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Wilson's Border Tales
The Return


"Alas! regardless of their fate,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
No cares beyond to-day."

In passing by coach to Cheltenham, in the year 1831, I dined with a very agreeable fellow at Carlisle. It so happened that, in the course of conversation, I discovered that he was a class-fellow of mine some forty-five years ago. But we had been separated ever since; nor was there a single feature by which I could recognise his countenance. He wore a wig, was sallow, withered, and almost emaciated; whereas Charles M’Murdo, the boy of my acquaintance, was a chubby, rosy imp, with a heart as light as a feather, and feet as swift as a roe. Nevertheless, if I did not recognise him, he soon discovered me: the change upon my person being less remarkable, as I had never left my own country, nor been any way exposed to extreme climate, either of heat or cold. He having some business to transact in London, as I had in Cheltenham, we agreed, before parting, and whilst the guard was blowing its horn, to rendezvous, on my return, at Liverpool, and to proceed north in company with each other. Accordingly, at the appointed day and hour we met; ordered a private room and a comfortable dinner at the Saddle, a bottle of good old port, and a strict watch upon all intrusion. What a night we had of it! All the scenes of our youth rose into review, and, as glass after glass, and perhaps bottle after bottle, disappeared, our souls warmed, our imaginations fired, our memories, like the churchyard at the day of reckoning, "gave up the dead that were in them," and at last we all but embraced each other, shaking hands from time to time, as the toast arose to some old remembrance, some school companion now no more. There had been twelve of us in the same class; and my friend and I were all that remained, (like Job’s friends,) to think or to speak of the fate of the rest. One, two, three, had gone to Jamaica, and had perished, sooner or later, in quest or in possession of competence or wealth; two had been ruined by dissipated company at college, had enlisted, and perished at Waterloo; one had done well as a surgeon at Sierra Leone, but had fevered at last and died. In short, the roll-call was mournful—we were the skeleton of the class, its ghost, its shadow; but we were alive, beside a comfortable fire and a cheerful gas light, and with wine before us; and it is wonderful how soon we forgot the mournful recollection which would ever and anon peep in upon us through the mazes of our many-hued discourse. At last, our enthusiasm began somewhat to subside; we ordered tumblers and hot water, with the necessary accompaniments, drew in the table closer to the fire, for it was the month of November, and agreed each to give the narrative of his own life and experience. My tale was soon told, nor would it be any way interesting to the reader to hear it. I had been a home-bird, and had attained, without much adventure or difficulty, a respectable position in society; but my old companion had been tossed about in the world, as he expressed it, like a quid of hay in the throat of a cow; and I shall endeavour to put the reader in possession of the outline of what Charles M’Murdo, that night, betwixt the hours of seven and eleven, related to me in large detail.

You know, said he, my debut: I was sent out to Jamaica, by Mr Watson, a rich planter, to act as clerk on his plantations—in other words, to keep a large and terrible whip in constant employ. Our voyage was tempestuous; I frequently felt as if the ship, in her lurches into the trough of the sea, would never reascend, but would go down head foremost to the bottom of the Atlantic. But our captain was a skilful seaman, kept his men in heart, had his orders promptly obeyed, and we weathered the storm. Landing at Kingston, I was received in, what was termed, a warehouse, by an overseer, who, after reading Mr Watson’a letter, cursed me as a supernumerary, and said I might go where I liked, but I could not be there; they had too many of my sort already. Watson, he called an old superannuated fool, who was determined, seemingly, to ruin the estate by the mere expense of working it. In a little, however, the storm blew over. Having drunk prettly deeply from a tumbler of rum and water—at least so he called it, though for my part I never could discover any trace of the water, and think this element might easily have proved an alibi in any court of justice—he made me partake of his beverage, and tumble in into a corner of a counting-room, beyond a number of chairs, desks, and old ledgers. My bed was none of the best, but the weather was exceedingly warm, and I contrived to sleep pretty soundly till morning. Next day I was roused betimes by a black slave, naked to the middle, and instructed in my day’s work. I was to join some four or five slave-drivers at a common rendezvous, and with them to march a-field, suitably provided for my task. I saw the poor slaves hard at work—digging the soil, and planting slips of cane, under a most oppressive sun; I saw, likewise, my hardened and inhuman associates applying the scourge to mothers with children at the breast, to the old, and to the infirm. I could not stand it; my heart sank within me. Oh, how I sighed for my own native land, with all its advantages and endearments!—and how I cursed my ambition, that had been kindled at the wheels of the chariot of Mr Watson, who, though born poor as I was, had realised an immense fortune in Jamaica!

Hereupon he burst out into a eulogy on Britain, and the administration which had given liberty to the slaves, and, at the same time remunerated the unhallowed proprietors; but, after a short pause, during which I expressed my anxiety tc hear the sequel of his story, he proceeded:— Well, custom will reconcile one to anything. You will scarcely believe me when I tell you that, though shy at first, and backward in the active discharge of my duty, I came at last to regard it as a matter of course, and to imagine that the poor blacks did not feel as I did, or experience the pain which such an infliction would have occasioned to myself. I was one day chastising a fellow, who absolutely refused to labour, on the score of indisposition, which I knew or believed to be put on, when a little child, of the African breed, came up to me, and, with a look of perfect nature and simplicity, said— "Ah, massa, you no have father—yew never knew father—you no black man’s boy—you no born at all, massa—you made of stone--you have no pity for poor black boy’s pa!"

The speech struck me exceedingly. I immediately ordered the father into the sick-house, and, patting the boy on the head, said he was a good, kind-hearted boy, and I would look after him for this. All this was repeated at headquarters, and was represented as neglecting my duty, and conniving at the idle and the dissolute amongst the slaves and I being summoned into the overseer’s presence, was examined, confessed the truth, and was immediately dismissed the estate.

Where was I to turn?—Without a character, no other plantation would admit my services. The heavens over my head were iron, the earth was brass. I could get no employment, and to beg I was ashamed. I wandered down to the sea-shore, and in my excursion met with several ladies and gentlemen, riding on beautiful chargers, talking and laughing loudly all the while—and I wished to be one of them. It was this stimulus which had set me in motion made me cross the Atlantic, and submit to great indignities—and yet here I was, an outcast less valuable than the wrecks which lined the bay. No one of the various cavalcades took the least notice of me; and I seated myself, at last, on a rock, and began to plunge little water-worn pebbles into the smooth bay. After a considerable interval of most poignant despair, the little black boy made his appearance and told me that he had just heard of my dismissal, and that his father wished to see me in the hospital. I went with the boy, half stupified, and almost unconscious of either motive or motion. The poor, grateful creature wished me to take some money, which he had accumulated by his Sabbath afternoon industry; but I refused it at once, though I did so with tears of gratitude in my eyes. He then informed me that he had formerly slaved on an adjoining plantation, and that his former master was of a more kindly disposition than the present one. He had just heard of the death of one of his clerks, and, if I would present myself immediately, ere the next fleet should arrive with a fresh supply of slave-drivers, he had no doubt but, from my appearance, and my good hand of writing, I might find employment. I took the honest creature’s advice; and, accompanied by little Ebony, made the best of my way to Hillside plantation, about a mile and a-half from Kingston. The kind-hearted boy went before me, and, chancing to meet Mr Ferguson, the proprietor of Hillside estate, he threw himself on his knees before him, in the most imploring manner—

"Young gentleman dismissed; but he no ill—he kind to poor father—he very kind to black man when sick. Massa know poor Gabby."

Ere the boy had risen from his knees, I had presented myself to Mr Ferguson, and told my own story precisely as it stood. Luckily for me, Mr Ferguson and my former employer were upon the worst terms possible; so I found no difficulty in getting a temporary appointment, on trial. It is said, somewhere, that despotism is the best of all governments, when the despot is a good man. This is truly verified in these islands. Nothing can differ more than does the usage of the slaves in different plantations. The overseer, Mr Handy, on Watson’s plantation, he whom I had just left, was a brutal person, almost constantly under the excitement or reaction of rum, and his slaves were constantly beaten, and ill-used in every way; whereas the Hillside slaves were allowed all possible indulgences, and really seemed quite happy. They used to go about, on the fine Jamaica evenings, singing, dancing, and playing upon instruments, visiting and returning visits, and enjoying all the happiness of which their state was susceptible. I lived two years on this plantation, and was handsomely paid as a clerk. I now for the first time began to think of accumulating money, with the view of purchase or partnership. But an incident occurred at this stage of my fortunes, which gave them an unforeseen turn. I was kidnapped, whilst walking on the sea-shore, rather late one evening, and immediately carried on board a vessel, which sailed ere morning. This had been done, as I afterwards understood, under the direction of Handy; who, having heard of my good fortune and prosperity, persuaded a brother of his, who traded to Hudson’s Bay in the fur trade, to carry me there, and keep me out of his sight. He could not bear to think that I might possibly one day come to effect an establishment in his immediate neighbourhood. Captain Handy was a cruel, despotic, weatherbeaten piece of mortality; he carried me in a few months to Hudson’s Bay, and had me introduced into a great house in the fur trade. In vain, when I got ashore, did I remonstrate against the violence which had been used in regard to me; I was immediately clothed in warm garments, armed with a musket, and marched over-land, along with about ten or twelve copper-faced Indians, towards the upper lakes of the St Lawrence. Our ultimate destination was Lake Superior. There we were commissioned to trade with the Indians, exchanging muskets, spirits, and various kinds of cutlery, for fur skins. There was a small settlement in the centre of the lake, but there were not sufficient provisions for the additional numbers during winter; so we were expected to return on land, to the settlement on Hudson’s Bay ere the winter set in. But, this year, the American winter commenced a month earlier than usual, and with unprecedented severity. We had nothing but one log-house to accommodate upwards of thirty people but this erection was of considerable extent, and leaned against several growing trees. Our situation became immediately all but desperate. You can have no idea of an American winter in such latitudes. (Hereupon I stirred the fire, and helped myself to a glass of toddy.) The snow comes on at once, and the atmosphere is so loaded and thickened with drift, that you may out it into cubes with a knife. And then the snow, which in a few hours accumulates over your dwelling to the very roof, penetrates everywhere through your wooden erection. In spite of a blazing hearth, you are shivering almost in the midst of the flame. The horrors of that winter I can never forget; we were, long ere New Year’s Day, reduced to our daily shifts for our daily food. Had it not been for our Indian friends, we should have perished of hunger to a man; but their skill in archery, and even in ball shooting, is altogether incredible. Nothing borne on wings over our heads escaped them. The bow was lifted immediately to the eye, the arrow was pointed, and followed for a small space the course of the bird; it flew, but apparently not straight for the object, but greatly in advance of it; but, ere it had gained its utmost ascent, the winged and the feathered-objects had crossed on their courses, and the prey fell immediately, transfixed by the arrow. We broke the ice, too, of the lake, which was often three feet in thickness, and, with bait prepared by the Indians, of the seeds of trees, decoyed occasionally some half-starved fish to our lines. But with all appliances and means to boot, we became perfect skeletons, several died of various complaints, all brought on by cold, and spare as well as unwholesome diet. Oh, what would I then have given for a dinner such as we have enjoyed this day! But, not to fatigue you with exclamations and with representations of suffering which to you must seem incredible, the winter gave way at last, and its departure was agreeably unexpected with its approach; the thaw came as much earlier as the frost had anticipated its average approach. Our boats were again on the lake, and we were enabled to ship off our skins for their ultimate destination, Montreal. As I had shown considerable talents, and what they termed mettle, during the winter trials, the commander of the party had me boated off, along with the skins, for Mr Syme’s warehouse, at Montreal. Here I met with a friend, in a cousin of my mother. He immediately took me into his warehouse.

By this time I was sufficiently tired of a moving life; like the rolling stone of the proverb, I had gathered no fog— "movebam, sed nil promovebam." I was very happy, therefore, when Mr Syme proposed my remaining at least some time with him, in the capacity mentioned. Montreal, as everybody knows, is situated upon an island in the St Lawrence, and few places could be more advantageous for trade, or more picturesque in appearance. In the centre of the island, there rises a beautiful eminence, still covered with trees of the primeval American forests; and towards the eastern skies lies the town itself, upper and lower, adorned with public buildings, and presenting, as you approach it, a very prepossessing aspect. Mr Syme had a warehoume, at a place called Chine, about eight miles up, and immediately upon the river. Here the furs were shipped for Europe, and Britain in particular; and here it was my duty to remain, except on Sundays, when I constantly dined with my kind relative. Mr Syme had an only daughter, two sons having died, and the mother likewise, whilst being delivered of the last. This daughter was now a young woman of nineteen, and sufficiently handsome for matrimony, considering that she was to inherit her father’s wealth and business, which was itself a mine of gain. Her father, who in many respects was a kind-hearted and a prudent man, was as obstinate as an old oak-trunk when he took it into his head to be so. Most people have some weak side or other—and this was his. He had determined, from the time when Samuel Horseman, the rich merchant (the richest, it was supposed, in the island,) had rocked his Nancy in the cradle, and had suffered himself to be scorned with the child, that Nancy should one day or other be Mrs Horseman; and that thus, by the union of their families and their fortunes, there should not be a firm in Montreal that would once be spoken of in the same day with Horseman, Syme, & Co. This idea had grown with the growth of the child, and had strengthened with her strength—it was never twenty-four hours out of his head. But, one dreadful afternoon, Horseman arrived from Quebec, with a little pretty French milliner, whom he had married. This was death to Syme’s plans and prospects, and so he set immediately about cutting Horseman, and looking out for some other advantageous way of disposing of his article, which had now seen some fourteen summers. But before he could settle upon any particular individual, he was relieved from his disappointment, and restored to his intercourse with Horseman, by a gallant serjeant, who claimed Mrs Horseman as his lawful and married wife; in fact, there were several claimants; but one was as good as a hundred to Horseman, who, by this time, was heartily tired of his partner, and would have willingly seen her attempting a voyage of discovery over the falls of Niagara. Syme soon redoubled his diligence, and gave his daughter to understand that, so soon as she had attained the age of nineteen, the age of her mother when she became a bride, she should be exalted to all the honours and privileges of Mrs Horseman.

There are two, it is said, at a bargain-making; but that is merely the minimum; in this case, there were three, and ultimately four. Miss Syme had been exceedingly annoyed by her father’s unreasonable arrangement; she, of course, disliked Horseman, as she did everything old, ugly, snuffy, and bandy-legged; but her father was incessant in his importunities, or rather --commands, and matters were in this state when the friend now addressing you made his appearance, and took up his principal residence at Chine. It was not long before Miss Syme and I came to understand each other. I do not know how it was—I was not romantically in love—perhaps it is not in my nature; but I was willing to hear the poor girl’s story, and to mingle tears with hers. We never talked of love; but yet, somehow or other, it made an inroad upon the debateable territory on both sides, til we felt that we were assuredly over head and ears, from the circumstance that, like Darby and Joan, "we were ever uneasy asunder." The father began to smell a rat, as they say—at least you and I have often said whilst at school—and he was in a furious passion, threatened dismissal to me and imprisonment to Nancy. In the meantime, death, in the shape of an ague, carried Horseman beyond the reach of matrimony—he went to that land where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage; and I became every day more and more useful to my employer. It was manifest to all that his heart had now softened, and that he had come to see the utter folly of human schemes when controverted by the decrees of heaven. One day he was up at Chine, seeing some furs shipped for London; when, in passing from the shore to the ship, he slipped a foot, and fell into the water. There was no one who observed this but myself; as all the men were busily engaged. I immediately plunged headlong into the somewhat rapid stream. He was not to be found. The current had borne him downwards, and a water-dog, which was kept on purpose on board, was in the act, as I perceived, of dragging the body ashore. I assisted the animal, and got the credit of saving my friend.

I need not delay you longer. I married Mr Syme’s daughter, and succeeded, at his death, to the whole concern, which I have just wound up; and, having left my wife and an only daughter in London, I am on my way to visit, by surprise, my aged mother, who still lives in the place of my birth, and to purchase, if possible, a property in the neighhourhood, there to spend in peace, and affection, and domestic love, the evening of my days.—Will you go with me to Lastcairn?

I agreed. We drove up the glen, by Croalchapel; and my friend was all absence, and inward rumination, and anticipated delight. But the footsteps of death were in the threshold. His aged parent was still alive and sensible, but manifestly fast going. She was made sensible that her long, lost Charlie, who had been so kind to her in her old age, was before her. She tried to stretch forth her withered arm, but it was scathed by death. She received the last embrace of her son, said something about "depart in peace," and fell asleep.


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