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Book of Scottish Story
The Unlucky Top Boots - Chapter 2


About four miles distant from the town in which Mr Aikin lived, there resided an extensive coal-mine proprietor of the name of Davidson; and it so happened that he, too, had a predilection for that particular article of dress, already so often named, viz., top boots; indeed, he was never known to wear anything else in their place. Davidson was an elderly gentleman, harsh and haughty in his manner, and extremely mean in all his dealings—a manner and disposition which made him greatly disliked by the whole country, and especially by his workmen, the miners, of whom he employed upwards of a hundred and Fifty. The abhorrence in which Mr Davidson was at all times held by his servants, was at this particular moment greatly increased by an attempt which he was making to reduce his workmen’s wages; and to such a height had their resentment risen against their employer, that some of the more ferocious of them were heard to throw out dark hints of personal violence; and it was much feared by Davidson’s friends—of whom he had, however, but a very few, and these mostly connected with him by motives of interest—that such an occurrence would, in reality, happen one night or other, and that at no great distance of time. Nor was this fear groundless.

Mr Davidson was invited to dine with a neighbouring gentleman. He accepted the invitation, very foolishly, as his family thought; but he did accept it, and went accordingly. It was in the winter time, and the house of his host was about a mile distant from his own residence. Such an opportunity as this of giving their employer a sound drubbing had been long looked for by some half dozen of Mr Davidson’s workmen, and early and correct information on the subject of his dining out enabled them to avail themselves of it. The conspirators, having held a consultation, resolved to waylay Davidson on his return home. With this view they proceeded, after it became dark, in the direction of the house in which their employer was dining. Having gone about half way, they halted, and held another consultation, whereat it was determined that they should conceal themselves in a sunk fence which ran alongside of the road, until the object of their resentment approached, when they should all rush out upon him at once, and belabour him to their hearts’ content. This settled, they all cowered down into the ditch, to await the arrival of their victim.

"But how will we ken him i’ the dark?" said Jock Tamson, one of the conspirators, in a low whisper, to his next neighbour; "we may fa' foul o’ somebody else in a mistak."

The question rather posed Jock’s neighbour, who immediately put it to the person next him, and he again to the next, and on went the important query, until all were in possession of it ; but none could answer it. At length, one of more happy device than the rest suggested that Mr Davidson might be recognised by his top boots. The idea pleased all, and was by all considered infallible, for the fame of Mr Aikin’s boots had not yet reached this particular quarter of the country. Satisfied that they had hit upon an unerring mark by which to know their man, the ruffians waited patiently for his approach.

At length, after fully two hours’ watching, the fall of a footstep broke faintly on their ears; it came nearer and nearer, and became every moment more and more distinct. Breathless with the intensity of their feelings, the conspirators, in dead silence, grasped their cudgels with increased energy, and sunk themselves in the ditch until their eyes were on a level with the ground, that they might at once place the approaching object full before them, and between them and the feeble light which lingered in the western sky. In the meantime, the wayfarer approached; two dim whitey objects glimmered indistinctly in the darkness. They were instantly recognized to be Mr Davidson’s top boots; a loud shout followed this feeling of conviction; the colliers rushed from their hiding-place, and in the next instant half a dozen bludgeons whistled round the ears of the unfortunate wayfarer. The sufferer roared lustily for mercy, but he roared in vain. The blows fell thick and fast upon his luckless head and shoulders, for it was necessary that the work should be done quickly; and a few seconds more saw him lying senseless and bleeding in the ditch in which his assailants had concealed themselves. Having satisfied their vengeance, the ruffians now lied, leaving their victim behind them in the condition we have described. Morning came; a man was found in a ditch, speechless, and bleeding profusely from many severe wounds on the head and face, He was dragged out, and, after cleansing his face from the blood and dirt with which it was encrusted, the unfortunate man was recognised to be—Mr Thomas Aikin.

The unlucky boots, and they alone, were the cause of poor Aikin’s mischance. He had, indeed, been mauled by mistake, as the reader will have already anticipated. There was no intention whatever on the part of the colliers to do Mr Aikin any injury, for Mr Aikin, in the whole course of his harmless life, had never done them any ; indeed, he was wholly unknown to them, and they to him. It was the top boots, and nothing but the top boots, that did all the mischief. But to go on with our story. Aikin was carried home, and, through the strength of a naturally good constitution and skilful surgical assistance, recovered so far in six weeks as to be able to go about as usual, although he bore to his grave with him on his face the marks of the violence which he had received, besides being disfigured by the loss of some half dozen of his front teeth.

The top boots, which poor Aikin had worn before as articles of dress, and, of course, as a matter of choice, he was now obliged to wear daily from necessity, being, as we have already related, dismissed from his situation in the Excise. One would think that Aikin had now suffered enough for his predilection for top boots, seeing—at least so far as we can see—that there was no great harm in such an apparently inoffensive indulgence; but Mr Aikin’s evil stars, or his top boots themselves, we do not know which, were of a totally different opinion, and on this opinion they forthwith proceeded to act.

Some weeks after the occurrence of the disaster just recorded, the little town of ———, where Aikin resided, was suddenly thrown into a state of the utmost horror and consternation by the report of a foul murder and robbery having been committed on the highway, and within a short distance of the town ; and of all the inhabitants who felt horror-struck on this occasion, there was no one more horrified than Mr Thomas Aikin. The report, however, of the murder and robbery was incorrect, in so far as the unfortunate man was still living, although little more, when found in the morning, for the deed had been committed over night. Being a stranger, he was immediately conveyed to the principal inn of the town, put to bed, and medical aid called in. The fiscal, on learning that the man was still in existence, instantly summoned his clerk, and, accompanied by a magistrate, hastened to the dying man’s bedside, to take down whatever particulars could be learnt from him regarding the assault and robbery. After patiently and laboriously connecting the half intelligible and disjointed sentences which they from time to time elicited from him, they made out that he was a cattle-dealer, that he belonged to Edinburgh, that he had been in Glasgow, and that, having missed the evening coach which plies between the former and the latter city, he had taken the road on foot, with the view of accomplishing one stage, and there awaiting the coming up of the next coach. They further elicited from him that he had had a large sum of money upon him, of which, of course, he had been deprived. The fiscal next proceeded to inquire if he could identify the person or persons who attacked him. He mumbled a reply in the negative.

"How many were there of them? " inquired the magistrate. "Were there more than one?"

"Only one," muttered the unfortunate man.

"Was there any peculiarity in his dress or appearance that struck you?" asked the fiscal.

He mumbled a reply, but none of the bystanders could make it out. The question was again put, and both the magistrate and fiscal stooped down simultaneously to catch the answer. After an interval it came—and what think you it was, good reader? Why, "top boots," distinctly and unequivocally. The fiscal and magistrate looked at each other for a second, but neither durst venture to hint at the astounding suspicion which the mention of these remarkable objects forced upon them.

"He wore top boots, you say?" again inquired the fiscal, to make sure that he had heard aright.

"Y-e-s, t-o-p b-o-o-ts," was again the reply.

"Was he a thin man, or a stout man?"

"A stout man."

"Young or middle-aged?"

"Middle-aged."

"Tall or short?"

"Short," groaned out the sufferer, and, with that word, the breath of life departed from him.

This event, of course, put an immediate end to the inquiry. The fiscal and magistrate now retired to consult together regarding what was best to be done, and to consider the deposition of the murdered man. There was a certain pair of top boots present to the minds of both, but the wearer of them had hitherto borne an unblemished character, and was personally known to them both as a kind-hearted, inoffensive man. Indeed, up to this hour, they would as soon have believed that the minister of the parish would commit a robbery as Mr Aikin —we say Mr Aikin, for we can no longer conceal the fact, that it was Mr Aikin’s boots, however reluctantly admitted, that flashed upon the minds of the two gentlemen of whom we are now speaking.

"The thing is impossible, incredible of such a man as Mr Aikin," said the magistrate, in reply to the first open insinuation of the fiscal, although, in saying this, he said what was not in strict accordance with certain vague suspicions which had taken possession of his own mind.

"Why, I should say so too," replied the officer of the law, "were I to judge by the character which he has hitherto borne; but here," he said, holding up the deposition of the murdered man, "here are circumstances which we cannot be warranted in overlooking, let them implicate whom they may. There is in especial the top boots," went on the fiscal; "now, there is not another pair within ten miles of us but Aikin’s; for Mr Davidson, the only man whom I know that wears them besides, is now in London. There is the personal description, too, exact. And besides all this, bailie," continued the law officer, "you will recollect that Mr Aikin is and has been out of employment for the last six months; and there is no saying what a man who has a large family upon his hands will do in these circumstances."

The bailie acknowledged the force of his colleague’s observations, but remarked, that, as it was a serious charge, it must be gone cautiously and warily about. "For it wad be," he said, "rather a hard matter to hang a man upon nae ither evidence than a pair o’ tap boots.”

"Doubtless it would," replied the fiscal; "but here is," he said, "a concatenation of circumstances—a chain of evidence, so far as it goes, perfectly entire and connected. But," he continued, as if to reconcile the bailie to the dangerous suspicion, "au alibi on the part o` Mr Aikin will set a’ to rights, and blaw the hale charge awa, like peelin’s o’ ingans ; and if he be an innocent man, bailie, he can hae nae difficulty in establishing an alibi."

Not so fast, Mr Fiscal, not so fast, if you please ; this alibi was not so easily established, or rather it could not be established at all. Most unfortunately for poor Aikin, it turned out, upon an inquiry which the official authorities thought it necessary to set on foot before proceeding to extremities—that is, before taking any decisive steps against the object of their suspicion—that he had been not only absent from his own house until a late hour of the night on which the murder and robbery were committed, but had actually been at that late hour on the very identical road on which it had taken place. The truth is, that Aikin had been dining with a friend who lived about a mile into the country, and, as it unfortunately happened, in the very direction in which the crime had been perpetrated. Still, could it not have been shown that no unnecessary time had elapsed between the moment of his leaving his friend’s house and his arrival at his own? Such a circumstance would surely have weighed something in his favour. So it would, probably; but alas! even this slender exculpatory incident could not be urged in his behalf ; for the poor man, little dreaming of what was to happen, had drunk a tumbler or two more than enough, and had fallen asleep on the road. In short, the fiscal, considering all the circumstances of the case as they now stood, did not think it consistent with his duty either to delay proceedings longer against Aikin, or to maintain any further delicacy with regard to him. A report of the whole affair was made to the sheriff of Glasgow, who immediately ordered a warrant to be made out for the apprehension of Aikin. This instrument was given forthwith into the custody of two criminal officers, who set out directly in a post-chaise to execute their commission.

Arriving in the middle of the night, they found poor Aikin, wholly unconscious of the situation in which he stood, in bed and sound asleep. Having roused the unhappy man, and barely allowed him time to draw on his top boots, they hurried him into the chaise, and in little more than an hour thereafter, Aikin was fairly lodged in Glasgow jail, to stand his trial for murder and robbery, and this mainly, if not wholly, on the strength of his top boots.

The day of trial came. The judge summed up the evidence, and, in an eloquent speech, directed the special attention of the jury to Aikin’s top boots: indeed, on these he dwelt so much, and with such effect, that the jury returned a verdict of guilty against the prisoner at the bar, who accordingly received sentence of death, but was strongly recommended to mercy by the jury, as well on the ground of his previous good character, as on that of certain misgivings regarding the top boots, which a number of the jury could not help entertaining, in despite of their prominence in the evidence which was led against their unfortunate owner.

Aikin’s friends, who could not be persuaded of his guilt, notwithstanding the strong circumstantial proof with which it was apparently established, availing themselves of this recommendation of the jury, immediately set to work to second the humane interference; and Providence in its mercy kindly assisted them. From a communication which the superintendent of police in Glasgow received from the corresponding officer in Edinburgh, about a week after Aikin’s condemnation, it appeared that there were more gentlemen of suspicious character in the world who wore top boots than poor Aikin. The letter alluded to announced the capture of a notorious character—regarding whom information had been received from Bow Street—a "flash cove," fresh from London, on a foraying expedition in Scotland. The communication described him as being remarkably well dressed, and, in especial, alluded to the circumstance of his wearing top boots; concluding the whole, which was indeed the principal purpose of the letter, by inquiring if there was any charge in Glasgow against such a person as he described. The circumstance, by some fortunate chance, reached the ears of Aikin’s friends, and in the hope that something might be made of it, they employed an eminent lawyer in Edinburgh to sift the matter to the bottom.

In the meantime, the Englishman in the top boots was brought to trial for another highway robbery, found guilty, and sentenced to death without hope of mercy. The lawyer whom Aikin’s friends had employed, thinking this a favourable opportunity for eliciting the truth from him, seeing that he had now nothing more to fear in this world, waited upon the unfortunate man, and, amidst a confession of a long series of crimes, obtained from him that of the murder and robbery for which poor Aikin had been tried and condemned. The consequence of this important discovery was, the immediate liberation of Aikin, who again returned in peace to the bosom of his family. His friends, however, not contented with what they had done, represented the whole circumstances of the case to the Secretary of State for the Home Department ; and under the impression that there lay a claim on the country for reparation for the injury, though inadvertent, which its laws had done to an innocent man, the application was replied to in favourable terms in course of post, and in less than three weeks thereafter, Mr Thomas Aikin was appointed to a situation in the custom-house in London, worth two hundred pounds a year. His steadiness, integrity, and general good conduct, soon procured him still further advancement, and he finally died, after enjoying his appointment for many, years, in the annual receipt of more than double the sum which we have just named. And thus ends the eventful history of Mr Thomas Aikin and his Top Boots. — Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal.


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