One comfort is that great men taken up in any way are profitable company. We can not look, however imperfectly, upon a great man without gaining something by it. He is the living fountain of life, which it is pleasant to be near. On any terms whatsoever you will not grudge to wander in his neighborhood for a while.
–Heroes and Hero-Worship
While on my way to Dumfries I stopped overnight at Gretna Green, which, as all fair maidens know, is in Scotland just over the border from England.
To my delight I found that the coming of runaway couples to Gretna Green was not entirely a matter of the past, for the very evening I arrived a blushing pair came to the inn and inquired for a “meenister.” The ladye faire was a little stout and the worthy swain several years older than my fancy might have wished, but still I did not complain.
The landlord’s boy was dispatched to the rectory around the corner and soon returned with the reverend gentleman.
I was an uninvited guest in the little parlor, but no one observed that my wedding-garment was only a cycling costume, and I was not challenged.
After the ceremony, the several other witnesses filed past the happy couple, congratulating them and kissing the bride.
I did likewise, and was greeted with a resounding smack which surprised me a bit, but I managed to ask, “Did you run away?”
“Noo,” said the groom; “noo, her was a widdie–we just coom over fram Ecclefechan”; then, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper, “We’re goin’ baack on the morrow. It’s cheaper thaan to ha’ a big, spread weddin’.”
This answer banished all tender sentiment from me and made useless my plans for a dainty love-story, but I seized upon the name of the place whence they came.
“Ecclefechan! Ecclefechan! Why that’s where Carlyle was born!”
“Aye, sir, and he’s buried there; a great mon he was–but an infideel.”
Ten miles beyond Gretna Green is Ecclefechan–a little village of stucco houses all stretched out on one street. Plain, homely, rocky and unromantic is the country round about, and plain, homely and unromantic is the little house where Carlyle was born. The place is shown the visitor by a good old dame who takes one from room to room, giving a little lecture meanwhile in a mixture of Gaelic and English which was quite beyond my ken. Several relics of interest are shown, and although the house is almost precisely like all others in the vicinity, imagination throws round it all a roseate wreath of fancies.
It has been left on record that up to the year when Carlyle was married, his “most pleasurable times were those when he enjoyed a quiet pipe with his mother.”
To few men indeed is this felicity vouchsafed. But for those who have eaten oatmeal porridge in the wayside cottages of bonny Scotland, or who love to linger over “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” there is a touch of tender pathos in the picture. The stone floor, the bare, whitewashed walls, the peat smoldering on the hearth, sending out long, fitful streaks that dance among the rafters overhead, and the mother and son sitting there watching the coal–silent. The woman takes a small twig from a bundle of sticks, reaches over, lights it, applies it to her pipe, takes a few whiffs and passes the light to her son. Then they talk in low, earnest tones of man’s duty to man and man’s duty to God.
And it was this mother who first applied the spark that fired Carlyle’s ambition; it was from her that he got the germ of those talents which have made his name illustrious.
Yet this woman could barely read and did not learn to write until her firstborn had gone away from the home nest. Then it was that she sharpened a gray goose-quill and labored long and patiently, practising with this instrument (said to be mightier than the sword) and with ink she herself had mixed–all that she might write a letter to her boy; and how sweetly, tenderly homely, and loving are these letters as we read them today!