample enough to show that they were extraordinary combinations of the false and the true; but I at the same time hold them sufficiently in memory to remember, that I scarce, if at all, distinguished between what was false and true in them at the time.  The literature of almost every people has a corresponding early stage, in which fresh thinking is mingled with little conceits, and in which the taste is usually false, but the feeling true.  Let me present my young readers, from my notes, with the variously compounded cogitations of one of these quiet evenings.  What formed so long ago one of my exercises may now form one of theirs, if they but set themselves to separate the solid from the unsolid thinking contained in my abstract.


MUSINGS


"I stood last summer on the summit of Tor-Achilty [a pyramidal hill about six miles from Conon side], and occupied, when there, the centre of a wide circle, about fifty miles in diameter.  I can still call up its rough-edged sea of hills, with the clear blue firmament arching over, and the slant rays of the setting sun gleaming athwart.  Yes, over that circular field, fifty miles across, the firmament closed all around at the horizon, as a watch-glass closes round the dial-plate of the watch.  Sky and earth seemed co-extensive; and yet how incalculably vast their difference of area!  Thousands of systems seemed but commensurate, to the eye, with a small district of earth fifty miles each way.  But capacious as the human imagination has been deemed, can it conceive of an area of wider field?  Mine cannot.  My mind cannot take in more at a glance, if I may so speak, than is taken in by the eye.  I cannot conceive of a wider area than that which the sight commands from the summit of a lofty eminence.  I can pass in imagination through many such areas.  I can add field to field ad infinitum; and thus conceive of infinite space, by conceiving of a space which can be infinitely added to; but all of space that I can take in at one process, is an area commensurate with that embraced at a glance by the eye.  How, then, have I my conception of the earth as a whole—of the solar system as a whole—nay, of many systems as a whole?  Just as I have my conceptions of a school-globe or of an Orrery—by diminution.  It is through the diminution induced by distance that the sidereal heavens only co-extend, as seen from the top of Tor-Archilty, with a portion of the counties of Ross and Inverness.  The apparent area is the same, but the colouring is different.  Our ideas of greatness, then, are much less dependent on actual area than on what painters term serial perspective.  The dimness of distance, and the diminution of parts, are essential to right conceptions of great magnitude.

"Of the various figures presented to me here, I seize strong hold of but one.  I brood over the picture of the solar system conjured up.  I conceive of the satellites as light shallops that continually sail round heavier vessels, and consider how much more of space they must traverse than the orbs to which they are attached.  The entire system is presented to me as an Orrery of the apparent size of the area of landscape seen from the hill-top; but dimness and darkness prevent the diminution from communicating that appearance of littleness to the whole which would attach to it, were it, like an actual Orrery, sharply defined and clear.  As the picture rises before me, the entire system seems to possess, what I suspect it wants, its atmosphere like that of the earth, which reflects the light of the sun in the different degrees of excessive brightness—noon-tide splendour, the fainter shades of evening, and grey twilight obscurity.  This veil of light is thickest towards the centre of the system; for when the glance rests on its edges, the suns of other systems may be seen peeping through.  I see Mercury sparkling to the sun, with its oceans of molten glass, and its fountains of liquid gold.  I see the ice-mountains of Saturn, hoar through the twilight.  I behold the earth rolling upon itself, from darkness to light, and from light to darkness.  I see the clouds of winter settling over one part of it, with the nether mantle of snow shining through them; I see in another a brown, dusky waste of sand lighted up by the glow of summer.  One ocean appears smooth as a mirror—another is black with tempest.  I see the pyramid of shade which each of the planets casts from its darkened side into the space behind; and I perceive the stars twinkling through each opening, as through the angular doors of a pavilion.

"Such is the scene seen at right angles with the plane in which the planets move but what would be its aspect if I saw it in the line of the plane?  What would be its appearance if I saw it edgewise?  There arises in my mind one of those uncertainties which so frequently convince me that I am ignorant.  I cannot complete my picture, for I do not know whether all the planets move in one plane.  How determine the point?  A ray of light breaks in.  Huzza!  I have found it.  If the courses of the planets as seen in the heavens form parallel lines, then must they all move in one plane; and vice versa.  But hold!  That would be as seen from the sun—if the planets could be seen from the sun.  The earth is but one of their own number, and from it the point of view must be disadvantageous.  The diurnal motion must perplex.  But no.  The apparent motion of the heavens need not disturb the observation.  Let the course of the planets through the fixed stars, be marked, and though, from the peculiarity of the point of observation, their motion may at one time seem more rapid, and at another more slow, yet, if their plane be as a workman would say, out of twist, their lines will seem parallel.  Still in some doubt, however: I long for a glance at an Orrery, to determine the point; and then I remember that Ferguson, an untaught man like myself, had made more Orreries than any one else, and that mechanical contrivances of the kind were the natural recourse of a man unskilled in the higher geometry.  But it would be better to be a mathematician than skilful in contriving Orreries.  A man of the Newtonian cast of mind, and accomplished in the Newtonian learning, could solve the problem where I sat, without an Orrery.

"From the thing contemplated, I pass to the consideration of the mind that contemplates.  Oh! that wonderful Newton, respecting whom the Frenchman inquired whether he ate and slept like other men!  I consider how one mind excels another; nay, how one man excels a thousand; and, by way of illustration, I bethink me of the mode of valuing diamonds.  A single diamond that weighs fifty carats is deemed more valuable than two thousand diamonds, each of which only weighs one.  My illustration refers exclusively to the native powers; but may it not, I ask, bear also on the acquisition of knowledge?  Every now idea added to the stock already collected is a carat added to the diamond; for it is not only valuable in itself, but it also increases the value of all the others, by giving to each of them a new link of association.

"The thought links itself on to another, mayhap less sound:—Do not the minds of men of exalted genius, such as Homer, Milton, Shakspere, seem to partake of some of the qualities of infinitude?  Add a great many bricks together, and they form a pyramid as huge as the peak off Teneriffe.  Add all the common minds together that the world ever produced, and the mind of a Shakspere towers over the whole, in all the grandeur of unapproachable infinity.  That which is infinite admits of neither increase nor diminution.  Is it not so with genius of a certain altitude?  Homer, Milton, Shakspere, were perhaps men of equal powers.  Homer was, it is said, a beggar; Shakspere an illiterate wool-comber; Milton skilled in all human learning.  But they have all risen to an equal height.  Learning has added nothing to the illimitable genius of the one; nor has the want of it detracted from the infinite powers of the others.  But it is time that I go and prepare supper."


    I visited the policies of Conon House a full quarter of a century after this time—walked round the kiln, once our barrack—scaled the outside stone-stair of the hay-loft, to stand for half a minute on the spot where I used to spend whole hours seated on my chest, so long before; and then enjoyed a quiet stroll among the woods of the Conon.  The river was big in flood: it was exactly such a river Conon as I had lost sight of in the winter of 1821, and eddied past dark and heavy, sweeping over bulwark and bank.  The low-stemmed alders that rose on islet and mound seemed shorn of half their trunks in the tide; here and there an elastic branch bent to the current, and rose and bent again; and now a tuft of withered heath came floating down, and now a soiled wreath of foam.  How vividly the past rose up before me —boyish day-dreams, forgotten for twenty years—the fossils of an early formation of mind, produced at a period when the atmosphere of feeling was warmer than now, and the immaturities of the mental kingdom grew rank and large, like the ancient cryptogamia, [64] and bore no specific resemblance to the productions of a riper time.  The season I had passed in the neighbourhood so long before—the first I had anywhere spent among strangers—belonged to an age when home is not a country, nor a province even, but simply a little spot of earth, inhabited by friends and relatives; and the verses, long forgotten, in which my joy had found vent when on the eve of returning to that home, came chiming as freshly into my memory as if scarce a month had passed since I had composed them beside the Conon.  Here they are, with all the green juvenility of the home-sickness still about them—a true petrifaction of an extinct feeling:—


TO THE CONON


Conon, fair flowed thy mountain stream,
    Through blossom'd heath and ripening field,
When, shrunk by summer's fervid beam,
    Thy peaceful waves I first beheld.
Calmly they swept thy winding shore,
    When harvest's mirthful feast was nigh—
When, breeze-borne, with thy hoarser roar
    Came mingling sweet the reapers' cry.

But now I mark thy angry wave
    Rush headlong to the stormy sea;
Wildly the blasts of winter rave,
    Sad rustling through the leafless tree.
Loose on its spray the alder leaf
    Hangs wavering, trembling, sear and brown;
And dark thy eddies whirl beneath,
    And white thy foam comes floating down.

Thy banks with withered shrubs are spread;
    Thy fields confess stern winter's reign;
And gleams yon thorn with berries red,
    Like banner on a ravaged plain.
Hark! ceaseless groans the leafless wood;
    Hark! ceaseless roars thy stream below;
Ben-Vaichard's peaks are dark with cloud;
    Ben-Weavis' crest is white with snow.

And yet, though red thy stream comes down—
    Though bleak th' encircling hills appear—
Though field be bare, and forest brown,
    And winter rule the waning year—
Unmoved I see each charm decay,
    Unmourn'd the sweets of autumn die;
And fading flower and leafless spray
    Court all in vain the thoughtful sigh.

Not that dull grief delights to see
    Vex'd Nature wear a kindred gloom;
Not that she smiled in vain to me,
    When gaily prank'd in summer's bloom.
Nay, much I loved, at even-tide,
    Through Brahan's lonely woods to stray,
To mark thy peaceful billows glide,
    And watch the sun's declining ray.

But yet, though roll'd thy billows fair
    As e'er roll'd those of classic stream—
Though green thy woods, now dark and bare,
    Bask'd beauteous in the western beam;
To mark a scene that childhood loved,
    The anxious eye was turned in vain;
Nor could I find the friend approved,
    That shared my joy or soothed my pain.

Now winter reigns: these hills no more
    Shall sternly bound my anxious view;
Soon, bent my course to Croma's shore,
    Shall I yon winding path pursue.
Fairer than here gay summer's glow
    To me there wintry storms shall seem;
Then blow, ye bitter breezes, blow,
    And lash the Conon's mountain stream.



 
CHAPTER XI.


The bounding pulse, the languid limb
    The changing spirit's rise and fall—
We know that these were felt by him,
    For these are felt by all.—M
ONTGOMERY.


THE apprenticeship of my friend William Ross had expired during the working season of this year, when I was engaged at Conon-side; and he was now living in his mother's cottage in the parish of Nigg, on the Ross-shire side of the Cromarty Firth.  And so, with the sea between us, we could no longer meet  every evening as before, or take long night-walks among the woods.  I crossed the Firth, however, and spent one happy day in his society, in a little, low-roofed domicile, with a furze-roughened ravine on the one side, and a dark fir-wood on the other; and which, though picturesque and interesting as a cottage, must, I fear, have been a very uncomfortable home.  His father, whom I had not before seen, was sitting beside the fire as I entered.  In all except expression he was wonderfully like my friend; and yet he was one of the most vapid men I ever knew—a man literally without an idea, and almost without a recollection or a fact.  And my friend's mother, though she showed a certain kindliness of disposition which her husband wanted, was loquacious and weak.  Had my quondam acquaintance, the vigorous-minded maniac of Ord, seen William and his parents, she would have triumphantly referred to them in evidence that Flavel and the Schoolmen were wholly in the right in holding that souls are not "derived through parental traduction."

    My friend had much to show me: he had made an interesting series of water-colour sketches of the old castles of the neighbourhood, and a very elaborate set of drawings of what are known as the Runic obelisks of Ross: he had made some first attempts, too, in oil-painting; but though his drawing was, as usual, correct, there was a deadness and want of transparency about his colouring, which characterized all his after attempts in the same department, and which was, I suspect, the result of some such deficiency in his perceptions of the harmonies of colour as that which, in another department of sense, made me so insensible to the harmonies of sound.  His drawings of the obelisks were of singular interest.  Not only have the thirty years which have since elapsed exerted their dilapidating effect on all the originals from which he drew, but one of the number—the most entire of the group at that time—has been since almost wholly destroyed; and so, what he was then able to do, there can be no such opportunity of doing again.  Further, his representations of the sculptured ornaments, instead of being (what those artists too often are) mere picturesque approximations, were true in every curve and line.  He told me he had spent a fortnight in tracing out the involved mathematical figures, curves, circles, and right lines—on which the intricate fretwork of one of the obelisks was formed, and in making separate drawings of each compartment, before commencing his draught of the entire stone.  And, looking with the eye of the stone-cutter at his preliminary sketches, from the first meagre lines that formed the ground-work of some involved and difficult knot, to the elaborate knot itself, I saw that, with such a series of drawings before me, I myself could learn to cut Runic obelisks, in all the integrity of the complex ancient style, in less than a fortnight.  My friend had formed some striking and original views regarding the theology represented by symbol on these ancient stones—at that time regarded as Runic, but now held to be rather of Celtic origin.  In the centre of each obelisk, on the more important and strongly relieved side, there always occurs a large cross, rather of the Greek than of the Roman type, and usually elaborately wrought into a fretwork, composed of myriads of snakes, raised in some of the compartments over half-spheres resembling apples.  In one of the Ross-shire obelisks—that of Shadwick, in the parish of Nigg—the cross is entirely composed of these apple-like snake-covered protuberances; and it was the belief of my friend, that the original idea of the whole, and, indeed, the fundamental idea of this school of sculpture, was exactly that so emphatically laid down by Milton in the opening argument of his poem—man's fall symbolized by the serpents and the apples, and the great sign of his restoration, by the cross.  But in order to indicate that to the divine Man, the Restorer, the cross itself was a consequence of the Fall, even it was covered over with symbols of the event, and, in one curious specimen, built up of them.  It was the snakes and apples that had reared, i.e., rendered imperative, the cross.  My friend further remarked, that from this main idea a sort of fretwork had originated, which seemed more modern in some of its specimens than the elaborately-carved snakes, and strongly relieved apples, but in which the twistings of the one, and the circular outlines of the others might be distinctly traced; and that it seemed ultimately to have passed from a symbol into a mere ornament; as, in earlier instances, hieroglyphic pictures had passed into mere arbitrary signs or characters.  I know not what may be thought of the theory of William Ross; but when, in visiting, several years ago, the ancient ruins of Iona, I marked, on the more ancient crosses, the snakes and apparent apples, and then saw how the same combination of figures appeared as mere ornamental fretwork on some of the later tombs, I regarded it as more probably the right one than any of the others I have yet seen broached on the subject.  I dined with my friend this day on potatoes and salt, flanked by a jug of water; nor were the potatoes by any means very good ones; but they formed the only article of food in the household at the time.  He had now dined and breakfasted upon them, he said, for several weeks together; but though not very strengthening, they kept in the spark of life; and he had saved up money enough to carry him to the south of Scotland in the spring, where he trusted to find employment.  A poor friendless lad of genius, diluting his thin consumptive blood on bad potatoes and water, and, at the same time, anticipating the labours of our antiquarian societies by his elaborate and truthful drawings of an interesting class of national antiquities, must be regarded as a melancholy object of contemplation; but such hapless geniuses there are in every age in which art is cultivated, and literature has its admirers; and, shrinkingly modest and retiring in their natures, the world rarely finds them out in time.

    I found employment enough for my leisure during this winter in my books and walks, and in my uncle James's workshop, which, now that Uncle James had no longer to lecture me about my Latin, and my carelessness as a scholar in general, was a very pleasant place, where a great deal of sound remark and excellent information were always to be had.  There was another dwelling in the neighbourhood in which I sometimes spent a not unpleasant hour.  It was a damp underground room, inhabited by a poor old woman, who had come to the town from a country parish in the previous year, bringing with her a miserably deformed lad, her son, who, though now turned of twenty, more resembled, save in his head and face, a boy of ten, and who was so helpless a cripple, that he could not move from off his seat.  "Poor lame Danie," as he was termed, was, notwithstanding the hard measure dealt him by nature, an even-tempered, kindly-dispositioned lad, and was, in consequence, a great favourite with the young people in the neighbourhood, especially with the humbly taught young women, who—regarding him simply as an intelligence, coupled with sympathies, that could write letters—used to find him employment, which he liked not a little, as a sort of amanuensis and adviser-general in their affairs of the heart.  Richardson tells that he learned to write his Pamela by the practice he acquired in writing love-letters when a very young lad, for half a score love-sick females, who trusted and employed him.  "Poor Danie," though he bore on a skeleton body, wholly unfurnished with muscle, a brain of the average size and activity, was not born to be a novelist; but he had the necessary materials in abundance; and though secret enough to all his other acquaintance, I, who cared not a great deal about the matter, might, I found, have as many of his experiences as I pleased.  I enjoyed among my companions the reputation of being what they termed "close-minded;" and Danie, satisfied, in some sort, that I deserved the character, seemed to find it a relief to roll over upon my shoulders the great weight of confidence which, rather liberally, as would seem, for his comfort, had been laid upon his own.  It is recorded of himself by Burns, that he "felt as much pleasure in being in the secret of half the loves of the parish of Tarbolton, as ever did statesman in knowing the intrigues of half the Courts of Europe."  And, writing to Dr Moore, he adds, that it was "with difficulty" his pen was "restrained from giving him a couple of paragraphs on the love-adventures of his compeers, the humble inmates of the farm-house and cottage."  I, on the other hand, bore my confidences soberly enough, and kept them safe and very close—regarding myself as merely a sort of back-yard of mind, in which Danie might store up at pleasure the precious commodities intrusted to his charge, which, from want of stowage, it cumbered him to keep, but which were his property, not mine.  And though, I daresay, I could fill more than "a couple of paragraphs" with the love-affairs of townswomen, some of whose daughters were courted and married ten years ago, I feel no inclination whatever, after having kept their secrets so long, to begin blabbing them now.  Danie kept a draft-board, and used to take a pride in beating all his neighbours; but in a short time he taught me—too palpably to his chagrin—to beat himself; and finding the game a rather engrossing one besides, and not caring to look on the woe-begone expression that used to cloud the meek pale face of my poor acquaintance, every time he found his men swept off the board or cooped up into a corner, I gave up drafts, the only game of the kind of which I ever knew anything, and in the course of a few years succeeded in unlearning pretty completely all the moves.  It appeared wonderful that the processes essential to life could have been carried on in so miserable a piece of framework as the person of poor Danie: it was simply a human skeleton bent double, and covered with a sallow skin.  But they were not carried on in it long.  About eighteen months after the first commencement of our acquaintance, when I was many miles away, he was seized by a sudden illness, and died in a few hours.  I have seen, in even our better works of fiction, less interesting characters portrayed than poor gentle-spirited Danie, the love-depository of the young dames of the village; and I learned a thing or two in his school.

    It was not until after several weeks of the working season had passed, that my master's great repugnance to doing nothing overcame his almost equally great repugnance again to seek work as a journeyman.  At length, however, a life of inactivity became wholly intolerable to him; and, applying to his former employer, he was engaged on the previous terms—full wages for himself, and a very small allowance for his apprentice, who was now, however, recognised as the readier and more skilful stone-cutter of the two.  In cutting mouldings of the more difficult kinds, I had sometimes to take the old man under charge, and give him lessons in the art, from which, however, he had become rather too rigid in both mind and body greatly to profit.  We both returned to Conon-side, where there was a tall dome of hewn work to be erected over the main archway of the steading at which we had been engaged during the previous year; and, as few of the workmen had yet assembled on the spot, we succeeded in establishing ourselves as inmates of the barrack, leaving the hay-loft, with its inferior accommodation, to the later comers.  We constructed for ourselves a bed-frame of rough slabs, and filled it with hay; placed our chests in front of it; and, as the rats mustered by thousands in the place, suspended our sack of oatmeal by a rope, from one of the naked rafters, at rather more than a man's height over the floor.  And, having both pot and pitcher, our household economy was complete.  Though resolved not to forego my evening walks, I had determined to conform also to every practice of the barrack; and as the workmen, drafted from various parts of the country, gradually increased around us, and the place became crowded, I soon found myself engaged in the rollicking barrack-life of the north-country mason.  The rats were somewhat troublesome.  A comrade who slept in the bed immediately beside ours had one of his ears bitten through one night as he lay alseep, and remarked, that he supposed it would be his weasand they would attack next time; and, on rising one morning, I found that the four brightly plated jack-buttons to which my braces had been fastened had been fairly cut from off my trousers, and carried away, to form, I doubt not, a portion of some miser-hoard in the wall.  But even the rats themselves became a source of amusement to us, and imparted to our rude domicile, in some little degree, the dignity of danger.  It was not likely that they would succeed in eating us all up, as they had done wicked Bishop Hatto of old; but it was at least something that they had begun to try.

    The dwellers in the hay-loft had not been admitted in the previous season to the full privileges of the barrack, nor had they been required to share in all its toils and duties.  They had to provide their quota of wood for the fire, and of water for general household purposes; but they had not to take their turn of cooking and baking for the entire mess, but were permitted, as convenience served, to cook and bake for themselves.  And so, till now, I had made cakes and porridge, with at times an occasional mess of brose or brochan, for only my master and myself—a happy arrangement, which, I daresay, saved me a few rammings; seeing that, in at least my earlier efforts, I had been rather unlucky as a cook, and not very fortunate as a baker.  My experience in the Cromarty caves had rendered me skilful in both boiling and roasting potatoes, and in preparing shell-fish for the table, whether molluscous or crustacean, according to the most approved methods; but the exigencies of our wild life had never brought me fairly in contact with the cerealia; and I had now to spoil a meal or two, in each instance, ere my porridge became palatable, or my cakes crisp, or my brose free and knotty, or my brochan sufficiently smooth and void of knots.  My master, poor man, did grumble a little at first; but there was a general disposition in the barrack to take part rather with his apprentice than with himself; and after finding that the cases were to be given against him, he ceased making complaints.  My porridge was at times, I must confess, very like leaven; but then, it was a standing recipe in the barrack, that the cook should continue stirring the mess and adding meal, until, from its first wild ebullitions in full boil it became silent over the fire; and so I could show that I had made my porridge like leaven, quite according to rule.  And as for my brochan, I succeeded in proving that I had actually failed to satisfy, though I had made two kinds of it at once in the same pot.  I preferred this viand when of a thicker consistency than usual, whereas my master liked it thin enough to be drunk out of the bowl; but as it was I who had the making of it, I used more instead of less meal than ordinary, and unluckily, in my first experiment, mixed up the meal in a very small bowl.  It became a dense dough-like mass; and on emptying it into the pot, instead of incorporating with the boiling water, it sank in a solid cake to the bottom.  In vain I stirred, and manipulated, and kept up the fire.  The stubborn mass refused to separate or dilute, and at length burnt brown against the bottom of the pot—a hue which the gruel-like fluid which floated over also assumed; and at length, in utter despair of securing aught approaching to an average consistency for the whole, and hearing my master's foot at the door, I took the pot from off the fire, and dished up for supper a portion of the thinner mixture which it contained, and which, in at least colour and consistency, not a little resembled chocolate.  The poor man ladled the stuff in utter dismay.  "Od, laddie," he said, "what ca' ye this?  Ca' ye this brochan?"  "Onything ye like, master," I replied; "but there are two kinds in the pot, and it will go hard if none of them please you."  I then dished him a piece of the cake, somewhat resembling in size and consistency a small brown dumpling, which he of course found wholly inedible, and became angry.  But this bad earth of ours "is filled," according to Cowper, "with wrong and outrage"; and the barrack laughed and took part with the defaulter.  Experience, however, that does so much for all, did a little for me.  I at length became a tolerably fair plain cook, and not a very bad baker; and now, when the exigencies required that I should take my full share in the duties of the barrack, I was found adequate to their proper fulfilment.  I made cakes and porridge of fully the average excellence; and my brose and brochan enjoyed at least the negative happiness of escaping animadversion and comment.

    Some of the inmates, however, who were exceedingly nice in their eating, were great connoisseurs in porridge; and it was no easy matter to please them.  There existed unsettled differences—the results of a diversity of tastes—regarding the time that should be given to the boiling of the mess, respecting the proportion of salt that should be allotted to each individual, and as to whether the process of "mealing," as it was termed, should be a slow or a hasty one; and, of course, as in all controversies of all kinds, the more the matters in dispute were discussed, the more did they grow in importance.  Occasionally the disputants had their porridge made at the same time in the same pot: there were, in especial, two of the workmen who differed upon the degree-of-salt question, whose bickers were supplied from the same general preparation; and as these had usually opposite complaints to urge against the cooking, their objections served so completely to neutralize each other, that they in no degree told against the cook.  One morning the cook—a wag and a favourite—in making porridge for both the controversialists, made it so exceedingly fresh as to be but little removed from a poultice; and, filling with the preparation in this state the bicker of the salt-loving connoisseur, he then took a handful of salt, and mixing it with the portion which remained in the pot, poured into the bicker of the fresh man, porridge very much akin to a pickle.  Both entered the barrack sharply set for breakfast, and sat down each to his meal; and both at the first spoonfuls dropped their spoons.  "A ramming to the cook!" cried the one—"he has given me porridge without salt!"  "A ramming to the cook!" roared out the other—"he has given me porridge like brine!"  "You see, lads," said the cook, stepping out into the middle of the floor, with the air of a much injured orator—"you see, lads, what matters have come to at last: there is the very pot in which I made in one mess the porridge in both their bickers.  I don't think we should bear this any longer; we have all had our turn of it, though mine happens to be the worst; and I now move that these two fellows be rammed."  No sooner said than done.  There was a terrible struggling, and a burning sense of injustice; but no single man in the barrack was match for half-a-dozen of the others.  The disputants, too, instead of making common cause together, were prepared to assist in ramming each the other; and so rammed they both were.  And at length, when the details of the stratagem came out, the cook—by escaping for half an hour into the neighbouring wood, and concealing himself there, like some political exile under ban of the Government—succeeded in escaping the merited punishment.

    The cause of justice was never, I found in greater danger in our little community, than when a culprit succeeded in getting the laughers on his side.  I have said that I became a not very bad baker.  Still less and less sorely, as I improved in this useful art, did my cakes try the failing teeth of my master, until at length they became crisp and nice; and he began to find that my new accomplishment was working serious effects upon the contents of his meal-chest.  With a keenly whetted appetite, and in vigorous health, I was eating a great deal of bread; and, after a good deal of grumbling, he at length laid it down as law that I should restrict myself for the future to two cakes per week.  I at once agreed; but the general barrack, to whose ears some of my master's remonstrances had found their way, was dissatisfied; and it would probably have overturned in conclave our agreement, and punished the old man, my master, for the niggardly stringency of his terms, had I not craved, by way of special favour, to be permitted to give them a week's trial.  One evening early in the week, when the old man had gone out, I mixed up the better part of a peck of meal in a pot, and placing two of the larger chests together in the same plane, kneaded it out into an enormous cake, at least equal in area to an ordinary-sized Newcastle grindstone.  I then cut it up into about twenty pieces, and, forming a vast semicircle of stone round the fire, raised the pieces to the heat in a continuous row, some five or six feet in length.  I had ample and ready assistance vouchsafed me in the "firing"—half the barrack were engaged in the work—when my master entered, and after scanning our employment in utter astonishment—now glancing at the ring of meal which still remained on the united chests, to testify to the huge proportions of the disparted bannock, and now at the cones, squares, rhombs, and trapeziums of cake that hardened to the heat in front of the fire, he abruptly asked—What's this, laddie?—are ye baking for a wadding?"  "Just baking one of the two cakes, master," I replied; "I don't think we'll need the other one before Saturday night."  A roar of laughter from every corner of the barrack precluded reply; and in the laughter, after an embarrassed pause, the poor man had the good sense to join.  And during the rest of the season I baked as often and as much as I pleased.  It is I believe Goldsmith who remarks, that "wit generally succeeds more from being happily addressed, than from its native poignancy," and that "a jest calculated to spread at a gaming table, may be received with perfect indifference should it happen to drop in a mackerel-boat."  On Goldsmith's principle, the joke of what was termed, from the well known fairy tale, "the big bannock wi' the Malison," could have perhaps succeeded in only a mason's barrack; but never there at least could joke have been more successful.

    As I had not yet ascertained that the Old Red Sandstone of the north of Scotland is richly fossiliferous, Conon-side and its neighbourhood furnished me with no very favourable field for geologic exploration.  It enabled me, however, to extend my acquaintance with the great conglomerate base of the system, which forms here, as I have already said, a sort of miniature Highlands, extending between the valleys of the Conon and the Peffer, and which—remarkable for its picturesque cliffs, abrupt eminences and narrow steep-sided dells—bears in its centre a pretty wood-skirted loch, into which the old Celtic prophet Kenneth Ore, when, like Prospero, he relinquished his art, buried "deep beyond plummet sound" the magic stone in which he was wont to see both the distant and the future.  Immediately over the pleasure-grounds of Brahan, the rock forms exactly such cliffs as the landscape gardener would make, if he could—cliffs with their rude prominent pebbles breaking the light over every square foot of surface, and furnishing footing, by their innumerable projections, to many a green tuft of moss, and many a sweet little flower; while far below, among the deep woods, there stand up enormous fragments of the same rock, that must have rolled down in some remote age from the precipices above, and which, mossy and hoar, and many of them ivy-bound, resemble artificial ruins—obnoxious, however, to none of the disparaging associations which the make-believe ruin is sure always to awaken.  It was inexpressibly pleasant to spend a quiet evening hour among these wild cliffs, and imagine a time when the far distant sea beat against their bases; but though their enclosed pebbles evidently owed their rounded form to the attrition of water, the imagination seemed paralyzed when it attempted calling up a still earlier time, when these solid rocks existed as but loose sand and pebbles, tossed by waves or scattered by currents; and when, for hundreds and thousands of square miles, the wild tract around existed as an ancient ocean, skirted by unknown lands.  I had not yet collected enough of geologic fact to enable me to grapple with the difficulties of a restoration of the more ancient time.  There was a later period, also, represented in the immediate neighbourhood by a thick deposit of stratified sand, of which I knew as little as of the conglomerate.  We dug into it, in founding a thrashing-mill, for about ten feet, but came to no bottom; and I could see that it formed the subsoil of the valley all around the policies of Conon-side, and underlay most of its fields and woods.  It was white and pure, as if it had been washed by the sea only a few weeks previous; but in vain did I search its beds and layers for a fragment of shell by which to determine its age.  I can now, however, entertain little doubt that it belonged to the boulder clay period of submergence, and that the fauna with which it was associated bore the ordinary subarctic character.  When this stratified sand was deposited, the waves must have broken against the conglomerate precipices of Brahan, and the sea have occupied, as firths and sounds, the deep Highland valleys of the interior.  And on such of the hills of the country as had their heads above water at the time, that interesting but somewhat meagre Alpine Flora must have flourished, which we now find restricted to our higher mountain summits.

    Once every six weeks I was permitted to visit Cromarty, and pass a Sabbath there; but as my master usually accompanied me, and as the way proved sufficiently long and weary to press upon his failing strength and stiffening limbs, we had to restrict ourselves to the beaten road, and saw but little.  On, however, one occasion this season, I journeyed alone, and spent so happy a day in finding my homeward road along blind paths—that ran now along the rocky shores of the Cromarty Firth in its upper reaches, now through brown, lonely moors, mottled with Danish encampments, and now beside quiet, tomb-besprinkled burying-grounds, and the broken walls of deserted churches—that its memory still lives freshly in my mind, as one of the happiest of my life.  I passed whole hours among the ruins of Craighouse—a grey fantastic rag of a castle, consisting of four heavily-arched stories of time-eaten stone, piled over each other, and still bearing a-top its stone roof and its ornate turrets and bartizans—


A ghastly prison, that eternally
Hangs its blind visage out to the lone sea.


    It was said in these days to be haunted by its goblins—a miserable-looking, grey-headed, grey-bearded, little old man, that might be occasionally seen late in the evening, or early in the morning, peering out through some arrow-slit or shot-hole at the chance passenger.  I remember getting the whole history of the goblin this day from a sunburnt herd-boy, whom I found tending his cattle under the shadow of the old castle-wall.  I began by asking him whose apparition he thought it was that could continue to haunt a building, the very name of whose last inhabitant had been long since forgotten.  "Oh, they're saying," was the reply, "it's the spirit of the man that was killed on the foundation-stone, just after it was laid, and then built intil the wa' by the masons, that he might keep the castle by coming back again; and they're saying that a' the verra auld houses in the kintra had murderit men built intil them in that way, and that they have a' o' them their bogle."  I recognised in the boy's account of the matter an old and widely spread tradition, which, whatever may have been its original basis of truth, seems to have so far influenced the buccaneers of the 17th century, as to have become a reality in their hands.  "If time," say Sir Walter Scott, "did not permit the buccaneers to lavish away their plunder in their usual debaucheries, they were wont to hide it, with many superstitious solemnities, in the desert islands and keys which they frequented, and where much treasure, whose lawless owners perished without reclaiming it, is still supposed to be concealed.  The most cruel of mankind are often the most superstitious; and those pirates are said to have had recourse to a horrid ritual, in order to secure an unearthly guardian to their treasures.  They killed a negro or Spaniard, and buried him with the treasure, believing that his spirit would haunt the spot, and terrify away all intruders."  There is a figurative peculiarity in the language in which Joshua denounced the man who should dare rebuild Jericho, that seems to point at some ancient pagan rite of this kind.  Nor does it seem improbable that a practice which existed in times so little remote as those of the buccaneers, may have first begun in the dark and cruel ages of human sacrifices.  "Cursed be the man before the Lord," said Joshua, "that riseth up and buildeth this city of Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his first-born, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it."

    The large-farm system had been already introduced into the part of the country in which I at this time resided, on the richer and more levels lands; but many a Gaelic-speaking cottar and small tenant still lived on the neighbouring moors and hill-sides.  Though Highland in their surnames and language, they bore a character considerably different from that of the simpler Highlanders of the interior of Sutherland, or of a class I had shortly afterwards an opportunity of studying—the Highlanders of the western coast of Ross-shire.  Doors were not left unbarred at night in the neighbourhood; and there were wretched hovels among the moors, very zealously watched and guarded indeed.  There was much illicit distillation and smuggling at this time among the Gaelic-speaking people of the district; and it told upon their character with the usual deteriorating effect.  Many of the Highlanders, too, had wrought as labourers at the Caledonian Canal, where they had come in contact with south-country workmen, and brought back with them a confident, loquacious smartness, that, based on a ground-work of ignorance, which it rendered active and obtrusive, had a bizarre and disagreeable effect, and formed but an indifferent substitute for the diffident and taciturn simplicity which it had supplanted.  But I have ever found the people of those border districts of the Highlands which join on to the low country, or that inhabit districts much traversed by tourists, of a comparatively inferior cast: the finer qualities of the Highland character seem easily injured: the hospitality, the simplicity, the unsuspecting honesty, disappear; and we find, instead, a people rapacious, suspicious, and unscrupulous, considerably beneath the Lowland average.  In all the unopened districts of the remote Highlands into which I have penetrated, I have found the people strongly engage my sympathies and affections—much more strongly than in any part of the Lowlands; whereas, on the contrary, in the deteriorated districts I have been sensible of an involuntary revulsion of feeling, when in contact with the altered race, of which, among the low-country Scotch or the English, I have had no experience.  I remember being impressed, in reading, many years ago, one of Miss Ferrier's novels, with the truth of a stroke that brought out very practically the ready susceptibility of injury manifested by the Celtic character.  Some visitors of condition from the Highlands are represented as seeking out in one of our larger towns of the south, a simple Highland lad, who had quitted a remote northern district only a few months before; and when they find him, it is as a prisoner in Bridewell.

    Towards the end of September, my master, who had wholly failed in overcoming his repugnance to labour as a mere journeyman, succeeded in procuring a piece of work by contract, in a locality about fourteen miles nearer our home than Conon-side, and I accompanied him to assist in its completion.  Our employment in our new scene of labour was of the most disagreeable kind.  Burns, who must have had a tolerably extensive experience of the evils of hard work, specifies in his "Twa Dogs" three kinds of labour in especial that give poor "cot-folk" "fash enough."


Trowth, Cæsar, whiles they're fash'd eneugh;
A cottar howkin' in a sheugh,
Wi' dirty stanes biggin' a dyke,
Baring a quarry, and sic like.


All very disagreeable employments, as I also can testify; and our work here unfortunately combined the whole three.  We were engaged in rebuilding one of those old-fashioned walls of gentlemen's pleasure-grounds known as "ha has," that line the sides of deep ditches, and raise their tops to but the level of the sward; and as the ditch in this special instance was a wet one, and as we had to clear it of the old fallen materials, and to dig it out for our new line of foundation, while at the same time we had to furnish ourselves with additional materials from a neighbouring quarry, we had at once the "baring of the quarry," the "howkin' in the sheugh," and the "biggin' of the dyke wi' dirty stanes," to "fash" us.  The last-named employment is by far the most painful and trying.  In most kinds of severe labour the skin thickens, and the hand hardens, through a natural provision, to suit the requirements of the task imposed, and yield the necessary protection to the integuments below; but the "dirty stanes" of the dyke-builder, when wet as well as dirty, try the reproductive powers of the cuticle too severely, and wear it off, so that under the rough friction the quick is laid bare.  On this occasion, and on at least one other, when engaged in building in a wet season in the Western Highlands, I had all my fingers oozing blood at once; and those who think that in such circumstances labour protracted throughout a long day can be other than torture, would do well to try.  How these poor hands of mine burnt and beat at night at this time, as if an unhappy heart had been stationed in every finger! and what cold chills used to run, sudden as electric shocks, through the feverish frame!

    My general health, too, had become far from strong.  As I had been almost entirely engaged in hewing for the two previous seasons, the dust of the stone, inhaled at every breath, had exerted the usual weakening effects on the lungs—those effects under which the life of the stone-cutter is restricted to about forty-five years; but it was only now, when working day after day with wet feet in a water-logged ditch, that I began to be sensibly informed, by a dull, depressing pain in the chest, and a blood-stained mucoidal substance, expectorated with difficulty, that I had already caught harm from my employment, and that my term of life might fall far short of the average one.  I resolved, however, as the last year of my apprenticeship was fast drawing to its close, to complete, at all hazards, my engagement with my master.  It had been merely a verbal engagement, and I might have broken it without blame, when, unable to furnish me with work in his character as a master-mason, he had to transfer my labour to another; but I determined not to break it, all the more doggedly from the circumstance that my uncle James, in a moment of irritation, had said at its commencement that he feared I would no more persist in being a mason that I had done in being a scholar; and so I wrought perseveringly on; and slowly and painfully, rood after rood, the wall grew up under our hands.  My poor master, who suffered even more from chopped hands and bleeding fingers than I did, was cross and fretful, and sometimes sought relief in finding fault with his apprentice; but, sobered by my forebodings of an early death, I used to make no reply; and the hasty, ill-tempered expressions in which he gave vent virtually to but his sense of pain and discomfort, were almost always followed by some conciliatory remark.  Superstition takes a strong hold of the mind in circumstances such as those in which I was at this time placed.  One day when on the top of a tall building, part of which we were throwing down to supply us with materials for our work, I raised up a broad slab of red micaceous sandstone, thin as a roofing slate, and exceedingly fragile, and, holding it out at arm's length, dropped it over the wall.  I had been worse than usual all that morning, and much depressed; and, ere the slab parted from my hand, I said—looking forward to but a few months of life—I shall break up like that sandstone slab, and perish as little known.  But the sandstone slab did not break up: a sudden breeze blew it aslant as it fell; it cleared the rough heap of stones below, where I had anticipated it would have been shivered to fragments; and, lighting on its edge, stuck upright like a miniature obelisk, in the soft green sward beyond.  None of the Philosophies of the Logics would have sanctioned the inference which I immediately drew; but that curious chapter in the history of human belief which treats of signs and omens abounds in such postulates and such conclusions.  I at once inferred that recovery awaited me: I was "to live and not die;" and felt lighter, during the few weeks I afterwards toiled at this place, under the cheering influence of the conviction.

    The tenant of the farm on which our work was situated, and who had been both a great distiller and considerable farmer in his day, had become bankrupt shortly before, and was on the eve of quitting the place, a broken man.  And his forlorn circumstances seemed stamped on almost every field and outhouse of his farm.  The stone fences were ruinous; the hedges gapped by the almost untended cattle; a considerable sprinkling of corn-ears lay rotting on the lea; and here and there an entire sheaf, that had fallen from the "leading-cart" at the close of harvest, might be seen still lying among the stubble, fastened to the earth by the germination of its grains.  Some of the out houses were miserable beyond description.  There was a square of modern offices, in which the cattle and horses of the farm—appropriated by the landlord, at the time under the law of hypothec—were tolerably well lodged; but the hovel in which three of the farm-servants lived, and in which, for want of a better, my master and I had to cook and sleep, was one of the most miserable tumble-down erections I ever saw inhabited.  It had formed part of an ancient set of offices that had been condemned about fourteen years before; but the proprietor of the place becoming insolvent, it had been spared, in lack of a better, to accommodate the servants who wrought on the farm; and it had now become not only a comfortless, but also a very unsafe dwelling.  It would have formed no bad subject, with its bulging walls and gapped roof, that showed the bare ribs through the breaches, for the pencil of my friend William Ross; but the cow or horse that had no better shelter than that which it afforded could not be regarded as other than indifferently lodged.  Every heavier shower found its way through the roof in torrents: I could even tell the hour of the night by the stars which passed over the long opening that ran along the ridge from gable to gable; and in stormy evenings I have paused at every ruder blast, in the expectation of hearing the rafters crack and give way over my head.  The distiller had introduced upon his farm, on a small scale, what has since been extensively known as the bothy system; and this hovel was the bothy.  There were, as I have said, but three farm-servants who lived in at the time—young, unmarried lads, extremely ignorant, and of gay, reckless dispositions, whose care for their master's interests might be read in the germinating sheaves that lay upon his fields, and who usually spoke of him, when out of his hearing, as "the old sinner."  He too evidently cared nothing for them; and they detested him, and regarded the ruin which had overtaken him, and which their own recklessness and indifference to his welfare must have at least assisted to secure, with open satisfaction.  "It was ae comfort, anyhow," they said, "that the blastit old sinner, after a' his near-goingness wi' them, was now but a dyvour, bankrupt." [65]  Bad enough certainly; and yet natural enough, and, in a sense, proper enough too.  The Christian divine would have urged these men to return their master good for evil.  Cobbett, on the contrary, would have advised them to go out at nights a rick-burning.  The better advice will to a certainty not be taken by ninety-nine out of every hundred of our bothy-men; for it is one of the grand evils of the system, that it removes its victims beyond the ennobling influences of religion; and, on the other hand, at least this much may be said for the worse counsel, that the system costs the country every year the price of a great many corn-ricks.

    The three lads lived chiefly on brose, as the viand at all edible into which their oatmeal could be most readily converted; and never baked or made for themselves a dish of porridge or gruel, apparently to avoid trouble, and that they might be as little as possible in the hated bothy.  I always lost sight of them in the evening; but towards midnight their talk frequently awoke me as they were going to bed; and I heard then tell of incidents that had befallen them at the neighbouring farm-houses, or refer to blackguard bits of scandal which they had picked up.  Sometimes a fourth voice mingled in the dialogue.  It was that of a reckless poacher, who used to come in, always long after nightfall, and fling himself down on a lair of straw in a corner of the bothy; and usually ere day broke he was up and away.  The grand enjoyment of the three farm-lads—the enjoyment which seemed to counterbalance, with its concentrated delights, the comfortless monotony of weeks—was a rustic ball which took place once every month, and sometimes oftener, at a public house in the neighbouring village, and at which they used to meet some of the farm-lasses of the locality, and dance and drink whisky till morning.  I know not how their money stood such frequent carousals; but they were, I saw, bare of every necessary article of clothing, especially of underclothing and linen; and I learned from their occasional talk about justice-of-peace summonses, that the previous term-day had left in the hands of their shoemakers and drapers unsettled bills.  But such matters were taken very lightly: the three lads, if not happy, were at least merry; and the monthly ball, for which they sacrificed so much, furnished not only its hours of pleasure while it lasted, but also a week's talking in anticipation ere it came, and another week's talking over its various incidents after it had passed.  And such was my experience of the bothy system in its first beginnings.  It has since so greatly increased, that there are now single counties in Scotland in which there are from five to eight hundred farm-servants exposed to its deteriorating influences; and the rustic population bids fair in those districts fully to rival that of our large towns in profligacy, and greatly to outrival them in coarseness.  Were I a statesman, I would, I think, be bold enough to try the efficacy of a tax on bothies.  It is long since Goldsmith wrote regarding a state of society in which "wealth accumulates and men decay," and since Burns looked with his accustomed sagacity on that change for the worse in the character of our rural people which the large-farm system has introduced.  "A fertile improved country is West Lothian," we find the latter poet remarking in one of his journals, "but the more elegance and luxury among the farmers, I always observe in equal proportion the rudeness and stupidity of the peasantry.  This remark I have made all over the Lothians, Merge, Roxburgh, etc.; and for this, among other reasons, I think that a man of romantic taste—'a man of feeling'—will be better pleased with the poverty but intelligent minds of the peasantry of Ayrshire (peasantry they all are, below the Justice of Peace), than the opulence of a club of Merge farmers, when he at the same time considers the Vandalism of their plough-folks."  The deteriorating effect of the large-farm system, remarked by the poet, is inevitable.  It is impossible that the modern farm-servant, in his comparatively irresponsible situation, and with his fixed wages of meagre amount, can be rendered as thoughtful and provident a person as the small farmer of the last age, who, thrown on his own resources, had to cultivate his fields and drive his bargains with his Martinmas and Whitsunday settlement with the landlord full before him; and who often succeeded in saving money, and in giving a classical education to some promising son or nephew, which enabled the young man to rise to a higher sphere of life.  Farm-servants, as a class, must be lower in the scale than the old tenant-farmers, who wrought their little farms with their own hands; but it is possible to elevate them far above the degraded level of the bothy; and unless means be taken to check the spread of the ruinous process of brute- making which the system involves, the Scottish people will sink, to a certainty, in the agricultural districts, from being one of the most provident, intelligent, and moral in Europe, to be one of the most licentious, reckless, and ignorant.

    Candle-light is a luxury in which no one ever thinks of indulging in a barrack; and in a barrack such as ours at this time, riddled with gaps and breaches, and filled with all manner of cold draughts, it was not every night in which a candle would have burnt.  And as our fuel, which consisted of sorely decayed wood—the roofing of a dilapidated outhouse which we were pulling down—formed but a dull fire, it was with difficulty I could read by its light.  By spreading out my book, however, within a foot or so of the embers, I was enabled, though sometimes at the expense of a headache, to prosecute a new tract of reading which had just opened to me, and in which, for a time, I found much amusement.  There was a vagabond pedlar who travelled at this time the northern counties, widely known as Jack from Dover, but whose true name was Alexander Knox, and who used to affirm that he was of the same family as the great Reformer.  The pedlar himself was, however, no reformer.  Once every six weeks or two months he got madly drunk, and not only "perished the pack," as he used to say, but sometimes got into prison to boot.  There were, however, some kind relations in the south, who always set him up again; and Jack from Dover, after a fortnight of misery, used to appear with the ordinary bulk of merchandise at his back, and continue thriving until he again got drunk.  He had a turn for buying and reading curious books, which, after mastering their contents, he always sold again; and he learned to bring them, when of a kind which no one else would purchase, to my mother, and recommend them as suitable for me.  Poor Jack was always conscientious in his recommendations.  I know not how he contrived to take the exact measure of my tastes in the matter, but suitable for me they invariably were; and as his price rarely exceeded a shilling per volume, and sometimes fell below a sixpence, my mother always purchased, when she could, upon his judgment.  I owed to his discrimination my first copy of Bacon's "Wisdom of the Ancients," "done into English by Sir Arthur Gorges," and a book to which I had long after occasion to refer in my geological writings—Maillet's "Telliamed"—one of the earlier treatises on the development hypothesis; and he had now procured for me a selection, in one volume, of the Poems of Gawin Douglas and Will Dunbar, and another collection in a larger volume, of "Ancient Scottish Poems," from the MSS. of George Bannatyne.  I had been previously almost wholly unacquainted with the elder Scotch poets.  My uncle James had introduced me, at a very early age, to Burns and Ramsay, and I had found out Fergusson and Tannahill for myself; but that school of Scotch literature which flourished between the reigns of David the Second and James the Sixth had remained to me, until now, well-nigh a terra incognita, and I found no little pleasure in exploring the antique recesses which it opened up.  Shortly after, I read Ramsay's "Evergreen," the "King's Quair," and the true "Actes and Deides of ye Muster and vailye and campioun Shyr William Wallace," not modernized, as in my first copy, but in the tongue in which they had been recited of old by Henry the Minstrel: I had previously gloated over Barbour's Bruce; and thus my acquaintance with the old Scots poets, if not very profound, became at least so respectable, that not until many years after did I meet with an individual who knew them equally well.

    The strange picturesque allegories of Douglas, and the terse sense and racy humour of Dunbar, delighted me much.  As I had to con my way slowly amid the difficulties of a language which was no longer that spoken by my country-folk, I felt as if I were creating the sense which I found; it came gradually out like some fossil of the rock, from which I had laboriously to chip away the enveloping matrix; and in hanging admiringly over it, I thought I perceived how it was that some of my old schoolfellows, who were prosecuting their education at college, were always insisting on the great superiority of the old Greek and Roman writers over the writers of our own country.  I could not give them credit for much critical discernment: they were indifferent enough, some of them, to both verse and prose, and hardly knew in what poetry consisted; and yet I believed them to be true to their perceptions when they insisted on what they termed the high excellence of the ancients.  With my old schoolfellows, I now said, the process of perusal, when reading an English work of classical standing, is so sudden, compared with the slowness with which they imagine or understand, that they slide over the surface of their author's numbers, or of his periods, without acquiring a due sense of what lies beneath; whereas, in perusing the works of a Greek or Latin author, they have just to do what I am doing in deciphering the "Palice of Honour" or the "Goldin Terge"—they have to proceed slowly, and to render the language of their author into the language of their own thinking.  And so, losing scarce any of his meaning in consequence, and not reflecting on the process through which they have entered into it, they contrast the little which they gain from a hurried perusal of a good English book, with the much which they gain from the very leisurely perusal of a good Latin or Greek one; and term the little the poverty of modern writers, and the much the fertility of the ancients.  Such was my theory, and it was at least not an uncharitable one to my acquaintance.  I was, however, arrested in the middle of my studies by a day of soaking rain, which so saturated with moisture the decayed spongy wood, our fuel, that, though I succeeded in making with some difficulty such fires of it as sufficed to cook our victuals, it defied my skill to make one by which I could read.  At length, however, this dreary season of labour—by far the gloomiest I ever spent—came to a close, and I returned with my master to Cromarty about Martinmas, our heavy job of work completed, and my term of apprenticeship at a close.


 
CHAPTER XII.


Far let me wander down thy craggy shore,
With rocks and trees bestrewn, dark Loch Maree.—S
MALL.


THE restorative powers of a constitution which at this time it took much hard usage to injure, came vigorously into operation on my removal from the wet ditch and the ruinous hovel; and ere the close of winter I had got once more into my ordinary state of robust health.  I read, wrote, drew, corresponded with my friend William Ross (who had removed to Edinburgh), re-examined the Eathie Lias, and re-explored the Eathie Burn—a noble Old Red Sandstone ravine, remarkable for the wild picturesqueness of its cliffs and the beauty of its cataracts.  I spent, too, many an evening in Uncle James's workshop, on better terms with both my uncles than almost ever before—a consequence, in part, of the sober complexion which, as the seasons passed, my mind was gradually assuming, and in part, of the manner in which I had completed my engagement with my master.  "Act always," said Uncle James, "as you have done in this matter.  In all your dealings, give your neighbour the cast of the bauk—'good measure, heaped up and running over'—and you will not lose by it in the end."  I certainly did not lose by faithfully serving out my term of apprenticeship.  It is not uninstructive to observe how strangely the public are led at times to attach paramount importance to what is in reality only subordinately important, and to pass over the really paramount without thought or notice.  The destiny in life of the skilled mechanic is much more influenced, for instance, by his second education—that of his apprenticeship—than by his first—that of the school; and yet it is to the education of the school that the importance is generally regarded as attaching, and we never hear of the other.  The careless, incompetent scholar has many opportunities of recovering himself; the careless, incompetent apprentice, who either fails to serve out his regular time, or who, though he fulfils his term, is discharged an inferior workman, has very few; and further, nothing can be more certain than that inferiority as a workman bears much more disastrously on the condition of the mechanic than inferiority as a scholar.  Unable to maintain his place among brother journeyman, or to render himself worthy of the average wages of his craft, the ill-taught mechanic falls out of regular employment, subsists precariously for a time on occasional jobs, and either, forming idle habits, becomes a vagabond tramper, or, getting into the toils of some rapacious task-master, becomes an enslaved sweater.  For one workman injured by neglect of his school-education, there are scores ruined by neglect of their apprenticeship-education.  Three-fourths of the distress of the country's mechanics (of course not reckoning that of the unhappy class who have to compete with machinery), and nine-tenths of their vagabondism, will be found restricted to inferior workmen, who, like Hogarth's "careless apprentice," neglected the opportunities of their second term of education.  The sagacious painter had a truer insight into this matter than most of our modern educationists.

    My friend of the Doocot Cave had been serving a short apprenticeship to a grocer in London during the latter years in which I had been working out mine as a stone-mason in the north country; and I now learned that he had just returned to his native place, with the intention of setting up in business for himself.  To those who move in the upper walks, the superiority in status of the village shop-keeper over the journeyman mason may not be very perceptible; but, surveyed from the lower levels of society, it is quite considerable enough to be seen; even Gulliver could determine that the Emperor of Lilliput was taller by almost the breadth of a nail than any of his Court; and, though extremely desirous of renewing my acquaintanceship with my old friend, I was sensible enough of his advantage over me in point of position, to feel that the necessary advances should be made on his part, not on mine.  I, however, threw myself in his way, though after a manner so fastidiously proud and jealous, that even yet, every time the recollection crosses me, it provokes me to a smile.  On learning that he was engaged at the quay in superintending the landing of some goods, for, I suppose, his future shop, I assumed the leathern apron, which I had thrown aside for the winter at Martinmas, and stalked past him in my working dress—a veritable operative mason—eyeing him steadfastly as I passed.  He looked at me for a moment; and then, without sign of recognition, turned indifferently away.  I failed taking into account that he had never seen me girt with a leathern apron before—that, since we had last parted, I had grown more than half a foot—and that a young man of nearly five feet eleven inches, with an incipient whisker palpably visible on his cheek, might be a different-looking sort of person from a smooth-chinned stripling of little more than five feet three.  And certainly my friend, as I learned from him nearly three years after, failed on this occasion to recognise me.  But believing that he did, and that he did not choose to reckon among his friends a humble working man, I returned to my home very sad, and I am afraid, not a little angry; and, locking up the supposed slight in my breast, as of too delicate a nature to be communicated to any one, for more than two years from this time I did not again cross his path.

    I was now my own master, and commenced work as a journeyman in behalf of one of my maternal aunts—the aunt who had gone so many years before to live with her aged relative, the cousin of my father, and the mother of his first wife.  Aunt Jenny had resided for many years after this time with an aged widow lady, who had lived apart in quiet gentility on very small means; and now that she was dead, my aunt saw her vocation gone, and wished that she too could live apart, a life of humble independency, supporting herself by her spinning-wheel, and by now and then knitting a stocking.  She feared, however, to encounter the formidable drain on her means of a half-yearly room-rent; and, as there was a little bit of ground at the head of the strip of garden left me by my father, which bordered on a road that, communicating between town and country, bore, as is common in the north of Scotland, the French name of the Pays, it occurred to me that I might try my hand, as a skilled mechanic, in erecting upon it a cottage for Aunt Jenny.  Masons have, of course, more in their power in the way of house-building than any other class of mechanics.  It was necessary, however, that there should be money provided for the purchase of wood for the roof, and for the carting of the necessary stones and mortar; and I had none.  But aunt Jenny had saved a few pounds, and a very few proved sufficient; and so I built a cottage in the Pays, of a single room and a closet, as my first job, which, if not very elegant, or of large accommodation, came fully up to Aunt Jenny's ideas of comfort, and which, for at least a quarter of a century, has served her as a home.  It was complete before Whitsunday, and then I deliberated on setting myself to seek after employment of a more remunerative kind, with just a little of the feeling to which we owe one of the best-known elegiac poems in the language—the "Man was made to mourn" of Burns.  "There is nothing that gives me a more mortifying picture of human life," said the poet, "than a man seeking work."  The required work, however, came direct in my way without solicitation, and exactly at the proper time.  I was engaged to assist in hewing a Gothic gateway among the woods of my old haunt, Conon-side; and was then despatched, when the work was on the eve of being finished, to provide materials for building a house on the western coast of Ross-shire.  My new master had found me engaged in the previous season, amid the wild turmoil of the barrack, in studying practical geometry, and had glanced approvingly over a series of architectural drawings which I had just completed; and he now sought me out in consequence, and placed me in charge of a small party which he despatched in advance of his other workmen, and which I was instructed to increase, by employing a labourer or two on arriving at the scene of our future employment.

    We were to be accompanied by a carter from a neighbouring town; and on the morning fixed for the commencement of our journey, his cart and horse were early at Conon-side, to carry across the country the tools required at our new job; but of himself we saw no trace; and about ten o'clock we set off without him.  Ascertaining, however, when about two miles on our way, that we had left behind us a lever useful in the setting of large stones, I bade my companion wait for me at the village of Contin, where we expected meeting the carter; and, returning for the tool, I quitted the high road on finding it, and, to save time, and avoid a detour of about three miles, struck across the country direct on the village.  My way was, however, a very rough one; and in coming upon the Conon, which it was necessary I should ford—for by avoiding the detour I had missed the bridge—I found it tolerably heavy in flood.  Save for the iron lever which, I carried, I would have selected, as my point of crossing, one of the still deep pools, as much safer to a vigorous swimmer than any of the apparent fords, with their powerful currents, whirling eddies, and rough bottoms.  But though the heroes of antiquity—men such as Julius Cæsar and Horatius Cocles—could swim across rivers and seas in heavy armour, the specific gravity of the human subject in these latter ages of the world forbids such feats; and, concluding that I had not levity enough in my framework to float across the lever, I selected, with some hesitation, one of the better-looking fords, and, with my trousers dangling from the iron beam on my shoulder, entered the river.  Such was the arrowy swiftness of the current, however, that the water had scarce reached my middle when it began to hollow out the stones and gravel from under my feet, and to bear me down per force in a slanting direction.  There was a foaming rapid just at hand; and immediately beyond, a deep, dark pool, in which the chafed current whirled around, as if exhausting the wrath aroused by its recent treatment among rocks and stones, ere recovering its ordinary temper; and had I lost footing, or been carried a little further down, I know not how it might have fared with me in the wild foaming descent that lay between the ford and the pool.  Curiously enough, however, the one idea which, in the excitement of the moment, filled my mind, was an intensely ludicrous one.  I would, of course, lose not only the lever in the torrent, but my trousers also; and how was I ever to get home without them?  Where, in the name of wonder, should I get a kilt to borrow?  I have oftener than once experienced this strange sensation of the ludicrous in circumstances with which a different feeling would have harmonized better.  Byron represents it as rising in extreme grief: it is, however, I suspect, greatly more common in extreme danger; and all the instances which the poet himself gives in his note—Sir Thomas More on the scaffold, Anne Boleyn in the Tower, and those victims of the French Revolution "with whom it became a fashion to leave some mot as a legacy"—were all jokes rather in circumstances of desperate and hopeless peril than of sorrow.  It is, however, in danger, as certainly as in grief, a joyless sort of mirth.


That playfulness of sorrow ne'er beguiles;
It smiles in bitterness; but still it smiles,
And sometimes with the wisest and the beat,
Till even the scaffold echoes with their jest.


The feeling however, though an inharmoniously toned, is not a weakening one.  I laughed in the stream, but I did not yield to it; and, making a violent effort, when just on the edge of the rapid, I got into stiller water, and succeeded in making my way to the opposite bank, drenched to the arm-pits.  It was in nearly the same reach of the Conon that my poor friend the maniac of Ord lost her life a few days after.



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