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Wilson's Border Tales
The Leveller
Chapter 2


It was about two years after his son had enlisted, that the news of the peace and the abdication of Napoleon arrived. James was not one of those who partook of the general joy; but while he mourned over the fall of the man whom he had all but worshipped, he denounced the conduct of the allied sovereigns in strong and bitter terms of indignation. The bellman went round the village, calling upon the inhabitants to demonstrate their rejoicing by an illumination. The Levellers consulted James upon the subject, and his advice was, that they ought not, let the consequences be as they would, comply with the request or command of the authorities, and which had been proclaimed by the town-crier; on the contrary, he recommended, that at the hour when the illumination was to commence, every man of them should extinguish the fires in his house, and leave not a lamp or a rushlight burning. His advice was always akin to a command, and it was implicitly followed. The houses were lighted up—the illumination was general, save only the windows of the Levellers, which appeared as in mourning; and soon attracted the attention of the crowd, the most unruly amongst whom raised the cry of "Smash them!—send them in," and the cry was no sooner made than it was obeyed; stones flew thick as hail, panes were shivered, sashes broken, and they ran from one house to another carrying on their work of destruction. In its turn they came to the dwelling of James—they raised a yell before it—a stone was thrown, and the crash of broken glass was heard. James opened the door, and stood before them. They yelled louder.

"Break away," said he, contemptuously; "ye poor infatuated sauls that ye are--break away, an’ dinna leave a hale pane, if it’s yer sovereign’s will an’ pleasure! Ye silly, thoughtless, senseless idiots; how mony hunder millions has it cost this country to cram the precious Bourbons on the people o’ France again?—an’ wha’s to pay it, think ye?"

"No you, Jemmy," cried a voice from the crowd.

"But I maun toil frae mornin’ till night to help to do it, ye blockhead ye," answered James; "an’ ye hae to do the same, an’ yer back has to gang bare, an’ yer bairns to be hungered for! Certes, friends, ye hae great cause for an illumination! But, as if the hunders o’ millions which yer assistance o’ the Bourbons has added to the national debt were but a trifle, ye, forsooth, must increase yer county burdens by breaking decent people’s windows, for their sake, out o’ pure mischief. Break awa, friends, if it’s yer pleasure, the damage winna come out o’ my pocket; and if yer siller is sae plentifu’ that ye can afford to throw it awa in chucky-stanes!—fling! fling!" and, withdrawing into the house, he shut the door.

"Odd! I dinna ken," said one of the crowd, "but there’s a deal o’ truth in what he says."

"It was too bad to touch his windows," said another; "his son, George, has been in the wars, an’ the life o’ a son is o’ mair value than a pound o’ candles."

"Ye’re richt," cried a third.

"Hurra for Jemmy the Leveller!" cried another. The crowd gave a loud cheer, and left the house in good humour; nor was there another window in the village broken throughout the night.

Next day, James received the following letter from his son. It was dated

Toulouse, April 14th, 1814.

"HONOURED FATHER AND MOTHER—I hope this will find you and my dear sister well, as it leaves me, thank Providence for it. I think this war will soon be over now; for, whatever you may think of the French and their fighting, father, we have driven them from pillar to post, and from post to pillar, as the saying is. Not but that they are brave fellows, and clever fellows too; but we can beat them, and that is everything. Soult is one of their best generals, if not their very best; and though he was in his own country, and had his positions all of his own choosing, I assure you, upon the word of a soldier, that we have beaten him out and out, twice within this fortnight; but, if you still get the newspapers, you will have seen something about it. You must not expect me to give you any very particular accounts about what has taken place; for a single soldier just sees and knows as much about a battle as the spoke of a mill-wheel knows about the corn which it causes to be ground. I may here, also, while I remember, tell you what my notions of bravery are. Some people talk about courageous men, and braving death, and this and that; but, so far as I have seen and felt, it is all talk—nothing but talk. There are very few such cowards as to run away, or not to do their duty (indeed, to run away from the ranks during an action would be no easy matter), but I believe I am no coward—I daresay you think the same thing; and the best man in all T— durst not call me one; but I will tell you how I felt when I first entered a battle. We were under arms—I saw a part of the enemy’s lines before us—we were ordered to advance— I knew that in ten minutes the work of death would begin, and I felt—not faintish, but some way confoundedly like it. The first firing commenced by the advanced wing; at the report, my knees shook (not visibly), and my heart leaped within me. A cold sweat (a slight one) broke over me. I remember the sensation. A second discharge took place--the work was at hand—something seemed to crack within my ears. I felt I don’t know how; but it was not courageous, though, as to running away or being beaten, the thought never entered my head. Only I did not feel like what you read about heroes. Well, the word ‘Fire’ was given to our own regiment. The drum of my ear actually felt as if it were split. My heart gave one terrible bound, and I felt it no more. For a few moments all was ringing of the ears, smoke, and confusion. I forgot everything about death. The roar of the action had become general—through its din I at intervals heard the sounds of the drum and the fife. But my ears instantly became, as it were, ‘cased.’ I could hear nothing but the word of command, save a hum, hum, something like a swarm of bees about to settle round my head. I saw nothing, and I just loaded as I was ordered, and fired— fired—fired!—as insensible, for all the world, as if I had been on a parade. Two or three of my neighbours were shot to the right and left; but the ranks were filled up in a twinkling, and it was not every time that I observed whether they were killed or wounded. But, as I say, after the third firing or so, I hardly knew whether I was dead or living; I acted in a kind of way mechanically, as it were, through a sort of dumfoundered desperation, or anything else ye like to call it; and if this be courage, it’s not the sort of courage that I’ve heard and read about—but it’s the only kind of courage I felt on entering on my first engagement, and, as I have said, there are none that would dare to call me coward! But, as I was telling ye, we have twice completely beaten Soult within these fourteen days. We have driven them out of Spain; and, but for the bad winter weather, we would have driven them through France before now. But we have driven them into France; and, as I said, even in their own country, we have beaten them twice. Soult and his army all drawn up and ready, upon a rising ground, before a town they call Orthies. I have no doubt but ye have some idea of what sort of winter it has been, and that may lead you to judge of what sort of roads we have had to wade through in a country like this; and that we’ve come from where nobody ever had to complain of being imprisoned for the destroying of toll-bars! I think that was the most foolish and diabolical action ever any person in our country was guilty of. But, besides the state of the roads, we had three rivers to cross before we could reach the bench. However, we did cross them. General Picton, with the third division of the army, crossed or forded what they call the Gave de Pau on the 26th of last month, and we got over the river on the following day. Our army completed their positions early in the afternoon, and Lord Wellington (for he is a prompt man) immediately began to give Soult notice that he must seek different quarters for the night. Well, the action began, and a dreadful and sanguinary battle it was. Our third division suffered terribly. But we drove the French from their heights—we routed them. We thus obtained possession of the navigation of the Adour, one of the principal commercial passages in France; and Soult found there was nothing left but to retreat, as he best might, to Toulouse (from whence I write this letter), and there we followed him; and from here, too, though after hard fighting, we forced him to run for it. You may say what you like, father, but Lord Wellington is a first-rate general— though none of us over and above like him, for he is terribly severe; he is a disciplinarian, soul and body of him, and a rigid one. We have beaten all Buonaparte’s generals; and I should like to meet with him, just to see if we can beat him too. You used to talk so much about him, that if I live to get to Paris, I shall see him, though I give a shilling for it. What I mean by that is, that I think the game is up with him; and four or five Irish soldiers, of my acquaintance, have thought it an excellent speculation to club together, and to offer the Emperor Alexander and the rest of them (who, I dare say, will be very glad to get rid of him on cheap terms) a price for him, and to bring him over to Britain, and exhibit him round the country, at so much a-head"----

"O depravity!—depravity!" cried James, rising in a fury, and flinging the letter from him—"Oh, that a bairn o’ mine should be capable o’ pennin’ sic disgracefu’ language!"

He would allow no more of the letter to be read—he said his son had turned a mere reprobate; he would never own him more.

A few weeks after this, Catherine, the daughter of our old Leveller, was married to a young weaver, named William Crawford, who then wrought in the neighbourhood of Sterling. He was a man according to James’ own heart; for he had wrought in the same shop with him, and, when a boy, received his principles from him. James therefore, rejoiced in his daughter’s marriage; and he said "there was ane o’ his family—which wasna large— that hadna disgraced him." Yet he took the abdication and the exile of Napoleon to heart grievously. Many said that, if he could have raised the money, he would have gone to Elba to condole with the exiled Emperor, though he should have begged for the remainder of his days. He went about mourning for his fate; but, as the proverb says, they who mourn for trifles or strangers may soon have more to mourn for—and so it was with James Nicholson. His son was abroad—his daughter had left his house, and removed to another part of the country—and his wife fell sick and died. He felt all the solitariness of being left alone—he became fretful and unhappy. He said, that now he "hadna ane to do onything for him." His health also began to fail, and to him peace brought neither plenty nor prosperity. The weaving trade grew worse and worse every day. James said he believed that prices would come to nothing. He gradually became less able to work, and his earnings were less and less. He was evidently drooping fast. But the news arrived that Napoleon had left Elba—that he had landed in France--that he was now on his way to Paris—that he had entered it—that the Bourbons had fled; and the eyes of James again sparkled with joy, and he went about rubbing his hands, and again exclaiming—"Oh, the great—the godlike man!—the beloved of the people!—the conqueror of hearts as well as countries! he is returned!—he is returned! Everything will go well again!"

During "the hundred days," James forgot all his sorrow and all his solitariness; like the eagle, he seemed to have renewed his youth. But the tidings of Waterloo arrived.

"Treachery! foul treachery!" cried the old man, when he heard them; and he smote his hand upon his breast. But he remembered that his son was in that battle. He had not heard from him—he knew not but that he was numbered with the slain—he feared it, and he became tenfold more unhappy and miserable than before.

A few months after the battle, a wounded soldier arrived at T—, to recruit his health amongst his friends. He had enlisted with George, he had served in the same regiment, and seen him fall at the moment the cry of "The Prussians!" was raised.

"My son!—my poor son!" cried the miserable father, "and its my doing—it is a’ mine—I drove him to list; and how can I live wi’ the murder o’ my poor George upon my head?" His distress became deeper and more deep; his health and strength more rapidly declined; he was unable to work, and he began to be in want. About this period, also, he was attacked with a paralytic stroke, which deprived him of the use of his right arm; and he was reluctantly compelled to remove to Stirlingshire, and become an inmate in the house of his daughter.

It was a sad grief to his proud spirit to feel himself a burden upon his child; but she and her husband strove anxiously to soothe him, and to render him happy. He was still residing with them when the Radical meetings took place in various parts of the country, and especially in the west of Scotland, in 1819. James contemplated them with delight. He said the spirit of liberty was casting its face upon his countrymen—they were beginning to think like men, and to understand the principles which he had gloried in, through good report and through bad report—yea, and through persecution, for more than half a century

A meeting was to take place near Stirling, and James was sorrowful that he was unable to attend; but his son-in-law was to be present, and James charged him, that he would bring him a faithful account of all the proceedings. Catherine knew little about the principles of her father, or her husband, or the object of the meeting. She asked if it would make wages any higher; but she had heard that the military would be called out to disperse it—that government would punish those who attended it, and her fears were excited.

"Tak my advice, Willie," said she to her husband, as he went towards the door, "tak a wife’s advice for ance, and dinna gang near it. There will nae gude come out o’t. Ye can mak naething by it; but will lose bath time and money; and I understand that it is likely great danger will attend it, and ye may be brought into trouble. Sae dinna gang, Willie, like a gude lad—if ye hae ony regard for me, dinna gang."

"Really, Katie," said Willie, who was a good-natured man, "ye talk very silly; but ye’re just like a’ the women, hinny—their outcry is aye about expense and danger. But dinna ye trouble yoursel’—it’s o’ nae use to be put about for the death ye’ll ne’er die. I’ll be hame to my four-hours."

"The lassie’s silly," said her father, "wherefore should he no gang?—It is the duty of every man to gang that is able; and sorry am I that I am not, or I wad hae rejoiced to hae stood forth this day, as a champion, in the great cause of liberty."

So, William Crawford, disregarding the remonstrances of his wife, went to the meeting. But while the people were yet assembling, the military were called out—the riot act was read—and the soldiers fired at or over the multitude. Instant confusion took place—there was a running to and fro, and the soldiers pursued. Several were wounded, and some seriously.

The news that the meeting had been dispersed, and that were wounded were brought to James Nicholson and his daughter as they sat waiting the return of her husband.

"Oh! I trust in goodness, that naething has happened to William!" she exclaimed. "But what can be stopping him? Oh! had he but ta’en my advice—had ye no persuaded him, faither; but ye was waur than him."

James made no reply. A gloomy apprehension, that "something had happened," was stealing over his mind.. He took his staff and walked forward, as far as he was able, upon the road; but, after waiting for two hours, and after fruitless inquiries at every one he met, he returned, having heard nothing of his son-in-law. His daughter, with three children around her, sat weeping before the fire. He endeavoured to comfort her, and to inspire her with hopes which he did not himself feel, and to banish fears from her breast which he himself entertained. Night set in, and, with its darkness, their fears and their anxiety increased. The children wept more bitterly as the distress of their mother became stronger—they raised their little hands, they pulled her gown, and they called for their father. A cart stopped at the door, and William Crawford, with his arm bound up, was carried into the house by strangers. Catherine screamed when she beheld him, and the children cried wildly. Old James met them at the door, and said "O William!"

He had been found by the side of a hedge, fainting from loss of blood. A bullet had entered his arm below the shoulder—the bone was splintered—and, on a surgeon being sent for, he declared that immediate amputation was necessary. Poor Catherine and her little ones were taken into the house of a neighbour while the operation was to be performed, and even her father had not nerve to look on it. William sat calmly, and beheld the surgeon and his assistant make their preparations, and when the former took the knife in his hand, the wounded man thought not of bodily pain, but the feelings of the father and the husband gushed forth.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, "had it been my leg, it wad hae been naething; but my arm—I will be helpless for life What am I to do now for my poor Katie and my bits o bairns? Guid gracious! I canna beg!—and auld James poor body, what will come owre him? O, Sir!" added he addressing the surgeon, "I could bear to hae my arm cut through in twenty different places, were it not that it deprives me o’ the power o’ working for bread for my family."

"Keep a stout heart, my good fellow," said the surgeon as he began his task; "they will be provided for in some way."

"Grant it may be sae!" answered William; "but I see naething for us but to beg."

I must here, however, take back my reader to 1815, and, from the neighbourhood of Stirling direct their attention to Brussels and Waterloo. George Washington Nicholson, after the battle of Toulouse, had been appointed to the rank of Sergeant. For several months he was an inmate in the house of a thriving merchant in Brussels; he had assisted him in his business; he, in fact, acted as his chief clerk and his confident; he became as one of the family, and nothing was done by the Belgian trader without consulting Sergeant Nicholson.

But the fearful night of the 15th of June arrived, when the sounds of the pibroch rang through the streets of Brussels, startling soldier and citizen, and the raven and the owl were invited to a feast. The name of Napoleon was pronounced by tongues of every nation. "He comes!—he comes!" was the cry. George Nicholson was one of the first to array himself for battle, and rush forth to join his regiment. He bade a hurried farewell to his host; but there was one in the house whose hand trembled when he touched it, and on whose lips he passionately breathed his abrupt adieu. It was the gentle Louise, the sole daughter of his host.

The three following days were dreadful days in Brussels, confusion, anxiety, dismay, prevailed in every street; they were pictured in every countenance. On one hand were crowded the wounded from the battle, on the other were citizens flying from the town to save their goods and themselves, and, in their general eagerness to escape, blocking up their flight. Shops were shut, houses deserted, and churches turned into hospitals. But, in the midst of all— every hour, and more frequently—there went a messenger from the house of the merchant with whom Sergeant Nicholson had lodged, to the Porte de Namar, to inquire how fared it with the Highlanders, to examine the caravans with the wounded as they arrived, and to inquire at the hospitals if one whom Louise named, had been brought there.

Never was a Sabbath spent in a more unchristian manner than that of the 18th June 1815, on the plains of Waterloo. At night the news of the success of the British arrived in Brussels, and before sunrise on the following morning the merchant in whose house George Nicholson had been lodged, drove through the Porte de Namur, with his daughter Louise by his side. At every step of their journey appalling spectacles presented themselves before them; and, as they proceeded, they became more and more horrible. They were compelled to quit their vehicle, for the roads were blocked up, and proceeded through the forest de Soignes, into which many of the wounded had crawled to die, or to escape being trampled on by the pain-. maddened horses. On emerging from the forest, the disgusting shambles of war, with its human carcasses, its blood, its wounded, and its dying, spread all its horrors before them. From the late rains, the field was as a morass. Conquerors, and the conquered, were covered with mud. Here lay heaps of dead—there, soldier and citizen dug pits to bury them in crowds, and they were hurled into a common grave,

"Unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown."

Let the eyes turn where they would, there the ghastly sight of the wounded met them; nor could the ear be rendered deaf to the groans of the dying, and the cry from every quarter, and in every tongue, of—"Water!—water!"—for the wounded were perishing from thirst, and their throats were parched, and their tongues dry. There, too, prowled the plunderer, robbing the dead—the new-made widow sought her husband, and the mother her son. To and fro rushed hundreds of war-horses, in foam, and in agony, without curb or rider—others lay kicking and snorting on the ground, their broad chests heaving with the throes of departing life, and struggling as though they thought themselves stronger than death.

Louise and her father were shown to the positions that had been occupied by the Highland regiments. They inquired of every one whom they met, and who wore the garb of old Scotland, if they could tell them ought of the fate of Sergeant Nicholson; but they shook their heads, and answered, "No."

Louise was a beautiful and interesting girl, and the bloom of nineteen summers blushed on her cheeks; but they were now pale, and her dark eyes were bedimmed with tears. She leaned upon her father’s arm, and they were passing near a field of rye, which was trodden down as though a scythe had been passed over it. Many dead and dying Highlanders lay near it. Before them lay a wounded man, whose face was covered, and disfigured with blood—he was gasping for water, and his glazed eyes were unconscious of the earnestness and affection with which they gazed on him.

"It is he!—it is he!" cried Louise.

It was indeed George Nicholson.

"He lives!—he breathes!" she continued. She bent over him—she raised his head—she applied a cordial to his lips. He swallowed it eagerly. His eyes began to move—a glow of consciousness kindled in them. With the assistance of her father, she washed, and bound up his wounds, and the latter having procured a litter, he had him conveyed to his house at Brussels, and they accompanied him by the way. Louise watched over him; and, in a few days, his wounds were pronounced to be no longer dangerous, though he recovered slowly, and he acknowledged the affection of his gentle deliverer with the tears of gratitude, and the glance of love.

As soon as he had acquired strength to use a pen, he wrote a letter to his father, but he received no answer—a second time he wrote, and the result was the same. He now believed, that, because he had been an humble instrument in contributing to the fall of a man, in whose greatness his father’s soul was wrapt up, he had cast him off, and disowned him.

The father of Louise obtained his discharge, and entrusted him with the management of his business. He knew that his daughter’s heart was attached, with all woman’s devotedness, to the young Scotchman, and he knew that his affection for her was not less ardent. He knew also his worth; he had profited by his integrity and activity in business; and when the next anniversary of Waterloo came, he bade them be happy and their hands were united.

There was now but one cloud which threw a shade over the felicity of George Nicholson, and that was, that he had never heard from his parents, and that his father would not acknowledge his letters; yet he suspected not the cause. Almost six years had passed since he became the husband of Louise, yet his heart yearned after the place of his birth, and in the dreams of the night his spirit revisited it. He longed once more to hear his mother’s voice, to grasp his father’s hand, to receive a sister’s welcome. But, more than these, he was now rich, and he wished to remove them from penury, to crown their declining years with ease and with plenty—nor could a son entertain a more honourable ambition, or one more meriting the blessing of Heaven.

Taking Louise with him, they sailed from Antwerp, and in a few days arrived in London, from thence they proceeded towards the Borders, and the place of his birth. They had reached Alnwick, where they intended to remain for a few hours, and they went out to visit the castle. They had entered the square in front of the proud palace of the Percy’s, and, in the midst of the square, they observed a one-handed flute-player, with a young wife, and three ragged children, by his side, and the poor woman was soliciting alms for her husband’s music.

The heart of Louise was touched; she had drawn out her purse, and the wife of the flute-player, with her children in her hand, modestly, and without speaking, curtsied before her.

George shook—he started—he raised his hands—

"Catherine!—my sister!—my own sister!" he exclaimed, grasping the hand of the supplicant.

"Oh George!—my brother!" cried Catherine, and wept. The flute-player looked around. The instrument fell from his hand.

"What!—William!—and without an arm, too!" added George, extending his hand to the musician.

Louise took the hand of her new found sister, and smiled, and wept, and bent down, and kissed the cheeks of her children.

"My father—my mother, Catherine?" inquired George, in a tone that told how he trembled to ask the question.

She informed him of their mother’s death, of their father’s infirmities, and that he was then an out-door pauper in T—.

He relieved his sister’s wants; and, with Louise, hastened to his birth-place. He found his father almost bed-ridden—a boarder at half-a-crown a-week, in a miserable hovel, the occupants of which were as poor as their parish lodger. Old James was sitting reading a newspaper, which he had borrowed, when they entered; for his ruling passion remained strong in the midst of his age and infirmities. The rays of the setting sun were falling on his grey hairs. Tears had gathered in the eyes of his son, and he inquired— "Do you know me?"

James suddenly raised his eyes—they flashed with eager joy—he dropped the paper—

"Ken ye! ken ye!—my son! my son!my lost George!" and he sank on his son’s bosom. When the first burst of joy had subsided—

"And wha is this sweet leddy?" inquired James gazing fondly at Louise.

"Your daughter,"replied George, placing her hand in his. I need not further dwell upon the history of the Leveller. From that hour he ceased to be a pauper—he accompanied his son to Brussels, and spent the remainder of his days in peace, and amidst many of the scenes which he had long before read of with enthusiasm.

But, some reader may ask, what became of poor Catherine and her flute-player? A linen-draper’s shop was taken and stocked for them by her brother, and in it Prosperity became a constant customer. Such is the history of James Nicholson, the Leveller, and his children.


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