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Ch. 7 - The Manse

I HAVE named, among many rivers that make music in my memory, that
dirty Water of Leith. Often and often I desire to look upon it
again; and the choice of a point of view is easy to me. It should
be at a certain water-door, embowered in shrubbery. The river is
there dammed back for the service of the flour-mill just below, so
that it lies deep and darkling, and the sand slopes into brown
obscurity with a glint of gold; and it has but newly been recruited
by the borrowings of the snuff-mill just above, and these, tumbling
merrily in, shake the pool to its black heart, fill it with drowsy
eddies, and set the curded froth of many other mills solemnly
steering to and fro upon the surface. Or so it was when I was
young; for change, and the masons, and the pruning-knife, have been
busy; and if I could hope to repeat a cherished experience, it must
be on many and impossible conditions. I must choose, as well as
the point of view, a certain moment in my growth, so that the scale
may be exaggerated, and the trees on the steep opposite side may
seem to climb to heaven, and the sand by the water-door, where I am
standing, seem as low as Styx. And I must choose the season also,
so that the valley may be brimmed like a cup with sunshine and the
songs of birds; - and the year of grace, so that when I turn to
leave the riverside I may find the old manse and its inhabitants
unchanged.

It was a place in that time like no other: the garden cut into
provinces by a great hedge of beech, and over-looked by the church
and the terrace of the churchyard, where the tombstones were thick,
and after nightfall "spunkies" might be seen to dance at least by
children; flower-plots lying warm in sunshine; laurels and the
great yew making elsewhere a pleasing horror of shade; the smell of
water rising from all round, with an added tang of paper-mills; the
sound of water everywhere, and the sound of mills - the wheel and
the dam singing their alternate strain; the birds on every bush and
from every corner of the overhanging woods pealing out their notes
until the air throbbed with them; and in the midst of this, the
manse. I see it, by the standard of my childish stature, as a
great and roomy house. In truth, it was not so large as I
supposed, nor yet so convenient, and, standing where it did, it is
difficult to suppose that it was healthful. Yet a large family of
stalwart sons and tall daughters were housed and reared, and came
to man and womanhood in that nest of little chambers; so that the
face of the earth was peppered with the children of the manse, and
letters with outlandish stamps became familiar to the local
postman, and the walls of the little chambers brightened with the
wonders of the East. The dullest could see this was a house that
had a pair of hands in divers foreign places: a well-beloved house
- its image fondly dwelt on by many travellers.

Here lived an ancestor of mine, who was a herd of men. I read him,
judging with older criticism the report of childish observation, as
a man of singular simplicity of nature; unemotional, and hating the
display of what he felt; standing contented on the old ways; a
lover of his life and innocent habits to the end. We children
admired him: partly for his beautiful face and silver hair, for
none more than children are concerned for beauty and, above all,
for beauty in the old; partly for the solemn light in which we
beheld him once a week, the observed of all observers, in the
pulpit. But his strictness and distance, the effect, I now fancy,
of old age, slow blood, and settled habit, oppressed us with a kind
of terror. When not abroad, he sat much alone, writing sermons or
letters to his scattered family in a dark and cold room with a
library of bloodless books - or so they seemed in those days,
although I have some of them now on my own shelves and like well
enough to read them; and these lonely hours wrapped him in the
greater gloom for our imaginations. But the study had a redeeming
grace in many Indian pictures, gaudily coloured and dear to young
eyes. I cannot depict (for I have no such passions now) the greed
with which I beheld them; and when I was once sent in to say a
psalm to my grandfather, I went, quaking indeed with fear, but at
the same time glowing with hope that, if I said it well, he might
reward me with an Indian picture.

"Thy foot He'll not let slide, nor will
He slumber that thee keeps,"

it ran: a strange conglomerate of the unpronounceable, a sad model
to set in childhood before one who was himself to be a versifier,
and a task in recitation that really merited reward. And I must
suppose the old man thought so too, and was either touched or
amused by the performance; for he took me in his arms with most
unwonted tenderness, and kissed me, and gave me a little kindly
sermon for my psalm; so that, for that day, we were clerk and
parson. I was struck by this reception into so tender a surprise
that I forgot my disappointment. And indeed the hope was one of
those that childhood forges for a pastime, and with no design upon
reality. Nothing was more unlikely than that my grandfather should
strip himself of one of those pictures, love-gifts and reminders of
his absent sons; nothing more unlikely than that he should bestow
it upon me. He had no idea of spoiling children, leaving all that
to my aunt; he had fared hard himself, and blubbered under the rod
in the last century; and his ways were still Spartan for the young.
The last word I heard upon his lips was in this Spartan key. He
had over-walked in the teeth of an east wind, and was now near the
end of his many days. He sat by the dining-room fire, with his
white hair, pale face and bloodshot eyes, a somewhat awful figure;
and my aunt had given him a dose of our good old Scotch medicine,
Dr. Gregory's powder. Now that remedy, as the work of a near
kinsman of Rob Roy himself, may have a savour of romance for the
imagination; but it comes uncouthly to the palate. The old
gentleman had taken it with a wry face; and that being
accomplished, sat with perfect simplicity, like a child's, munching
a "barley-sugar kiss." But when my aunt, having the canister open
in her hands, proposed to let me share in the sweets, he interfered
at once. I had had no Gregory; then I should have no barley-sugar
kiss: so he decided with a touch of irritation. And just then the
phaeton coming opportunely to the kitchen door - for such was our
unlordly fashion - I was taken for the last time from the presence
of my grandfather.

Now I often wonder what I have inherited from this old minister. I
must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so
am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to
hear them. He sought health in his youth in the Isle of Wight, and
I have sought it in both hemispheres; but whereas he found and kept
it, I am still on the quest. He was a great lover of Shakespeare,
whom he read aloud, I have been told, with taste; well, I love my
Shakespeare also, and am persuaded I can read him well, though I
own I never have been told so. He made embroidery, designing his
own patterns; and in that kind of work I never made anything but a
kettle-holder in Berlin wool, and an odd garter of knitting, which
was as black as the chimney before I had done with it. He loved
port, and nuts, and porter; and so do I, but they agreed better
with my grandfather, which seems to me a breach of contract. He
had chalk-stones in his fingers; and these, in good time, I may
possibly inherit, but I would much rather have inherited his noble
presence. Try as I please, I cannot join myself on with the
reverend doctor; and all the while, no doubt, and even as I write
the phrase, he moves in my blood, and whispers words to me, and
sits efficient in the very knot and centre of my being. In his
garden, as I played there, I learned the love of mills - or had I
an ancestor a miller? - and a kindness for the neighbourhood of
graves, as homely things not without their poetry - or had I an
ancestor a sexton? But what of the garden where he played himself?
- for that, too, was a scene of my education. Some part of me
played there in the eighteenth century, and ran races under the
green avenue at Pilrig; some part of me trudged up Leith Walk,
which was still a country place, and sat on the High School
benches, and was thrashed, perhaps, by Dr. Adam. The house where I
spent my youth was not yet thought upon; but we made holiday
parties among the cornfields on its site, and ate strawberries and
cream near by at a gardener's. All this I had forgotten; only my
grandfather remembered and once reminded me. I have forgotten,
too, how we grew up, and took orders, and went to our first
Ayrshire parish, and fell in love with and married a daughter of
Burns's Dr. Smith - "Smith opens out his cauld harangues." I have
forgotten, but I was there all the same, and heard stories of Burns
at first hand.

And there is a thing stranger than all that; for this HOMUNCULUS or
part-man of mine that walked about the eighteenth century with Dr.
Balfour in his youth, was in the way of meeting other HOMUNCULOS or
part-men, in the persons of my other ancestors. These were of a
lower order, and doubtless we looked down upon them duly. But as I
went to college with Dr. Balfour, I may have seen the lamp and oil
man taking down the shutters from his shop beside the Tron; - we
may have had a rabbit-hutch or a bookshelf made for us by a certain
carpenter in I know not what wynd of the old, smoky city; or, upon
some holiday excursion, we may have looked into the windows of a
cottage in a flower-garden and seen a certain weaver plying his
shuttle. And these were all kinsmen of mine upon the other side;
and from the eyes of the lamp and oil man one-half of my unborn
father, and one-quarter of myself, looked out upon us as we went by
to college. Nothing of all this would cross the mind of the young
student, as he posted up the Bridges with trim, stockinged legs, in
that city of cocked hats and good Scotch still unadulterated. It
would not cross his mind that he should have a daughter; and the
lamp and oil man, just then beginning, by a not unnatural
metastasis, to bloom into a lighthouse-engineer, should have a
grandson; and that these two, in the fulness of time, should wed;
and some portion of that student himself should survive yet a year
or two longer in the person of their child.

But our ancestral adventures are beyond even the arithmetic of
fancy; and it is the chief recommendation of long pedigrees, that
we can follow backward the careers of our HOMUNCULOS and be
reminded of our antenatal lives. Our conscious years are but a
moment in the history of the elements that build us. Are you a
bank-clerk, and do you live at Peckham? It was not always so. And
though to-day I am only a man of letters, either tradition errs or
I was present when there landed at St. Andrews a French barber-
surgeon, to tend the health and the beard of the great Cardinal
Beaton; I have shaken a spear in the Debateable Land and shouted
the slogan of the Elliots; I was present when a skipper, plying
from Dundee, smuggled Jacobites to France after the '15; I was in a
West India merchant's office, perhaps next door to Bailie Nicol
Jarvie's, and managed the business of a plantation in St. Kitt's; I
was with my engineer-grandfather (the son-in-law of the lamp and
oil man) when he sailed north about Scotland on the famous cruise
that gave us the PIRATE and the LORD OF THE ISLES; I was with him,
too, on the Bell Rock, in the fog, when the SMEATON had drifted
from her moorings, and the Aberdeen men, pick in hand, had seized
upon the only boats, and he must stoop and lap sea-water before his
tongue could utter audible words; and once more with him when the
Bell Rock beacon took a "thrawe," and his workmen fled into the
tower, then nearly finished, and he sat unmoved reading in his
Bible - or affecting to read - till one after another slunk back
with confusion of countenance to their engineer. Yes, parts of me
have seen life, and met adventures, and sometimes met them well.
And away in the still cloudier past, the threads that make me up
can be traced by fancy into the bosoms of thousands and millions of
ascendants: Picts who rallied round Macbeth and the old (and highly
preferable) system of descent by females, fleers from before the
legions of Agricola, marchers in Pannonian morasses, star-gazers on
Chaldaean plateaus; and, furthest of all, what face is this that
fancy can see peering through the disparted branches? What sleeper
in green tree-tops, what muncher of nuts, concludes my pedigree?
Probably arboreal in his habits. . . .

And I know not which is the more strange, that I should carry about
with me some fibres of my minister-grandfather; or that in him, as
he sat in his cool study, grave, reverend, contented gentleman,
there was an aboriginal frisking of the blood that was not his;
tree-top memories, like undeveloped negatives, lay dormant in his
mind; tree-top instincts awoke and were trod down; and Probably
Arboreal (scarce to be distinguished from a monkey) gambolled and
chattered in the brain of the old divine.

Robert Louis Stevenson