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Wilson's Border Tales
Family Incidents


There is a beautiful glen in Dumfriesshire, which I would willingly point out to any, as the very beau-ideal of all glens whatever. It is, in fact, entirely surrounded by high grounds, rising ultimately, towards the north in particular, into hills, or, more, properly speaking, mountains, making part of the Queensberry range. In the centre of this glen, or vale, there is a round and conical green eminence, around which a small mountain stream winds and wanders, as if unwilling to encounter the tossings and turmoil of the linn and precipitous course beneath. I could never behold, or even think, of this snug quietude in the bosom of unadulterated nature, without, at the same time, considering it as emblematic, in a striking degree, of man’s experience in life. In infancy and youth, all is snug, sunny, and peaceful, as this little sheltered stream; but the linns and precipices of after life assimilate but too closely to the foam, and tossing, and tumbling of the passage beneath. On the summit of that grassy mound, there once stood a thatched cottage, with which my story is connected.

It was evening, or rather twilight, or, as emphatically expressed in Scotch dialect, it was the "gloaming," when Janet Smith, a poor widow woman, sat in her own doorway—

"E’en drawing out a thread wi’ little din,
And beaking her auld limbs afore the sin."

A large grey cat occupied the other side of the passage, and a few hens, with the necessary accompaniment, clucked and chuckled, and crowed around. Janet sat there in her solitude, an old, infirm, and comparatively helpless creature, but she was wonderfully contented and happy. Her own industry supplied her little wants; and she was protected in a free house and kailyard, by Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, the princely and humane laird of Closeburn. The wheel had just ceased its revolution, and her spectacles had just been assumed, with the view of reading, by the light of a cheery spark, her evening chapter. A cake of oatbread was toasting at the fire, and a bowl of pure whey was set upon a stool when Janet’s ear was arrested by the approach of a horse man, who with difficulty urged his steed up the somewhat precipitous ascent. The horseman had no sooner attained the doorway, than he alighted, and, giving his horse to be held by a little urchin, whom he had beckoned from the wood for this purpose, he was at once in the presence of the aged inmate of this humble dwelling. The scene I shall never forget; for I was, in fact, the little boy whom he had enlisted in his service, by the tempting reward of sixpence.

The horseman was tall and well-built; he might be about fifty years of age, and every way wearing the garb and the aspect of a gentleman. Having advanced towards the old woman, he looked steadily and keenly into her face, while his bosom heaved, and the tears began to indicate deep and tender emotion. The old woman seemed petrified with astonishment, and fell back into her arm-chair, as if some one had rudely pushed her down into it. At last, old Janet found utterance in these words, pronounced in a quavering and almost inarticulate voice—"In the name of God, who or what art thou?" These words, however, had not been pronounced, when the stranger had already dropped down on his knees, and had actually flung himself into the arms of his mother. Yes, of his mother—for so it proved to be, that this was the first meeting betwixt mother and child for the space of upwards of forty years. The old woman’s mind seemed for a time bewildered. She endeavoured to clear her eyes, pushed the stranger feebly from her, looked him intensely in the face for an instant, and then, uttering a loud scream, became altogether insensible.

"Oh, what shall I do!" exclaimed the stranger; "what have I done? I have murdered, I have murdered the mother that bore me! Oh, that I had staid at Brownhill inn till morning, and had apprised my poor parent—alas! my only parent—of my approach!"

Whilst he was ejaculating in this manner, the old woman’s lips began to resume their usual colour, and she opened her eyes and her arms at once, exclaiming in an agony of transport—

"My son! oh, my son! My long-lost, long-dead, long-despaired of son!"

The scene now became more calm and rational. The stranger passed, with his mother, into the humble dwelling. I tied the horse to the door-sneck, and followed, more from curiosity than humanity. The stranger sat down on what he termed his old creepy stool, from which, in days long pasts he had taken his porridge. He drew his mother near and nearer him, kissed her again and again, and the tears fell fast and full over his manly and withered cheeks; and, ever and anon, as old Janet would eye her tall and manly son, she would exclaim, looking into his face at all the distance which her withered arms could place him—

"Ay, me! and is that my wee Geordie!"

The facts of Geordie’s history I have often listened to with more than boyish interest; for this stranger ultimately took up his abode in a beautiful cottage, built on the spot where his original dwelling stood; and, as I came and went to Closeburn school, Mr George Smith would take me into his parlour, and discourse with me for hour after hour, and day after day, on all the varied incidents of a stirring and eventful life. His father died early, having lost his life by the fall of a tree which he was assisting in cutting down, or felling, as it is termed. George was a first born, and, indeed, an only child; and the kindness of the Laird, with the industry of his mother, combined to rear him into boyhood. Being, however, under no paternal authority, he became wild and wayward, and, ere he had gained his thirteenth year, he was a greater adept in fishing, orchard-breaking, and cock-fighting, than in Ovid and Virgil. It was his early fortune to become acquainted with an old sailor, who had been in various engagements, particularly in that betwixt Rodney and De Grasse, in the western seas. This sailor, whose name was Bill Wilson, and whose trade in his old age was that of smuggling tea and brandy from the Solway to the Clyde, used to fill his head with adventure, and daring purpose, and successful execution. He had listened, he said, for hours to Bill’s account of Niggers and Buccaneers, and dare-devils, who fed on gunpowder, and walked, whistling, amidst cannon and musket shots And then, prize-money and Plymouth, and fun, and frolic, all night long! The thing was irresistible; so, with a letter in his pocket, from Bill to an old comrade in the Isle of Man, then the centre of smuggling, George Smith took a moonlight leave of his mother, and his youthful associates, and the bonny braes of Dunsyette, and was on board a smuggler at Glencaple Key, ere day dawned. He was conveyed, in the course of forty-eight hours, to the Isle of Man, and fairly stowed into the warehouse of Dick Davison, in the neighbourhood of the town of Douglas. His first adventure was the landing of a cargo of French brandy, in the Bay of Glenluce; but the night was dark and stormy, and the boat upset; and, according to a published account, all in the boat— namely, three souls—had perished. The fact, however, was, that, whilst clinging to the inverted boat, he had been picked up by a West Indian ship from Greenock, which had been driven into the bay by stress of weather, and carried out incontinent, as no land could be made, to the island of Jamaica. In the meantime, Bill Wilson thought proper to get sick and to die, and to confess the whole truth, with the dreadful catastrophe, to the poor distracted mother.

When George arrived off Kingston, in Jamaica, he resolved upon pushing his way, in one way or another, upon land; so, having bid his captain good-bye, and thanked him sincerely for the small trifle of saving his life, he set his foot on shore, almost naked, friendless, penniless. As he entered Kingston, he encountered a runaway steed, which, with a young lady screaming on its back, was plunging forwards, and entirely without control. George, acting on a natural impulse, threw himself in the way of the unruly animal, and, by getting hold of the bridle, at last brought it up; but not without several severe bruises, as he hung betwixt its fore-feet, unable, for want of weight, all at once to check the horse’s career. The father of the young lady had now overtaken them; and, having alighted, extricated first his daughter, and then poor George Smith, from their perilous position. The young lady, who had in fact sustained no bodily injury, was loud in praise of him who, by his promptitude and intrepidity, had rescued her, in all probability, from much serious injury, or even from death; and George was immediately invited to accompany the party (for there was a well-mounted servant likewise) home to their villa, in the neigbourhood of the town. As they walked it slowly (the young lady refusing to mount anew) up the rising ground to the south of Kingston, George had sufficient time to unfold the particulars of his short but eventful history; and to interest the father not less by his good sense and sagacity, than he had the daughter by his intrepidity and self-devotion. In a word, George found favour in the great man’s eyes; and was introduced to the overseer of an extensive plantation, with instructions, to have him clothed, employed as a clerk or slave-driver, and properly attended to in all respects. This seeming accident George used always to consider as one of those arrangements of Divine providence, by which good is brought out of seeming evil; and a total destitution of all the necessaries of life was in his case prevented. For three years, George continued to act on these plantations, receiving many acts of kindness from his really humane employer; and waxing into vigorous manhood, without seasoning fever, or any disease whatever. It was Mr Walker’s habit, (such was the name of his benefactor,) to have George up with him to dine every Saturday, when he had renewed opportunities of becoming acquainted with the young lady whom he had rescued; and who was now budding sweetly into the perfect and accomplished woman. The distance in point of wealth, and consequently station, (in a country where wealth is the only rank,) betwixt George and Miss Walker, kept the eyes of the parent long blind to the actual position of affairs. But true it was, and of verity, that Miss Walker’s heart was fairly won, and George’s was as fairly lost without one vord on the subject of love having been exchanged on either side. Wonderful, unsearchable passion!—the electric fluid does not more universally penetrate nature herself than does this passion the whole frame work of society; and yet the ethereal agency is not more remote and inscrutable in its workings and doings, than in love—

"Sae, lang ere bonny Mary wist,
Her peace was lost, her heart was won."

It was the employment of Miss Walker, on warm, yet refreshing evenings, to sit in her open veranda or balcony, playing on the harp, and wooing all the sea-breezes with the witchery of sweet sounds. To George Smith, who had never been accustomed to such refined and overpowering entertainment, this performance and exhibition, (for what is there in nature so graceful as a fine female hand and arm sweeping the strings of the harp!) was perfect magic. A thousand times, as he sat and gazed, trembling all over, he felt inclined to grasp the fair performer, harp and all, to his bosom; and to squeeze them incontinently into himself. Again and again he has arisen, and partly withdrawn, as one would from a house on fire. Nor was Miss Walker, on her part, insensible to the presence of a youth, uncommonly handsome, who had so early recommended himself to her good graces. Her walks and rides over the plantation were frequent; and she took particular pleasure in observing the progress of that part of her father’s property over which George Smith more immediately presided. Her questions and inquiries were truly astonishing; and she seemed as anxious to learn all about the process of cane-cutting and sugar-boiling, as if her whole happiness had depended on this knowledge. But George was conscientious; and, although loving the "bonny lassie" (as he said) to distraction, he understood it as a crime worse than that of witchcraft—namely, of ingratitude—to disclose his feelings. For some months, matters were in this position—the young lady’s health manifestly suffering, and George evidently visited by strange and unaccountable fits of silence and mental absence. The overseer, who happened to be more quick-sighted than even the father, from repeated observations, guessed at the truth; and, thinking it his duty, immediately apprised Mr Walker of his suspicions. As Mary had been destined, for some time, to another—to a neighbouring planter, whose property was adjoining to that of Mr Walker—steps were immediately devised to prevent the lovers from coming to any more definite understanding on the subject; and, one night, when George had just fallen asleep, after having penned a few lines to "Mary, flower of sweetest hue," &c., he was forcibly seized upon, manacled, and carried on board a ship, which was lying at some distance from the harbour. By daylight, the vessel was under weigh, and, ere noon, not a blue hill of Jamaica could be seen from the deck of his Majesty’s ship Spitfire. It was needless to remonstrate or grumble—his fate, and the cause of it, were but too manifest; and he almost felt inclined to justify an act, which at once put it out of his power to prove ungrateful to so kind a benefactor. Still, still the bright idea of Mary haunted his imagination, and would not depart from his heart.

In this frigate of forty-four guns, there was a countryman, and even countryman of his own; who, having more recently left the sweet banks of the silver Nith, was enabled to give him more recent information respecting affairs in Dumfriesshire; and from him he learned, that his poor mother’s heart had broken, and that she was reported to have died a few days before he had left the place. This distressed George exceedingly; for, though he had been an idle and wayward boy, under more strict management, it might have been otherwise; and he manifestly bore in his bosom a kind and feeling heart. But who can recal the past, the dead from their appointment? So, in the active discharge of duty as a seaman, and in the enjoyment of the company of one or two intimate companions, George confessed that he soon chased, in a great measure, the mournful tidings from his recollection. It was not so easy, however, to get rid of Mary; and he used to entertain his friend Tom Harkness with all the outs and ins, the hopes and fears, the pulsations and ecstasies of his love passion. In this ship, George sailed first to Rio Janeiro, then across the Atlantic to Cape Town, back again to the Azores, and ultimately, by the coast of France, into Plymouth. Although, during the whole of these voyages, they had had no windfalls, no prizes, yet his pay had accumulated, and he landed with fifty guineas in his pocket. Having no friend or home, as he now conceived, to return to, he immediately took coach for London, resolved to make the most, in sailor phrase, of his fifty guineas. Over this part of Mr George Smith’s history he himself ever preserved a veil; but I could easily gather, that his conduct, during four weeks spent in London, was, like that of many others similarly situated, anything but prudent, moral, or praiseworthy. Having at last got rid of the yellow boys, he bethought himself of returning to Plymouth, and of obtaining a berth as purser, if possible, in one of the many ships of war lying in that port. When on his way down to Plymouth, he became the fellow-traveller, in the stage-coach, of a lady of a certain age, fair, fat, and forty, who was on a visit to a relative in the neighbourhood of Portsmouth. As his manners and person were both agreeable, he contrived to get into the good graces of the fair dame, who was yet ignorant of the "betters and the worse" of matrimony. So much was the buxom damsel taken with her travelling companion, that she invited him to visit her at "View Cottage," about a mile from Plymouth. This invitation was willingly accepted of—the visit was paid, the reception was most flattering, and, in the course of a fortnight, George was in possession of the charming Miss Higgenbottom, with one thousand pounds for her portion. With this money and the wife, George contrived to spend a couple of months at a place near Exeter, as unhappily as possible. His wife was the daughter of a rich butcher in Whitechapel, and as unlike her husband in tastes, temper, and pursuits, as possible. She was, moreover, miserably addicted to the bottle, which, with the help of a sufficient quantity of opium, brought her to the grave in the course of the time mentioned. As George, during this period, had lived upon the principal of his wife’s money, he was just now where he was before—ready to step on board ship, and to push his fortune. On board ship, therefore, he went, and was immediately in the western seas, keeping a sharp lookout after some privateers, which had been, for some time past, harassing our traders, and making prizes of our merchantmen. At this stage of his narrative, the hero of my tale used to get so animated, that I can still recall nearly the very words which I have heard, I am sure, fifty times at least.

We had steered off and on for more than a month, betwixt Demerara and St Domingo, all along the stretch of the Leeward Islands. Our commander, Captain Broughton, was beginning to pet a little at our inactivity, and to thrust the tobacco into his left instead of his right cheek—a sure mark that he was out of tune. At last, a sail appeared on the horizon, which, from her rigging, seemed of a suspicious character, and the orders were immediately issued to bear down upon her. As we neared, she hoisted British colours, and slipped quietly across our bows.

"Oh, ho!" exclaimed old "Broughty;" "none of your tricks upon travellers, my lad—you are no more British than I am a kail stock; and that we will very soon ascertain, by putting a few home-thrust questions to you." So saying he ordered two shots to be fired across her bows. Upon finding that we were disposed to grapple with her, she instantly hoisted her own colours, and sent a broadside right across our quarters. The battle now began in good earnest, and, for a full half-hour, we bowled away, as if all hell had been on deck. When the smoke cleared a little, we could see that we had disabled our adversary, by shooting away part of his rigging; and the captain’s orders were to arm and board instantly. We rushed on board like furies; but, in the desperate struggle, our captain fell, and almost every officer on board. There was the hesitation of a moment, which determined our fate; for the dare-devils rushed in upon us, fore and aft, and made sad work of it. Not a man, with the exception of myself, the first lieutenant, and the steward, was spared; the cutlass and the deep soon obliterated the gallant crew of the Thunderer. It was, indeed, an awful sight; and, expecting every moment to be put to some horrid death by the monsters, I leaped from the deck into the sea, and remember nothing more till I awoke, as I conceived, in a state of future punishment. But over me there hung a countenance with which I was too well acquainted ever to mistake it: it was that of Mary Walker, my first, and dearest, and never entirely forgotten love. Her father sat by, wrung his hands in absolute despair; and Mary’s face was strangely altered—wan, shrunk, and full of extreme misery. I scarcely could credit my senses, and was on the point of coming to some explanation, when a terrible tramping and bustle on board bespoke some approaching crisis. It was so. A British seventy-four was in the act of bearing straight down upon the crippled privateer, and the scarcely less disabled Thunderer, and all on board was despair and distraction. Resistance was found to be out of the question; so, in less than an hour, we were all conveyed safely on board of the Neptune—Captain Briggs, commander. We were immediately carried into Kingston, and landed at our own desire—Mr Walker having satisfied Captain Briggs in regard to my discharge from His Majesty’s service."

The explanation of the whole matter was this:—Miss Walker, after her lover’s departure, became very disconsolate, and her health ultimately became very precarious. The more temperate air of Britain was recommended, and her fond father had sailed with her, with the view of placing her somewhere in Devonshire, with a near relative. He proposed to return for a season to wind up his affairs finally, which, of late, had not prospered, and to spend the remainder of his days and fortune in his native land. They had only sailed twelve hours, when, after a desperate and unequal struggle, they were captured, and put under hatches. During the desperate engagement which succeded, the sequel explains itself. They were ultimately in safety at the pier from which they had started and all slept, the following night under Mr Walker’s roof. George Smith and Mary Walker were married in the course of a few months, nor did her husband perceive that her health declined. She lived to become the mother of two children—a boy and a girl—when her father, whose affairs, from some unlooked for losses, had become embarrassed, died suddenly, not without some ugly surmises respecting the cause. Smith, after this, had no heart to remain on the island; so, collecting the remnant of a once princely fortune, he embarked with his beloved wife and children for Britain. Finding, however, that he could not succeed to his wish in his native land, he set out for Boardeaux, where he established himself in the wine trade, and, in the language of sacred writ, "begat sons and daughters." There he lived many years, in domestic peace and happiness, enjoying the society and affection of a most attached and amiable partner, and getting his family disposed of, till only one daughter remained with him unmarried. At last death robbed him, in the disguise of a slow or typhus fever, of his beloved Mary; and, with his beautiful and amiable daughter, he sought again the shores of his own Scotland—his beloved Dumfries, his native Closeburn. Whilst dining with his daughter at Brownhill, he had learned that his aged mother was still alive, and an inmate of the same dwelling which he had himself inhabited. The rest of the story can easily be anticipated: his mother was well provided for during the few years—and they were but few—of her happily protracted existence; and his lovely and affectionate Eliza is now the mother of seven children, and the virtuous and beloved wife of the humble narrator of these "Family Incidents."


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