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Ch. 5 - An Old Scotch Gardener

I THINK I might almost have said the last: somewhere, indeed, in
the uttermost glens of the Lammermuir or among the southwestern
hills there may yet linger a decrepid representative of this bygone
good fellowship; but as far as actual experience goes, I have only
met one man in my life who might fitly be quoted in the same breath
with Andrew Fairservice, - though without his vices. He was a man
whose very presence could impart a savour of quaint antiquity to
the baldest and most modern flower-plots. There was a dignity
about his tall stooping form, and an earnestness in his wrinkled
face that recalled Don Quixote; but a Don Quixote who had come
through the training of the Covenant, and been nourished in his

Now, as I could not bear to let such a man pass away with no sketch
preserved of his old-fashioned virtues, I hope the reader will take
this as an excuse for the present paper, and judge as kindly as he
can the infirmities of my description. To me, who find it so
difficult to tell the little that I know, he stands essentially as
a GENIUS LOCI. It is impossible to separate his spare form and old
straw hat from the garden in the lap of the hill, with its rocks
overgrown with clematis, its shadowy walks, and the splendid
breadth of champaign that one saw from the north-west corner. The
garden and gardener seem part and parcel of each other. When I
take him from his right surroundings and try to make him appear for
me on paper, he looks unreal and phantasmal: the best that I can
say may convey some notion to those that never saw him, but to me
it will be ever impotent.

The first time that I saw him, I fancy Robert was pretty old
already: he had certainly begun to use his years as a stalking
horse. Latterly he was beyond all the impudencies of logic,
considering a reference to the parish register worth all the
reasons in the world, "I AM OLD AND WELL STRICKEN IN YEARS," he was
wont to say; and I never found any one bold enough to answer the
argument. Apart from this vantage that he kept over all who were
not yet octogenarian, he had some other drawbacks as a gardener.
He shrank the very place he cultivated. The dignity and reduced
gentility of his appearance made the small garden cut a sorry
figure. He was full of tales of greater situations in his younger
days. He spoke of castles and parks with a humbling familiarity.
He told of places where under-gardeners had trembled at his looks,
where there were meres and swanneries, labyrinths of walk and
wildernesses of sad shrubbery in his control, till you could not
help feeling that it was condescension on his part to dress your
humbler garden plots. You were thrown at once into an invidious
position. You felt that you were profiting by the needs of
dignity, and that his poverty and not his will consented to your
vulgar rule. Involuntarily you compared yourself with the
swineherd that made Alfred watch his cakes, or some bloated citizen
who may have given his sons and his condescension to the fallen
Dionysius. Nor were the disagreeables purely fanciful and
metaphysical, for the sway that he exercised over your feelings he
extended to your garden, and, through the garden, to your diet. He
would trim a hedge, throw away a favourite plant, or fill the most
favoured and fertile section of the garden with a vegetable that
none of us could eat, in supreme contempt for our opinion. If you
asked him to send you in one of your own artichokes, "THAT I WULL,
THAN TO RECEIVE." Ay, and even when, by extra twisting of the
screw, we prevailed on him to prefer our commands to his own
inclination, and he went away, stately and sad, professing that
"OUR WULL WAS HIS PLEASURE," but yet reminding us that he would do
it "WITH FEELIN'S," - even then, I say, the triumphant master felt
humbled in his triumph, felt that he ruled on sufferance only, that
he was taking a mean advantage of the other's low estate, and that
the whole scene had been one of those "slights that patient merit
of the unworthy takes."

In flowers his taste was old-fashioned and catholic; affecting
sunflowers and dahlias, wallflowers and roses and holding in
supreme aversion whatsoever was fantastic, new-fashioned or wild.
There was one exception to this sweeping ban. Foxgloves, though
undoubtedly guilty on the last count, he not only spared, but
loved; and when the shrubbery was being thinned, he stayed his hand
and dexterously manipulated his bill in order to save every stately
stem. In boyhood, as he told me once, speaking in that tone that
only actors and the old-fashioned common folk can use nowadays, his
heart grew "PROUD" within him when he came on a burn-course among
the braes of Manor that shone purple with their graceful trophies;
and not all his apprenticeship and practice for so many years of
precise gardening had banished these boyish recollections from his
heart. Indeed, he was a man keenly alive to the beauty of all that
was bygone. He abounded in old stories of his boyhood, and kept
pious account of all his former pleasures; and when he went (on a
holiday) to visit one of the fabled great places of the earth where
he had served before, he came back full of little pre-Raphaelite
reminiscences that showed real passion for the past, such as might
have shaken hands with Hazlitt or Jean-Jacques.

But however his sympathy with his old feelings might affect his
liking for the foxgloves, the very truth was that he scorned all
flowers together. They were but garnishings, childish toys,
trifling ornaments for ladies' chimney-shelves. It was towards his
cauliflowers and peas and cabbage that his heart grew warm. His
preference for the more useful growths was such that cabbages were
found invading the flower-pots, and an outpost of savoys was once
discovered in the centre of the lawn. He would prelect over some
thriving plant with wonderful enthusiasm, piling reminiscence on
reminiscence of former and perhaps yet finer specimens. Yet even
then he did not let the credit leave himself. He had, indeed,
raised "FINER O' THEM;" but it seemed that no one else had been
favoured with a like success. All other gardeners, in fact, were
mere foils to his own superior attainments; and he would recount,
with perfect soberness of voice and visage, how so and so had
wondered, and such another could scarcely give credit to his eyes.
Nor was it with his rivals only that he parted praise and blame.
If you remarked how well a plant was looking, he would gravely
touch his hat and thank you with solemn unction; all credit in the
matter falling to him. If, on the other hand, you called his
attention to some back-going vegetable, he would quote Scripture:
"PAUL MAY PLANT AND APOLLOS MAY WATER;" all blame being left to
Providence, on the score of deficient rain or untimely frosts.

There was one thing in the garden that shared his preference with
his favourite cabbages and rhubarb, and that other was the beehive.
Their sound, their industry, perhaps their sweet product also, had
taken hold of his imagination and heart, whether by way of memory
or no I cannot say, although perhaps the bees too were linked to
him by some recollection of Manor braes and his country childhood.
Nevertheless, he was too chary of his personal safety or (let me
rather say) his personal dignity to mingle in any active office
towards them. But he could stand by while one of the contemned
rivals did the work for him, and protest that it was quite safe in
spite of his own considerate distance and the cries of the
distressed assistant. In regard to bees, he was rather a man of
word than deed, and some of his most striking sentences had the

As far as the Bible goes, he was deeply read. Like the old
Covenanters, of whom he was the worthy representative, his mouth
was full of sacred quotations; it was the book that he had studied
most and thought upon most deeply. To many people in his station
the Bible, and perhaps Burns, are the only books of any vital
literary merit that they read, feeding themselves, for the rest, on
the draff of country newspapers, and the very instructive but not
very palatable pabulum of some cheap educational series. This was
Robert's position. All day long he had dreamed of the Hebrew
stories, and his head had been full of Hebrew poetry and Gospel
ethics; until they had struck deep root into his heart, and the
very expressions had become a part of him; so that he rarely spoke
without some antique idiom or Scripture mannerism that gave a
raciness to the merest trivialities of talk. But the influence of
the Bible did not stop here. There was more in Robert than quaint
phrase and ready store of reference. He was imbued with a spirit
of peace and love: he interposed between man and wife: he threw
himself between the angry, touching his hat the while with all the
ceremony of an usher: he protected the birds from everybody but
himself, seeing, I suppose, a great difference between official
execution and wanton sport. His mistress telling him one day to
put some ferns into his master's particular corner, and adding,
"Though, indeed, Robert, he doesn't deserve them, for he wouldn't
help me to gather them," "EH, MEM," replies Robert, "BUT I WOULDNAE
Again, two of our friends, who were on intimate terms, and
accustomed to use language to each other, somewhat without the
bounds of the parliamentary, happened to differ about the position
of a seat in the garden. The discussion, as was usual when these
two were at it, soon waxed tolerably insulting on both sides.
Every one accustomed to such controversies several times a day was
quietly enjoying this prize-fight of somewhat abusive wit - every
one but Robert, to whom the perfect good faith of the whole quarrel
seemed unquestionable, and who, after having waited till his
conscience would suffer him to wait no more, and till he expected
every moment that the disputants would fall to blows, cut suddenly
in with tones of almost tearful entreaty: "EH, BUT, GENTLEMEN, I
WAD HAE NAE MAIR WORDS ABOUT IT!" One thing was noticeable about
Robert's religion: it was neither dogmatic nor sectarian. He never
expatiated (at least, in my hearing) on the doctrines of his creed,
and he never condemned anybody else. I have no doubt that he held
all Roman Catholics, Atheists, and Mahometans as considerably out
of it; I don't believe he had any sympathy for Prelacy; and the
natural feelings of man must have made him a little sore about
Free-Churchism; but at least, he never talked about these views,
never grew controversially noisy, and never openly aspersed the
belief or practice of anybody. Now all this is not generally
characteristic of Scotch piety; Scotch sects being churches
militant with a vengeance, and Scotch believers perpetual crusaders
the one against the other, and missionaries the one to the other.
Perhaps Robert's originally tender heart was what made the
difference; or, perhaps, his solitary and pleasant labour among
fruits and flowers had taught him a more sunshiny creed than those
whose work is among the tares of fallen humanity; and the soft
influences of the garden had entered deep into his spirit,

"Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade."

But I could go on for ever chronicling his golden sayings or
telling of his innocent and living piety. I had meant to tell of
his cottage, with the German pipe hung reverently above the fire,
and the shell box that he had made for his son, and of which he
would say pathetically: "HE WAS REAL PLEASED WI' IT AT FIRST, BUT
I THINK HE'S GOT A KIND O' TIRED O' IT NOW" - the son being then a
man of about forty. But I will let all these pass. "'Tis more
significant: he's dead." The earth, that he had digged so much in
his life, was dug out by another for himself; and the flowers that
he had tended drew their life still from him, but in a new and
nearer way. A bird flew about the open grave, as if it too wished
to honour the obsequies of one who had so often quoted Scripture in
favour of its kind. "Are not two sparrows sold for one farthing,
and yet not one of them falleth to the ground."

Yes, he is dead. But the kings did not rise in the place of death
to greet him "with taunting proverbs" as they rose to greet the
haughty Babylonian; for in his life he was lowly, and a peacemaker
and a servant of God.

Robert Louis Stevenson