"That letter has just been
handed me by an acquaintance from your part of the country," he whispered:
"I trust contains nothing unpleasant."
I raised it to the light,
and, on ascertaining that it was sealed and edged with black, rose and
quitted the church followed by my friend. It intimated, in two brief
lines, that my patron, the baronet, had been killed by a fall from his
horse a few evenings before; and that, dying intestate, the allowance
which had hitherto enabled me to prosecute my studies necessarily dropped.
I crumpled up the paper in my hand.
"You have learned something
very unpleasant," said Ferguson. "Pardon me—I have no wish to intrude; but
if at all agreeable, I would fain spend the evening with you."
My heart filled, and,
grasping his hand, I briefly intimated the purport of the communication,
and we walked out together in the direction of the ruins.
"It is, perhaps, as hard,
Mr Ferguson," I said, "to fall from one’s hopes as from the place to which
they pointed. I was ambitious—too ambitious, it may be--to rise from that
level on which man acts the part of a machine, and tasks merely his body,
to that higher level on which he performs the proper part of a rational
creature, and employs only his mind. But that ambition need influence me
no longer. My poor mother, too—I had trusted to be of use to her."
"Ah, my friend," said
Ferguson, "I can tell you of a case quite as hopeless as your own—perhaps
more so. But it will make you deem my sympathy the result of mere
selfishness. In scarce any respect do our circumstances differ."
We had reached the ruins;
the evening was calm and mild as when I had walked out on the preceding
one; but the hour was earlier, and the sun hung higher over the hill. A
newly-formed grave occupied the level spot in front of the little ivied
"Let us seat ourselves
here," said my companion, "and I will tell you a story—I am afraid a
rather tame one; for there is nothing of adventure in it, and nothing of
incident; but it may at least shew you that I am not unfitted to be your
friend. It is now nearly two years since I lost my father. He was no
common man—common neither in intellect nor in sentiment; but, though he
once fondly hoped it should be otherwise—for in early youth he indulged in
all the dreams of a poet—he now fills a grave as nameless as the one
before us. He was a native of Aberdeenshire; but held, latterly, an
inferior situation in the office of the British Linen Company in
Edinburgh, where I was born. Ever since I remember him, he had awakened
too fully to the realities of life, and they pressed too hard on his
spirits, to leave him space for the indulgence of his earlier fancies but
he could dream for his children, though not for himself; or, as I should
perhaps rather say, his children fell heir to all his more juvenile hopes
of fortune, and influence, and space in the world’s eye;—and, for himself,
he indulged in hopes of a later growth and firmer texture, which pointed
from the present scene of things to the future. I have an only brother, my
senior by several years, a lad of much energy, both physical and mental;
in brief, one of those mixtures of reflection and activity which seem best
formed for rising in the world. My father deemed him most fitted for
commerce, and had influence enough to get him introduced into the
counting-house of a respectable Edinburgh merchant, I was always of a
graver turn—in part, perhaps, the effect of less robust health—and me he
intended for the Church. I have been a dreamer, Mr Lindsay, from my
earliest years—prone to melancholy, and fond of books and of solitude; and
the peculiarities of this temperament the sanguine old man, though no mean
judge of character, had mistaken for a serious and reflective disposition.
You are acquainted with literature, and know something, from books at
least, of the lives of literary men. Judge, then, of his prospect of
usefulness in any profession, who has lived, ever since he knew himself,
among the poets. My hopes, from my earliest years, have been hopes of
celebrity as a writer-- not of wealth, or of influence, or of
accomplishing any of the thousand aims which furnish the great bulk of
mankind with motives. You will laugh at me. There is something so
emphatically shadowy and unreal in the object of this ambition, that even
the full attainment of it provokes a smile. For who does not know
‘How vain that second life in others’
The estate which wits inherit after death!’
And what can be more
fraught with the ludicrous than a union of this shadowy ambition with
mediocre parts and attainments! But I digress.
"It is now rather more than three
years since I entered the classes here. I competed for a bursary, and was
fortunate enough to secure one. Believe me, Mr Lindsay, I am little
ambitious of the fame of mere scholarship, and yet I cannot express to you
the triumph of that day. I have seen my poor father labouring far, far
beyond his strength for my brother and myself—closely engaged during the
day with his duties in the Bank, and copying at night in a lawyer’s
office. I had seen with a throbbing heart, his tall wasted frame becoming
tremulous and bent and the gray hair thining on his temples; and I now
felt that I could ease him of at least part of the burden. In the
excitemeut of the moment, I could hope that I was destined to rise in the
world—to gain a name in it and something more. You know how a slight
success grows in importance when we can deem it the earnest of future good
fortune. I met, too, with a kind and influential friend in one of the
professors the late Dr. Wilkie. Alas good, benevolent man! you may
see his tomb yonder beside the wall;
and, on my return from St. Andrew’s, at the close of the session, I found
my father on his deathbed. My brother Henry—who had been unfortunate, and,
I am afraid, something worse—had quitted the counting-house and entered
aboard of a man-of- war, a common sailor; and the poor old man, whose
heart had been bound up in him, never held up his head after.
On the evening of my
father’s funeral, I could have lain down and died. I never before felt how
thoroughly I am unfitted for the world—how totally I want strength. My
father, I have said, had intended me for the Church; and, in my progress
onward from class to class, and from school to college, I had thought but
little of each particular step, as it engaged me for the time, and nothing
of the ultimate objects to which it led. All my more vigorous aspirations
were directed to a remote future and an unsubstantial shadow. But I had
witnessed beside my father’s bed what had led me seriously to reflect on
the ostensible aim for which I lived and studied; and the more carefully I
weighed myself in the balance, the more did I find myself awanting. You
have heard of Mr Brown of the Secession, the author of the "Dictionary of
the Bible." He was an old acquaintance of my father’s; and, on hearing of
his illness, had come all the way from Haddington to see him. I felt, for
the first time, as, kneeling beside the bed, I heard my father’s
breathings becoming every moment shorter and more difficult, and listened
to the prayers of the clergyman that I had no business in the Church. And
thus I still continue to feel. ‘Twere an easy matter to produce such
things as pass for sermons among us, and to go respectably enough through
the mere routine of the professions; but I cannot help feeling that,
though I might do all this and more, my duty, as a clergyman, would be
still left undone. I want singleness of aim—I want earnestness of heart. I
cannot teach men effectually how to live well; I cannot shew then with
aught of confidence, how they may die safe. I can not enter the
Church without acting the part of a hypocrite and the miserable part of
the hypocrite it shall never be mine to act. Heaven help me! I am too
little a practical moralist myself to attempt teaching morals to others.
"But I must conclude
my story, if story it may be called—I saw my poor mother and my little
sister deprived, by my father’s death, of their sole stay, and strove to
exert myself in their behalf. In the daytime I copied in a lawyer’s
office; my nights were spent among the poets. You will deem it the very
madness of vanity, Mr Lindsay, but I could not live without my dreams of
literary eminence. I felt that life would be a blank waste without them;
and, feel so still. Do not laugh at my weakness, when I say I would rather
live in the memory of my country than enjoy her fairest lands—that I dread
a nameless grave many times more than the grave itself. But, I am afraid,
the life of the literary aspirant is rarely a happy one; and I, alas! am
one of the weakest of the class. It is of importance that the means of
living be not disjoined from the end for which we live; and I feel that,
in my case, the disunion is complete. The wants and evils of life are
around me; but the energies through which those should be provided for,
and these warded off, are otherwise employed. I am like a man pressing
onward through a hot and bloody fight, his breast open to every blow, and
tremblingly alive to the sense of injury and the feeling of pain, but
totally unprepared either to attack or defend. And then those miserable
depressions of spirits to which all men who drew largely on their
imagination are so subject; and that wavering irregularity of
effort which seems so unavoidably the effect of pursuing a distant and
doubtful aim, and which proves so hostile to the formation of every better
habit--alas! to a steady morality itself. But I weary you, Mr Lindsay;
besides, my story is told. I am groping onward, I know not whither; and,
in a few months hence, when my last session shall have closed, I shall be
exactly where you are at present."
He ceased speaking, and
there was a pause of several minutes. I felt soothed and gratified. There
was a sweet melancholy music in the tones of his voice, that sunk to my
very heart; and the confidence he reposed in me flattered my pride. "How
was it," I at length said, "that you were the gayest in the party of last
"I do not know that I can
better answer you," he replied, "than by telling you a singular dream
which I had about the time of my father’s death. I dreamed that I had
suddenly quitted the world, and was journeying, by a long and dreary
passage, to the place of final punishment. A blue, dismal light glimmered
along the lower wall of the vault; and, from the darkness above, where
there flickered a thousand undefined shapes—things without form or
outline—I could hear deeply-drawn sighs, and long hollow groans, and
convulsive sobbings, and the prolonged moanings of an unceasing anguish. I
was aware, however, though I know not how, that these were but the
expressions of a lesser misery, and that the seats of severer torment were
still before me. I went on, and on, and the vault widened, and the light
increased, and the sounds changed. There were loud laughters and low
mutterings, in the tone of ridicule; and shouts of triumph and exultation;
and, in brief, all the thousand mingled tones of a gay and joyous revel.
Can these, I exclaimed, be the sounds of misery when at the deepest?
‘Bethink thee,’ said a shadowy form beside me—‘bethink thee if it be not
so on earth.’ And, as I remembered that it was so, and bethought me of the
mad revels of shipwrecked seamen and of plague-stricken cities, I awoke.
But on this subject you must spare me."
"Forgive me," I said;
"to-morrow, I leave college, and not with the less reluctance that I must
part from you. But I shall yet find you occupying a place among the
literati of our country, and shall remember, with pride that you were
He sighed deeply, "My hopes
rise and fall with my spirits," he said; "and to-night I am melancholy. Do
you ever go to buffets with yourself, Mr Lindsay? Do you ever mock, in
your sadder moods, the hopes which render you happiest when you are gay?
Ah! ‘tis bitter warfare when a man contends with Hope!—when he sees her,
with little aid from the personifying influence, as a thing distinct from
himself—a lying spirit that comes to flatter and deceive him. It is thus I
see her to-night.
"See’st thou that grave?—does mortal
Aught of the dust that lies below?
‘Tis foul, ‘tis damp, ‘tis void of form—
A bed were winds the loathsome worm,
A little heap, mould’ring and brown,
Like that on flowerless meadow thrown
By mossy stream, when winter reigns
O’er leafless woods and wasted plains;
And yet that brown, damp, formless heap
Once glowed with feelings keen and deep,
Once eyed the light, once heard the sound
Of earth, air, wave, that murmurs round.
But now, ah! now, the name it bore,
Sex, age, or form, is known no more.
This, this alone, O Hope! I know,
That once the dust that lies below,
Was, like myself, of human race,
And made this world its dwelling-place.
Ah! this, when death has swept away
The myriads of life’s present day,
Though bright the visions raised by thee,
Will all my fame, my history be!
We quitted the ruins and
returned to town.
"Have you yet formed,"
inquired my companion, "any plan for the future?"
"I quit St. Andrew’s," I
replied, "to-morrow morning. I have an uncle the master of a West
Indiaman, now in the Clyde. Some years ago, I had a fancy for the life of
a sailor, which has evaporated, however, with many of my other boyish
fancies and predilections; but I am strong and active, and it strikes me
there is less competition on sea at present than on land. A man of
tolerable steadiness and intelligence has a better chance of rising as a
sailor then as a mechanic. I shall set out, therefore, with my uncle on
his first voyage."