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Wilson's Border Tales
The First-Foot

Chapter 1


Notwithstanding the shortness of their days, the bitterness of their frosts, and the fury of their storms, December and January are merry months. First comes old Christmas, shaking his hoary locks, belike, in the shape of snowdrift, and laughing, well-pleased, beneath his crown of mistletoe, over the smoking sirloin and the savoury goose. There is not a child on the south side of the Borders, who longs not for the coming of merry Christmas—it is their holiday of holidays—their season of play and of presents—and old and young shake hands with Christmas, and with each other. And even on the northern side of ‘the river,’ and ‘the ideal line by fancy drawn, which ‘divide the sister kingdoms,’ there are thousands who welcome and forget not ‘blithe Yule day.’ Next comes the New Year—the bottle, the hot pint, and the first-foot—and we might notice, also, Hansel Monday, and ‘Auld Hansel Monday,’ which follow in their wake, and keep up the merriment till the back of January is broken. But our business at present is with the first-foot, and we must hold. It matters not on what side of the Borders it may be—and northward the feeling extends far beyond the Border—there is a mysterious, an ominous importance attached to the individual who first crosses the threshold, after the clock has struck twelve at midnight, on the 31st of December, or who is the first-foot in a house after the New Year has begun. The first-foot stamps the ‘luck’ of the house—the good fortune or the evil fortune of its inmates throughout the year! But to begin with our story. There was not a person on all the Borders, nor yet in all Scotland, who attached more importance to the first-foot, than Nelly Rogers. Nelly was a very worthy, kind-hearted, yea, even sensible sort of woman, but a vein of superstition ran through her sense; she had imbibed a variety of ‘auld warld notions’ in infancy, and, as she grew up, they became a part of her creed. She did not exactly believe that ghosts and apparitions existed in her day, but she was perfectly sure they had existed, and had been seen; she was sure, also, there was something in dreams, and she was positive there was a great deal in the luckiness or unluckiness of a first-foot; she had remarked it in her own experience thirty times, and, she said, ‘it was of nae use attempting to argue her out o’ what she had observed hersel.’ Nelly was the wife of one Richard Rogers, a respectable farmer, whose farm-house stood by the side of the post-road, between Kelso and Lauder. They had a family of several children; but our business is with the oldest, who was called George, and who had the misfortune to receive, both from his parents and their neighbours, the character of being a genius. This is a very unfortunate character to give to any one who has a fortune to make in the world, as will be seen when we come to notice the history of George the Genius; for such was the appellation by which he was familiarly mentioned. Now, it was the last night of the old year; George was about twelve years of age, and, because he was their first-born, and, moreover, because he was a genius, he was permitted to sit with his father and his mother, and a few friends, who had come to visit them, to see the old year out, and the New Year in. The cuckoo clock struck twelve, and the company rose, shook hands, wished each other a happy new year, and, in a bumper, drank, ‘May the year that’s awa be the warst o’ our lives.’

‘I wonder wha will be our first-foot,’ said Nelly; ‘I hope it will be a lucky ane.’ The company began to argue whether there was anything in the luck of a first-foot or not, and the young genius sided with his mother; and, while they yet disputed upon the subject, a knocking was heard at the front door.

‘There’s somebody,’ said Nelly; ‘if it’s onybody that I think’s no lucky, I winna let them in.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Richard.

‘It’s nae nonsense,’ replied Nelly; ‘it may be a flat-soled body, for onything I ken; and do ye think I wad risk the like o’ that. Haud awa, see wha it is, George,’ added she, addressing the genius; ‘and dinna 1et them in unless you’re sure that they dinna come empty-handed.’

‘Did ever ye hear the like o’ the woman!’ said her husband; ‘sic havers! Run awa, George, hinny; open the door.’

The boy ran to the door, and inquired, ‘Who’s there?’

‘A stranger,’ was the reply.

‘What do ye want?’ inquired the genius, with a degree of caution seldom found in persons honoured with such an epithet.

‘I have a letter to Master Rogers, from his brother,’ answered the stranger.

‘A letter frae my brother John!’ cried Richard, starting from his seat; ‘open the door, laddie; open the door.’

Now, Richard Rogers had a brother, who also had been considered a sort of genius in his youth. He was of a wild and restless disposition in those days, and his acquaintances were wont to call him by the name of Jack the Rambler. But it is a long road that has no turning; he had now been many years at sea; was the captain of a free-trader; and as remarkable for his steadiness and worldly wisdom, as he had been noted for the wildness of his youth. There was a mysterious spot in the captain’s history, which even his brother Richard had never been able to unriddle. But that spot will be brought to light by and by.

George opened the door, and the stranger entered. He was dressed as a seaman; and Nelly drew back and appeared troubled as her eyes fell upon him. It was evident she had set him down in her mind as an unlucky first-foot. He was not, indeed, the most comely personage that one might desire to look upon on a New Year’s morning; for he was a squat little fellow, with huge red whiskers that almost buried his face, his burly head was covered with a sou-wester, and his eyes squinted most fearfully. Nelly could not withdraw her eyes from the man’s eyes; she contemplated the squint with horror. Such eyes were never in the head of a first-foot before. She was sure that ‘something no canny would be the upshot.’

‘Tak a seat, sir; tak a seat, sir,’ said Richard, addressing the sailor; ‘fill out a glass, and mak yoursel at hame. Nelly, bring a clean tumbler. And ye hae a letter frae my brother, the captain, sir?’ added he, anxiously; ‘who is he? Where is he? When did ye see him?’

‘I left him at Liverpool, sir,’ replied the queer-looking sailor; ‘and, as I intended to take a run down overland to Leith to see my old mother, ‘Bill,’ says he to me—(for my name’s Bill, sir—Bill Somers)—well, as I’m saying,. ‘Bill,’ says he, ‘you’ll be going past the door of a brother of mine, and I wish I were going with you’—(and I wish he had, for not to say it before you, sir, there an’t a better or a cleverer fellow than Captain Rogers, in the whole service, nor a luckier one either, though, poor fellow, he has had his bad luck too in some things; and it sticks to him still, and will stick to him)—however, as I say, said he to me—‘Bill, here is a bit of a letter, give it to my brother—it concerns my nevy, George ‘—(yes, George, I think he called him.) So I took the letter and set off—that is, some days ago—and I arrived at the public-house, a little from this, about four hours since, and intended to cast anchor there for the night; but having taken a glass or two, by way of ballast, I found myself in good sailing-trim, and having inquired about you, and finding that you lived but a short way off, and that the people in the house said, it being New Year’s times, you wouldn’t be moored yet, I desired the landlady to fill me up half a gallon, or so, of her best rum, that I mightn’t come empty-handed— for that wouldn’t be lucky, ma’am, I reckon," added he, squinting in the face of Mrs. Rogers, who looked now at his eyes, and now at a large bottle, which he drew from beneath a sort of half great-coat or monkey-jacket. Nelly was no friend to spirit-drinking; nevertheless she was glad that her first-foot, though he did squint, had not come empty-handed.

The letter was handed to Mr Rogers, who, having broke the seal—"Preserve us, Richard!" said Nelly, "that’s a lang epistle! I daresay the captain’s made his will in’t— what does he say?"

"It’s a kind, sensible, weel-written letter," said Richard, "for John was a genius a’ his days; and there is mair about a will in’t than ye’re aware o’. But there’s nae secret in it. George will read it."

The letter was then given to the genius, who read as follows:--

"DEAR DICK,—As one of my crew, Bill Somers, who has sailed with me for a dozen years, is going down to Scotland, and will pass your way, I take the opportunity of writing to you, and letting you know that I am as well as a person, who has as much cause to be unhappy as I have, can desire to be. The cause of that unhappiness you don’t know, and few know it—but I do, and that’s enough. I have made some money—perhaps a good deal—but that’s of no consequence. I once thought that I might have them of my own flesh and blood to inherit it; however, that was not to be. It is a long story, and a sad story—one that you know nothing about, and which it is of no use to tell you about now. As things are, my nevy, George, is to be heir to whatever money, goods, and chattels I possess."

As her son read this, Nelly thought that it was nonsense, after all, to say that a squint first-foot was unlucky.

"Read on, George," said his father, "and take heed to what your uncle says."

The boy resumed the letter, and again read—

"Now, as my nevy is to be my heir, I think it my duty to lay down a sort of chart—or call it what you like—by which I would wish him to shape his future conduct. I am glad to hear that his head is of the right sort; but let us have none of your fiddle ornaments about it. A lofty prow is not always the best for a storm, and looks bad enough with a Dutch stern. Beware, also, how you let him to sea before his vessel is fairly rigged, caulked, and waterproof—or, if you do, then look out for his growing top-heavy, and capsizing in the turn of a handspike. If you set him off with a bare allowance of ballast, and without a single letter of credit—do you expect him to bring home a cargo? It is stuff Dick—arrant stuff! All your boy exhibitions are downright swindling. Prodigies, forsooth!—why, parrots can speak, and jackdaws chatter. Or, to render myself intelligible to your agricultural senses, a tree blossoms in its first year, and a selfish deluded idiot plucks it up, exhibits it in the market-place—the bud perishes, and the tree withers, while gaping lubbers wonder that it did not bear fruit! Now, Dick, this is exactly the case with all your fast-sailing miracles. Give a boy the helm, and get him to the drudgery of the cabin again, if you can.

"As to his love affairs, provided the girl of his choice be virtuous and tolerably pretty—though neither very rich nor very intelligent— see that you dont strike off at a tangent, and, like one of your own stupid cattle, run counter to his will. If you do, it will only haste, what you wish to prevent—or render a marriage certain, which the young couple thought sufficiently doubtful. Besides, your opposition might spoil a poor girl’s reputation; and I have always found that imputations of a certain class upon a man, are like marks left upon the sand within a tide-mark; but to a woman—a lovely, helpless woman—they adhere like a limpit to the rock. Besides this, Dick, I am certain the most powerful impression of moral rectitude you can imprint upon his heart, will be like a pistol fired from a cock boat, compared to the glorious and irresistible broadside of a seventy-four, when you contrast its influence upon his actions, with the delightful and conquering emotions of love and esteem which he entertains for an amiable woman. Don’t preach to me, Dick, for I know when the devil, the world, and the flesh, war against our better principles; and when early instructions, counsels, and those sort of things, are fairly run down and drop astern. Why, if a fellow just think for a moment of the beautiful being, whose soul is as pure as the blue sea on a summer day—if he just think of her—or of her last words—‘Don’t forget me!’—Belay! is the word—about goes the helm —head round from the lee-shore of inconsistency, and he is again quietly moored in the fair-way of virtue.

"When he begins to shape into manhood, Discretion is the watchword; and whatever he or others may think of his abilities, let him douse Presumption and stow it below, hoist a desire to please at the fore-top, place Perseverance at the helm, and Civility and Moderate Ambition upon the watch. People say they like a plain-spoken, honest fellow, who says what he thinks. But it is all a fudge. Just speak in the jack-blunt manner, which they praise, respecting themselves, and, mark me, they will march off to another tune. Let any man practise this for a time, and he will soon be hated by every soul on board. I don’t mean to advise dissimulation, but a man can get enemies enough without making them; therefore, where he has no good to say of a person, though they may have injured him, let him hold his tongue.

"Another thing, and an important one, for him to remember is— he who is the king of good-fellows, and a ‘good soul’ amongst his associates, is styled by the public a thoughtless man, and by his enemies a drunkard. Now, Dick, in the world of business, a good fellow simply means a good-for-nothing. Therefore, see to it, and put my nevy on the look-out; for, not to speak of the growing influence of habit, just attribute unsteadiness to a man, and you bring him a wind a-head--stop his credit, and hurl him to ruin headlong. Sobriety is his compass—sobriety is his passport.

"Again, Dick, I would neither wish to see him a booby nor a maw-worm; but I must tell you that the opinion the world forms of us is often cast upon very trivial circumstances. A heedlessly committed action, which we forget in half an hour, others will remember to our disadvantage for twelve months. There is nothing like being well-braced with circumspection; let him always look well to his bearing and distance, or he will soon find himseif out in his latitude. No man of any ambition, or whether he was ambitious or not, ever loved a man who presumed to be in all things wiser than himself. I don’t wish to lecture upon humbug humility, but diffidence and good-breeding should never be under the poop. Let him take heed, also, how he dabbles in politics or religion. Both concern him, and he must think and act upon both; but he must do so as becomes a man. I hate all your noisy boatswain politicians, both aboard the Commons and out of it. The moment I see a lubberly fellow swinging his arms about and blowing a hurricane, whether he be endeavouring to blow a nation or a tavern in agitation—there rages a grand rascal, say I; his patriotism, and the froth which he scatters from his mouth, are of a piece. Now, as to his religious principles, of all things, let him keep them to himself. Every man is as much in the right, in his own estimation, as he is. Nothing will procure a man more enemies than a real or affected singularity in matters of religion. For though there is a great deal of good sense afloat in the world, yet there is such a fry of feverish, canting, small craft, always skulking about, and peeping into our pees and ques, which, though they cannot sink your character, they annoy it with their sparrow-hail. In a word, Dick, every intelligent being’s religion lies between his own conscience and his Maker. Give my nevy a Bible, with a father’s best blessing—in it he will find the ennobling hopes of eternity, and learn to do unto others as he would wish others to do unto him; and this, from the bottom of my heart, is the advice of his uncle Jack.

"A sterling, upright, moral character, is absolutely indispensable. If the heart be well built, and kept in good sailing-trim, he will hate a tell-tale there which will keep all right aloft. As well set a seaman upon a voyage of discovery without a compass, as a young fellow upon the world without a character. But, d’ye see, because you can’t go to sea without a compass of this kind, you are not to expect that, in all cases, it will insure you of reaching the Pole. No, Dick, it is rather like a pilot sent out to steer you in, when you are within sight of land, and without whose assistance you cannot reach the port.

"In conversation, too, I hate to see a smooth-water puppy running at the rate of twelve knots, as if no vessel in the fleet could sail but his own. I have seen fellows of this sort, showing off like gilded pinnaces at a regatta, while they were only showing how little they had on board. Two things, in particular, I wish my nevy to avoid—namely, argufying in company, and speaking about himself. There is a time and a place for everything; and, though argument be well enough in its way, he who is always upon the look-out for one, is just as sure as he finds it, to find an enemy; and, as to speaking of one’s self, independent of its ill-breeding, it is like a dose of salt-water served round the company. The grand secret of conversation is, to say little in a way to please, and the moment you fail to do so, it is time to shove your boat off. Whenever you see a person yawn in your company, take your hat.

"Independent of these things, let him look well to his tide-table. Without punctuality, the best character becomes a bad one. The moment a man breaks his word, or becomes indifferent to his engagement, why, the confidence of his commodore is at an end; and, instead of being promoted to the quarter-deck, he may slave before the mast till the boatswain’s last whistle pipe all hands to his funeral. Punctuality, Dick—systematical, methodical punctuality—is a fortune to a fellow ready-made. Let him once listen to the syren voice of delay—neglect to weigh anchor with the tide, and if he don’t drift back with the current, go to pieces on a sand-bank, or be blown to sticks by a foul wind, my name’s not Jack. Let him keep a sharp eye upon the beginning, the middle, and the end of everything he undertakes. He must not tack about, like a fellow on a cruise or a roving commission, but, whatever wind blows, maintain a straight course, keeping his head to the port. Burns, the poet, spoke like a philosopher, when he said it was the misfortune of his life to be without an aim. But I tell you what, Dick, we must not only have an object to steer to, but it must be a reasonable object. A madman may say he is determined to go to the North Pole, or the moon—but that’s not the thing, Dick; our anticipations must be likelihoods, our ambitions probabilities; but when we have made frequent calculations, and find ourselves correct in our reckoning, though we have made but little way, then down with despondency, and stick to perseverance. I don’t mean a beggarly, servile, grovelling perseverance, but the unsubdued determination of an unconquerable spirit, riding out the storm, and while small craft sink on every side, disdaining to take in a single reef.

"Now, having said this much about shaping his course and laying in a freight, it is material that I drop a concluding word with regard to his rigging. Send him out with patched canvas, and the veriest punt that ever disgraced the water will clear out before him. A patch upon his coat will be an embargo on his prospects. People affect to despise tailors; but it is base ingratitude or shallow dissimulation. Not that I would for the world see my nevy an insignificant dandy, but remember, the moment the elbows of your coat open, every door shuts.

"But my fingers are cramped with this long epistle, and, more-over, the paper is full; and with love to my nevy George, Nelly, and the little ones, I am, dear Dick,

"Your affectionate Brother,

"JOHN ROGERS,

"Otherwise,

"JACK THE RAMBLER."

All applauded this letter when they heard it, and they vowed the captain was a clever fellow—a noble fellow—ay, and a wise one; and they drank his health and a happy New Year to him, though half of what he had written, from his nautical types and symbols, was as Greek and Latin unto those who heard it, and worse unto George the genius, who read it; though some parts of it all understood.

When the health of Captain Rogers had gone round, "I wonder in the world," said Richard, "What it can be that my brother aye refers to about being unhappy? I’ve written to him fifty times to try to fathom it, but I never could—he never would gie me ony satisfaction!’

"Why," said the seaman, as he sat leaning forward and turning round his sou-wester between his knees, "I believe I know, or I can guess a something about the matter. It’s about ten years ago, according to my reckoning, we were coming down the Mediterranean, the captain was as fine looking young fellow then as ever stood upon a deck. Well, as I was saying, we were coming down the Mediterranean, and at Genoa we took a gentleman and his daughter on board. She was a pretty creature; I’ve seen nothing like her neither before nor since. So, as I’m telling you, we took them on board at Genoa, for England, and they had not been many days on board, till every one saw, and I saw, though my eyes are none o’ the smartest, that the captain could look on nothing but his lovely passenger. It wasn’t hard to see that she looked much in the same way at him, and I have seen them walking on the deck at night with her arm through his, in the moonlight; and, let me tell you, a glorious sight it is—moonlight on the Mediterranean. It is enough to make a man fall in love with moonlight itself, if there be nothing else beside him. Well, d’ye see, as I am saying, it wasn’t long until the old gentleman, her father, saw which way the land lay; and one day we heard the lady weeping; she never came out of her cabin during the rest of the voyage, nor did her father again speak to the master. We were laid up for a long time, and there was a report that the captain and her had married, unknowing to her father. However, we sailed on a long voyage; we weren’t back to England again for more than twelve months; but the day after we landed the captain shut himself up, and, for long and long, we used to find him sitting with the salt water in his eyes. We again heard the report that he had been married, and also that his lady had died in childbed; but whether the child was living or ever was living, or whether it was a boy or a girl, we didn’t know; nor did he know; and, I believe, he never was able to hear any more about the old gentleman—so, as I say, that’s all I know about the matter, poor fellow."

Now, the squinting sailor remained two days in the house of Richard Rogers, and he was such a comical man, and such a good-natured kind-hearted man, that Mrs. Rogers was certain he would be a lucky first-foot, even though he had a very unfortunate cross look with his eyes; and she was the more convinced in this opinion, because, in a conversation she had had with him, and in which she had inquired—"What siller he thought the captain might be worth?" "Why, I’m saying," answered the sailor, "Captain Rogers is worth a round twenty thousand, if he be worth a single penny;—and that, I’m thinking, is a pretty comfortable thing for Master George to be heir to!" "Ay, and so it is," responded Nelly. And there was no longer anything disagreeable in the sailor’s squint.


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