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Wilson's Border Tales
The Poacher's Progress

Chapter 1

The poacher is a common character; and, although there is no guilt in his occupation itself, yet he who is in the everyday practice of breaking the laws of man, from the very habits and fears attendant upon such practice, unconsciously becomes ready to break the laws of his Maker. The sin is as small on the part of a poor man killing a bird or a leveret for gain, as on the part of a rich man killing it for amusement. Yet I have seldom known a confirmed poacher who did not eventually become a person of reckless and desperate character. His living in the constant fear of detection—the jeopardy of his calling— the secrecy of his actions—insensibly blunt and destroy his better feelings and principles; and I have often thought that our game-laws are laws made for the amusement of the rich, at the expense of the morals of the poor. But, to drop this, I shall briefly sketch the progress of a poacher.

Adam Black was the son of a farmer of the old school who rented some hundred acres near a part of the debatable grounds between Roxburgh and Northumberland. Adam received a respectable education; but he was of idle habits from his boyhood upwards. It is but seldom that we hear much good of a person who is given to idleness; and we have a proverb that says, "If the devil find a man idle, he generally sets him to work." There is much truth in the adage. Yet, it may almost be said, that, instead of being tempted, an idle man actually holds out a temptation to the tempter—he invites him to his destruction. I have said, however, that Adam Black was idle from his youth. When he became a lad, no portion of his thoughts was given to the business of the farm. Give Adam his dog and his gun, and that was all he desired, all he cared for. He turned a deaf ear to the admonitions of his father, and the counsels of his mother were laughed at. His gun by day, and his gins or his snares by night, were the sole occupants of his thoughts. But as yet he was not vicious; and his only faults were, that he was given to idleness and poaching. He, perhaps, had a redeeming quality in the warmness of his heart, if it was not more than counterbalanced by the excess of his passions; for he was headstrong, vehement, revengeful.

At the age of three and twenty, and while he yet lived with his father, Adam married. His parents offered no opposition to his wishes, for the object of his choice was a maiden of sweet and gentle disposition, and of blameless character; and, though poor, they trusted that her influence would arouse their son to habits of industry and exertion. Some said that she had made a good match, because, being the daughter of a simple shepherd, she had married the only son of a farmer; but there were others who observed more closely, and who saw deeper, that shook their heads, and said, "she was too good for bis wife." But it is frequently difficult to account for a woman’s affections: the cause that produced them is often mysterious, as their depth is intense. A thousand bards have sung of WOMAN’S LOVE, and, although

"nae poet in a sense,
But just a rhymer like by chance,"

I shall interrupt my story for a minute’s space, to sing it also.

Say not it is the flickering flame
That all have felt—that all must feel—
Which comes, and goeth as it came—
That fleeteth, changeth, as the wheel
Of caprice or young fancy turns;
Nay, ‘tis the strong, the deep emotion
Of the full heart whose deep devotion
Through adverse fate and coldness burns,
That marks a woman’s love.

Oh, ‘tis a glad, a holy glow—

An angel’s dream—a seraph’s bliss—
A theft from heavenly joy to know

To feel, to own, to know but this:
That there is one—a lovely one—
The life, the partner of our being—
Who, all our faults and follies seeing,
Can love, and love but us alone,
With all a woman’s love.

Within her bosom is a fire
That burneth with a light divine
Which, when opposing ills conspire
To cloud the soul, will burst—will shine
Within, around—and joyous throw
A ray of hope o’er him she loveth,
Till heaven the kindred flame approveth,
And half the pain of fate—of woe,
Is lost in woman’s love.

Such a woman became the wife of Adam Black; but, although he was proud of her love, though he was conscious of it and jealous of it, he had not principle enough within him to appreciate it. She, therefore, produced no abiding change upon his habits; and although, in a measure, he was broken from them for a time, within three months he returned to them as the swine doth to its wallowing in the mire. For some weeks she occupied his thoughts, and her words had influence; but he returned again to his dog and to his gun—her counsel became irksome—he received it peevishly, and he thought as little of her as of his duties on the farm.

Within the first year after his marriage his mother died, and, in the third year, a paralytic stroke fell upon his father, as though death had tapped him on the shoulder, saying—"Come." The old man felt that his days were numbered—that the last warning had been given; and he called his son to his bedside, and said—

"Adam! I am about to leave you; and, O man, will ye listen to a faither’s dying advice?"

"Yes, faither! yes!" cried Adam—for I have said that he was warm-hearted—and he wept as he spoke.

"Oh, then, my son," continued the old man, "hearken to my last words—the last words o’ yer faither, Adam. I dinna say that ye are vicious, but, oh! ye hae been thoughtless—ye are far from what I would wish to see ye. It is’na meikle that I hae to leave ye; but if ye dinna take care o’t, it will waste frae amang your hands like snaw aff a dike. Ye are now also a faither, and a young family are rising around ye; and, oh, for their sakes, and for the sake o’ the mother that bore them, see that ye set them the example o’ a Christian, that they may not rise up as witnesses against you at the great day. Do ye hear me, Adam? O, my son, say that ye will follow your faither’s dying injunction, and I will die in peace."

Adam wrung his father’s hand, and hid his face upon the bed to conceal his agony. "It is enough," said the dying man—"thank God, the voice of conscience is not dumb in the breast of my bairn!"

On the death of his father, Adam became the occupier of the farm; but he neglected it, and I need not say that, in return, fortune neglected him. His fields and his crops became a jest among his neighbours, and the former they called "Idle Adam’s pleasure-grounds." But the lease expired, and, because he had been a slothful tenant, the landlord refused to renew it.

The money which his father had left him, was reduced to about a hundred pounds, when he was compelled to leave the farm, and he removed with his family to a small cottage which stood on the road-side, in a lonely part of the country, and about ten miles from the farm on which he had been brought up. Here Adam took up his abode as though the hundred pounds would provide for his family for ever.

He did nothing, save to prowl about behind the hedges with his gun over his arm, or, in the dead of night, to rob the preserves of the gentlemen in the neighbourhood. His poor wife strove anxiously, and with tears, to reclaim him—to arouse him to honest exertion. She reminded him of the destitution that was creeping around them, and every day narrowing its circle. She drew her infant children round his knees, and implored him to provide for them. But his answer was, "We shall do well enough—I will be my own master."

"Ày," replied she, "and the slave of the law!"

"Hang the law!" returned he; "what care I for the law!"

For a time their cottage had an appearance of cleanliness and neatness, but gradually it began to exhibit the marks of poverty and wretchedness, as her spirit broke, and she found her love lost, and her counsel of no avail. Old garments supplied the place of glass in one-half of the window—the well-scoured and sanded threshold was no longer visible, but stagnant water lay in little pools before the door, and around them ragged and squallid children quarrelled with each other.

They were sent to no school—it was but little instruction that their mother could give them; and the little she endeavoured to give, the example of their father destroyed. The only education they received was such as would enable them to become poachers like himself; and before the eldest was seven years of age, he was sent to the neighbouring towns to sell the game which his father had destroyed.

People wondered how Adam Black lived, for he wrought none; and although they knew him to be a poacher, they could not see how by such means he provided food for himself and family. And although his children were in rags, and his wife never seen, his appearance approached what might be termed respectable. He wore a large velvet coat, made after the fashion of a sportsman’s, and, in general, his vest and trousers were of the same material. Every day his voice was heard in the ale-house of a neighbouring village, and by his side, on such occasions, crouched a dog of the pointer breed—a living emblem of hunger and leanness.

But famine often pressed hard upon his family; and when he would have wrought for them, no one would employ him; and once, when want gnawed at his heart, and remorse stung his soul, he would have lifted up his hand against his own life, had not the daughter of a Mr. Nisbet, who was the clergyman of the parish, at the very moment, like an angel of mercy, visited the cottage, and, having heard of the destitution of its inmates, come to relieve them.

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