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Wilson's Border Tales
The Mountain Storm


For several days the wind had been easterly, with an intense frost. At last, however the weather subsided into a calm and dense fog, under which, at mid-day, it was difficult to find one’s way amidst those mountain tracts along which, in general, my route lay. The grass and heath were absolutely loaded with hoar frost. My cheeks became encompassed by a powdered covering; my breath was intensely visible, and floated and lingered about my face with an oppressive and almost suffocating density. No sun, moon, or star had appeared for upwards of forty-eight hours; when, according to my preconcerted plan, I reached the farm town of Burnfoot. I was now in the centre of Queensberry Hills, the most notable sheep pasturage in the south of Scotland. It was about three o’clock of the 15th day of January, when, under a cheerful welcome from the guidwife, I rested my pack (for, be it known, I belong to this class of peripatetic merchants) upon the meal ark, disengaged my arms from the leather straps by which the pack was suspended from my shoulders, and proceeded to light my pipe at the blazing peat-fire. Refreshments, such as are best suited to the packman’s drouth, were soon and amply supplied, and I had the happiness of seeing my old acquaintances (for I visited Burnfoot twice a-year, on my going and coming from Glasgow to Manchester) drop in from their several avocations, one after another, and all truly rejoiced to behold my face, and still more delighted to inspect the treasure and the wonders of "the pack." At last the guidman himself suspended his plaid from the mid-door head, put off his shoes and leggings, assumed his slippers, together with his prescriptive seat at the head or upper end of the lang-settle. The guidwife, returning butt from bedding the youngest of some half-score of children, welcomed her husband with a look of the most genuine affection. She put a little creepy stool under his feet, felt that his clothes were not wet, scolded the dogs to a respectful distance, and inspired the peats into a double blaze. The oldest daughter, now "woman grown," sat combing the hoar frost from her raven locks, and looking out from beneath beautifully arched and bushy eyebrows upon the interesting addition which had been made to the meal ark. Some half-a-score of healthy lads and lasses occupied the bench ayont the fire, o’er-canopied by sheep-skins, aprons, stockings, and footless hose. The dogs, after various and somewhat noisy differences had been adjusted, fell into order and position around the hearth, enjoying the warmth, and licking, peacefully and carefully, the wet from their sides. The cat, by this time, had made a returning motion from the cupboard head, from which she had been watching the arrangements and movements beneath. As this appeared to Help to be an infringement of the terms of armistice and of the frontier laws, he sprang with eagerness over the hearth. Pussy, finding it dangerous, under this sudden and somewhat unexpected movement, "dare terga," instantly drew up her whole body into an attitude, not only of defence, but defiance; curving herself into a bristling crescent, with the head of a dragon attached to it, and, with one horrid hiss and sputter, compelled Help first to hesitate and then to retreat.

"Three paces back the youth retired,
And saved himself from harm."

The guidwife, however—who seemed not unaccustomed to such demonstrations, and who manifestly acted on the humane principle of assisting the weaker, by assailing the stronger combatant—gave Help such demonstrations of her intentions, as at once reduced matters to the status quo ante bellum. (I have as good a right to scholarship as my brother packman, Plato, who carried oil to Egypt.) Thus peace and good order being restored, the treasures of my burden became an immediate and a universal subject of inquiry. I was compelled, nothing loath, to unstrap my various packages, and disclose to view all the varied treasures of the spindle and loom. Shawls were spread out into enormous display, with central, and corner, and border ornaments, the most amazing and the most fashionable; waistcoat-pieces of every stripe and figure, from the straight line to the circle, of every hue and colouring which the rainbow exhibits, were unfolded in the presence and under the scrutinising thumb of many purchasers. The guidwife herself half coaxed and half scolded a fine remnant of Flanders lace, of most tempting aspect, out of the guidman’s reluctant pocket. The very dogs seemed anxious to be accommodated, and applied their noses to some unopened bales, with a knowing look of inquiry. Things were proceeding in this manner, when the door opened, and there entered a young man of the most prepossessing appearance; in fact, what Burns terms a "a strapping youth."

I would observe that, at his entrance, the daughter’s eye (of whom I have formerly made mention) immediately kindled into an expression of the most universal kindness and benevolence. Hitherto she had taken but a limited interest is what was going on; but now she became the most prominent figure in the group—whilst the mother dusted a chair for the welcome stranger with her apron, and the guidman welcomed him with a—

"Come away, Willie Wilson, an’ tak a seat. The nicht’s gay dark and dreary. I wonder hoo ye cleared the Whitstane Cleugh and the Side Scaur, man, on sic an eerie nicht."

"Indeed," responded the stranger, casting a look, in the meantime, towards the guidman’s buxom, and, indeed, lovely daughter—"indeed, it’s an unco fearfu nicht—sic a mist and sic a cauld I hae seldom if ever encountered; but I dinna ken hoo it was—I couldna rest at hame till I had tellt ye a’ the news o’ the last Laughom market."

"Ay, ay," interrupted the guidwife; "the last Langhom market, man, to an auld tale noo, I trow. Na, na, yer mither’s son camna here on sic a nicht, and at sic an hour, on sic an unmeaning errand"—finishing her sentence, however, by a whisper into Willie’s ear, which brought a deeper red into his cheek, and seemed to operate in a similar manner on the apparently deeply engaged daughter.

"But, Watty," continued my fair purchaser, "you must give me this Bible a little cheaper—it’s owre dear, man— heard ever onybody o’ five white shillings gien for a Bible, and it only a New Testament, after a’?—it’s baith a sin an’ a shame, Watty?"

After some suitable reluctance, I was on the point of reducing the price by a single sixpence, when Willie Wilson advanced towards the pack, and, at once taking up the book and the conversation—

"Owre dear, Jessie, my dear!—it’s the word o’ God, ye ken—his ain precious word; and I’ll e’en mak ye a present o’ the book, at Watty’s ain price. Ye ken he maun live, as we a’ do, by his trade."

The money was instantly paid down from a purse pretty well filled; for William Wilson was the son of a wealthy and much respected sheep-farmer in the neighbourhood, and had had his name once called in the kirk, along with that of "Janet Harkness of Burnfoot, both in this parish."

"Hoot, noo, bairns," rejoined the mother; "ye’re baith wrang—that Bible winna do ava. Ye maun hae a big ha’ Bible to take the buik wi’, and worship the God o’ yer fathers night an’ morning, as they hae dune afore ye; and Watty will bring ye ane frae Glasgow the next time he comes roun; and it will, maybe, be usefu, ye ken, in anither way."

"Tout, mither, wi’ yer nonsense," interrupted the conscious bride; "I never liked to see my name and age marked and pointed out to onybody on oor muckle Bible; sae just had yer tongue, mither, and tak a present frae William and me," added she, blushing deeply, "o’ that big printed Testament. The minister, ye ken, seldom meddles wi’ the auld Bible, unless it be a bit o’ the psalms; and yer een now are no sae gleg as they were whan ye were married to my faither there."

The father, overcome by this well-timed and well-directed evidence of goodness, piety, and filial affection, rose from his seat on the lang settle, and, with tears in his eyes, pronounced a most fervent benediction over the shoulders of his child.

"O God in heaven, bless and preserve my dear Jessie!" said he—his child’s tears now falling fast and faster. "Oh, may the God of thy fathers make thee happy—thee and thine—him there and his!—and when thy mother’s gray hairs and mine are laid and hid in the dust, mayst thou have children, such as thy fond and dutiful self, to bless and comfort, to rejoice and support thy heart!"

There was not, by this time, a dry eye in the family; and, as a painful silence was on the point of succeeding to this outbreaking of nature, the venerable parent slowly and deliberately took down the big ha’ Bible from its bole in the wall, and, placing it on the lang-settle table, he proceeded to family worship with the usual solemn prefatory anunciation—"Let us worship God."

Love, filial affection, and piety—what a noble, what a beautiful triumvirate! By means of these, Scotland has rendered herself comparatively great, independent, and happy. These are the graces which, in beautiful union, have protected her liberties, sweetened her enjoyments, and exalted her head amongst the nations, and which, over all, have cast an expression and a feature irresistibly winning and nationally characteristic. It is over such scenes as the kitchen fireside of Burnfoot, now presented, that the soul hovers with ever-awakening and ever-intenser delight; that, even amidst the coldness, and unconcern, and irreligion of an iron age, the mind, at least at intervals, is redeemed into ecstasy, and feels, in spite of habit, and example, and deadened apprehensions, that there is a beauty in pure and virgin love, a depth in genuine and spontaneous filial regard, and an impulse in communion with Him that is most high, which, even when taken separately, are hallowing, sacred, and elevating; but which, when blended and softened down into one great and leading feature, prove incontestably that man is in his origin and unalloyed nature, but a little lower than the angels.

Such was the aspect of matters in this sequestered and sanctified dwelling, when the house seemed, all at once, to be smitten, like Job’s, at the four corners. The soot fell in showers into the grate; the rafters creaked; the dust descended; every door in the house rattled on its sneck and hinges; and the very dogs sprung at once from their slumbers and barked. There was something so awful in the suddenness and violence of the commotion, that the prayer was abruptly and suddenly brought to a conclusion.

"Ay, fearfu’ sirs!" were John Harkness’ first words when springing to his feet; "but there is an awfu night. Open the outer door, Jamie, and let us see what it is like." The outer door was opened; but the drift burst in with such a suffocating swirl, that a strong lad who encountered it, reeled and gasped for breath.

"The hogs!" exclaimed the guidman, "and the gimmers!—where did ye leave them, Jamie?"

"In Capleslacks," was the answer, "by east the Dod. The wind has set in frae the nor’-east, and fifty score o’ sheep, if this continue, will never see the morning."

But what was to be done?

"The wind blew as ‘twould blawn its last,"

and the whole atmosphere was one almost solid wreath of penetrating snow; when you thrust forth your hand into the open air, it was as if you had perforated an iceberg. Burnfoot stands at the convergence of two mountain glens, adown one of which the tempest came as from a funnel—collected, compressed, irresistible. There was a momentary look of suspense—every one eyeing the rest with an expression of indecision and utter helplessness. The young couple, by some law of affinity, stood together in a corner. The shepherd lads, with Jamie Hogg at their head, were employed in adjusting plaids to their persons. The guidman had already resumed his leggings, and the dogs were all exceedingly excited—amazed at this unexpected movement—but perfectly resolved to do their duty.

"Jamie," said the guidman, "you and I will try to mak oor way by the Head Scaur to Capleyetts where the main hirsel was left; and Will, Tam, and Geordie will see after the hoggs and gimmers ayont the Dod."

"I, too," exclaimed a voice from the corner, over which, however, a fair hand was pressed, and which was therefore but indistinctly heard—"I will—(canna ye let me speak, Jessie!)—I will not, I shall not be left behind—I will accompany the guidman, and do what I can to seek and to save."

"Indeed, and indeed, my dear James, ye can do use guid— ye dinna ken the grun like my faither; and there’s mony a kittle step, forby the Head Scaur; and, the Lord be wi’ us! on sic a nicht too." So saying, she clasped her betrothed firmly around the neck, and absolutely compelled him to relinquish his purpose. Having gained this one object, the fair and affectionate bride rushed across the room to her father, and falling down on her knees, grasped him by the legs, and exclaimed—

"O mither, mither! come and help me—come and help me! faither, my dear faither, let Jamie Hogg gang, and the rest; they are young, ye ken, and as weel acquent as yersel wi’ the ly o’ the glens; but this is no a nicht for the faither o’ a family to risk his life to save his substance. O faither, faither! I am soon, ye ken, to leave you and bonny Burnfoot—grant me, oh, grant me this one, this last request!"

The mother sat all this while, wringing her hands and exclaiming—

"Ay, ay, Jenny, get him to stay, get him to stay!"

The father answered not a word, but, making a sign to Hogg, and whistling on Help, and at the same time kissing his now all but fainting child, he rushed out of the door, (as Mrs Harkness said)"like a fey man," and he and his companion, with a suitable accompaniment of dogs, were almost instantly invisible. The three other lads, suitably armed and accompanied, followed the example set to them; and the guidwife, the two lovers, five or six younger branches, and the female servants of the family, with myself, remained at home in a state of anxiety and suspense which can be better conceived than expressed.

"The varnished clock that clicked behind the door,"

with a force and a stroke loud and painful in the extreme, struck first ten, then eleven, then twelve; but there was no return: again and again were voices heard commingling with the tempest’s rush; again and again did the outer door seem to move backwards on its hinges; but nothing entered, save the shrill pipe of the blast, accompanied by the comminuted drift, which penetrated through every seam and cranny. This state of uncertainty was awful—even the ascertained reality of death, partial or universal, had perhaps less of soul-benumbing cold in it than this inconceivable suspense. It required Willie Wilson’s utmost efforts and mine to keep the frantic women from madly rushing into the drift; and the voice of lamentation was sad and loud amongst the children and the servant lasses—each of the latter class lamented, indeed, the fate of all, but there was always an under prayer offered up for the safety of Geordie, or Will, or Jamie, in particular. At last the three lads who had encompassed the Dod, arrived—alive, indeed, but almost breathless and frozen to death. They had, however, surmounted incredible difficulties, and had succeeded in placing their hired in a position of comparative security; but where were Jamie Hogg and the guidman? The violence of the storm had nothing abated, the snow was every moment accumulating, and the danger and difficulty increasing tenfold. Spirits, heat, and friction gradually restored the three lads to their senses, and to the kind attentions of their several favourites of the female order; but there sat the mother and the daughter, whilst the father was either, in all probability, dead or dying. The very thought was distracting; and, accordingly, the young bride, now turning to her lover with a look of inexpressible anguish, exclaimed—

"O Willie! my ain dear Willie! ye maun gang, after a’—ye maun gang this instant," (Willie was on his feet and plaided whilst yet the sentence was unfinished,) "and try to rescue my dear, dear faither from this awfu and untimely end; but tak care, oh, tak care, o’ the big scaur, and keep far west by Caplecleuch, and maybe ye’ll meet them coming back that way." These last words were lost in the drift, whilst Willie Wilson, with his faithful follower, Rover, were penetrating, and flouncing, and floundering their way towards the place pointed out."

In about half-an-hour after this, the howl and scratch of a dog were heard at the door-back, and Help immediately rushed in, the welcome forerunner of his master and Hogg. They had, indeed, had a fearful struggle, and fearful wanderings; but in endeavouring to avoid the dangerous, because precipitous Head Scaur, they had wandered from the track, and from the object of their travel; and, after having been inclined, once or twice, to lie down and take a rest—(the deceitful messenger of death)—they had at last got upon the track of Capel Water; and, by keeping to its windings—which they had often traced, at the risk of being drowned—they had at last weathered the old cham’er, the byre, and peat-stack, and were now, thank God! within "bigget wa’s."

But where, alas! was Willie Wilson? Him, in consequence of their deviations, they had missed; and over him, thus exposed, the tempest was still renewing, at intervals, its hurricane gusts. There was one scream heard, such as would have penetrated the heart of a tiger, and all was still. There she lay, the beauteous, but now marble bride; her head reposing on her mother’s lap—her lips pale as the snow-drop—her eyes fixed and soulless—her cheek without a tint—and her mouth half-open and breathless. Long, long was the withdrawment; again and again was the dram-glass applied to the mouth, to catch the first expiration of returning breath; ere the frame began to quiver, the hands to move, the lips and cheeks to colour, and the eyes to indicate the approaching return to reason and perception.

"I have killed him, I have killed him!" were the first frantic accents. "I have murdered, murdered my dear Willie! It was me that sent him—forced him—compelled him out—out into the drift—the cold, cold drift. Away!" added the maniac—"away! I’ll go after him—I’ll perish with him—where he lies, there will I lie, and there will I be buried. What! is there none of ye that will make an effort to save a perishing—a choking—oh, my God! a suffocating man?"

Hereupon she again sank backwards, and was prevented from falling by the arms of a father.

"O my child!" said parental love and affection—"O my dear wean!—oh, be patient!—God is guid—He has preserved us all—He will not desert him in the hour of his need—He neither slumbers nor sleeps—His hand is not shortened that He cannot save--and what He can, He will—He never deserted any that trusted in Him. O my child! my bairn— my first born!—be patient—be patient. There—there— there is a scratch at the door-back—it is Rover."

And to be sure Rover it was; but Rover in despair. His faithful companion and friend only entered the house to solicit immediate aid—he ran round and round, looking up into the face of every one with an expression of the most imploring anxiety. The poor frantic girl sprung from her father’s embrace, and clung to the neck of the well-known cur—she absolutely kissed him—(oh, to what will not love, omnipotent, virtuous love, descend!)—then rising in renewed recollection, she sat herself down on the long settle beside her father, and burst into loud and passionate grief.

It was now manifest to all that something must be attempted, else the young farmer must perish. Hogg, though awfully exhausted, was the first to volunteer a new excursion. The whole band were at once on their feet; but Jessie now clung to her father, as she had formerly done to her lover and would not let him go—indeed, the guidman was in no danger of putting his purpose into effect, for he could scarcely stand on his feet. He sat, or rather fell down, consequently beside his daughter, and continued in constant prayer and supplication at the throne of grace. The daughter listened and said she was comforted—the voyagers were again on their way—the tempest had somewhat abated—the moon had once or twice shone out—and there was now a greater chance of success in their undertaking.

How we all contrived to exist during an interval of about two hours, I cannot say; but this I knew, that the endurance of this second trial was worse than the first, to all but the sweet bride herself. Her mind had now taken a more calm and religious view of the case. She repeated, at intervals and pauses in her father’s ejaculatory prayer—

"Yes—oh, yes—His will—His holy will be done! The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away—blessed be the name of the Lord for ever! We shall meet again—oh, yes— where the weary are at rest.

"‘A few short years of evil past,
We reach the happy shore
Where death-divided friends at last
Shall meet, to part no more.’

O father, is not that a gracious saying, and worthy of all acceptation!"

At length the door opened, and in walked William Wilson.

The reader needs scarcely to be told that the sagacious dog had left his master floundered, and unable to extricate himself in a snow wreath; that the same faithful guide had taken the searchers to the spot, where they found Wilson in the act of falling into a sleep—from which, indeed but for the providential sagacity of his dog, he had never wakened; and that, by means of some spirits which they had taken in a bottle, they completely restored and conducted him home.

"Lives there one with soul so dead"

as not now to image the happy meeting betwixt bride and bridegroom; and, above all, the influence which this trial had upon the happiness and religious character of their future married and prosperous lot?

It is, indeed, long since I have laid aside the pack—to which, after a good education, I had taken, from a wandering propensity—and taken up my residence in the flourishing village of Thornhill, Dumfriesshire; living, at first on the profits of my shop, and now retired on my little, but, to me, ample competency; but I still have great pleasure in paying a yearly visit to my friends of Mitchelslacks, and in recalling with them, over a comfortable meal, the interesting incidents of the snow storm, 1794.


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