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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Ferguson
Chapter 8


O thou, my elder brother in misfortune,
By far my elder brother in the muses,
With tears I pity thy unhappy fate!
—BURNS

The asylum in which my unfortunate friend was confined at this time, the only one in Edinburgh, was situated in an angle of the city wall. It was a dismal-looking mansion shut in on every side by the neighbouring houses, from the view of the surrounding country; and so effectually covered up from the nearer street, by a large building in front, that it seemed possible enough to pass a lifetime in Edinburgh without coming to the knowledge of its existence. I shuddered as I looked up to its blackened walls, thinly sprinkled with miserable looking windows, barred with iron, and thought of it as a sort of burial-place of dead minds. But it was a Golgotha, which, with more than the horrors of the grave, had neither its rest nor its silence. I was startled, as I entered the cell of the hapless poet, by a shout of laughter from a neighbouring room, which was answered from a dark recess behind me, by a fearfully-prolonged shriek, and the clanking of chains, The mother and sister of Ferguson were sitting beside his pallet, on a sort of stone settle, which stood out from the wall; and the poet himself weak, and exhausted, and worn to a shadow, but apparently in his right mind, lay extended on the straw. He made an attempt to rise as I entered; but the effort was above his strength, and, again lying down, he extended his hand.

‘This is kind, Mr Lindsay," he said; "it is ill for me to be alone in these days; and yet I have few visitors, save my poor old mother, and Margaret. But who cares for the unhappy?"

I sat down on the settle beside him, still retaining his hand. "I have been at sea, and in foreign countries," I said, "since I last saw you, Mr Ferguson, and it was only this morning I returned; but believe me there are many, many of your countrymen, who sympathize sincerely in your affliction, and take a warm interest in your recovery."

He sighed deeply. "Ah," he replied, "I know too well the nature of that sympathy. You never find it at the bedside of the sufferer—it evaporates in a few barren expressions of idle pity; and yet, after all, it is but paying the poet in kind. He calls so often on the world to sympathize over fictitious misfortune, that the feeling wears out, and becomes a mere mood of the imagination; and, with this light, attenuated pity of his own weaving, it regards his own real sorrows. Dearest mother, the evening is damp and chill—do gather the bedclothes round me, and sit on my feet; they are so very cold and so dead, that they cannot be colder a week hence."

"O Robert, why do you speak so?" said the poor woman, as she gathered the clothes round him, and sat on his feet. "You know you are coming home to-morrow."

"To-morrow!" he said—"if I see to-morrow, I shall have completed my twenty-fourth year—a small part, surely, of the threescore and ten; but what matters it when ‘tis past?"

"You were ever, my friend, of a melancholy temperament," I said, "and too little disposed to hope. Indulge in brighter views of the future, and all shall yet be well."

"I can now hope that it shall," he said. "Yes, all shall be well with me—and that very soon. But, oh, how this nature of ours shrinks from dissolution!—yes, and all the tower natures too. You remember, mother, the poor starling that was killed in the room beside us? Oh, how it struggled with its ruthless enemy, and filled the whole place with its shrieks of terror and agony. And yet, poor little thing! it had been true, all life long, to the laws of its nature, and had no sins to account for, and no judge to meet. There is a shrinking of heart as I look before me, and yet I can hope that all shall yet be well with me—and that very soon. Would that I had been wise in time! Would that I had thought more and earlier of the things which pertain to my eternal peace! more of a living soul, and less of a dying name! But, oh, ‘tis a glorious provision, through which a way of return is opened up even at the eleventh hour!"

We sat round him in silence; an indescribable feeling of awe pervaded my whole mind, and his sister was affected to tears.

"Margaret," he said, in a feeble voice—"Margaret, you will find my Bible in yonder little recess; ‘tis all I have to leave you; but keep it, dearest sister, and use it, and, in times of sorrow and suffering, that come to all, you will know how to prize the legacy of your poor brother. Many, many books do well enough for life; but there is only one of any value when we come to die."

"You have been a voyager of late, Mr Lindsay,’ he continued, "and I have been a voyager too. I have been journeying in darkness and discomfort, amid strange unearthly shapes of dread and horror, with no reason to direct and no will to govern. Oh, the unspeakable unhappiness of these wanderings!—these dreams of suspicion, and fear, and hatred, in which shadow and substance, the true and the false, were so wrought up and mingled together, that they formed but one fantastic and miserable whole. And, oh the unutterable horror of every momentary return to a recollection of what I had been once, and a sense of what I had become! Oh, when I awoke amid the terrors of the night—when I turned me on the rustling straw, and heard the wild wail and yet wilder laugh—when I heard and shuddered and then felt the demon in all his might coming over me, till I laughed and wailed with the others—oh, the misery! the utter misery!—But ‘tis over, my friend—’tis all over; a few, few tedious days, a few, few weary nights, and all my sufferings shall be over."

I had covered my face with my hands, but the tears came bursting through my fingers; the mother and sister of the poet sobbed aloud.

"Why sorrow for me, sirs?" he said; "why grieve for me? I am well, quite well, and want for nothing. But ‘tis cold, oh, ‘tis very cold, and the blood seems freezing at my heart. Ah, but there is neither pain nor cold where I am going, and I trust it shall be well with my soul. Dearest dearest mother, I always told you it would come to this at last."

The keeper had entered to intimate to us that the hour for locking up the cells was already past, and we now rose to leave the place. I stretched out my hand to my unfortunate friend; he took it in silence, and his thin attenuated fingers felt cold within my grasp, like those of a corpse. His mother stooped down to embrace him.

"Oh, do not go yet, mother," he said—"do not go yet—do not leave me; but it must be so, and I only distress you. Pray for me, dearest mother, and, oh, forgive me; I have been a grief and a burden to you all life long; but I ever loved you, mother; and, oh, you have been kind, kind and forgiving--and now your task is over. May God bless and reward you! Margaret, dearest Margaret, farewell!"

We parted, and, as it proved, for ever. Robert Ferguson expired during the night; and when the keeper entered the cell next morning, to prepare him for quitting the asylum, all that remained of this most hapless of the children of genius, was a pallid and wasted corpse, that lay stiffening on the straw. I am now a very old man, and the feelings wear out; but I find that my heart is even yet susceptible of emotion, and that the source of tears is not yet dried up.


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