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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Ferguson
Chapter 6


"Speech without aim and without end employ."—CRABBE.

After the lapse of nine months, I again returned to Edinburgh. During that period, I had been so shut out from literature and the world, that I had heard nothing of my friend the poet; and it was with a beating heart I left the vessel, on my first leisure evening, to pay him a visit. It was about the middle of July; the day had been close and sultry, and the heavens overcharged with grey ponderous clouds; and, as I passed hurriedly along the walk which leads from Leith to Edinburgh, I could hear the newly awakened thunder, bellowing far in the south, peal after peal, like the artillery of two hostile armies. I reached the door of the poet’s humble domicile, and had raised my hand to the knocker, when I heard some one singing from within, in a voice by far the most touchingly mournful I had ever listened to. The tones struck on my heart; and a frightful suspicion crossed my mind, as I let down the knocker, that the singer was no other than my friend. But in what wretched circumstances! what fearful state of mind I shuddered as I listened, and heard the strain waxing louder and yet more mournful, and could distinguish that the words were those of a simple old ballad:—

"‘O Mart’mas wind, when wilt thou blaw,
An’ shake the green leaves aff the tree?
O gentle death, when wilt thou come
An’ tak a life that wearies me?’"

I could listen no longer, but raised the latch and went in. The evening was gloomy, and the apartment ill lighted; but I could see the singer, a spectral-looking figure, sitting on a bed in the corner, with the bedclothes wrapped round his shoulders, and a napkin deeply stained with blood on his head. An elderly female, who stood beside him, was striving to soothe him, and busied from time to time in adjusting the clothes, which were ever and anon falling off, as hie nodded his head in time to the music. A young girl of great beauty sat weeping at the bed-foot.

"O dearest Robert," said the woman, "you will destroy your poor head; and Margaret your sister, whom you used to love so much, will break her heart. Do lie down, dearest, and take a little rest. Your head is fearfully gashed, and if the bandages loose a second time, you will bleed to death. Do, dearest Robert, for your poor old mother, to whom you were always so kind and dutiful a son till now—for your poor old mother’s sake, do lie down."

The song ceased for a moment, and the tears came bursting from my eyes as the tune changed, and he again sang:--

"’O mither dear, make ye my bed,
For my heart it’s flichterin sair;
An’, oh, gin I’ve vex’d ye, mither dear,
I’ll never vex ye mair.
I’ve staid ar’out the lang dark nicht,
I’ the sleet an’ the plashy rain;
But, mither dear, make ye my bed,
An’ I’ll ne’er gang oot again.’"

"Dearest, dearest Robert," continued the poor, heart broken woman, "do lie down—for your poor old mother’s sake, do lie down."

"No, no," he exclaimed, in a hurried voice, "not just now, mother, not just now. Here is my friend, Mr Lindsay come to see me—my true friend, Mr Lindsay, the sailor who has sailed all round and round the world; and I have much much to ask him: A chair, Margaret, for Mr Lindsay I must be a preacher like John Knox, you know—like the great John Knox, the Reformer of a nation—and Mr Lindsay knows all about him. A chair, Margaret, for Mr Lindsay."

I am not ashamed to say it was with tears, and in a voice faltering with emotion, that I apologized to the poor woman for my intrusion at such a time. Were it otherwise, I might well conclude my heart grown hard as a piece of the nether millstone.

"I had known Robert at College," I said—"had loved and respected him; and had now come to pay him a visit, after an absence of several months, wholly unprepared for finding him in his present condition." And it would seem that my tears pled for me, and proved to the poor afflicted woman and her daughter, by far the most efficient part of my apology.

"All my friends have left me now, Mr Lindsay," said the unfortunate poet—"they have all left me now; they love this present world. We were all going down, down, down; there was the roll of a river behind us; it came bursting over the high rocks, roaring, rolling, foaming, down upon us; and, though the fog was thick and dark below—far below, in the place to which we were going--I could see the red fire shining through—the red, hot, unquenchable fire: and we were all going down, down, down. Mother, mother, tell Mr Lindsay I am going to be put on my trials to-morrow. Careless creature that I am—life is short, and I have lost much time; but I am going to be put on my trials tomorrow, and shall come forth a preacher of the word."

The thunder which had hitherto been muttering at a distance—each peal, however, nearer and louder than the preceding one—now began to roll over-head, and the lightning, as it passed the window, to illumine every object within. The hapless poet stretched out his thin wasted arm, as if addressing a congregation from the pulpit:—

"There was the flashing of lightning," he said, "and the rolling of thunder; and the trumpet waxed louder and louder. And around the summit of the mountain were the foldings of thick clouds, and the shadow fell brown and dark over the wide expanse of the desert. And the wild beasts lay trembling in their dens. But, lo! where the sun breaks through the opening of the cloud, there is the glitter of tents—the glitter of ten thousand tents that rise over the sandy waste, thick as waves of the sea. And there is the voice of the dance, and of the revel, and the winding of horns, and the clash of cymbals. Oh, sit nearer me, dearest mother, for the room is growing dark, dark; and, oh, my poor head!

‘The lady sat on the castle wa’,
Looked owre baith dale and down,
And then she spied Gil-Morice head
Come steering through the town.’

Do, dearest mother, put your cool hand on my brow, and do hold it fast ere it part. How fearfully--oh, how fearfully it aches!—and oh, how it thunders!" He sunk backward on the pillow, apparently exhausted "Gone, gone, gone," he muttered; "my mind gone for ever. But God’s will be done."

I rose to leave the room; for I could restrain my feelings no longer.

"Stay, Mr Lindsay," said the poet, in a feeble voice; "I hear the rain dashing on the pavement; you must not go till it abates. Would that you could pray beside me!--but, no--you are not like the dissolute companions who have now all left me, but you are not yet fitted for that; and, alas! I cannot pray for myself. Mother, mother, see that there be prayers at my lykewake: for—

‘Her lykewake, it was piously spent
In social prayer and praise,
Performed, by judicious men,
Who stricken were in days.

‘And many a heavy, heavy heart
Was in that mournful place;
And many a weary, weary thought
On her who slept in peace.

They will come all to my lykewake, mother, won’t they?... yes, all, though they have left me now. Yes, and they will come far to see my grave. I was poor, very poor, you know and they looked down upon me; and I was no son or cousin of theirs, and so they could do nothing for me. Oh, but they might have looked less coldly! But they will all come to my grave, mother; they will come all to my grave; and they will say—’ Would he were living now to know how kind we are!’ But they will look as coldly as ever on the living poet beside them—yes, till they have broken his heart; and then they will go to his grave too. O dearest mother, do lay your cool hand on my brow."

He lay silent and exhausted, and, in a few minutes, I could hope, from the hardness of his breathing, that he had fallen asleep.

"How long," I inquired of his sister, in a low whisper, "has Mr Ferguson been so unwell, and what has injured his head?’

"Alas!" said the girl, "my brother has been unsettled in mind for nearly the last six months. We first knew it one evening on his coming home from the country, where he had been for a few days with a friend. He burnt a large heap of papers that he had been employed on for weeks before—songs and poems that his friends say were the finest things he ever wrote; but he burnt them all, for he was going to be a preacher of the word, he said, and it did not become a preacher of the word to be a writer of light rhymes. And, O sir! his mind has been wrong ever since; but he has been always gentle and affectionate, and his sole delight has lain in reading the Bible. Good Dr Erskine, of the Greyfriars, often comes to our house, and sits with him for hours together, for there are times when his mind seems stronger than ever, and he says wonderful things, that seem to hover, the minister says, between the extravagance natural to his present sad condition, and the higher flights of a philosophic genius. And we had hoped that he was getting better; but, O sir, our hopes have had a sad ending. He went out, a few evenings ago, to call on an old acquaintance; and, in descending a stair, missed his footing, and fell to the bottom; and his head has been fearfully injured by the stones. He has been just as you have seen him ever since; and, oh! I much fear he cannot now recover. Alas! my poor brother!—never, never was there a more affectionate heart."


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