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Wilson's Border Tales
The Soldier's Return


Seven or eight years ago, I was travelling between Berwick and Selkirk and, having started at the crowing of the cock, I had left Melrose before four in the afternoon. On arriving at Abbotsford, I perceived a Highland soldier, apparently fatigued as myself, leaning upon a walking-stick, and gazing intensely on the fairy palace of the magician whose wand is since broken, but whose magic still remains. I am no particular disciple of Lavater’s; yet the man carried his soul upon his face, and we were friends at the first glance. He wore a plain Highland bonnet, and a coarse grey greatcoat, buttoned to the throat. His dress bespoke him to belong only to the ranks; but there was a dignity in his manner, and a fire, a glowing language in his eyes, worthy of a chieftain. His height might exceed five feet nine, and his age be about thirty. The traces of manly beauty were still upon his cheeks; but the sun of a western hemisphere had tinged them with a sallow hue, and imprinted untimely furrows.

Our conversation related chiefly to the classic scenery around us; and we had pleasantly journeyed together for two or three miles, when we arrived at a little sequestered burial-ground by the way-side, near which there was neither church nor dwelling. Its low wall was thinly covered with turf, and we sat down upon it to rest. My companion became silent and melancholy, and his eyes wandered anxiously among the graves.

"Here," said he, "Sleep some of my father’s children, who died in infancy."

He picked up a small stone from the ground, and, throwing it gently about ten yards, "That," added he, "is the very spot. But thank God! No grave-stone has been raised during my absence! It is a token I shall find my parents living;" and, continued he, with a sigh, "may I also find their love! It is hard, sir, when the heart of a parent is turned against his own child."

He dropped his head upon his breast for a few moments and was silent; and, hastily raising his forefinger to his eyes, seemed to dash away a solitary tear. Then, turning to me, he continued—"You may think, sir, this is weakness in a soldier; but human hearts beat beneath a red coat. My father, whose name is Campbell, and who was brought from Argyleshire while young, is a wealthy farmer in this neighbourhood. Twelve years ago, I loved a being gentle as the light of a summer moon. We were children together, and she grew in beauty on my sight, as the star of evening steals into glory through the twilight. But she was poor and portionless, the daughter of a mean shepherd. Our attachment offended my father. He commanded me to leave her for ever. I could not, and he turned me from his house. I wandered—I knew not, and I cared not, whither. But I will not detain you with my history. In my utmost need, I met a sergeant of the forty-second, who was then upon the recruiting service, and, in a few weeks, I joined that regiment of proud hearts. I was at Brussels when the invitation to the wolf and the raven rang at midnight through the streets. It was the herald of a day of glory and of death. There were three Highland regiments of us—three joined in one—joined in rivalry, in love, and in purpose; and, thank Fate! I was present when the Scots Greys, flying to our aid, raised the electric shout, ‘Scotland for ever!’—‘Scotland for ever!’ returned our tartaned clansmen; ‘Scotland for ever!’ reverberated as from the hearts we had left behind us; and ‘Scotland for ever!’ re-echoed ‘Victory!’ Heavens!" added he, starting to his feet, and grasping his staff as the enthusiasm of the past gushed back upon his soul, "to have joined in that shout was to live an eternity in the vibration of a pendulum!"

In a few moments, the animated soul, that gave eloquence to his tongue, drew itself back into the chambers of humanity, and, resuming his seat upon the low wall, he continued—"I left my old regiment with the prospect of promotion, and have since served in the West Indies; but I have heard nothing of my father—nothing of my mother—nothing of her I love!"

While he was yet speaking, the grave-digger, with a pick-axe and a spade over his shoulder, entered the ground. He approached within a few yards of where we sat. He measured off a narrow piece of earth—it encircled the little stone which the soldier had thrown to mark out the burial-place of his family. Convulsion rushed over the features of my companion; he shivered—he grasped my arm—his lips quivered—his breathing became short and loud—the cold sweat trickled from his temples. He sprang over the wall—he rushed towards the spot.

"Man!" he exclaimed in agony, "whose grave is that?"

"Hoot, awa wi’ ye!" said the grave-digger, starting back at his manner; "whatna way is that to gliff a body!—are ye daft?"

"Answer me," cried the soldier, seizing his hand "whose grave—whose grave is that?"

"Mercy me!" replied the man of death, "ye’re surely out o’ yer head; its an auld body they ca’d Adam Campbell’s grave; now are ye onything the wiser for speirin?"

"My father!" cried my comrade, as I approached him; and, clasping his hands together, he bent his head upon my shoulder, and wept aloud.

I will not dwell upon the painful scene. During his absence, adversity had given the fortunes of his father to the wind; and he had died in an humble cottage, unlamented and unnoticed by the friends of his prosperity.

At the request of my fellow-traveller, I accompanied him to the house of mourning. Two or three poor cottagers sat around the fire. The coffin with the lid open, lay across a table near the window. A few white hairs fell over the whiter face of the deceased, which seemed to indicate that he died from sorrow rather than from age. The son pressed his lips to his father’s cheek. He groaned in spirit, and was troubled. He raised his head in agony and with a voice almost inarticulate with grief, exclaimed, inquiringly—"My mother?"

The wondering peasants started to their feet and in silence pointed to a lowly bed. He hastened forward—he fell upon his knees by the bed-side.

"My mother!—Oh my mother!" he exclaimed, "do not you too leave me! Look at me—speak to me—I am your own son—your own Willie—have you, too, forgot me mother?"

She, too, lay upon her death-bed, and the tide of life was fast ebbing; but the remembered voice of her beloved son drove it back for a moment. She opened her eyes—she attempted to raise her feeble hand, and, it fell upon his head. She spoke, but he alone knew the words that she uttered, they seemed accents of mingled anguish, of joy, and of blessing. For several minutes he bent over the bed, and wept bitterly. He held her withered hand in his; he started; and, as we approached him, the hand he held was stiff and lifeless. He wept no longer—he gazed from the dead body of his father to that of his mother; his eyes wandered wildly from the one to the other; he smote his hand upon his brow, and threw himself upon a chair, while misery transfixed him, as if a thunderbolt had entered his soul.

I will not give a description of the melancholy funerals, and the solitary mourner. The father’s obsequies were delayed, and the son laid both his parents in the same grave.

Some months passed away before I gained information respecting the sequel of my little story. After his parents were laid in the dust, William Campbell, with a sad and anxious heart, made inquiries after Jeanie Leslie, the object of his early affections, to whom we have already alluded. For several weeks, his search was fruitless; but, at length, he learned that considerable property had been left to her father by a distant relative, and that he now resided somewhere in Dumfriesshire.

In the same garb which I have already described, the soldier set out upon his journey. With little difficulty he discovered the house. It resembled such as are occupied by the higher class of farmers. The front door stood open. He knocked, but no one answered. He proceeded along the passage—he heard voices in an apartment on the right—again he knocked, but was unheeded. He entered uninvited. A group were standing in the middle of the floor; and, amongst them, a minister, commencing the marriage-service of the Church of Scotland. The bride hung her head sorrowfully, and tears were stealing down her cheeks—she was his own Jeanie Leslie. The clergyman paused. The bride’s father stepped forward angrily, and inquired— "What do ye want, sir?" but, instantly recognising his features, he seized him by the breast, and, in a voice half-choked with passion, continued—"Sorrow tak ye for a scoundrel! What’s brought ye here--and the mair especially at a time like this! Get oot o’ my house, sir! I say, Willie Campbell, get oot o’ my house, and, never darken my door again wi’ yer ne’er-do-weel countenance!"

A sudden shriek followed the mention of his name, and Jeanie Leslie fell into the arms of her bridesmaid.

"Peace, Mr. Leslie!" said the soldier, pushing the old man aside; "since matters are thus, I will only stop to say farewell, for auld langsyne—you cannot deny me that."

He passed towards the object of his young love. She spoke not—she moved not—he took her hand; but she seemed unconscious of what he did. And, as he again gazed upon her beautiful countenance, absence became as a dream upon her face. The very language he had acquired during their separation was laid aside. Nature triumphed over art, and he addressed her in the accents in which he had first breathed love, and won her heart.

"Jeanie!" said he, pressing her hand between his, "it’s a sair thing to say fareweel; but, at present I maun say it. This is a scene I never expected to see; for, O Jeanie! I could have trusted to your truth and love, as the farmer trusts to seed-time and to harvest, and is not disappointed. O Jeanie, woman! this is like separating the flesh from the bones, and burning the marrow. But ye maun be anither’s now—fareweel!—fareweel!"

"No! no—my ain Willie!" she exclaimed, recovering from the action of stupefaction: "my hand is still free, and my heart has aye been yours—save me, Willie! save me!" And she threw herself into his arms.

The bridegroom looked from one to another, imploring them to commence an attack upon the intruder; but he looked in vain. The father again seized the old grey coat of the soldier, and almost rending it in twain, discovered underneath, to the astonished company, the richly laced uniform of a British soldier. He dropped the fragment of the outer garment in wonder, and at the same time dropping his wrath, exclaimed, "Mr Campbell!—or what are ye?—will you explain yoursel’?"

A few words explained all. The bridegroom, a wealthy middle-aged man without a heart, left the house, gnashing his teeth. Badly as our military honours are conferred, merit is not always overlooked even in this country, where money is everything, and the Scottish soldier had obtained the promotion he deserved. Jeanie’s joy was like a dream of heaven. In a few weeks she gave her hand to Captain Campbell of his Majesty’s—regiment of infantry, to whom, long years before, she had given her young heart.


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