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Wilson's Border Tales
The Procrastinator


Being overtaken by a shower in Kensington Gardens, I sought shelter in one of the alcoves near the palace. I was scarce seated, when the storm burst with all its fury; and I observed an old fellow, who had stood loitering till the hurricane whistled round his ears, making towards me, as rapidly as his apparently palsied limbs would permit. Upon his near approach, he appeared rather to have suffered from infirmity than years. He wore a brownish-black coat, or rather shell, which, from its dimensions, had never been intended for the wearer; and his inexpressibles were truly inexpressible. "So," said I, as he seated himself on the bench, and shook the rain from his old broad-brimmed hat, "you see, old boy, ‘Procrastination is the thief of time;’ the clouds gave you a hint of what was coming, but you seemed not to take it." "It is," replied he, eagerly. "Doctor Young is in the right. Procrastination has been my curse since I was in leading-strings. It has grown with my growth, and strengthened with my strength. It has ever been my besetting sin—my companion in prosperity and adversity; and I have slept upon it, like Samson on the lap of Delilah, till it has shorn my locks and deprived me of my strength. It has been to me a witch, a manslayer, and a murderer; and when I would have shaken it off in wrath and disgust, I found I was no longer master of my own actions and my own house. It had brought around me a host of its blood-relations—its sisters and its cousins-german—to fatten on my weakness, and haunt me to the grave; so that when I tore myself from the embrace of one, it was only to be intercepted by another. You are young, Sir, and a stranger to me, but its effects upon me, and my history—the history of a poor paralytic shoemaker—if you have patience to hear, may serve as a beacon to you in your voyage through life."

Upon expressing my assent to his proposal—for the fluency and fervency of his manner had at once rivetted my attention, and excited curiosity—he continued:—"I was born without a fortune, as many people are. When about five years of age, I was sent to a parish school in Roxburghshire, and procrastination went with me. Being possessed of a tolerable memory, I was not more deficient than my schoolfellows; but the task which they had studied the previous evening, was by me seldom looked at till the following morning; and, my seat was the last to be occupied of any other on the form. My lessons were committed to memory by a few hurried glances, and repeated with faltering rapidity, which not unfrequently puzzled the ear of the teacher to follow me. But what was thus hastily learned, was as suddenly forgotten. They were mere surface impressions, each obliterated by the succeeding. And though I had run over a tolerable general education, I left school but little wiser than when I entered it.

"My parents—peace to their memory!"—here the old fellow looked most feelingly, and a tear of filial recollection glistened in his eyes; it added a dignity to the recital of his weakness, and I almost reverenced him—"My parents," continued he, "had no ambition to see me rise higher in society than an honest tradesman; and, at thirteen, I was bound apprentice to a shoemaker. Yes, Sir, I was—I am a shoemaker, and but for my curse—my malady—had been an ornament to my profession. I have measured the foot of a princess, Sir; I have made slippers to his Majesty!"

Here his tongue acquired new vigour from the idea of his own importance. "Yes, Sir, I have made slippers to his Majesty—yet I am an unlucky—I am a bewitched—I am a ruined man. But to proceed with my history. During the first year of my apprenticeship, I acted in the capacity of errand-boy; and, as such, had to run upon many an unpleasant message—sometimes to ask money, frequently to borrow it. Now, Sir, I am also a bashful man, and, as I was saying, Bashfulness is one of the blood-relations which procrastination has fastened upon me. While acting in my last-mentioned capacity, I have gone to the house—gazed at every window—passed it and repassed it—placed my hand upon the rapper—withdrawn it—passed it and repassed it again—stood hesitating and consulting with myself—then resolved to defer it till the next day, and finally return to my master, not with a direct lie, but a broad equivocation; and this was another of the cousins-german which procrastination introduced to my acquaintance.

"In the third year of my servitude, I became fond of reading; was esteemed a quick workman; and, having no desire for money beyond what was necessary to supply my wants, I gave unrestricted indulgence to my new passion. We had each an allotted quantity of work to perform weekly. Conscious of being able to complete it in half the time, and having yielded myself solely to my ruinous propensity to delay, I seldom did anything before the Thursday; and the remaining days were spent in hurry, bustle, and confusion. Occasionally I overrated my abilities—my task was unfinished, and I was compelled to count a dead horse. Week after week this grew upon me, till I was so firmly saddled, that, until the expiration of my apprenticeship, I was never completely freed from it. This was another of my curse’s handmaidens."

Here he turned to me with a look of seriousness, and said—"Beware, young man, how you trust to your own strength and your own talents; for, however noble it may be to do so, let it be in the open field, before you are driven into a corner, where your arms may come in contact with the thorns and the angles of the hedges.

"About this time, too, I fell in love—yes, fell in love— for I just beheld the fair object, and I was a dead man, or a new man, or anything you will. Frequently as I have looked and acted like a fool, I believe I never did so so strikingly as at that moment. She was a beautiful girl—a very angel of light--about five feet three inches high, and my own age. Heaven knows how I ever had courage to declare my passion; for I put it off day after day, and week after week, always preparing a new speech against the next time of meeting her, until three or four rivals stepped forward before me. At length, I did speak, and never was love more clumsily declared. I told her in three words; then looked to the ground, and again in her face most pitifully. She received my addresses just as saucily as a pretty girl could do. But it were useless to go over our courtship—it was the only happy period of my existence, and every succeeding day has been misery. Matters were eventually brought to a bearing, and the fatal day of final felicity appointed. I was yet young, and my love possessed all the madness of a first passion. She not only occupied my heart, but my whole thoughts; I could think of nothing else—speak of nothing else—and, what was worse, do nothing else; it burned up the very capabilities of action, and rendered my native indolence yet more indolent. However, the day came (and a bitter stormy day it was); the ceremony was concluded; and the honeymoon seemed to pass away in a forthight.

"About twelve months after our marriage, Heaven (as authors say) blest our loves with a son and—I had almost said heir. Deplorable patrimony!—heir of his mother’s features—the sacrifice of his father’s weakness." Kean could not have touched this last burst. The father—the miserable man—parental affection—agony—remorse—repentance—were expressed in a moment.

A tear was hurrying down his withered cheek as he dashed it away with his dripping sleeve. "I am a weak old fool," said he, endeavouring to smile; for there was a volatile gaiety in his disposition, which his sorrows had subdued, but not extinguished. "Yet my boy! my poor dear Willie!—I shall never—no, I shall never see him again!" Here he again wept; and had nature not denied me that luxury, I should have wept too, for the sake of company. After a pause, he again proceeded:— "After the birth of my child, came the baptism. I had no conscientious objection to the tenets of the established church of my country; but I belonged to no religious community. I had never thought of it as an obligation beyond that of custom; and deferred it from year to year till I felt ashamed to ‘go forward’ on account of my age. My wife was a Cameronian; and to them, though I knew nothing of their principles, I had an aversion; but for her to hold up the child, while I was in the place, was worse than heathenism—was unheard of in the parish. The nearest Episcopal chapel was at Kelso, a distance of ten miles. The child still remained unbaptized. ‘It hasna a name yet,’ said the ignorant meddlers, who had no higher idea of the ordinance. It was a source of much uneasiness to my wife, and gave rise to some family quarrelling. Months succeeded weeks, and eventually the child was carried to the Episcopal church. This choked up all the slander of the town, and directed it into one channel upon my devoted head. Some said I ‘wasna sound,’ and all agreed I ‘was nae better than I should be;’ while the zealous clergyman came to my father, expressing his fears that ‘his son was in a bad way.’ For this, too, am I indebted to procrastination. I thus became a martyr to supposed opinions, of which I was ignorant: and such was the unchristian bigotry of my neighbours, that, deeming it sinful to employ one whom they considered little other than a pagan, about five years after my marriage, I was compelled to remove with my family to London.

"We were at this period what tradesmen terni miserably hard up. Having sold off our little stock of furniture, after discharging a few debts which were unavoidably contracted, a balance of rather less than two pounds remained; and upon this, my wife, my child, and myself, were to travel a distance of three hundred and fifty miles. I will not go over the journey; we performed it on foot in twenty days; and, including lodging, our daily expense amounted to one shilling and eightpenee; so that, on entering the metropolis, all we possessed was five shillings and a few pence. It was the dead of winter, and nearly dark, when we were passing down St. John Street, Clerkenwell. I was benumbed— my wife was fainting—and our poor child was blue and speechless. We entered a public-house near Smithfield, where two pints of warm porter and ginger, with a crust of bread and cheese, operated as partial restoratives. The noisy scene of butchers, drovers, and coal-heavers, was new to me. My child was afraid, my wife uncomfortable, and I, a gaping observer, forgetful of my own situation. My boy pulled my coat, and said, ‘Come, father;’—my wife jogged my elbow, and reminded me of a lodging; but my old reply, ‘Stop a little,’ was my ninety and nine times repeated answer. Frequently the landlord made a long neck over the table, gauging the contents of our tardily emptied pint; and, as the watchman was calling ‘Past eleven,’ finally took it away, and bade us ‘bundle off.’ Now I arose, feeling at once the pride of my spirit and the poorness of my purse—vowing never to darken his door again, should I remain in London a hundred years.

"On reaching the street, I inquired at a half-grown boy where we might obtain a lodging, and after causing me to inquire twice or thrice—‘I no ken, Sawney—haud awa’ north,’ said the brat, sarcastically imitating my accent. I next inquired of a watchman, who said there was no place upon his beat—but beat was Gaelic to me; and I repeated my inquiry to another, who directed me towards the hells of Saffron-hill. At a third, I requested to be informed the way, who, after abusing me for seeking lodgings at such an hour, said he had seen me in the town six hours before, and bade us go to the devil. A fourth inquired if we had any money—took us to the bar of a public-house-—called for a quartern of gin—drank our healths—asked if we could obtain a bed—which being answered in the negative, he hurried to the door, bawling ‘Half-past eleven,’ and left me to pay for the liquor. On reaching Saffron-hill, it was in an Irish uproar; policemen, thieves, prostitutes, Israelites, were brawling in a satanic mass of iniquity; blood and murder was the order of the night. My child screamed; my wife clung to my arm; she would not, she durst not, sleep in such a place. To be brief: we had to wander in the streets till the morning; and I believe that night, aided by a broken heart, was the forerunner of her death. It was the first time I had been compelled to walk trembling for a night without shelter, or to sit frozen on a threshold; and this, too, I owe to procrastination.

"For a time we rented a miserable garret, without furniture or fixture, at a shilling weekly, which was paid in advance. I had delayed making application for employment till our last sixpence was spent. We had passed a day without food; my child appeared dying; my wife said nothing, but she gazed upon her dear boy, and shook her head with an expression that wrung me to the soul. I rushed out almost in madness, and, in a state of unconsciousness, hurried from shop to shop in agitation and in misery. It was vain—appearances were against me. I was broken down and dejected, and my state of mind and manner appeared a compound of the maniac and the black guard. At night I was compelled to return to the suffering victims of my propensity, penniless and unsuccessful. It was a dreadful and sleepless night with us all; or, if I did slumber upon the hard floor for a moment (for we had neither seat nor covering), it was to startle at the cries of my child wailing for hunger, or the smothered sighs of my unhappy partner. Again and again, I almost thought them the voice of the Judge, saying, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed.’

"I again hurried out with daybreak, for I was wretched, and resumed my inquiries; but night came, and I again returned equally unsuccessful. The yearnings of my child were now terrible, and the streaming eyes of his fond mother, as she pressed his head with her cold hand upon her lap, alone distinguished her from death. The pains of hunger in myself were becoming insupportable; my teeth gnashed against each other, and worms seemed gnawing my heartstrings. At this moment, my dear wife looked me in the face, and, stretching her hand to me, said, ‘Farewell, my love--in a few hours I and our dear child shall be at rest! Oh! hunger, hunger!’ I could stand no more. Reason forsook me. I could have died for them; but I could not beg. We had nothing to pledge. Our united wearing apparel would not have brought a shilling. My wife had a pair of pocket Bibles (I had once given them in a present); my eyes fell upon them—I snatched them up unobserved—rushed from the house, and—O Heaven; let the cause forgive the end—pawned them for eighteenpence. It saved our lives. I obtained employment, and, for a few weeks, appeared to have overcome my curse.

"I am afraid I grow tedious with particulars, Sir, it is an old man’s fault--though I am not old either; I am scarce fifty-five. After being three years in London, I was appointed foreman of an extensive establishment in the Strand. I remained in this situation about four years. It was one of respectability and trust; demanding, hourly, a vigilant and undivided attention. To another, it might have been attended with honour and profit; but to me, it terminated in disgrace. Amongst other duties, I had the payment of the journeymen, and the giving out of the work. They being numerous, and their demands frequent, it would have required a clerk for the proper discharge of that duty alone. I delayed entering at the moment in my books the materials and cash given to each, until they multiplying upon my hands, end begetting a consequent confusion, it became impossible for me to make their entry with certainty or correctness. The workmen were not slow in discovering this, and not a few of the more profligate improved upon it to their advantage. Thus, I frequently found it impossible to make both ends of my account meet; and, in repeated instances, where the week’s expenditure exceeded the general average, though satisfied in my own mind of its accuracy, from my inability to state the particulars, in order to conceal my infirmity, I have accounted for the overplus from my own pocket. Matters went on in this way for a considerable time. You will admit I was rendered feelingly sensible of my error, and I resolved to correct it. But my resolutions were always made of paper; they were like a complaisant debtor—full of promises, praying for grace, and dexteriously evading performance. Thus, day after day, I deferred the adaption of my new system to a future period. For, Sir, you must be aware there is a pleasure in procrastination, of a nature the most alluring and destructive; but it is a pleasure purchased by the sacrifice of judgment; in its nature and results it resembles the happiness of the drunkard; for, in exact ratio as our spirits are raised above their proper level, in the same proportion, when the ardent effects have evaporated, they sink beneath that level.

"I was now too proud to work as a mere journeyman, and I commenced business for myself; but I began without capital, and a gourd of sorrow hung over me, while I stood upon sand. I had some credit; but, as my bills became payable, I ever found I had put off, till the very day they became due, the means of liquidating them; then had I to run and borrow five pounds from one, and five shillings from another, urged by despair, from a hundred quarters. My creditors grew clamorous—my wife upbraided me—I flew to the bottle—to the bottle!" he repeated; "and my ruin was complete—my family, business, everything, was neglected. Bills of Middlesex were served on me, declarations filed—I surrendered myself, and was locked up in Whitecross Street. It is a horrid place—the Fleet is a palace to it—the Bench, paradise! But, Sir, I will draw my painful story to a close. During my imprisonment, my wife died—died, not by my hands, but from the work of them! She was laid in a strange grave, and strangers laid her head in the dust, while I lay a prisoner in the city where she was buried. My boy—my poor Willie—who had been always neglected, was left without father and without mother!—Sir! Sir! my boy was left without food! He forsook visiting me in the prison—I heard he had turned the associate of thieves; and, from that period, five years have passed, and I have obtained no trace of him. But it is my doing—my poor Willie!"

Here the victim of procrastination finished his narrative. The storm had passed away, and the sun again shone out. The man had interested me, and we left the gardens together. I mentioned that I had to go into the city; he said he had business there also, and asked to accompany me. I could not refuse him. From the door by which we left the gardens, our route lay by way of Oxford Street. As we proceeded down Holborn, the church bell of St. Sepulchre’s began to toll; and the crowd, collected round the top of Newgate Street, indicated an execution. As we approached the place, the criminal was brought forth. He was a young man about nineteen years of age, and had been found guilty of an aggravated case of housebreaking. As the unhappy being turned round to look upon the spectators, my companion gave a convulsive shriek, and, springing from my side, exclaimed—"Righteous Heaven! my Willie! my murdered Willie!"—He had proceeded but a few paces, when he fell with his face upon the ground. In the wretched criminal he discovered his lost, his only son. The miserable old man was conveyed, in a state of insensibility, to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where I visited him the next day; he seemed to suffer much, and, in a few hours, he died with a shudder, and the word Procrastination on his tongue


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