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Wilson's Border Tales
Reuben Purves
Chapter 2

At this period of Reuben’s history, there lived in the town of Moffat, one Miss Priscilla Spottiswoode. Now, Priscilla was a portly, and withal a comely personage, and though rather stout, she was tall in proportion to her stoutness. Nothing could surpass the smoothness of the clear red and white upon her goodly countenance. There was by no means too much red, and constitutional good-nature shed a sort of perpetual smile over her features, like a sunbeam irradiating a tranquil lake. In short, it was a reproach to every bachelor in the town and parish of Moffat, to have permitted forty and four summers to roll over the head of Priscilla, without one amongst them having the manliness to step forward and offer his hand to rescue her from a state of single solitariness. She had been for more than twenty years the maid, or rather I might say, the nurse, of an old and rich lady, who, at her death, bequeathed to her five hundred pounds.

Reuben first saw Priscilla, about three months after she had received the legacy. "Five hundred pounds," thought he, ‘would set a man on his feet.’ He also gazed on her kind, comely smiling countenance, and he said within himself, that "the men of Moffat were blind." And eventually he concluded, communing with himself, that the fair Priscilla was a speculation worthy the thinking of. She wished to purchase a few yards of lace for cap borders, and such like purposes; and as Reuben sold them to her, he said to her a hundred pleasant things, and he let drop some well-timed and well-turned compliments, and she blushed as his eulogy on the lace aptly ended in praise of her own fair features. Yet this was not all; for he not only sold to her fifty per cent. cheaper than he would have parted with his goods to any other purchaser, but he politely—by what appeared a wilful sort of accident—contrived to give her a full yard into her bargain. Priscilla looked upon Reuben with more than complacency; she acknowledged (that is,to herself) that he was the best-looking, polite, and most sensible young man she had ever seen. She resolved that in future she would deal with no one else; and indeed she had got such an excellent bargain of the lace, that she had come to the determination of again visiting his stock, and making a purchase of other articles. And, added she, to a particular friend— "It does a body good to buy from him, for he is always so pleasant."

But Reuben saved her the trouble; for early the next day he called at her house with a silk dress under his arm. He said— "It was the last piece of the kind he had—indeed it was a perfect beauty, equal to real India, and would become her exceedingly—and not to think about the price, for that was no object."

"What then am I to think about?" thought Priscilla; and she admired the silk much, but, peradventure, if the truth were told, she admired its owner more.

Reuben spent more than two hours beneath the roof of the too long-neglected spinster. During those two hours she blushed, his tongue faltered, and when he rose to depart he had neither the silk beneath his arm nor the cash for it in his pocket; but he shook her hand long and fervently, and he would have saluted her fair cheek—but true love, like true genius, people say, is always modest. Priscilla, on being left alone, felt her heart in a very unusual tumult; and now she examined her face in a mirror, and again admired the silk which he had presented to her. She had always heard him spoken of as a steady, thriving, and deserving young man; and it became a settled point in her mind that, if he directly popped the important question, she would be as candid with him, and at once answer—"Yes."

Reuben was frequently seen in Moffat after this, even when he brought no goods for sale; and within six months after her purchase of the lace, the sacred knot, which no man may unloose, was tied between them; and at the age of forty and four years and four months, but before time had "wrought a wrinkle" on her fair brow, Miss Priscilla Spottiswoode blushed into Mrs. Purves.

While following his avocation as a chapman, Reuben had accumulated somewhat more than two hundred pounds, which, with the five hundred that his wife brought him, raised his capital to more than seven hundred. But he was not a man to look only at the needle point of things, or whose soul would be lost in a nutshell. Onward! onward! was the ruling principal of Reuben—he had been fortunate in all his speculations, and he trusted to be fortunate still. Never, during all his wanderings, had he lost sight of the important discoveries of Arkwright, and of the improvements which were every day being made upon them; and while he was convinced that they would become a source of inexhaustible wealth to the nation, he still cherished the hope and the belief that they would enrich himself. He said also—and Mrs. Purves agreed with him—that travelling the country was a most uncomfortable life for a married man. He therefore sold his horse and his covered cart, disposed of his stock at prime cost, and, with his wife and capital, removed to Manchester.

He took a room and a cellar, at the top of Dean Street, and near to the foot of Market Street,

"Where merchants most do congregate."

The upper room served them for bedchamber, parlour, kitchen and all, while the cellar he converted into a wareroom. Perhaps, having more than seven hundred pounds to begin the world with, some may think that he might have taken more commodious premises; but rents were becoming high in Manchester—many a great merchant has begun business in a cellar—and Reuben, quoting the words of poor Richard, said—

"Vessels large may venture more,
But little boats should keep the shore."

And he farther said, "I am but serving my time yet; we must creep before we walk."

Never was any man who prospered in the affairs of the world more diligent in business than Reuben Purves, and in Priscilla he found an admirable helpmate. She soon learned the name, the price, and the quality of every description of goods; and when he was necessarily absent, she could attend to the orders of customers as promptly as himself. The reader unacquainted with the Manchester mode of business, is not to suppose that Reuben, although his stock was wedged up in a cellar, was a retail draper or haberdasher. Its magnitude considered, there are fewer such in Manchester than in any other town in the kingdom; but Reuben commenced as wholesale merchant—one who supplies the country dealers. He always went to the markets to purchase with the money in his hand, as Joseph the patriarch’s brethren came to him to buy corn—and pity it is that the good old custom has too much fallen into disuse. He made his purchases chiefly from the small manufacturers, to whom ready money was an object of importance, and consequently bought his goods to much advantage to himself. During his extensive perambulations on the Borders also, he had become generally acquainted with the drapers in all the towns upon his circuit; and at the seasons when they generally visit Manchester, he might have been seen rapidly passing along what is now called Piccadilly and passing the coach from the north, just as it drew up to the inn; and if one whose face he knew stepped off it or out of it, Reuben turned suddenly round as if by accident, took the north country purchaser by the hand, and invited him home to "eat beef" with him, or to take supper, as the case might be. He was generally successful; for to resist his solicitations was a matter of difficulty, and after partaking of a frugal meal and a single glass, the stranger was invited to examine the stock in the wareroom, and seldom failed of becoming the purchaser of a part. By such means and perseverance his business in a few years increased exceedingly. He was of opinion, that there is hardly anything too difficult for resolute perseverance to accomplish or overcome, at least he always found it so; and I confess I am very much of his mind.

Within three years he had taken extensive warerooms. He had a clerk, a salesman, four warehousemen, a traveller, and a porter. He had also taken his father from the loom. Reuben had seized fortune at the flood, and he floated down with the stream. He said he never undertook a speculation, but he was convinced in his own mind it would be successful. He also said, that fortune-making was like courtship; it was never venture never win—only to know what you were venturing upon.

I should have mentioned, that, previous to this, Priscilla had made Reuben the happy father of twin daughters, and the one they named Rachael, the other Elizabeth. The mother gloried in her children, and her husband looked on them with delight. He was a fortunate man and a happy one; and his cup of felicity, if it did not run over, was well filled.

In a short time, Reuben not only supplied with goods to a great extent the merchants on the Borders, but throughout the three kingdoms; and he also exported extensively to other countries, and even to some where the importation of British goods was prohibited.

"A fig for the tariffs," he was wont to say, snapping his fingers; "the profit will cover the risk. The principle of trade is like the principle of steam—there is no restraining it. Neither kings, emperors, congresses, nor laws, are a match for it. They canna cage it up like a bird. They might as well say to the waves of the sea, ‘hitherto shalt thou come and no farther,’ as to the spirit of trade—‘stop!’"

In these speculations, however, Reuben frequently experienced the common fate of the smuggler; and the goods which he sent into countries where they were prohibited were seized. He was of too ardent a temperament to be merely the purchaser and vendor of other men’s manufactures, and eventually he erected a cotton-mill of his own, a few miles out of Manchester.

And here it will, perhaps, be more acceptable to the reader, that I detail the remainder of Reuben’s narrative in his own words, as he related it to an old schoolfellow in his native town, after an absence from it of more than thirty years. It was delivered with his unchanged Scottish accent, and with many Scottish phrases and modes of expression, which a residence of more than three time, ten years in England had not destroyed.

"I was now," said he—alluding to the erection of the mill—"at what I had always considered as the very pinnacle of my ambition—the proprietor of a cotton-mill, and of one, too, that had cost me several thousands in completing it. I had no manner of doubt, but that it would turn out the master-speculation of my existence; for, bless ye, at that period, to have a mill was to have a mine. A spinning-jenny was worth its weight in rubies. There was Arkwright made a fortune like a nobleman’s in a jiffy; and Robert Peel, greatly to his credit, from being a weaver lad, I may say, in less than no time, made a fortune that could have bought up half the gentry in the country. Indeed, wealth just poured in upon the mill-owners; and, I must confess, they werena bad times for the like o’ me, that bought their calicoes, and got them dressed and printed to sell them out, as ye may judge from my having been able to erect a mill of my own before I had been many years in business. But, I must confess, that the mill ran between me and my wits. All the time it was building, I was out and in frae the town, to see how the workmen were getting on, wet or dry, and, I dare to say, that if I dreamed about it once, during the twelve months it was in hands, I dreamed about it a thousand times. Many a time Priscilla has said to me—

‘Reuben, I doubt ye are thinking owre meikle about that mill, and really it’s no right—it’s sinfu’. I fear it is enough to mak the concern no prosper.’

‘My dear,’ I used to say, ‘do ye consider what an immense speculation it is?—it is like death or life to me, and if I didna think o’ it, and look after the workmen to see how they are getting on wi’ it, who, do ye suppose, would? There is nothing like a man looking after his own concerns, and, where there is sae meikle at stake, it is impossible but to think o’t.’

But, sir, I looked after the progress of the mill, and my thoughts were taken up concerning it, to the neglect of my more immediate business. After commencing in the wholesale line, I found it impossible to abide by my original rule of—no credit; and, during my frequent absence from my warehouse, my salesman had admitted the names of men into my books of whom I knew nothing, but whom I afterwards learned were not to be trusted. Their payments were not forthcoming in the proper season; and, in looking after them, I put off insuring the mill at the time I intended. Delay, sir, is a curse to a person in business; it is as dangerous as the blandishments of a harlot to the young—and so I found it. On the very night that the machinery and every thing was completed, I allowed the spinners and others that I had engaged to have a supper and dance in it wi’ their wives and sweethearts. I keepit them company for an hour mysel’, and very merry they were. But, after charging them all to keep sober and harmonious one with another, and to see that they locked the doors behind them when they broke up, and to leave everything right, I wished them good-night; and they drank my health, and gave me three cheers as I left them. I got into my gig, and drove home to Manchester. But I dinna think I had been three hours in bed, when Priscilla gied me a dunch with her elbow, and, says she—

‘Waken, Reuben! waken!—there’s an unco knocking at the street door.’

‘Hoot! it will be some drunk body passing,’ says I, and turned round on my side to compose myself to sleep again.

But the knock, knocking, continued louder and louder.

‘That is nae drunk body,’ said Priscilla, ‘something has happened.’

I started owre the bed, and I was hardly half-dressed when I heard the street door open, and the servant lass came fleein’ up the stair.

‘What is it?’ cried I.

‘Oh, sir—the mill!—the mill!’ said she.

Had she shot me, she could not have rendered me more stupified.

‘What about the mill?’ cries I, all shaking with agitation.

‘Oh, it’s on fire—it’s on fire!’ replied the lassie.

I heard Priscilla scream, ‘On fire!’ and she also sprang to the floor.

I cannot tell ye how I threw on my coat—I know that I banged out without a napkin about my neck, and, rushing down the stairs, I couldna even stop to get the horse from the stable and saddled, but away I flew upon my feet. If ever a man ran as if for his life, it was me that night. It was six miles to the mill, but I never slacked for a single moment. I didna even discover, though the stones were cutting my feet, that I had come away without my shoes. The mill absorbed both thought and sense—I was dead to everything else. But, oh, upon reaching it, what a sight presented itself to my view! There was the great red flames roaring and raging up to the height of its five stories; and the very wheels of the machinery, seen through the windows, glowing as bright as when in the hands o’ the smith that formed them. The great suffocating clouds of smoke came rolling about me, and even blinding me. Hundreds of women ran about screaming, some carrying water, and some running in the way of others, and drunken men staggered to and fro, like lost spirits in the midst of their tortures. O, sir, it was an awful sight for any one to behold; but for me to witness it was terrible! For some minutes I was bereft of both speech and reason; and, had the spectators not held me back, I would have rushed into the middle of the flames. Crash after crash, the newly-erected walls and the floors fell in, and I was a helpless spectator of the destruction of my own property. In one night, yea, in one hour, more than half the fortune that I had struggled for years to gather together, was swept, as by a whirlwind, from off the face of the earth.

I stood till I beheld the edifice that had been the pride of my heart, a mass of smoking ruins, with, I may say, scarce one stone left upon another. All the manufacturers round about sympathized with me very sincerely, and one of them drove me back to Manchester in his drosky. When I entered my own house, I believe I appeared like a person on whom sentence of death has been passed, as he is removed from the bar and led back to his prison.

‘Weel, Reuben,’ asked Priscilla, in her own calm and gentle way, ‘is the damage great?’

‘Oh, my dear!’ said I, ‘there is nothing left but a heap o’ ashes! Nothing! nothing!—we are ruined!’

‘No, no,’ replied she as quietly as ever, ‘we arena ruined.’ The back is aye made fit for the burden. The Hand that sent the misfortune (as we think it) upon us, will enable us to bear up against it. Now, just ye compose yersel’ and dinna be angry at what I am gaun to say; but we are just as rich now as we were three years ago; and, I am sure, Reuben, we were quite as happy then as we are now. Ye have still a very excellent business, and a fortune far beyond onything that you and I could ever expect to possess when we cam thegither. You have your health and I have mine; and our twa bits o’ bairnies are growing up to be a comfort to us baith. They will ne’er feel the loss o’ the cotton mill, and you and I ne’er kenned the guid o’t. Wherefore, then, should ye grieve? Ye ought rather to be thankfu’ that it is nane o’ your family that is taen frae ye. And, I have nae doubt, that, although we self-wise and short-sighted mortals canna see it, this visitation will be for the guid o’ us a’. It is better that ye should lose the mill than forget your Maker; and, forgie me for saying it, but I feared it was setting your heart upon the things o’ this world, to a degree which did not become the faither o’ a Christian family. Therefore, let me entreat you to say, ‘His will be done,’ and to believe that this has fallen upon you for the best. Our loss is not so great but that, if times keep good we may soon owercome it."

I had often experienced the value of my wife, and admired her meek, patient spirit, and affectionate heart; but I never, until this trial came upon me, knew her real worth. She enabled me to begin the world; ay, sir, and this far she has guided me through it. She was better than twelve years older than me—but what of that? She looked as young like at forty as ever I saw another woman do at twenty; and now, when she has been my wife for thirty years, I hardly ken her aulder. A glaikit lassie, under such circumstances, might have wrung her hands, and upbraided me for allowing the supper and the dance; but Priscilla strove only to comfort me, to imbue my mind with fortitude, and to turn the accident to my eternal advantage. I had long loved and esteemed her, but I now reverenced her.

I sat and I listened to her, and looked in her face for the space of ten minutes, without speaking a word; and, at last, fairly overpowered wi’ her gentleness and her tenderness, I rose and took her hand; and ‘Priscilla,’ says I, ‘for your sake dear, I will think no more about the matter. The mill is destroyed; but, as you say, we may overcome the loss—and I shall try.’

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