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Wilson's Border Tales
The Widow's Ae Son


We will not name the village where the actors in the following incidents resided; and it is sufficient for our purpose to say, that it lay in the county of Berwick, and within the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of Dunse. Eternity has gathered forty winters into its bosom since the principal events took place. Janet Jeffrey was left a widow before her only child had completed his tenth year. While her husband lay upon his death-bed, he called her to his bedside, and, taking her hand within his, he groaned, gazed on her face, and said—"Now, Janet, I’m gaun a lang an’ a dark journey; but ye winna forget, Janet—ye winna forget—for ye ken it has aye been uppermost in my thoughts, and first in my desires, to mak Thamas a minister—promise me that ae thing, Janet, that, if it be His will, ye will see it performed, an’ I will die in peace." In sorrow the pledge was given, and in joy performed. Her life became rapt up in her son’s life; and it was her morning and her evening prayer that she might live to see her "dear Thamas a shining light in the kirk." Often she declared that he was an "auld farrant bairn, and could ask a blessing like ony minister." Our wishes and affections, however often blind our judgment. Nobody but the mother thought the son fitted for the kirk, nor the kirk fitted for him. There was always something original, almost poetical, about him—but still Thomas was "no orator as Brutus was." His mother had few means beyond the labour of her hands for their support. She had kept him at the parish school until he was fifteen, and he had learned all that his master knew; and in three years more, by rising early and sitting late at her daily toils, and the savings of his field labour and occasional teaching, she was enabled to make preparation for sending him to Edinburgh. Never did her wheel spin so blithely since her husband was taken from her side, as when she put the first lint upon the rock for his college sarks. Proudly did she shew to her neighbours her double spinel yarn—observing "It’s nae finer than he deserves, poor fallow, for he’ll pay me back some day." The web was bleached and the shirts made by her own hands; and the day of his departure arrived. It was a day of joy mingled with anguish. He attended the classes regularly and faithfully; and truly as St. Giles’ marked the hour, the long, lean figure of Thomas Jeffrey, in a suit of shabby black, and half a dozen volumes under his arm, was seen issuing from his garret in the West Bow—darting down the frail stair with the velocity of a shadow—measuring the Lawn-market and High-street with gigantic strides—gliding like a ghost up the South Bridge, and sailing through the gothic archway of the college, till the punctual student was lost in its inner chambers. Years rolled by, and at length the great the awful day arrived—

"Big with the fate of Thomas and his mother."

He was to preach his trial sermon—and where?—in his own parish—in his native village! It was summer, but his mother rose by daybreak. Her son, however, was at his studies before her; and when she entered his bedroom with a swimming heart, and swimming eyes, Thomas was stalking across the floor, swinging his arms, stamping his feet, and shouting his sermon to the trembling curtains of a four-post bed, which she had purchased in honour of him alone. "Oh, my bairn! my matchless bairn!" cried she, "what a day o’ joy is this for your poor mother! But oh, hinny, hae ye it weel aff? I hope there’s nae fears o’ ye stickin’ or using notes?" "Dinna fret, mother—dinna fret," replied the young divine; "stickin’ an’ notes are out o’ the question. I had every word o’ it as clink as the A B C." The appointed hour arrived. She was first at the kirk. Her heart felt too big for her bosom. She could not sit—she walked again to the air—she trembled back—she gazed restless on the pulpit. The parish minister gave out the Psalm—the book shook while she held it. The minister prayed—again gave out a Psalm, and left the pulpit. The book fell from Mrs. Jeffrey’s hand. A tall figure passed along the passage. He reached the pulpit stairs—took two steps at once. It was a bad omen—but arose from the length of his limbs, not levity. He opened the door—his knees smote one upon another. He sat down—he was paler than death. He rose—his bones were paralytic. The Bible was opened—his mouth opened at the same time, and remained open, but said nothing. His large eyes stared wildly around; at length his teeth chattered, and the text was announced, though half the congregation disputed it. "My brethren!" said he once, and the whiteness of his countenance increased; but he said no more. "My brethren!" responded he a second time; his teeth chattered louder! his cheeks became clammy and deathlike. "My brethren!" stammered he a third time, emphatisally, and his knees fell together. A deep groan echoed from his mother’s pew. His wildness increased—"My mother!" exclaimed the preacher. They were the last words he ever uttered in a pulpit. The shaking and the agony began in his heart, and his body caught the contagion. He covered his face with his hands, fell back, and wept. His mother screamed aloud, and fell back also—and thus perished her toils, her husband’s prayer, her fond anticipations, and the pulpit oratory of her son. A few neighbours crowded round her to console her, and render her assistance. They led her to the door. She gazed upon them with a look of vacancy— thrice sorrowfully waived her hand, in token that they should leave her; for their words fell upon her heart like dew upon a furnace. Silently she arose and left them, and reaching her cottage, threw herself upon her bed in bitterness. She shed no tears, neither did she groan, but her bosom heaved with burning agony. Sickness smote Thomas to his very heart; yea, even unto blindness he was sick. His tongue was like heated iron in his mouth, and his throat like a parched land. He was led from the pulpit. But he escaped not the persecution of the unfeeling titter, and the expressions of shallow pity. He would have rejoiced to have dwelt in darkness for ever, but there was no escape from the eyes of his tormentors. The congregation stood in groups in the kirkyard, "just," as they said, "to hae anither look at the orator;" and he must pass through the midst of them. With his very soul steeped in shame, and his cheeks covered with confusion, he stepped from the kirk-door. A humming noise issued through the crowd, and every one turned their faces towards him. His misery was greater than he could bear. "Yon was oratory for ye!" said one. "Poor deevil!" added another, "I’m sorry for him—but it was as guid as a play." "Was it tragedy or comedy?" inquired a third, laughing as he spoke. The remarks fell upon his ear—he grated his teeth in madness, but he could endure no more; and, covering his face with his hands, he bounded off like a wounded deer to his mother’s cottage. In despair he entered the house, scarce knowing what he did. He beheld her where she had fallen on the bed, dead to all but misery. "O mother, mother!" he cried, "dinna ye be angry—dinna ye add to the afflictions of your son! Will ye no, mother?—will ye no ?" A low groan was his only answer. He hurried to and fro across the room, wringing his hands. "Mother," he again exclaimed, "will ye no speak ae word? Oh, woman! ye wadna be angry if ye kenned what an awfu’ thing it is to see a thousan’ een below ye and aboon ye, and round about ye, a’ staring upon ye like condemning judges, an’ looking into your very soul—ye hae nae idea o’ it, mother—I tell ye, ye hae nae idea o’t, or ye wadna be angry. The very pulpit floor gaed down wi’ me—the kirk wa’s gaed round about, and I thought the very crown o’ my head wad pitch on the top o’ the precentor. The very een o’ the multitude soomed round me like fishes!—an’ oh, woman! are ye dumb? will ye torment me mair? can ye no speak, mother?" But he spoke to one who never spoke again. Her reason departed, and her speech failed, but grief remained. She had lived upon one hope, and that hope was destroyed. Her round ruddy cheeks and portly form wasted away, and within a few weeks, the neighbours who performed the last office of humanity, declared that a thinner corpse was never wrapt in a winding sheet than Mrs. Jeffrey. Time soothed, but did not heal the sorrows, the shame, and the disappointment of the son. He sank into a village teacher, and often in the midst of his little school, he would quote his first, his only text—imagine the children to be his congregation—attempt to proceed—gaze wildly round for a moment, and sit down and weep. Through these aberrations his school dwindled to nothingness—and poverty increased his delirium. Once, in the midst of the remaining few, he gave forth the fatal text. "My brethren!" he exclaimed, and smitting his hand upon his forehead, cried, "Speak, mother!—speak now!" and fell with his face upon the floor. The children rushed screaming from the school, and, when the villagers entered, the troubled spirit had fled for ever.


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