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Wilson's Border Tales
The Medal


The good effects resulting from a laudable emulation, are observable in all the affairs of life. It is the true principle of progression and improvement; and, though it may change its form and its name, is apparent throughout all the stages of man’s progress. The spirit of competition at school is among its first indications, and, under the name of emulation, it is highly valued as a means of acquiring superiority but the same power is apparent in ambition,

"That last and strongest tyrant of the heart;"

and between these two—the first and last of our active powers—how many forms of the same inspiring principle might be discovered! But the twofold spirit of good and evil is apparent in all things; and, while much good has resulted from the common system of stimulating the emulation of the young, there is unfortunately a danger attending it, resulting from an infirmity in our nature, but which may be diminished in proportion as it is made known. Our meaning and moral will be made apparent from the following genuine narrative of a distinguished eleve who (and there are many such) assimilated the medal of scholastic merit to the badge of the warrior, acquired at the termination of a campaign. As the one is given for "deeds of glory done," when no more is expected of the veteran, the other was viewed as a final triumph; and vanity, taking the place of exertion, urged the successful scholar to the brink of ruin.

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I was educated in a Scottish university, where prizes were distributed to the most distinguished students in each class at the termination of the session. The most distinguished prize was a gold medal, value ten guineas, the gift of a departed eleve, and awarded to the best scholar in the mathematical class. Having a natural turn or bias for mathematical pursuits, I applied myself night and day to the attainment of this my object of ambition; and this, too, at the expense and neglect of all the other classes which I attended. I was a very imperfect Latin scholar, I knew almost nothing of Greek, and held the unscientific reasoning of logic and moral philosophy in great contempt. By great labour, and, after a severe competition, I succeeded in attaining the distinction at which I aimed, and saw myself blazoned in several. newspapers as the holder of this distinguishing badge. My great chum at college was a Mr Donald Ferguson, a lad of a staid and persevering disposition, of a well-balanced and judicious mind, and without any talents, apparently, which bespoke future distinction. We had been friends and companions at school—our parents were friends before us—and, although we differed materially in disposition, this did not prevent the closest and most affectionate intercourse. Oh!’ such recollections as now rush upon my mind—

"Dear happy scenes of innocence and ease—
Scenes of my youth, when every sport could p1ease!"

Ferguson and I spent whole days together in the solitude of nature, with nothing but the deep blue and fleecy white overhead; the stunted thorn and the croaking raven above; and the brawling brook and trout-dimpled pool before us. In all games of activity I had the start of Ferguson, and was always first chosen at "King o’ Cantilon," "the dools," and "shinty ;" but he had the advantage again of me in feats of strength and precision of eye—in the quoits and putting-stone. But I am wandering from my purpose, and forgetting my narrative.

Ferguson would often admonish me that I was giving offence to several professors, in order to gain the good opinion of one, and that the applause which my medal would procure for me might be too dearly bought at the expense of every other department of study. I took all this in good part, but without altering in the least my conduct, as I answered that my friend was making a virtue of necessity, and recommending that course of obscure diligence to me which he by nature was destined to pursue.

In consequence of the eclat of the medal, I had an invitation to make one of a pleasure party to Roslin, and had the happiness of being introduced to some young ladies, who had previously expressed to my friend Ferguson a wish to make my acquaintance. We spent a most delightful day—

"Midst Ros1in’s bowers sae bright and bonny,
And a’ the sweets o’ Hawthornden."

The ladies were young, bright, and beautiful, light of heart, and delightfully pleasing in manners and conversation. I had not been previously accustomed to such fascinating society; and I felt that kind of intoxication which youth, innocence, and strong passion only can feel. I was all day off my feet, and gave way to every manner of fun, frolic, and foolery, to show that, though I was an immense philosopher, I was still a man in every pulse and vein. There was in this happy group one divine countenance; an eye so blue and so soft, and so penetrating—lips that moved in meaning, and held every instant communication of the most electric character, with a little playful, almost wily dimple, which gave the most varied fascination to a cheek of sunshine and almost rosy hue. Her form

"Was fresher than the morning rose
When the dew wets its leaves—unstained and pure
As is the lily or the mountain snow."

In a word, as you will easily perceive, I was captivated; and could do nothing all the ensuing night but toss and think, and think and toss, till nature at last steeped me anew, not in forgetfulness, but in all the motley, medley joys and gambols of Roslin. I had now become a student of divinity; but all study was with me at an end. No party of young people—particularly where young ladies were concerned—could be held without me; and I had the very great misfortune to be talked of by them as monstrous clever. The young lady to whom I had so long paid particular attention,and at whose house (that of the widow of a respected clergyman of the Church of Scotland) I had long been a habitual and a welcome guest, at last consented to receive me in future in the light of a lover. We walked it, talked it, and laughed it from morning to night, "as other lovers do," and scarcely thought of either the past or the future, being so completely engrossed with the present. Time flew by on angel wings, fleeting as bright, and the period of my examination, previous to my receiving license, at last approached. I had all the while a secret misgiving that I would not stand a trial, in the Presbytery of Edinburgh in particular; but I had no other residence for several years, and, consequently, no other way of becoming a licentiate. As good fortune would have it, the mother of my betrothed, through her interest with the Duke of Queensberry’s factor, had every chance of procuring me a presentation the moment I was qualified to accept of it; and both she and her daughter would as soon have dreamt that I would fail in opening my eyes as in obtaining the indispensable requisite of a license. What I had anticipated, however, actually took place: I was found so deficient in the classics of Greece and Rome, that my license was delayed, and I was remitted for twelve months to my studies. This was a degree of disgrace and degradation which altogether unmanned me. I could not face my beloved Mary, or her mother, or any of my own friends and acquaintances, under such circumstances. Sleep fled my eyes, and my mind became unhinged. Existence itself became a positive, insupportable misery. I fled to the mountains; but they, through all their glens and streams, had tongues that syllabled beloved names, which I wished, were it possible, to forget. Wherever I went, the horrors of the past were ever present. People seemed to me to stop and point the finger of scorn at me from every street and door-way. At last, in a fit of despair, I rashly resolved on self-destruction, and plunged headlong into Leith harbour. I have the sound of the waters still in my ears, and that sound will, I verily believe, remain till that of the last trumpet shall mingle with it. When I awoke from seeming nonentity, I was surrounded by many and unknown faces; and my passage back to life was more terrific and painful by far than my exit. I had been for some time in a warm bed, and undergoing the means of resuscitation. "Much kinder," thought I, "had ye been to let me go." My name, parentage, &c., having been ascertained, my father was written to, and I was kept in close custody till his arrival. My father was a respectable farmer in Dumfriesshire, and immediately hurried me away to my native glen. My mother met me with tears; but they were those of sympathy and affection, and one word of reproach she never uttered. I became gradually more and more calm; but at times the thoughts of the paradise which I had lost, and the hell I had earned, would throw me absolutely into convulsions. The calmness which gathered over my soul was not that of resignation—it was the settled gloom of despair. Religion was talked of and pressed upon me; but as yet I had no settled views on that subject. I neither believed nor disbelieved : I was willing, when the subject obtruded itself upon my thoughts, to get rid of it the best way I could. At last my melancholy gradually undermined a naturally good constitution, and it was manifest to my medical adviser that I was verging towards that degree of weakness and decay which, under various distinctive appellations, is sure to terminate in death. A change of scene was urged, and I was hurried away to Saturness Point, that I might inhale the sea breeze, and be interested in new objects. This measure was at first partially successful; but, happening to see a newspaper one day, in which the settlement of my more steady companion in the very church which I had once destined for myself was mentioned, and reading in the very same page a notice of his marriage with my beloved Mary, I became immediately frantic. For years my mind was so far unhinged that a person was appointed to watch my motions, and guard me from self-destruction. "Oh, that cursed medal!" was I heard again and again to exclaim; "it is to this I have to trace my every wo." What I endured during this dark and fearful night, no power of fancy can image, no pen can describe. Horresco-referens.

As God would have it, the person who was thus associated with me night and day was religiously disposed, and took occasion, when opportunity served, to lead my mind to serious subjects—to talk of eternity, immortality, heaven, and hell. Often did I kick against the pricks, and strive to resume my former indifference; but it would not do. The very possibility of such awful truths was terrific. I awoke all at once, as it were, to a sense of my imminent danger. I found that I was sleeping on a parapet, from which to fall was certain death. I fled with all possible speed to the only city of refuge—to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. I grasped the truths of the gospel with the energy of a dying creature. I hugged the very Bible to my bosom, and read it night and day. Our conversations were protracted, aud to me, ultimately delightful. I found that there was mercy even to the chief of sinners, and I regarded myself as personally referred to in the gracious intimation. With the perception and cultivation of gospel truth, my health gradually rallied, and my mind assumed a more balanced attitude. It was about this time that my father died, and the superintendence of a pretty extensive sheep farm naturally devolved upon me. This avocation, uncongenial as it was to my college pursuits and feelings, still occupied my attention, and withdrew me from reflections of no very pleasing nature. In cultivating, or rather in renewing my acquaintance with the soil, and with its productions, vegetable as well as animal, I felt that I was placed as it were in the outer vestibule of God’s temple. Into the holy of holies, through the blessed mediation, I had already been introduced, and it gave me pleasure to behold the outer, as well as to contemplate the inner courts of so stupendous an erection. "The shepherd of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. My sheep hear my voice. He shall separate the sheep from the goats. The streams that run amongst the hills. Mount Carmel, Mount Zion, Mount Horeb." These and similar expressions, in which the Jewish Scriptures, in particular, abound, came home to my newly renovated, and, I trust, regenerated perceptions, with a vividness and a force formerly unknown. I seemed to myself to be a dweller on the mountains of Jacob and amongst the tents of Israel, as my flocks scattered themselves on the hill side, or pursued the green pasturage by the streams of waters. There was a harmony and correspondence betwixt the seen and the unseen, the present and the past, the temporal and the spiritual life, of which I every day became more and more aware.

About this time we received intimation of the death of my father’s brother, who had gone, early in life, to Kingston, in Jamaica, and had, by prosperous adventures as a merchant, realised a considerable sum of money. After various delays and much peculation, the residue of his fortune, together with his will, was transmitted home, and found myself, as my father’s heir-male, entitled to upwarde of £10,000. My mother had already greatly declined, indeed she never fully rallied after my father’s death; and on the very day on which the papers respecting the inheritance arrived, I had to perform the last sad duties to one of the best of parents. Alas! that ever my unhappy conduct should have occasioned pain and anxiety in a bosom where pure affection and undefiled religion habitually resided! I had the consolation, however, to receive my mother’s blessing in her parting breath, and to hear her construe my misconduct and misfortunes into merciful dispensations of a wise Providence, who is ever bringing good out of seeming evil.

"And better thence again, and better still,
In infinite progression."

The lease of the farm having expired in a year after this I did not think of continuing on a spot which suggested so many recollections connected with the departed; so I at once removed to furnished lodgings in Edinburgh, and gradually renewed my acquaintance with a few of my still surviving friends. Amongst these was the mother of my Mary, who informed me that her daughter was now a widow and without family, and was expected in a month or two to return to her old fireside from the Manse of —. I do not know how it was, but I trembled all over at this information, and an image, which had for so long a time been almost obliterated from my memory, now rose before me in all its original loveliness. The two months appeared to me two twelvemonths, till I again saw, and renewed my acquaintance with the only woman whom my soul had ever loved. Mutual explanations took place: she had married my friend Ferguson, under the impression that, if not dead, I was confined in a lunatic asylum; and had only consented, after all, at the earnest request of her mother. It was but yesterday that we had a most delightful drive to Roslin, where I renewed my addresses, and have been accepted. I have taken a neat cottage near Hawthornden, where I mean to spend with Mary the remainder of my days, if not in the fervour of young love, at least in the more enduring, perhaps, and more rational endearments of mutual affection, friendship, and esteem. The medal which was the foundation of all my sufferings, I have at this moment suspended before me, in my study, that I may be ever reminded of that false step which, but for the interposition of Providence, might have ruined both soul and body for ever. If it shall be in God’s providence that I am blessed with any pledges of affection by my dear Mary, I shall endeavour to save them from the danger which so narrowly escaped; yet, so strangely commingled are the good and bad things of life—so very delicately are the fine threads that go to form the web of our moral system connected and interlaced—that it requires a hand finer than mere man’s to remove some of the dingy lines, so as to restore to the whole that beauty it possessed when spread in the garden of Eden. If we take from the noble steed the emulation that may hurry him over the precipice, we will see him distanced at the next St Leger. Must we, then, secure the good, and run the risk of the attendant evil? The answer does not seem difficult. Let emulation be by all means encouraged; but let all teachers and parents impress upon the minds of the fortunate competitors, the true value of the prize won. And whilst efforts are made in one direction, let it ever be remembered that a useful education comprehends breadth as well as length; and that the departments which have been neglected may prove, in future life, those of the most essential value in promoting success and securing happiness.


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