Many young men ask nowadays what is the secret of „success.” It were better to inquire also how to do without success, since that is the destiny of most of us, even in the most prosperous communities.
Could there be imagined a more complete „failure” than this John Duncan, a Scottish weaver, always very poor, at last a pauper, short-sighted, bent, shy, unlettered, illegitimate, dishonored in his home, not unfrequently stoned by the boys of the roadside, and in every particular, according to the outward view, a wretched fag-end of human nature!
Yet, redeemed and dignified by the love of knowledge, he passed, upon the whole, a joyous and even a triumphant life. He had a pursuit which absorbed his nobler faculties, and lifted him far above the mishaps and inconveniences of his lowly lot. The queen of his country took an interest in his pursuits, and contributed to the ease of his old age. Learned societies honored him, and the illustrious Charles Darwin called him „my fellow botanist.”
The mother of John Duncan, a „strong, pretty woman,” as he called her, lived in a poor tenement at Stonehaven, on the Scottish coast, and supported herself by weaving stockings at her own home, and in the summer went into the harvest field. He always held his mother in honor and tenderness, as indeed he ought, for she stood faithfully by the children she ought not to have borne.
As a boy the future botanist developed an astonishing faculty of climbing. There was a famous old castle upon the pinnacle of a cliff, inaccessible except to cats and boys. He was the first to gain access to the ancient ruin, and after him the whole band of boys explored the castle, from the deep dungeons to the topmost turret.
His first employment led him directly to what became a favorite pursuit of his lifetime. By way of adding to the slender gains of his mother, he extracted the white pith from certain rushes of the region, which made very good lamp-wicks for the kind of lamps then in use in Scotland. These wicks of pith he sold about the town in small penny bundles. In order to get his supply of rushes he was obliged to roam the country far and wide, and along the banks of streams. When he had gathered as many as he could carry he would bring them home to be stripped. To the end of his days, when he knew familiarly every plant that grew in his native land, he had a particular fondness for all the varieties of rush, and above all for the kind that gave him his first knowledge.
Then he went to a farmer’s to tend cattle, and in this employment he experienced the hard and savage treatment to which hired boys were so frequently subjected at that day. Drenched with rain after tending his herd all day, the brutal farmer would not permit him to go near the fire to dry his clothes. He had to go to his miserable bed in an out-house, where he poured the water from his shoes, and wrung out his wet clothes as dry as he could. In that foggy climate his garments were often as wet in the morning as he left them in the evening, and so days would pass without his having a dry thread upon him.
But it did not rain always. Frequently his herd was pastured near the old castle, which, during the long summer days, he studied more intelligently, and in time learned all about its history and construction. And still he observed the flowers and plants that grew about his feet. It seemed natural to him to observe them closely and to learn their names and uses.
In due time he was apprenticed to a weaver. This was before the age of the noisy, steaming factory. Each weaver then worked at home, at his own loom, and could rent, if he chose, a garden and a field, and keep a cow, and live a man’s life upon his native soil. Again our poor, shy apprentice had one of the hardest of masters. The boy was soon able to do the work of a man, and the master exacted it from him. On Saturdays the loom was usually kept going till midnight, when it stopped at the first sound of the clock, for this man, who had less feeling for a friendless boy than for a dog or a horse, was a strict Sabbatarian. In the depth of the Scotch winter he would keep the lad at the river-side, washing and wringing out the yarn, a process that required the arms to be bare and the hands to be constantly wet. His hands would be all chilblains and frost-bitten.
But again we may say it was not always winter. In the most dismal lot there are gleams of sunshine. The neighbors pitied and comforted him. His tyrant’s wife was good to him as far as she dared. It was she, indeed, who inspired him with the determination to learn to read, and another friendly woman gave him regular instruction. He was sixteen years old when he learned his alphabet. A school-girl, the daughter of another weaver, would come into his shop to hear him read his lesson, and tell him how to pronounce the hard words. This bright, pretty girl of twelve would take her seat on the loom beside the bashful, lanky boy, who, with the book close to his eyes and his finger on the page, would grope his way through the paragraph.
Other children helped him, and he was soon able to get the meanings from the few books at his command. His solitary walks were still cheered by his observation of nature, although as yet he did not know there was such a thing as a science of botany. He could give no account of the interest he took in plants, except that he „loved the pretty little things,” and liked to know their names, and to classify in his rude way those that were alike.
The exactions of his despot wore out at length even his astonishing patience. He ran away at twenty, and entered upon the life which he lived all the rest of his days, that of a weaver, wandering about Scotland according to his need of work. At this period he was not the possessor of a single book relating to his favorite pursuit, and he had never seen but one, an old-fashioned work of botany and astrology, of nature and superstition, by the once famous Culpepper. It required extra work for months, at the low wages of a hand-loom weaver, to get the money required for the purchase of this book, about five dollars. The work misled him in many ways, but it contained the names and properties of many of his favorite herbs. Better books corrected these errors by and by, and he gradually gathered a considerable library, each volume won by pinching economy and hard labor.
The sorrow of his life was his most woeful, disastrous marriage. His wife proved false to him, abandoned his home and their two daughters, and became a drunken tramp. Every now and then she returned to him, appealing to his compassion for assistance. I think Charles Dickens must have had John Duncan’s case in his mind when he wrote those powerful scenes of the poor man cursed with a drunken wife in „Hard Times.”
But the more miserable his outward life, the more diligently he resorted for comfort to his darling plants. For many years he groped in the dark; but at length he was put upon the right path by one of those accomplished gardeners so common in Scotland, where the art of gardening is carried to high perfection. He always sought the friendship of gardeners wherever he went. Nevertheless he was forty years old before he became a scientific botanist.
During the rest of his life of forty-four years, besides pursuing his favorite branch, he obtained a very considerable knowledge of the kindred sciences and of astronomy. Being obliged to sell his watch in a time of scarcity, he made for himself a pocket sun-dial, by which he could tell the time to within seven or eight minutes.
During this period steam was gaining every year upon hand power; his wages grew less and less; and, as his whole heart was in science, he had no energy left for seeking more lucrative employment. When he was past eighty-three he would walk twelve miles or more to get a new specimen, and hold on his way, though drenched with a sudden storm.
At length, old age and lack of work reduced him to actual suffering for the necessaries of life. Mr. William Jolly, a contributor to periodicals, heard his story, sought him out, and found him so poor as to be obliged to accept out-door relief, of which the old man was painfully ashamed. He published a brief history of the man and of his doings in the newspapers.
„The British people,” says Voltaire, „may be very stupid, but they know how to give.”
Money rained down upon the old philosopher, until a sum equal to about sixteen hundred dollars had reached him, which abundantly sufficed for his maintenance during the short residue of his life. For the first time in fifty years he had a new and warm suit of clothes, and he again sat down by his own cheerful fire, an independent man, as he had been all his life until he could no longer exercise his trade.
He died soon after, bequeathing the money he had received for the foundation of scholarships and prizes for the encouragement of the study of natural science among the boys and girls of his country. His valuable library, also, he bequeathed for the same object.