Recollections of Ferguson
Othou, my elder brother in
By far my elder brother in the muses,
With tears Ipity thy unhappy fate!
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 extendedhis 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 Ireturned; 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 itat 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."
"ORobert, 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 isopened
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 Ihave 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,
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
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