« PreviousContinue »
THE ST. LE G E R P A P ERS,
I HAVE always been disposed to believe that our early days were in. tended to be our happiest. True it is, that most look back to them with pleasure, mingled with feelings half of regret, half of sadness, that they are passed. The reason of this is, that those days are free from the anxiety which mature life is sure to bring. The man, pressed down with business, loaded with care, even though his coffers are filling with wealth, looks back upon his childhood as a green spot in his existence, while all around is drear and desolate.
But if business engross him not, if he knows nothing of the drudgery of acquiring riches, but lives for his own pleasure and amusement, how soon these pall upon him! — and then he also sighs for the careless, thoughtless, happy feelings of early days, when time needed no destroyer, and the hydra-headed monster Ennui found no place of attack.
Is it a wonder that such as I have mentioned, the slave of pleasure as well as the slave of toil, look away across the dreary waste of years, and seek to recall the past? But it is too late : youth will not come back, and they have no talisman to compel it to return:
Non enim gazæ, neque consularis
When I hear friends conversing together of good old times,' closing their conference with, ' Ah! well! those were happy days, sure enough; the happiest part of our lives, if we had but known it!' I feel persuaded that they have made but a poor use of existence. What! has God made us with such rich preparatives for true enjoyment, such noble powers of mind and sense, and yet designed us to retrograde through life? Yielding us a few questionable hours of happiness at first, to be succeeded by days of wearisome misery? It is not so! Who would be contented always with such happiness ? Who does not know that it is but the pleasure of animal existence; an existence gay indeed as the bird's, and like the bird's, thoughtless too?
The man who wisely employs himself about things imperishable, must grow happier each succeeding day in time, and so on through the period beyond, which we call eternity. The goodness of God ordains this; the wisdom of God proclaims it.
My own childhood was peculiarly thoughtful; and the thoughtful child must of necessity be unhappy. Too young to understand the great mystery of existence, every thing in life seems strange and inexplicable. A heavy burden hangs at the heart of such, and I felt its full weight. My
greatest relief was in active exercise ; for although not addicted to the ordinary sports which children love, I was fond of exposure and fatigue; and my constitution being very robust, I could indulge in these without any danger. Yet I was solitary, even in my associations. In hunting I took peculiar delight. At the early age of ten, I was the owner of a small gun and shooting apparatus: but I never took pleasure in scouring the country after a pack of hounds, in company with a score of noisy sportsmen, pursuing to the death a poor fox or hare. There was no excitement to me in leaping ditches, clearing hedges, or in a scamper across the plain ; but I loved to take my gun, and without even the assistance of a favorite pointer, make my way to the great forest which lay across the Avon, before the sun rose, and spend the whole day in traversing it. I was not so eager for the reward of the sportsmen neither. Many a time has the wood.cock crossed my path unscared, and often have I lowered my piece, raised against the life of the timid hare. I defy your sportsman to go out betimes into the green-wood, and catch the inhabitants just waking from their slumbers, and commence his bloody work, without some qualms of conscience against taking life so early in the day. The night however generally sent me back with a well-filled bag.
At that time the wild-cat was often to be found in the most extensive forests. This animal was in size considerably larger than the domestic cat, while its teeth and claws were tremendous. With these creatures I waged a war of extermination. This was not carried on without risk, certainly. Yet I loved the hazard, and felt no hardship in the toil.
But after all, when the excitement of the chase was over, thought once more was in the ascendant. My father (erroneously I believe) deter. mined to give his children a private education, affirming that public schools and universities were alike destructive to mind, manners, and morals. So at home we were kept, and furnished with erudite teachers, who knew every thing about books and nothing about men.
I had in all this abundance to foster the unhappy feeling which burned within. Thought, how it troubled me!. and I had so much to think about! But beyond all, the great wonder of my life was, 'What life was made for ? I wondered what could occupy the world. I read over the large volumes in the old library, and wondered why men should battle it with each other for the sake of power, when power lasted but so short a time. I wondered why kings who could have done so much good had done so much evil; and I wondered why any body was so very unhappy, since death would so soon relieve us from all earthly ills. Then I felt, there was some unknown power busy within me, and which demanded a field for labor and development, but I knew not what spirit it was of. I wanted to see the world ; to busy myself in its business, and try if I could discover its fashion, for it was to me a vast mystery. I knew it was filled with human beings like unto myself, but what were they doing, and wherefore? The what and the why troubled me, perplexed me almost crazed me. When I came to learn something more of the world — and it was a strangely important crisis in the affairs of man the world seemed like a mad world, and its inhabitants resolved on self-destruction. How I longed to break the shell which encased this mystery! I felt that there was a solution to all this; and I would have
given worlds to have discovered it. Not that I was kept so perfectly secluded; I had often accompanied my father to London; I had seen much of the outside form and fashion of the world, but I did not get into it. I had so educated myself, that I could not. The pageant passed ever before my eyes, but it was a pageant still. I had no friend to clear up my difficulties, for there were difficulties I never mentioned. Firm in the idea that some fearful destiny hung over me, and believing that it was connected with this general mistrust of all I saw, or read, or heard of, I kept these feelings to myself, and thus lived two lives at the same time. Had I but told my mother of all I felt and suffered, how readily might I have been relieved! Had my instructors at the first attempted to gain my confidence, and sought the reason of the premature anxiety which brooded around my young heart, even then I might have forgotten these first fearful impressions; but it was now too late. The habit was formed, and it could not undergo an easy change. Will not many who read this page exclaim : Would that I could rid myself of my early impressions! Would that I could overcome this fostered propensity of my youth! Too late! too late! I warn ye; for impressions are never effaced from the young mind; a rooted propensity never eradi. cated, beyond danger of evil. Reform may come, it is true; reason may show the folly and the sinfulness of yielding to fancied images of ill; repentance may bring forgiveness after it; and the soul be happy in the assurance; but
THERE the action lies
and though repented of, and forgiven, there it must lie forever!
Thus I continued, until nearly my sixteenth year; when an incident occurred which gave a new direction to my life.
OFF the coast of Scotland, but far out into the Atlantic, lie, as all well know, the outer range of the Hebrides, a cluster of rude islands, made up of rough rocks, wild mountains, deep and unsightly vallies, while toward the ocean their rocky cliffs assume a form of peculiar grandeur. Here the Storm King holds a perpetual revel. Here the elements continue, without intermission, their incessant strife. The de. ceitful eddy; the fearful whirlpool ; the perilous strait, are here. Here too are dark caverns, across whose entrance the waves beat continu. ally; while the tops of the threatening cliffs are lost in gloomy clouds, and against their bases roll with its restless heaving the everlasting Sea.
These islands, although situated so near to England and Scotland, seem to have retained all the simple and homely manners of a ruder age. It is probable that the dangers of the seas, and the horrors of the fearful tempests which prevail there, were sufficient to deter any from venturing thither, unless urged by some peculiar necessity. Barren rocks and a bleak climate presented no very great inducements to the rapacity of the bucanier, or the ambition of the conqueror. Yet the VOL. XXV.
Hebrideans were by no means left undisturbed in their unenviable possessions. Each island was originally governed by its own chief. But it is related that Harold Harfiger, the Light-haired, in 870, pursued several petty princes, whom he had driven out of Norway, and who had taken refuge in the Hebrides, whence they made descents upon his territories. His attack was every way successful. These pirate-chiefs were all put to death, and their followers either slaughtered or dispersed. On their regaining their ancient seats, Ketil, the Flat-nosed, was sent by Harold with a large fleet to subdue them. This he easily effected, and then openly declared himself independent, assuming the title of Prince of the Hebrides. The islanders continued, under Ketil, to be little else than rapacious pirates.
After his death, the Kingdom of Man was formed out of them. The islands then became tributary to Norway, and were governed by princes sent from that country. They afterward shook off the yoke; or according to some, were ceded by the King of Norway to the King of Scotland, about 1263. Still the government was in the main an independent sovereignty ; for the warlike chiefs who ruled there, although nominally under the Scottish crown, were too far removed from the power that might compel obedience, to regard it with much awe.
These chiefs were descended from Somerled, of Argyle, the ancestor of the great clan of the Macdonalds; and so independently did they exercise their authority, that they took upon themselves the regal title, and assumed the name, of · The Lords of the Isles.'
These chieftains continued without intermission, and with various success, to make furious inroads upon the main land; where, after devastating to a considerable extent, they would be driven back to their islandhomes, where they would, for want of other occupation, make war upon each other. This troublesome state of things continued into the present century. For after the commotions in England and Scotland were allayed, the heads of the island-clans (to whom had been allowed an importance which they did not deserve, and which only served to foment insurrection,) broke out in rebellion. This was speedily put down. The act of 1748 for abolishing heritable jurisdictions was passed, which destroyed forever the power of these petty tyrants.
The inhabitants of the Hebrides were, at the time I last speak of, in the main fishermen, hardy and robust, from constant exposure to the vicissitudes of ocean-life. Sheep and black cattle were raised in some of the islands in considerable quantities. The soil was owned by one or more Lairds, to whom the occupant paid a small rent from its productions. But little attention was paid to its cultivation, the stirring life of the fisherman being much preferred to the quiet and less-exciting occupation of agriculture. No country nor region, of all that I had heard or read, made such a strong impression upon my imagination as the stormy Hebrides. Not from any thing peculiar in the history of their inhabitants; not from any childish fancy or association by which they were impressed upon my mind : it was simply their natural position ; so near to all that was beautiful in scenery, yet so wild and rugged; so near to the great commercial marts of Christendom, yet so repulsive in
their aspect that no adventurous trader from foreign lands ever ventured there.
I never could think of these islands as inhabited at all, but delighted to regard them standing in gloomy grandeur, companions of the tempest and the storm; a spot where Nature might triumph' over the arts and schemes and contrivances of man.
I ought, however, to mention that Aunt Alice was the first who led me to think of these islands. Whenever she indulged me with histori. cal details, of which I was very fond, she generally made mention of them. There was evidently some secret connected therewith which she did not care to discover, and I never presumed to inquire about it.
My mother was nearly related to the noble family of the Venachoir, in Argyleshire. Some of my cousins of that family had passed a considerable portion of the sporting season at Bertold Castle, and we were all invited to visit Glencoe the following summer. As the year came round, the invitation was renewed. My brother had no relish for the visit, as he was about being called to the bar, and began to take an active part in the politics of the day. In short, he was becoming a thorough man-of-fact; such an one as society, with its irresistible and enslaving influence, makes and moulds. He was full, to be sure, of ambitious hopes and brilliant expectations, in which certainly there was little room for disappointment; but these hopes and expectations were such as belong to the man who trusts all to this world, and seeks and re. ceives his recompense from it. Let me not do injustice to my brother. He was to me the same kind brother still. He was whole-souled and generous; but he had committed himself to a certain course. The chains of conventional form and habit were fast fettering his spirit, and the natural man was becoming the artificial slave.
A ramble in the Highlands, though attractive enough to a youth who knew nothing about law, politics, and public speeches, and cared less, was the last thing my brother would think of undertaking. It would break off his plans for present action, and interfere with his schemes. In brief, he did not wish to be brought back to the natural and romantic, having put on the stiff armor of political strife, and engaged in that restless action which belongs so peculiarly to it. He had not, be it understood, become hackneyed in the contests of the arena; all was new, exciting and alluring. His brow was unclouded; his heart beat hopefully, and his mind was as yet free from the selfish considerations which after life presents.
To me the invitation opened a world of enjoyment. I was always an ardent admirer of natural scenery. I yearned for some change that would serve to give a new direction to my thoughts. I longed to mix in with the world, not as an actor in its scenes, but as a student of its mysteries; to divine its various forms and phantasies, if indeed I might discover their meaning. I would fain oppose myself to its ever-shifting, endless changes, and ask how and why they occurred. The time had arrived when the Man began to develope, and some sphere, place, opportunity, seemed absolutely necessary for natural growth. The direction – ah! that had been already given, and it was of the dark and sombre cast; yet I had not quite forgotten how to enjoy,