— We went to Ecclefechan not long ago, to see where Thomas Carlyle wras born in 1795, and where, more than fourscore years after, he was buried, one bleak, snowy day in February, 1881. From the railway station we walked towards the village. As we came in sight of the houses, the street seemed to fall away to the left from the highroad on which we were, and, uncertain of our way, we asked a woman who was passing where the churchyard was. She directed us straight on, pointed to a church built of red stone (“That’s the U. P. kirk. The minister’s wan they ca’ Smith”), and told us the churchyard lay close behind it. We proceeded till we came to the red church, when it was necessary to ask again ; this time we inquired of a rugged-faced old man in a white jacket, with a pickaxe over his shoulder. He might have been a Carlyle himself to look at, we said to each other.
“ I ’ll tak ye tae’t,” was his reply to our inquiries, evidently understanding in a moment what we wanted.
This was our man, for he proved to have been for a number of years the gravedigger, and had seen Carlyle whenever he came to Ecclefechan during that time. Not that we found all this out at once. Our new friend was quite as Carlylean in his silence as in his appearance. He led us along by the side of the U. P. kirk, and unlocked the iron gates of the inclosure behind it.
And this was the Ecclefechan buryingground. A more gaunt, unkindly looking-place of sepulture I have never seen. It was nearly square, with a high blank wall shutting it in from sight. There was nothing to relieve the bare, prison-like aspect, nothing even to overlook it but a staircase window in the back of the church.
We followed our guide to a spot where three stones were inclosed by a common iron railing.
“ This is it, whar Tummas as is burit.”
The centre stone of the group was indeed erected to the memory of Carlyle and of his brother John. Surmounting the names was a crest and the motto “ Humilitate.” Who would have looked for a crest on that tomb ? The stones on both sides were plain white-painted ones. That to the left bore the name of Janet Carlyle, the first wife of Carlyle’s father, who died in her twenty-fifth year, and of the sister Margaret whose early death is mentioned in the Reminiscences. Below, the father’s name and the mother’s, with an inscription from a hand we know, which testifies of their surviving children as “ gratefully reverent of such a father and such a mother.” The third stone was, if I remember rightly, in memory of a brother’s family.
“ Mr. Carlyle’s wife is not buried here ? " “ Na. They wudna let her in,” was the grim reply.
We noticed the name on several of the other monuments in the graveyard, which showed it had been a common one in the countryside. In one ease we found the same crest and motto, with the addition of the closed visor. The oldest stone of all was a flat slab imbedded in the grass. Our guide pointed it out to us, saying : — “ Ye ’ll no read that yin. I hae seen nine ministers at it in yae day, an’ nane o’ them could read it. An’ Tummas, the last time he was here, he was at it, an’ he got it markit down fur him, an’ he was tae read it tae me the next time he cam back, but — he never cam back till he cam wi’ his feet afore.”
Of course we studied the inscription, but, like our nine predecessors, like “Tummas ” himself, we could make nothing of it except the date, which was 1621. The rest was all capital letters; possibly initials, we thought. There is a similar inscription on a stone at Brechin which is so understood. That was all the attempt we could make towards the solution of the mystery. A newly made grave, the old man’s morning work, was waiting for its occupant, a young woman, he told us, who had died of consumption.
“ Have you any more famous men buried here ? “ Ou aye.”
“As famous as Mr. Carlyle ? ” we asked, with a modest surprise at our own ignorance.
“ As Tummas ? ” The words were nothing to the tone, indicating the speaker’s ideas of the sage to a nicety. “ Plenty,” he added. “ Napoleon’s doctor’s burit here.”
We could only maintain a respectful silence. I think we each hoped the other might be able to reply, but we had been too full of the Reminiscences to have any thoughts for other celebrities. We found it was Dr. Arnott, Napoleon’s doctor at St. Helena, Kirkconnel Hall, in the neighborhood of Ecclefechan, had belonged to the family.
“ Are there any Carlyles in the village now ? ” we asked, as we came out to the road again.
“ Not wan,” was the old man’s answer ; “ a’ that is, is here,” and he locked the iron gates behind us, and left the grim place to itself.
The Carlyle house was our next quest. Following the old grave-digger’s directions we found ourselves in the main street of the village, and, looking about, soon recognized the two-storied double dwelling house with an archway leading through it, that we already knew from illustrations. It is on the right hand as you come from the station down the long, winding street. In front runs a narrow stream, with a low wall on the further side. On the bank there had stood a line of poplar-trees, but the stormy winter of 1883 had blown them all down but one. The house was built by James Carlyle and his brothers, and must surely at the time have been superior to the generality of Ecclefechan dwellings. Compared with the cottage built by William Burns at Alloway, some forty years earlier in the century, it is a mansion, and well lighted. The windows are sufficient even for to-day ; very different from the four tiny panes that let the light “ in on Robin.”
Our knock at the door — it is the end next the station that was James Carlyle’s part of the house — was answered by the pleasantfaced woman who has the care of it. Downstairs was the kitchen, and above were two rooms that had the unused, swept-and-garnished look that is common to show places. The larger of the two rooms had been furnished from Cheyne Row. There were a couch and chairs from Carlyle’s study, his reading-lamp, and on a shelf in the wall his wife’s tea-pot and tea-caddy. The popular edition of his works filled another shelf, and on the wall hung the kitchen clock. A visitors’ book was on the table, and completed the bare, official look of the place.
We had seen what we came for. Our questions had been civilly answered. The children who gathered round the sketcher whispered to one another, “ It’s Carlyle’s hoose she’s drawin’.” But no one had talked of him. There was no pride in his fame, no recalling his visits to his native place. Unwillingly we had to confess to ourselves that of respect or affection we had found no trace,— nothing more reverent than the grim irony of the old grave-digger’s familiar “ Tummas.”