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Old Mortality-TALES OF MY LANDLORD.
Most readers must have witnessed with delight the joyous burst which attends the dismissing of a village-school, on a fine summer evening. The buoyant spirit of childhood, repressed with so much difficulty during the tedious hours of discipline, may then explode, as it were, in shout, and song, and frolic, as the little urchins join in groups on their playground, and arrange their matches of sport for the evening But there is one individual who partakes of the relief afforded by the moment of dismission, whose feelings are not so obvious to the eye of the spectator, or so apt to receive his sympathy.
I mean, the teacher himself, who, stunned with the hum, and suffocated with the closeness of his school-room, has spent the whole day (himself against a host) in controlling petulance, exciting indifference to action, striving to enlighten stupidity, and laboring to soften obstinacy; and whose very powers of intellect have been confounded by hearing the same dull lesson repeated a hundred times by rote, and only varied by the various blunders of the reciters.
Even the flowers of classic genius, with which his solitary fancy is most gratified, have been rendered degraded, in his imagination, by their connexion with tears, with errors, and with punishment: so that the Eclogues of Virgil, and Odes of Horace, are each inseparably allied in association with the sullen figure and monotonous recitation of some blubbering school-boy. If to these mental distresses are added a delicate frame of body, and a mind ambitious of some higher distinction than that of being the tyrant of childhood, the reader may have some slight conception of the relief which a solitary walk, in the cool of a fine summer evening, affords to the head which has ached, and the nerves which have been shattered for so many hours, in plying the irksome task of public instruction.
To me, these evening strolls have been the happiest hours of an unhappy life; and if any gentle reader shall hereafter find pleasure in pursuing these lucubrations, I am not unwilling he should know, that the plan of them has been usually traced in those moments, when relief from toil and clamor, combined with the quiet scenery around me, has disposed my mind to the task of composition.
My chief haunt, in these hours of golden leisure, is the banks of a small stream, which, winding through 'a lone vale of green bracken,' passes in front of the village schoolhouse of Gandercleuch. For the first quarter of a mile, perhaps, I may be disturbed from my meditations, in order to return the scrape, or doffed bonnet, of such stragglers among my pupils as fish for trout or minnows in the little brook, or seek rushes and wild-flowers by its margin.-But, beyond the space I have mentioned, the juvenile anglers do not, after sun-set, voluntarily extend their excursions.
The cause is, that farther up the narrow valley, and in a recess which seems scooped out of the side of the steep, heathy bank, there is a deserted burial-ground, which the little cowards are fearful of approaching in the twilight. To me, however, the place has an inexpressible charm. It has been long the favorite termination of my walks, and if my kind patron forgets not his promise, will (and probably at no very distant day) be my final resting-place after my mortal pilgrimage.
It is a spot which possesses all the solemnity of feeling attached to a burial-ground, without exciting those of a more unpleasant description. Having been very little used, for many years, the few hillocks which rise above the level plain are covered with the same short velvet turf. The monuments, of which there are not above seven or eight, are half sunk in the ground, and overgrown with moss. Νο newly erected tomb disturbs the sober serenity of our reflec tions by reminding us of recent calamity, and no rank springing grass forces upon our imagination the recollection, that it owes its dark luxuriance to the foul and festering remnants of mortality which ferment beneath.
The daisy which sprinkles the sod, and the hare-bell which hangs over it, derive their pure nourishment from the dew of heaven, and their growth impresses us with no degrading or disgusting recollections. Death has, indeed, been here, and its traces are before us; but they are softened and deprived of their horror by our distance from the period when they have been first impressed. Those who sleep beneath are only connected with us by the reflection that they have once been what we now are, and that, as their relics are now identified with their mother earth, ours shall, at some future period, undergo the same transformation.
Yet, although the moss has been collected on the most
modern of these humble tombs, during four generations of mankind, the memory of some of those who sleep beneath them is still held in revered remembrance. It is true, that, upon the largest, and, to the antiquary, the most interesting monument of the group which bears the effigies* of a doughty knight in his hood of mail, with his shield hanging on his breast, the armorial bearings are defaced by time, and a few worn-out letters may be read at the pleasure of the decipherer; and it is also true that, of another tomb richly sculptured with an ornamented cross, mitre, and pastoral staff, tradition can only aver, that a certain nameless bishop lies interred there.
But upon other two stones which lie beside, may still be read in rude prose, and ruder rhyme, the history of those who sleep beneath them. They belong, They belong, we are assured by the epitaph, to the class of persecuted Presbyterians who afforded a melancholy subject for history in the times of Charles II. and his successors. In returning from the battle of Pentland Hills, a party of the insurgents had been attacked in this glen, by a small detachment of the king's troops, and three or four either killed in the skirmish, or shot, after being made prisoners, as rebels taken with arms in their hands.
The peasantry continue to attach to the tombs of those victims of prěl'acy an honor which they do not attach to more splendid mausoleums; and when they point them out to their sons, and narrate the fate of the sufferers, they usually conclude, by exhorting them to be ready, should times call for it, to resist to the death in the cause of civil and religious liberty, like their brave forefathers.
One summer evening, as in a stroll, such as I have described, I approached this deserted mansion of the dead, I was somewhat surprised to hear sounds distinct from those which usually sooth its solitude, the gentle chiding, namely, of the brook, and the sighing of the wind in the boughs of three gigantic ash-trees, which mark the cemetery. The clink of a hammer was, upon this occasion, distinctly heard; and I entertained some alarm that a march-dike, long meditated by the two proprietors whose estates were divided by my favorite brook, was about to be drawn up the glen in order to substitute its rectilinear deformity for the graceful winding of the natural boundary.
As I approached, I was agreeably undeceived. An old
* Pron. ef-fid'jés.
man was seated upon the monument of the slaughtered Presbyterians, and busily employed in deepening, with his chisel, the letters of the inscription, which, announcing, in scriptural language, the promised blessings of futurity to be the lot of the slain, anathematized the murderers with corresponding violence.
A blue bonnet of unusual dimensions covered the gray hairs of the pious workman. His dress was a large old-fashioned coat, of the coarse cloth called heddin-gray, usually worn by the elder peasants, with waistcoat and breeches of the same; and the whole suit, though still in decent repair, had obviously seen a train of long service. Strong clouted shoes, studded with hob-nails, and gramoches, or leggins, made of thick black cloth, completed his equipment.
Beside him fed, among the graves, a pony, the companion of his journey, whose extreme whiteness as well as its projecting bones and hollow eyes, indicated its antiquity. It was harnessed in the most simple manner, with a hair tether, or halter, and a sunk, or cushion of straw, instead of bridle and saddle. A canvass pouch hung around the neck of the animal, for the purpose, probably, of containing the rider's tools, and any thing else he might have occasion to carry with him. Although I had never seen the old man before, yet, from the singularity of his employment, and the style of his equipage, I had no difficulty in recognizing a religious itinerant whom I had often heard talked of, and who was known in various parts of Scotland by the title of Old Mortality.
WHERE the old man was born, or what was his real name, I have never been able to learn; nor are the motives which made him desert his home, and adopt the erratic mode of life which he pursued, known to me except very generally. According to the belief of most people, he was a native of either the county of Dumfries or Galloway, and lineally descended from some of those champions of the Covenant whose deeds and sufferings were his favorite theme.
He is said to have held, at one period of his life, a small moorland farm; but, whether from pecuniary losses, or do
mestic misfortune, he had long renounced that and every other gainful calling. In the language of Scripture, he left his house, his home, and his kindred, and wandered about until the day of his death; a period, it is said, of about thirty years.
During this long pilgrimage, the pious enthusiast regu lated his circuit so as annually to visit the graves of the un fortunate Covenanters who suffered by the sword or by the executioner, during the reigns of the two last monarchs of the Stuart line. Their tombs are often apart from all humani habitation, in the remote moors and wilds to which the wanderers had fled for concealment. But, wherever they existed, Old Mortality was sure to visit them when his annual round brought them within his reach.
In the most lonely recess'es of the mountains, the moorfowl shooter has been often surprised to find him busied in cleaning the moss from the gray stones, renewing with his chisel the half-defaced inscriptions, and repairing the emblems of death with which these simple monuments are usually adorned.
Motives of the most sincere, though fanciful devotion, induced the old man to dedicate so many years of existence to perform this tribute to the memory of the deceased warriors of the church. He considered himself as fulfilling a sacred duty, while renewing, to the eyes of posterity, the decaying emblems of the zeal and sufferings of their forefathers, and thereby trimming, as it were, the beacon light which was to warn future generations to defend their religion even unto blood.
In all his wanderings, the old pilgrim never seemed to need, or was known to accept, pecuniary assistance. It is true, his wants were very few; for wherever he went he found ready quarters in the house of some Cameronian of his own sect, or of some other religious person. The hospitality which was reverentially paid to him he always acknowledged by repairing the grave stones (if there existed any) belonging to the family or ancestors of his host. As the wanderer was usually to be seen bent on this pious task within the precincts of some country church-yard, or reclined on the solitary tomb-stone among the heath, disturbing the plover and the black-cock with the clink of his chisel and mallet, with his old white pony grazing by his side, he acquired, from his converse among the dead, the popular appellation of Old Mortality.