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Wilson's Border Tales
The Poacher's Progress

Chapter 2

Such was the life of the poacher for several years, and as yet he had been guilty of no actual crime. He had carried on his trade without detection, defying the law, and laughing the landed proprietors around him, and their gamekeepers, to scorn. At length he was caught in the preserve of a gentleman in the neighbourhood, with three pheasants in the bag which he carried by his side. He resisted the attempt to seize him—he levelled his fowling-piece, and fired upon his assailants; but they were not injured, and it was believed that he did not fire with the wish of wounding them. He, however, was made prisoner, tried, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. No one made application for a mitigation of the punishment, and it was carried into effect.

On his departure, his neglected wife roused herself from the lethargy of despair which his habits had brought upon her spirit. She refused parish relief, and the farmers around admired her conduct and pitied her distress. She became washerwoman and laundress to all the respectable families around her; and when she had toiled as such in their houses, yet even at midnight the lamp was seen flickering in her cottage, and the stranger who passed it heard the busy sound of her spinning-wheel. She taught her little daughters to knit, and she sent them to gather wool amongst the whins and hedges. Her sons were employed on the surrounding farms, and each, in their turn, she sent for a quarter of a year to the parish school. Thc stagnant water was no longer seen at the door, but again there appeared the clean and sanded threshold—the old garments were removed from the windows, and glass supplied their place. She obtained the respect of all who knew her, and the pity they at first felt for her gave place to esteem. When the name of Janet Black was mentioned, it was ever said that "she deserved a better fate." Yet she often mourned to find that her influence was inadequate wholly to eradicate the habits which their father’s example had instilled into his children.

But seven years passed, and Adam Black returned from being a convict in the hulks to his family. When he entered the cottage, Janet sprang up and received him with open arms. She had wept over his punishment, but she had trusted that it would effect a reformation of his propensities. When she had called her children around him, and desired him to look now upon one, and now upon another, to observe how they had grown, and to tell him how they had wrought for her, and how one had become a scholar, and all could read, she again flung her arms around his neck, and said—

"And now, dear Adam, we shall a’ be happy—for, after a’, yours wasna a crime that we need hang our heads about—it was only what hundreds do daily—though it maybe wasna richt. But ye winna be looked down upon on account o’t—for it wasna like stealing—and I’m sure I’ll be able to get ye wark, for a’ the gentry round hae been kind to us."

"Work!—ha!" muttered Adam sullenly; and he coldly acknowledged the tenderness of his wife.

She saw, she felt, that he cared not for her, and his indifference went to her heart. Yet she fondly trusted, by her affection, to win back his, and to lead him also to habits of industry. But her hope was vain. To be doomed to wear the felon’s chain, and to mingle with convicts for years, may be a punishment, and it may make men worse than they were before the law condemned them; but that it can reform them is all but impossible. It had wrought no reformation on Adam Black, but it had rendered him more callous and more desperate; it had caused him to associate with wretches who made him acquainted with crimes of which he had never dreamed, and their habits gradually became his habits, and their thoughts his thoughts. He had been sent amongst felons for killing a pheasant, and he returned from amongst them capable of murdering a fellow-being.

Poor Janet shuddered at the words which she heard him utter—for, with strange and wicked oaths, he vowed vengeance on the individual who had prosecuted him; and she flung her arms around his neck, and kissed his forehead, yea, wept before him, and prayed that he would be calm, and tenderly, earnestly urged upon him the duty of forgiveness to enemies; but at her entreaties, and the sight of her tenderness, he raged the more furiously.

"Away with your foolery, woman!" he exclaimed, pushing her rudely from him; "talk not of forgiveness to me! Have I not worn the chains with which they degraded me—worn them till the iron entered my flesh— yet you talk of forgiveness! Do not torment me—I shall be revenged!" And he uttered words which we cannot write.

He inquired for his gun; and when informed that it had been sold to clothe his children during his absence, he grated his teeth together, and his eyes flashed with indignation—but he said little. He had brought home a few pounds with him; and, on the day after his return, he visited the ale-house which had before been his habitual place of rendezvous. There also he purchased a fowling-piece from an acquaintance. He seized it eagerly in his hands; and, though he had manifested no joy at the sight of his wife and children, when he again handled his favourite instrument, he leaped upon the floor, he examined it in every part, he almost pressed it to his lips.

That very night he returned home laden with game.

"O, Adam! Adam, man!" cried Janet, as he flung the birds upon the table, "have we no had enough o’ this wark, think ye, yet? Has a’ that ye hae suffered, and that we hae suffered, no been a lesson to ye? O Adam! will ye really persevere in this dangerous course until ye are torn frae your wife an’ bairns again? O bairns!" added she, addressing her children, "for dearsake, tak thae birds out o’ my sight—burn them!—bury them in the yard!—dinna let them remain beneath this roof! O Adam! for my sake—for the sake o’ your family—gie owre this, an’ I’ll work for ye, dear—we’ll a’ work for ye, till the bluid run owre our finger ends, if ye’ll only be prevailed upon to desist frae such a practice."

"Wheesht, old fool!" said he, pushing her roughly aside; "get the birds dressed—it is long since I tasted the food I am fondest of."

"No, Adam—no!" returned she, firmly; "rather wad I cut my hands aff than touch a feather o’ them."

"Idiot!" retorted he, stamping his foot and scowling upon her; and, ordering one of his daughters to prepare two of the birds for supper, the poor girl looked first anxiously at her mother, and then tremblingly at her father, and obeyed him.

Janet sat sorrowful and silent for a few moments, and tears ran down her cheeks. He to whom she had given her young affections, and from whom, unworthy as he was, her heart had never swerved, had looked upon her with coldness, he had spoken to her with anger and contempt—and these are hard things for a wife to bear. She had endured sorrow, she had suffered shame, for his sake, yet she felt his present treatment worse than all. Yet affection, and a desire for her husband’s reformation and safety, prevailed over every other feeling, and she rose, her countenance expressive of anxious and imploring tenderness, and laid her hand on his, and said earnestly—

"Dear Adam!"

"Dear devil!" rejoined the monster, dashing away her hand, "has the woman parted with the little sense she ever had! See that the girl cook those birds right, and let me have none of your preaching."

She sat down in silence, and endeavoured, as she best could, to conceal the agony of a blighted heart.

He returned to his old courses—drinking by day, and poaching by night; and wasting not only the money which the game he destroyed produced, but the earnings also of has wife and family.

About twelve months after his return from banishment, the two oldest of his children fell sick of a fever and died; those that were left were unable to provide for themselves; and his heart-broken wife became feeble of body and almost imbecile of mind. Again the cottage bore the impress of wretchedness. About this time, also, sheep were frequently stolen from the flocks of the gentleman who had been necessary to his punishment. Adam was suspected, and his outrage was searched; but there was nothing found in it that would criminate him, though the conviction was strong on every mind that he was the depredator. At length want drove him from the cottage, and he removed no one knew where, taking his wife and children with him.

It has been mentioned that, at a time when Adam Black’s family were in want, and when famine and remorse were goading him to destruction, their wants were relieved by the daughter of a Mr. Nisbet, who was the clergyman of the parish. Now, it was about three years after the poacher had left the scene of his depredations, that Mr. Nisbet proceeded to Edinburgh on business, intending to return in a few days. But day after day, his daughter looked for him in vain. He came not, and no tidings were heard concerning him. A messenger was dispatched to Edinburgh to inquire respecting him; and it was ascertained that he had left that city in a coach which passed within three miles of his manse, and there it was found that he had left it to proceed home on foot; but, beyond this, no trace of him could be found, though rewards were offered, and diligent search made over the country. Many were the surmises regarding his fate, but his disappearance remained involved in mystery. Some, remembering the character of the poacher, and that suspicion would have attached to him, said—"Well this is one thing Idle Adam is innocent of."

At the period of her father’s disappearance, Mary Nisbet was not beyond the age when reason, though not immature, is least powerful, the world most alluring, and sorrow wildest. She had been suddenly deprived of her only protector, her only relative. But, educated as she had been—the sole child of a country clergyman, springing up like a solitary but lovely flower in the wilderness, concentrating in its own bright hues the colours of every ray that the sun scattered over the barren desert—she endeavoured, by the precepts her father had taught her, to subdue the intensity of her feelings; and a few months after his disappearance, partly to beguile her gaief, and partly from the hope of hearing something that might throw light upon his fate, she accepted an invitation to visit a friend in Leith.

To cheer her melancholy, her friends took her to visit every object of interest in and around the Modern Athens; though at that period it had not the same claims to the appelation that it has now. One object alone remained unvisited, an object which few of her sex would be desirous of beholding. Mary had never seen the interior of a prison; and, to the surprise of her friends, she expressed a determination to visit the city jail. She allowed it was a strange wish, but she could not drive it from her thoughts. On the following day they accompanied her to the gloomy abode of iniquity and punishment, where crime, like a tiger, crouches ready to spring upon its victims as they enter, and complete within the walls of a prison the work of depravity it had already begun.

She shuddered as she beheld the keepers, with suspicion written on their eyeballs, slowly turning lock after lock, surveying the visitors with jealous scrutiny as they entered, and suddenly closing upon them one massy door after another, till they were enveloped in the innermost places of guilt. And there, the profane impenitence of fallen wretches, from the grey-haired criminal to the felon of ten years old, made humanity tremble and Christianity bleed. There, the elder corrupted the younger, laughed the lingering fragments of conscience to scorn, and developed the broad ways of vice. Some few mourned over their first crime, and trembled to think of the miserable futurity that awaited them, when the days of their punishment would be past and they should be again cast upon the world, the shunned of society.

They were shown into the cell of a miserable being lying under sentence of death for murder. He was seated on a low stool in the darkest corner of his dungeon, his elbows resting on his knees, and his face buried in his hands. His body rocked backward and forward convulsively, his fetters clanked with the melancholy motion, and his deep groans at times burst forth, in the bitterness of remorse, into an agonizing howl. He appeared alike insensible of their approach or their presence. They were about to depart, when he started up in a paroxysm of despair, and dashed his clenched hands against his forehead. His eyes, which were red with agony, fell upon Mary. He sprang back—he seized his chains and attempted to tear them from their fastenings; and, still riveting his eyes upon her features, he uttered a wild scream, and, as they were turning away in horror, he exclaimed—

"Stay, Mary Nisbet—stay!" Her heart throbbed fast and painfully, as she heard her name thus suddenly and unexpectedly pronounced in such a place, and by such a being, and she clung closer to the arm of her friend; for there is something in the presence of a murderer from which the stoutest heart recoils, not with fear, but horror.

"Hear me!" he cried, "turn not away. Look upon me— know me! Art thou come to heap an orphan’s curse upon the doomed of Heaven and of man? Hear me! my words are already steeped in the fury of despair—they burn my own throat! Look on me—look upon your father’s murderer." As he said this, he again howled wildly, and struck his head against the wall.

"Miserable wretch !—my father!" exclaimed Mary. And, forgetful of her recent horror, she sprang forward and grasped him by the arm.

"Miserable indeed!—lost—ruined for ever!" screamed the wretched criminal. Mary trembled, wept, and fell back upon the shoulder of her friend.

"Ye have come to look on me as a wild beast," continued the murderer vehemently; "ye have thrust your hand into its den, and it has not been withdrawn unwounded. But look on me again, and remember the features of a monster. Twelve years ago, Mary"——

Here the wretched man burst into tears, and wrung his hands upon his bosom. "Thank Heaven!" said her friend, "tears are the forerunners of repentance."

"Remorse! Remorse!" ejaculated the hopeless criminal— "repentance is drowned in the blood of my victims." He paused a few moments, and again proceeded—"Twelve years ago I sat beneath your father’s ministry. I resided in his parish. O death! I was then guiltless!—yes, yes—I was guiltless then! But what am I now?—a murderer!—the murderer of the very man that made me tremble at sin. Look on me, Mary—remember me now! In the midst of the hard winter, when labour was frozen up, and when I would have wrought if any man would have employed me, and when bread was buried in the granaries of the rich, you saved me from self-destruction—you saved my wife from death, my children from starvation!"

"Adam Black!" exclaimed Mary—"wretched man! can it be possible?"

"It is possible," continued he, "it is true. You saved me from destroying myself, and I have become the destroyer of others. You snatched my wife from death, and I have trampled on her bosom—I have hurled her to a strange grave, with a broken heart. You saved my children from starvation, and I have blasted them by my example, and they have become a pestilence to society—they have broken the law and endured its punishment. O woman! I have run the race of the wicked—I have worn all the honours of sin! I started as a poacher and a drunkard, and I have ended as a murderer. Want, and the fear of detection of crimes I had committed, drove me from your father’s parish. I came to this city— without a character, without principles, without friends, and with no aim but to live, though how I knew not. I became a prowling fiend upon the streets, a housebreaker and robber and an associate of those with whom I had become acquainted when we were convicts together. Some months ago, I saw your father in this city. My chief confederate in guilt learned that he had drawn a considerable sum of money, with which he was to return home on the following day. We resolved that the money should be ours, and agreed to rob him by the way. The better to avoid detection, we concerted that the robbery should take place in his own parish. We set out on the day before he was to leave, and arrived at the footpaths leading across the moor to the manse, after nightfall. My companion took his station upon one path, and I upon another, at about four hundred yards distant from each other, lest we should miss our prey. Within an hour, your father approached by the path on which I lay in wait for him. I sprang before him. I demanded his money. He refused it. He grappled with me—he was too powerful for me—he knew me—he mentioned my name. Till then I had not thought of murder, but I drew my knife— I plunged it into his bosom, and he fell dead at my feet. The booty we expected, I did not find. My companion came up, and, with our hands we dug a grave for my victim in the morass. My fellow in guilt accused me of having secreted your father’s money before he came to me. With deep oaths swore that I had found none; but he believed me not. Afterwards, he saw notices of the rewards that were offered for the apprehension of the murderer, or to those who could give information respecting your father’s fate. We were drinking together, when he threatened to give me up to justice and receive the reward. Stung to insanity and despair by his threats, I sprang to my feet, and buried in his body the same knife I had plunged in your father’s bosom. He expired before me; I was seized before I withdrew my hand; and now I am doomed to death—death here and hereafter. I would have carried this confession to the grave--if there be a grave for me. Your father’s fate should have remained a mystery till suspicion darkened the soul of the innocent; but your appearance here dragged it to my lips—an invisible power compelled me to make it—and now you have heard it, invoke the vengeance of Heaven upon me, and leave me."

Mary wept aloud for a few minutes, and, again addressing the criminal, said—"Unhappy man! waste not your numbered hours in wickedness and despair. Insult not the yet offered mercy of your Creator; for even you, guilty as you are—and a more guilty man than you, Adam Black, breathes not upon the earth—yet even for you there is hope."

"Away, woman!" cried he impatiently; "am I a child, or am I an ignorant man that ye preach to me! Did I not forsake my Maker in my youth, and dishonour Him with my strength, and will he accept my premature grey hairs? Shall He take me to heaven merely because I fear hell? Away, woman! ye have heard all I have to tell thee! I have lived a sinner, but I will not die the hangman’s fool, believing that the steps of the gallows, like Jacob’s ladder, lead to heaven!"

"Adam Black!" said Mary, solemnly, and laying her hand upon his shoulder, "dost thou believe the Scriptures?"

"Yes!" exclaimed he, "I believe as devils believe—I believe and tremble; and already I feel the futurity that awaits me, in the absence of hope--in the gnawing of the worm that dieth not—in the burning of despair!"

"Wretched being!" said she, "add not wilful despair to the catalogue of your crimes."

"Woman, woman!" he cried, furiously—"why are ye come to torment me before my time. My conscience cried to me for years—‘Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?’ but I laughed at its voice, I drowned it in the yell of human fiends, and now it has turned upon my bosom, where it clings and stings as a scorpion! Away, woman away! Torture me not!—leave me!—leave me!"

She was supported from the prison in the arms of her friends; and, on the following day, Adam Black, her father’s murderer expiated his crimes upon a scaffold.

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