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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Ferguson
Chapter 4


At first, I thought the swankie didna ill—
Again I glowr’d, to hear him better still;
Bauld, slee, an’ sweet, his lines mair glorious grew,
Glow’d round the heart, an’ glanc’d the soul out through.
ALEXANDER WILSON

I had seen both the Indies and traversed the wide Pacific, ere I again set foot on the eastern coast of Scotland. My uncle, the shipmaster, was dead, and I was still a common sailor; but I was light-hearted and skilful in my profession, and as much inclined to hope as ever. Besides, I had begun to doubt, and there cannot be a more consoling doubt when one is unfortunate, whether a man may not enjoy as much happiness in the lower walks of life as in the upper. In one of my latter voyages, the vessel in which I sailed had lain for several weeks at Boston, in North America—then a scene of these fierce and angry contentions which eventually separated the colonies from the mother country; and when in this place, I had become acquainted, by the merest accident in the world, with the brother of my friend, the poet. I was passing through one of the meaner lanes, when I saw my old college friend, as I thought, looking out at me from the window of a crazy wooden building—a sort fencing academy, much frequented, I was told, by the Federalists of Boston. I crossed the lane in two huge strides.

"Mr Ferguson," I said, "Mr Ferguson," for he was withdrawing his head, "do you not remember me?"

"Not quite sure," he replied; "I have met with many sailors in my time; but I must just see."

He had stepped down to the door ere I had discovered my mistake. He was a taller and stronger looking man than my friend, and his senior apparently by six or eight years but nothing could be more striking than the resemblanc which he bore to him both in face and figure. I apologised.

"But have you not a brother, a native of Edinburgh," I inquired, "who studied at St. Andrew’s about four year ago?—never before, certainly, did I see so remarkable a likeness."

—"As that which I bear to Robert?" he said. "Happy to hear it. Robert is a brother of whom a man may well be proud, and I am glad to resemble him in any way. But you must go in with me, and tell me all you know regarding him. He was a thin pale slip of a boy when I left Scotland—a mighty reader, and fond of sauntering into by-holes and corners; I scarcely knew what to make of him; but he has made much of himself. His name has been blown far and wide within the last two years."

He shewed me through a large waste apartment, furnished with a few deal seats, and with here and there, a fencing foil leaning against the wall, into a sort of closet at the upper end, separated from the main room by a partition of undressed slabs. There was a charcoal stove in the one corner, and a truckle bed in the other; and a few shelves laden with books ran along the wall; there was a small chest raised on a stool immediately below the window, to serve as a writing desk, and another stool standing beside it. A few cooking utensils scattered round the room, and a corner cupboard, completed the entire furniture of the place.

"There is a certain limited number born to be rich, Jack," said my new companion, "and I just don’t happen to be among them; but I have one stool for myself, you see, and, now that I have unshipped my desk, another for a visitor, and so get on well enough."

I related briefly the story of my intimacy with his brother; and we were soon on such terms as to be in a fair way of emptying a bottle of rum together.

"You remind me of old times," said my new acquaintance. "I am weary of these illiterate, boisterous, longsided Americans, who talk only of politics and dollars. And yet there are first-rate men among them, too. I met some years since with a Philadelphia printer, whom I cannot help regarding as one of the ablest, best informed men I ever conversed with. But there is nothing like general knowledge among the average class, a mighty privilege of conceit, however."

"They are just in that stage," I remarked, "in which it needs all the vigour of an able man to bring his mind into anything like cultivation. There must be many more facilities of improvement ere the mediocritist can develop himself. He is in the egg still in America, and must sleep there till the next age.--But when last heard you of your brother?"

"Why," he replied, "when all the world heard of him—with the last number of Ruddiman’s Magazine. Where can you have been bottled up from literature of late? Why, man, Robert stands first among our Scotch poets."

"Ah! ‘tis long since I have anticipated something like that for him," I said; "but for the last two years, I have seen only two books, Shakespeare and The Spectator. Pray, do shew me some of the magazines."

The magazines were produced; and I heard, for the first time, in a foreign land and from the recitation of the poet’s brother, some of the most national and most highly-finished of his productions. My eyes filled, and my heart wandered to Scotland and her cottage homes, as, shutting the book, he repeated to me, in a voice faltering with emotion, stanza after stanza of the "Farmer’s Ingle."

"Do you not see it?.. .do you not see it all?" exclaimed my companion; "the wide smoky room, with the bright turf fire, the blackened rafters shining above, the straw wrought settle below, the farmer and the farmer’s wife, and auld grannie and the bairns. Never was there a truer painting: and, oh, how it works on a Scotch heart! But hear this other piece."

He read "Sandy and Willie."

"Far, far ahead of Ramsay," I exclaimed. "More imagination, more spirit, more intellect, and as much truth and nature. Robert has gained his end already. Hurra for poor old Scotland!—these pieces must live for ever. But do repeat to me the ‘Farmer’s Ingle’ once more."

We read, one by one, all the poems in the magazine, dwelling on each stanza, and expatiating on every recollection of home which the images awakened. My companion was, like his brother, a kind, open-hearted man, of superior intellect; much less prone to despondency, however, and of a more equal temperament. Ere we parted, which was not until next morning, he had communicated to me all his plans for the future, and all his fondly-cherished hopes of returning to Scotland with wealth enough to be of use to his friends. He seemed to be one of those universal geniuses who do a thousand things well, but want steadiness enough to turn any of them to good account. He shewed me a treatise on the use of the sword which he had just prepared for the press, and a series of letters on the stamp act, which had appeared, from time to time, in one of the Boston newspapers, and in which he had taken part with the Americans.

"I make a good many dollars, in these stirring times," he said. "All the yankees seem to be of opinion that they will be best heard across the water when they have got arms in their hands, and have learned how to use them; and I know a little of both the sword and the musket. But the warlike spirit is frightful thirsty, somehow, and consumes a world of rum; and so I have not yet begun to make rich."

He shared with me his supper and bed for the night; and. after rising in the morning ere I awoke, and writing a long letter for Robert, which he gave me in the hope I might soon meet with him, he accompanied me to the vessel, then on the eve of sailing, and, we parted, as it proved, for ever. I know nothing of his after life, or how or where it terminated; but I have learned that, shortly before the death of his gifted brother, his circumstances enabled him to send his mother a small remittance for the use of the family. He was evidently one of the kind-hearted, improvident few who can share a very little, and, whose destiny it is to have only a very little to share.


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