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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XV

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley."

MY boon companion at that time in London was a noble fellow of the name of John Hay, whose father was under-steward or grieve of the estate of Richardson of Pitfour, in the Carse of Gowrie. John was paying his addresses to the handsome daughter of the janitor of Clement's Inn (one of the inns of court), who was well to do in addition to his good position, and was pretty free in giving nice little entertainments to. his numerous acquaintances and friends, at which Sophie and I were welcome guests. At one of these social gatherings John (full of fun) rose and gravely proposed that inasmuch as there were two young men present who were daring enough to signify their intention of entering into the bonds of matrimony, but who were, while yet free, desirous of visiting their native land across the Tweed, that their affianced brides, now also present, be required to vouchsafe their full, untrammeled consent, in the presence of this company, to the said young men's absence for a reasonable time, for that purpose. The acquiescence obtained, the wherewithal to carry out the proposition became a matter of grave solicitude. John had it. The Eliza, of Newburgh, Captain James Pitkethly, would be in port with a load of Perth Reds (the fashionable potato of the day) and then you'll see how glad he will be to find room for us in his good sloop Eliza on her passage north. The Eliza in due time delivered her reds at the wharf. A bargain was struck, and in glorious weather, lightly ballasted, and with hearts to match, we set sail for Scotland. In a few days we put into Sunderland for a load of coal. Arriving off the port too late in the evening, our signals were unperceived on the shore and we had to chop about in the offing all night with the lights of the tempting town on which to cast our longing eyes. At early morn I had the pleasure of steering the Eliza through the arch of that which was considered the highest bridge in England at that period. This bridge was built at the expense of one Rolland Bordan, who had for years been subject to great inconvenience in his climbing the steep, rocky banks of the Wear to and from his work. To span this chasm by bridge became the ruling thought of his mechanical mind, but continued poverty forbade the hope of ever becoming able even to assist in the accomplishment of his lifelong desire. Still, by pinching economy, he saved enough of his wages to enable him to buy a sixteenth part of a share in a public lottery, which he did secretly, not even letting his own wife know anything of it, and when the glad tidings arrived, announcing the fact that Roily (as he was familiarly called) was enriched to the extent of twenty thousand pounds, she could not understand a word of the half-written, half-printed form which proved the basis of her husband's happiness. She therefore called a few of her neighbors in to explain, which they did, coupling their explanation with advice that the good news should be broken to Roily in such a manner as not to turn his brain, " for indeed we have," said they, "noticed of late his blathering a good deal about an imaginary brig across the Wear, and in the evening we will break the tidings to him in such a manner as shall be the least likely to disorder the mental faculties of Rolly Bordan." Their plan was approved by Mrs. Bordan. They went on their mission, met Roily at the Mitre tavern over his beer and pipe, sat down uninvited to participate in a social chat. The object of the visit of these self-elected delegates had to be wormed out of them by Rolly himself, who, instead of being excited by the good news, was the coolest in the company, and asked all present to fill their glasses and drink a bumper with him. He had a toast to propose. All were charged, and now for the rich man's sentiment. All eyes fixed on the hero of the hour, he coolly rose from his seat, laid his long pipe aside, scanned the well known features of his companions, and said, in the most provokingly dispassionate manner: "Friends, here's better luck still," a toast which is proverbial in that neighborhood up to the present time. The crowning desire of Rolly's long, useful life was singularly verified in his living to see accomplished by the application of means rendered legally his own by an unjustifiable process of gambling legitimatized by the blind legislation of the day, happily long since ignored. Laden with coal, the prow of our goodly craft was turned to the scene of her birth, and she seemed, by her lively bearing, to participate in the feeling of all on board, making good the saying that after a' there's nae place like hame. A distant view of the Bass-rock and the island of May on our larboard bow, and the classic Bell-rock on our starboard bow, we kissed the estuary of Scotia's chiefest river, the Tay, and on the morning of the eighth day from London we were abreast of bonny Dundee, a big fire in the heart of the town illuminating the scene at the time. On the following day we left the Eliza safe where first she embraced that element on which she proved an ornament of utility and for many years earned the bread of one of the most respectable families in New-b"urgh. We bade farewell to her kind-hearted, hospitable owner, Captain Pitkethly, for aye to dwell in thought, but never again in this life to see. It may indeed be said and sung "where the sweet waters meet." Ferried across the Tay, I was soon safely under the roof of as kind, warm-hearted a family as has ever been my good fortune to meet. Mr. Hay's cottage in the village of Pitfour is sheltered by the elms of the estate of his employer, whose confidence he seemed, as land-steward, to enjoy. A little beyond the meridian of life, may be said of both in age. Of family they had but two, John, my friend, who had been in London for several years, and James, who remained at home, and who became indispensably necessary to the country around as a contractor in carrying out agricultural improvements, especially in drainage. The poet truly says: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley." Our London-formed programme we found impracticable at the northern end.

It was now three years since my father died, and not having seen my mother in the interim I was too anxious to remain in the carse during the stipulated time (a month), so we had to rearrange our plans, and for that purpose John accompanied me to Haddington. I found my mother very feeble, and living alone in a small cottage, happily close to the house occupied by Robert Allan and family, who looked after her kindly. Robert was eldest son of her sister Mary.


I am now seated on the apex of the rising ground of Raith, near Kircaldy, and thinking that:-

Whoe'er would view Edina to the life,
Must e'en surmount the classic hills of Fife,
The Firth, embraced in all his golden sheen,
Will beautify the tints that intervene.
The busy marts of thrift on either shore
The limner's mind will ecstasy the more.
The Bass, the Isles of May, Cramond, Inchkeith,
Her ain ancient thriving port of Leith,
Approaching vessels looming through the haze
Her frowning fort with jealous eye surveys;
The pier, O, Granton! gift of good Buccleugh,
The village famed for fish and caller ou'!
The laughing burn that warbles through the Dean,
Whose banks are rich, though unco sma' the stream.
Sic points of interest in harmony combined
Elsewhere it would be difficult to find.

And now a last, fond lingering view of the scenes of my early days, and turn to those of a world comparatively cold and unknown. These are the finger-posts that force upon the traveler in his weary passage through life the heart-breaking regrets of the past, the uncertainty of the present and the dark forebodings of the future. A few steps down the northern slope seemed to shut me out from all that was worth living for in this world. With a heavy heart and foot-sore I walked across the ancient fertile kingdom of Fife (22 miles), nor rested until I arrived at the beautiful loch of Lindores, a sweet spot which subsequently became very dear to me from kind friends in Chicago, hailing from Newburgh and the parish of Abney (in which this delightful sheet of water is situated). Waiting anxiously till dark for James Hay's boat to row me over the Tay, I then gave him up, and finding there was no ferry across the Tay short of the confluence of the Earn with the Tay, I reluctantly undertook the journey, which in the darkness was no small task. I had some difficulty in getting through the wood, but a great deal more when I did get through it, for I found Mr. W., the ferryman, and family, all asleep, and the door guarded by a chained bull-dog.

Throwing up gravel against the window for some time brought out a head and shoulders, with a stentorian, Who is there? I told him that he had six weeks ago put my friend John Hay and myself across to Pitfour, and that I particularly wanted to cross tonight, and I would pay extra for his trouble. Reminding me that he charged nothing for the last crossing, which was true, he seemed to close the window in anger, and I suppose, like Taylor's Monsieur Tonson's Frenchman, essayed another snooze by bringing his Kilmarnock cool in contact with his pillow. But no, my brave boatman, emphatically No! You refuse to put me across a dangerous stream in the darkest hour of the night. You keep your house closed against the stranger and virtually leave him to perish while you coolly seek repose. The drama, methinks, would be incomplete unless I played my part. I thus soliloquized. With gravel in hand the resolve was taken that inasmuch as I was deprived of sleep myself it became my part to prevent the inmates of that anti-Scottish, inhospitable mansion from tasting, at least for the remainder of the night, " tired nature's sweet restorer," so up went the gravel. The dog, too, had a sleepy spell, and slap went a volley of sharper stuff right into his kennel, which aroused him up to concert pitch in a mighty quick time, and I found in him a valuable auxiliary in the concert up to the close of the performance. Peppering away at every window of chambers wherein I thought nerves required tickling, at length I heard the window reopen, and. out came, the same Kilmarnock cool and the same head and shoulders, but with a fiercer aspect, and asked in the name of his satanic majesty what I meant. I said, you have cruelly deprived me of my night's rest by refusing the rights of a public ferry. You keep your house closed against me, a stranger. You rudely closed your window when I was about to make a proposition which I will make now if you will deign to hear it. Considerably appeased, he replied, Well, what is it? It is not to retrace my steps through that horrid wood in the dark, but to scull myself over the Tay, only giving me the use of a staunch boat and a good oar. Those you shall have if you like to run the risk, he said, but I warn you of the danger of the current, pointing in the dark in the direction in which to find what I wanted, and the window was closed. The contending currents of the two rivers make the passage somewhat dangerous at this point, rendered more so by the peculiar position of Mugdrum Island. The night was so dark that I could not see a boat's length from me, but I found land on my starboard bow, and from my little knowledge of the topography of the spot saw that I had drifted out of my course and was gliding down the current of the Tay between the carse and the island, which, if not early discovered, would have by daylight led me into immense labor to recover lost ground. But thanks to my early nautical experience I was enabled to redeem my false position, and with an extra hour's hard sculling against the stream landed safely on the Pitfour estate. I confess to having entertained, in the evil spirit of retaliation, a notion of turning the old man's boat adrift, but a moment's reflection brought back the better feeling, and I moored her as arranged to a tree. Traveling over three fields and climbing over fences terminated a day's journey such as I hope never again to undergo.

To my agreeable astonishment I found the whole of the Hay family up and waiting my arrival, with supper steaming hot. They had received my letter at an hour too late to enable Jamie to get to Newburgh in time with his boat, and took for granted I would reach Pit-four by the very means which I had adopted, little dreaming of the misery brought about by the lateness of the hour and the obdurate old sleepy Charon. However, thank God, that is all over, and the cheering effect of one hour of the hospitality of the Hays of Pitfour suffices to obliterate the remembrance of anything unpleasant in reaching it. I had not long enjoyed it before I discovered that John's letter to Haddington was a ruse, for, as braw a toon as Lonun is, there was no desire manifested in Pitfour to get to it. On the contrary, there were a thousand and one things to be attended to before London could be thought of. Hadn't we to see the lions of Dundee, its kirks, it's docks, its bonnet hill, its factories, shops, and the bonny house of Duncan's at the Magdalene, and, above all, the ride through the carse of Gowrie. Our friends at Errol, too, demand a day. Then the view from the hill of Kinnoul must not be omitted, not even the old home of the Richardsons, nor Camperdown, the seat of our naval hero, Lord Duncan, and to leave the fair city of Perth and the royal palace of Scone unscanned would simply be unpardonable. And then the Earn, Sir David Moncreiff's, and the brig of Earn, and Abernethy, with its Pictish tower. To omit the fair at Abernethy cannot be thought of. There you will find a gathering of the most antique, grotesquely habited people that is to be found, I believe, in the world. "This is all very well, John, indeed, it's grand," said I, "but what says the belle of Clement's inn to it? Do you enjoy a London epistle occasionally, as I do? If so, I presume the tenor of them are pretty similar regarding these two Scotch runaways."

"You are right," said John, "and I must say that under the chastening rod of one of these epistles I wrote you that letter, and felt as I wrote, but now regret being the instrument of tearing you away so abruptly from your folks in Haddington, particularly your aged mother. Now we are here I feel like taking a few more days in this blessed country before we unscotch ourselves by returning to that degrading slavery which is involved in the life of a journeyman baker in London."

John's eloquence I never could withstand. On the present occasion I was reminded of Ingomar's two hearts beating with one pulsation. So that whatever had been cut and dried we had to do, and two weeks were most agreeably spent in getting through the programme, when we bade farewell to the bonny carse o' Gowrie and took our berths on board of a London smack at Dundee, and in five days were sailing on the bosom of old Father Thames, landed safely near the Tower stairs, and spent the evening at a friend's house in Holywell street, Westminster. We found our intended brides respectively in good health, and in both cases the course of true love running (strange to say) unexceptionably smooth.

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