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THE COTTAGE OF MOSS-SIDE.
GILBERT AINSLIE was a poor man; and he had been a poor man all the days of his life, which were not few, for his thin
hair was now waxing gray. He had been born and bred on the small moorland farm which he now occupied; and he hoped to die there, as his father and grandfather had done. before him, leaving a family just above the more bitter wants of this world. Labor, hard and unremitting, had been his lot in life; but although sometimes severely tried, he had never repined; and through all the mist, and gloom, and even the storms, that had assailed him, he had lived on, from year to year, in that calm and resigned contentment, which unconsciously cheers the hearth-stone of the blameless poor.
With his own hand he had plowed, sowed, and reaped his often scanty harvest; assisted, as they grew up, by three sons, who, even in boyhood, were happy to work along with their father in the fields. Out of doors, or in, Gilbert Ainslie was never idle. The spade, the shears, the plow-shaft, the sickle, and the flail, all came readily to hands that grasped them well; and not a morsel of food was eaten under his roof, or a garment worn there, that was not honestly, severely, and nobly earned. Gilbert Ainslie was a slave, but it was for them he loved with a sober and deep affection. The thralldom under which he lived, God had imposed, and it only served to give his character a shade of silent gravity, but not austerity; to make his smiles fewer, but more heartfelt; to calm his soul at grace, before and after meals; and to kindle it in morning and evening prayer.
There is no need to tell the character of the wife of such a Meek and thoughtful, yet gladsome and gay withal, her heaven was in her house; and her gentler and weaker hands helped to bar the door against want. Of ten children that had been born to them, they had lost three; and, as they had fed, clothed, and educated them respectably, so did they give those who died a respectable funeral. The living did not grudge to give up, for a while, some of their daily comforts, for the sake of the dead; and bought with the little sums, which their industry had saved, decent mournings, worn on Sabbath, and then carefully laid by. Of the seven that survived, two sons were farm-servants in the neighborhood, while three daughters and two sons remained at home, growing, or grown up, a small, happy, hard-working household.
Many cottages are there in Scotland like Moss-side, and
many such humble and virtuous cottagers as were now beneath its roof of straw. The eye of the passing traveler may mark them, or mark them not, but they stand peacefully, in thousands, over all the land; and most beautiful do they make it, through all its wide valleys and narrow glens; its low holms, encircled by the rocky walls of some bonny burn; its green mounts, elated with their little crowning groves of plane trees; its yellow corn-fields; its bare pastoral hill-sides; and all its heathy moors, on whose black bosom lie, shining or concealed, glades of excessive verdure, inhabited by flowers, and visited only by the far-flying bees.
Moss-side was not beautiful to a careless or hasty eye; but when looked on and surveyed, it seemed a pleasant dwelling. Its roof, overgrown with grass and moss, was almost as green as the ground out of which its weather-stained walls appeared to grow. The moss behind it was separated from a little garden by a narrow slip of arable land, the dark color of which showed that it had been won from the wild by patient industry, and by patient industry retained. It required a bright, sunny day to make Moss-side fair; but then it was fair indeed; and when the little brown moor-land birds were singing their short songs among the rushes and the heather, or a lark, lured thither, perhaps, by some green barley-field, for its undisturbed nest, rose ringing all over the enlivened solitude, the little bleak farm smiled like the paradise of poverty, sad and affecting in its lone and extreme simplicity.
The boys and girls had made some plots of flowers among the vegetables that the little garden supplied for their homely meals; pinks and carnations, brought from walled gardens of rich men further down in the cultivated strath, grew here with somewhat diminished luster; a bright show of tulips had a strange beauty in the midst of that moor-land; and the smell of roses mixed well with that of the clover, the beautiful, fair clover, that loves the soil and the air of Scotland, and gives the rich and balmy milk to the poor man's lips.
In this cottage, Gilbert's youngest child, a girl about nine years of age, had been lying, for a week, in a fever. It was now Saturday evening, and the ninth day of the disease. Was she to live or die? It seemed as if a very few hours were between the innocent creature and Heaven. All the symptoms
were those of approaching death. The parents knew well the change that comes over the human face, whether it be in infancy, youth, or prime, just before the departure of the spirit; and as they stood together by Margaret's bed, it seemed to them that the fatal shadow had fallen upon her features.
The surgeon of the parish lived some miles distant, but they expected him now every moment, and many a wistful look was directed by tearful eyes along the moor. The daughter, who was out at service, came anxiously home on this night, the only one that could be allowed her, for the poor must work in their grief, and hired servants must do their duty to those whose bread they eat, even when nature is sick, sick at heart. Another of the daughters came in from the potato-field beyond the brae, with what was to be their frugal supper. The calm, noiseless spirit of life was in and around the house, while death seemed dealing with one who, a few days ago, was like light upon the floor, and like the sound of music, that always breathed up when most wanted; glad and joyous in common talk; sweet, silvery, and mournful, when it joined in hymn or psalm.
One after the other, they all continued going up to the bedside, and then coming away sobbing or silent, to see their merry little sister, who used to keep dancing all day like a butterfly in a meadow field, or like a butterfly with shut wings on a flower, trifling for a while in the silence of her joy, now tossing restlessly on her bed, and scarcely sensible to the words of endearment whispered around her, or the kisses dropt with tears, in spite of themselves, on her burning forehead.
Utter poverty often kills the affections; but a deep, constant, and common feeling of this world's hardships, and an equal participation in all those struggles by which they may be softened, unite husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, in thoughtful and subdued tenderness, making them happy indeed while the circle round the fire is unbroken, and yet preparing them every day to bear the separation, when some one or other is taken slowly or suddenly away. Their souls are not moved by fits and starts, although, indeed, nature sometimes will wrestle with necessity; and there is a wise moderation both in the joy and the grief of the intelligent poor, which keeps lasting trouble away from their earthly lot, and prepares them silently and unconsciously for Heaven.
"Do you think the child is dying?" said Gilbert, with a calm voice, to the surgeon, who, on his wearied horse, had just arrived from another sick-bed, over the misty range of hills, and had been looking steadfastly for some minutes on the little patient. The humane man knew the family well, in the midst of whom he was standing, and replied, “While there is life there is hope; but my pretty little Margaret is, 1 fear, in the last extremity." There was no loud lamentation at these words; all had before known, though they would not confess it to themselves, what they now were told; and though the certainty that was in the words of the skillful man, made their hearts beat, for a little, with sicker throbbings, made their pale faces paler, and brought out from some eyes a greater gush of tears; yet death had been before in this house, and in this case he came, as he always does, in awe, but not in terror.
There were wandering, and wavering, and dreamy, delirious fantasies in the brain of the innocent child; but the few words she indistinctly uttered were affecting, not rending to the heart, for it was plain that she thought herself herding her sheep in the green, silent pastures, and sitting wrapped in her plaid upon the sunny side of the Birk-knowe. She was too much exhausted, there was too little life, too little breath in her heart, to frame a tune; but some of her words seemed to be from favorite old songs; and at last her mother wept, and turned aside her face, when the child, whose blue eyes were shut, and her lips almost still, breathed out these lines of the beautiful twenty-third psalm:
The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want:
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.
The child was now left with none but her mother by the bed-side, for it was said to be best so; and Gilbert and his family sat down round the kitchen fire, for a while, in silence. In about a quarter of an hour, they began to rise calmly, and to go each to his allotted work. One of the daughters went forth with the pail to milk the cow, and another began to set out the table in the middle of the floor for supper, covering it with a white cloth. Gilbert viewed the usual household arrangements