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Wilson's Border Tales
Reuben Purves
Chapter 1


Speculation is the soul of business, it is the mainspring of improvement, it is essential to prosperity. Burns has signified that he could not stoop to crawl into what he considered as the narrow holes of bargain-making; and nine out of every ten persons, who consider themselves high-minded, profess to sympathize with him, and say he was right. But our immortal bard, in so saying, looked only at the odds and ends— the corners and the disjointed extremities of bargain-making, properly so called-—and he suffered his pride and his prejudices to blind, in this instance, his mighty spirit, and contract his grasp, so that he saw not the all-powerful, the humanizing, and civilizing influence of the very bargain-making which he despised. True it is, that as a spirit of speculation or bargain-making contracts itself, and every day becomes more and more a thing of farthings and of fractions, it begets a grovelling spirit of meanness, that may eventually end in dishonesty; but as it expands, it exalts the man, imbues his mind with liberality, and benefits society. The spirit of commercial speculation will spread abroad, until it render useless the sword of the hero, cause it to rust in its scabbard, and to be regarded as the barbarous plaything of antiquity. It will go forth as a dove from the ark of society, bearing the olive-branch of peace and of mutual benefits unto all lands, until men shall learn war no more.

But at present I am not writing an essay on speculation or enterprise, but the history of Reuben Purves, the speculator; and I shall therefore begin with it at once. Reuben was born in Galashiels, than which I do not know a more thriving town, or one more beautifully situated on all the wide Borders. As you pass it, seated on the outside of the Chevy-Chase coach on a summer day (if perchance a sunny shower shall have fallen), it lies before you as a long and silvered line, the blue slates reflecting back the sunbeams. In its streets, cleanliness and prosperity join hands, while before it and behind it rise hills, high enough to be called mountains, where the gorgeous heather purples in its season. Before it—I might say through it—wimples the Gala, almost laying its thresholds. There the spirit of speculation and of trade has taken up "a local habitation and a name," in the bosom of poetry. On the one hand is the magic of Abbotsford, on the other the memories of Melrose. But its description is best summed up in the condemnation of a Cockney traveller, who said—"Vy, certainly, Galashiels would be wery pretty, were it not its vood and vater!"

But I again digress from the history of Reuben Purves. I have said that he was born in Galashiels; his father was a weaver, and the father brought his son up to his own profession. But although Reuben

"was a wabster guid,
Could stown a clue wi’ ony body,’

his apprenticeship (if his instructions from his father could be called one) was scarce expired, when, like Othello, he found "his occupation gone," and the hand-loom was falling into disuse. Arkwright, who was long considered a mere bee-headed barber, had—though in a great measure by the aid of others—brought his mechanism to a degree of perfection that not only astonished the world, but held out a more inexhaustible and a richer source of wealth to Britain than its mines did to Peru. Deep and bitter were the imprecations of many against the power-loom; for it is difficult for any man to see good in that which dashes away his hard-earned morsel from the mouths of his family, and leaves them calling in vain for food. But there were a few spirits who could appreciate the vast discovery, and who in it perceived not only the benefits it would confer on the country, but on the human race. Arkwright, who, though a wonderful man, was not one of deep or accurate knowledge, with a vanity which in him is excusable, imagined that he could carry out the results of his improvements to an extent that would enable the country to pay off the national debt. It was a wild idea; but, extravagant as it was, it must be acknowledged, that the fruits of his discoveries enabled Britain to bear up against its burdens, and maintain its faith in times of severest trial and oppression.

Reuben’s father was one of those who complained most bitterly against the modern innovation. He said, "the work could never be like a man’s work. It was a ridiculous novelty, and would justly end in the ruin of all engaged in it." It had, indeed, not only reduced his wages the one half, but he had not half his wonted employment, and he saw nothing but folly, ruin, and injustice in the speculation. Reuben, however, pondered more deeply; he entered somewhat into the spirit of the projector. He not only entertained the belief that it would enrich the nation, but he cherished the hope that it would enrich himself. How it was to accomplish his own advancement he did not exactly perceive, but he lived in the idea—he dreamed of it—nothing could make him divest himself of it; and he was encouraged by his mother saying—

"Weel, Reuben, I canna tell, things may be as ye say— only there is very little appearance o’ them at present, when the wages o’ you an’ your faither put thegither, are hardly the half o’ what ane o’ ye could hae made. But ae thing is certain—they who look for a silk gown, always get a sleeve o’t."

"Nonsence, woman! ye’re as bad as him," was the reply of his father: "wherefore would ye encourage the callant in his havers? I wonder, seeing the distress we are a’ brought to, he doesna think shame to speak o’ such a thing. Mak a fortune by the new-fangled system, indeed!—my truly! if it continue meikle langer, he winna be able to get brose without butter."

"Weel, faither," was the answer of Reuben, "we’ll see; but you must perceive that there is no great improvement can take place, let it be what it will, without doing injury to somebody. And it is our duty to watch every opportunity to make the most of it."

"In my belief, the laddy is out o’ his head," rejoined the father; "but want will bring him to his senses."

Reuben, however, soon found that it became almost impossible to keep soul and body together by the labours of the loom. He therefore began to speculate on what he ought to do; and, like my honoured namesake, the respectable poet, but immortal ornithologist, he took unto himself a PACK; and, with it upon his shoulders, he resolved to perambulate the Borders. There was no disgrace in the calling, for it is as ancient, perhaps more ancient, than nobility; and we are told that, even in the time of Solomon, "there were chapmen in the land in those days." Therefore, Reuben Purves became a chapman. He, as his original trade might lead one to suppose, was purely a dealer in "soft" goods; and when he entered a farm-house, among the bonny buxom girls, he would have flung his pack upon the table, and said—

"Here, now, my braw lasses; look ye hear! Here’s the real upright, downright, elegant and irresistible muslin for frills, which no sweetheart upon this earth could have the power to withstand. And here’s the gown-pieces—cheap, cheap—actuahly gien them awa—the newest thc most elegant patterns! Only look at them!—it is a sin to see them so cheap! Naething could be mair handsome! Now or never, lasses! Look at the ribbons, too—blue, red, yellow, purple, green, plain, flowered, and gauze. Now is the time for busking your cockernony—naething, could withstand them wi’ sic faces as yours—naething, naething, and that ye would find. It would be out o’ the question to talk o’t. Come, hinnies, only observe them, I’m sure ye canna but buy—or look at this lawn."

"O Reuben, man," they would have said, "they are very bonny; but we hae nae siller."

"Havers!" answered he, "young queens like you talking about siller! Sell your hair, dears, and buy lang lawn!"

Then did Reuben pull forth his scissors, and begin to exercise the functions of a hair-dresser, in addition to his calling as a chapman—thinning, and sometimes almost cropping, the fair, the raven, the auburn, or the brown tresses of the serving-maids, and giving them his ribbons and his cambrics in exchange for their shorn locks. The ringlets he disposed of to the hair-dressers in Edinburgh, Newcastle or Carlisle, and he confessed that he found it a very profitable speculation; and where the colour or texture of the hair was beautiful, he invariably preferred bartering for it, to receive payment in money. This was a trait in Reuben’s character, at the outset of his career as a speculator, which showed that he had a correct appreciation of the real principles of trade— that he knew the importance of barter, without which commerce could not exist; and it afforded an indication of the future merchant.

He was in the habit of visiting every town, village, and farm-stead within sixty miles of the Borders—to the north and to the south—and taking in the entire breadth of the island. His visits became as regular as clock-work. No merchant now-a-days knows more exactly the day and almost the hour when he may expect a visit from the traveller of the house with which he deals, accompanied with an invitation to drink a bottle of wine, and pay his account, than the people in the Border villages knew when Reuben would appear amongst them.

It was shrewdly suspected that Reuben did not confine himself solely to the sale of ribbons, gown-pieces, and such like ware, but that his goodly pack was in fact a magazine, in which was concealed tea, cognac, and tobacco. At all events, he prospered amazingly, and in the course of three years—though he lessened its weight at every village he came to— his pack overgrew his shoulders, and prosperity compelled him, first, to have recourse to a pack-horse, and, before he had had it long, to a covered cart or caravan. In short, on arriving at a village, instead of going round from house to house with his stock upon his shoulders, as he was wont to do, he sent round the drummer or bellman, or, where no such functionaries are known, he employed some other individual, with a key and a trencher, to go round the village and make the proclamation—

"This is to give notice, that Mr. Reuben Purves, with his grand and elegant assortment of the newest and most fashionable varieties of soft-ware goods, and other commodities, all bought by him for ready-money, so that great bargains may be expected, has just arrived (at such an inn), and will reman for this day only; therefore those who wish the real superior articles, at most excellent bargains, will embrace the Present opportunity!"

Let not the reader despise Reuben, because he practiced and understood the mysteries of puffing. There is nothing done in this world without it. No gardener ever "lichtlied "his own leeks. All men practice it, from the maker of books to the maker of shoe-blacking, or the vendor of matches. From the grandiloquent advertisement of a metropolitan auctioneer, down to the "only true and particular account" of an execution, bawled by a flying stationer on the streets, the spirit of puffing, in its various degrees, is to be found. Therefore we blame not Reuben—he only did what other people did, though, perhaps, after a different fashion, and with better success. It gave a promise of his success as a tradesman. He said he ventured on it as a speculation, and finding it to suit his purpose, he continued it. In truth, scarce had the herald made the proclamation which I have quoted, until Reuben’s cart was literally besieged. His customers said, "it went like a cried fair"—"there was nae getting forward to it."

Moreover, he was always civil, he was always obliging. He had a smile, and a pleasant and merry word for every one. Buy or not buy, his courtsey never failed him. In short, he would do anything to oblige his customers, save to give them credit; and that, as he said, was not because he had any doubt of their honesty, or that he was unwilling to serve them, but because he had laid it down as a rule never to trust a single penny, which rule he could not break. He was also possessed of a goodly person, was some five feet ten inches in height, he had fair hair, a ruddy cheerful countenance, intelligent blue eyes, and in years little exceeded thirty.

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