Read CHAPTER XII of Nancy Stair A Novel , free online book, by Elinor Macartney Lane, on ReadCentral.com.

I MEET A GREAT MAN

“With knowledge so vast and with judgment so strong
No man with the half of them e’er could go wrong;
With passion so potent, and fancies so bright,
No man with the half of them e’er could go right.”

I passed as miserable a night as my worst enemy could have wished and was up at the dawning for a jaunt in the open. The gowans so white and bonny were swinging their dewy heads in the morning wind; the sea-fog was lifting skyward, and whether the message came from them I can not say, but a mystical white word floated between me and my troubled thoughts of Nancy a word which means the changing of baser metal into pure gold, the returning of the balance to nature, the fine adjustment of spirit to mind and body the great word Motherhood. Nancy as a mother. My Little Flower with a floweret of her own might be the solution of a happy marriage for her more than compensating for the independence and adulation which she had always had.

As I tramped along I came to a definite thought concerning the Burns poems as well, which was that I would set fire to them, as if by accident, that very day, and have them by and done with. And as for the man himself, it would, I thought, be no hard matter to keep him out of our lives; in which conclusions I left out just two things the throw of Fate, which none of us can reckon upon, and my own rhyme-loving nature and fondness for being entertained.

It was Fate’s throw with which I had to reckon first. I had come in my musings to a side-path which led from the old Abbey to the foot-bridge, when I heard the sound of a man’s singing:

“As I cam in by Glenap,
I met wi’ an ancient woman,
Who told me to cheer my heart up
For the best of my days were comin’.”

The singer was sitting upon a fallen tree, beside a smoking fire, with the women, children, aye, and the very dogs, gathered about him as though he carried a charm. He was a thick-set man, dark and swarthy, with a pair of eyes literally glowing. His hat was cocked upon the back of his head, and he had his plaid thrown around him in a certain manner known to himself alone. He was eating and drinking with these gipsy-folk, for he’d a bannock in one hand and a mug of hot drink in the other, but at sight of me he set them down and came forward to greet me; and my amazed eyes rested on Robert Burns himself, as though raised up by some of his own witches to fit into my thoughts Robert Burns whom I had met at Mauchline before he was famous, the year before.

He inquired if I were stepping townward, and on the instant I asked him to breakfast with me at the Star and Garter, and this, you will remember, within five short minutes of my resolve to burn his book and keep him out of our lives.

It was charged against me later that I was lax in this Burns affair and, because of my own infatuation for men of parts, took too little thought for the temptation to which I exposed my daughter. I answer the accusation by telling the circumstances exactly as they fell, and he who reads may judge the truth of these charges for himself. As we came to the door of the inn, I asked Creech and Dundas, who happened to be passing, to join us at the breakfast, and a merry feast it was, and one for the three of us to hold as a lifelong memory, for only those who had the honor to know Burns could understand that the “best of him was in his talk.” In the year of which I write all the eyes of Edinburgh were fixed upon him, and his toasts, his epigrams, his love affairs were the scandal of the town and his own countryside. There was some flouting of him at this very meal, I recall, by Creech, who was deep in his affairs, concerning a Mauchline lassie who had thrown his love back at him with some violence and scandal; but he was not in the least dashed either by the event or the naming of it, and, seizing a glass, he called out, with the jolliest laugh in the world:

“Their tricks and crafts hae put me daft,
They’ve ta’en me in and a’ that,
But clear your decks! and here’s ‘The Sex,’
I like the jades for a that,

the applause which greeted this sally bringing the servants to the window, though, in fact, when it was known that Burns was in the house there was no keeping them out of the room.

I do not feel, even at this late day, that I need an excuse for the admiration I have of Burns, the greatest poet, in my judgment, who ever lived. I knew his faults, if faults they were, but, before God, I knew his temptations as well, and can speak with greatest thankfulness of one he put behind him.

Pastor Muirkirk, of the New Light, in one of his more relaxed moments, said to me:

“The Lord cast seven devils out of the man in the scriptures because his nature was big enough to hold seven devils. Most of us, laddie,” he went on, “are not big enough to hold half a devil,” which explains the thought I have of Burns to a nicety, for it was surely the very bigness of his nature, the instant sympathy with all who lived, which brought many of the troubles to him for which he has been greatly blamed. But this can be said of him: that no man I ever knew, from the highest lord in the land down, presented himself to the world in a saner or more balanced manner. I have known him to breakfast with tramps at an ale-house in the morning, walk arm in arm with a duke down High Street in the afternoon, and leave him perchance to dine with some poor country acquaintance up from Ayr for a day’s buying.

It was after Creech and his friend had left us that Burns turned toward me.

“There is a matter upon which I am undecided whether it is good taste for me to speak to you, Lord Stair,” he said, “but there is such sincerity of admiration at the root of it that ye’ll can just be forgiving me if I trespass on your sense of the proprieties. ’Tis of your daughter, Mistress Stair. I was carried off my feet by her singing at the charity ball, and the verses she writes are as unstudied as the song of a lark. But she will never write a poem that is so great as herself. All her accomplishments seem to me but a set of warbles or trills to the true song of her great womanhood. ‘Where she is,’” he quoted prettily, “’man will be more than his wont, because of her belief.’”

And at these words my resolutions were clean forgotten in my pride in his praises of her.

“She wants to know you, Mr. Burns. Your book is by her day and night,” I cried, at which he looked flattered, but said he was for Ayr that afternoon, and the pleasure of an acquaintance with her must be put by until some later date.

I told him at this that a friend had invited us down to his part of the country for the fair, where we might meet again, on which he took a slip from his pocket, putting his Edinburgh address on one side of it, like this:

“It is in the house of Mrs. Carfrae, Baxter Close, Town market:
first scale-stair on the left hand going down; first door on the
stair,”

and on the other:

“To Mistress Nancy, Mistress Stair,
At Mauchline race or Mauchline fair,
I shall be glad to meet you there.
We’ll give one night’s discharge to care,
If we forgither,
And have ‘a-swap-of-rhyming-ware,’
With ane anither.”

And it was this “swap o’ rhyming ware” which brought about the tragedy toward which I draw.