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Wilson's Border Tales
The Ungrateful Family


In the autumn of the year 18—, as Mr Forbes, a Scotch gentleman of highly respectable family and connections, was returning to his inn in the Highlands, whither he had gone to enjoy two or three days of trout fishing, he met a carriage in which were an English gentleman and two young ladies, his daughters. The latter had just left the inn in which Mr Forbes put up in consequence of their being unable to procure beds—all accommodation of this kind having been forestalled by earlier comers. Under these circumstances, the gentleman alluded to had resolved, although it was then getting dark, on proceeding to the next stage, which was ten miles distant; and thither they were proceeding when met by Mr Forbes. The latter, again, when this rencontre took place, was returning from the fishing which he had on that day been compelled to give up sooner than usual, on account of a sudden swelling of the river in which he had been exercising his piscatorial skill, and which, in less than an hour, rose from eight to ten feet above its usual level. This was no uncommon occurrence in the case of the river alluded to—and it was one that created no surprise whatever in those who lived in the neighbourhood, as it was amply accounted for by the abrupt descent of mountain torrents; but it was frequently the cause of most disastrous accidents to those unacquainted with the phenomenon; and, but for the activity and courage of Mr Forbes, one of these fatal catastrophes would have taken place on the very occasion of which we are now speaking.

The road which the carriage was taking was intersected by the river alluded to, about four miles farther on than where it was met by Mr Forbes, and, at that particular point, was crossed by a low bridge of one single arch; but when, swollen, as it was at this moment, no part of the bridge remained visible, except a portion of its highest parapets—the river, as it swept down filling the valley, and obliterating all trace of the road at either end of the bridge, to the distance of several hundred yards. Yet, guided by the hedgerows which skirted the way, and whose tops generally projected above the stream, and by the visible portions of the parapets, those who were acquainted with the road frequently passed on horseback with perfect safety, even while the river was flooded to its utmost height. On the occasion however, of which we are speaking, the bridge itself had given way, almost at the very first outset of the flood, and Mr Forbes had been a witness of the occurrence; but, as the river was still rising rapidly, none but those who had seen its destruction could tell that it was no longer in existence; and what greatly increased the deception to which this led in the case of those who did not know what had happened, portions of the parapet of the bridge were still visible as before, for only about the one half of it had been swept away. Thus, any one trusting to these guides, and expecting to find a safe passage between them, would be inevitably plunged into the chasm left by the ruined bridge and swept away by the rushing stream.

At the time Mr Forbes met the carriage with the English gentleman and his daughters, the possibility of such an accident at this befalling them did not occur to him, although it certainly was, to all appearance, inevitable. Mr Forbes therefore, passed on, without making any remark, and the carriage drove on its way. The latter would be, at this time, about four miles from the fatal ford; and, to increase the evil chances that were against the travellers, it was now getting dark. Mr Forbes, however, had not proceeded above half a mile, when he was struck, all at once, with an apprehension of what might happen. He guessed that the driver of the chaise, who he recognised to belong to the house at which he himself stopped, would attempt the passage, and this with the more readiness and confidence that he was, as Mr Forbes, presumed, perfectly familiar with its localities, and had, in all probability, often performed such a feat before. Upbraiding himself, therefore, with his stupidity, in not thinking of all this in time, to have warned the travellers of the danger, and filled with horror at the idea of the catastrophe, which, he thought, was now all but inevitable, Mr Forbes instantly turned, and made after the chaise, as fast as he could run, in the hope that he might yet overtake it, and prevent the dreadful accident which threatened its unfortunate inmates. The speed of the chaise, however, and the distance which it had gained upon him, before he commenced the pursuit, seemed likely to render all his efforts unavailing. For two miles, he continued the chase with unabated vigour; but a little farther, and he found his strength failing him, and yet he could neither see nor hear anything of the carriage, although he frequently stopped arid listened, with the most intense anxiety, for the sound of its wheels or the crack of the driver’s whip. Exhausted and breathless as he now was, however, Mr Forbes determined on making another desperate effort to avert the impending calamity; and, in this spirit, he resumed the pursuit with rather increased than abated speed. Still no sound of the seemingly devoted vehicle would fall on his ear to cheer him as he struggled and panted onward. Another mile was passed, and still no trace of the carriage presented itself. Mr Forbes now began to think that all his exertions were in vain; and his heart sunk within him, as his imagination pictured the appalling calamity which, he feared, had already taken place. On, however, he still despairingly pressed; and, at length, the huge broad sheet of water, the swollen and turgid river, lay gleaming before him in the starlight, moving quietly but fearfully along—the majestic, yet awful silence of its march being only interrupted by a faint gushing noise, at different points, proceeding from the resistance presented to the stream by the trunks of trees or other such impediments. Still Mr Forbes could discover nothing of the object of his pursuit; and he, therefore, no longer hoped that his services could be of any avail. Under these horrifying impressions, rendered still more intolerable by a consciousness that he might have prevented the accident, had he given the travellers timeous notice of their danger, Mr Forbes now ceased from further exertion, and walked slowly over the short space that intervened between him and the water’s edge. On reaching the latter, he strained his sight over the gleaming surface of the river in the line of the road and ruined bridge; but he did this more from a desperate and indefinable curiosity, than from any hope of discovering the object of his solicitude.

While earnestly engaged in this scrutiny, however, Mr. Forbes thought he perceived a large dark object, between the lines formed by the hedges on each side of the inundated road. Heavens! could it be the chaise? He looked again, till his eyeballs were like to start from their sockets, in his attempt to penetrate the thick darkness that hung between. Again he looked, and again and again, and still that object was discernible; but he could not perceive that it moved. To ascertain this point, Mr Forbes knelt down, and brought it between him and one of the stars, that shone brightly above. The expedient was successful. It showed him a motion which he could not before discern. The chaise! the chaise it must be, no doubt of it; or if there was any doubt, that was quickly dispelled by the crack of the driver’s whip, and his loud tchick, tchick, at once of encouragement and caution to his horses, as they slowly and fearfully picked their way through the heavy stream.

On becoming assured that it was the carriage he saw, Mr Forbes instantly raised his voice to its utmost pitch, shouting out to the driver to stop for God’s sake, as the bridge was down, and that they would be all lost if they went on. The chaise, however, still held on its perilous way, the driver either not hearing or not heeding the warning thus given him; and in less than five minutes more, all warning would be vain, as the vehicle was now within twenty yards of the chasm left by the ruined bridge. Perceiving that his cries were unattended to, and aware that there was not a moment to lose in arresting the further progress of the carriage, Mr Forbes dashed into the water, and, by the most desperate efforts, and at the imminent hazard of his own life, succeeded in reaching the vehicle, just as the horses’ heads approached the site of the broken bridge. Previously, however, to his coming up to the carriage, Mr. Forbes’ shouts—for he had continued calling out, from time to time, as he struggled through the water after the chaise—had attracted the notice of its inmates, whose heads were now thrust through the windows on either side, to ascertain what was the cause of the alarm; and on seeing him approach, the father of the ladies, who were by this time dreadfully agitated, inquired of him what was the nature of the danger he would warn them of. Of this Mr Forbes, after ordering the driver to stop the carriage instantly, informed him, as distinctly as the breathless state he was in would admit of.

By Mr. Forbes’ directions, the horses were now unyoked—as it was impossible to turn the carriage, in the circumstances in which it was placed—when, mounting on one of them, he took one of the young ladies behind him, and conveyed her safely to dry land. Leaving her there, he returned to the chaise, and, in a similar manner, brought the other on shore—the driver and the ladies’ father following on the remaining horse; and thus were the whole party saved from what had appeared to be inevitable destruction.

On reaching the inn at which Mr Forbes put up, and to which the party now, as a matter of course, returned, the same reason which had induced them to leave it at first still remained in force. There were no spare beds for them; but this difficulty, at least so far as regarded the ladies, was soon got over. Mr Forbes offered, nay, insisted, on resigning his bed to the fair travellers; and, after many polite expressions, on their part, of regret and sorrow, and thankfulness, and so forth, the offer was accepted. The ladies soon after retired to bed, while their father and Mr Forbes made the best arrangements they could for passing the night on armed chairs by the fire. On the following morning, Mr Forbes breakfasted with the ladies and their father; and, at the conclusion of the repast, the latter formally, nay, in something like a set speech, thanked Mr Forbes for the important service he had rendered him and his family, and wound up his oration by presenting the latter with his card, and requesting him to call upon him in London, where he resided, the first time he should visit that city. The ladies again expressed their gratitude by saying—

"La, how vastly we are obliged to you, sir. It would have been shocking to have been drowned in such a dark night."

In about half an hour after this, the travellers and Mr Forbes parted. The former resumed their journey, though now by a different route from what they originally intended, and the latter went up to his bedroom to trim some flies for another day’s sport on some of the numerous fishing waters in the neighbourhood of the place of his sojournment.

Neither at this time, nor for a long while after, had Mr Forbes any prospect or intention of visiting London; but, at the expiry of about a year and a half from this period, some particular business did call him to the English metropolis; and, when there, he bethought him of calling, according to invitation, on the family to which he had rendered the important service just narrated. One forenoon, he accordingly sallied forth to put this resolve in execution, having previously provided himself with their address card, which he had brought from home with him, with the intention of availing himself of the invitation it implied, and entertaining no doubt of meeting with a kind and friendly reception. In less than a quarter of an hour, Mr Forbes found himself at the door he wanted. He knocked. A servant in livery answered the summons. Mr Forbes inquired if his master was at home. "Yes, sir," was the reply. "And the young ladies?" Another affirmative: all were at home. Very fortunate this, thought Mr Forbes; and he enjoyed, in anticipation, the hearty welcome he should receive, and the many kind and flattering things which would be said to him by the grateful family. Softened into an excessive urbanity of manner by these reflections, Mr Forbes now informed the servant, in some of his blandest tones, that he desired to see his master and the young ladies. The servant immediately bowed him into a withdrawing-room, and requested his card. This Mr Forbes gave him, and he withdrew with it. In a few minutes, however, he returned, and said that neither his master nor the young ladies recognised in the name sent them that of any friend or acquaintance; but in case there might be any mistake as to this, the gentleman might walk up stairs if he thought fit. Mr Forbes thought this rather odd to begin with. He did not think it required any great stretch of memory, on the part of either the gentleman or his daughters, to recollect him, considering all the circumstances attending their first acquaintance. Still, as they themselves said, there might be some mistake, and that, on his part, it might possibly be a totally different family— or, supposing it to be the same, they might have forgotten— and, under this impression, Mr Forbes resolved to avail himself of the privilege offered him, and to "walk up stairs." Having signified this resolution to the servant, the latter immediately led the way, and ushered him into the apartment where were the ladies and their father. They were all engaged in reading when he entered, each having a volume in their hands; and, when he made his appearance, they all simultaneously withdrew their eyes from their books, but without moving from their seats, and fixed them with a broad stare, upon their visitor, and without yet betraying the slightest symptom of recognition. Mr Forbes, who was a good deal puzzled and embarrassed by this reception, after making his best bow, and endeavouring to throw a gracious smile into his countenance, which, however, was a decided failure, remarked, that he had taken the liberty of calling upon them, agreeable to their own invitation, and that, though they did not recognise his name, he hoped, they would have no difficulty in recognising himself, now that he stood before them. Yes, indeed, they had, though. They could not really recollect that ever they had the honour of seeing him. Whatever difficulty, however, they had in recognising him, Mr Forbes had none whatever recognising them. They were the identical persons whose lives he had saved a year and a half before.

"Then, although you do not recollect me," replied Mr Forbes, "you will probably recollect of a certain accident that befell you in the Highlands, in the autumn of the year 18—."

"Oh, la, yes," drawled out the elder of the two ladies, "I do recollect something of that shocking affair. Don’t you, Sophia?" she said, now addressing her sister, who murmured an affirmative.

"It was in a water, wasn’t it?" continued the first speaker.

"Yes, madam," replied Mr Forbes, rather sneeringly, "it was in a water."

"And you are the person, I dare say," she went on, "who came into the water after us and took us out. How droll you looked, now I remember; but it certainly was vastly kind of you, nevertheless. Papa," continued this paragon of gratitude, and now addressing her parent, who, regardless of the presence of the stranger, and of his claim upon his civility, was again busily engaged in reading, "this is the gentleman who saved us from being drowned in the Highlands."

"Oh, indeed," said papa, raising his eyes for a moment from the book he was perusing, and nodding to Mr Forbes, "glad to see you, sir ;" and instantly resumed his reading, seemingly resolved to take no further notice of or interest in what was going on.

This was too much for Forbes. He could stand these rebuffs no longer, and he now determined on bringing his visit instantly to a close. Without making any further remark, therefore, he abruptly wished the ladies and their father a "good morning"—a salutation which was returned with equal briefness and coldness by them to whom it was addressed—and left the house with feelings which, as we suppose every one can conceive them, we think it unnecessary to describe.

Mr Forbes did not determine, on this occasion, never to assist any persons again who should be similarly situated with this ungrateful family—that would be exceedingly unchristian like—but he did determine never to entertain, in future, such exaggerated notions of the measure of gratitude which such services inspire.

The circumstance we have just related, made a deep and disagreeable impression on Mr Forbes at the time it occurred, but like most other merely sublunary events, this impression wore off in the course of time; and, although he never entirely forgot it, he, in the course of two or three years, recollected it only when recalled to his memory by association; and even then he recollected it, divested of all the feelings with which the retrospect was attended when its occurrence was recent. Four years after his visit to London, on the occasion spoken of, Mr Forbes succeeded, by the death of a near relation, to a very valuable property; and amongst the first uses he determined on making of this addition to his fortune, was to indulge himself in the execution of a scheme which he had long meditated, but which he had not, till then, thought it prudent to realize. This scheme—not by any means either an uncommon or extraordinary one—was to visit the Continent, particularly Italy. Having the means of gratifying himself in this fancy now at command, and abundance of leisure on his hands to permit of its full enjoyment, Mr Forbes set out on his travels, and soon found himself at Geneva, from which he intended crossing the Alps, by the great pass of the Simplon, where, as is well known, everything that is terrible and sublime in Alpine scenery is assembled: — the roaring resistless avalanche that comes tumbling down from the mountains, overwhelming everything, even whole villages, in its destructive course, and filling the wide, deep, and desolate valley, with the thunder of its voice; huge abrupt precipices, foaming cataracts, rushing on their way, far down in the depths of yawning chasms, spanned only by narrow inadequate bridges, without ledges or parapets; dangerous passes high up amongst the rocks, and narrow paths or carriage ways, winding along the edge of dizzy heights, from which one false step would pitch the incautious traveller headlong down into the horrible abyss beneath. Through these tremendous, but grand and impressive scenes, Mr Forbes, accompanied by a guide, journeyed on foot, for he preferred this mode of travelling through the Simplon, to that of the diligence, that he might at more leisure, and more fully enjoy the magnificent scenery of that celebrated pass.

After wandering through many scenes of awful beauty, of fearful grandeur, one still more terrible, and more wildly sublime than the rest, burst all at once on Mr Forbes’ astonished view. The road, which had for some miles before wound along the face of the mountains, but near the bottom of the valley which they overlooked, suddenly brought the traveller to a point, from which he saw another and a lower valley, or rather enormous chasm of several thousand feet in depth, yawning far beneath him, and, at the bottom, a foaming torrent, which, although it was fully ten yards in breadth, appeared, from the great depth at which it lay, no thicker than a thread. At the point alluded to, the road diverged in two different directions. One branch, the broadest, wound half way down the chasm, where it crossed, by a substantial bridge of stone, though of only one arch, the remaining depth of the abyss; the other, which was the narrower, struck off at a much greater height, and instead of a bridge, the chasm was here crossed by two or three rude logs, stretched across from two insulated and elevated points of rock on either side. The first of these roads was the carriage way, the second was for pedestrians, to whom it presented the shortest route to the next stage, by fully a mile and a half; a temptation which, together with that which to the noble views it commanded offered, seldom failed to induce the latter to prefer it with all its dangers—and these were neither few nor trifling—to the former. On reaching the point at which these roads commence, Mr Forbes’ guide explained to him the advantages and disadvantages of both the ways, and left it to himself to determine which of them he should adopt. Deciding, as the majority of his predecessors had done in similar circumstances, Mr Forbes at once chose the higher way, and proceeded accordingly on his journey. On reaching the bridge— if the three or four logs that crossed the roaring torrent beneath can be so called—Mr Forbes, before attempting the passage, seated himself on the point of rock on which the logs rested, and the side he was on, and began to survey, at leisure, the wild and fearful but magnificent scene which lay around and beneath him, and of which the position he occupied formed almost the precise centre. While thus employed, Mr Forbes was horror struck by suddenly perceiving a carriage coming at full speed in the direction in which he himself was, and which, he perceived, by pursuing this course, must, to all appearance, be hurled headlong into the chasm at his feet; there being, as already mentioned, no other bridge across it than that formed by the logs. Some dreadful mistake here, thought Mr Forbes to himself, as he sprung to his feet in the impulse of terror and alarm.

"They have taken the wrong road, they’ll be all lost," shouted out the guide. And he rushed along the logs, to gain the opposite side of the chasm, in order to avoid being involved in the approaching catastrophe—the road being too narrow, and its sides too precipitous, to admit of any other way of escaping but that which he had taken.

In the meantime, on came the carriage with increasing velocity, and, as it neared, Mr Forbes perceived that it had no driver. He had been thrown, and this at once accounted for the mistake which had taken place in its route. Mr Forbes now saw, too, and saw with increased horror, some ladies in the ill-fated vehicle, in the most dreadful state of agitation and terror, thrusting their heads out of the windows, and screaming wildly and madly for assistance. For two or three seconds, no mode of arresting the progress of the furious animals presented itself to Mr. Forbes. To attempt to have done so by standing in their way, or by seizing them when they approached, would, he felt convinced, only insure his own destruction, without in the least serving those whom he would assist in their dreadful jeopardy. There was, however, no time for deliberation. Another minute and the impending catastrophe would have been accomplished; but ere this minute had expired, Mr Forbes’ presence of mind and activity had suggested, and effectually employed, a means for their preservation. By the side of the way, and only a few yards distant from where he stood, there lay a large and branchy pine or fir tree, which had recently been torn by the winds from its hold, on the face of the lofty steep which rose immediately above the road, and had tumbled down to the spot where it now lay. Seizing the fallen tree by one of its strongest branches, and exerting a degree of strength which he perhaps could not have commanded on a less exciting occasion, Mr Forbes succeeded in wheeling it round, until it lay directly athwart the road, so as to obstruct the further progress of the carriage. Having done this, he also crossed the chasms and, ascending to the pinnacle of the rock on the opposite side, there awaited, with the most intense interest, the result of his expedient. For this he had not long to tarry; for not only did that result, but all that we have related in connection with it, occur in less than a third of the time which we have taken to relate it; and great was his joy, when he saw that it was successful. On coming in contact with the prostrate tree, the horses stumbled and fell, and so entangled both themselves and the pole of the carriage in its branches, that after some desperate, but unavailing efforts to extricate themselves, they lay quietly, exhausted and panting where they fell.

In the next instant the carriage door opened, and its inmates, two ladies and a gentleman, stood in safety on the road. They looked towards their deliverer; and, notwithstanding the state of alarm and distraction they were in, the blush of shame and embarrassment glowed on their cheeks. Mr Forbes gazed on them in his turn. Could it possibly be? Most extraordinary. He looked again. Yes, they were the identical persons he had saved from being drowned six years before, the same whom he had called upon in London, and by whom he had been so ungraciously and ungratefully received. On making this discovery, Mr Forbes being now assured of their safety, and further relieved from all anxiety on their account, by seeing their dismounted driver, and a crowd of peasants hastening to their assistance, waved his hand towards them from the pinnacle of the rock on which he stood on the opposite side of the chasm, as a token of recognition, followed this up by a haughty bow, and instantly disappeared down the steep descent which the pathway took, after leaving the bridge, and pursued his journey; and of the ungrateful family he had thus twice saved from a violent and premature death, he saw and heard no more. What their feelings were on this occasion, cannot, perhaps, be very accurately guessed; but it is not to be supposed, we should think, that they were of the most pleasant description.


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