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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XIII


"No shrine I seek to sects unknown;
Oh, point to me the path of truth!
Thy dread omnipotence I own;
Spare, yet amend, the faults of youth."
Byron.

"I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thy face, and am no more worthy to be called thy son."

TO describe my feelings at this juncture of my hitherto useless existence is beyond my power. I remember having been assailed, for the first time, by a desire to die. I had heard of people dying by their own hands, but an idea of this kind, thank God, did not trouble me. I sat alone at the east end of Leith Links, with seventeen miles between me and my offended home, shoeless, and partially covered with rags, discharged as useless from my chosen field of action, and hunger craving to be appeased by the product of my three-months' voyage, which was still ensconced deeply in the pocket of my tarry canvas breeks. What shall I do to obviate swallowing the bitter pill of facing home? To call on Wright, the scene of Bonner & Co's ship-owner's scheme, I should be laughed at. My appearance would shock the refinement of the Davidson family, that of R. Millar, on the North Bridge, my mother's cousin. It came to the alternative of the road to the Nungate or troubling my mother's sister, Mrs. Allan, a widow, a second thought of whose struggles decided the question.

My involuntary disguise I assisted, on passing points of the road where I was known, by drawing my canvas apology for a hat over my shamed face. Weary and footsore I approached the humble dwelling in the Nungate with fear and trembling. Self-condemned, like the prodigal son, I was incapable of estimating the power and elasticity of parental affection. My sins were as scarlet. How could they be forgiven?

The Nungate, on Tyne's eastern shore,
Sae fraught wi' ancient classic lore,
Its brig o' stane and lime,
That's braved Tyne's rapid rising flood,
And many a shock has firmly stood—
Nae man can tell the time.

This fine old bridge of three arches was so narrow that two carts could not pass each other, and its Nungate approach was very little wider than the bridge. In this narrow street stands the old stone house wherein our little family had lived for many years; the house which the prodigal feared to enter. One end of the oblong building was devoted to baking the staff of life, while the other end, at least the front part of it, was employed as a shop, the entrance between which (though chilly) was open. Mustering sufficient courage to slide in I met my mother in the passage, and asked her for a penny loaf, holding out my hand, exposing the coin to pay for it. This step I thought necessary to counteract the supposed influence of my personal appearance. Unable longer to hold out, in true Eastlothian vernacular I "grat," and said, "Mither, dae ye nae ken yer ain son?" My father came instantly ben, and Christ's beautiful parable was recnacted, followed by mistaken kindness, which, by dint of rich viands in an impoverished stomach, threw me into a violent fever, which kept me in bed for the remainder of the year. On the 20th of January, 1820, the nation was thrown into mourning by the death of George III, the good-intentioned, but weak and badly advised king, whose demise was shortly followed by that of his son, the Duke of Kent, father of the present queen. My brother lingered a few weeks, and passed away at the age of nineteen years.

Some eighteen months prior to his death a tragedy was enacted in which his most intimate friend, Peter Bowers, was made to act the principal part, and which I think is worthy of notice in this narrative. Peter was the only son of an aged lady residing near Dalkeith, and up to this fatal period his conduct inspired his mother and all his numerous friends with the most buoyant hopes of his future. He was apprenticed to Richard Catleugh, millwright and engineer in the Nungate, and when nearly out of his time he and R. Catleugh, Jr., were sent to repair the wauk mill of Mr. Weir, at Gifford. When the repairs were completed Mr. Weir brought out refreshments, accompanied by a bottle of "Scotland's skaith," as the judge on the trial called the contents. They all drank freely and got drunk. On their way home, laden with their tools, the two staggered on a party of rustics amusing themselves leaping from the more elevated footpath into the carriageway. Peter challenged the best of them for twopence. The wager was taken up by an old plowman of the name of Saunders, in the employ of Robert Laurie, brother of Sir Peter Laurie, the great saddler, who subsequently became lord mayor of London. Peter Bowers lost the wager, and on the stakes being demanded refused to pay on the score of unfairness. An angry dispute arose, and although no blows were struck they had recourse to a more dangerous mode of warfare, that is, "maken a muck-heap," which is accomplished by getting the objectionable one down and then falling on top of him. The condition of Peter made him an easy opponent. Prostrate on the water-table lay the victim, and those heavy plowmen, one after another, throwing themselves upon him, he became exasperated to that degree that had his tools been handy the act he committed, if not deemed justifiable, would have been morally, if not legally, palliated. But the evidence clearly elicited the fact of his having traveled from the scene of the scuffle to the tree under whose branches he had deposited his tools, lifted his axe, retraced his steps, and, notwithstanding he foamed with rage, singled out his opponent and knocked his brains out. The trial was a solemn affair. I took a seat in the gallery of the court, which was that of the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh. The trial presented a picture such as can never be erased from my mind. For a graphic description thereof, the reader must fall back on Scott, in his "Heart of Midlothian." Up to the period of which I write, there had been very little change in the severe aspect of the administration of justice under the Scottish jurisprudence. There were the judges, five in number, all wigged and ermined, the advocates pro and con, the barristers, briefed and briefless, the clerks of court, writers to the signet, sheriff, procurator fiscal, and fifteen jurymen, sworn to well and truly try the case between our sovereign lord the king and the prisoner at the bar, all solemnly assembled to redeem the offended law. Who is charged with breaking that law? The only son of that broken-hearted widow who sits weeping at the door, and to complete the awful scene, between two of the old city guard, in their picturesque uniform and Lochaber axes, the prisoner is ushered before that awful tribunal, which possesses the power either to restore him to the arms of a heart-broken mother in his wonted freedom, or to doom him to an ignominious death on the scaffold. All eyes were strained to trace the countenance of that anomalous youth whose appearance, and the record of whose life, gave the stern lie to the supposition that he could be guilty of such a crime of entertaining for one moment what is termed malice prepense. The brain and respectability of two counties were moved in his behalf, but sympathy was powerless in the face of the damning fact that the space between the scene of the homicide and that of the instrument of destruction used was sufficiently apart to allow of reflection. So the court opined, and hence the sable sealed unanimous verdict of an intelligent jury. Peter Bowers was doomed to die by the hands of the common hangman at the Tolbooth of Edinburgh on a given day, whereupon the whole community was aroused in his behalf. From ministers, elders, judges, teachers, even the lord lieutenant of East Lothian, came pouring in petitions urging commutation. At length the executive yielded to an importunity which was unparalleled in the history of the court, and granted the questionable boon of substituting transportation for life and branding with the letter M, for the death penalty. In a letter from Peter two years later he declared that had the choice been left to him, while thankful for the kind sympathy of his friends, he would prefer the latter punishment. He further wrote that it lies beyond the power of tongue or pen to portray the horrors of transportation to penal •settlements.

My fever abating, and otherwise convalescent, I found the London fever assuming the ascendant in my wayward cranium. I resolved to leave the scene of my birth forever, and on the 27th of November, 1820, embarked at Leith on board the Lord Wellington smack as a steerage passenger. We had a very rough passage of fourteen days' duration, having twice touched the coast of Norway. At length, with loss of bowsprit and some sails, and otherwise dilapidated, we found a haven in Harwich, in Norfolk. Those passengers who had means, and were impatient of delay, took coach for London. Among them was an Episcopal minister, upon whose shoulders were saddled all the disasters of the fourteen days' knocking about the North Sea by the superstitious crew, some of whom declared that without doubt a fair wind for the Thames would set in the moment we were well quit of the Jonah. A captain in the navy and some ten other cabin passengers joined the parson. Several remained on board, among whom was an officer in charge of a Highland female of the name of Ross, who was prisoner in the forecastle, and who was transported for fourteen years to Van Dieman's Land. She had for years kept the Rob Roy public house on the shore of Leith, and was convicted of passing a forged Bank of England note, with a face promise of ten pounds. She had wealth and some influence. The exercise of the latter procured the privilege of taking a favorite grandchild into banishment with her. During the few hours we were in Harwich it became painful to witness the wild, unreasonable efforts of this woman to escape her punishment. She exposed two purses of a hundred sovereigns each, and offered them all to anyone who could put her ashore, a proposition made in the sight and hearing of vigilance personified. The eye and ear of the guardian angel were ever present at the only hatch or place of exit from her miserable berth, and therefore any attempt to cheat the Hulks at such a time and place would be akin to madness. On the morning of the 11th day of December the seers of the crew were confirmed in their prognostications on this occasion, for a more beautiful winter morning never dawned. The wind came in a stiffish breeze from the north, which had the effect of bringing out the south-bound fleet, which had been for more than two weeks accumulating along the coast in shelter, and a grander sight it never was my lot to behold before nor since. From Harwich harbor to the Pool at London was one dense forest of masts in danger of getting foul of each other. We are now above Gravesend, and with the exception of two unfortunate souls we were happy in the thought of safely arriving, after a passage of some danger and a good deal of rough experience. Now the government boat awaits the arrival of the Wellington to receive the condemned one and her innocent grandchild, and to place them on board the detestable Hulks preparatory to a miserable voyage of six months' duration. We arrive abreast of the floating horror at Woolwich. The smack lays to, the boat is lashed alongside. A formal demand is made for the custody of the criminal, accompanied by papers explanatory of the departure on the part of the Scottish court. Intense interest was manifested on their behalf. After the trite farewell expressions a dead silence ensued, which was painfully affecting. The prisoner had kept her bunk nearly all the voyage. She was but little known to either the crew or passengers, who were taken by surprise on beholding a lady well and tastefully attired in satin, a rich veil partially concealing a good-looking countenance that might have seen some forty-three years. The poor thing had donned her best attire for the occasion, doubtless looked upon as household gods, but which must, in a few minutes, be torn rudely from her person and replaced by the coarse, degrading habiliments of the convict.

"Verily, the way of the transgressor is hard." The law is very tender of its victims. See with what care and solicitude the half-hung wretch is recuscitated to fit him for his second, and it is to be hoped less bungling, execution. Mrs. Ross was kindly assisted over the gunwail of the Wellington, her rich dress tenderly adjusted below while descending the rope ladder into the boat. Just at this juncture a rich tenor voice, in imitation of the old song, struck up, "And shall I see your face again, and shall I hear you speak; I'm down-

right dizzy wi' the thought, in troth I'm like to greet," and I can assure the reader that as the smack resumed her course the "greeting" was by no means confined to the singer. If there was a dry eye in that crowd, mine was too moist to detect it. The tenor was a Mr. Elliott, a tailor in Westminster. He was seconded by a fine young soldier returning from furlough, of the name of McCullough, of the Coldstream Guards, who by dint of his superior education was relieved of military duty, and employed all his time in the office of Earl Fitz Clarence, son of the Duke of Clarence, afterward William the Fourth, the sailor king. Before Charing Cross was metamorphosed I had met Mac in the King's Mew's barracks, the ground whereon stand the National Gallery, Nelson's monument, and surroundings. At. six p.m. the Lord Wellington was safely moored at Downie's wharf, Wapping, after a tedious passage of fourteen days,—now done by rail in about as many hours. Twelve hours from Harwich, 100 miles, including the delay at Woolwich. On our arrival a search was made for contraband goods. A bottle of whisky found in the trunk of a steerage passenger was seized, and the fellow threatened with a fine. Pleading ignorance of the excise law the disputants drifted into the office. I went in with them, and who should follow at our heels but the naval officer and the minister, who had just arrived by coach from Harwich. On giving instructions to the clerks relative to their baggage when the vessel should arrive, they were informed that the Wellington had been lying at the wharf for the last hour, which they deemed incredible, being ignorant of the Jonah theory.


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