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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter VII


"The sea! the sea! the open sea!
I am where I would ever be,
With its blue above and its blue below."

DURING the pleasant year I spent with Mr. Robertson, in the lively village of Portobello, the country was horror-stricken by the expose of the ghoulish traffic of murdering innocent persons to supply food for the dissecting scalpel, in which Burke and Hare played prominent parts in Edinburgh, the scene of Burke's expiation on the scaffold for the crime, while Hare, turning King's evidence, escaped the gallows, to suffer a living death in Canada.

The tie of consanguinity is not easily broken in Scotland. A cousin, with that people, must be a good many times removed before he can be allowed to slide into the ocean which is considered common to humanity. Taking a few days of recreation at home, I soon found employment with Alexander Glen, Castle street, Edinburgh, a cousin o' my father's o' the German type. There's no knowing how far the elastic tie was stretched — it was still unbroken ; and it was only necessary to mention the name of John Johnston to find a place in his thriving business. Mr. Glen's business lay among the elite of the New Town, among whom was Sir Walter Scott, whose mansion was on the north section of the same street, at which it became my duty to call daily, to supply his family with the staff of life. On one occasion I essayed (as was usual) to approach the' larder for the purpose of relieving myself of my burthen of six quartern loaves, at a time when all the servants were engaged up stairs. Sir Walter's favorite hound, Maida, disputed my approach, and, on attempting to elude his vigilance, he placed my helpless arm between his potent jaws, and there held me in durance till the cook made her appearance and indulged in a hearty laugh at my expense, and then Maida took his matted place on the landing of the kitchen stairs, his sentry-box when on guard. The charm of that classic precinct passed away at the demise of that genial soul, whose daily steps, in wonted exercise, made sacred the very stones on which he trod, and which is now adorned by the Gothic taste of Kemp, in that matchless monument in memory of the immortal Scott.

In the' meantime my half-brother, Alexander, after many years' service in the Royal artillery, had distinguished himself at the taking of the island of Ceylon from the Dutch. While as flag sergeant, being engaged in special service, the command of the detachment fell to him by the fall in battle of the commissioned officers intrusted with the expedition, the object of which, requiring some strategic delicacy, was attained to the satisfaction of the officer in command, a report of which was, by his orders, transmitted to the commander-in-chief, His Grace the Duke of Wellington, who was pleased to offer Alexander, as a mark of his approval, his choice of a commission in the Royal artillery, or a barrack sergeantcy, or a master gunnership in any one of our home strongholds. Not relishing the atmosphere of an officer's mess to one who has risen from the ranks, he had the good sense to choose the lesser of the twin favors. The Iron Duke at that time held the office of master-gunner of the ordnance. The master-gunnership of Leith fort was the first fruits of the Duke's favors, and this was rendered the more agreeable by the residence in that fort of his brother-in-law, David Davidson, and his delightful family. This fort is advantageously situated on the rising ground west of North Leith, near the fishing village of Newhaven, commanding a fine extensive view of the busy Firth, the Isle of Inchkeith and the Kingdom o' Fife. H. M. S. Ramilies, eighty-four guns, then guarded the commerce of the northern capital, the flitting visits to and from Stirling of the first of the forthcoming numerous family of steamers which had the courage to risk a taste of the stormy Firth, added another subject of interest. Here, in a visit of three weeks at this bewitching spot, my unconquerable passion for the sea was engendered, a passion which nothing short of sea-sickness could subdue.

After a lapse of a few years from this visit, while working with Mr. Glen, I engaged to work with a Mr. Wright, of the Coalhill, Leith, for no other reason than to be near the shipping. This step I soon regretted, not only on account of the good feeling existing between Mr. Glen and myself, but the influence of disparagement to the coarse nature of Mr. W. as compared to Mr. Glen.

The only redeeming feature of the change was the companionship of my fellow-workman, David Bonner who, as far as one can judge for themselves, was the very counterpart of the subscriber. He had the advantage of age (two years), of education, and in wild vagaries. It required about two weeks to combine our serial architectural capacities so as to enable us to launch out in the business of castle building. Each held the other in the highest estimation for practical wisdom, and whatsoever was suggested by the one was clinched by the other as the one thing needful. In the course of our cogitations we at length resolved to see the world; that the sea being the highway of nations, we should take that road; that inasmuch as it was impossible to get shipped in Leith, we should start for Newcastle-on-Tyne for that purpose; that it would be more agreeable to go the one hundred miles by water than by land; that a boat lying keel uppermost at Hillesfield may be sold for ten shillings; that we buy said boat and stick a pole in her to which we can fasten a biscuit bag for a sail. Our prospective voyage was designed to be one of pleasure. Old Boreas was to put on his best behavior. We were to be very careful never to sail so far from the land that we could not, if necessity required it, just pull our bit boatie ashore and take our snooze on dry land, and await the morning breeze from the north to help us on our journey. We gave up our situations with Mr. Wright, and found our purchase money for the boat entirely lost, inasmuch as it proved beyond our strength to move her, and got laughed to scorn on asking assistance from practical men. "Why," they said, "that old hulk has been so long a stranger to salt water that on an attempt to re-launch her she would fall to pieces." Still so impatient were we for the sea that we hired a boat for our experimental trip to the island of Inchkeith. Weather fine and tide serving, the passage to the island was delightful, and to add to our pleasure while on the island a splendid frigate passed so close to us as to enable us to perceive every movement of the busy crew upon her deck. Up to that period in my life I had never witnessed anything so bewitchingly fascinating as that moving picture. My wild, unthinking brain and heart followed in her wake. And now the wind, freshening and veering to the southwest, together with the adverse tide, admonished us to the oar. The closing scene of that voyage was made to stand in bitter contrast with that of the early day. Three hours' hard pulling began to convince us that wind and tide ahead were too much for our unskillful seamanship, and might lead to our undoing. The schemes of the voyage to Newcastle were borne by that breeze to the German ocean, never more to be dreamed of again. Our soft, unsailor-like hands became crowded with egg-like blisters, and still a hard mile to row, and the clouds of night rapidly descending. At dusk we reached the harbor and found the captain in a surly mood, pacing the deck of his little Thurso sloop, from whom we hired the boat. He met us with a vocabulary which I have since learned presented itself in the shape of much approved maritime oaths. I confess to having understood one of his expressions when he sputtered out in Scandinavian idiom: "I hope to go to------somewhere if I ever lend my boat to d------d land lubbers again." Now this was simply an outburst of anger brewed an hour ago in the supposition that his yawl had gone to the locker of Davy Jones. No matter what had become o' the two idiots who tempted him with their halfcrown for a bit sail in the Firth. He thought, in his broad Christian charity, that as far as the boys were concerned they might as well be out of the way.

There are actions during the spring-time of life which will shrink from the scrutiny of one's riper years. Exemption from this test, I believe, is confined to the few. Still there may be such whose blunders figure as an exception to the rule of an otherwise fairly spent morning of life. In my own retrospect I find, alas! an entire reversal in the order of things. I am humiliated to find blundering unmistakably the rule and wise action the exception. Could there be a better specimen found than the present to show to what folly youth can descend when left untrammeled? Behold two fellows, respectively 17 and 15 years old, brooding over their sunk wealth in the shape of (not an elephant, but) a cast-off yawl as inert as the Bass Rock to their appliances within reach.


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