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On the 29th June 1832, the subject of this memoir was born in Aberdeen to James and Barbara Elmslie. Their eldest child, a little girl, had been taken from them shortly before his birth, so the mother called William her "son of consolation," and most tenderly did she cherish this first-born son during the early years of his life. The family was in tolerably comfortable circumstances, as the father a boot-closer, was a clever tradesman, and had plenty of work. William's earliest memories were of a home in which his mother's presence was always pre-eminently felt as the source of comfort and love. Mrs. Elmslie was no ordinary woman. She was blessed with a vigorous intellect, a large measure of common sense, much ingenuity and forethought, and a certain combination of qualities that gave her the power to interest, to warm, to comfort, and to command; and all was pervaded by the spirit of an unostentatious Christianity. Her childhood had been spent among the sea-faring people of Cromarty, amidst those scenes now made familiar to the world by Hugh Miller's sketches of his early home. Her father, William Lawrence, as captain of a vessel which sailed to all parts of the world, had an adventurous history; and the details of his experience, fresh in her own memory, were graphically conveyed to her boy; and it was his delight to sit beside her and listen to these wonderful stories. He thus imbibed much useful information; his imagination was stirred; and the spirit of enterprise unconsciously fostered. The quiet life in Aberdeen was varied by occasional visits to his paternal grandfather at Ballater, and deep and fruitful impressions of the beauties of nature were gained amid the grand mountain scenery of his native land. As William was delicate, when a child, he was not much given to the romps of other boys; but preferred staying beside his mother, who was always to him a treasury of comfort and knowledge.
Having, through industry and economy, succeeded in saving a little money, William's father, with the view of improving his fortune, removed with his family to London; but, as might have been foreseen, the change was not a happy one. A stranger in the mighty crowd of busy men, he soon found that money was not more easily won there than in his native country; and after struggling on for a year, without meeting the hoped for tide of prosperity, his health failed, and he became seriously ill. Worn out with constant watching and care Mrs. Elmslie was seized with typhus fever, of so malignant a type, that their one servant fled from the house in terror. The picture of the little household is most touching. The father is still prostrate through weakness; the mother raves in the delirium of fever; and the only attendant is a child eight years of age! His sense of responsibility; his distress at witnessing so much suffering; and his alarm, caused by the mysterious mutterings of his much loved mother, broke in rudely upon the sweet dreams of childhood, and set him face to face with stern realities. But matters grew worse. A physician had occasionally dropped in upon them, and now his aid is indispensable; but where is he to be found? The servant, who might have told, is gone; the mother is unconscious; and the father does not know; and so the brave boy sallies forth to seek him in the crowded streets of London! As he wanders along he scans eagerly the face of every one who seems like the friend he so much needs, but in vain; the busy stream of human beings rushes past unheeding, and he feels utterly desolate and in despair. Unable longer to bear up, he stands still, his young heart bursting under its accumulated sorrows, and through his tears sends up to heaven the cry, "God help me!" That is the burden of his prayer. The lessons of his mother bear fruit in the hour of trial. Right speedily comes the answer. A passer by stops, asks what is wrong, and the child explains. He is directed to a house close at hand, where he finds not a doctor merely, but a friend,–a friend whose unwearied care and kindness are never to be forgotten. Soon after, William too was prostrated by the dreadful fever; but this good physician watched over him and never remitted his generous kindnesses–which were administered in every needful form–till he saw the little family safely away from the great city on their return to Aberdeen. When Dr. Elmslie arrived in London on his return from India in 1870, one of his first visits was to the house of this friend, but he was not there; and he could not discover whether he still lived, or had gone to reap his reward from Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me."