A Copy of Burns

Clark Ashton Smith

Andrew McGregor and his nephew, John Malcolm, were precisely alike, except for one particular. Both were unmistakably Scottish, to an extent that was almost caricatural; both were lean-faced and close-lipped, and ropy of figure; both were thrifty to the point of penuriousness; and both loved with a dour love the rugged soil of their neighboring hillside ranches in E1 Dorado. The difference lay in this, that McGregor, a native of Ayrshire, was fantastically enamored of the poetry of Burns, whom he quoted on all possible occasions, regardless of whether or not the verse was appropriate. But young Malcolm, who was Californian by birth, had a secret disdain for anything in rhyme or meter, and looked upon his uncle's literary enthusiasm as an odd weakness in a nature otherwise sound and admirable. This opinion, however, he had always been careful to conceal from the old man; though his reasons for concealing it were not altogether those of respect for an elder and affection for a relative.

McGregor was not close upon eighty; and a lifetime of rigorous toil had bowed his back and consumed his vitality. In the space of a few months, his health had broken, and he was now quite feeble. It was generally thought that he would leave his well-kept orchard, as well as a tidy deposit in the Placerville bank, to John Malcolm, the son of his sister Elizabeth, rather than to his own sons, George and Joseph, who had tired of country labor years before and were now prospering after their own fashion in Sacramento. Young Malcolm, certainly, was deserving; and the ranch left him by his parents was of poorer soil than McGregor's, and had never yielded more than a scant living, despite the industry of its owners.

One day, McGregor sent for his nephew. The young man found the eider sitting in an arm-chair before the fire-place, pitiably weak; and his fingers trembled helplessly as they turned the worn pages of the copy of Burns he was holding. His voice was a thin, rasping whisper.

"My time is about come, John," he said, "but I want to gie yea gift with my own hand before I jany. Take this copy of Burns. I recommend that ye peruse it diligent-like."

Malcolm, a little surprised, accepted the gift with proper thanks and with all due expressions of solicitude regarding his uncle's health. He took the volume home, placed it on a shelf which contained an almanac, a Bible, and two mail-order catalogues; and forgot all about it henceforward.

A week later, Andrew McGregor died. After he had been interred in the ^Placerville^ [Georgetown] cemetery, a search was made for his will. It was never found; and in due course of time, his sons laid claim to the property. Afterwards, they sold the ranch, not caring to keep it themselves.

John Malcolm swallowed his disappointment in a dour silence, and went on plowing his rocky slope of grape-vines and pear-trees. He saved a little money, purchased a little more property, and eventually found himself in a position of tolerable comfort, which however could be maintained only at the cost of incessant work. He married; and one daughter was born to him. He named her after his aunt Elizabeth, of whom he had been fond. Twenty years later, the long hours of back-breaking toil, plus an addiction to El Dorado moonshine, had finally done their work. Prematurely worn out at fifty, John Malcolm lay dying. Double pneumonia had set in; and the doctor made no pretense of hopefulness.

Malcolm's wife and daughter sat at his bedside. Usually a silent man, delirium had now loosened his tongue, and he babbled for hours at a time. Mostly, he talked of the money and property he had once hoped to inherit from Andrew McGregor; and regret for its loss was mingled with reproaches toward his uncle. The lost will had been forgotten by everyone else long ago; and no one had dreamt that he had cared so much, or borne the matter so much in mind all these years.

His wife and daughter were shocked by his babbling. In an effort to preoccupy her mind, the gift Elizabeth took from the shelf the copy of Burns which McGregor had once presented to his nephew, and began to turn the sheets. She read a poem here and a stanza there; and with a mechanical feverishness her fingers contrived to flick the pages. Suddenly she came upon a thin sheet of writing-paper, which had been cut to the exact size of the book and had been pasted in so unobtrusively that no one could have detected its presence without opening the volume at the right place. On this sheet, in faded ink, was written the last will and testament of Andrew McGregor, in which he had left all his property to John Malcolm.

Silently the girl showed the will to her mother. As the two bent over the yellowed sheet, the dying man ceased to babble.

"What's that?" he said, peering toward the woman. Evidently, he was now aware of his surroundings, and had become rational again. Elizabeth went over to the bed and told him how she had found the will. He made no comment whatever, but his face went ashen and lifeless, with a look of bleak despair. He did not speak again. He died within thirty minutes. It is probable that his death was hastened several hours by the shock.

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.

Printed from: www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/31
Printed on: October 29, 2020