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Wilson's Border Tales
The Widow and her Son


To us there are few things that appear more melancholy or more affecting than the ruins of a deserted dwelling house which the hand of time has unroofed and laid prostrate. There is, we think, something impressive, sadly impressive, in its cold, desolate apartments, now exposed to the rain and the winds of heaven, its eyeless windows, and dilapidated doorway—nay, there is an interest excited even by the traces of the fastenings of the cupboard on the wall and of the fire in the chill, gaping, and ruinous chimney. All, all speak forcibly of decay, and tell of the transitoriness of the things of this ephemeral World.

In contemplating such scenes as this—and hence, perhaps, the feelings we have alluded to—the imagination set to work and paints the happy groups that once assembled around the then cheerful, but now cold and desolate hearth, or recalls the joyous laugh of the deserted mansion’s young inmates, with all the hilarious din and bustle of a numerous and happy family; or, mayhap, it may dwell on the hopes and fears of their elders, now both terminated for ever. And the reverie is wound up by the sad inquiry—"Where are they all now?" And the query is answered by a gust of wind rushing, with melancholy sound, through the deserted apartments, and waving, in its progress, the long grass and nettles with which they are overgrown.

Nor are we sure that these feelings and associations are confined to the ruins of houses of note alone, to the deserted mansions of the great or the wealthy. In our own case, at any rate, we are certain they are not; for we have felt them all, and with equal force, when contemplating the ruins of a cottage; and on no occasion were we more under their influence, than when viewing the remains of such an humble domicile as that we have alluded to, in the course of an excursion last summer, through the wilds of Nithsdale But then, we must confess, there was a story, an affecting one, connected with the lonely dwelling, which might, nay which must have added to the interest with which we contemplated its ruins. These ruins, consisting of one gable and a small portion of the side walls, together with the remains of a low, loose stone dyke, that once formed the boundary of the little garden, or kail-yard, which was attached to the house, are situated in a remote and sequestered spot in the district above named.

At the period of the story we are now about to relate to our readers, the little cottage of which we have spoken, was inhabited by a widow woman of the name of Riddel, and an only child, a son, of about 13 years of age.

Mrs. Riddel’s husband, who was now dead several years, was a poor but most industrious and pious man, who wrought at such country work as the neighbourhood afforded. His gains were, it will readily be believed, but moderate; yet a frugal, abstemious, and exceedingly temperate life, enabled him to purchase the cottage he inhabited, with the garden attached to it; and, in time, to add to these possessions a cow. But, beyond this, the poor but worthy man was not permitted to increase his store. Death cut short his days, and left the widow and her son to reap the benefit of his prudence and industry; and no small matter was this found, when there was none other to assist them. The cow, the cottage, and the garden were to them great riches. And thankful to her God was the widow, for the mercies He had bestowed on her; not the least of which was the happiness she found in her boy, who was to her all that she could wish. James was indeed, such a son as a mother might well be proud of. He was mild, dutiful, yet bold and active, and gave promise of being more than usually handsome. He loved his mother with the most sincere and devoted affection; and though only in his thirteenth year, earned nearly the wages of a full grown man; and if any one had seen the delight and exultation expressed in his eye, as he poured his weekly wages into his mother’s lap, they would have felt assured that these were the happiest moments of his life.

Thus, what with the little property she possessed, and the earnings of her son, Widow Riddel’s lonely cottage presented as pleasing a picture of comfort, in an humble way, as might anywhere be seen; nor could two happier beings be found within the county—we might extend it to the kingdom—than the worthy widow and her son. But inscrutable are the ways of Providence—dark and inscrutable, indeed, since they permitted all this humble happiness to be blighted in an instant, and ruin and desolation to overtake its unoffending possessors.

It was on a fine summer afternoon, in the year 1746, about two months after the battle of Culloden, that Widow Riddel, as she sat knitting stockings on the little rustic seat in the garden, which her son had made for her accommodation, and while the former was busily employed beside her in putting some seeds into the ground, happening to look down into the little strath or valley that lay almost immediately below the cottage, saw what was to her a very unusual and alarming sight. This was a party of dragoons. She had heard much of the cruelties and atrocities that had been perpetrated by the Government troops, on the persons and properties of the insurgents, whose hopes had been laid prostrate at Culloden; and she was not ignorant of the military despotism which generally prevailed over the kingdom in consequence of that victory. But she had yet to learn, and the lesson was now to be taught her by fearful experience, how indiscriminating was the vengeance of the ruthless and sanguinary ruffians, to whom the power of inflicting chastisement had been entrusted.

On observing the soldiers, Widow Riddel immediately called her son’s attention to them, and wondered where they could be going to.

This was soon made plain enough. In a moment after, she herself exclaimed—"Mercy on us, Jamie! they’re comin’ here. What in a’ the earth can they be wantin?"

Next minute, the dragoons were in front of the cottage; when one of them dismounted, and advancing towards the widow, inquired if there were any rebels skulking there abouts.

"Oh, no, sir, no," replied the terrified woman, "there’s naebody o’ that kind in this quarter, I assure you."

"Well, well, so much the better, good woman, for both you and them; but, I say, we’re starving of hunger, old girl, can ye let’s have something to eat?"

"Blithely, sir, blithely," rejoined poor Mrs. Riddel, delighted to find matters taking so amicable a turn. "I haena muckle, sirs, but ye’re welcome to what I hae." And she bustled into the cottage, and with the assistance of her son, brought out a quantity of oaken cakes, cheese and sweet milk, on which the soldiers made a hearty meal.

Now, after this kindness of the widow, or even without it, into whose head or heart, but that of an incarnate fiend, or monster in human shape, could it have entered to do her a mischief? Yet such a wretch was amongst the troopers who now surrounded her humble dwelling, and had partaken of her hospitality. Just before the party started, the ruffian who first addressed Mrs. Riddel, asked her, with an effected air of kindness, how she lived.

"Indeed, sir," replied the unsuspecting widow, "the bit cow there," pointing to the animal that was grazing at a little distance, "an’ the bit garden, wi’ what the laddie can earn, is a’ that I hae to depend upon; but wi’ God’s blessing, it’s eneuch, an’ we are sincerely thankfu."

To this affecting detail of her humble resources, the villain made no reply; but drew a pistol from his holster, and riding up to the poor woman’s cow, discharged it through her head, when the animal instantly fell down dead. Not satisfied with this heartless atrocity, the ruffian leaped the little garden wall, with his horse, and deliberately trode down every grown thing it contained; and those that the feet of his charger could not reach, he destroyed with his sabre.

Having completed this unnameable villany, the monster rejoined his comrades, laughing and shouting out as he went, in exultation at the deed.

"There, you old devil," he exclaimed—"that will put it out of your power to harbour any rascally rebels, or, if you do, they and you must starve."

In an instant afterwards the party rode off, laughing heartily at the mischief done by their comrade, of which they all seemed to approve.

It would be a vain task to attempt to depict the distress and misery of the bereaved widow, when she found herself thus suddenly deprived of her all. This scene is better left to the imagination of the reader. Wringing her hands in bitter agony, she rushed into the house, and flung herself on her bed, where she gave way to the sorrow that overwhelmed her. From that bed she never again rose. A violent illness, the consequence of dreadfully excited and agitated feelings, seized her, and in a few days terminated her existence.

During her illness, her poor boy never left her bedside. There he remained night and day, endeavouring to cheer the spirits of his dying parent, and to make her look lightly on the misfortunes that had befallen them.

"Dinna, mother—dinna tak it sae much to heart. Never mind it, mother," he would say; "I am strong, and able to work for you, and you shall never want sae lang as I can earn a penny; and I’ll put the garden into as guid order as ever it was. It’s no near sae much harmed as ye think, mother; and what’s to hinder me to buy you a cow by and by, as weel as my faither did. I’ll sune hae as much wages as he had, and I’m sure I’ll guide it as weel, for your sake." And, on one occasion, the poor boy, thinking to increase the effects of the consolation he was administering, added— "And wha kens mother, but I may yet meet the villain somewhere, and be revenged o’ him for what he has dune to us!"

At these words, the dying woman, on whose ear all the rest seemed to have fallen unheard, suddenly raised herself on her elbow, and looking her son affectionately but earnestly in the face, said— "My son, speak not of revenge! It is unbecoming a Christian; and I’m sure such a spirit was never encouraged in you either by yer worthy faither or by me. Leave vengeance in the hands of God, Jamie. He will deal with the destroyer in His ain way and in His ain guid time. Perhaps, my son, the misguided man even now repents o’ what he has dune; and if he does, you surely would not seek to increase his punishment, which maun be, in such a case, a-full atonement for a’ that he had dune; for what pain, Jamie, can equal that of an awakened conscience?"

The boy was silenced by this reproof; but we can hardly say cleansed of the spirit of revenge which had been kindled in his youthful bosom against the authors of their ruin.

On the following day, the widow expired; and on the fourth thereafter, her son followed her remains to the grave. But he returned not again. At the conclusion of the ceremony he suddenly disappeared, and no one knew whither he had gone. Days, weeks, months, and years passed away; but no intelligence ever reached the neighbourhood of what destiny had befallen the orphan boy.

Thirteen years after this, the famous battle of Minden was fought by Prince Ferdinand against the French. True? but what has that to do with the story of the widow and her son?

Patience, good reader, and you shall hear. Associated with the army of Prince Ferdinand, there was a large body of British horse under Lord George Sackville: and these shared in the dangers and glory of the victory. On the evening of the day on which the battle was fought, a party of these dragoons were assembled in the taverns, where they were boasting loudly in their cups, of the feats they had performed, when one of them, striking the table fiercely with his clenched fist, swore, that, when he was in Scotland, he had done a more meritorious thing than any of them.

"What was that Tom—what was that?" shouted out his companions at once.

"Why, starving an old witch in Nithsdale, to be sure," replied the fellow. "We first, you see—for there was a party of us—ate up all she had, and then I paid the reckoning by shooting her cow, and riding down her greens."

"And don’t you repent it?" exclaimed a young soldier, suddenly rising from his seat at the upper end of the apartment, and approaching the speaker, as he put the question. "Don’t you repent it?"

"Repent what?" said the ruffian, fiercely. "Repent such a matter as that! No, I glory in it."

"Then villain!" said the youth, unsheathing his sword— "know that that woman was my mother; and since you do not repent the deed, you shall die for it. Draw and defend yourself."

The dragoon sprang to his feet—a combat ensued; and after two or three passes, the latter was stretched lifeless on the floor.

"Had you repented," said the youth, looking towards the corpse as he sheathed his sword, "I would have left you in the hands of your God; but since you did not, I have made myself the instrument of his vengeance."

Young Riddel afterwards rose to the rank of captain in the British service, and greatly distinguished himself in the German wars.


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