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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Ferguson
Chapter 5


O Ferguson! thy glorious parts
Ill suited law’s dry, musty arts!
My curse upon your whunstane hearts,
Ye Embrugh gentry!
The tithe o’ what ye waste at cartes
Wad stow’d his pantry!
BURNS.

I visited Edinburgh, for the first time, in the latter part of the Autumn of 1773, about two months after I had sailed from Boston. It was on a fine calm morning—one of those clear sunshiny mornings of October, when the gossamer goes sailing about in long cottony threads, so light and fleecy that they seem the skeleton remains of extinct cloudlets; and when the distant hills, with their covering of grey frost rime, seem, through the clear cold atmosphere, as if chiselled in marble. The sun was rising over the town through a deep blood-coloured haze—the smoke of a thousand fires; and the huge fantastic piles of masonry that stretched along the ridge, looked dim and spectral through the cloud, like the ghosts of an army of giants. I felt half a foot taller as I strode on towards the town. It was Edinburgh I was approaching—the scene of so many proud associations to a lover of Scotland; and I was going to meet as an early friend one of the first of Scottish poets. I entered the town. There was a book stall at the corner of the street; and I turned aside for half a minute to glance my eye over the books.

"Ferguson’s Poems!" I exclaimed taking up a little volume. "I was not aware they had appeared in a separate form. How do you sell this?"

"Just like a’ the ither booksellers," said the man who kept the stall—"that’s nane o’ the buiks that come doun in a hurry :—just for the market selling price." I threw down the money.

"Could you tell me anything of the writer?" I said. "I have a letter for him from America."

"Oh, that’ll be frae his brither Henry, I’ll wad; a clever shield too, but owre fond o’ the drap drink, may be, like Rob himsel. Baith o’ them fine humane chields, though without a grain o’ pride. Bob takes a stan’ wi me sometimes o’ half an hour at a time, an’ we clatter owre the buiks; an’, if I’m no mistaen, yon’s him just yonder—the thin pale slip o’ a lad wi’ the broad brow. Ày, an’ he’s juist comin this way."

"Anything new to-day, Thomas?" said the young man coming up to the stall. "I want a cheap second-hand copy of Ramsay’s ‘Evergreen;’ and, like a good man as you are, you must just try and find it for me."

Though considerably altered—for he was taller and thinner than when at college, and his complexion had assumed a deep sallow hue—I recognised him at once, and presented him with the letter.

"Ah! from brother Henry," he said, breaking it open and glancing his eye over the contents. What!—old college chum, Mr. Lindsay!" he exclaimed, turning to me. "Yes, sure enough; how happy I am we should have met! Come this way—let us get out of the streets."

We passed hurriedly through the Canongate and along the front of Holyrood-house, and were soon in the King’s Park, which seemed this morning as if left to ourselves.

"Dear me, and this is you yourself!—and we have again met, Mr. Lindsay!" said Ferguson—"I thought we were never to meet more. Nothing for a long time, has made me half so glad. And so you have been a sailor for the last four years. Do let us sit down here in the warm sunshine, beside St. Anthony’s Well, and tell me all your story, and how you happened to meet with brother Henry."

We sat down, and I briefly related at his bidding all that had befallen me since we had parted at St. Andrew’s, and how I was still a common sailor, but, in the main, perhaps, not less happy than many who commanded a fleet.

"Ah, you have been a fortunate fellow," he said; "you have seen much and enjoyed much; and I have been rusting in unhappiness at home. Would that I had gone to sea along with you!"

"Nay, now, that won’t do," I replied. "But you are merely taking Bacon’s method of blunting the edge of envy. You have scarcely yet attained the years of manhood, and yet your name has gone abroad over the whole length and breadth of the land, and over many other lands besides. I have cried over your poems three thousand miles away, and felt all the prouder of my country for the sake of my friend. And yet youwish the charm reversed, and sthat you were just such an obscure salt-water man as myself?"

"You remember," said my companion, the story of the half-man, half-marble Prince of the Arabian tale. One part was a living creature, one part a stone, but the parts were incorporated, and the mixture was misery. I am just such an unhappy creature as the enchanted Prince of the story."

"You surprise and distress me," I rejoined. "Have you not accomplished all you so fondly purposed—realised even your warmest wishes? And this too in early life. Your most sanguine hopes pointed but to a name, which you yourself; perhaps, was never to hear, but which was to dwell on men’s tongues when the grave had closed over you. And now the name is gained and you live to enjoy it. I see the living part of your lot, and it seems instinct with happiness; but in what does the dead, the stony part consist?"

He shook his head, and looked up mournfully in my face; there was a pause of a few seconds. "You, Mr. Lindsay," he at length replied, "you who are of an equable steady temperament, can know little, from experience, of the unhappiness of the man who lives only in extremes; who is either madly gay or miserably depressed. Try and realise the feelings of one whose mind is like a broken harp—all the medium tones gone, and only the higher and lower left; of one, too, whose circumstances seem of a piece with his mind; who can enjoy the exercise of his better powers, and yet can only live by the monotonous drudgery of copying page after page, in a clerk’s office; of one who is continually either groping his way amid a chill melancholy fog of nervous depression, or carried headlong, by a wild gaiety to all which his better judgment would instruct him to avoid; of one who, when he indulges most in the pride of superior intellect, cannot away with the thought that that intellect is on the eve of breaking up, and that he must yet rate infinitely lower in the scale of rationality than any of the nameless thousands who carry on the ordinary concerns of life around him."

I was grieved and astonished, and knew not what to answer. "You are in a gloomy mood to-day," I at length said; "you are immersed in one of the fogs you describe; and all the surrounding objects take a tinge of darkness from the medium through which you survey them. Come, now, you must make an exertion, and shake off your melancholy. I have told you all my story, as I best could, and you must tell me all yours in return."

"Well," he replied, "I shall, though it mayn’t be the best way in the world of dissipating my melancholy. I think I must have told you, when at college, that I had a maternal uncle of considerable wealth, and, as the world goes, respectability, who resided in Aberdeenshire. He was placed on what one may term the table-land of society; and my poor mother, whose recollections of him were limited to a period when there is warmth in the feeling of the most ordinary minds, had hoped that he would willingly exert his influence in my behalf. Much, doubtless, depends on one’s setting out in life; and it would have been something to have been enabled to step into it from a level like that occupied by my relative. I paid him a visit shortly after leaving college, and met with apparent kindness. But I can see beyond the surface, Mr. Lindsay; and I soon saw that my uncle was entirely a different man from the brother whom my mother remembered. He had risen, by a course of slow industry, from comparative poverty, and his feelings had worn out in the process. The character was care hardened all over; and the polish it bore—for I have rarely met a smoother man—seemed no improvement. He was, in brief, one of the class content to dwell for ever in mere decencies, with consciences made up of the conventional moralities, who think by precedent, bow to public opinion as their god, and estimate merit by its weight in guineas."

"And so your visit," I said, "was a very brief one?"

"You distress me," he replied. "It should have been so but it was not. But what could I do? Ever since my father’s death, I had been taught to consider this man as my natural guardian; and I was now unwilling to part with my last hope. But this is not all. Under much apparent activity my friend, there is a substratum of apathetical indolence in my disposition; I move rapidly when in motion; but when at rest there is a dull inertness in the character, which the will, when unassisted by passion, is too feeble to overcome. Poor, weak creature that I am! I had sitten down by my uncle’s fireside, and felt unwilling to rise. Pity me, my friend—I deserve your pity—but, oh, do not despise me!"

"Forgive me, Mr Ferguson," I said; "I have given you pain—but surely most unwittingly."

"I am ever a fool," he continued; "but my story lags; and, surely, there is little in it on which it were pleasure to dwell. I sat at this man’s table for six months, and saw, day after day, his manner towards me becoming more constrained, and his politeness more cold; and yet I staid on, till at last my clothes were worn threadbare, and he began to feel that the shabbiness of the nephew affected the respectability of the uncle. His friend the soap-boiler, and his friend the oil-merchant, and his friend the manager of the hemp manufactory, with their wives and daughters—all people of high standing in the world—occasionally honoured his table with their presence; and how could he be other than ashamed of mine? It vexes me that I cannot even yet be cool on the subject; it vexes me that a creature so sordid, should have so much the power to move me; but I cannot—I cannot master my feelings. He—he told me— and with whom should the blame rest, but with the weak, spiritless thing who lingered on in mean bitter dependence to hear what he had to tell?—he told me that all his friends were respectable, and that my appearance was no longer that of a person whom he could wish to see at his table, or introduce to any one as his nephew. And I had staid to hear all this!

"I can hardly tell you how I got home. I travelled, stage after stage, along the rough dusty roads, with a weak and feverish body, and almost despairing mind. On meeting with my mother, I could have laid my head on her bosom, and cried like a child. I took to my bed in a high fever, and trusted that all my troubles were soon to terminate; but, when the die was cast, it turned up life. I resumed my old miserable employments—for what could I do else?—and that I might be less unhappy in the prosecution of them, my old amusements too. I copied during the day, in a clerk’s office, that I might live, and wrote during the night, that I might be known. And I have, in part, perhaps, attained my object. I have pursued and caught hold of the shadow on which my heart had been so long set; and if it prove empty, and untangible, and unsatisfactory, like every other shadow, the blame surely must rest with the pursuer, not with the thing pursued. I weary you, Mr Lindsay, but one word more. There are hours when the mind, weakened by exertion, or by the teazing monotony of an employment which tasks without exercising it, can no longer exert its powers, and when, feeling that sociality is a law of our nature, we seek the society of our fellow-men. With a creature so much the sport of impulse as I am, it is of these hours of weakness that conscience takes most note. God help me! I have been told that life is short; but it stretches on, and on, and on before me; and I know not how it is to be passed through."

My spirits had so sunk during this singular conversation, that I had no heart to reply.

"You are silent, Mr Lindsay," said the poet; "I have made you as melancholy as myself; but look round you, and say if ever you have seen a lovelier spot. See how richly the yellow sunshine slants along the green sides of Arthur’s Seat, and how the thin blue smoke, that has come floating from the town, fills the bottom of yonder grassy dell, as if it were a little lake. Mark, too, how boldly the cliffs stand out along its sides, each with its little patch of shadow. And here, beside us, is St Anthony’s Well, so famous in song, coming gushing out to the sunshine, and then gliding away through the grass, like a snake. Had the Deity purposed that man should be miserable, he would surely never have placed him in so fair a world. Perhaps much of our unhappiness originates in our mistaking our proper scope, and thus setting out, from the first, with a false aim."

"Unquestionably," I replied, "there is no man who has not some part to perform; and, if it be a great and uncommon part, and the power which fit him for it proportionably great and uncommon, nature would be in error could he slight it with impunity. See, there is a wild bee bending the flower beside you. Even that little creature has a capacity of happiness and misery; it derives its sense of pleasure from whatever runs in the line of its instincts—its experience of unhappiness from whatever thwarts and opposes them; and can it be supposed that so wise a law should regulate the instincts of only inferior creatures? No my friend, it is surely a law of our nature also."

"And have you not something else to infer?" said the poet.

"Yes," I replied, "that you are occupied differently from what the scope and constitution of your mind demand; differently both in your hours of employment and of relaxation. But do take heart—you will yet find your proper place, and all shall be well."

"Alas! no, my friend," said he, rising from the sward. "I could once entertain such a hope; but I cannot now. My mind is no longer what it was to me in my happier days--sort of terra-incognita, without bounds or limits. I can see over and beyond it, and have fallen from all my hopes regarding it. It is not so much the gloom of present circumstances that disheartens me, as a depressing knowledge of myself—an abiding conviction that I am a weak dreamer, unfitted for every occupation of life—and not less so for the greater employments of literature than for any of the others. I feel that I am a little man, and a little poet, with barely vigour enough to make one half effort at a time; but wholly devoid of the sustaining will—that highest faculty of the highest order of minds—which can direct a thousand vigorous efforts to the accomplishment of one important object. Would that I could exchange my half celebrity—and it can never be other than a half celebrity—for a temper as equable and a fortitude as unshrinking as yours! But I weary you with my complaints; I am a very coward! And you will deem me as selfish as I am weak."

We parted. The poet, sadly and unwillingly, went to copy deed in the office of the commissary clerk, and I, almost reconciled to obscurity and hard labour, to assist in unlading a Baltic trader in the harbour of Leith.


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