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Wilson's Border Tales
The First-Foot

Chapter 2

Well, week followed week, and month succeeded month—spring came, and summer came, and harvest followed, and it was altogether a lucky year to Richard Rogers. Nelly declared that the squinting sailor had been an excellent first-foot.

Another year came, another, and another, until eight years passed round since they had been visited by the outlandish seaman. Nelly had had both lucky and unlucky first-feet. George the genius was now a lad of twenty, and the other children were well grown—but George was still a genius, and nothing but a genius. He was indeed a good scholar—a grand scholar, as his mother declared— and a great one, as his father affirmed. He had been brought up to no profession, for it was of no use thinking of a profession for one who was heir to twenty thousand pounds; and, at any rate, his genius was sure to make him a fortune. In what way his genius was to do this, was never taken into consideration. Many people said, "If we had your genius, George, we could make a fortune." And George thought he would and could. The joiner in the next village, however, said, that, "Wi’ a’ George’s genius, he didna believe he could make an elshin-heft, and stick him!—and, in his opinion, there was mair to be made by making elshin-hefts than by writing ballants!"

As I have said, eight years had passed; it was again the last night of the year, and a very dark and stormy night it was. Mr. Rogers, his wife, their son George, and the rest of their family, had again seen the old year out and the new year in, and exchanged with each other the compliments of the season, when the cuckoo-clock again announced the hour of twelve. Nelly had "happed up the fire" with her own hands—a thing that she always did on the last night of the old year, that it might not be out on a New Year’s morning. She was again wondering who would be their first-foot, and expressing a hope that it would be a lucky one, when a chaise drew up before the house, and the driver, dismounting and knocking at the window, begged that they would favour him with a light, as the roads were exceedingly dark, and the lamps of the chaise had been blown out by the wind.

"A light!" exclaimed Nelly, half petrified at the request; "preserve us! is the man beside himsel!—do ye imagine that onybody is gaun to gie ye out a light the first thing in a New Year’s morning! Gae awa!—gae awa!"

In vain the driver expostulated—he had met with similar treatment at other houses at which he had called. "Ye hae nae business to travel at siccan a time o’ night," replied Nelly to all his arguments. Her husband said little, for he entertained some of his wife’s scruples against giving a light at such a time. George mildly ridiculed the absurdity of the refusal; but—"I am mistress o’ my ain house," answered his mother, "and I’ll gie a light out o’t when I please, and only when I please. Wi’ a’ yer learnin’, George, ye wad be a great fool sometimes."

The voice of a lady was now heard at the window with the driver, saying—"Pray, good people, do permit us to light the lamps, and you shall have any recompense." No sooner did George hear the lady’s voice, than, in dispite of his mother’s frowns, he sprang to the door and unlocked it. With an awkward sort of gallantry he ushered in the fair stranger. She was, indeed, the loveliest first-foot that had ever crossed the threshold of Mrs. Rogers. She had no sooner entered, than Nelly saw and felt this, and, with a civility which formed a strange contrast to her answers to the driver, she smoothed down for her the cushioned arm-chair by the side of the fire. The young lady (for she hardly appeared to exceed seventeen) politely declined the proffered hospitality. "Sit down, my sweet young leddy; now, do sit down just to oblige me," said Nelly. "Ye are our first-foot, and I hope—I’m sure ye’ll be a lucky ane; and ye wadna, ye canna gaun out without tasting wi’ us on a New Year’s morning."

The young lady sat down; and Nelly hastened to spread upon the table little mountains of short bread (of which she was a notable maker) with her spice loaf, milk-scones, and her best ewe-cheese, and her cream-cheese, which was quite a fancy! And while his mother was so occupied, George produced three or four sorts of home-made wine of his own manufacture; for, in his catalogue of capabilities as a genius, it must be admitted that he had some which might be said to belong to the useful.

"Now, make yoursel at hame, my dear leddy," said Nelly; "need nae pressing. Or if ye wad like it better, I’ll get ye ready a cup o’ tea in a minute or twa; the kettle’s boiling; and it’s only to mask, so dinna say no. Indeed, if ye’ll only consent to stop a’ night, ye shall hae the best bed in the house, and we’ll put the horses in the stable; for it’s no owre and aboon lucky to gie or tak a light on a New Year’s morning."

A faint smile played across the lips of the fair stranger, at the mixture of Nelly’s kindness and credulity; and she thanked her for her hospitality, but stated that she must proceed on her journey, as she was hastening to the deathbed of a near and only relative. The young lady, however, sat longer than she wist, for she had entered in conversation with George—how, she knew not, and he knew not; but they were pleased with each other; and there were times (though it was only at times) that George could talk like an inspired being; and this was one of those times. The knowledge, the youth, the beauty of the lovely stranger, had kindled all the fires of his genius within him. Even his father was surprised, and his mother forgot that the chaise-driver was lighting the lamps; and how long the fair lady might have listened to George, we cannot tell, had not the driver hinted, "All’s ready, Ma’am; the horses will get no good in the cold." She arose and took leave of her entertainers; and George accompanied her to the chaise and shook her hand and bade her farewell, as though she had been an old and a very dear friend. He even thought, as she replied, "Farewell," that there was a sadness in her tone, as if she were sorry to say it.

Richard and his spouse retired to rest; but still the thought of having given a light out of her house on a New Year’s morning troubled her, and she feared that, after all, her lovely first-foot would prove an unlucky one. George laid his head upon his pillow to dream dreams, and conjure up visions of the fair stranger.

A short week had not passed, however—Richard was returning from Kelso market, the roads were literally a sheet of ice—it is said that bones are most easily broken in frosty weather—his horse fell and rolled over him, and he was carried home bruised, and with his leg broken. Nelly was loud in her lamentations, and yet louder in her upbraidings against George and against herself, that she permitted a light to be carried out of her house on a New Year’s morning. "It was born in upon me," said she, "the leddy wadna be lucky, that something would come out o’ the ge’in the light!" But this was not all; before two months elapsed, and just as her husband was beginning to set his foot to the ground again, from friction and negligence together, the thrashing machine took fire. It was still a severe frost, there was scarce a drop of water to be procured about the place, and, in spite of the exertions of all the people on the farm, and their neighbours who came to their assistance, the fierce flames roared, spread and rushed from stack to stack, until the barn, the stables, the stack-yard, and the dwelling-house, presented a heap of smouldering ashes and smoking ruins. Yet this was not the worst evil which had that day fallen upon Richard Rogers. He was one of those individuals who have an aversion to the very name of a bank, and he had the savings and the profits of twenty years—in fifty pound notes, and in five pound notes, and crown pieces—locked away in a strong drawer in his bedroom. In the confusion of the fire, and as he bustled, halting about, with the hope of saving some of his wheat-stacks (for wheat was selling high at the time), he forgot the strong drawer and his twenty-years’ savings, until flames were seen bursting from the window of his bedroom. The window had been left open, and some of the burning materials having been blown into the room, it was the first part of the house which caught fire.

"Oh! I’m ruined!—I’m ruined!" cried Richard; "my siller!—my siller!—my hard won siller!"

A rush was made to the bedroom; but before they reached it, the stairs gave way, the floor fell in, and a thick flame and suffocating smoke buried the fruits of poor Richard’s industry—the treasure which he had laid up for his children.

"Now, I am a beggar!" groaned he, lifting up his hands, while the flames almost scorched his face.

"Oh, black sorrow take that leddy!" cried Nelly, wringing her hands; "what tempted her to be my first-foot!or what tempted me to gie her a light! George! George! it was a’ you! We gied fire out o’ the house, and now we’ve brought it about us! Waes me! waes me! I’m a ruined woman! O Richard! what will we do! what was ye thinking about that ye didna mind the siller?"

Richard knew nothing of the number of his notes, and his riches had, indeed, vanished in a flash of fire. He was now obliged to take shelter with his family in an out-house, which had been occupied by a cotter. He had not heard from Captain Rogers for more than twelve months, and he knew not where he was, therefore he could expect no immediate assistance from him. It was now necessary that George should bring his genius into action—his father could no longer support him in idleness, and, as it had always been said, that he had only to exert his genius to make a fortune, George resolved that he would exert it, and he was pleased with the thought of setting his father on his feet again by the reward of his talents. He had read somewhere in the writings of Dr Johnson (and the Doctor had a good deal of experience in the matter), that "genius was sure to meet with its reward in London," and, if the Doctor was sure of that, George was as sure that he was a genius, and therefore he considered the reward as certain. So George determined, as his uncle might live many years, that he would go to London and make a fortune for himself, and to assist his father in the meantime. A cow was taken to Kelso market and sold for eight pounds and, the money was given to George to pay his expenses to the metropolis, and to keep him there until his genius should put him in the way of making the anticipated fortune. His coat was not exactly such a one as his uncle desired he should be sent out into the world in—not that it was positively a bad coat, but it was beginning to be rather smooth and clear about the elbows, a lighter shade ran up on each side of the seams at the back, and his hat was becoming bare round the edges on the crown. To be sure, as his mother said, "he would aye hae ink beside him, and a dip o’ ink would help to hide that." These, however, were things that could not be mended—the wardrobe of the whole family had been consumed at the fire; but these things did not distress George, for he did not consider it necessary for a genius to appear in a new coat. There were many tears shed on both sides when George bade adieu to his father, his mother, and his brethren, and took his journey towards London.

It was about the middle of March when he arrived in the metropolis; and, having spent two days wandering about and wondering at all he saw, without once thinking how his genius was to make the long-talked-of fortune, on the third day he delivered a letter of introduction, which he had received, to a broker in the city. Now, it so happened, that in this letter poor George was spoken of as an "extraordinary genius!"

"So you are a great genius, young man, my friend informs me," said the broker; "what have you a genius for?"

George blushed and look confused; he almost said—"for everything;" but he hung down his head and said nothing.

"Is it a genius for making machines—or playing the fiddle—or what?" added the broker.

George looked more and more confused; he replied— "that he could neither make machines, nor did he know anything of music."

"Then I hope it’s not a genius for making ballads, is it?" continued the other.

"I have written ballads," answered George, hesitatingly.

"Oh, then you must try the west end—you wont do for the city," added the broker; "your genius is an article that’s not in demand here."

George left the office of the London citizen mortified and humiliated. For a dozen long years everybody had told him he was a genius; and now, when the question was put to him—"What had he a genius for?" he could not answer it. This rebuff rendered him melancholy for several days, and he wandered from street to street, sometimes standing, unconscious of what he was doing, before the window of a bookseller, till, jostled by the crowd, he moved on, and again took his stand before the window of the printseller, the jeweller, or the vendor of caricatures. Still he believed that he was a genius, and he was conscious that that genius might make him a fortune; only he knew not how to apply it—he was puzzled where to begin. Yet he did not despair. He thought the day would come--but how it was to come, he knew not. He took out his uncle’s letter, which his father put into his hands when he left him, and he read it again, and said, it was all very good, but what was he the better of it?—it was all very true—too true, for he understood every word of it now; and he turned round his arm and examined his coat with a sigh, and beheld that the lining was beginning to show its unwelcome face through the seams of the elbows. I should have told you that he was then sitting in a coffee-house, sipping his three halfpence worth of coffee, and kitchening his pennyworth of bread which was but half a slice, slightly buttered—and a thin slice, too, compared with those of his mother’s cutting. He was beginning to feel one of the first rewards of genius—eating by measure! To divert the melancholy of his feelings, and the gloom of his prospects, he took up a magazine which lay on the table before him. His eyes fell upon the review of a poem which had been lately published, and for which the author was said to have received a thousand guineas! "A thousand guineas!" exclaimed George, dropping the magazine—"A thousand guineas! I shall make a fortune yet!" He had read some of the extracts from the poem—he was sure he could write better lines—his eyes flashed with ecstacy—his very nostrils distended with delight--a thousand guineas seemed already in his pocket! Though, alas! out of the eight pounds which he had received as the price of his father’s cow, with all his management and with all his economy, he had but eight shillings left. But his resolution was taken—he saw fortune hovering over him with her golden wings—he purchased a quire of paper and half a dozen quills, and hurried to his garret—for his lodging was a garret, in which there was nothing but an old bed and an older chair—not even an apology for a table--but sometimes the bed served the purpose of one, and at other times he sat upon the floor like a Turk, and wrote upon the chair. He was resolved to write an epic—for the idea of a thousand guineas had taken possession of all his faculties. He made a pen—he folded the paper—he rubbed his hands across his brow for a subject. He might have said with Byron (had Byron then said it),

"I want a hero!"

He thought of a hundred subjects, and with each the idea of his mother’s beautiful but most unlucky first-foot was mingled! At length he fixed upon one, and began to write. He wrote most industriously—in short, he wrote for a thousand guineas! He tasked himself to four hundred lines a day, and, in a fortnight, he finished a poem containing about five thousand. It was longer than that for which the thousand guineas had been given; but George thought, though he should get no more for his, that even a thousand guineas was very good payment for a fortnight’s labour. Of the eight shillings which we mentioned his being in possession of when he began the epic, he had now but threepence, and he was in arrears for the week’s rent of his garret. The landlady began to cast very suspicious glances at her lodger—she looked at him with the sides of her eyes. She did not know exactly what a genius meant, but she had proof positive it did not mean a gentleman. At times, also, she would stand with his garret-door in her hand, as if she intended to say—"Mr. Rogers, I would thank you for last week’s rent."

Scarce was the ink dry upon the last page of his poem, when George, folding up the manuscript, put it carefully into his coat pocket, and hurried to the bookseller of whom he had read that he had given a thousand guineas for a shorter work, and one too that, he was satisfied in his own mind, was every way inferior to his. We do not say that he exactly expected the publisher to fall down and worship him the moment he read the first page of his production, but he did believe that he would regard him as a prodigy, and at once offer terms for the copyright. He was informed by a shopman, however, that the publisher was engaged, and he left the manuscript, stating that he would call again. George did call again, and yet again trembling with hope and anxiety; and he began to discover that a great London publisher was as difficult of access as his imperial mightiness the Emperor of China. At length, by accident, he found the Bibliopole in his shop. He gave a glance at George—it was a withering glance—a glance at his coat and at his elbows. The unfortunate genius remembered, when it was too late, the passage in his uncle’s letter—"the moment the elbows of your coat open, every door shuts." We have already mentioned that the lining was beginning to peer through them, and, during the fervour of inspiration, or the furor of excitement in composing the epic, he had not observed that the rent had become greater, that the lining too had given way, and that now his linen (which was not of a snow colour) was visible. He inquired after his manuscript. "What is it?" asked the publisher.

"A poem," answered George—"an epic!" The man of books smiled—he gave another look at the forlorn visage of the genius—it was evident he measured the value of his poetry by the value of his coat. "A poem!" replied he—"poetry’s a drug!" It is of no use for such as you to think about writing poetry. Give the young man his manuscript," said he to the shopman, and walked away.

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