But Reuben saved her the
trouble; for early the next day he called at her house with a silk dress
under his arm. He said— "It was the last piece of the kind he had—indeed
it was a perfect beauty, equal to real India, and would become her
exceedingly—and not to think about the price, for that was no object."
"What then am I to think
about?" thought Priscilla; and she admired the silk much, but,
peradventure, if the truth were told, she admired its owner more.
Reuben spent more than two hours
beneath the roof of the too long-neglected spinster. During those two
hours she blushed, his tongue faltered, and when he rose to depart he had
neither the silk beneath his arm nor the cash for it in his pocket; but he
shook her hand long and fervently, and he would have saluted her fair
cheek—but true love, like true genius, people say, is always modest.
Priscilla, on being left alone, felt her heart in a very unusual tumult;
and now she examined her face in a mirror, and again admired the silk
which he had presented to her. She had always heard him spoken of as a
steady, thriving, and deserving young man; and it became a settled point
in her mind that, if he directly popped the important question, she would
be as candid with him, and at once answer—"Yes."
Reuben was frequently seen
in Moffat after this, even when he brought no goods for sale; and within
six months after her purchase of the lace, the sacred knot, which no man
may unloose, was tied between them; and at the age of forty and four years
and four months, but before time had "wrought a wrinkle" on her fair brow,
Miss Priscilla Spottiswoode blushed into Mrs. Purves.
While following his
avocation as a chapman, Reuben had accumulated somewhat more than two
hundred pounds, which, with the five hundred that his wife brought him,
raised his capital to more than seven hundred. But he was not a man to
look only at the needle point of things, or whose soul would be lost in a
nutshell. Onward! onward! was the ruling principal of Reuben—he had been
fortunate in all his speculations, and he trusted to be fortunate still.
Never, during all his wanderings, had he lost sight of the important
discoveries of Arkwright, and of the improvements which were every day
being made upon them; and while he was convinced that they would become a
source of inexhaustible wealth to the nation, he still cherished the hope
and the belief that they would enrich himself. He said also—and Mrs.
Purves agreed with him—that travelling the country was a most
uncomfortable life for a married man. He therefore sold his horse and his
covered cart, disposed of his stock at prime cost, and, with his wife and
capital, removed to Manchester.
He took a room and a
cellar, at the top of Dean Street, and near to the foot of Market Street,
"Where merchants most do
The upper room served them
for bedchamber, parlour, kitchen and all, while the cellar he converted
into a wareroom. Perhaps, having more than seven hundred pounds to begin
the world with, some may think that he might have taken more commodious
premises; but rents were becoming high in Manchester—many a great merchant
has begun business in a cellar—and Reuben, quoting the words of poor
"Vessels large may venture more,
But little boats should keep the shore."
And he farther said, "I am
but serving my time yet; we must creep before we walk."
Never was any man who
prospered in the affairs of the world more diligent in business than
Reuben Purves, and in Priscilla he found an admirable helpmate. She soon
learned the name, the price, and the quality of every description of
goods; and when he was necessarily absent, she could attend to the orders
of customers as promptly as himself. The reader unacquainted with the
Manchester mode of business, is not to suppose that Reuben, although his
stock was wedged up in a cellar, was a retail draper or haberdasher. Its
magnitude considered, there are fewer such in Manchester than in any other
town in the kingdom; but Reuben commenced as wholesale merchant—one who
supplies the country dealers. He always went to the markets to purchase
with the money in his hand, as Joseph the patriarch’s brethren came to him
to buy corn—and pity it is that the good old custom has too much fallen
into disuse. He made his purchases chiefly from the small manufacturers,
to whom ready money was an object of importance, and consequently bought
his goods to much advantage to himself. During his extensive
perambulations on the Borders also, he had become generally acquainted
with the drapers in all the towns upon his circuit; and at the seasons
when they generally visit Manchester, he might have been seen rapidly
passing along what is now called Piccadilly and passing the coach from the
north, just as it drew up to the inn; and if one whose face he knew
stepped off it or out of it, Reuben turned suddenly round as if by
accident, took the north country purchaser by the hand, and invited him
home to "eat beef" with him, or to take supper, as the case might be. He
was generally successful; for to resist his solicitations was a matter of
difficulty, and after partaking of a frugal meal and a single glass, the
stranger was invited to examine the stock in the wareroom, and seldom
failed of becoming the purchaser of a part. By such means and perseverance
his business in a few years increased exceedingly. He was of opinion, that
there is hardly anything too difficult for resolute perseverance to
accomplish or overcome, at least he always found it so; and I confess I am
very much of his mind.
Within three years he had
taken extensive warerooms. He had a clerk, a salesman, four warehousemen,
a traveller, and a porter. He had also taken his father from the loom.
Reuben had seized fortune at the flood, and he floated down with the
stream. He said he never undertook a speculation, but he was convinced in
his own mind it would be successful. He also said, that fortune-making was
like courtship; it was never venture never win—only to know what you were
I should have mentioned,
that, previous to this, Priscilla had made Reuben the happy father of twin
daughters, and the one they named Rachael, the other Elizabeth. The mother
gloried in her children, and her husband looked on them with delight. He
was a fortunate man and a happy one; and his cup of felicity, if it did
not run over, was well filled.
In a short time, Reuben not
only supplied with goods to a great extent the merchants on the Borders,
but throughout the three kingdoms; and he also exported extensively to
other countries, and even to some where the importation of British goods
"A fig for the tariffs," he was wont
to say, snapping his fingers; "the profit will cover the risk. The
principle of trade is like the principle of steam—there is no restraining
it. Neither kings, emperors, congresses, nor laws, are a match for it.
They canna cage it up like a bird. They might as well say to the waves of
the sea, ‘hitherto shalt thou come and no farther,’ as to the spirit of
In these speculations,
however, Reuben frequently experienced the common fate of the smuggler;
and the goods which he sent into countries where they were prohibited were
seized. He was of too ardent a temperament to be merely the purchaser and
vendor of other men’s manufactures, and eventually he erected a
cotton-mill of his own, a few miles out of Manchester.
And here it will, perhaps,
be more acceptable to the reader, that I detail the remainder of Reuben’s
narrative in his own words, as he related it to an old schoolfellow in his
native town, after an absence from it of more than thirty years. It was
delivered with his unchanged Scottish accent, and with many Scottish
phrases and modes of expression, which a residence of more than three
time, ten years in England had not destroyed.
"I was now," said
he—alluding to the erection of the mill—"at what I had always considered
as the very pinnacle of my ambition—the proprietor of a cotton-mill, and
of one, too, that had cost me several thousands in completing it. I had no
manner of doubt, but that it would turn out the master-speculation of my
existence; for, bless ye, at that period, to have a mill was to have a
mine. A spinning-jenny was worth its weight in rubies. There was Arkwright
made a fortune like a nobleman’s in a jiffy; and Robert Peel, greatly to
his credit, from being a weaver lad, I may say, in less than no time, made
a fortune that could have bought up half the gentry in the country.
Indeed, wealth just poured in upon the mill-owners; and, I must confess,
they werena bad times for the like o’ me, that bought their calicoes, and
got them dressed and printed to sell them out, as ye may judge from my
having been able to erect a mill of my own before I had been many years in
business. But, I must confess, that the mill ran between me and my wits.
All the time it was building, I was out and in frae the town, to see how
the workmen were getting on, wet or dry, and, I dare to say, that if I
dreamed about it once, during the twelve months it was in hands, I dreamed
about it a thousand times. Many a time Priscilla has said to me—
‘Reuben, I doubt ye are
thinking owre meikle about that mill, and really it’s no right—it’s sinfu’.
I fear it is enough to mak the concern no prosper.’
‘My dear,’ I used to say,
‘do ye consider what an immense speculation it is?—it is like death or
life to me, and if I didna think o’ it, and look after the workmen to see
how they are getting on wi’ it, who, do ye suppose, would? There is
nothing like a man looking after his own concerns, and, where there is sae
meikle at stake, it is impossible but to think o’t.’
But, sir, I looked after
the progress of the mill, and my thoughts were taken up concerning it, to
the neglect of my more immediate business. After commencing in the
wholesale line, I found it impossible to abide by my original rule of—no
credit; and, during my frequent absence from my warehouse, my salesman had
admitted the names of men into my books of whom I knew nothing, but whom I
afterwards learned were not to be trusted. Their payments were not
forthcoming in the proper season; and, in looking after them, I put off
insuring the mill at the time I intended. Delay, sir, is a curse to a
person in business; it is as dangerous as the blandishments of a harlot to
the young—and so I found it. On the very night that the machinery and
every thing was completed, I allowed the spinners and others that I had
engaged to have a supper and dance in it wi’ their wives and sweethearts.
I keepit them company for an hour mysel’, and very merry they were. But,
after charging them all to keep sober and harmonious one with another, and
to see that they locked the doors behind them when they broke up, and to
leave everything right, I wished them good-night; and they drank my
health, and gave me three cheers as I left them. I got into my gig, and
drove home to Manchester. But I dinna think I had been three hours in bed,
when Priscilla gied me a dunch with her elbow, and, says she—
waken!—there’s an unco knocking at the street door.’
‘Hoot! it will be some
drunk body passing,’ says I, and turned round on my side to compose myself
to sleep again.
But the knock, knocking,
continued louder and louder.
‘That is nae drunk body,’
said Priscilla, ‘something has happened.’
I started owre the bed, and
I was hardly half-dressed when I heard the street door open, and the
servant lass came fleein’ up the stair.
‘What is it?’ cried I.
‘Oh, sir—the mill!—the
mill!’ said she.
Had she shot me, she could
not have rendered me more stupified.
‘What about the mill?’
cries I, all shaking with agitation.
‘Oh, it’s on fire—it’s on
fire!’ replied the lassie.
I heard Priscilla scream,
‘On fire!’ and she also sprang to the floor.
I cannot tell ye how I
threw on my coat—I know that I banged out without a napkin about my neck,
and, rushing down the stairs, I couldna even stop to get the horse from
the stable and saddled, but away I flew upon my feet. If ever a man ran as
if for his life, it was me that night. It was six miles to the mill, but I
never slacked for a single moment. I didna even discover, though the
stones were cutting my feet, that I had come away without my shoes. The
mill absorbed both thought and sense—I was dead to everything else. But,
oh, upon reaching it, what a sight presented itself to my view! There was
the great red flames roaring and raging up to the height of its five
stories; and the very wheels of the machinery, seen through the windows,
glowing as bright as when in the hands o’ the smith that formed them. The
great suffocating clouds of smoke came rolling about me, and even blinding
me. Hundreds of women ran about screaming, some carrying water, and some
running in the way of others, and drunken men staggered to and fro, like
lost spirits in the midst of their tortures. O, sir, it was an awful sight
for any one to behold; but for me to witness it was terrible! For some
minutes I was bereft of both speech and reason; and, had the spectators
not held me back, I would have rushed into the middle of the flames. Crash
after crash, the newly-erected walls and the floors fell in, and I was a
helpless spectator of the destruction of my own property. In one night,
yea, in one hour, more than half the fortune that I had struggled for
years to gather together, was swept, as by a whirlwind, from off the face
of the earth.
I stood till I beheld the
edifice that had been the pride of my heart, a mass of smoking ruins,
with, I may say, scarce one stone left upon another. All the manufacturers
round about sympathized with me very sincerely, and one of them drove me
back to Manchester in his drosky. When I entered my own house, I believe I
appeared like a person on whom sentence of death has been passed, as he is
removed from the bar and led back to his prison.
‘Weel, Reuben,’ asked
Priscilla, in her own calm and gentle way, ‘is the damage great?’
‘Oh, my dear!’ said I,
‘there is nothing left but a heap o’ ashes! Nothing! nothing!—we are
‘No, no,’ replied she as
quietly as ever, ‘we arena ruined.’ The back is aye made fit for the
burden. The Hand that sent the misfortune (as we think it) upon us, will
enable us to bear up against it. Now, just ye compose yersel’ and dinna be
angry at what I am gaun to say; but we are just as rich now as we were
three years ago; and, I am sure, Reuben, we were quite as happy then as we
are now. Ye have still a very excellent business, and a fortune far beyond
onything that you and I could ever expect to possess when we cam thegither.
You have your health and I have mine; and our twa bits o’ bairnies are
growing up to be a comfort to us baith. They will ne’er feel the loss o’
the cotton mill, and you and I ne’er kenned the guid o’t. Wherefore, then,
should ye grieve? Ye ought rather to be thankfu’ that it is nane o’ your
family that is taen frae ye. And, I have nae doubt, that, although we
self-wise and short-sighted mortals canna see it, this visitation will be
for the guid o’ us a’. It is better that ye should lose the mill than
forget your Maker; and, forgie me for saying it, but I feared it was
setting your heart upon the things o’ this world, to a degree which did
not become the faither o’ a Christian family. Therefore, let me entreat
you to say, ‘His will be done,’ and to believe that this has fallen upon
you for the best. Our loss is not so great but that, if times keep good we
may soon owercome it."
I had often experienced the
value of my wife, and admired her meek, patient spirit, and affectionate
heart; but I never, until this trial came upon me, knew her real worth.
She enabled me to begin the world; ay, sir, and this far she has guided me
through it. She was better than twelve years older than me—but what of
that? She looked as young like at forty as ever I saw another woman do at
twenty; and now, when she has been my wife for thirty years, I hardly ken
her aulder. A glaikit lassie, under such circumstances, might have wrung
her hands, and upbraided me for allowing the supper and the dance; but
Priscilla strove only to comfort me, to imbue my mind with fortitude, and
to turn the accident to my eternal advantage. I had long loved and
esteemed her, but I now reverenced her.
I sat and I listened to
her, and looked in her face for the space of ten minutes, without speaking
a word; and, at last, fairly overpowered wi’ her gentleness and her
tenderness, I rose and took her hand; and ‘Priscilla,’ says I, ‘for your
sake dear, I will think no more about the matter. The mill is destroyed;
but, as you say, we may overcome the loss—and I shall try.’