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Book of Scottish Story
The Unlucky Top Boots - Chapter 1

Top Boots, as everybody must have remarked, are now [1833] nearly altogether out of fashion. Their race is all but extinct. An occasional pair may indeed still be seen encasing the brawny legs of a stout elderly country gentleman on a market day, or on the occasion of a flying visit to the metropolis; but with this exception, and with probably that of some hale obstinate bachelor octogenarian, who, in full recollection of the impression which his top boots had made on the public mind some fifty years since, still persists in thrusting his shrivelled shanks into the boots of his youth ;—we say, with the first positive, and the last probable exception, this highly respectable-looking, and somewhat flashy, article of dress has entirely disappeared.

Time was, however, and we recollect it well, when matters stood far otherwise with top boots. We have a distinct vision of numberless pairs Hitting before our eyes, through the mazes of the various thoroughfares of the city; but, alas ! they have vanished, one after another, like stars before the light of approaching day. Rest to their ‘soles’ - they are now gathered to their fathers—their brightness is extinguished—their glory is gone. The Conqueror of Waterloo hath conquered them also. The top boots have fallen before the Wellingtons!

We have said that we recollect when it was otherwise with top boots, and so we do. We recollect when a pair of top boots was a great object of ambition with the young, whose worldly prosperity was all yet to come—whose means of indulging in such little vanities of the flesh were yet to be acquired. To them a pair of top boots was a sort of land-mark in the voyage of life; a palpable, prominent, and desirable object to be attained; a sort of Cape Horn to be doubled. Nor were they less objects of ambition at the time we speak of—say about 40 years since—to the more advanced, whose circumstances required a long previous hint to prepare for such an event as the purchase of a pair of top boots. In short, top boots were the rage of the day. The apprentice, the moment he got "out" of his time, got "into" his top boots. The first thing the young grocer did was to get a pair of top boots. No lover then went to woo his mistress but in top boots, or at least if he did, the chance was, that he would go to very little purpose. The buckishly-inclined mechanic, too, hoarded his superfluous earnings until they reached the height of a pair of top boots, in which to entomb his lower limbs. Although their visits now, as we have already hinted, are "few and far between," we have seen the day when, instead of being but occasionally seen, like solitary points of light as they are now, on the dusky street, they converted it by their numbers into an absolute ‘via lactea’,—a perfect galaxy of white leather,—or shot, frequent, pale, and flitting, like northern streamers, through the dark tide of humanity as it strolled along.

No marvel is it, therefore, that, in the midst of the wide prevalence of this top boot epidemic, poor Tommy Aikin should have fallen a victim to the disease—that his heart should have been set upon a pair of top boots; nor is it a marvel that Mr Aikin should have been able finally to gratify this longing of his, seeing that he was in tolerable circumstances, or at least in such circumstances as enabled him, by retrenching a little somewhere else, to attain the great object of his ambition —a pair of top boots. No marvel, then, as we have said, are these things which we have related of Mr Aikin; but great marvel is it that a pair of top boots should have wrought any man such mischief, as we shall presently show they did to that honest man. But let us not anticipate. Let us, as has been before wisely said, begin at the beginning, and say who Mr Aikin was, and what were the evils in which his top boots involved him.

Be it known, then, to all whom it may concern, that Mr Thomas Aikin was an officer of Excise, and was, at the period to which our story relates, residing in a certain small town not more than fifty miles distant from the city of Glasgow. Mr Aikin was a stout-made middle-aged man, exceedingly good-natured, kind, civil, and obliging. In short, he was an excellent fellow, honest and upright in all his dealings, and a faithful servant of the revenue. Everybody liked Mr Aikin, and Mr Aikin liked everybody; and sorely did everybody lament his misfortunes when they fell upon him. Mr Aikin had for many years led a happy life in the bosom of his family. He laughed and joked away, took his jug of toddy, caressed his children, spoke always affectionately to and of his wife, and was so spoken to and of by her in return. In short, Mr Aikin was a happy man up to that evil hour when he conceived the idea of possessing himself of a pair of top boots.

"Mary,” said Mr Aikin, one luckless evening, to his loving wife, after having sat for about half an hour looking into the fire.

"Aweel, Thomas?" said his spouse, in token of her attention.

"I wad like to hae a pair o’ tap boots," replied Mr Aikin, shortly, and without further preamble, although he had in reality bestowed a good deal of thought on the subject previously; indeed, a dim undefined vision of top boots had been floating before his mind’s eye for nearly a month before it took the distinct shape of such a determination as he was now about to express.

"Aweel, Thomas," replied his better half with equal brevity, "ye had better get a pair.”

"They’re decent lookin’ things," rejoined Mr Aikin.

"lndeed are they,” said his indulgent spouse,—"very decent and respectable, Thomas."

"Rather flashy though, I doubt, for the like o’ me," quoth Mr Aikin.

"I dinna see that, Thomas, sae lang as ye’re able to pay for them,” remarked Mrs Aikin.

"No so very able, my dear," responded her husband; "but I wad like to hae a pair for a’ that, just to wear on Sundays and collection days."

"Aweel, Thomas, get them; and what for no?” replied Mrs Aikin, "since your mind's bent on them. We’ll save the price o’ them aff something else.”

We need not pursue further the amicable colloquy which took place on this fatal night between Mr Aikin and his wife. Suffice it to say, that that night fixed Mr Aikin’s resolution to order a pair of top boots. On the very next day he was measured for the said boots; and late on the Saturday evening following, the boots, with their tops carefully papered, to protect them from injury, were regularly delivered by an apprentice boy into the hands of Mrs Aikin herself for her husband’s interest.

As Mr Aikin was not himself in the house when the boots were brought home, they were placed in a corner of the parlour to await his pleasure; and certainly nothing could look more harmless or more inoffensive than did these treacherous boots, as they now stood, with their muffled tops and shining feet, in the corner of Mr Aikin’s parlour. But alas! alas! shortsighted mortals that we are, that could not foresee the slightest portion of the evils with which these rascally boots were fraught ! To shorten our story as much as possible, we proceed to say that Mr Aikin at length came home, and being directed to where the boots lay, he raised them up in one hand, holding a candle in the other; and having turned them round and round several times, admiring their gloss and fair proportions, laid them down again with a calm quiet smile of satisfaction, and retired to bed.

Sunday came, the church bells rang, and Mr Aikin sallied forth in all the pomp and glory of a pair of spick and span new top boots. With all Mr Aikin’s good qualities, there was, however,- and we forgot to mention it before,—a "leetle" touch of personal vanity ; the slightest imaginable it was, but still such an ingredient did enter into the composition of his character, and it was this weakness, as philosophers call it, which made him hold his head at an unwonted height, and throw out his legs with a flourish, and plant his foot with a firmness and decision on this particular Sunday, which was quite unusual with him, or, at least, which had passed unnoticed before. With the exception, however, of a few passing remarks, in which there was neither much acrimony nor much novelty, Mr Aikin’s boots were allowed to go to and from the church in peace and quietness. "Hae ye seen Mr Aikin's tap boots?” "Faith, Mr Aikin looks weel in his tap boots." "Mr Aikin was unco grand the day in his tap boots." Such and such like were the only observations which Mr Aikin’s top boots elicited on the first Sunday of their appearance. Sunday after Sunday came and departed, and with the Sundays came also and departed Mr Aikin’s top boots, for he wore them only on that sacred day, and on collection days, as he himself originally proposed. Like every other marvel, they at length sank quietly to rest, becoming so associated and identified with the wearer, that no one ever thought of discussing them separately. Deceitful calm— treacherous silence!—it was but the gathering of the storm.

lt so happened that Mr Aikin, in the language of the Excise, surveyed, that is, ascertained and levied the duties payable by a tanner, or leather dresser, who carried on his business in the town in which Mr Aikin resided. Now, the Honourable Board of Excise were in those days extremely jealous of the fidelity of their officers, and in a spirit of suspicion of the honour and faith of man peculiar to themselves, readily listened to every report prejudicial to the character of their servants. Here, then, was an apparently intimate connection, and of the worst sort,—a pair of top boots,—between a revenue officer and a trader, a dresser of leather. Remote and obscure hints of connivance between the former and the latter began to arise, and in despite of the general esteem in which Mr Aikin was held, and the high opinion which was entertained of his worth and integrity, these hints and suspicions—such is the wickedness and perversity of human nature—gradually gained ground, until they at length reached the ears of the Board, with the most absurd aggravations.

Their honours were told, but by whom was never ascertained, that the most nefarious practices were going on in ——, and to an enormous extent. Large speculations in contraband leather, on the joint account of the officer and trader, were talked of; the one sinking his capital, the other sacrificing the king’s duties. Whole hogsheads of manufactured boots and shoes were said to be exported to the West Indies, as the common adventure of the officer and trader. The entire family and friends of the former, to the tenth degree of propinquity, were said to have been supplied gratis with boots and shoes for the last ten years. In short, the whole affair was laid before their honours, the Commissioners of Excise, decked out in the blackest colours, and so swollen, distorted, and exaggerated, that no man could have conceived for a moment that so monstrous a tale of dishonesty and turpitude could have been manufactured out of a thing so simple as a pair of top boots. Indeed, how could he? For the boots—the real ground of the vile fabrication—were never once mentioned, nor in the slightest degree alluded to; but, as it was, the thing bore a serious aspect, and so thought the Honourable Board of Excise.

A long and grave consultation was held in the Board-room, and the result was, an order to the then collector of Excise in Glasgow to make a strict and immediate inquiry into the circumstances of the case, and to report thereon ; a measure which was followed up, in a day or two afterwards, by their honours dispatching two surveying-generals, as they are called, also to Glasgow, to assist at and superintend the investigation which the collector had been directed to set on foot. On the arrival of these officers at Glasgow, they forthwith waited upon the collector, to ascertain what he had learned regarding Mr Aikin’s nefarious practices, The result of the consultation, which was here again held, was a determination, on the part of the generals and the collector, to proceed to the scene of Mr Aikin’s ignominy, and to prosecute their inquiries on the spot, as the most likely way of arriving at a due knowledge of the facts.

Accordingly, two chaises were hired at the expense of the Crown, one for the two generals, and another for the collector and his clerk-—all this, good reader, be it remembered, arising from the simple circumstance of Mr Aikin’s having indulged himself in the luxury of a single solitary pair. of top boots, —and, moreover, the first pair he ever had. The gentlemen, having seated themselves in the carriages, were joined, just before starting, by a friend of the collector’s, on horseback, who, agreeably to an arrangement he had made with the latter on the preceding day, now came to ride out with them to the scene of their impending labours; and thus, though of course he had nothing to do with the proceedings of the day, he added not a little to the imposing character of the procession, which was now about to move in the direction of Mr Aikin's top boots.

An hour and a half’s drive brought the whole cavalcade into the little town in which the unfortunate owner of the said boots resided; and little did he think, honest man, as he eyed the procession passing the windows, marvelling the while what it could mean—little, we say, did he think that the sole and only object, ‘pro tempore’ at least, of those who composed it, was to inquire how, and by what means, and from whom, he had gotten his top boots. Of this fact, however, he was soon made aware. In less than half an hour he was sent for, and told, for the first time, of the heavy charges which lay against him. A long, tedious investigation took place; item after item of poor Aikin’s indictment melted away beneath the process of inquiry ; until at length the whole affair resolved itself into the original cause of all the mischief,—the pair of top boots. Nothing which could in the slightest degree impugn Mr Aikin’s honesty remained but these unlucky top boots, and for them he immediately produced his shoemaker’s receipt :—

One pair of Top Boots, . . £2, 2s
Settled in full,

With this finisher the investigation closed, and Mr Aikin stood fully and honourably acquitted of all the charges brought against him. The impression, however, which the affair made at head-quarters, was far from being favourable to him. He was ever after considered there in the light, not of an innocent man, but as one against whom nothing could be proven ; and his motions were watched with the utmost vigilance. The consequence was, that, in less than three months, he was dismissed from the service of the revenue, ostensibly for some trifling omission of duty ; but he himself thought, and so did everybody else, that the top boots were in reality the cause of his misfortune.

One would have thought that this was quite enough of mischief to arise from one pair of top boots, and so thought everybody but the top boots themselves, we suppose. This, however, was but a beginning of the calamities into which they walked with their unfortunate owner.

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