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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Ferguson
Chapter 3

But he is weak—both man and boy
Has been an idler in the land.

I was attempting to listen, on the evening of the following Sunday, to a dull, listless discourse—one of the discourses so common at this period, in which there was fine writing without genius, and fine religion without Christianity—when a person who had just taken his place beside me, tapped me on the shoulder and thrust a letter into my hand. It was my newly-acquired friend of the previous evening; and we shook hands heartily under the pew.

"That letter has just been handed me by an acquaintance from your part of the country," he whispered: "I trust contains nothing unpleasant."

I raised it to the light, and, on ascertaining that it was sealed and edged with black, rose and quitted the church followed by my friend. It intimated, in two brief lines, that my patron, the baronet, had been killed by a fall from his horse a few evenings before; and that, dying intestate, the allowance which had hitherto enabled me to prosecute my studies necessarily dropped. I crumpled up the paper in my hand.

"You have learned something very unpleasant," said Ferguson. "Pardon me—I have no wish to intrude; but if at all agreeable, I would fain spend the evening with you."

My heart filled, and, grasping his hand, I briefly intimated the purport of the communication, and we walked out together in the direction of the ruins.

"It is, perhaps, as hard, Mr Ferguson," I said, "to fall from one’s hopes as from the place to which they pointed. I was ambitious—too ambitious, it may be--to rise from that level on which man acts the part of a machine, and tasks merely his body, to that higher level on which he performs the proper part of a rational creature, and employs only his mind. But that ambition need influence me no longer. My poor mother, too—I had trusted to be of use to her."

"Ah, my friend," said Ferguson, "I can tell you of a case quite as hopeless as your own—perhaps more so. But it will make you deem my sympathy the result of mere selfishness. In scarce any respect do our circumstances differ."

We had reached the ruins; the evening was calm and mild as when I had walked out on the preceding one; but the hour was earlier, and the sun hung higher over the hill. A newly-formed grave occupied the level spot in front of the little ivied corner.

"Let us seat ourselves here," said my companion, "and I will tell you a story—I am afraid a rather tame one; for there is nothing of adventure in it, and nothing of incident; but it may at least shew you that I am not unfitted to be your friend. It is now nearly two years since I lost my father. He was no common man—common neither in intellect nor in sentiment; but, though he once fondly hoped it should be otherwise—for in early youth he indulged in all the dreams of a poet—he now fills a grave as nameless as the one before us. He was a native of Aberdeenshire; but held, latterly, an inferior situation in the office of the British Linen Company in Edinburgh, where I was born. Ever since I remember him, he had awakened too fully to the realities of life, and they pressed too hard on his spirits, to leave him space for the indulgence of his earlier fancies but he could dream for his children, though not for himself; or, as I should perhaps rather say, his children fell heir to all his more juvenile hopes of fortune, and influence, and space in the world’s eye;—and, for himself, he indulged in hopes of a later growth and firmer texture, which pointed from the present scene of things to the future. I have an only brother, my senior by several years, a lad of much energy, both physical and mental; in brief, one of those mixtures of reflection and activity which seem best formed for rising in the world. My father deemed him most fitted for commerce, and had influence enough to get him introduced into the counting-house of a respectable Edinburgh merchant, I was always of a graver turn—in part, perhaps, the effect of less robust health—and me he intended for the Church. I have been a dreamer, Mr Lindsay, from my earliest years—prone to melancholy, and fond of books and of solitude; and the peculiarities of this temperament the sanguine old man, though no mean judge of character, had mistaken for a serious and reflective disposition. You are acquainted with literature, and know something, from books at least, of the lives of literary men. Judge, then, of his prospect of usefulness in any profession, who has lived, ever since he knew himself, among the poets. My hopes, from my earliest years, have been hopes of celebrity as a writer-- not of wealth, or of influence, or of accomplishing any of the thousand aims which furnish the great bulk of mankind with motives. You will laugh at me. There is something so emphatically shadowy and unreal in the object of this ambition, that even the full attainment of it provokes a smile. For who does not know

‘How vain that second life in others’ breath
The estate which wits inherit after death!’

And what can be more fraught with the ludicrous than a union of this shadowy ambition with mediocre parts and attainments! But I digress.

"It is now rather more than three years since I entered the classes here. I competed for a bursary, and was fortunate enough to secure one. Believe me, Mr Lindsay, I am little ambitious of the fame of mere scholarship, and yet I cannot express to you the triumph of that day. I have seen my poor father labouring far, far beyond his strength for my brother and myself—closely engaged during the day with his duties in the Bank, and copying at night in a lawyer’s office. I had seen with a throbbing heart, his tall wasted frame becoming tremulous and bent and the gray hair thining on his temples; and I now felt that I could ease him of at least part of the burden. In the excitemeut of the moment, I could hope that I was destined to rise in the world—to gain a name in it and something more. You know how a slight success grows in importance when we can deem it the earnest of future good fortune. I met, too, with a kind and influential friend in one of the professors the late Dr. Wilkie. Alas good, benevolent man! you may

see his tomb yonder beside the wall; and, on my return from St. Andrew’s, at the close of the session, I found my father on his deathbed. My brother Henry—who had been unfortunate, and, I am afraid, something worse—had quitted the counting-house and entered aboard of a man-of- war, a common sailor; and the poor old man, whose heart had been bound up in him, never held up his head after.

On the evening of my father’s funeral, I could have lain down and died. I never before felt how thoroughly I am unfitted for the world—how totally I want strength. My father, I have said, had intended me for the Church; and, in my progress onward from class to class, and from school to college, I had thought but little of each particular step, as it engaged me for the time, and nothing of the ultimate objects to which it led. All my more vigorous aspirations were directed to a remote future and an unsubstantial shadow. But I had witnessed beside my father’s bed what had led me seriously to reflect on the ostensible aim for which I lived and studied; and the more carefully I weighed myself in the balance, the more did I find myself awanting. You have heard of Mr Brown of the Secession, the author of the "Dictionary of the Bible." He was an old acquaintance of my father’s; and, on hearing of his illness, had come all the way from Haddington to see him. I felt, for the first time, as, kneeling beside the bed, I heard my father’s breathings becoming every moment shorter and more difficult, and listened to the prayers of the clergyman that I had no business in the Church. And thus I still continue to feel. ‘Twere an easy matter to produce such things as pass for sermons among us, and to go respectably enough through the mere routine of the professions; but I cannot help feeling that, though I might do all this and more, my duty, as a clergyman, would be still left undone. I want singleness of aim—I want earnestness of heart. I cannot teach men effectually how to live well; I cannot shew then with aught of confidence, how they may die safe. I can not enter the Church without acting the part of a hypocrite and the miserable part of the hypocrite it shall never be mine to act. Heaven help me! I am too little a practical moralist myself to attempt teaching morals to others.

"But I must conclude my story, if story it may be called—I saw my poor mother and my little sister deprived, by my father’s death, of their sole stay, and strove to exert myself in their behalf. In the daytime I copied in a lawyer’s office; my nights were spent among the poets. You will deem it the very madness of vanity, Mr Lindsay, but I could not live without my dreams of literary eminence. I felt that life would be a blank waste without them; and, feel so still. Do not laugh at my weakness, when I say I would rather live in the memory of my country than enjoy her fairest lands—that I dread a nameless grave many times more than the grave itself. But, I am afraid, the life of the literary aspirant is rarely a happy one; and I, alas! am one of the weakest of the class. It is of importance that the means of living be not disjoined from the end for which we live; and I feel that, in my case, the disunion is complete. The wants and evils of life are around me; but the energies through which those should be provided for, and these warded off, are otherwise employed. I am like a man pressing onward through a hot and bloody fight, his breast open to every blow, and tremblingly alive to the sense of injury and the feeling of pain, but totally unprepared either to attack or defend. And then those miserable depressions of spirits to which all men who drew largely on their imagination are so subject; and that wavering irregularity of effort which seems so unavoidably the effect of pursuing a distant and doubtful aim, and which proves so hostile to the formation of every better habit--alas! to a steady morality itself. But I weary you, Mr Lindsay; besides, my story is told. I am groping onward, I know not whither; and, in a few months hence, when my last session shall have closed, I shall be exactly where you are at present."

He ceased speaking, and there was a pause of several minutes. I felt soothed and gratified. There was a sweet melancholy music in the tones of his voice, that sunk to my very heart; and the confidence he reposed in me flattered my pride. "How was it," I at length said, "that you were the gayest in the party of last night?"

"I do not know that I can better answer you," he replied, "than by telling you a singular dream which I had about the time of my father’s death. I dreamed that I had suddenly quitted the world, and was journeying, by a long and dreary passage, to the place of final punishment. A blue, dismal light glimmered along the lower wall of the vault; and, from the darkness above, where there flickered a thousand undefined shapes—things without form or outline—I could hear deeply-drawn sighs, and long hollow groans, and convulsive sobbings, and the prolonged moanings of an unceasing anguish. I was aware, however, though I know not how, that these were but the expressions of a lesser misery, and that the seats of severer torment were still before me. I went on, and on, and the vault widened, and the light increased, and the sounds changed. There were loud laughters and low mutterings, in the tone of ridicule; and shouts of triumph and exultation; and, in brief, all the thousand mingled tones of a gay and joyous revel. Can these, I exclaimed, be the sounds of misery when at the deepest? ‘Bethink thee,’ said a shadowy form beside me—‘bethink thee if it be not so on earth.’ And, as I remembered that it was so, and bethought me of the mad revels of shipwrecked seamen and of plague-stricken cities, I awoke. But on this subject you must spare me."

"Forgive me," I said; "to-morrow, I leave college, and not with the less reluctance that I must part from you. But I shall yet find you occupying a place among the literati of our country, and shall remember, with pride that you were my friend."

He sighed deeply, "My hopes rise and fall with my spirits," he said; "and to-night I am melancholy. Do you ever go to buffets with yourself, Mr Lindsay? Do you ever mock, in your sadder moods, the hopes which render you happiest when you are gay? Ah! ‘tis bitter warfare when a man contends with Hope!—when he sees her, with little aid from the personifying influence, as a thing distinct from himself—a lying spirit that comes to flatter and deceive him. It is thus I see her to-night.

"See’st thou that grave?—does mortal know
Aught of the dust that lies below?
‘Tis foul, ‘tis damp, ‘tis void of form—
A bed were winds the loathsome worm,
A little heap, mould’ring and brown,
Like that on flowerless meadow thrown
By mossy stream, when winter reigns
O’er leafless woods and wasted plains;
And yet that brown, damp, formless heap
Once glowed with feelings keen and deep,
Once eyed the light, once heard the sound
Of earth, air, wave, that murmurs round.
But now, ah! now, the name it bore,
Sex, age, or form, is known no more.
This, this alone, O Hope! I know,
That once the dust that lies below,
Was, like myself, of human race,
And made this world its dwelling-place.
Ah! this, when death has swept away
The myriads of life’s present day,
Though bright the visions raised by thee,
Will all my fame, my history be!

We quitted the ruins and returned to town.

"Have you yet formed," inquired my companion, "any plan for the future?"

"I quit St. Andrew’s," I replied, "to-morrow morning. I have an uncle the master of a West Indiaman, now in the Clyde. Some years ago, I had a fancy for the life of a sailor, which has evaporated, however, with many of my other boyish fancies and predilections; but I am strong and active, and it strikes me there is less competition on sea at present than on land. A man of tolerable steadiness and intelligence has a better chance of rising as a sailor then as a mechanic. I shall set out, therefore, with my uncle on his first voyage."

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